Exploring Contemporary Ethics: Naturalism and G.E. Moore

What’s the relationship between ethics and science?

Lizzie Bestow
Jan 26 · 14 min read
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Photo by will klinzman on Unsplash

For some, ethical philosophy is not part of the world as studied by science. Moral facts supervene on the natural world; they are an objective reality.

Before the time of human beings, it was always wrong to kill. After homo sapiens, it will still be wrong to kill. Similarly, some believe something similar in the world of aesthetics. Perhaps The Mona Lisa will always be beautiful, even when there are no human beings to appreciate it. This kind of statement speaks to a belief in objective aesthetic statements, whereby aesthetics is woven into the patchwork quilt of the world we live in.

For Philosophical Naturalists, ethical philosophy is interwoven within the fabric of the world. Britannia describes naturalism in this way:

‘a theory that relates scientific method to philosophy by affirming that all beings and events in the universe (whatever their inherent character may be) are natural. Consequently, all knowledge of the universe falls within the pale of scientific investigation. Although naturalism denies the existence of truly supernatural realities, it makes allowance for the supernatural, provided that knowledge of it can be had indirectly — that is, that natural objects be influenced by the so-called supernatural entities in a detectable way. Naturalism presumes that nature is in principle completely knowable. There is in nature a regularity, unity, and wholeness that implies objective laws, without which the pursuit of scientific knowledge would be absurd. Man’s endless search for concrete proofs of his beliefs is seen as a confirmation of naturalistic methodology.

Naturalists point out that even when one scientific theory is abandoned in favor of another, man does not despair of knowing nature, nor does he repudiate the “natural method” in his search for truth…Naturalists simply assert that nature is reality, the whole of it. There is nothing beyond, nothing “other than,” no “other world” of being. Naturalism’s greatest vogue occurred during the 1930s and ’40s, chiefly in the United States among philosophers such as F.J.E. Woodbridge, Morris R. Cohen, John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, and Sidney Hook.’

The word itself has a variety of usages. It can refer to a literary genre depicting extreme realism, an antidote to art for its own sake, and lofty idealism. Jon Jacobs, writing on The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, agrees:

“Naturalism” is a term that is applied to many doctrines and positions in philosophy, and in fact, just how it is to be defined is itself a matter of philosophical debate.

Philosophical Naturalism, our theory, is an umbrella term encompassing a wide range of naturalisms. These include catholic naturalism and a soft (or relaxed) naturalism (P.F. Strawson).

Tom Wyman, in the abstract for his article P.F. Strawson’s Soft Naturalism: A Radicalisation and Defence, depicts Strawson’s theory like this:

Analytic philosophy is often associated with a physicalistic naturalism that privileges natural-scientific modes of explanation. Nevertheless, there has since the 1980s been a heterodox, somewhat subterranean trend within analytic philosophy that seeks to articulate a more expansive, ‘non-reductive‘ conception of nature. This trend can be traced back to P.F. Strawson’s 1985 book Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties.’

Also included under the umbrella are bald naturalism (a more didactic approach) and its close relative, scientism.

Bertrand Russell once said that what science can never discover mankind can never know.

For Russell, science determines what is natural. For those who subscribe to scientism, moral philosophy is pretty much a contradiction in terms. The ethical domain of our lives is outside the remit of philosophy.

Russell, in some places, seems to believe that any attempt to understand ethics will entail a reductionism, reducing ethics to psychological and sociological features. Statements like these are indicative of that idea:

“When the animal reaches the dignity of the metaphysician, it invents ethics as the justification of its own herd.”

Those who adhere to scientism are a little similar to the Logical Positivists, a group of philosophers who formed the Vienna Circle. They were also sometimes called logical empiricists. They developed the Boo-Hurrah theory; for the Logical Positivists, meaningful philosophical inquiry constitutes empirically verifying statements.

The philosopher John McDowell argued for a type of liberal naturalism called Naturalism of Second Nature. He was worried about the potential for naturalism to descend into scientism.

McDowell’s theory takes inspiration from Aristotle. For that classical philosopher, unvirtuous males could learn virtues from virtuous and educated males through a kind of osmosis. As Thodoris Dimitrakos says,McDowell’s attempt to form an account which leaves room for normativity in nature is based on the distinction between ‘first’ and ‘second’ nature.’

