On page 173 begins a section titled "The Demon of Relativism." He begins this section by asserting the correctness of naturalistic realism and a correspondence definition of the nature of truth. That is, he assumes that a natural world exists apart from our knowledge of it, and that true knowledge is that which corresponds to the natural world. Then, citing Thomas Kuhn, he describes an alternative view, "relativism," that defines truth as what the majority of any particular group believes. Although I think that Harris mischaracterizes Kuhn's contribution to our understanding of the way science operates, I agree with his assumption of naturalistic realism and his correspondence definition of truth. But then he makes a serious blunder with the following sentence:
"But most forms of relativism—including moral relativism, which seems especially well subscribed—are nonsensical."
Once again Harris mistakenly regards moral claims as truth-apt propositions. They are not. They are expressions of emotional preferences and/or speech act exhortations to entice people into behaving a certain way. Consequently, they are neither true nor false. One can easily hold a metaphysics of naturalistic realism and an epistemology based on the correspondence definition of truth, but still be a moral relativist.
Now, as to whether moral relativism is a tenable position, we must be careful to define what we mean by moral relativism. I simply mean that people have different interests, likes, and dislikes, so that each person's conception of "good" is relative to his or her emotional nature. In fact, since Harris argues for the applicability of moral standards to non-human animals in portions of his book, I'll say that each organism's conception of "good" is relative to that organism's interests. What is good for that cat is not necessarily good for the mouse.
Harris thinks he has a clever rebuttal to moral relativism, wherein he points out a perceived contradiction in that position:
"The general retort to relativism is simple, because most relativists contradict their thesis in the very act of stating it. Take the case of relativism with respect to morality: moral relativists generally believe that all cultural practices should be respected on their own terms, that the practitioners of the various barbarisms that persist around the globe cannot be judged by the standards of the West, nor can the people of the past be judged by the standards of the present. And yet, implicit in this approach to morality lurks a claim that is not relative but absolute. Most moral relativists believe that tolerance of cultural diversity is better, in some important sense, than outright bigotry. This may be perfectly reasonable, of course, but it amounts to an overarching claim about how all human beings should live. Moral relativism, when used as a rationale for tolerance of diversity, is self-contradictory."
Now, Harris says "most relativists," "generally believe," and "Most moral relativists believe." I wonder if he has any data to back up his claim on the beliefs of most moral relativists. In any case, I, personally, do not believe "that all cultural practices should be respected." Believing that each organism's conception of "good" is relative to the organism's interests does not logically entail respect and tolerance for behaviors that interfere with one's own interests. Quite the opposite. If a mice and cats could think as we do, a mouse might understand that a cat believes it is good to eat mice, but that would not cause the mouse to tolerate the cat's belief.
Hidden in Harris's description of supposed contradiction in moral relativism is a perceived need to have some kind of objective ground for criticizing practices that we find distasteful and barbaric. Guess what? We don't. If I do not like gratuitous cruelty, then I can say "I don't like gratuitous cruelty, let's stop gratuitous cruelty!" And those who agree with me will try to put a stop to it. The wooly-minded deontologist might ask, "But are you justified in your criticism of gratuitous cruelty?" To which I would answer, "My dislike is not a truth-apt proposition that must be justified. It is the way I feel." I might further add that if, hypothetically, moral claims were truth-apt and that "Gratuitous cruelty is wrong" represented a moral truth, where would this leave us? Smug in our possession of a bit of knowledge, perhaps, but it would not make us any more effective in preventing gratuitous cruelty. Only when enough people feel that something is abhorrent is there a possibility that they might try to put an end to it.
On pp. 180-181: "Realists believe that there are truths about the world that may exceed our capacity to know them; there are facts of the matter whether or not we can bring such facts into view. To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered—and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them."
Once again, Harris draws a false analogy between ethics and physics. I am a realist with respect to physics. Those who call themselves ethical realists are failing to understand that moral claims are not truth-apt.
Harris wastes a lot of time trying to argue against Richard Rorty's epistemological pragmatism as an alternative to realism. It is quite irrelevant to the question of moral relativism.
On page 182. "Given that there are likely to be truths to be known about how members of our species can be made as happy as possible, there are almost certainly truths to be known about ethics."
