For those who might think I am carping too much about Sam Harris's TED talk, do remember that my original post about his talk was very positive. My posts since have been to explain points, answer objections, and explore metaethical issues for their own sake (as I always said I'd do).
And here's something else. I'm re-re-reading The End of Faith, and enjoying it. If you've never read it, do yourself a favour and spend a day doing so. It contains much wisdom and much powerful writing ... and I can report that on page 179 Harris puts exactly the right argument against vulgar moral relativism! Go and look it up.
I can also report that on pages 170-71 he claims that "questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures." Now, I could quibble about this. E.g., it is difficult to find a value-free definition of "happiness" and a good metric for happiness (whatever it is) and suffering. Moreover, there may be other values that are relevant to morality.
But all that said, it's a plausible normative claim. There's no attempt here to bridge the "is/ought" gap and establish objectivity. Rather, it just says something that any sane person will agree with as at least a reasonable first approximation to a ruling normative principle. Happiness of some kind and amelioration of suffering are at least extremely important things to consider in making our first-order moral judgments, and Harris is surely correct that much religious morality has gone off the rails in not paying prime attention to these things.
But notice the difference between this formula, in The End of Faith, and a formula like, "Values are facts about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures." No, that's not right. The values in question just are "the happiness of sentient creatures" and "amelioration of the suffering of sentient creatures". Those are the things that we value and hope to see instantiated. The morally-relevant facts (e.g. "If I do X then B will suffer") are facts that are about happiness or (non)-suffering. So the formula is back to front.
If anything, it should be something like: "Morally-relevant facts are facts about values to do with the mental states of sentient creatures (namely the values of happiness and non-suffering)." (We could add that whether the value of happiness, say, is instantiated in a particular situation involving a particular sentient creature depends upon a state of affairs in its neurological system. Another way to put this is to say that a state of affairs in Spot's brain is the truth-maker for the proposition: "Spot is happy.")
Undoubtedly, the values in question - i.e. happiness and non-suffering (or amelioration of suffering) - are very important ones that largely or wholly underpin any plausible system of morality. On that much, and much else, Harris and I are agreed.
With any luck, the new book from Harris, which I'm looking forward to reading, will use the same formula as in The End of Faith, which I think we should be quite comfortable about as at least a good approximation. I hope it does not get too bogged down in esoteric metaethical claims about bridging "is" and "ought", etc. If you start out with some plausible, non-arbitrary oughts, there's no need to build any such bridge in some non-standard way. If the book does something a bit like the job (at more length, and with more depth depth and sophistication) that is done in Chapter 6 of The End of Faith, the result will be very useful.