The Naturalistic Problem

The problem the theory poses for ethics is a serious one. Most people use ethical statements as if they are true or false. For many people, questions around morality in ethics have the same kind of true or false nature as ‘poison is bad for the human system’ and ‘if I eat lots of chocolate I will be sick’.

Yet ethical statements seem to have an odd status; if I say, “humans should not kill”, I am simultaneously proposing a course of action. The subtext of my statement is, “…therefore you should not do it”.

My utterance seems to have some normative implications. I am not claiming that the wrongness of the action derives from my saying so. That would be some strange sort of ethical egoism. But I am saying that I am privy to some private fact about killing that I know it is immoral.

We speak as if naturalism were not true when we make ethical statements. We speak as if we can all refer to some supernatural, objective property that exists, above and beyond our natural world.

The philosopher Simon Blackburn (a Humean and quasi-realist of sorts), claims that almost everyone today swears allegiance to naturalism. Yet this may not have been so in the past. Citizens of the ancient world linked natural phenomena to the wills and whims of the gods.

Now, we know a little of the reasons behind natural phenomena like earthquakes. We use things like the hydrological cycle to explain the fall of rain. Yet this was once seen as the domain of the gods. The fallout of this has far-reaching consequences for how we see the world. We start to fill in the ‘god of the gaps’; we human beings had turned to religion to appease our thirst for answers. We were unable to turn to a science sufficiently developed to explain the natural world. So, we had used god to plug the gaps of our knowledge.

These changing tides have implications for our moral lives, too. As scientists explained yet more phenomena, we struggle to reconcile concepts like consciousness and morality with our knowledge. Is our freedom in the world in which we inhabit? How does our mind (an atemporal thing) interact with the scientific, mind-independent world? Descartes called the latter the problem of dualism.

Part of the problem of naturalism, some say, is that it is impossible to reconcile these two spheres. We frame ethics by fitting it into the natural world. Subjectivity is antithetical to what is objective and mind-independent. How can we fit subjectivity (which is essentially non-objective) into the objective external world?

The problem is conceptual and theoretical. How can we philosophers find room for ethics? How can something essentially non-objective be given an objective characterization?

A newsreader might report on the facts around one person killing another. But there seems another layer to the situation, where context is key, and where issues like self-defense and mental competency reign supreme.

Right and wrong seem to supervene the physical facts of what occurred. Fernando Pessoa, in his The Book of Disquiet, reflects on this multi-layered reality:

‘Civilization consists in giving something a name that doesn’t belong to it and then dreaming over the result. And the false name joined to the true dream does create a new reality. The object does change into something else, because we make it change. We manufacture realities. The raw material remains the same, but our art gives it a form that makes it into something not the same. A pinewood table is still pinewood, but it’s also a table. We sit at the table, not at the pinewood. Although love is a sexual instinct, it’s not with sexual instinct that we love but with the conjecture of some other feeling. And that conjecture is already some other feeling.’

Jean-Paul Sartre also reflects on the patchwork quilt of fact and value. For Sartre, we experience these two spheres as being essentially and in-extrinsically intertwined.

When an employee hears his alarm and shoots up out of his bed, running for the shower, he experiences the alarm call as a kind of call to action. Instantly, as he hears the alarm, he remembers that he must be on time for work. Why? Because he wants to be the kind of person who is not late.

Furthermore, this moral layer seems to vary depending on culture and time. Jonathan Haidt calls this the “moral matrix”, saying ‘it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes.’ This moral matrix links us all together.

We are referring to vaguely the same thing when we talk of ‘a noble death’, ‘ageing gracefully’ or ‘a happy marriage’. But subtleties might exist which span across cultures. The picture of conjugal bliss will vary according to time; a happy marriage might consist in a stay-at-home mother, or a heterosexual couple, a mere century ago. Now, the picture has changed.

So, just because the moral matrix is subjective doesn’t make it essentially indefinable. But it is hard to pull apart the two.

Some philosophers believe that science must give us a positive account of what is in the universe. Ethics seems a definitive part of the world in that we practice it through living, making ethical judgments about others, and teach courses through it. So, do we need to make sense of ethics in terms of a scientifically respectable philosophical account?

How can we fit one domain of thought into something pre-existing? This a troubling notion that Huw Price names ‘the placement problem’. Frank Jackson calls these ‘location problems’.

