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Ethical Naturalism
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Ethical naturalism is narrowly construed as the doctrine that there are moral properties and facts, at least some of which are natural properties and facts. Perhaps owing to its having faced, early on, intuitively forceful objections by eliminativists and non-naturalists, ethical naturalism has only recently become a central player in the debates about the status of moral properties and facts which have occupied philosophers over the last century. It has now become a driving force in those debates, one with sufficient resources to challenge not only eliminativism, especially in its various non-cognitivist forms, but also the most sophisticated versions of non-naturalism. This volume brings together twelve new essays which make it clear that, in light of recent developments in analytic philosophy and the social sciences, there are novel grounds for reassessing the doctrines at stake in these debates.


'Nuccetelli and Seay’s volume contributes to advancing the debates surrounding ethical naturalism in constructive and valuable ways.'

Mauro Rossi Source: Dialectica

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  • Chapter 1 - Naturalism in moral philosophy
    pp 8-23
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    This chapter discusses certain prospects for naturalism in moral philosophy. Naturalism has an ontological or metaphysical aspect in supposing that the world is the natural world, the world that is studied by the natural sciences, the world that is available to methodological naturalism. The chapter first deals with metaphysical issues of the naturalism, having to do with naturalistic reduction in ethics. The most straightforward naturalistic reductive strategy appeals to the supervenience of the moral on the natural facts. The chapter considers three kinds of naturalistic reduction, associated with theories of normative functionalism, response-dependent theories, and social convention theories. It also considers how certain issues in moral psychology look from a naturalistic point of view. Finally, the chapter describes three different topics in moral psychology: linguistics as a guide to moral theory, guilt feelings, and character traits.
  • Chapter 2 - Normativity and reasons: five arguments from Parfit against normative naturalism
    pp 24-57
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    This chapter considers five arguments against naturalism that have recently been proposed by Derek Parfit, and, following Parfit, by David McNaughton and Piers Rawling and Jonathan Dancy. It first explains that the debate between naturalists and non-naturalists is of philosophical interest chiefly because of the important background issue of explaining what it is for a property or fact to be normative. The author's account of the nature of normative moral facts and facts about practical reasons can be generalized to provide an account of all kinds of normative fact. He calls the generalized view pluralist-teleology. Pluralist-teleology is an example of non-analytic normative naturalism. The Normativity Objection seems to be Parfit's chief objection. The goal is to show that no natural fact can be normative in the reason-implying sense. Parfit offers three closely related arguments that turn on the idea of triviality, so this is really a family of arguments.
  • Chapter 3 - Naturalism: feel the width
    pp 58-69
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    This chapter suggests that one can find a version of naturalism broad enough to be plausible to those initially attracted to non-naturalism if he/she uncovers what motivates naturalism and its denial. It describes the normative facts and normative properties. Non-naturalism is the view that normative properties cannot be seen as part of the scientific conception of the world, even in an ecumenical form. Two different pressures lead naturalism and non-naturalism away from one another. On the one hand, the naturalist wishes to anchor normative properties within the scientific conception of the world, and to avoid the attribution of properties which, by definition as non-natural, lie beyond that conception. On the other hand, the non-naturalist, noting the apparently highly significant difference between natural or "descriptive" properties and normative properties, marks that difference by isolating normativity from science.
  • Chapter 4 - On ethical naturalism and the philosophy of language
    pp 70-88
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    This chapter deals with an old problem that lies at the intersection of metaphysics and the philosophy of language. It presents some preliminary comments on ethical naturalism and on the representational view of language. The chapter is concerned with ethical naturalism in its manifestation as a realistically construed version of cognitivism in ethics, where what divides the cognitivist from the expressivist is that the former takes talk of ethical properties seriously. It describes two very different ways to respond to the problem. One sees ethical properties as solutions to something roughly akin to a set of simultaneous equations, a set that captures the way ethical concepts form an interlocking network, a network which is, to some extent, still under negotiation. The other draws on recent work on reference to natural kinds, inspired most especially by Hilary Putnam.
  • Chapter 5 - Metaethical pluralism: how both moral naturalism and moral skepticism may be permissible positions
    pp 89-109
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    This chapter deals with the relation between two metaethical theses: moral naturalism and moral skepticism. Moral naturalism and moral skepticism are certainly not contradictories; they do not exhaust the space of metaethical possibilities. It is usual to think of them as contraries, for surely to embrace one position is to reject the other. The chapter explores the possibility of an irresolvable indeterminacy between moral naturalism and moral skepticism. David Lewis located one potential node of indeterminacy: between moral naturalism and error theoretic moral skepticism. The chapter investigates the potential undecidability of the debate between cognitivism and non-cognitivism. Rudolf Carnap invites open competition with his cognitivist rival. Having discussed Lewis and Carnap, it seems apt to end with the philosopher who best connects them: W. V. Quine. Faced with the nodes of indeterminacy, the author counsels neither sectarianism nor ecumenicalism in particular, but rather what might be called "metaethical ambivalence".
  • Chapter 6 - Moral naturalism and categorical reasons
    pp 110-130
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    This chapter explains moral naturalism from Richard Joyce's contention that any philosopher with broadly naturalist inclinations should reject moral naturalism in favor of the error theory, according to which there are no moral facts at all. Moral naturalism of the sort comprises two claims. The first is that there are moral facts. The second claim is that the Humean theory of reasons is true. According to the Humean theory, nothing is a reason for an agent unless and because she has desires of the appropriate types. Moral naturalists might claim that thinking of some moral reasons as being categorical is not only something one find very natural, but also the best way to acquire moral reasons. A single line of argument would be sufficient to dispose of moral naturalism, expressivism, moral fictionalism, moral subjectivism, and other views, since they all fail to describe a system of moral concepts.
  • Chapter 7 - Does analytical moral naturalism rest on a mistake?
    pp 131-143
  • Susana Nuccetelli and Gary Seay
  • View abstract


