Monday, April 28, 2014

The Moral Relevance of Non-Natural Properties

I've been thinking about the "ethical idlers" objection to non-naturalism recently, especially in light of Matt Bedke's really interesting forthcoming paper “A Menagerie of Duties?: Normative Judgments are not Beliefs about Non-Natural Properties”.  As Bedke introduces the problem:
What things are like non-naturally is not relevant to our normative judgments in the way we would expect them to be if such judgments were beliefs about those sorts of properties. Non-natural properties would belong to a menagerie of curiosities if we could map and catalog them, but our deepest normative convictions do not hang on how they are arranged.

Or, as Frank Jackson put it (From Metaphysics to Ethics, p.127):
[I]t is hard to see how the further properties [posited by non-naturalists] could be of any ethical significance. Are we supposed to take seriously someone who says, 'I see that this action will kill many and save no-one, but that is not enough to justify my not doing it; what really matters is that the action has an extra property that only ethical terms are suited to pick out'? In short, the extra properties would ethical 'idlers'.

I've previously suggested a couple of moves that I think non-naturalists should make to clarify their view in response to these kinds of concerns.

Firstly (in response to Jackson's formulation in particular), we should note that general considerations of moral fetishism already indicate that we should be motivated by the right-making features of acts, rather than by considerations of rightness itself.  Only the latter is posited to be non-natural, so even non-naturalists will agree that it's natural features that should (suffice to) motivate us.  Roughly speaking, the role of non-natural properties is not to be the reasons that justify or properly motivate our actions (or that are directly practically important), but rather to give content to the attribution of importance to these natural properties rather than others.  Their role is, in this way, more theoretical than practical.

Second, the "menagerie of curiosities" objection seems to depend on the idea that so-called "non-natural" properties have some descriptive (i.e. not explicitly normative) essence by which we could track them and intelligibly raise questions about the normative significance of the items to which they attach.  Bedke invites us to "imagine that God hands you magic spectacles that reveal all non-natural properties and how they are distributed."  The thought is that the observed distribution wouldn't tempt us to revise our moral beliefs, even if it differed from our antecedent beliefs about the distribution of moral properties. (Suppose that pleasure and pain were revealed to have all the same non-natural properties, or none at all.)

This thought experiment makes sense if non-natural properties are imagined to be a kind of ghostly ectoplasm.  We can then ask: Why think that this ghostly ectoplasm tracks anything of normative significance?  But non-naturalists will agree that any such independently identifiable properties can't be inherently normative: Our agreement on this point is precisely why we're not metaethical naturalists! (Recall that Moore's so-called "naturalistic fallacy" applies equally to super-naturalistic reductions.  The point is that normative properties are primitive, irreducible, or purely normative, such that they cannot be adequately captured or characterized via any non-normative guise at all.)  But if the non-naturalist's posited properties have no non-normative guises at all, then the only way to perceive them is to perceive them as normative: e.g., to put on magic spectacles that reveal to you the distribution of goodness as such.  And could you see the distribution of goodness, and see it as such, without seeing this as relevant to your beliefs about what things are good?  That seems hard to make sense of.

Of course, we can imagine an oracle giving us generic info about non-natural properties, e.g. that pleasure and pain have no such properties.  This should not cause us to revise our normative beliefs that pleasure is good and pain is bad.  But that's just because we should be more confident of these normative claims than we are of our metaethical views.  That is, we would properly take the oracle's pronouncement as evidence that non-naturalism is false -- in just the same way that oracular pronouncements that there are no non-physical properties should lead mind-body dualists to revise their theoretical beliefs rather than giving up the datum that we are in fact conscious.

So, that's my defense of non-naturalism (against "ethical idler" / "menagerie of curiosity" objections) in a nutshell.  For more detail, see my paper, 'Why Care About Non-Natural Reasons?'

Comments welcome!


  1. I am no nonnaturalist, but these strike me as just the right points to make. The 'glasses' analogy is a bad one, a better analogy would be a pill that allowed you to directly perceive mathematical entities. But then I definitely do not have the intuition that such perception would be irrelevant to the justification of my mathematical beliefs. There's still the background problem of why anyone should care about ANY property, but of course that's not a problem for nonnaturalism in particular.

  2. I agree with the reply to Beckle's objection.

    As for the reply to Jackson's, I'm not sure one should be (i.e., that one has a moral obligation to be) motivated by the right-making features of acts rather than by rightness (of course, if the naturalists are right, some of the properties involved are the same as rightness, but even so, a person might only be motivated upon figuring out that an action would be right. And that does not strike me as always immoral).

    But leaving that aside and granting the point, I would like to ask what you mean when you say: "Roughly speaking, the role of non-natural properties is not to be the reasons that justify or properly motivate our actions (or that are directly practically important), but rather to give content to the attribution of importance to these natural properties rather than others. Their role is, in this way, more theoretical than practical."

    I'm not following the part about giving content to that attribution, in a theoretical sense.

    Adult humans find some properties important (i.e., they attribute importance to some properties), like the property of being disposed to be kind to people under such-and-such circumstances (a property of agents), or the property of saving the lives of n human children without harming any agents (a property of actions, or potential actions), etc. Well, normally and usually they do. Some humans are psychopaths and they do not care about those properties. And some intelligent aliens from another planet and/or a strong AI may well not care about those properties, but rather about others.

    But I'm not sure how any of those psychological issues are connected (under the non-naturalist theory you may have in mind) to some non-natural property, even if in some theoretical sense.

    1. Hi Angra, the thought was that (for the non-naturalist) the property of being important is a "non-natural" or purely normative property. Different people (/aliens) attribute this property to different objects, and (e.g.) that's how we're able to substantively disagree about normative questions such as what's important. The role of non-natural properties is thus "theoretical" rather than "practical" in the sense that they are posited to account for what we're attributing when we attribute importance to some things rather than others; they are posited for this reason rather than the "practical" one of being themselves important in this way.

    2. Hi, Richard

      Thanks for the explanation. Sorry I didn't realize you were talking about about a property of being “important”, instead of what is important to people – or to different agents.

      Personally, in light of your reply to Jackson (and given your clarification above), I would raise a couple of other objections again non-naturalism, but I don't know whether Jackson would follow up with the line of arguments I would make, and I'm not sure you'd be interested in discussing a line of objections that might not be like the ones he would raise, so I'll just sketch one of the basic ideas; I will elaborate if you like.

      So, briefly, I would disagree about whether there would be any substantive disagreement with sufficiently different aliens (and also probably even twin earthlings, though more details about their similarity to humans and the causal basis of their judgments might be needed to tackle the case), but assuming that the non-naturalist analysis of what we're attributing is correct, then I would press something akin to (key parts of) Street's Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value (though I disagree with her use of the term “realism” and the varieties of realism worth worrying about, but that's another matter), only that under that semantic assumption, it would turn into an argument for a moral error theory, either substantive or at least epistemic one - and assuming no substantive error theory, then an epistemic one (To be clear, I'm not an error theorist myself, since I don't think our moral discourse has the ontological commitments that your analysis (if I'm reading this right) seems to attribute to it, in particular with regard to substantial disagreement with very different intelligent aliens, AI, etc.; I think we would be talking past each other if we insisted on such a debate. However, I would become an error theorist if I were convinced that the analysis is correct).


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