A Defense of Moral Naturalism

Making sense of our moral convictions can be a daunting task. As such, a squabble has long simmered on the origins of our moral norms, and whether or not our moral claims can be analyzed or reconciled to the natural world. Although the rival accounts have rarely quarreled over what constitutes right and wrong- since most people concede that murder for hire and genocide are patently immoral- the debate they engage in is not trivial, as it affects our epistemology, ontology, linguistics, and the ultimate importance we place on the act of moral reasoning. As such, the main dispute fulminates in whether or not there are actual moral facts that exist in the world, and more importantly, whether or not there are some objective moral claims that are straightforwardly true. Plausible views of moral anti-realism conjecture that moral facts are either non-existent or intrinsically false. Subsequently, I will argue in this paper, that all anti-realist accounts of moral norms are misguided, and possibly moot. For, not only are moral properties real, their once mysterious dispositions can be partially accounted for through the study of modern neurology, evolutionary biology, and the empirical sciences. I will further argue that our moral facts supervene on our physical facts, and that, as such, our common-sense understanding of the word ‘wrong’ embeds sufficient conditions for wrongness. To defend this naturalist account of our moral norms, I will further rely on an evolutionary interpretation of game theory in terms of altruistic behavior and cooperation.

At the turn of the century, philosopher G.E. Moore identified what he referred to as the “Naturalistic Fallacy”. Based on the assumption that any coherent realist account of moral naturalism would require the presupposition that moral terms be defined either analytically, or in terms of naturalistic properties, he posited that moral naturalism must fail. So, subsequently, he argued that terms like ‘good’ or ‘wrong’ cannot be defined since they are simple properties, or properties which do not decompose into other properties. Yet, although we must accept that there are simple terms in the world in order to avoid an infinite regress, does it necessarily follow from this that our moral properties are simple? For Moore, the answer is yes, because to define ‘good’ by way of naturalistically, is to define ‘good’ by means of natural properties such as pleasure or pain. And clearly, Moore argues, although an action might very well produce pleasure, it does not necessarily follow from that, that the action is ‘good’. If this were the case, the proposition “All and only pleasure is good” would be analytic- and clearly its not. So, his argument, known as the open question argument, ultimately stipulated that because terms such as ‘good’ or ‘wrong’ are not definable, and because moral naturalism seeks to define ‘good’ in terms of naturalistic properties, all naturalist views automatically commit the “Naturalistic Fallacy”. The unfortunate result of Moore’s position on naturalism was a parade of anti-realist moral theories, geared towards proving that the very idea that a moral fact exists in the world is either incoherent or futile. However, does declining to give truth-conditions in non-moral terms for moral claims, necessarily commit one to either non-objectivism or non-naturalism?

In response, contemporary philosopher Richard Boyd has led a recent and striking shift back to moral naturalism. He addresses Moore’s criticism head-on by insisting that moral naturalism does not inevitably entail a commitment to viewing terms like ‘good’ as having analytic definitions in terms of natural properties. On the contrary, Boyd posits that moral terms are not known a priori, but rather, he asserts that “if the realist’s critique of the syntactic analysis of reductionism in science is also accepted, then the moral realist can deny that it follows from the premise that goodness is a physical property or that goodness has any physical definition, analytic or otherwise.” (Boyd, How To Be a Moral Realist, Pg. 199) His view, which came to be known as synthetic naturalism, dictated that for each moral property M and its corresponding predicate ‘M’, there exists a non-moral natural property N and its predicate ‘N’, such that M=N, and ‘M’ and ‘N’ denote the same property, so that ‘M’ is ‘N’ is necessarily true. As such, if Boyd’s analysis turns out to be accurate, the argument that the naturalist’s view of moral realism is guilty of committing the “Naturalistic Fallacy” cannot get off the ground.

