I was excited to read Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape. I'm sympathetic to the project, contra Hume, of seeking empirical grounding for moral stances. Sadly the book is really bad. Harris glosses glibly over philosophical objections that should be handled in depth, defends his arguments with bizarre contra-factuals and strawmen, and makes predictions for a future of scientific morality that manages only to perplex and repulse readers. This is all sad because this signature failure has undermined the project itself.
But he did do one thing really well: he formulated a tentative definition of morality, a non-circular definition related to measurable states in the world. Specifically what he proposed is that moral questions are those that relate to the wellbeing of conscious creatures. A conscious creature being in a state of greater or lesser wellbeing is independent of moral concepts like right or wrong, and yet Harris is tying these together. All things being equal, greater wellbeing on the part of conscious creatures is a better moral outcome than lesser wellbeing.
People who agree with Hume of course challenge this definition. Ophelia Benson (also linked above, because this was the thread that got me thinking about this again) takes a crack at it:
Morality is about taking externals into account – other people; animals; the ecosystem we all depend on. It rests on the awareness that the self is not all there is. It’s a corrective to pure selfishness.
Note the circularity. 'Selfishness' is a morally-loaded term, and doesn't really aid in understanding. So what we're left with is that moral decisions are those that affect others. But that's no good because that includes almost all decisions, and not all decisions are moral ones. What to get my wife for her birthday affects other people, but it is not a moral decision. Landon in the comments tries to help:
I took the point of your broad statement to mean something like “any decision that affects others necessarily involves a moral assessment, even if we determine that the moral impact is negligible.”
Again circular. How do you make the 'moral assessment' to determine the 'moral impact'?
But I really don't need to argue this point. Harris has offered a definition and has done some of the hard work (albeit imperfectly) in justifying it. The critics have a much easier job. If you think Harris is all wet, if you think his definition is bunk, all you have to do is find a counter-example. The proposal on the table is 'moral decisions are those that relate to the wellbeing of other conscious creatures.' (I'll stipulate Ophelia's "others".) One counter-example will demolish the proposal and send people like Harris and myself back to the drawing board.
A counter-example would be a decision that most people consider to be moral that doesn't relate to the wellbeing of other conscious creatures. Another would be a decision that relates to the wellbeing of other conscious creatures, but that most people would not consider a moral question.
One counter-example of either type is all that's needed. Just one. If Harris is as naive as they all claim it should be easy.