In Defense of Ethical Naturalism

By | March 6, 2010

An email correspondent, call him “Sam”, argued against ethical naturalism as follows:

Naturalistic Ethical philosophy can advance conditional imperatives, but I don’t see how it could sanction a categorical imperative. Ethical Naturalists (“EN” for short) can say, “Be compassionate, because in the long run you’ll be happier,” but they cannot say “Be compassionate, period.” So ENs cannot sanction compassion in every circumstance, but only in those circumstances where the expected advantage has a realistic chance of occurring.

Many moral acts are sanctioned by law (laws against fraud). But is there anything which obligates us to obey law? Maybe the desire to be a good, honest citizen? But what do we say about situations where the desire for some other good (security, wealth, power) is stronger than the desire to be a good citizen? What, if anything, obligates our obedience to the law in those situations?

ENs (ethical naturalists) may have many reasons for wanting to seem virtuous always and everywhere, regardless of the circumstances. But do they have any reason that obligates them to be virtuous always and everywhere, regardless of the circumstances? If they do, it’s a reason that cannot easily fit within their metaphysical framework.

Suppose that the naturalist has had some kind of intuition or intellectual insight telling him that virtue or a good will is an absolute good. He may then continue believing that he’s a naturalist, but in actuality he is no longer a naturalist. For he has presumed an absolute, and in nature there are no absolutes.

I propose a rejoinder to Sam’s claims about the limits of “naturalism.”

First, I have some doubt about his example of “sanctioning compassion”:
Can anyone or anything sanction compassion? Can we demand or obligate people to be compassionate? Isn’t compassion something you feel for others, more an aspect of your character or personality than a response to an external sanction? There is the possibility of training or educating people so that they eventually come to feel compassion for others; but genuine compassion is not something you can impose on people. At best, you might be able to sanction behavior which approximates compassionate behavior; and maybe that’s good enough.

Now, to the substance of Sam’s case:

According to Sam, naturalism lacks any grounds for issuance of categorical imperatives. It cannot impose unconditional obligations to act virtuously, but only conditional imperatives to act virtuously when doing so will result in desirable consequences.

“Naturalists may have many reasons for wanting to seem virtuous always and everywhere, regardless of the circumstances. But I don’t think they have any reason that obligates them to be virtuous always and everywhere, regardless of the circumstances. Or, if they do, it’s a reason that cannot easily fit within their metaphysical framework”
This is because, “in nature there are no absolutes.”

In short, according to Sam, moral absolutes are not available to naturalists, as naturalists. They could not justify the goal of trying to be virtuous under all circumstances.

Let’s take an example: the act of torturing babies. Naturalists could never justifiably hold that such an act is wrong in all circumstances. That would involve an absolutist sanction, which naturalist cannot support. Hence, any naturalist who holds that torturing babies is always a moral wrong is hiding some non-naturalistic principles in his closet.

I have serious doubts about this line of argument. It seems that Sam equates ‘naturalism’ with a type of consequentialist ethics which requires that all moral values be justified in terms of consequences, which will vary so much that no moral rule (such as that forbidding the torture of babies) could be unconditional. (This is a common tactic used by supernaturalists against secular moralists.)

There are a number of replies to this, of which I give two:

(1) A Utilitarian could argue for a rule utilitarianism which asserts nearly unconditional rules (for all real-world circumstances) as ultimately justified in terms of the well-being of society. It’s very hard to imagine circumstances in which the torture of infants would be admissible. The fact that you don’t get a metaphysical absolute becomes largely irrelevant on a moral plain, although it might be interesting to those prone to engage in metaphysical speculation.

(2) By nature (evolution of the tribe, kinship, parental instincts and feelings), cultural development, training, education, experience and such] — individuals come to acquire strong feelings of compassion for other human beings, especially helpless, innocent infant. These strong feelings and concerns —along with practical, rational, social considerations— lead to strong, unassailable rules against the torture of babies. It is hard (practically impossible) to imagine circumstance in which we would over-ride such moral rules against the torture of innocents. This “quasi-absoluteness” of moral rule is good enough. The philosophical observation that metaphysical absoluteness is not obtainable becomes mostly academic and irrelevant. In other words, the viability of the secular, naturalistic ethical philosophy is not much affected by the metaphysical qualms that some ‘philosophers’ might feel.

Final note: The advocate of moral transcends imagines that he possesses those absolutes which allows for genuine categorical imperatives. But these ‘absolutes’ ultimately turn out to be very human in origin, based (as they are for naturalists) on experience, conditioning, and specific, human theological interpretations of codes attributed to supernatural authority, but which can be traced to some human or group of humans. Ultimately, the ‘absolutes’ of the religious authoritarian are in the same category with the ‘absolutes’ of any human-based morality.

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