A major component of deciphering Boyd’s theory rests on his argument against the prevalent interpretation of reflexive equilibrium. This concept, forwarded by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, states that reflexive equilibrium is achieved when after going back and forth between our moral intuitions and judgments, and when one is willing to revise either, one becomes satisfied that there is a coherent and harmonious match. Consequently, as moral agents we strive to find moral principles that are on par with our considered judgments. One derivation of this belief, which is a deep concern for Boyd, is that the presuppositions inherent in this procedure can lead to an inopportune theory of moral relativism based on the concept of ‘construction’. Boyd ascertains, however, that the discovery mode of scientific inquiry simply is the method of reflexive equilibrium, and that the dominance of that method in moral reasoning cannot, therefore, establish a non-realist, or constructionist, conception of moral norms. Consequently, he argues that, for this reason, our inquiries into moral behavior should be no different than our inquiries into science. And that, following, our moral norms are neither mysterious nor undiscoverable- but are a posteriori facts in the world. He states, “Our perceptual knowledge, rests upon the logically contingent a posteriori fact that our senses are reliable detectors of certain sorts of external objects.” (Boyd, How To Be a Moral Realist, Pg. 209)

One major problem with Boyd’s theory, however, occurs in his insistence that terms such as ‘good’, ‘kind’, and ‘wrong’ are both natural kind terms- like ‘water’ or ‘lion’, and cluster terms, such as ‘healthy’ or ‘prosperous’. Yet, in order to explicate Boyd’s reasoning further, we must first understand what these two types of terms are. A natural kind term is simply a term, which has built into the meaning of that term, that an object is an occurrence of that term IFF it is a member of some specific kind. A cluster term, on the other hand, is a predicate P that is associated with a cluster of properties, such that, in order for an entity to be a P, it must possess a substantial percentage of those properties. This raises the question, however, does ‘good’ really resemble ‘tiger’, or does ‘wrong’ really resemble ‘healthy’?

Horgan and Timmons offer an excellent argument as to why this cannot be the case. They deem that if synthetic naturalism is true, and that if ‘good’ really is a natural kind term, than moral twin Earth stories should generate moral intuitions that are analogous to the intuitions we have in regards to Hilary Putnam’s, water= H2O, twin Earth story. Yet, clearly we do not. On Putnam’s twin Earth it would seem futile to argue with our twins about what comprises water. If we use ‘water’ to denote H2O, and they use ‘water’ to denote XYZ, it seems trivial, since nothing substantial hangs in the balance. In the Horgan and Timmons moral example, however, this is not the case. We cannot say that when someone on earth says ‘wrong’ they are picking out consequentialist moral properties, and that when someone on twin Earth says ‘wrong’ they are picking out deontological moral properties, and not generate an argument. Clearly the outcome of this is no longer a trivial result. These viewpoints are so diametrically opposed that it would be unlikely that an argument did not ensue.

Philosopher and naturalist John McDowell, on the other hand, offers a different account of moral realism that ultimately seems more correct and coherent. He argues that just as there exists a property in yellow objects that gives us sense data of yellowness, so too is there a property in wrong actions that merits our moral judgments of wrongness. Importantly, this belief is predicated on the understanding that moral properties are secondary qualities, or qualities for which there is no resemblance between the property itself and our representation of it. McDowell States, “Secondary-quality experience presents itself as perceptual awareness of properties genuinely possessed by the objects that confront one.” (McDowell, Values and Secondary Qualities, Pg. 168) Hence, if it is the case that wrongness is a secondary quality like yellowness, than there is a real characteristic of wrong actions that generate our moral reactions, and that, in and of itself, quite possibly, is moral realism enough.

So, if moral naturalism is right, and there are real moral facts that generate true truth-values, then what external data do we have access to in the world on which to ground this claim? A broader discussion of altruism, or the self-sacrificing behavior that is often observed in nature would seem like a good place to start. Although, on the surface, a concept of this sort might seem at odds with a Darwinian account of natural selection, recent developments in evolutionary biology are rectifying this seemingly specious paradox. It is undisputable that as social beings we often engage in acts of altruism- acts which cost us little and benefit others more- such as sharing excess food or warning others of impending danger. Consequently, it is imperative that a good naturalist theory of the evolution of moral norms, start with an explanation of this type of selflessness and its innate requirement of communal cooperation.