    This chapter argues that analytical naturalism of the sort recently proposed by Frank Jackson and Michael Smith does after all rest on a mistake, though perhaps not the one G. E. Moore had in mind when he made the naturalistic fallacy charge. Smith outlines a parallel version of analytical naturalism, in the course of suggesting what is for him the only naturalistic moral realist account of the content of moral belief that can safely dodge the bullet aimed by the open question argument (OQA) against naturalistic moral realism. The chapter explains the analytical naturalist claim that some conceptual equivalences hold between predicates in the moral and non-moral vocabularies. On Smith and Jackson's account, since such equivalences are likely to be unobvious, the theory that countenances them is therefore unaffected by Moore's OQA. On the author's view, the analytical naturalist commits a parallel dialectical mistake.
  • Chapter 8 - Supervenience and the nature of normativity
    pp 144-168
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    Non-naturalism in metanormative theory maintains that normative predicates refer to normative properties, normative properties are utterly irreducible to any of the properties of the natural sciences, and that these properties are at least sometimes instantiated in the actual world. The idea of non-natural normative properties can reasonably seem, as J. L. Mackie famously remarked, "queer". Before elaborating on the queerness of this combination of views, though, it is useful to characterize the relevant supervenience thesis. This chapter deals with an account of the semantics Ralph Wedgwood offers for normative predicates, so as to put his metaphysical views into their proper context. Wedgwood's proposed explanation of Strong Supervenience (SS) is itself problematic, in that it invokes essentialist claims which are just essentialist variants on SS and which stand just as much in need of explanation as SS itself.
  • Chapter 9 - Can normativity be naturalized?
    pp 169-193
  • View abstract


    This chapter explores the possibility of naturalizing the normative. It shows how some of the aims of well-conceived naturalization projects can be achieved: normative properties are in some cases accessible to perception and, even apart from that possibility, may be justifiedly ascribed to actions or other elements on the basis of clearly natural properties. One reason for the philosophical attraction of naturalizing normativity is what one might call the epistemological authority of perception. For philosophical naturalists, perception is often taken to have epistemological sovereignty, in the sense that it is essential for any other kind of knowledge and is the ultimate test of claims to knowledge or justified belief. Naturalization projects occur in all major domains of inquiry: for instance, in ethics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, even theology. Any account of ethical objectivity, something ethical naturalists wish to preserve, should provide a major role for perception.
  • Chapter 10 - Ethical non-naturalism and experimental philosophy
    pp 194-210
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    One thing that the classic non-naturalists wanted to protect was a specific epistemology. The author's concern is what impact, if any, recent work stemming from the psychology and experimental philosophy literatures should have on this debate. Some of this work, especially from epistemology, is hostile to appeals to intuition, and there are parallel empirical findings in ethics that could justify similar hostility to the appeals to intuition prized by the non-naturalists. He argues that empirical findings may be relevant to particular arguments some non-naturalists give, in particular, to the argument of Prichard, Carritt, and Ross that egoism, Kantianism, and consequentialism give the wrong reasons for some moral judgments. There are two potential objections to the wrong-reasons argument when it is given without support from wrong verdicts. Both objections owe something to the empirical literature. Empirical work may, however, discredit a particular sort of argument, the wrong-reasons argument.
  • Chapter 11 - Externalism, motivation, and moral knowledge
    pp 211-225
  • View abstract


    For ethical naturalists of a certain stripe, externalism about moral motivation is an attractive option. Ethical naturalists tend to accept externalism and explain virtuous and moral behavior by the existence of a desire to act morally, or a desire to perform only actions that are morally right. Michael Smith has mounted an important objection to this form of ethical externalism. In responding to this objection, the author shows how non-analytical naturalism must see the connection between moral knowledge and moral motivation in this picture. Smith points out that anyone needs to explain why a rational, moral agent reliably changes his or her motivation in accordance with changes in her moral beliefs. According to him, the externalist explains such reliable changes in the virtuous agent's motivation in accordance with changes in their moral beliefs only in terms of a non-derivative desire to do what is morally right, read de dicto.
  • Chapter 12 - Naturalism, absolutism, relativism
    pp 226-244
  • View abstract


    This chapter clarifies the two views about morality. One of these is the view that basic moral demands apply only to some, not to everyone. Gilbert Harman calls this view as "moral relativism". The alternative to relativism is a view that Harman calls "moral absolutism". Moral absolutism is a version of moral rationalism, the view that basic moral demands are claims about the reasons that people have, where these claims are both necessary and a priori. The existence of moral demands does not require that everyone has sufficient reasons to do or hope or wish for the things that morality demands. Harman's hypothesis is that naturalism tells in favor of moral relativism. He argues that the relativist's conception of rationality or reasonableness is itself more naturalistically respectable than the absolutist's. This chapter presents four lines of reply to the flat-footed response to the Harman's argument.
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