"We all have moral beliefs. We take it to be true, for example, that torture is
wrong, that compassion is a virtue, that there is a right to freedom of expression.
These beliefs are normative or evaluative; they concern what we ought or ought
not to do, or what is valuable or worthy of our choosing, or what we must ensure,
regardless of what we ourselves value. If eating meat is wrong, for example, its
wrongness does not depend on what we enjoy eating or on what we value in life.
Yet its wrongness means that we must avoid eating meat.
There is a puzzle here. For our moral beliefs concern what we ought to do
or what we ought to choose or value, not what we are actually inclined to do or
how we actually act or choose or what we actually value. The question is, what in
the world could make such beliefs be true? There does not seem to be room in the
natural world for facts of the kinds that would need to exist in order to make our
moral beliefs be true. Say that the natural world consists of everything we could
learn about through the senses, including what we can learn of by means of science
as well as what we can learn in less sophisticated ways. Science is very powerful. But
it does not seem to have the power to discover normative facts, facts about how
things ought or ought not to be. It does not seem to have the power to reveal that
torture is wrong or that compassion is a virtue. It does not seem to have the power
to reveal whether eating meat is wrong. Indeed, it would seem misguided to propose
that science could settle whether eating meat is wrong, or that to decide whether
eating meat is wrong, what we need to do is to carry out ever more sophisticated
empirical enquiries. In short, there does not seem to be room for normative facts
in the picture we have of the natural world. If there are normative facts, it seems
they could not be natural facts.
A second puzzle is related to the first one, but it is perhaps more subtle. The
first puzzle is whether a moral fact could be a natural fact. It is the problem of explaining
what could possibly make a moral belief be true. The second puzzle begins
with the idea that our moral beliefs are normative and that a moral fact would be
a normative fact. That is, our moral beliefs have an important characteristic, the
property of being normative. It is because moral beliefs are normative that it seems
impossible that any natural fact could make such a belief be true. A fact that would
make a moral belief be true would itself have to be normative, and the picture we
have of the natural world seems to leave no room for normative facts. But this
leads us to a second puzzle. The question is, what is it for a belief or a fact to be
normative? The first puzzle is, in effect, that it seems impossible for any natural fact
to be normative, so it seems impossible for any natural fact to make a normative
belief be true. The second puzzle is the problem of explaining normativity. If the
normativity of moral beliefs and facts is not a naturalistic feature that they have,
then what kind of feature is it, and what does it consist in?
Despite the intuitive force of these two puzzles, a moral naturalist maintains
that moral facts are natural facts and that their normativity is a natural feature that
they have. Moral naturalism is accordingly an optimistic position. It sees moral truth
and normativity as natural phenomena.
To be clear about just how optimistic moral naturalism is, let me set out the
central doctrines that distinguish it from its competitors. To begin, moral naturalism
is a kind of moral realism, so it must be distinguished from all forms of moral
anti-realism. There are four central doctrines that are shared by moral realists, as
I understand the position, and that distinguish moral realism from anti-realism.
Moral naturalism must also be distinguished of course from anti-naturalistic forms
of moral realism. There is a fifth doctrine that is shared by moral naturalists and
that distinguishes moral naturalism from non-naturalism.
First, a moral realist holds, as I shall say, that there are moral properties.
The actions that are wrong have something in common in virtue of which they are
wrong. They are similar in this respect. What they have in common is of course that
they are all wrong; that is, they all have the property of being wrong. The states of
character that are virtuous have something in common in virtue of which they are
similar; what they have in common is the property of being a virtue. And so on.
That is, there is such a thing as moral wrongness and there is such a thing as the
property of being a moral virtue. There are moral properties.
To be sure, there are ancient philosophical debates about such similarities and
about how to understand them. I say that there are moral properties, and I would
say as well that there are many natural properties, such as the property of being
deciduous, the property of being a rubber tree, the property of being a hallucinogen.
But for present purposes I do not take any particular position in the metaphysical
debates about the nature of so-called properties. There is no need for a moral realist
to take any particular position in these debates. She needs to insist merely that
moral properties have the same basic metaphysical nature as any other properties,
whatever that nature might be.
Second, a moral realist insists that some moral properties are instantiated. This
is just to say that some kinds of action are wrong and that some traits of character
are virtues. People have done wrong things and they have done right things. Some
people are good and some are vicious. The actual world includes persons, events,
and states of affairs that have moral characteristics, such as that of being wrong or
of being vicious or of being unjust. In short, there are moral facts.
Third, moral predicates are used to ascribe moral properties. The predicate
“wrong” is used to ascribe wrongness; the predicate “just” is used to ascribe justice.
