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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 January 2020
Why are traditional ‘objectivist’ theories of morality, such as those put forward by Aristotle, or Kant, or even Bentham, commonly thought not to pass ‘scientific muster’ insofar as they are not ‘naturalist’? My interest in this question is based on my being a moral objectivist, but answering this question is one that moral skeptics should be as interested in as I. The view that the commitments of science preclude us from accepting such theories is the basis of the moral skeptic's position. Yet showing what is wrong with a moral objectivist position is surprisingly difficult. It involves reflecting on what ‘scientific muster’ is supposed to be, and on why a theory is commonly thought to be disreputable unless it passes it. It also involves locating the ‘queer’ element in objectivist moral theory that makes it scientifically disreputable. Yet, as I hope to show in this article, there is no commonly accepted statement of what makes a theory scientifically acceptable or unacceptable, and (perhaps even more surprisingly) no rigorous account of what the queer component of objectivist moral theory is that makes any such theory scientifically unacceptable.
1 Harman, Gilbert “Is There a Single True Morality?” in Copp, David and Zimmerman, David eds., Morality, Reason and Truth (Totowa, NJ: Roman and Allanheld, 1985) 29Google Scholar
2 Railton, Peter “Naturalism and Prescriptivity,” Social Philosophy and Policy 7, no. 1, 155-7Google Scholar
3 Ibid., 156
4 See, for example, John Stuart Mill, System of Logic, especially book 3. Mill's position met with powerful counter-arguments from Frege, GottlobThe Foundations of Arithmetic. (See the edition translated by Austin, J.L. [Oxford: Blackwell, 1974], esp. 12–14.)Google Scholar
5 The phrase ‘allowed by’ here is ambiguous: naturalists could make it precise in a number of ways. At one extreme, they could argue that it means merely ‘consistent with,’ which would yield a very broad conception of the natural; at the other extreme, they could argue that it means ‘explicable in terms of,’ which would yield a very narrow conception of the natural.
6 I am following Harman in wishing to include moral nihilism among the possible naturalist positions in ethics. See Harman, “Is There a Single True Morality?“ loe. cit. Contrast Nicholas Sturgeon's use of the term, which would recognize only those positions that believe reduction or analysis of moral terms into scientifically acceptable statements count as naturalist theories. See Sturgeon, “Moral Explanations,” in Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey ed., Essays on Moral Realism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1988) 229-55Google Scholar.
7 Railton, op. cit., 159
8 See McDowell, John “Values and Secondary Qualities,” in Sayre-McCord, G. ed., Essays on Moral Realism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1988) 166-80.Google Scholar
9 Mackie, JohnEthics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1977) 38–42Google Scholar
10 Ibid., 39
11 See, for example, Matthen, Mohan and Levy, Edwin “Teleology, Error and the Human Immune System,” Journal of Philosophy 81, no. 7 (1984) 351-72CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Salmon, Wesley on teleological explanation in “Four Decades of Scientific Explanation,” in Kitcher, Philip and Salmon, Wesley eds., Scientific Explanation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1989) 26–32Google Scholar.
12 See Dennett, Daniel “Why the Law of Effect Will Not Go Away,” in Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (Montgomery, VT: Bradford 1978) 73Google Scholar.
13 Putnam uses the phrase” entanglement of fact and value” in a number of places. See for instance his “The Absolute Conception of the World” in Renewing Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1992).
14 See Williams, B.Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1985), e.g., chs. 7 and 8Google Scholar.
15 See McDowell, John “Are Moral Imperatives Hypothetical?” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 52 (1978) suppl. vol.Google Scholar; and “Virtue and Reason,” Monist 62 (1979). And see Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, esp. 141-2Google Scholar; Putnam, Hilary “The Absolute Conception of the World,” op. cit., and Murdoch, IrisThe Sovereignty of Good (New York: Schocken 1975)Google Scholar.
16 See Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, 141-2Google Scholar, “An insightful observer can indeed come to understand and anticipate the use of the concept without actually sharing the values of the people who use it…. But in imaginatively anticipating the use of the concept, the observer also has to grasp imaginatively its evaluative point. He cannot stand quite outside the evaluative interests of the community he is observing, and pick up the concept simply as a device for dividing up in a rather strange way certain neutral features of the world” (141- 2). Williams cites a number of discussions that trace the Wittgensteinian aspects of this claim. See 217-8, n.7.
17 See Harman's, The Nature of Morality (New York: Oxford 1977)Google Scholar, especially chapter 1, and his “Moral Explanations of Natural Facts - Can Moral Claims be Tested Against Morality?” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 24 (1986) supplement.
