To piggyback off my earlier question.

In this, Ethical Naturalism is described, in short, as:

The overall effect of an action has positive or negative impact on the world's well-being, making it moral or immoral. Telling the truth has an overall positive effect, so it is considered moral.

My question is, if an act is determined on basis of its average, is it not context independent?

To paraphrase Sam Harris, "If you can't imagine a situation where torture is appropriate, you simply aren't trying hard enough". This is because you can imagine a situation, where torture would have a positive effect on the worlds well-being, but if it isn't on average, should you then never do it?

Similarly, he argues that while telling the truth is moral, lying to save a life is also moral, but I'm struggling to see how in this average based system.

This can also be older interpretations of Ethical Naturalism. The science part Harris introduced is not important necessarily. I am unfortunately not very read on this subject. So, is morality context independent in Ethical Naturalism?

closed as unclear what you're asking by Mozibur Ullah, labreuer, John Am, Swami Vishwananda, Joseph Weissman Sep 14 '17 at 22:11

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  • This isn't how Ethical Naturalism is described here – Mozibur Ullah Sep 5 '17 at 11:55
  • In the linked question, that is also how it is described (in the answer). I just highlighted the relevant part. – Chris Wohlert Sep 5 '17 at 11:57
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    I had a look at the linked question and it misrepresents it too. – Mozibur Ullah Sep 5 '17 at 11:59
  • @MoziburUllah, The question or the answer? Your link seems to very much go hand in hand with the answer, or I am misunderstanding it. Please describe how it misrepresents it. – Chris Wohlert Sep 5 '17 at 12:02
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    @MoziburUllah I too would be interested in how you think Ethical Naturalism is misrepresented in the question/answer, just providing a link to a generic definition of very wide interpretation is not particularly useful. Ethical Naturalism can be Non-Reductive (which your definition does not seem to allow for), it can also be quite relativistic, it's quite a broad category. Accusing a question/answer of misrepresentation requires quite a full depth of familiarity with the subject which your link does not seem to expound. – Isaacson Sep 5 '17 at 14:05

No morality is not entirely context independent, but is to a certain extent. Ethical Naturalism takes the view that the moral right and wrong of an action can be determined empirically. In order to do this it must accumulate evidence in some form. This could be biological, evolutionary or circumstantial. In order to accumulate (and apply) circumstantial evidence it is necessary to group actions to some extent, so that the lessons from some past consequences can be applied to this one. If one were to say of each action that it is unique (i.e. completely contextual), then no such evidence would ever apply, as it would necessarily only be applicable to past events which were all in themselves unique.

It is a necessary part of any empirical moral system to say that some present event is 'like enough' to some past event for the lessons learned from the outcome of that past moral choice to be applied to this current decision. This necessitates a certain reduction in contextual independence.

The problem arises in how far these groupings must be taken. Are we to learn from 'the last time I lied', or from 'the last time I lied to a person whose intentions I doubted were sincere/morally good in themselves'. That is the issue that Harris is referring to in his example of torture. He's not saying that we must judge every action by making a completely fresh estimate of it's outcome using only the evidence of that context, but that we should judge using both the immediate context and data accumulated from similar situations in the past.

So, to explain the way the average works you need to add the work of Phillipa Foot. She goes on to say that a good summary of all the 'data accumulated from past experience' is what other ethicists might call virtues. These 'virtues' are rarely a simple as 'never lie', but definitely include feeling of intent rather than solely of outcome (such as don't arbitrarily harm others). Thus we have a guide for moral decision making which takes 'virtues' (accumulated data from past experiences) and applies them to current situations (including any new data they might present) and works out what action might bring about the best outcome.

  • So the empirical evidence also changes with context. We have evidence that in some contexts, torture is appropriate, and evidence that in other, it is just plain cruel. Am I correct in saying, that Harris then goes on to say that, with science, it is possible to determine what circumstances (in which context) constitutes torture, by looking a previous events? – Chris Wohlert Sep 5 '17 at 13:48
  • Yes, that's it exactly, with any form of Ethical Realism morality is deducible, but with most Ethical Naturalism, the results of that analysis may change as new information comes to light. – Isaacson Sep 5 '17 at 13:58
  • You are saving me today. I should probably start reading, and stop wandering around, pondering stuff. :) – Chris Wohlert Sep 5 '17 at 14:05
  • Isn't this just utilitarianism by another name? Doesn't it end up that way? You have to have a criteria to design an empirical study. E.g. how many people did this lie hurt? if it hurt more than it helped etc. @chriswohlert – Gordon Sep 5 '17 at 14:36
  • @Gordon Ethical Naturalism is a means by which objective judgements can be made not only on which actions are 'good', but on what 'good' actually is. Utilitarianism only stipulates that such a judgement should be made on the basis of maximising utility, it does not universally specify how such judgements should be made (individual rationality, rule of law etc.) – Isaacson Sep 5 '17 at 16:37

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