The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Nuts and Bolts 005: Ethical Naturalism

G. E. Moore

G. E. Moore

Every now and then (and I’m assuming that this is true of most people who specialise in subject areas), I feel the urge to raise a complaint or point of clarification about a common phenomenon in a field of study (in this case, meta-ethics), and to explain why I think that something should be explained differently from the way that a lot of people explain it, or why I think that a widely held assumption or belief on the part of those who work in that field isn’t quite right. However, I’m also aware that sometimes that complaint needs some context or it won’t make a great deal of sense to a lot of people.

It’s a bit like standing in the room with a chemist who is intently focused on an experiment that he is undertaking while he also follows someone else’s notes. About two hours into the experiment he throws up his hands and says “Oh for the love of Pete, why did he have to use sodium monohydrogen phosphate? It’s obvious that he should have used sodium dihydrogen phosphate!” As an observer, you wouldn’t really know what either of those chemical compounds were, or why a chemist should use one rather than the other. In order to make the comment in a way that is helpful to the observer, the chemist would need to say “Look, this is the experiement I’m conducting. Here is what I’m trying to figure out. This is the method the other guy followed. He used sodium dihydrogen phosphate, and here is the effect of sodium monohydrogen phosphate. See how that effect isn’t going to be what the experiment requires? Now look, I’m going to use sodium dihydrogen phosphate, and look, it does just what we need.”

OK, enough with the analogy already. In some of the work I’m doing on meta-ethics, the moral argument for theism and divine command ethics, I’ve frequently encountered a characterisation of divine commands – one even accepted by some who advocate a divine command theory – which I think is unnecessary and unhelpful, but in order to say why I think it is so I need to first explain the subject matter that is the context of this characterisation. That subject matter is the concept of ethical naturalism.

A lot of readers – especially Christian readers – are familiar with one specific use of the word “naturalism.” This usage of the word is in reference to philosophical or metaphysical naturalism. In that usage, the word naturalism refers to the belief that nature, or more specifically the material universe (this is how the word “nature” is being used) is the only thing that exists. There is no God, no angels or demons, no platonic forms, nothing at all that is not entirely physical. Obviously nobody who is a Christian can embrace naturalism in this sense. As a side comment, it’s pretty unhelpful to call that view “philosophical” naturalism, as the other major variety of naturalism I’m about to discuss is (obviously) within philosophy as well. For that reason I will only refer to the above view as metaphysical naturalism.

However, this is not the only use of the word “naturalism” in philosophy. The term also pops up in meta-ethics. Meta-ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with moral foundations, rather than moral issues. Instead of asking if, say, abortion is ethical in any circumstances, whether genetic modification is morally dubious or not, or whether there are any people who really deserve to be executed, it takes a step back and looks at the more fundamental question of what it is that makes any action right or wrong. It asks what moral terms mean, and even whether or not it’s true at all that the categories of “right” and “wrong” really exist at all. Within meta-ethics, there is a great divide between realism and anti-realism. Anti-realists believe that there are no factually correct moral claims. Maybe all such claims are not really fact claims at all, but just expressions of emotion or will. Or perhaps all such claims really are fact orientated statements, but they’re all false. In any case, anti-realists claim, there certainly aren’t any factually true moral claims. Moral (or ethical, those terms mean the same thing) realists believe that there are at least some factually correct moral claims.

OK, we’re narrowing down the field here. Most people believe that there are some true moral statements (e.g. it’s wrong to torture and rape children). These people are moral realists. Among those who are moral realists, there are two general sorts of moral realism: naturalism and non-naturalism. Phew! OK, now I’ve set the stage sufficiently to get into the subject of this “nuts and bolts” blog: the difference between ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism.

