Speaking of nailing things down, say I reach into my toolbox, down in the garage, and produce a hammer, which I offer to my friend X. X needs it to drive nails because, I dunno, maybe she wants to build a table or to hang some stuff on her walls at home. "This is a good hammer," I assure her (maybe her own hammer was broken, or something).
Consider the word good.
Following J.L. Mackie and other philosophers, I'm going to say that this word means something like "effective for the purpose in question between me and my friend". I.e., it's effective for the purpose of driving nails into wood. It gets its effectiveness from such things as the weight and hardness of its head, the sturdiness of its construction (the head won't break off when my friend uses it to strike a nail), maybe something about its balance. Somebody who knows a lot about hammers could doubtless assess mine on the basis of such properties and tell me whether I really have a "good" hammer. There can be an entire science (or at least an engineering discipline) of hammer design.
Still, its goodness as a hammer is ultimately about whether it's effective in doing the job of driving nails.
In other words, we assess whether this is a "good" hammer or a "not so good" hammer relative to a standard: the standard of effectiveness in driving nails. In that innocuous sense, judgments about hammers are relative.
It would be crazy to assess this hammer relative to some other standard, such as its ability to catch mice or mop the floor. (If it were a warhammer, we'd have a different standard.) In the circumstances, my friend and I know what we want from my hammer. The standard we use is not arbitrary or idiosyncratic. And I can't make the hammer a good one just by thinking about it.
However, note this point: the standard we use for judging the goodness of hammers relates to the needs, interests, desires, etc., of beings that possess subjectivity, in this case, all the human beings who need (if they are to fulfil their perfectly understandable goals) tools that are effective in driving nails. In that innocuous sense, goodness-of-hammers talk is subjective.
All of us, always, live in a social world that is awash with the needs, purposes, goals, desires, values - affective attitudes, in short - of human subjects like ourselves. Philosophers' thought experiments about other minds aside, there's nothing odd or mysterious about this. We swim in human society like a fish swims in water. Well, not exactly like that ... but you get my drift.
Notice, though, getting back to the hammer, that it really does have the properties - the hardness, weight, sturdiness, balance, etc. - that make it effective for driving nails. If all human beings suddenly vanished, it would still have those properties. We can be total realists about these properties of hammers, including the functional property "effective for driving nails" (to be even more specific: it is effective for driving nails when used by an adult human being of ordinary strength, not so effective when used by an alligator or an octopus). What we can't do is claim that the "goodness" of the hammer is divorced from all human subjectivity.
And yet, to repeat, our judgments about hammers are typically not arbitrary or idiosyncratic or unreasonable. We can, quite rationally and non-arbitrarily and for reasons that could be provided to others (who'd understand them), decide to discard one particular hammer and choose a different one. Or we could get our existing hammer fixed with a new handle, if that's what's needed. We are not made for hammers; hammers are made for us.
What if someone, let's call him "Y", picks out a strange-looking tool and says, "This is a good tool!"
In reply, I ask, "Good for what? Driving nails? Sawing wood? Drilling holes? Turning screws?"
"No," Y says, "you miss the point. It just is a good tool."
"It's a good tool. It has the property of being good."
"Yeah, but for what?"
"It's not good by a standard," he says scornfully. "And its goodness has nothing to do with anyone's goals or needs or desires, or anything like that. It's good in a way that transcends such things. It just is good. All tools should be like this tool, but not because that would make them more effective at filling any need or purpose that anyone might want a tool for."
After a few iterations of this, I am none the wiser about what this tool might be effective for or how its use relates to any human desire or purpose or goal or anything like that. I'm not confident that the damn thing is any use to man, woman, beast, or tentacled alien.
Y keeps insisting that this is all irrelevant. It just is a good tool, he argues. Why don't I "get" it? It has this OBJECTIVE PROPERTY of goodness that has nothing to do with what people might want to use tools for. Its goodness does not relate in any way to any of the stuff I want to talk about.
Frankly, I think Y is deluded. I hope that Sam Harris agrees with me.
Societies' codes of morality (and their individual moral rules), are like hammers. Discuss.