Among non-natural moral realists there is a fascinating debate over whether basic moral properties, such as the properties of ‘goodness’ and ‘rightness’, are simple or complex properties. It is a fruitful debate to have, particularly because it seems many objections to non-naturalism have been against non-naturalist views that posit that ‘good’ is a simple property, such that these objections do not apply to a non-naturalism that takes ‘good’ to be a complex property. I myself initially dismissed non-naturalism altogether because of the metaphysical strangeness of simple non-natural properties – it seemed to make supervenience relations between moral and non-moral properties arbitrary rather than necessary. Recently Philip Stratton-Lake has argued that understanding ‘goodness’ as a complex property provides a more nuanced and attractive way of understanding objectivity in ethics. I want to go over Stratton-Lake’s points, and why they suggest a virtue of non-naturalism over naturalism.
Simple and Complex Properties
G.E. Moore infamously argued that ‘good’ must be a simple non-natural property because it could not be defined by naturalistic reduction, such that it is a non-natural term, but it still carries meaning despite being indefinable, such that it is a simple property. Anti-realists, notably J.L. Mackie, decried Moore’s conclusion and charged that ‘good’ being a simple property is at ends with ‘good’ being something we desire to pursue. For them, the idea of ‘good’ as a simple property does not explain why we pursue the ‘good’. Unfortunately, because Moore and Ross rejected the possibility that ‘good’ was a complex non-natural property, the anti-realists concluded that because ‘good’ is not a simple non-natural property, ‘good’ is not a non-natural property at all – refuting non-naturalism.
Contemporary non-naturalists are making the case for ‘good’ being a complex property, with Stratton-Lake and McNaughton arguing that Moore did not go far enough in his conclusions from his “open question argument”. To them, not only does the open question argument show that ‘good’ is not reducible to a natural property, it shows that no natural property is normative, such that ‘good’ is an essentially normative property, and the way to understand its normativity is by understanding ‘good’ as a complex property. Stratton-Lake writes, “questions such as ‘This is N, but is it good?’ have an open feel. They have an open feel because when we decide that something is good, we conclude that we have reason to adopt some pro-attitude towards it, but in judging simply that it has some natural property, we have not yet formed a conclusion as to whether we have reason to adopt such an attitude towards it” (Ethical Intuitionism, page 8). That ‘good’ entails that we see a reason to adopt a pro-attitude towards the act suggests that ‘good’ is a complex property, in that ‘good’ is a “property of having properties that give us reason to respond in certain positive ways” (Ethical Intuitionism, page 15).
Objective Realism: Non-Naturalism vs. Naturalism
Stratton-Lake makes the brilliant point that taking ‘good’ as a complex property has the added benefit of morality being objective while allowing that moral properties are dependent on the psychological states of human beings. He posits that, “on this view, goodness cannot be objective in the sense that it is utterly mind-independent, for this property cannot be understood without reference to certain psychological states (the pro-attitudes we have reason to adopt). It is, however, objective in the important sense that it is independent of how we as individuals happen to think or feel, and is thus there to be discovered” (Ethical Intuitionism, pages 12-13). Thus, that ‘good’ is a complex non-natural property explains how we can be motivated to pursue the ‘good’ while it still being the case that there are objective truths about what actions are morally right that are not determined by subjective whims or cultural practices.
Understanding ‘good’ in this way allows the non-naturalist to avoid a classic anti-realist argument, but it also suggests, to me, a virtue of non-naturalism over naturalism. In metaethics, the naturalism/non-naturalism dichotomy is a product of the fact/value dichotomy, in the sense that evaluative propositions do not fit into our naturalistic (read: scientific) picture of the world. What this means though, is that naturalists cannot take ‘goodness’ as the complexly normative property that the non-naturalist does. As such, they cannot take advantage of the nuanced way of understanding objectivity that Stratton-Lake argues for. Moreover, they must fend off another version of the anti-realist’s argument: if ‘good’ is a natural property, or reducible to a set of natural properties, and natural properties carry no normative value, then how do we explain the ‘to-be-pursuedness’ built into ‘good’?