We see a similar problem with consciousness. The hard problem of consciousness (versus the easy problem of consciousness) is about how we can locate consciousness within a scientifically-described world. Similarly, how can we talk about meaning? If something is wrong, and it is a fact that something is wrong, then where can we place that fact in the natural world? To some extent, our tendency towards naturalism when asked to place ethics in the physical world might be seen as a natural reaction.

Some philosophers think that if we cannot locate these things in the natural world, we ought to admit that they are odd and eliminate them. This is the general picture that is underpinning naturalism, encouraged by the work of G.E. Moore.

Against the religious conviction that a God or other superhuman being wills only what is right, Moore, in his work Principia Ethica, asserts that:

‘according to that view, to believe that an action is wrong is the same thing as to believe that it is forbidden by one of these non-human beings; so that any one whatever who ever does believe that an action is wrong is ipso facto, believing in the existence of such a being. It maintains, therefore, that everybody who believes that actions are right or wrong does, as a matter of fact, believe in the existence of one of these beings. And this contention seems to be plainly contrary to fact.’

G.E. Moore advances what he calls The Open Question Argument:

‘The hypothesis that disagreement about the meaning of good is disagreement with regard to the correct analysis of a given whole, may be most plainly seen to be incorrect by consideration of the fact that, whatever definition be offered, it may be always asked, with significant, of the complex so defined, whether it is itself good’.

Moore is essentially saying: if pleasure really just was “good”, then we would just be able to swap the terms out. My saying “this is good” would mean exactly the same thing as if I said “this is pleasurable”, in the same way that saying “this is water” is the same as saying “this is H2O”. Asking why pleasure is good would be a nonsensical question if they really were synonyms.

Moore’s understanding and stipulation of ethical naturalism have come to define what we come to see it as. But should his position exhaustively define the theory? Moore appropriated the name naturalism to a particular method of approaching ethics.

For Moore, adopting a naturalistic position in ethics is inconsistent with the subject matter. We cannot reduce ethics to psychology and biology. He believes ethics is “supernatural” (not ghosts and ghouls!) He is describing a world above the natural one. So, Moore is certainly not a naturalist. But he did provide the background to much of our discussion through his identification of The Naturalistic Fallacy.

G.E. Moore’s Naturalistic Fallacy is closely related to David Hume’s “Is/Ought” fallacy. According to Hume, just because something is the case does not mean that it ought to be the case. A Utilitarian may say that we do certain things to increase our pleasure. But this does not mean that pleasure is the same as the good. Utilitarianism and Kantianism may need to produce some sociological and empirical analysis into what good is. To some extent, many Utilitarians have done this. Hume is just remarking that good cannot be equivocated with happiness or rationality

Similarly, G.E. Moore is not saying that Utilitarianism or Kantianism are wrong per se. He is just saying that these theories somewhat circumnavigate proof required for their conceptual framework. Moore believes that it is fallacious to try to explain the so-called “good” through reducing it to pleasure or happiness:

‘It may be true that all things which are good are also something else, just as it is true that all things which are yellow produce a certain kind of vibration in the light…far too many philosophers have thought that when they named those other properties they were defining good; that these properties were simply not ‘other’, but absolutely and entirely the same with goodness. This view I propose to call the ‘naturalistic fallacy’…When philosophers attempt to define good as pleasure, or as what is desired, they end up talking over one another’s heads. They can only attempt to give some psychological (i.e., non-ethical) reason for such concept being good, or revert to their definition of good, which in itself is fallacious as it cannot be argued against.

‘If good is defined as something else, it is then impossible either to prove that any other definition is wrong or even to deny such definition.’ …‘If he confuses ‘good’, which is not in the same sense a natural object, with any natural object whatever, then there is a reason for calling that a naturalistic fallacy’

‘Why, if good is good and indefinable, should I be held to deny that pleasure is good? Is there any difficulty in holding both to be true at once? On the contrary, there is no meaning in saying that pleasure is good, unless good is something different from pleasure.’…‘In fact, if it is not the case that ‘good’ denotes something simple and indefinable, only two alternatives are possible: either it is a complex, a given whole, about the correct analysis of which there may be disagreement; or else it means nothing at all, and there is no such subject as Ethics…we are, therefore, justified in concluding that the attempt to define good is chiefly due to want of clearness as to the possible nature of definition’.