Firstly, what’s non-naturalism? I think that the famous early twentieth century ethicist G. E. Moore will always be regarded as the non-naturalist par excellence. His position was that the quality of moral goodness is incapable of further analysis. It cannot be explained in terms of any more basic quality or fact underlying it. Goodness is goodness, and that is that. Here he is, from chapter one of his best known work, Principia Ethica:

“Good,” then, if we mean by it that quality which we assert to belong to a thing, when we say that the thing is good, is incapable of any definition, in the most important sense of that word. The most important sense of definition is that in which a definition states what are the parts which invariably compose a certain whole; and in this sense good has no definition because it is simple and has no parts. It is one of those innumerable objects of thought which are themselves incapable of definition, because they are the ultimate terms of reference to which whatever is capable of definition must be defined. That there must be an indefinite number of such terms is obvious, on reflection; since we cannot define anything except by an analysis, which, when carried as far as it will go, refers us to something, which is simply different from anything else, and which by that ultimate difference explains the peculiarity of the whole which we are defining: for every whole contains some parts which are common to other wholes also. There is, therefore, no intrinsic difficulty in the contention that good denotes a simple and indefinable quality. There are many other instances of such qualities.

There are no brute facts that constitute some thing’s being good other than the simple fact of goodness, and goodness cannot be thought of as consisting in an intersection of other facts that give rise to moral goodness, nor can an action’s goodness be thought of as the effect of any cause that is a brute fact in the world. Moral goodness is just moral goodness, and that is all there is to it. That, in essence, is what moral non-naturalism is.

In a context where we are familiar with disputes between philosophers of religion on the one hand and so-called “angry atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on the other, it’s tempting to think of “non-natural” as meaning “supernatural” or “unscientific.” This is a very narrow understanding of that term. In meta-ethics the word “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “physical” or “empirical,” even though I have no doubt that some in the field prefer to use it that way. In meta-ethics, I think the term “natural” is best understood to mean some brute fact of the universe in terms of which a moral fact can be said to subsist. If there is an answer to the question “what set of circumstances makes this act morally right,” and that set of circumstances is not reducible to “because it has the quality of moral goodness or rightness,” then we are talking like ethical naturalists. Thomas Baldwin helpfully explained this wider understanding of “natural” in his introduction to Moore’s masterwork:

[F]or a property to be natural is for it to be causal, that is, to be such that its presence, in suitable conditions, brings about certain effects.

Thomas Baldwin, editor’s introduction to G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, revised ed.), xxii.

The divide between ethical naturalists and naturalists then is over whether or not “good” (or “right,” or purely moral terms in general) are basic or not. When you are engaged in spelling out the rightness of an action, do you stop at the point where you say “it has the quality of being right” (as a non-naturalist would), or do you keep going, saying “and it has this quality because….” or “and it has this quality by virtue of the fact that…” or “and when I say that it is right, what I mean in other words is…”. If it’s any of the latter options, then you’re an ethical naturalist. Once you realise this, you’ll see that most realists – most people who think that there are some true moral statements – are in fact ethical naturalists.

Not all descriptions of ethical naturalism agree with what I have said here. According to the account offered by Philip Stratton-Lake and Brad Hooker, “a non-natural property is one that cannot be known by empirical means, and so is not an appropriate object of study by the empirical sciences” [“Scanlon versus Moore on Goodness” in Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons (ed.), Metaethics after Moore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 150]. They do grant, however, that the idea of a “natural” property is by no means straightforward, and that not even Moore was all that clear. I say that the continuum between strictly “scientific” considerations and extra-scientific considerations is not at all one with clear and simple points of demarcation. Chemistry, yes, that’s science, as is geology. What about psychology? If that is, then what about philosophy of mind derived from psychology and neuroscience? What about philosophy of science? It is far more elegant and easy to make the demarcation point one of whether or not a property can be analysed. If, once we have called that property goodness, it can be further analysed, then we are naturalists, and if it cannot then we are non-naturalists.

Perhaps a simpler way to put it is this: If you think that moral goodness is constituted or identical with (or caused by) other facts, then you’re an ethical naturalist. If however you believe in a free-standing property of moral goodness, then you’re an ethical non-naturalist.

OK, that’s the nuts and bolts segment done. Once you’ve well and truly digested all of the above, you’re ready for my complaint, which I’ll save for the next post. Because my complaint will presuppose that the reader does fully understand all of the above, I welcome any questions or comments. I’ll make my next post in a day or so.

Glenn Peoples


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  1. Anon

    So, if I believe that God gave us rights and wrongs, which category do I fall under? Would I be naturalist because I believe there is a cause for something to be considered good (e.g.: God)?

