lined up against him.
Let us review. Harris is really a religion critic, not an ethicist. His foray into ethics is meant to defuse what seems to be the leading attack on atheism. Religious moralists say there are facts about morality. Torturing babies just for fun is wrong. Stuff like that. They then say there's no accounting for these facts being facts without supposing there's a supreme being. We've got to believe that God disapproves of torturing babies just for fun.
Harris's move is to attempt to do what the religious moralists think cannot be done: account for moral facts without supposing there's a supreme being.
It surprises me that Harris's co-non-religionists are taking him to task for this. In terms of addressing the religious moralist, what would they have him say? That there really aren't any facts about morality? That torturing babies for fun isn't really wrong? What a public relations disaster!
Strategically speaking, Harris is entirely right to embrace moral realism, and attempt an explanation in non-religious terms. Furthermore, it shouldn't be though that he's embracing something naive or preposterous. In a recent survey of the opinions of philosophers--folks who know the arguments for and against moral realism well--the majority count themselves realists! In other words, they agree with Harris that it's a fact that torturing babies just for fun is wrong.
So: Harris is taking the right position on realism vs. anti-realism, strategically speaking; and there's nothing naive or outrageous about his position. Now let's consider the arguments for a moment.
One thing folks are throwing at him is the sheer fact of moral disagreement. Does that undermine the case for moral realism? Surely not. Moral disagreements involve arguments. One side may be giving terrible arguments and the other good arguments. So reason may be on one side, not on the other. In light of that, it would be silly to throw up your hands and say "no fact of the matter!" simply in virtue of there being disagreement.
Another worry is that moral facts wouldn't be motivating, if they did exist. Bad guys can encounter the "fact" that it's wrong to torture babies just for fun, and start torturing babies. To which the right answer is: so what? The complete story about morality is not about the facts alone. It's also about moral psychology. It deals with how we come to know the facts, how they do or don't motivate us, the virtues and vices, etc.
Harris is strategically right in adopting realism, not at all naive, and quite capable of responding to basic criticism. Must I then be on board with everything he says? Not necessarily. The rest of what he says is about the exact nature of moral facts. He says they are "scientific facts." At the very minimum, that means they are natural. The fact that torturing babies just for fun is wrong is the fact that doing this causes...something or other. (Details to come in Harris's book.)
Beyond that, he might be saying that moral facts are discoverable using scientific methods, but I hope he's not saying that, because it's implausible. Some of the discovery of these facts is in the hands of ethicists and other reflective people.
My mind is not made up about the idea that moral facts are scientific facts, but I lean toward moral realism. It's strategically the right thing for Harris to defend, not at all a naive or outrageous position, and holds up at least under the sorts of attacks I've been reading lately.