And so on. Our moral language is used to pick out respects in which things are morally
similar and to describe things in terms of these similarities. Of course, a realist
would not deny that there may well be moral subtleties that we have not yet understood.
A moral realist would concede that people have been morally obtuse during
various periods of history and she would readily concede that there has been moral
progress and that there might well be moral progress in our future. This third point
is simply that moral language does not work in any special way that distinguishes it
fundamentally from ordinary descriptive language. Moral predicates ascribe moral
properties just as ordinary descriptive predicates ascribe descriptive properties. The
sentence, “Torture is wrong,” ascribes to torture a similarity to other wrong kinds of
action just as the sentence, “Torture is widespread,” ascribes to torture a similarity
to other kinds of action that are widespread.
Fourth, moral assertions express moral beliefs. I began by saying that we have
moral beliefs. We believe that certain kinds of action are wrong and we believe that
certain traits of character are virtues. This fourth point is simply that moral assertions
do not work in any special way that distinguishes them fundamentally from
how ordinary assertions work. Ordinary assertions express ordinary beliefs. If I assert
that torture is widespread, I express the ordinary belief that torture is widespread.
And, the realist holds, if I assert that torture is wrong, I express another ordinary
belief, the belief that torture is wrong. It is worth insisting on this since some moral
philosophers hold that the states of mind we express in making moral assertions
are not beliefs, or that they are metaphysically different in some crucial way from
the states of mind expressed by ordinary nonmoral assertions. On this view, the assertions
that torture is wrong and the assertion that torture is widespread express
different kinds of states of mind. A moral realist denies this. She insists that moral
beliefs have the same basic metaphysical nature as other beliefs.
Fifth, and finally, moral naturalism adds that the moral properties are natural
properties. That is, they have the same basic metaphysical and epistemological status
as ordinary natural properties such as redness, deciduous-ness, and the property of
being a railroad car. There is room to debate exactly what this comes to, of course.
Elsewhere I have contributed to the debate (Copp, 2007, ch. 1). For present purposes,
the important point is simply that, in committing herself to this fifth doctrine,
the moral naturalist commits herself to addressing the two puzzles I set out in the
preceding section. She commits herself to explaining how it could be that moral
facts are facts of the same kind as ordinary natural facts and she commits herself
to explaining, in naturalistic terms, what the normativity of such facts consists in.
Given the intuitive force of the two puzzles, one might naturally wonder why
anyone would take such an audacious view. Do we have any reason to be optimistic
that moral naturalism might be true?
Some moral naturalists are motivated by metaphysical and epistemological
concerns. The idea that an ordinary human being or an ordinary event or action
might have a property that is “non-natural” can seem puzzling and spooky. The very
idea that there are such properties can seem extravagant. Moreover, it can seem
puzzling how we could know that any such property is instantiated. I am assuming
here that if our basic knowledge about the nature of a property and about its
instantiation is empirical, then it is a natural property. So if moral properties are
non-natural, our knowledge as to which actions are right or wrong and as to which
traits of character are virtuous and which vicious would have to be acquired in
some non-empirical way. It is not clear how this could be. For reasons of this kind,
many philosophers hold that we should avoid burdening our metaphysics with the
hypothesis that there are any non-natural properties unless there is no alternative.
There is the further point that the hypothesis that moral properties are nonnatural
does nothing to explain their nature and nothing to explain what their
normativity might consist in. So it leaves the two puzzles in place, understood now
as puzzles about how there could be moral properties and not merely as puzzles
about how moral properties could be natural properties. Naturalism might seem
to offer at least a strategy for explaining the nature of moral properties and their
normativity, the strategy of somehow assimilating moral properties to ordinary
properties of familiar kinds. Hence, if we accept the four doctrines of moral realism,
it can seem that we have explanatory reasons to try to develop a satisfactory
version of moral naturalism as well as metaphysical and epistemological reasons.
One might suggest that we should instead abandon moral realism. But I want
to resist going in this direction since we do have moral beliefs – we take there to be
moral truths – and these beliefs give every appearance of being ordinary beliefs about
ordinary states of affairs. Moreover, moral states of affairs seem to be part of our
ordinary experience. For instance, it is part of our ordinary experience that there are
bad people as well as good people, that people commit horrible wrongs and that,
in addition, from time to time, people do wonderfully praiseworthy things. We are
aware of these facts in ordinary ways. We read about them in history, for instance.
And sometimes we can understand and explain people’s actions on the basis of their
moral character just as sometimes we can understand and explain people’s actions
as responses to injustices.3 All of this is part of the natural world of our experience.