Moore’s argument prompted a surge of adherents to his way of thinking, who proposed that ethical theories had got the wrong end of the stick.

Take, for example, this passage in The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa:

‘The fundamental error of Romanticism is to confuse what we need with what we desire. We all need certain basic things for life’s preservation and continuance; we all desire a more perfect life, complete happiness, the fulfilment of our dreams…’

But G.E. Moore’s account leaves much to be desired. How can we know about goodness if it is outside the natural world? Moore thinks that we intuit goodness; we cannot measure it or define it. Moore once, in a lecture, believed he could undermine external world skepticism by holding up his hands to elucidate that he is a physical being. His physical existence is a truth even a hungover student could intuit. Good is unanalyzable and thus something we can intuit.

He drew on the differences between science and ethics to provide support for this conclusion. We can compare ethical thought with scientific thought. Science is improving on beliefs and theories, substituting false beliefs with real physics. Conversely, ethics involves permanent disagreements over things like theoretical frameworks. The debate between consequentialists and deontologists has been raging for centuries. Ethics is just different from science. Ethics, for Moore, cannot be reduced to psychology.

Peter Railton’s essay, ‘Moral Realism: Prospects and Problems’ (found in ‘Moral Knowledge?: New Readings in Moral Epistemology’ by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Mark Timmons) notes some of the problems of G.E. Moore’s account:

‘A chief cause of the changing character of the realism dispute over time has been changes in philosophical approaches to language and meaning. If, like Plato, one believed that our words and thoughts owe their meaning to their relationship to independently existing, universal ideas, then the central question for realism about a subject matter would concern the existence of corresponding Platonic ideas. Indeed, the Platonic theory of meaning had an important influence in philosophy as late as the first half of the twentieth century, and major contributors to modern ethics, such as G. E. Moore, staked the fate of realism about morality on the Idea of Good, which he thought we knew by a special kind of mental intuition. Hence his view has come to be known as “intuitionism”.

But under the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the logical positivists, and others, twentieth-century philosophy came to reject Platonic theories of meaning as metaphysically mysterious and incapable of explaining some of the central phenomena of language — notably language acquisition, linguistic communication, and the shaping or testing of thought by experience, all of which draw our attention to the shared and public character of meaning. The question of what our use of language commits us to became the principal way of structuring the realism debate: Does shared meaning require abstract universals?’

As Blackburn has noted, most people are naturalists. Where are moral judgments situated in the natural world? Where do they exist? Perhaps they exist only in our minds, and that is okay. Some people might find this a little upsetting; we want to believe that it’s wrong to kill other human beings objectively and that it’s a fact about the world. But that doesn’t seem true. And it doesn’t make it any less wrong if we merely believe that it is wrong to kill others. Part of living in a society is adhering to (albeit unconsciously) collectively agreed moral principles. It seems only psychology is left, and perhaps neuroscience will explain morality in time.

How do we justify this widespread dependence on science? Why does science have some privileged status? The belief that science can always give us answers and provide us with truthful predictions. Even if these predictions are not always right, science provides us with guesses. It makes conjectures which can be verified and falsified.

The problem with some ethical systems is that they cannot be wrong. The same is true of astrology and clairvoyants. The latter use tricks like hot and cold reading to make general statements sound individualized. The Barnum effect is at play here; people input meaning from their own lives into such propositions.

Science, conversely, is democratic; what gives us the answers and populates our conception of the natural world is what the world tells us.

This article is the third in my series on modern moral philosophy:

  1. Virtue Ethics
  2. Moral Particularism
  3. Naturalism
  4. Trust

I envisioned this series as a project where I introduce contemporary ethics in an accessible way. I took a class, during my undergraduate degree (how time flies — I’m off to do a Ph.D. in Philosophy in September!) called ‘Issues in Contemporary Ethics’, which was taught by the insightful and formidable (and former TEDx Talker!) Dr. Andreas Pantazatos. I built my own preamble to modern ethical theories on my lecture notes, and my extensive reading throughout my Master’s degree and after. There’ll be another article soon on a different issue, so stay tuned!

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in…

Lizzie Bestow

Written by

BA & MA in Philosophy from Durham University, writing accessible Philosophy pieces, poetry, and mental health content

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Lizzie Bestow

Written by

BA & MA in Philosophy from Durham University, writing accessible Philosophy pieces, poetry, and mental health content

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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