In my previous post I pulled one nugget from an otherwise flawed defense of the idea of objective morality -- a worldly and empirical definition of morality. The easiest assault on a proposed definition is to find a counter-example, and I can't think of any. Perhaps critics can do better, but I doubt it.
In fact the critics of this project seem to focus on oddly quixotic targets. PZ Myers, no shrinking violet in defense of science, fixates on the moral atrocities committed by scientists in the name of science. I guess he thinks that this disproves the idea that morality could be empirical and therefore subject to science? I don't really get it. His argument could be "if morality is a subject of science, then everything scientists do must be moral, and it isn't, therefore not," but that makes no sense. It instead seems to be an emotional appeal that if we let science get into morality then -- slippery slope! -- daycare centers will be run by modern-day Dr Mengele.
Patricia Churchland (via B&W) makes the weirdly reductionist -- and weirdly common -- leap from moral concepts directly to evolutionary biology:
It did seem likely that Aristotle, Hume, and Darwin were right: we are social by nature. But what does that actually mean in terms of our brains and our genes? To make progress beyond the broad hunches about our nature, we need something solid to attach the claim to. [pp 2-3]
What is it about 'science' that makes otherwise rational people jump from observing social relations to the assumption they can be explained or understood by genetics and biology? Can we maybe stop at one of the many levels inbetween where explanation can make sense? Like sociology, or psychology, or game theory even? So many instead seem to have this obsession with the idea that if science is going to probe human questions it has to be by scanning people's brains. It shows a terrible misunderstanding of science, among other things.
(Harris has this same problem, to some extent, so the reaction could be partly to what he wrote. I don't want to defend Harris specifically, however, and each individual involved is responsible for what they wrote in any case.)
The stupid objections aside, what can be made of the reasonable objections?
The definition contains the term 'wellbeing' that some may argue is poorly defined. That's true, but the concept is nonetheless subject to scientific revision. The physical aspect of wellbeing is called 'health', but no one argues that medicine isn't an objective, scientific field. In fact our definition of health evolves with new scientific knowledge, and so can the idea of wellbeing.
Another complaint often raised is the challenge that scientific morality might gore one of your own scared cows. "What if studies showed that hitting children was actually good for them," they sneer. "Would you support it just because of that?" The answer is "yes". I have the courage of my convictions -- please test my long-held ideals and make sure they are actually good. If I learned that an activity I held dear was hurting people, or a sanction I felt strongly about was actually counter-productive, I would totally change my ideas, feelings and actions. Wouldn't everyone?
The question, however, is deeply ignorant of history. Corporal punishment has been the cultural norm for thousands of years. No lesser authority than the Bible demands that we beat our children lest they be "spoiled." What started to change the consensus, only recently and incompletely, was scientific research. In fact, if we study outcomes, we find that hitting kids reduces their long-term wellbeing. That's why corporal punishment is slowly and surely becoming morally unacceptable. That's how morals change.
This is the starkest frame that anyone can face. Is any one of us so committed to an ideology that we would reject a valid scientific result that shows that our moral values are hurting our children? Some may reject the study, others may reject the result, but no one can accept the result and persist in the behavior. That is the ultimate demonstration that what we call morality is -- in fact -- objective.