For reasons of this kind, the naturalist is loath to abandon moral realism and loath
to embrace the unhelpful idea that moral properties are non-natural.
Varieties of Naturalism
The challenge facing moral naturalism is to answer in some way the two
central puzzles by explaining how moral facts can be part of the natural world of
our experience and by explaining what their normativity can consist in, in a way
that is compatible with their being natural facts. We can organize our examination
of the kinds of strategies available to naturalists by looking in some detail at four
main objections to moral naturalism. These objections can be seen as attempts to
make the two puzzles more precise. The main varieties of moral naturalism can be
seen in turn as arising from responses to the objections.
The four main objections are the objection from the Is/Ought Gap or the Fact/
Value Gap, the Open Question Argument, the Objection from Queerness, and the
objection that naturalism cannot accommodate normativity. I will discuss them,
briefly, in order.
The Objection from the “Is/Ought Gap”
or “Fact/Value Gap”
The fundamental idea behind this objection is that there is a logical gap
between non-normative claims about how things are in the world and normative
claims about what ought to be. The idea is suggested by David Hume in a famous
passage in the Treatise of Human Nature, III 1.1. Hume writes […]
The issue we are addressing, however, is whether normative moral facts can
be natural facts. The problem with the objection is that even if there is a logical
gap between non-normative claims and normative moral claims, it does not follow
that moral facts are not natural facts.
The way to see this is to notice that there are similar gaps between kinds of
natural claims. As Nicholas Sturgeon (2006) has pointed out, there is a similar gap
between physical claims and biological claims (Sturgeon, 2006, p. 102-105). No
matter what complex conjunction of purely physical propositions you might like to
construct, no biological proposition follows. But it obviously does not follow from
this that biological facts are not natural facts. One might even deny that it follows
that biology cannot be reduced to physics. According to the moral naturalist, the is/
ought gap is not relevantly different from this physical/biological gap. We understand
the existence of the physical/biological gap as compatible with its being the case
that physical and biological facts are simply different kinds of natural facts. Similarly,
the naturalist holds, we should understand the gap between non-normative natural
propositions and moral propositions as compatible with its being the case that
non-normative natural facts and moral facts are simply two kinds of natural fact.
The “Open Question Argument”
This argument was first proposed by G.E. Moore in section 13 of Principia
Ethica (Moore, 1993 ). It is one of the most famous and influential arguments
in twentieth century philosophy. To understand the form it takes, we need
to understand that, for Moore, the fundamental issue in ethics is the nature of
goodness. In section 5 of Principia, he says that ethics is “the general inquiry into
what is good” and that its fundamental question is, What is good? Or better, we
might say, his question is, What is goodness? Moore argues that it is not possible to
provide a “definition” or “analysis” that gives the nature of the property goodness
by specifying some property or complex of properties that goodness is identical
to. As the Open Question argument purports to show, goodness is indefinable or
The argument is commonly construed, however, as an argument against moral
naturalism. Understood in this way, the underlying idea is presumably that if goodness
were a natural property, then it would be analyzable. For it would be possible
to provide an analysis of it that showed it to be identical to some natural property
or complex of natural properties. The argument can be represented as follows:
(1) Suppose “good” denotes a natural property R
(2) Then to be good is to be R. (Perhaps to be good is to be that which we
desire to desire. Or perhaps to be good is to be pleasant.)
(3) Therefore, the question “Is it good to be R?” is equivalent to “Is it R to
(4) But the question “Is it good to be R?” is significant (and open) whereas
the question, “Is it R to be R?” is not significant.
(5) Therefore, the questions are not equivalent.
(6) The conclusion expressed by (5) contradicts the conclusion expressed by (3).
(7) Therefore, the supposition in (1) is false.
Therefore, ( “Good” does not denote a natural property.
This is the open question argument. When generalized, it might seem to show
that moral naturalism cannot be true.
The argument has been widely discussed over the past century and by now
there are standard responses to it. I will discuss three lines of response.4
First, as Nicholas Sturgeon (2006, p. 98-99) has pointed out, the argument
seems to depend on the assumption that the term “goodness” does not denote a
natural property. To be successful, the argument must show that goodness cannot
be identical to any natural property. That is, the argument must go through no
matter what term denoting a natural property is substituted for “R” in the above
schematic representation of the argument. But of course a naturalist holds that
goodness is itself a natural property. Hence, for a naturalist, the term “goodness”
or the predicate “good” can be substituted for “R” in the argument. But with this
substitution, the question “Is it good to be R?” just is the question “Is it good to
be good?” And on this understanding, of course, premise (4) is obviously false.
