I've finally read the piece by Sam Harris that appeared nearly a week ago in The Huffington Post. It's complex, difficult, and impossible to discuss properly in a short post. When I get a chance, I'm planning to give as full a response as I can, but I'm thinking of doing so over at Sentient Developments, where I may get a larger audience; the issues are important enough to look for the biggest audience possible. (The only worry is that Sentient Developments seems to be having an hiatus at the moment; so maybe, but maybe not.)
Don't worry, if I post there I'll also link from this blog. Either way, you won't miss it.
I still have a lot of quibbles with Harris, although I think this new piece is an improvement on his earlier presentations of the argument. I should also say that I agree with the main conclusions if they're formulated something like this:
1. We can criticise the moral codes, cultural practices, etc., of other cultures (or, if it comes to that, our own).
2. When we do so, our criticisms need not be arbitrary, idiosyncratic, or unreasonable. On the contrary, they may be perfectly reasonable, non-arbitrary, and inter-subjectively justifiable.
3. Many people take a contrary view, often reflected in public policy. That's wrong and dangerous.
Put another way, the main conclusion is that we should (this can be a "should" of practical rationality if you're worried about moral "shoulds") resist the temptation of various kinds of vulgar moral relativism that have become popular and seem to encourage an undesirable quietism.
Again, I agree with this conclusion if it's put that way. Indeed, I'm tempted to say that disagreement would be irrational. :)
However, all this can be supported with cogent arguments without making grand claims about deriving values solely from facts, oughts solely from is's (with no reference to such things as social institutions or affective attitudes), and so on. Indeed, Harris does exactly that in The End of Faith. He made some wild-sounding claims in his TED talk, but he now seems to have dropped these.
Nonetheless, some of the arguments and formulations in the Huffington Post essay still seem to me to be going down the wrong track. I care - partly because I have a professional interest in this: my PhD thesis, as submitted and approved, does not go into metaethical points, because I ripped all that stuff out as opening too many additional cans of worms; but a lot of my actual research, which found its way into chapters of the initial draft of the thesis involved precisely these sorts of metaethical issues. I've spoken about them at philosophical conferences and seminars in the past, and will do so again at this year's AAP conference. I've also touched on them in published articles.
Apart from my professional interest, I think it's important to get these points right. Even if we all agree with Harris's conclusions - at least the way I've formulated them above - we need to have our arguments in the most precise and cogent form we can find, and to have a clear sense of what the counter-arguments would be. I also think that the approach Harris takes leads him to miss an important conclusion: moralities are made for us, not us for them, and they can be changed to suit our purposes. He probably agrees with this, but if so he never spells it out clearly.
So, I'm going to put in some effort to nail this down further. Soon. Not now, but soon.