Friday, May 06, 2005

Ethical Naturalism

May I clear up a common confusion? Many theists [examples: 1, 2] seem to think that 'ethical naturalism' is the claim that morality derives from human nature, or perhaps evolutionary principles, allowing inferences of the form "X is unnatural, therefore X is wrong." This simply isn't true. And just as well, since we shouldn't want to allow such faulty inferences, for the sorts of reasons Don Herzog discusses:
If "natural" is the opposite of "rare" and means "common," it has no critical bite. Unless you think it's wrong to excel. If it's the opposite of "artifice" and means "what we haven't altered," it has no critical bite. Unless you think people shouldn't wear eyeglasses. If natural is the opposite of "supernatural" or "miraculous" and means "can be explained in the ordinary ways," it has no critical bite. Unless you think only divine intervention is wrong.

Just so. But theists shouldn't identify this silly position with "naturalism" in ethics. Ethical naturalism is not the claim that morals are found by looking to (biological) "nature". Rather, it is the view that ethical properties are (metaphysically) naturalistic properties - or, more simply, that the natural facts determine the moral facts. This is a very different matter!

Happiness, desire-fulfilment, the achievement of goals - and everything else that happens in our worldly lives - all count as "naturalistic" in this sense. So well-being and harm can be accounted for in naturalistic terms. And since morality is about advancing well-being and preventing harms, we can offer a naturalistic foundation for morality. This is what ethical naturalism is about. Not that "X is unnatural" rubbish. So please put the straw men away.


  1. Richard,
    I wasn't (I don't think) making the claim that those inferences were correctly interpreted. I was pointing out that those theists making such arguments were doing so incorrectly in trying to point out flaws in their understanding of how their counterpart reasoned but, by not understanding his actual position, failing.

    Or at least that was what I was trying to say. And that inasmuch as the "right/left" divide in our country follows the "theist/whatever" divide (which admittedly tracks somewhat worse than assumed) that it was odd for Mr Herzog of Left2Right to ask the "right" to complete a common but as you point out flawed syllogism.

  2. Okay, consider my response as being directed at "those theists" rather than yourself. I would like them to know that ethical naturalists are more likely to accept inferences of the form "X is wrong because it is harmful", rather than "X is wrong because it's unnatural".

    (Though I do note that throughout your post you referred to the silly position as "Naturalism", when in fact it is merely one - very implausible - variety of ethical naturalism.)

    I don't see anything "odd" about Herzog's post. Given how often those on the right appeal to the "flawed syllogism" (especially in relation to homosexuality), it would be entirely reasonable to ask them to justify the inference. But as I see it, Herzog didn't target his question in any such way. Like he remarked in his conclusion: "It probably remains true today that more conservatives than liberals hanker after nature to ground our moral and political judgments. But again, my point isn't directly political. Except, that is, as it turns out to be political to say we should stop talking nonsense."

  3. I'm pretty sure "ethical naturalism" has two meanings in contemporary philosophy.

    First, there's the meta-ethical view that moral properties are, or are constituted by, natural properties. Cornell realists like David Brink take this position.

    But second, there's the ethical view that morally good human beings are those with dispositions of character that are characteristic of humans; that moral evaluation is like evaluations of living things as good specimens of their kind. Virtue ethicists like Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse take this position.

    It's this second "ethical naturalism" that falls within the scope of Herzog's post.

  4. Yeah, my criticism wasn't at all aimed towards Herzog's post. (I've updated my post to try to make this clearer.) Rather, I'm wanting to clarify the meta-ethical debate, since theists sometimes get confused and dismiss ethical naturalism far too quickly.


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