Saturday, April 15, 2006

Against Synthetic Ethical Naturalism

The synthetic ethical naturalist holds that there is an a posteriori identity between various moral and natural properties, much like that which holds between table salt and NaCl. I used to think this analogy sufficed to refute Moore's open question argument, but insights from two-dimensionalism shed doubt on this.

Synthetic naturalism entails that moral terms differ in their primary and secondary intensions. That is, there is a possible world whose moral properties differ depending on whether we conceive of the world as actual or as counterfactual. Perhaps an action there fits the "good-making role", but fails to qualify as truly "good" because its underlying natural properties differ from those natural properties which play the actual good-making role. (Compare: XYZ plays the watery role in Twin Earth, but fails to count as truly "water" because the latter term rigidly designates whatever actually plays the water role, namely, H2O.)

But that just seems transparently absurd. Moral properties aren't to be held hostage to actual world contingencies. Ethics isn't a matter of natural kinds and rigid designators. If something satisfies the "good-making role" in a world, then that is good; it doesn't matter if its underlying properties differ from those of its functional analogue in our world. The primary and secondary intensions of 'good' ought to coincide. So if some moral truths are necessary truths, they must also be a priori.

Now, moral facts clearly supervene on the natural, if they exist at all, and hence give rise to necessary conditional truths. So (as we've seen) these truths must also be a priori. Hence, the only adequate realist naturalist meta-ethics is analytic ethical naturalism. The challenge remains to provide the conceptual analysis in question, or at least indicate how a reduction of the normative to the natural might go.

(See also the relevant section of my old essay on the fact/value gap, and the reference to related arguments in Michael Smith's excellent article, 'Moral Realism'. He points out that synthetic naturalists still need to provide an a priori analysis of the "good-making role", prior to rigidification under this role. He also reinforces the crucial point that Moore's open question argument merely shows that no reductive analysis of moral terms is obvious, not that none is possible.)


  1. I don't know of an apriori or analytic naturalist ethical proposition, perhaps because "naturalism" and "analytic" rarely, if ever, cross meaningful paths.

    Probably the strongest, uncontroversial ethical claim one can make is "Do No Harm." Nothing apriori or analytic about it.

  2. Well, sometimes you should do minor harms to prevent much greater ones, of course. There are few straightforward ethical imperatives that apply in all situations. But we can easily obtain necessary truths through conditionalization. (Here's where my argument comes in, which you haven't addressed at all! You merely assert "Nothing apriori or analytic about it." Where's your argument?)

    That is, we can get a raft of claims of the form (C) "If in circumstance X, then action A is the right thing to do." So long as enough descriptive information is built into X (it might completely specify all natural facts about the world, including potential consequences of different actions, etc.) then the whole conditional (C) is a necessary truth. (This follows from the fact of moral supervenience, and our Realist supposition that there's some act A which is the right thing to do in circumstance X.) That is, C is true in all possible worlds, considered counterfactually. But if an ethical claim is true of a world considered as counterfactual, it is also true of that world considered as actual. So (C) is true of all possible worlds considered as actual. So it is a priori. QED.

    One can dispute the realist premise, of course. But that's a whole 'nother debate. For now my point is simply that if we are moral realists at all, then we should be analytical naturalists about it.

    As for the crucial connection between naturalism and analyticity, see the paper by Dave Chalmers and Frank Jackson on Conceptual Analysis and Reductive Explanation. (They argue there for "an a priori entailment from microphysical truths to ordinary macroscopic truths". I might blog more on this later.)


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