19 Ibid., 9.
20 Ibid., 4.
21 Ibid., 10.
23 Sturgeon, “Moral Explanations“
24 Ibid. Discussed by Harman in “Moral Explanations of Natural Facts - Can Moral Claims Be Tested Against Morality?” 61-64. And see Sturgeon's, ‘Harman on Moral Explanations of Natural Facts,’ commenting on this Harman article, in The Southern Journal of Philosophy 24 (1986) supplementCrossRefGoogle Scholar.
25 See Harman, “Moral Explanations,” 66Google Scholar. And see his The Nature of Morality, 8: “there does not seem to be any way in which the actual rightness or wrongness of a given situation can have any effect on your perceptual apparatus.“
26 See Ramsey, Frank Plumton “There is Nothing to Discuss” Epilogue in Braithwaite, R.B. ed. Foundations of Mathematics (New York: Harcourt-Brace 1931) 291-2Google Scholar; this passage and other parts of this work are quoted by Putnam, Hilary in “Beyond the Fact/Value Dichotomy” in Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1990) 135-6Google Scholar.
27 See Brink, 210; and Sturgeon.
29 Nominalists may use this term, meaning the opposite of abstract. But nominalism and the physicalist ideas that underlie contemporary naturalism are not the same. Believers in universals can consistently deny or affirm that all properties or objects that exist are ‘natural'; and nominalists may equally deny or affirm that all properties or objects that exist are ‘natural.’ See Crane, Tim and Mellor, D.H. “There is No Question of Physicalism,” Mind 99 (April 1990) 185CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a discussion of nominalism, see Hartry Field, Science Without Numbers, chapter 1. And see Quine, W.V.Word and Object (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1960) ch. 7.Google Scholar
30 See Moore, G.E.Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1903) chapters 1, 2, 4Google Scholar; and David Brink, op. cit., 22. And consider the following remark by Quine with respect to the word ‘real': “It was a lexicographer, Dr. Johnson, who demonstrated the reality of a stone by kicking it; and to begin with, at least, we have little better to go on than Johnsonian usage” (Word and Object, 3).
31 It may be that some of those who adopt the first definition are implicitly doing so because they have a substantive conception of what counts as natural, and insofar as they assume that scientific theories will always describe what is natural in this sense, they take it that these theories are a reliable guide to what actually exists.
34 Putnam, “Objectivity and the Science/Ethics Distinction,” in Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990) 170Google Scholar
36 Quine, From A Logical Point of View, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1980) 1–19Google Scholar
38 Hilary Putnam has often remarked on the oddity of Quine's reliance on a standard in the course of arguing that there are facts but not values. For example, see Putnam, “Beyond the Fact/Value Dichotomy.“
40 Ibid., 19
41 See Quine's, “Things and Their Place in Theories” in Theories and Things (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1981) 17–18Google Scholar.
42 Ibid., 20
43 Ibid., 20
44 See Wesley Salmon, op. cit. For my own purposes I try developing it in chapters 2 and 3 of Hampton, A Theory of Reasons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming)Google Scholar.
45 See Russell, Bertrand “On the Notion of Cause” in Mysticism and Logic (Garden City, NY: Doubleday 1957)Google Scholar.
47 Walsh, Vivian “Philosophy and Economics” in Eatwell, J.Milgate, M. and Newman, P. eds. The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, vol. 3 (London: Macmillan, and New York: Stockton 1987)Google Scholar quoted by Putnam, “Objectivity and the Science/Ethics Distinction,” 164.
49 See Williams, BernardEthics and the Limits of Philosophy, 138-40Google Scholar; discussed by Putnam, in “The Absolute Conception of the World” and “Objectivity and the Science/Ethics Distinction.“
50 Putnam argues against Williams by attacking the metaphysical realism inherent in the view. But the quarrel between metaphysical realists and (what Putnam calls) ‘internal’ realists (or idealists, broadly understood) is irrelevant to the debate about the relationship between science and ethics. One can be an internal realist, or an idealist, and still deny that there are ethical truths (imagine a Kantian who disavows the Second Critique), or one can be an internal realist and accept such truths. Defending a certain metaphysics does not by itself save the idea that there can be ethical truths if there is something about the world - understood either in a realist, or an idealist way - that disqualifies ethical statements from being true or false.
53 This article is, in a way, an introduction to my own attempt to articulate what, from a scientific point of view, is ‘wrong’ with objectivist moral theories. See Hampton, A Theory of Reasons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming)Google Scholar. Now I am a moral objectivist, and moral skeptics may be dubious about the attempts of an objectivist to explain what is unnatural about objectivist moral theory. However, my aim in this book is to agree with them that objectivist moral theories contain occult, nonnatural elements, but I go on to show that the same occult, nonnatural elements occur, and must occur, in scientific theories. My thanks go to Richard Healey, James Bogen, Ernan McMullin, and the graduate students in my seminars at the University of Arizona for discussion of the ideas in this article. I am also very grateful to the Pew Charitable Trusts, for their grant support (through their Evangelical Scholars Program) during much of the time this article was written.
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