  2. Anon, that’s what the complaint is about. Some say that that’s a non-naturalist position. I don’t see it that way. I think it’s a kind of ethical naturalism, depending on how God gave us right and wrong. Stay tuned. 🙂

  3. “According to the account offered by Philip Stratton-Lake and Brad Hooker, “a non-natural property is one that cannot be known by empirical means, and so is not an appropriate object of study by the empirical sciences””

    This account of ethical naturalism. I think spells out the issues with the moral argument quite nicely. If non-naturalism is true then there are non natural ( in the metaphysical naturalist sense) properties that cannot be empirically proven but which we are aware of. That would I think create real problems for some of the standard objections to theism.

    Metaphysical naturalism if it is to be realist would have to wed itself to naturalism in the sense these authors suggest.

    I also think that if one adopts a non naturalist (in the sense these authors mean) account and grants that such non natural entites exist its hard to see why divine commands do not provide a better account of ethics than some other entity like say Platonic forms. Because, God if he exists probably explains significantly more phenomena than a “non natural property” does and nearly all the objections people raise to the existence of God, apparent lack of empirical proof, ockhams razor etc would apply to non natural facts as well.

  4. I wonder if some of the problem with terms is that “metaphysical naturalism” (which seems to me to be synonymous with “materialism”) deals with explanations of the physical, at least initially. But in the physical world we have things are material: that are objects, or at least clearly measurable. And laws define the relationship between these qualities.

    But morality probably sits within the domain of information, or possibly adjacent to it, and information is distinct from the material. Laws of information are poorly understood by many and inconsistently defined. And they are not analogous to physical laws. There is no equivalent 1st law of motion for information.

    As I see it, metaphysicists wish to discuss concepts like morality as if this lies within the domain of the material. But even if information is natural (in the broad sense of the term), it is not material. Until it is understood that morality lies outside the domain of the material, the debate is going to be confused or nonsensical.

    I think we need distinct terms, the use of similar terms in the material and information sets is unhelpful.

  5. “As I see it, metaphysicists wish to discuss concepts like morality as if this lies within the domain of the material.”

    Well, obviously ethical non-naturalists don’t. Besides, those who say that they embrace ethical naturalism aren’t saying that they think morality is a physical thing. All they mean is that morality reduces to – or can be defined in terms of – or might be caused by – facts that aren’t moral. They certainly don’t have to deny that morality is “information” (whatever that might mean).

  6. I’m quite curious about the way you’re treating metaphysical naturalism here. Not in rejecting it, but in equating it with materialism. On such a definition, someone like Russell or Quine wouldn’t qualify as a naturalist.

    What’s wrong with a naturalist accepting the existence of abstract objects which don’t affect the natural world causally? For instance:

  7. Daniel, that’s true. One could take the name “naturalist” and yet believe in abstract objects. As Keith notes (in the thesis you linked), not everyone thinks that this is a plausible use of that term (e.g. lacey or Danto). Keith hemself (also in that thesis) called a naturalism that allowed of abstract entites “a weaker definition of naturalism,” and I would agree, hence my choice – as you note – not to use the term that way.

    But yes, in fairness it can be noted that some who call their position “naturalism” do allow for abstract entities. It’s not the hardcore kind of naturalism that I had in mind when I referred to metaphysical naturalism in this blog entry.

  8. Daniel

    I wonder what sense can be made out of calling Theism supernatural and Platonic abstract objects natural.

    Abstract objects if they exist are eternal, non temporal, non spatial and exist necessarily. These are precisely the properties that make God a supernatural being. It seems odd to me that someone would call a person who has these properties supernatural and then claim that a being that has these properties natural. That suggests that what makes God supernatural and contrary to a naturalist ontology is that he is a person!!!!

  9. Matt,

    The point doesn’t seem to be that abstract objects would be natural. Rather, a naturalist might say that nature is a closed system, such that whatever affects the natural world must also be a part of it. If God exists, this thesis is false. Therefore, theism and naturalism are incompatible. On the other hand, abstract objects could be quite compatible with both.

    I also wonder about the sense in which God is taken to exist necessarily. It seems to me perfectly possible to deny the existence of God in a way which would not be possible with the laws of logic. In other words, “God does not exist” is not problematic in the sense that “P and not-P” is.

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