Moral Naturalism and Non-Naturalism (and moral disagreement)

The most famous proponent of moral non-naturalism

The most famous proponent of moral non-naturalism

Note: I was working on an addition to my “About” page wherein I attempted to briefly state my meta-ethical views when I noticed that I had gotten carried away and written far more than was appropriate for the page. Thus I have decided to share it as a post. 

Among metaethical options, I think that non-cognitivism has no merit due to the available evidence, and constructivism/subjectivism is impossible if realism isn’t true. Thus, as I see it, moral judgments refer to independently existing moral properties, but the question is whether those properties truly exist. If they do, then realism is true. If they do not, then the error theory is true.

But even if realism is true, the search for answers does not end there, as there are two very viable options: naturalism and non-naturalism. Much of my research has been on how best to draw this distinction, in order to adequately test the merits of both. Distinguishing the two views has been made difficult by Cornell realists arguing that moral properties are natural but irreducible properties; before the Cornell school only non-naturalists thought moral properties were irreducible, due to their being sui generis. A common distinction made is that naturalists think that synthetic property identities between natural and supervening moral properties will be discovered through empirical researches, while the non-naturalist thinks that these synthetic property identities are impossible, and we have knowledge of how moral properties obtain through moral intuitions, which are fleeting glimpses of a priori moral knowledge.

The way I like to think of this difference is that naturalists think that moral properties are not directly observable, but are confirmed by coherent theories, whereas non-naturalists think that moral properties are observable through a moral sense. Given this controversial reading, it might seem surprising that I lean towards non-naturalism.

My thinking is that naturalism seems to entail that we do not have a real grasp on how morality works because we do not have the correct synthetic property identity at present, and that it might turn out when we uncover that identity relation that we have been going about morality all wrong. For naturalism, we are waiting on empirical data to vindicate or disprove what we think we know about morality. That is a pretty wild claim considering that it seems to me that I have a pretty good grasp on what is good and wrong about actions even if I do not know the synthetic property identity between moral goodness and some natural descriptive property. This knowledge seems to speak in favor of the direct moral perception that non-naturalism allows and that naturalism denies. Thus, that I seem to know about good and bad because I seem to have an immediate sense that a priori goodness supervenes on this set of natural properties, has a lot more explanatory power about how I experience the moral richness of the world than naturalism.

This is not to say that the empirical methods proposed by naturalists are not without their explanatory benefits. That the correct synthetic identity relations between moral and non-moral properties have yet to be discovered could explain why there is such widespread moral disagreement on planet Earth. The argument from disagreement is one of the most commonly cited reasons to be skeptical of realism; I am not however impressed by it. The naturalist has an open response with their insistence on synthetic property identities that have yet to be discovered.

The non-naturalist can also contend that moral intuitions are not infallible, and that even claims that are a priori true can take a while to see as self-evidently true. Much work has been done exposing how our intellectual intuitions (of which moral intuitions are a sub-group) of how to interpret data are smeared and obscured by biases; the same failures of reasoning might hold true of moral intuitions. In fact, it seems that given moral claims are action-guiding, that we can expect more biases than in other areas of life, such an scientific research. If I have a desire to stay as the dominating figure in my family, then this patriarchal desire might bias how I understand how I am to treat women in the greater society.

This gets at another fair response to the argument from disagreement: that often times what we disagree on are the non-moral facts and not the moral facts, such that there is not an irresolvable moral conflict, but a dispute on the meaning of terms. Consider the debate on abortion. Both sides think life is morally valuable, but the sides disagree on when life begins. This is a disagreement about the meaning of a non-moral term, “life”, such that it is possible that if the meaning of the term was agreed upon one side would concede to the other. Unfortunately, our beliefs are normally supported by an interconnected web, even when those beliefs have no true logical connection but really are just connected due to committed associations, and it makes it difficult to give up one belief when we think it is supported by another. This is just another form of bias.

So the argument from disagreement is no harder for the non-naturalist to respond to than the naturalist.


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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on December 9, 2013 - 8:45 pm

    An interesting post. After doing my own reading on meta-ethics a while back (admittedly not exhaustive) I retreated in confusion about exactly what my meta-ethical positions are.

    I’ve come to see morality as arising from our evolved instincts. However, those instincts often conflict with each other. So we use logic to figure out how to resolve the conflicts. In truth, I think we use logic to figure out an outcome that satisfies our stronger long term instincts. The problem, of course, is that the balance of instincts can vary among individuals, and how we resolve the conflicts among instincts can vary wildly between cultures.

