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This question has been asked similarly a few times, but I don't really understand the answers, and maybe I won't this time. And they don't seem to relate to objective morality.

If we take the stance that morality is objective, and defined as reaching the highest level of well-being. Is any moral action only determined by its result on the world?

If I cheated on my girlfriend (immoral for sure), but then decided to tell her about it (seemingly moral choice), if she ends up killing herself because of it, the well-being of the world is lowered. Now, you can say, while telling her is moral, the total morality of the scenario is immoral.

If I develop a vaccine (moral, right?), but a storm hits the lab, and the decease spreads to the world, the well-being of the world is as bad as it gets. Is this complete scenario also immoral?

If morality is indeterminable before the action is taken, it seems to only be an applicable interpretation in retrospect. If this is the case, who's able to say it is immoral to kill children, the moral of it might reveal itself later on.

This smells like God works in mysterious ways, which many (at least me) consider an excuse to immorality.


The intepretation of morality I'm working from here is the one Sam Harris writes about in his book The Moral Landscape. - Thanks to @virmaior for pointing out that this appears to be Utilitarianism.

He aims to carve a third path between secularists who say morality is subjective (e.g. moral relativists), and religionists who say that morality is given by God and scripture. Harris contends that the only moral framework worth talking about is one where "morally good" things pertain to increases in the "well-being of conscious creatures".

  • A lot hinges on what you mean by "morality is objective." Can you clarify what you take "objectivity" to mean. It may be a bit thick, but the normal cognate term is moral realism (See SEP plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-realism ). What you're describing looks more like a species of utilitarianism based on actual consequences which is not the only thing people call "objective morality" / can edit and clarify. – virmaior Sep 4 '17 at 14:04
  • @virmaior I am not too familiar with utilitarianism, but a quick googling seems very fitting. – Chris Wohlert Sep 4 '17 at 14:11
  • Intentions must be the basis for any objective morality. Our actions may or may not have the effect we hope for, this is beyond our control, but our good or bad intentions are independent of outcomes. For the doctrine of karma intentions would be everything, outcomes would be irrelevant. . – PeterJ Sep 5 '17 at 11:38
  • @PeterJ, not in a Utilitarian view. – Chris Wohlert Sep 5 '17 at 11:39
  • @Chris Wohlert - Quite so. But it seems possible to combine these two views. That is, we could say that greatest utility is achieved when everybody acts with the best of intentions. In the end we cannot base a system on outcomes since we don't know what they will be, or whether we have understood our situation properly etc. But intentions are independent of particular situations. – PeterJ Sep 5 '17 at 11:58
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If you are working from Sam Harris's version of morality, then you are dealing with something more like Ethical Naturalism which is a type of Utilitarianism, but distinct from many other forms of Utilitarianism. Harris contends that there are moral rights and wrongs that can be objectively stated based on the fact that people stating their preferences are stating facts about the world and as such facts can be objectively assessed. Whilst the traditional Utilitarianism of Mill might be concerned with maximising utility via any means, Harris asserts that such means can be deduced by scientific investigation.

Traditional Utilitarianism is not so concerned with the 'intention' of the person as it is with the outcome, so, in your scenarios both of the seemingly moral actions (because of their good intentions), would be morally wrong because of their outcome. This may seem unfair, but the hard Utilitarians take the position that it would be irrational to want any outcome other than the maximal happiness of humanity (or all concious beings) and so to advise (by moral judgement) the taking of any other course would be wrong.

Ethical naturalism differs slightly in taking into account the consequences of the cultivation of virtue. Phillipa Foot argues that virtues are tools that a person can use to cause well-being. As such your scenarios cannot be taken out of context. So in your first example one might say that the world has suffered an immediate reduction in well-being as a consequence of your actions, but in the long term your cultivation of the practice of 'honesty where it seems appropriate' that will have been furthered by this one exercise, may be logically assessed, using facts about people's preferences, to be something which is likely to bring about an increase in welfare overall, and is therefore moral.

The difficultly with such an approach is that of any consequentialist ethic as Anscombe argues, is that one still has the problem of not being able to see all ends. In both of your examples the consequences are somewhat unpredictable, and so one could argue that judging the rightness of a moral choice on the basis of it's long-term consequences (as Foot would have us do), is even more prone to the unforseeability of the consequences as standard utilitarianism. The counter-argument to this for Harris is from evolution (both biological and cultural). We have, he argues, carried out such experiments thousands of times and so we do indeed have a relatively sure knowledge of the long-term consequences of certain virtues, enough to declare some action objectively wrong.

Opponents of Ethical Naturalism (or any consequentialist ethic really) often use scenarios like the ones you've given to illustrate their opposition, but really, if you examine the reality of the situation carefully, the moral wrong often becomes obvious. Is the admission of your indiscretion morally wrong because of it's consequence, or is it your failure to support the person's emotional needs afterwards? Is it the seeking of a vaccine that's wrong because of it's consequences, or is it, in fact, the failure to put in place adequate bio-security measures? Ethical Naturalists generally argue that for most circumstances we are actually quite good at estimating the long-term consequences of our behavioural strategies and as such general statements about what is morally right based on the cultivation of virtues (a specific form of 'intention') are perfectly objective.

  • Allow me to summarize, to make sure I understand this correctly. If a well demonstrated moral act, leads to a bad outcome, the act itself does not become immoral, because on average, it wins out? So if telling the truth, on average, increases well-being, doing it in cases where doesn't it's still moral. – Chris Wohlert Sep 5 '17 at 7:56
  • It's a little more complicated than that, but yes, in general that's the Ethical Naturalist stance. The crucial addition is that science can help us determine which types of action tend to 'win out' on average, and so believing that, not finding out this information itself becomes immoral. This is how such a stance differs from other types of virtue ethics which argue that the virtues can be worked out using rationality alone, intuition, or religious instruction. Ethical Naturalism argues that the virtues can be worked out by empirical investigation and as such may well change over time. – Isaacson Sep 5 '17 at 8:10
  • Perfect, thank you. I think I have a much better grasp on it now. – Chris Wohlert Sep 5 '17 at 8:13

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