A member of the studio audience pointed me to a podcast of a discussion between Sam Harris and Peter Singer, where they spent the first few minutes discussing meta-ethics. The relevant part of the discussion takes place in the first 30 minutes or so of Episode 48 of Waking Up with Sam Harris
Both Harris and Singer reach a quick agreement that moral value exists in states of affairs that somehow generate reasons for everybody to act so as to realize such a state. Somehow, when matter arranges itself in particular ways, these reasons emerge and they are automatically applicable to every sentient creature, regardless of their individual interests or concerns.
Explaining what these external regions are, how they emerge, how they interact with every sentient creature, and how we know they exist is a problem. It is such a problem, in fact, that the most reasonable position to hold is that external reasons - like God - do not exist. They are pure fiction.
In fact, there is a close relationship between building morality on a foundation of external reasons and building morality on a foundation of divine command. God is, after all, the ultimate external reason. The atheist who believes in external reasons is an atheist who believes in God without the attributes of personality - at least insofar as the relationship between the object of that belief and morality goes. The commandments of external reasons - the commandments that external reasons theorists preach about - have the same status as divine commandments.
Let me make good on this claim that Harris and Singer are postulating the existence of external reasons.
Harris and Singer ask us to imagine two possible worlds. In the first world, every conscious creature is enduring as much suffering as possible for as long as possible. The other world contains less suffering. Harris tells us that it is a simple fact that the second world is better than the first world. We are then told that this implies that everybody has a reason - that there exists some sort of reason - to bring about the second world rather than the first world.
The fact that this is an external reason is grounded in the fact that this reason applies to everybody, regardless of their individual concerns.
Let us imagine a slightly different scenario. Let us imagine a universe in which every being but one is suffering as much and as long as possible, and one being is content and happy. Compare this to an alternative universe in which all being but one is content and happy, and one being - the same being that is content in the first universe - is suffering as much and as long as possible. We can agree that it is true that the second world is better than the first world. However, it does not follow that the one creature who is contented in the first world has a reason to choose the second universe over the first. If he has a reason, what is it? Where did he come from? How did he get it? If, when you point out to him that the rest of the world is suffering as much and as long as possible, when he shrugs his shoulders and says, "So what? What is that to me?" what is your answer?
There is no answer. External reasons do not exist. Internal reasons are the only kinds of reasons that exist.
Bernard Williams defended a concept of internal reasons (all reasons that exist) that I find quite useful.
A has a reason to φ iff A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing. (Williams, B., 1979. “Internal and External Reasons,” reprinted in Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 101–13.)
My pain creates in me a reason to act in ways that would reduce or eliminate that pain, but it does not create a reason for anybody else to act so as to reduce my pain. They only have a reason to act if they have a desire that would be served by removing my pain.
In other words, suffering provides internal reasons for the being that suffers. However, for everybody else, reasons to end his suffering would count as external reasons - they are, after all, external to those who are not suffering.
This is not a defense of egoism (though many egoists mistakenly believe that it is). This is because others can have a desire that nobody be in pain, or there may be specific others who have an aversion to my being in pain. Thus, they may have non-selfish reasons to act to bring about an end to my pain. Non-selfish desires exist. The egoist equivocates between the fact that a person's reasons to act are found in that person's own desires and aversions (which is true), and a person's desires and aversions are always self-interested (which is false).
Desires and aversions create reasons to act for the people who have them. No desire or aversion creates a reason for anybody else to act. Nothing other than desires and aversions create reasons to act.
It follows as a matter of fact that, in a universe in which every being suffers as much as possible for as long as possible (an example that Sam Harris uses) is that every being has a reason to remove itself and those others that it cares about from that situation. It is built into the definition of suffering that it is a state that the sufferer has an aversion to being in - and thereby has a reason to avoid. If the sufferer shrugs its shoulders and says, "This isn't bad. I kinda like this," then it is not suffering.
However, it is not the case that any individual has a reason to remove any other individual from that state. Being A has a reason to remove being A from that state, but has no reason to remove being B UNLESS being A has a desire that would be fulfilled by removing being B. If, for example, A is in love with B and is perhaps suffering BECAUSE being B is suffering, then A would have a reason to remove B from that state. However, in the absence of a desire, an agent has no reason to act.
