Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Terminology Tuesday: Ethical Naturalism

Ethical Naturalism: is a reductionist view that holds that ethical terms (goodness, worth  and right) can be defined by or reduced to natural, scientific properties that are biological, psychological, sociological or physical in nature. For example, according to ethical naturalism the term right in "X is right" means one of the following: "What is approved by most people"; "What most people desire"; "What is approved by an impartial, ideal observer"; "What maximizes desire or interest"; "What furthers human survival." The important point here is that these moral terms and moral properties are not irreducibly moral in nature. Moral properties (e.g., worth, goodness or rightness) turn out to be properties that are biological or psychological.

Furthermore, according to ethical naturalism, these properties can be measured by science by giving them operational definitions. Consider an example. Suppose "X is right" means "X is what most people desire," and one goes on to argue that the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain is what most people desire. A scientist could measure the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain by defining such a state in physiological terms -- the presence of a certain heart rate, the absence of certain impulses in the nervous system, slight coloration of the skin. "Rightness" means what is desired by most people; what is desired by most people is the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain; and pleasure and pain can be defined by certain physical traits of the body. Thus the moral property of rightness has been reduced to a natural property that can be measured.

Two major objections can be raised against ethical naturalism both based on its moral reductionism. First, it confuses an is with an ought by reducing the latter to the former. Moral properties are normative properties. They carry with them a moral "ought." If some act has the property of rightness, then one ought to do that act. But natural properties like the ones listed do not carry normativeness. They just are. Second, every attempted reduction of a moral property to a natural one has failed because there are cases where an act is right even if it does not have the natural property, and an act can have the natural property and not be right. For example, suppose one reduces the moral property of rightness in "X is right" to "X is what is approved by most people." This reduction is inadequate. For one thing, the majority can be wrong. What most people approve of can be morally wrong. If most people approved of torturing babies, then according to this version of ethical naturalism, this act would be right. But even though it was approved by most people, it would still be wrong. On the other hand, some acts can be right even if they are not approved of (or even thought of, for that matter) by most people.1

1. William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 401.


Jonathan West said...

In claiming that there is an is/ought fallacy in ethical naturalism, you are confusing the existence of a moral imperative ("is") with its content. Once you make the distinction, the fallacy disappears.

And as far as the second objection is concerned, you are playing with definitions. If you define a moral imperative in terms of a majority of opinion, then by definition, the majority cannot be wrong. It may be that you are in disagreement with the majority, but that is not at all the same thing.

But on the other hand, if you think the majority can be wrong (as opposed merely to not being in agreement with you), then you have set up a strawman in your original definition solely for the purpose of being able to knock it over.

John B. Moore said...

Here's my 2 cents, which is almost like a restatement of Jonathan West's comment above:

Ethical Naturalism doesn't confuse an "is" with an "ought," but it merely reduces the latter to the former. The people who are confused are those who think "is" and "ought" are different categories.

Also, it's a strawman to focus on the idea that "X is what is approved by most people." You should just zero in on the idea that the good is "What furthers human survival."

Unknown said...

It's not clear what Jonathan West means in his first paragraph. And since his comment was made over three years ago, I doubt we're going to find out now.

Regarding John Moore,

Simply asserting that it's a confusing to think "is" is different than "ought" is absurd. Compare: "The black man is being hanged by the KKK" vs. "The black man ought to be hanged by the KKK."

According to you, John Moore, what's the difference between those two statements? You're saying WE are the ones confused?

Ex N1hilo said...

Maybe culling the herd of humanity, performing euthanasia on the old, the sick, the feeble-minded and the ugly, will further human survival. Some people think so. Perhaps this makes wars a good thing. But wars are messy. Maybe we should just have killing stations that do it as quickly and painlessly as possible. Those who have been identified as least fit and least desirable need not suffer. That much.

But who really knows what will further human survival? You'd have to be able to see the future to know that.

And why is human survival considered good? Why isn't human eradication better? Give the other species a chance to fight it out for supremacy. Maybe man has ruled long enough.

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