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Pin Oak Library of Congress, Marion Post Wolcott, LC-USF34-056819-D Naturalistic Ethics

Abstract: Ethical naturalism is characterized briefly.  Ethical naturalism is shown to avoid some of the difficulties of a rule-based ethics.

An old Hindu story runs like this: "A King of Ancient India, oppressed by the roughness of the earth upon soft human feet, proposed that his whole territory should be carpeted with skins. However one of his wise men pointed out that the same result could be achieved far more simply by taking a single skin and cutting off small pieces to bind beneath the feet. These were the first sandals."

The point of the parable is, of course, that it is easier for man to adapt himself to nature than to adapt nature to himself. And this is the point of naturalism.

I. Naturalistic ethics: a theory of moral behavior according to which ethics is an empirical science. Ethical statements are reduced to the natural sciences (physical or social), and ethical questions are answered wholly on the basis of the findings of those sciences. 

I.e., naturalistic ethics is said to be a non-valuational enterprise; any "ethical value" is said to be confirmable through the methods of science.


A. Hence, ethical naturalism is the doctrine that moral facts are facts of nature.


1. The thesis that all facts are facts of nature seems obvious.

2. Even so, some persons deny that there are moral facts at all—just as some people deny that there are peculiarly religious facts.
B. Ethical naturalism can take several different forms. A major difficulty in the articulation of the theory is multifarious definitions of "nature," "natural," and "natural law."  Various examples of ethical naturalism are as follows:
1. Ethical values are reducible to natural properties; .e.g, a good action is an action in conformity with the proper function of a thing as in the Stoic's notion of "activities which are consequential upon a thing's nature."
2. "Virtue ethics" includes the doctrine that ethical good is the realization of the capacities of a human being "living well and doing well."
3. Ethical values are a distinctive kind property-—not reducible to those studied by the physical sciences but possibly studied by the social sciences.

4. Generally speaking, to define ethical naturalism as a doctrine implying that natural actions are right and unnatural actions are wrong is to set up a straw-man argument.


B. In a sense,  a nihilist can be thought of as one kind of ethical naturalist.


1. Nihilism is the doctrine that there are no moral facts, no moral truths, and no moral knowledge. Moreover, nihilism is a doctrine that denies that traditional values, including moral truths, exist.


2. The word "nihilist" was invented by Turgenev in his novel, Fathers and Sons (1861).

3. Some nihilists hold that morality is merely a superstitious remnant of religion.

II. The key question of the possibility of the adequacy of ethical naturalism is whether morality is amenable to observational testing. Or is observational evidence irrelevant to moral judgments?


A. The existence of these distinctions in ordinary language would seem to indicate ethical problems are independent of scientific problems:


1. fact vs. value: "Pin oaks are often used in landscaping" whereas "Pin oaks are magnificent trees."


2. descriptive vs. prescriptive: "Many citizens are law-abiding" whereas "All citizens should obey the law."


3. is vs. ought: "Science is concerned with 'what is'" whereas "Ethics is concerned with 'what ought to be.'"


B. The basic issue of observational testing depends upon whether moral principles can be tested and confirmed in the way scientific principles are. For example, suppose we accept the following statement as an ethical principle.


1. Principle: When given the choice to murder or not to murder someone, you should choose not to murder. (Note the difference between "killing" and "murder.") Is this principle true or false?


a. "Kill" means "put to death."


b. "Murder" is "the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought."


c. Consider the case where one twin was put to death so the other could have the shared heart. This is a test case to examine the empirical results of a decision rather than examining moral rules concerning the decision.


2. In law, homicide is (1) justifiable, (2) excusable, or (3) felonious. Suppose the law reads as follows and a society's morality is based upon that law.


a. Justifiable: the killing of a man in obedience to law, or by unavoidable necessity, or for the prevention of an atrocious crime.


b. Excusable: committed by misadventure, also in cases of self-defense, where the assailant did not intend murder, rape, or robbery.


c. Felonious: comprehends the willful killing of a man through malice aforethought (murder); the unlawful killing of a man without such malice, either in sudden heat or while involuntarily committing an unlawful action not amounting to felony; self-murder, suicide.


3. So, the physician who saves a twin in the case mentioned above would be, by law and by common morality, murdering one of the twins. 


4. The moral rule, then, would seem clear—this act of separating the twins should not be done. Yet, the empirical results seem to demand that a life be saved. Hence, ethical naturalism is an attempt to avoid the linguistic conflicts of arbitrary rules.

IV. A salient  philosophical objection to ethical naturalism is described by G. E. Moore as the naturalistic fallacy. Moore argues that the question of goodness can still be raised as to whether a natural property is good.  What is pleasurable, what is desirable, and what are proper functions of a person might not be what is good for that person, but even if they were, they are not the same as, or the definition of, what is good.

III. In our next class, we will begin to develop a naturalistic ethics based on Jung's theory of personality types.

Recommended Sources

Ethical Naturalism : A clarification of the definition of ethical naturalism in Wikipedia

Naturalism in Ethics: A brief discussion of naturalistic ethics including the views of Aristotle, Mill, Hume, and those in Darwinism in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Moral Non-Naturalism: A thorough clarification of the distinction between naturalistic and nonnaturalistic ethics in metaethics and a summary of the arguments on both sides by Michael Ridge in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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