Here, a lot of atheists make another mistake. If we cannot be realists about external reasons, then we cannot be realists about morality. External-reasons realism and moral realism walk hand in hand, sharing the same fate.
This is not true.
Internal reasons are real. That is to say, desires and aversions are real and help to explain observations we make in the real world (e.g., the behavior of intentional agents). An objective morality built on internal reasons would be real.
In fact, I am a moral realists. There are moral facts. However, no moral fact depends on the existence of external reasons - just as no moral fact depends on the existence of God.
There are cases in which it is objectively true that A has a desire that P. There are cases in which it is objectively true that φ-ing will fulfill this desire that P. Consequently, there are cases in which it is objectively true that A has a reason to φ. This means that there are cases in which it is objectively true that A ought to φ.
There are different meanings of "ought". Here, I am not talking about a moral ought. I am talking about a prima-facie practical ought - a practical ought. This is an ought that exists, but can be overridden by counter-weighing reasons not to φ. If this were the only reason that exists - if there were no counter-weighing reasons not to φ, then it is also true that the agent ought to φ all things considered. Why not? The only kind of reason that can be given not to φ would, itself, have to come from another desire served by not φ-ing.
Now, if A is in a state where A is suffering as much and for as long as possible, then A has a reason to remove itself from that state. If A can remove itself from that state by φ-ing, then A has a reason to φ.
Now, let φ-ing be an act that makes a change in agent B. For example, let us assume that A is suffering is being B is hitting him with a stick. Let us further assume that A can cause in B an aversion to hitting B with a stick. A now has a reason to φ - to cause B to have an aversion to hitting A with a stick. As soon as B has an aversion to hitting A with a stick, B has a reason to stop hitting A with a stick. This reason - as well as the reason that A acted on to bring about this change in B - are both internal reasons.
These are all knowable facts in a universe where these reasons exist. Nothing here is imaginary or just a matter of opinion.
We can talk about these same types of facts being true in whole communities. It is not at all difficult to see that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote aversions to lying, thieving, raping, murdering, breaking promises, assault, and a list of similar act-types. Another of the things that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote that Harris seems particularly interest in is an aversion to responding to mere words with violence – a moral aversion that can be described as "the right to freedom of speech". Women – and anybody who cares about them – have reason to cause people to have an aversion to denying women the opportunity to live rich and fulfilling lives. The reasons for establishing these states are all internal reasons – no external reason exists.
Saying that people generally have many and strong reasons to bring about these aversions does not imply that each individual has a reason to bring about these aversions. This is true in the same way that the fact that the average height of a group of people in a room is 5'8" does not imply that every individual is 5'8". However, it is objectively true nonetheless. One cannot disprove it by pointing to a person who is 5'4" - and one cannot disprove the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to theft by pointing out that Frank does not have a reason to promote an aversion to theft. Though, if Frank has a reason to be secure in his property, he certainly does have a reason to promote an aversion to theft.
Importantly, we have a way to cause people to have desires and aversions. The reward system of the brain processes rewards and punishments to change what individuals like and dislike - it alters their preferences. Praise functions as a type of reward to produce desires, while condemnation acts as a type of punishment to produce aversions. There is a reason why rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) are built into the heart of morality. These are the tools we use to mold desires - to create such things as the aversion to breaking promises and the desire to repay debts.
Consequently, the claim that people generally have many and strong reasons to φ, where φ = condemn and punish thieves, is an objective fact. The same applies to praising acts of charity and self sacrifice, as well as condemning lying, rape, murder, assault, slavery, genocide, and the like.
All of these facts are built entirely on internal reasons. We do not need to postulate any external reasons. Nor do we need to postulate the existence of any gods.
If you want to have moral claims that are true in the real world, then you are going to have to have a morality that is grounded on internal reasons alone. Internal reasons are the only kinds of reasons that exist. Building morality on external reasons - as Harris and Singer have done - is as flawed as building morality on the existence of a god.