Science, Ethics and Observation

James Lenman
University of Sheffield
This paper examines the idea that ethics might be understood as a domain of straightforwardly empirical inquiry with reference to two of its defenders. Sam Harris has recently urged that ethics is simply the scientific study of welfare and how best to maximize it. That is of course to presuppose the truth of utilitarianism, something Harris considers too obvious to be sensibly contested. Richard Boyd's more nuanced and thoughtful position takes the truth of the ethical theory he favours to be determined by what best explains the success of moral practice over its history. But what is to count here as success is too theory dependent for this to be helpful. From consideration of both Harris and Boyd, the conclusion emerges that once we have satisfied ourselves by ethical reflection about what we ought to do, it may then be a straightforwardly empirical question how to do it, but that arriving at that point, the core concern of the moral philosopher, is far less clearly a straightforwardly empirical affair
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DOI 10.1017/S1358246113000143
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How to Be a Moral Realist.Richard Boyd - 1988 - In G. Sayre-McCord (ed.), Essays on Moral Realism. Cornell University Press. pp. 181-228.
Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.Bernard Williams - 1987 - Behaviorism 15 (2):179-181.

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