For on this understanding, the question “Is it good to be R?” and the question “Is
it R to be R?” are one and the same question, namely the question, “Is it good to
be good?” So it cannot be true that one of them is significant and open while the
other is not. A naturalist can therefore deny premise (4).
This response points the way to a Non-Reductive Naturalism of the sort that
Sturgeon has proposed. Non-reductive naturalism maintains that the moral properties
are natural properties but does not aim to defend any reductive analyses of the
moral properties. According to reductive forms of naturalism, for each moral property
M, there is some natural property N such that to be M is to be N, where “N” is an
expression couched in wholly naturalistic terms, no predicate in which is normative
and every predicate in which refers to some property that is independently taken
to be a natural property. A naturalist who proposes a non-reductive theory must
of course defend the proposition that the moral properties are natural properties,
but she must do this without relying on any such reductive analyses.
I turn now to the second response to the argument. It has often been noted
that property identities can be non-transparent in the sense that it can be true that
a property M is identical with a property N even if this is not obvious or transparent
to those who are familiar with M and N and competent in identifying M and
N. For example, the number 796 is identical to the difference between 12,231 and
11,435 even though this is not immediately obvious. This claim entails a claim about
property identity, for it entails that the property a collection can have of having 796
members is identical to the property of having 12,231 less 11,435 members. Yet
this equality is not obvious. Since this is not obvious, the question, “Is 796 equal
to 12,231-11,435?” is significant and open. Of course the question “Is 796 equal
to 796?” is trivial, but this does not undermine the fact that 796=12,231-11,435.
Similarly the question, Does a set that has 796 members have 12,231 less 11,435
members? is significant although the question, Does a set that has 796 members
have 796 members? is trivial. But this does not undermine the fact that to have 796
members is to have 12,231 less 11,435 members. The fact that the one question is
significant while the other is trivial does not undermine the equality.
This response shows that a naturalist can deny premise (3) in the argument,
or perhaps the inference from (4) to (5). She can certainly deny that the argument
supports (7) and the rejection of moral naturalism. This approach shows that there
room for Analytic Reductive Naturalism. According to a view of this kind, it is possible
to provide analytic reductive analyses of the moral properties, analyses that
identify, for each moral property M, some natural property N that is identical to M,
where the proposition that M is identical to N is analytic, or is a conceptual truth.
The claim would be that even if it is analytic that M is identical to N, or even if
this is a conceptual truth, it is not transparently so. The Open Question argument
therefore does not go through.
The third response to the argument begins from the point that property
identities can be a posteriori. Consider, for example, the proposition that heat is
mean molecular kinetic energy. This proposition is true yet it is not an analytic or
conceptual truth. It is a posteriori in the sense that one cannot know it to be true
without empirical evidence that gives one information beyond the information one
must already have just as a matter of having the concept of heat. Saul Kripke and
Hilary Putnam pointed out that reductive definitions in science need not be analytic
or conceptual truths (Putnam, 1981, p. 205-211; Kripke, 1980). There is therefore
room for a naturalist to hold that the true propositions that identify, for each moral
property M, some natural property N that is identical to M, are a posteriori. But if
the proposition that M is identical to N is a posteriori, then its truth is compatible
with there being an open question whether things that are M are also N.
This response shows, again, that the naturalist can deny premise (3) in the
argument, or perhaps the inference from (4) to (5). She certainly can deny that the
argument supports (7) and the rejection of moral naturalism. This approach shows
that there is room for Non-analytic Reductive Naturalism according to which, for
each moral property M, there is some natural property N such that M is identical to
N, but the proposition that M is identical to N is in each case a posteriori. Theories
of this kind have been proposed by Richard Boyd (1988, p. 181-228) and also by
me (Copp, 1995a, 2007).
Where did Moore go wrong? Moore was apparently assuming that nothing
counts as a natural property unless we have non-moral terminology that represents it.
So if a moral property M is a natural property, there must be a predicate “N” couched
in wholly naturalistic terminology such that M is identical to N. And he was apparently
assuming that the truth of such a proposition would require that it be an analytic or
conceptual truth that M is N. Sturgeon has pointed out, however, that a naturalist
can deny both ideas (Sturgeon, 2006, p. 95-99). Naturalism is the metaphysical thesis
that moral properties are natural. It need not presuppose a thesis about language."
-David Copp, "Varieties of Moral Naturalism", Filosofia Unisinos, 13 (2-supplement):280-295, octobre 2012.
Dernière édition par Johnathan R. Razorback le Lun 16 Mar - 16:06, édité 1 fois