Ethical (super)naturalism

Recently I posted a blog entry on the difference between ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism (explaining that the former of which is not the same thing as metaphysical naturalism). I also indicated there that not everyone shares the same understanding of what “naturalism” really refers to, and I explained what I think. In brief, I think the most helpful way to distinguish between ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism is as follows: In non-naturalism, moral “goodness” is a basic quality, not constituted by anything other than itself, not defined in terms of any non-moral facts, and not caused by any descriptive state of affairs. If any of these conditions (or anything relevantly like them) are met, then the view in question is a species of ethical naturalism. Yet another way of putting this is to say that ethical non-naturalism affirms the existence of sui generis, irreducible, brute moral facts. Stated differently yet again, according to ethical naturalism, the true claim “X is morally wrong” has a truthmaking set of true statements that do not use moral terms like “wrong” or “right.”

I entertain a divine command theory of ethics, and I think that one of a couple of versions of the theory (or anything that is similar to these versions) is the most plausible version. According to those versions, either: a) God’s willing or commanding that we do or not do an action causes that action to be morally right or morally wrong, or b) The property of being morally right or morally wrong just is (i.e. is identical with) the property of being morally right or morally wrong.

I don’t dogmatise about this. I admit that I’m really not sure how I would go about showing anyone that a divine command theory is true. However, given the metaphysical beliefs I have about God and God’s relation to creation, a divine command theory of ethics has the advantage of (as far as I can tell) total compatibility with everything else I believe. I admit, however, that some variety of a natural law theory of ethics might be correct (carefully construed in such a way that the will of God plays a fundamental role). But for now I’m only talking about divine command ethics. One of the reasons I initially found myself so drawn to a divine command theory of ethics is that attacks on it are unusual phenomena: otherwise very capable philosophers seem to stumble over divine command ethics, imagining that they can dismiss it with a careless wave of the hand. Negative assessments of divine command ethics, as I have said elsewhere (and here too), are surprisingly poor pieces of work and have received more than adequate rebuttals in the literature, in spite of the fact that they continue to appear and the old arguments are presented yet again in some sort of communist retrial.

I think that right and wrong actions exist only because of the will of God, and I consider myself an ethical naturalist. If this use of the word “naturalism” seems a little weird to you, consider another example of how the word “natural” has been used, this time in epistemology. Alvin Plantinga advocates “naturalized epistemology,” but he is no metaphysical naturalist.

In Plantinga’s now well known Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (now so widely referred to that it is abbreviated as EAAN), Plantinga argues that a naturalized epistemology when coupled with metaphysical naturalism, is self defeating. Positively stated, his position is that a naturalized epistemology can only succeed if held in conjunction with metaphysical supernaturalism (specifically, the belief that God or something relevantly like God exists). Without going into too much detail, a naturalized epistemology involves a reliabilist or a proper functionalist account of warrant (Plantinga prefers the latter), as well as externalism. In (very) simple terms, to hold a naturalized epistemology is to think that our belief forming structures, left to themselves, just work provided that set of faculties is working properly in a truth aimed way in an environment to which they are properly suited (you’ll detect overtones of Plantinga in my description). You can, if this outlook is true, just take the world as you find it and expect that you will start to accumulate true beliefs. I won’t unpack Plantinga’s argument that this view of epistemology requires anything like theism, as it’s not really the point here, and I have done so elsewhere. But his position is that epistemic warrant can exist and be thought of as a natural thing in the world (not as an object but as a property of beliefs), even though it is only made possible by certain theological facts.

I contend that this is what moral facts or moral properties are like, even if there are only moral facts because of the commands or will of God. Here’s an illustration: I have a smooth round rock sitting on my desk (not really, but use your imagination). It’s sitting there so that I can use it as a paperweight. If there’s such a property as “being here so that Glenn can use it as a paperweight,” then this rock has it. It’s a fact about something in the world, and it’s not a basic, irreducible sui generis fact either. That’s what the rock is for, because it’s my rock, that’s the reason I obtained it, and that’s what I want to use it for. I could decide that I want to use it for something else and place it on the floor as a door stop. Then the rock would be a door stop. That’s what it would be on the floor for, because that’s what I want to use it for. Is it for bashing people’s skulls in? No, because I do not intend that it be used that way. None of these facts or properties are moral in nature. However, these kinds of natural facts or properties can only exist if there are things like you and me (or a number of other creatures I suppose): beings that can have intentions for rocks.

Suppose for argument’s sake that a divine command theory of ethics is correct, and suppose that God commands or wills (or both) that I not torture children to death for fun. Perhaps I could re-describe the fact that I ought not torture children to death for fun in other ways, but I’ll settle on this: We are not – none of as are – meant for torturing children to death. Just as in Plantinga’s epistemology, a naturalized epistemology works only if metaphysical supernaturalism is true, so I say that ethical naturalism works only if metaphysical supernaturalism is true.

I don’t, therefore, agree with the following way of stating the moral argument for theism, which is a summary of Robert Merrihew Adams’s argument (this is the complaint I alluded to in the nuts and bolts blog on ethical naturalism):

  1. Moral facts exist.
  2. Moral facts have the properties of being objective and non-natural.
  3. The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is provided by theism.
  4. Therefore the existence of moral facts provides good grounds for thinking theism is true.

My version is more like this:

  1. Moral facts exist.
  2. Moral facts have the properties of being objective, natural and normative.
  3. The best explanation of there being objective, natural and normative facts is provided by theism.
  4. Therefore the existence of moral facts provides good grounds for thinking theism is true.

Never mind the claim that non-natural moral facts are evidence for theism. Natural moral facts are evidence for theism. I know, a defence of that claim is more than can be delivered in one blog post (heck, I plan on writing a whole book on it). All I wanted to do here is explain why I think it is fair game to call my view a variety of ethical naturalism.

Glenn Peoples

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3 thoughts on “Ethical (super)naturalism

  1. Glenn you note Adams argument as summarised in the Stanford.

    “1. Moral facts exist.
    2. Moral facts have the properties of being objective and non-natural.
    3. The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is provided by theism.
    4. Therefore the existence of moral facts provides good grounds for thinking theism is true.”

    A potential problem here is that Adams in the article in question is clear that he means natural in a certain sense of the word and is clear to state this he states “non natural in the sense that they cannot be stated entirely in the language of chemistry, physics, biology and human or animal Psychology.” In context then Adams argument is quite clear and unambiguous. He thinks that moral facts are objective and not reducible to chemical, physics, biological or psychological facts, and his argument is that Divine commands are the best candidate of a non natural objective fact which fills the requisite conceptual role.

  2. Matt, I agree that some, like Adams, define the natural / non-natural distinction in terms of (basically) physical vs. non-physical. My position is that they ought not do this.

  3. Always glad to see someone else divide up moral non-naturalism / moral naturalism by whether moral facts are basic or, alternatively, composed of non-moral facts (or identical to facts we know under a non-moral description).

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