One of the objections that I often receive when I claim that moral judgments are not strictly objective is that the same reasoning can be deployed to demonstrate that science is not strictly objective either. Apparently that is meant to be a reductio ad absurdum, as if we possess transcendental knowledge that science is strictly objective.
Someone made this point on my Facebook profile overnight, I've seen Sam Harris use the argument on various occasions, and I see it frequently in debates on the internet.
It actually opens up huge issues in scientific epistemology, and I can't deal with those here. But there are some oddities about the argument.
First, note that the claim that moral judgments are not strictly objective is continuous with the claim that other kinds of evaluations are not strictly objective. They may be rational and non-arbitrary, but they are not binding on all rational beings. It looks to me as if the argument for this is compelling when it comes to non-moral evaluations.
So forget about moral judgments for the moment. Are we going to insist that all our practices of evaluation are strictly objective for fear that saying anything to the contrary will undermine the authority of science? I fully agree that the things we evaluate have objective characteristics - but the point is that there's going to be some slippage in what we require of these things (how do their objective characteristics conduce to meeting our desires, purposes, and so on?). Strictly speaking, there is no "we" here. Even if the people in a small group form a community with, for the scope of the argument, a unanimity of purposes, etc., they will not have a unanimity with all rational creatures in the universe ... or even all rational creatures on Earth.
Evaluations have an objective element, and they can be debated rationally. Eventually, however, evaluations are made relative to desires, etc., and in that sense have a subjective element. Outside of the sphere of moral judgment, this claim isn't especially controversial among educated people in culturally open societies. Do we now have to abandon this common understanding of non-moral evaluations for fear that we are undermining the authority of science?
That's one aspect that I haven't seen discussed. I'd like to know why a non-objective element in moral judgment is threatening to science but a non-objective element in evaluations more generally is not.
Here's another aspect. Imagine for the sake of argument that some kind of argument goes through to demonstrate that science is not strictly objective. Presumably the argument will have to be that our choices of scientific hypotheses and theories are actually something like evaluations. We evaluate scientific hypotheses against "values" such as explanatory power, parsimony, and track record in making novel predictions.
Ordinarily, we think of these as criteria for truth - or for likelihood of truth. Outside of science, we certainly do use them that way. But what if we do think of them as simply things that we happen to value? Well, yes - if you do think of explanatory power, parsimony, predictive record, and the like as things we just happen to value you'll turn science into something that is not objective.
What if you say that they are not things that we just happen to value but value for some other reason? Well, it might be that our reason is that they are indicators of likelihood of truth! In that case, the authority of science doesn't seem to be undermined after all. Sure, if we don't care about truth we won't use these criteria. But that in no way detracts from the fact that people who do use these criteria are discovering propositions that are likely to be true. And that gives science authority as a truth-seeking enterprise. Where's the problem?
Could we have some other non-arbitrary reason for valuing these particular things? Well, I can't immediately see what it would be. Nor do I see how we or any other rational beings in the universe really have much choice but to employ such criteria as explanatory power, parsimony, and predictive record. To call them "values", as if we have some real choice whether or not to value them, is misleading.
But all that said, there are many views in scientific epistemology. Perhaps there's some way of preserving science's authority, or much of it, while also claiming that it is not strictly objective, or that it only finds "empirically adequate" theories, not truths about the universe, or whatever. I don't really want to get into that today, and in all honesty I'd need to research the issue a lot further.
Without having done so, I take a straightforward scientific realist view. The criteria we use in science really are criteria of likelihood of truth and would be used by all rational beings that engage in science ... at least once they reach a certain stage of cultural evolution. That can be so without it following that our evaluations of cars, friends, people's characters, and so on are strictly objective.
But let's assume I'm wrong about science. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that my scientific epistemology is naive and false. In that case, perhaps science is also not strictly objective ... well so what? Perhaps that's an unwelcome conclusion. So?
You can't say that a metaethical view is false merely because a similar, but independently motivated, argument may (or may not) lead to an unwelcome conclusion in the field of scientific epistemology. The argument that moral objectivism is required on pain of undermining the authority of science is simplistic, illogical, and cuts no ice with me.