I'll return, maybe tomorrow, to some loose ends about the Sam Harris debate. Meanwhile, I note the info from one commenter that Harris has now apologised to Sean Carroll. I'm not sure exactly what he said (though I'll check), but it sounds like a very positive move; hopefully Sean will be able accept the apology, and that will help us all move on constructively.
Meanwhile, this post is a slightly re-edited and slightly enlarged version of a long comment that I just made over at RD.net, where I began by saying that those of us who say there is a subjective element in morality are really saying that morality has something to do with the psychology of individual human beings, which may, indeed, be similar amongst all (or almost all) human beings. Hume would have been fascinated by recent psychological research, but he'd probably think it confirmed his views (morality is based on human nature) rather than undermining them. It was important to Hume that we all share fundamental sympathies as part of our psychological makeup. We have a natural empathy, at least for other humans (and probably beyond), a natural unwillingness to cause suffering.
For now, I'll stick with this rather than trying to sort out where I agree and disagree, line by line, with the reply to critics by Harris. The latter would be incredibly time-consuming and would lead to a book-length post.
Objective, subjective - oh my!
What sophisticated subjectivists are saying is not that morality cannot be studied objectively. We are saying that it does not come from a supernatural or metaphysical source or from some kind of pure reasoning that leaves out contingent facts about human psychology. The classic "objectivist" positions, such as those of Plato, Kant, and Divine Command theory deny this. Modern Kant-like theories such as those of Thomas Nagel, Christine Korsgaard, and Alan Gewirth appear to do likewise, though we could get into some very interesting debates about the subtleties of those theories. By contrast, such classic theories as those of Hobbes and Hume relied on claims about actual human nature, in all its contingency.
I'm with Hobbes and Hume. Although it's a very large claim to make, and I can't defend it here, I think that modern psychological research should incline us to take the side of Hobbes and Hume, rather than the side of Plato, or Kant, or Divine Command theory.
As I've said elsewhere on this blog, part of the problem seems to be that various conceptions of "objective"/"objectivist" and "subjective"/"subjectivist" are in play. Sam Harris' position could be described as a subjectivist one insofar as he avoids such things as Kantian pure practical reasoning (which is supposed to apply to all rational creatures, irrespective of their psychological makeup), Platonic metaphysical ideas, the will of God, and so on. He wants to ground morality in human psychology (just as the arch-subjectivist, Hume, did).
However, his response is to adopt a position known as moral naturalism. I.e. he seems to want to define "morally right", "morally wrong", etc., in terms of facts about the natural world, basically facts about well-being. Leaving aside whether we have a non-moralised conception of well-being for humans, this is, of course, remote from the classic "objectivist" positions with their supernatural, metaphysical, etc., claims.
Part of the problem is that Harris simply didn't express this very well when he said something like "values are facts about the welfare of conscious creatures". That caused a lot of confusion. If he is advocating moral naturalism, he should say, "moral facts are facts about the welfare of conscious creatures". It sounded as if he was trying to say something much more direct than he apparently was about the fact/value distinction.
The trouble with moral naturalism, is that it seems to leave open whether you actually ought to act morally! Since morality is no longer defined in terms of what you ought to do, but in terms of facts about the natural world, moral claims translate in a way that does not immediately give you a reason to act on them.
To try to explain this, a non-naturalist says:
"It is morally good to avoid torturing babies."
This translates as:
"Torturing babies is something you ought to avoid doing."
I.e. the sentence is making a claim about what you ought to do and not do. The claim may be true or it may be false, but there's no doubt that such a claim is being made.
But the naturalist translates the sentence as, for example:
"Torturing babies causes pain to conscious creatures."
This sentence makes no claim as to whether we ought to do it or not. For most people, that is surprising. We take it that moral claims are supposed to be action-guiding, telling us what we ought or ought not to do, rather than just providing facts about the world. (This is the kind of thing that is at stake in the confusing debates about "internalism", "externalism", etc.)
I could be told by a naturalist, "It is morally good to avoid torturing babies." I then translate it using the naturalist's definition of "morally good". And I am then entitled to complain, "But you still haven't told me whether I ought to do it!"
So the naturalist still needs some kind of story about what I ought to do. And again, that story is likely to involve things about human psychology - I want to avoid causing pain and so on - rather than things about the will of God or the existence of metaphysical properties or whatever. The total story about how I should act is still going to involve those sorts of elements.
Human psychology again
I don't think Sam Harris necessarily wants to deny any of this, but when he uses language such as "objective" he opens this entire can of worms. That's (partly) why I keep saying that it would be better to abandon the traditional language which has all this baggage and instead say, with some kind of rhetorical flourish that we know he is capable of: "Morality is not arbitrary. It is based on human needs and human values. Those values (typically?) relate to the welfare of conscious creatures."
Again, the arch-subjectivist, David Hume, would agree with this. As far as I can see, the arch "moral sceptic", JL Mackie, would also agree with it. Mackie's vaunted scepticism amounts to this: he thinks that anything like the classic objectivist positions is wrong; but he also thinks that something like this pervades everyday moral thinking; therefore he concludes that an element of error pervades everyday moral thinking. I tend to agree. But most people have not read the second half of Mackie's book (Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong). He certainly doesn't think that this error is fatal to our ability to engage in moral reasoning. Again, I agree.
And, to labour the point, those of us like me, Hume, and Mackie, who say that morality has a subjective element, are not simply saying (unless we have been hit by the stupidity stick and have become very unsophisticated) that "It's all relative, man," or "Dude, it's all subjective". We are saying that morality can be studied objectively, that many objectively-true statements will result, but that many of the important ones will be about the psychology of human beings. Thus, we are denying the classic "objectivist" positions that ruled this out, at least at the base of morality, and found the basis of morality in something outside human nature, and in that sense "objective": say, a Platonic form or the will of God or objectively-binding pure practical reasoning.
My point about psychopaths related to this. It was that we can easily imagine rational beings (not necessarily, as I pointed out, like real psychopaths ... we might have to imagine a Martian human-eating monster) who do not share our psychological makeup, and act differently from us, even in ways we'd consider immoral, without making any mistake of reason. We can imagine that these beings are not mistaken about any matter of fact and are not reasoning poorly. The point was directed at such positions as Kantianism, and Harris should actually agree with it.
David Hume can out-consume ...
We don't even (necessarily) need to say that there is an unbridgeable "is"/"ought" gap. Even Hume didn't say that when you look up the famous passage in the Treatise on Human Nature. Rather, he complained that many philosophers go from sentences containing "is" to sentences containing "ought" with no explanation of how they did it. Read it closely. Then, when you read the passage in the larger context of the Treatise he appears to be saying that the explanation will always have to involve such things as human desires. In other words, Hume thought that the way we bridge the "is"/"ought" gap is via human psychology.
I don't think that Harris really disagrees with this, either, but maybe he'll turn up and correct me. In any event, he's very hard on Hume in his response to his critics ... but the reason to go back to Hume isn't to argue from authority, as he seems to think his critics are doing. It's to look at the original arguments that are actually more powerful and subtle than the parodies and drastically abbreviated versions that are thrown around freely in much of the discussion today. Admittedly, they have never obtained universal acceptance from philosophers, but nor have they ever been decisively refuted. Going back to what Hume actually said is a good way to get our bearings.