Here is an interesting development. Harris seems to be making a classic utilitarian argument that good behaviors are those that maximize the happiness of as many members of our species as possible. But utilitarianism is more closely aligned to pragmatism and non-realistic forms of meta-ethics than to ethical realism. Very curious.
Harris continues with this line of thought on pp. 186-187: "To treat others ethically is to act out of concern for their happiness and suffering. It is, as Kant observed, to treat them as ends in themselves rather than as a means to some further end. Many ethical injunctions converge here—Kant's categorical imperative, Jesus' golden rule—but the basic facts are these: we experience happiness and suffering ourselves; we encounter others in the world and recognize that they experience happiness and suffering as well; we soon discover that 'love' is largely a matter of wishing that others experience happiness rather than suffering; and most of us come to feel that love is more conducive to happiness, both our own and that of others, than hate."
The categorical imperative and golden rule are the most commonly cited moral "truths." Clearly, most non-psychopaths do care about others' happiness and suffering. Yet Harris's version of the categorical imperative differs from Kant's deontological position. He speaks of gaining happiness ourselves by being concerned with others' happiness. Kant explicitly says that morality consists of doing one's duty, without regard for our own personal happiness. Personally, I heartily endorse Harris's suggestion that we engage in win-win activities where both sides gain happiness. I think that is a lot healthier than exploitive relationships where one person gains at another's expense or one person sacrifices happiness for another's happiness. Yet just because I like win-win transactions, that doesn't make this a moral "truth." It is simply my preference. Furthermore, there will be many situations in life where interests conflict and there can be no win-win. How could there be a win-win situation for cats and mice when a farmer locks cats in his barn? He wins, the cats win, and the mice lose. That is reality. For someone hell-bent on realism, Harris is awfully starry-eyed.
On page 192 begins the ugliest section of this chapter, a section called "A Loophole for Torquemada?" Suddenly the starry-eyed Harris becomes tough and resolute. In this section Harris argues that if we are willing to wage war that is certainly to result in blinding, disemboweling, and paralyzing thousands of innocent civilians, then we should be willing to torture suspected terrorists who might provide us with information that could prevent human suffering. So, out the window goes Harris's endorsement of Kant's treating people only as ends and not means to an end. It is fine with him to use torture to inflict suffering on a person as a means of possibly preventing the suffering of others. Now, I agree with Harris's argument that those who are willing to wage war that results in suffering of thousands of innocents should not object to the use of torture, even if the odds of extracting useful information are very small. In fact, I've always thought that once one is willing to wage war, it is insanely absurd to speak of "fair" and "unfair" ways of waging it. Why not say, "Anything goes" when waging war? If you are going to blind, disembowel, and paralyze thousands of human beings, what does it matter if you use chemical weapons or conventional weapons? For myself, I don't condone waging wars. I'll defend myself and my family when aggressors are at my doorstep, but I'm not going to support pre-emptive attacks that will certainly cause the suffering of thousands of innocents, simply because somebody believes that failing to do this might result in an attack within the borders of the political entity I happen to be living in.
Harris ends the chapter by criticizing pacifists who fail to oppose those who cause others to suffer. He offers a story in which he distracted some thugs long enough for a woman they were roughing up to escape. He calls this a moral failing because he used lies to distract them and he failed to directly oppose the actions they were committing. He calls himself a coward, even though if he had directly opposed them, the outcome would likely have been that they would have beaten him to a pulp before continuing to rough up the woman. So I guess he thinks that all of us who are not actively hunting down and opposing those who cause suffering are moral cowards.
Well, you know what? If I did not rest until every hungry child was fed, every sick person healed, and every perpetrator of violence corrected, I would be a very tired person. I try to do things to increase human happiness in the world in the ways that I prefer, and if that is not good enough for Harris and he wants to call me a moral coward, so be it.
I am not quite the kind of pacifist that Harris describes, anyway, because Harris is speaking of pacifists who would not even defend themselves from an attacker. That, I would do, with lethal force if necessary. At the same time, I do not consider myself a part of the police force of the world, hunting down and killing bad guys. That is simply not my vocation. Given a choice between contributing to others' welfare by research and teaching versus supporting pre-emptive wars on terror, I choose the former.