Surely as long as your acts are an attempt to increase well being and as long as your beliefs that your acts do indeed increase well being are reasonable then you can be said to be acting morally even if you are misguided.
An evil man has issued you with a box that has 2 buttons on it.
If you press button A he says he will do nothing.
If you press button B he says he will kill 100 people.
If you do neither he will kill 200 people.
You have no reason to doubt him so you press button A.
Indeed he does nothing and sends you a video tape of the 100 people going free.
Behind the scenes you are doing all in your power to capture this man and also to gain further verification that he has indeed set the people free.
Now imagine this again in a parallel universe when in fact the tape he sends is fake. He was lying about the outcomes of your button presses and had you pressed B he would have done nothing but as you pressed A he chose to kill the 100.
Now it seems to me that Sam would say your act in the parallel universe is less moral as it had an outcome which decreased global well being. I would argue that the acts are morally equivalent because in both cases there was a sincere and dilligent attempt to increase well being.
Moral relativism in this sense is surely acceptable. That is to say, if people genuinely believe their acts promote well being and their beliefs aren’t unreasonable (given their culture/brain/upbringing/access to information) then one might say they are moral acts irrespective of their actual success in bringing about an increase in well being.
Did Sam tackle the problem of “intentions” in his book?
i think it is obvious that the intent is essential… the evil man is deceiving us and setting up the game in the first place (it is his immorality, not ours)...
I am sure Sam Harris is interested in the practical application of morality, and most importantly in describing what is moral and what is not scientifically… your example makes it clear who is “evil” and who is “good” regardless… and what each party is trying to achieve: murder/abusive mind-games on one side and public safety on the other.
if one had this scenario occur more than once it would make sense to take steps to prevent or undermine such evil men and their evil plans but that is all you could do realistically…. you still need to act in the most reasonable way possible to carry out your good intents.
I suppose my example is weak but my point remains:
Moral relativism perhaps argues that as long as an act intends to increase well being then it is a moral act irrespective of whether or not it does in fact increase well being.
So that as long as a person can show that they are not being dogmatic and that they are making an honest and vigorous attempt to weigh up the likely outcome of their actions then that person can claim to be moral even when they fail or even fail badly.
Given that education can be of varying standards around the world to say the least, some fairly revolting acts could be described as moral because they are the best that person can do given their culture.
Taken to an extreme, the acts of Hitler and the Taliban could be defended in this light (not by me I hasten to add).
The taliban should and could be wisened up to the fact that in fact their actions tend not to increase well being in the most productive way possible.
But a person isn’t “immoral” as long as they are as sincere and as rigorous as their cultural situation will allow.
I would agree with that… i think it would actually be immoral to call someone immoral who was trying their best to create well-being even in their ignorance. Calling such a person immoral would have a psychological effect on them that would be unfair and could be damaging to them. it would be necessary to educate them however.
we must separate intent from results…. this forms a deeper science in the end
isn’t this what happens in accidents and misunderstandings anyways (on a smaller scale)
I think however that we live in a globally connected culture now so “innocent” ignorance increasingly becomes less common.
Another issue to raise however is economic, social and other pressures that might influence people’s actions… this is a part of a scientific understanding… and it must address the well-being of even those who might be affecting that of others.
we live in a globally connected culture now so “innocent” ignorance increasingly becomes less common.
Do you feel Sam addresses the issue of intent in his book? I feel it was somewhat circumnavigated.
I’ve only got through a bit of the book so far so maybe someone else an jump in on that.
However, I’ve followed Sam for some time and i don’t think he’d be so unreasonable/unscientific as to ignore that distinction. Surely we must recognize the overall effect of actions, be aware of misunderstandings and mistakes and adjust to them but implicating good intentioned people in their undesired bad effects would only cause additional suffering.
Only people can be moral… Events are just diserable or undesirable.
I think religion might have created the idea that there is some omnipresent judge that is keeping score based on the ultimate definiion of good and bad effects. This would be fine if we convincingly knew what that is and hopefully why in amazing detail.
Along with that idea came the concept of someone being wicked (and damned) even in their ignorance of that divine law. This sounds immoral to me and it produces suffering… Sam often raises the issue of religious morality being corrupt because it actualy seperates morality from questions of human well-being by invoking this virtual divine morality.
We must honestly respect our inevitable ignorance… That itself leads us to true morality.
Hitler would justify his final solution in terms of the greater good or general wellbeing. For him, I suspect it was both a courageous and right act. It them comes down to ends justifying the means through the prism of perspective. In terms of Moral Relativism, the key is who defines the scale, that there is a scale surely is without doubt.
Considering sic1’s scenario above, clearly the subject of the box test does not know that the giver of the box is ‘evil’. He is given a stark choice and makes the best moral decision at the time. What occurs after the fact is not his responsibility. This problem arising frequently in politics as political decisions are taken based on a contemporary (after the fact) assessment of past ‘moral’ judgements. Take for instance a recent ‘Apology’ from the Australian Prime Minister for the attempted assimilation of aboriginal people into white society, the so called ‘stolen generation’. The point being missed is that that was the best political decision at the time, all things considered. To later apologise for it is nothing more than a political stunt, because in the 1930’s where did they err? They applied the best scientific thinking at the time, they did not make a ‘moral’ that is to say subjective decision, to steal children, they thought it was the right thing to do scientifically. It transpires that eugenics resulted in some wrong conclusions of course. This is different from apologising for a war which was entered into on a false premis.