    Because of this, I tend to think logic and empirical investigation can help us with moral reasoning, but ultimately can’t answer moral questions. Nevertheless, I think we can find codes of conduct that most of us can live with it.

    So, am I a naturalist or a non-naturalist, a cognitivist or non-cognitivist? I suspect some would classify me as non-naturalist emotivist, but I’m uncomfortable with that conclusion because I do think moral reasoning has value. Perhaps I’m a cognitivist ethical subjectivist. Anyway, hopefully you see the reason for my confusion.

    Sorry for blathering but your post reminded me that I never have resolved this.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on December 9, 2013 - 11:04 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, and no need at all to apologize, I’m glad you commented, I’m always interested to hear what people think about such a fundamental aspect of our lives.

      I certainly see your quandary: if emotivism is true then what seems like moral reasoning is an illusion; really we are expressing emotions and preferences. But if emotivism is false, then it seems we run into difficulty explaining the common connection between moral judgment and moral motivation. That is, the emotivist can posit that the reason why we are motivated to act on the moral judgments we make is because we are just expressing our emotions.

      Given the evidence that moral reasoning is not illusionary, that I can and have been convinced by valid moral arguments to change my moral views, I am inclined to find a theory that explains the common connection between moral judgments and moral motivation for the realist. I think the best option for the realist is to deny the Humean theory of motivation — that there cannot be motivation without desire — and maintain that moral beliefs are by definition action guiding, such that, having a moral belief just is sufficiently motivating.

      This is related to what I understand is your objection to realism: that our moral ideals are a product of evolution in that they are the result of instincts for self-preservation. This is an increasingly popular objection to moral realism. But I see it only as a critique of human nature. If we only act in accord with our biologically ingrained instincts for self preservation, then whenever we act morally it is for self preservation. That argument goes through, but that only shows that humans are for the most part immoral, and that we only act morally when it serves our interests. Moral realism holds that there is a set of moral propositions that are true of certain actions, regardless of whether we know about them. The evolutionary instinct view is not incompatible with moral realism, it only suggests that we act in accord with the independently existing moral system when it is to our benefit.

      Have I misinterpreted your argument for evolutionary instincts? Thanks again for your comments!

      • #3 by SelfAwarePatterns on December 10, 2013 - 10:06 am

        Thanks. One quick clarification. Our instincts are more than just concerned with our own survival. We’re social animals. Social psychology has shown that we have pro-social instincts as well as instincts to protect our kin. Of course, these instincts can conflict with the self preservation ones, and how we resolve those conflicts often comes down to a combination of which instinct is stronger in us, and societal pressures.

        So, I think most of us have a moral instinct to one degree or another. In other words, morality isn’t a whim for us. I definitely think that is real and so, in that sense, I’m a realist. However, the instinct varies from person to person and so societal norms end up being something of a compromise between all of us for a common morality that we can all live with (in a democracy at least).

        Working out those shared norms are where I see the value in moral reasoning. But I think we ultimately judge the results of moral reasoning by the instincts in us that are stronger, with some of us reaching different conclusions due to our varied instinct makeup. (I’ll admit to being a full Humean on this.)

        But where this puts me in the meta-ethical framework continues to puzzle me. I see emotion playing a foundational role, but a lot of value in logical reasoning, and I certainly don’t see morality as a set of whimsical preferences.

      • #4 by ausomeawestin on December 10, 2013 - 7:51 pm

        Interesting points. My question for you is: what do you think is happening when we state a moral proposition? Are we expressing the overriding evolutionary instinct of the situation, such that all morality can be reduced without remainder to the finalized set of evolutionary instincts at time t (given that evolution makes time relevant to definitions)? I think this is what you have in mind, but if this is so, and I hope you don’t mind me narrowing down your meta-ethical position, then you are not a moral realist. Your view entails that if humans had evolved differently then our instincts might be different, and thus that morality might be drastically different from how it is now. The moral realist cannot allow this, she maintains that there is a necessary supervenience relation between moral properties and non-moral properties, and thus, could not have been otherwise.

        So do you think our instincts constitute morality entirely, or do our instincts motivate us to act in accord with moral values that would exist as they are even if we did not have those instincts?

      • #5 by SelfAwarePatterns on December 10, 2013 - 8:10 pm

        I have to say you nailed it. Yes, I have to admit that I do see our instincts driving our morality, not the other way around. I’m not a moral realist. Thanks for clarifying that!

      • #6 by ausomeawestin on December 10, 2013 - 8:14 pm

        My pleasure, glad we could have this very interesting conversation!

  1. Moral Twin Earth pt I (and the open question argument, Cornell realism, and the causal theory of reference) | ausomeawestin
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