Sunday, October 08, 2017

Intelligible Non-Natural Concerns

I've previously argued that -- even by non-naturalist lights -- what matters are various natural properties (e.g. causing pleasure or pain), and the role of the non-natural normative properties is instead to "mark" the significance of these natural properties.

But it's worth flagging that there are exceptions. While I take it that typically what matters are natural features of the world, this is not a universal restriction on what matters. After all, normative properties plausibly have the further normative property of being worthy of philosophical scrutiny. So I do not deny that there may be special cases when it is perfectly reasonable to take an interest in morality de dicto. (Responding to moral uncertainty may be another such case.) My claim was the more modest one that non-naturalism does not commit us to having non-natural properties take center stage in our moral lives.

The special cases where normative properties themselves are of legitimate interest are precisely cases in which it no longer seems perverse or unintelligible to take a special interest in a non-natural property. There's clearly nothing unintelligible about taking a philosophical interest in non-natural properties, after all. (They raise all sorts of interesting questions!) The case of moral uncertainty may be less obvious, so let me discuss that a bit further.

Suppose you aren't sure whether it's wrong to painlessly kill happy chickens, as you are unsure whether the cognitive capacities that they possess (in particular, their limited degree of psychological connectedness from one moment to the next) are sufficient to ground a normative interest in continued (happy) survival. The question about which you are unsure is not an empirical one -- we may suppose that you are fully aware of all the relevant empirical details concerning chicken psychology. You know what relations of psychological continuity and connectedness do and do not hold between the various chicken timeslices. You just aren't sure which relations are the ones that matter. Since you generally desire to avoid causing harm, you specifically desire not to kill the chicken if the relation binding together its temporal parts is one that matters (in the sense of giving it a normative interest in survival).

This seems a distinctively abstract sort of property that you are (quite reasonably) concerned with in this case. But then it doesn't seem any great problem if it turns out that the property in question is a non-natural one. Of course, it is not just any old non-natural property. And it is not an entirely free-floating concern, disconnected from all your other concerns. On the contrary, this property marks being normatively alike to other things that you rightly care about, and that uncontroversially matter. So perhaps this connection to other, more concrete, concerns can help to render this abstract concern more intelligible.

If we take for granted that adult humans have what matters in survival and that embryos do not, we may intelligibly wonder whether the most coherent systematization of our pattern of concern would mandate concern for chicken survival or not. This is not exactly the same as the question whether chicken survival matters, but from a first personal perspective (assuming that one is not in general morally misguided, etc.) they are at least closely related, as an answer to the one question may reasonably be taken to subjectively settle the other as well.

So I take this to be an intelligible concern, despite being relatively abstract in nature. It doesn't seem to make any difference to its intelligibility if it turns out to be a non-natural property that we are here concerned with. What would be objectionable is if non-naturalists were committed to replacing our ordinary concrete concerns (such as those involving the hedonic states of pleasure and pain) with excessively abstract non-natural ones, but we have already put that worry to rest. Non-naturalism is perfectly compatible with ascribing significance primarily to natural properties. What we've now seen is that it may also ascribe some (secondary) significance to non-natural properties in a way that is also intelligible.

[Revising my paper on non-natural reasons... Comments welcome!]

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