Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Objections to Ethical Naturalism

Ethical naturalism is the position that the central ethical question of problematic interactions between human agents can be examined by determining and reducing the problem to the underlying natural facts and that is all there is, there are no additional moral facts of the matter. In order to do this the ethical naturalist needs to answer some classic challenges to such an enterprise and we will briefly examine and summarize these here.

The Naturalistic Fallacy
This is actually three "fallacies":-

1. If moral properties are basic and indefinable, then the fallacy is that one cannot define the indefinable. This is indeed a fallacy but the ethical naturalist contrarily assumes that moral properties are not basic and are definable, which is a quite standard move in any empirical enterprise. It is question begging to assert otherwise and this indefinability needs to shown and is not here.

2. If moral Properties are non-natural, then the fallacy is that one cannot reduce non-natural properties to natural properties. Again this is correct and again the ethical naturalist assumes that moral properties are not non-natural and again this is a quite standard move in any empirical enterprise. It is question begging to assert otherwise and this non-naturalness needs to shown. This point has been spun out into the fact-value distinction and we will examine this below. Suffice to say the fact-value distinction cannot point to the naturalistic fallacy in support and vice versa - both being examples of fallacious circular reasoning. A specific argument has to be made and if the fact-value distinction shows that the ethical naturalist's value is a fiction, this is certainly a type of non-natural property and so then this version of the Naturalistic Fallacy would apply.

3. The fallacy of reducing a moral property to other natural properties. This is distinct from the previous two fallacies and allows that moral properties are definable and not non-natural but this creates a problem. Why should this instance of the application of methodological reductionism be different to any other instance? This does not look like a fallacy at all, enter the...

Open Question Argument
In any challenge to naturalistic reduction one could posit counter examples and critical debate and analysis would follow. The provisional result could be either that that the reduction is fit for purpose, that more work needs to be done or that the reduction is in someway unsound or invalid.Whichever way this goes this process can cease. To assert otherwise is the position of the universal skeptic which would deny that any such reduction could ever be done or generally that no such definitive knowledge could ever be obtained. This is contrary to the underlying principle of methodological naturalism which does not assert absolute definitive knowledge only provisional, revisable and refutable knowledge and there is no reason to presume that that the does not apply here.

However the Open Question Argument asserts otherwise, that there is something special to performing the reduction of moral properties to other natural properties. What is special here? One cannot assume non-naturalness, indefinability or even specialness itself as this would be question begging, this is meant to be the main argument in support of those three fallacies.What else is left but an appeal to intuition? However this intuition cannot be used smuggle in any of the three Naturalistic Fallacies as that is again question begging. It is also ironic and circular reasoning that the Naturalistic Fallacy/Open Question Argument which was originally intended as an argument for (moral) intuitionism itself seems to rely on such an intuition in the first place! The residual intuition - however vague - that somehow there are still two distinct natural properties, not one as the ethical naturalist claims, can be answered in terms of referential opacity - that it is a mistake of how we know, not what there is. We think there are two things, but there is, in fact, only one. Referential opactiy implies that our knowledge or intuition can be mistaken in this case. An additional argument needs to be made that this intuition - that there are two distinct properties - is not mistaken but neither the Naturalistic Fallacy nor the Open Question Argument can be recruited in doing so. Enter the ...

The Fact-Value Distinction
The ethical naturalist needs to show that their reduction is relies on facts not fictions. The fact-value distinction says that on the surface values do not look at all like facts, so it is up to the ethical naturalist, for their specific species of value, to show otherwise. Indeed many proposed values have failed this test but it is a mistake to assume that this cannot be done. Again this goes against the principles of methodological naturalism one could say that provisionally this has not done conclusively but this can be refuted by such a demonstration which would revise and update the provisional conclusion. So it is bad metaphysics to assert that facts and values are distinct types of stuff, that is to assume fact-value dualism. This later position cannot be used to support the relevant version of the Naturalistic Fallacy since all the latter does is to restate it as a fallacy, the fallacy of reducing non-natural to natural properties.

So, so far, the fact-value distinction is the key challenge that an ethical naturalist needs to answer and if they succeed then the Naturalistic Fallacies do not apply or is not being committed. The next challenge is...

The Is-Ought Fallacy
Although usually called a problem it can be made into a fallacy. This is the fallacy that starting with descriptive premises - "is" statements - one cannot derive prescriptive conclusions - "ought" statements. There are two challenges to the ethical naturalist here. Taking the latter one first, if the ethical naturalist has successfully shown their species of value is a type of fact, then one can use such values as evaluative premises and derive evaluative conclusions, and the is-ought fallacy is not committed. (Note that "prescriptive" has both a broad sense in terms of evaluation and a specific sense in terms of "oughts" and "shoulds". However, since one can always turn an evaluative statement into a prescriptive statement in the latter sense, this distinction does not matter here). The underlying challenge is whether the ethical naturalist can indeed show that their species of value is fact without committing the is-ought fallacy. We have now isolated the key challenge that the ethical naturalist needs to answer and, if they succeed, then the other prior objections are already dealt with and do not apply.

Work needs to be done to revise the posts Hume's Is-Ought Problem, The Naturalistic Fallacy Fallacy incorporating reader comments, specifically valued input from the Barefoot Bum and this summary incorporates some of this feedback. This for now will stand as a draft summary of my position on these issues. The also to be revised Facts and Values post already presented a tentative candidate to answer the central challenge to an ethical naturalist, isolated here.

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Thom Blake said...

It seems to me that you're missing a reasonable interpretation of Moore -

To define anything, you must have an idea of what would make something good (as just one example, you would need to know what makes a good definition). So one cannot define 'good' with reference to something else, as a definition of 'good' must be in a sense question-begging.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Thom Blake

Now of course we have some idea of what a word means and in defining it seek to support and clarify that sense, if we had no idea why have a word for it - there would be nothing to define!

Further I do not see the any special problem here, what is your argument that this is special to the challenge for any other term?

For example surely this would apply to any term - certainly any other adjective such as big, old, brave and so on. These, like good, are all relational terms. If your argument were correct then all these would defined in a circular fashion and any and all such definitions would be question-begging. If your point were correct, does this mean we cannot define them?

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