Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher and literary critic. He is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology, co-editor of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), and a Conjoint Lecturer at the University of Newcastle, NSW. He has also had some professional success writing novels and short stories (including a trilogy of novels for the Terminator franchise). He blogs at "Metamagician and the Hellfire Club."
Russell is a prominent advocate of the so-called New Atheism - he has argued in many forums for putting religion under the glare of harsh scrutiny. He has, however, become engaged in a recent round of debate with Sam Harris over the nature and content of morality.
While Harris calls himself a moral realist, Russell calls himself a moral skeptic, arguing that there is something about morality, as it's usually understood, that is a myth or an illusion. Both agree on several points - that religion has no genuine moral authority, that we should reject vulgar kinds of moral relativism that tell us not to judge other cultures, and that some customary forms of morality merit our hostility. Russell says that he'd agree with Harris on numerous practical issues. On the other hand, his review, in The Journal of Evolution and Technology, of the new Harris book, The Moral Landscape, points out that the most interesting things he can say about the book are the theoretical points that he disagrees with.
Though he is a moral skeptic, Russell doesn't mean that we have no reason to act kindly to others or to cooperate with them, or that we need to give up making evaluations of others' conduct or character, or of various laws, customs, and social codes. We have every reason to be outraged by cruelty and horrified by suffering, and to try to do something about it; and we have plenty of reasons to be kind and cooperative. However, he argues, our reasons are grounded in the desires, values, goals, purposes, psychological needs, and the like, that we actually possess and share with most other human beings. We can discuss the merits of laws, customs, and social codes in a rational way, non-arbitrary way, criticising "bad" ones much as we could criticise an automobile that has poor performance, guzzles gas, and is uncomfortable to sit in. However, there is no "must-be-done-ness" or "must-not-be-doneness" about certain actions, transcending what we actually desire, value, find useful for our purposes and goals, and so on. Morality often appears that way, but this is an illusion.
This skeptical attitude to morality cuts it down to size - it should be something practical that serves us. Moral skepticism undermines traditional moral systems that base morality in the will of God or in an idea of absolute moral good or evil, but it also undermines any idea that we are required to do something as cosmic - and remote from our practical purposes - as maximising the welfare of all conscious creatures. It leaves us with plenty of room to struggle against cruelty, authoritarianism and the like, while also leaving room for legitimate disagreement among rational and well-informed people, just as when rational and well-informed people disagree about the merits of anything else (motorcars, sunsets, novels, or whatever else we need to evaluate). We can get by perfectly well without the idea of God, Russell says, and we can also get by without the illusion that there are transcendent, objective moral requirements. In fact, we may be better off without either of these illusions.