One such possible theory is that of kin selection. The fundamental idea here is that helping one’s kin may spread one’s own genes, thereby ensuring one’s own genetic fitness- or expected number of progeny. (Maynard-Smith, Group Selection and Kin Selection, 1964) So, under the right conditions, ‘selfish’ genes may produce altruistic behavior in individuals. As such, this theory, recently expounded by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, holds a great deal of explanatory power when it comes to deciphering why humans are not always self-interested agents, and why, as a population, we deeply value our principles. (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1996) Dawkins states, “Altruism probably has origins like those of lust. In our prehistoric past, we would have lived in extended families, surrounded by kin whose interests we might have wanted to promote because they shared our genes.” (Time, God Vs. Science, November 13, 2006) He goes on to claim that psychologically this motivation has not changed, and that it forms the basis for our instinctual desire for morality. Following, it additionally establishes support for the case that moral claims can be explained via external facts in the world.

Indeed, the evolutionary case for altruism and moral behavior can best be modeled by the evolutionary interpretation of the theoretical game Prisoner’s Dilemma. The essential aspect of this game is that mutual advantage is maximized if both players cooperate, but no matter what others do, an individual does best by defecting. So, if this is the case, why would any self-interested agent choose to cooperate? Traditional rational choice theory predicts that they won’t. Evolutionary psychology, on the other hand, with the introduction of indefinitely repeated interactions has proven otherwise. This can be illustrated, as follows, by a two-player game:

The Nash Equilibrium (or the point at which neither player will do
better by changing their action) occurs when both players defect. It is
also evident, however, that if both players behave altruistically and
cooperate, they will end up with a better pay-off. As such, Robert
Axelrod, building upon the work of John Nash, introduced the concept of
indefinitely repeated interactions with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, by which
there is a fixed, constant probability of another action no matter how
many actions have already taken place. Consequently, if the players play
either grim trigger (a strategy in which one cooperates until the other
one defects, then defects forever), or tit-for-tat (a strategy in which
one player cooperates initially, then repeats the action of the other
player forever), and if the fixed probability is high enough, there is a
Nash Equilibrium at which everyone always cooperates. (Axelrod, The
Evolution of Cooperation, 1984) This outcome defies the conventions of
rational choice theory, yet instantiates the concept of the evolution of
morals quite well. For this reason, Axelrod suggested that altruistic
behavior might have begun with kin selection, then spread to the broader
population via indefinitely repeated interactions. As such, theoretical
games, such as Prisoner’s Dilemma, have become a microcosm for the
study of psychological evolution and moral realism.

So, what about
the ghost in the neural machine? As 21st century science sheds light on
the mysteries of the mind, we are discovering that specialized neurons
allow us to mirror the ethical behavior that we see in others. For this
reason, modern neuroscience insists that our thoughts, feelings,
sensations, and ethical decisions amount to nothing more than
physiological activity that takes place in the tissues of the brain.
Accordingly, biologist and genetic scientist Francis Crick refers to
this as “the astonishing hypothesis”. As such, recent experimentation,
designed to image which parts of the brain are flipped on during the
occurrence of moral reasoning, has highlighted that this type of
consciousness resides in the ‘higher’ parts of the brain- or,
specifically, the parts that produce emotion and confer decision-making.
Consequently, this result forwards an argument that moral reasoning
does have physical explanations. Although, from an historic perspective,
this may sound philosophically startling, the more evidence these
scientists gather, the less controversial this notion becomes.
Following, if our morality and consciousness are irrevocably linked to
the physicality of the brain, then the biology of consciousness offers a
sounder foundation for our moral norms than the dogma of an immortal
soul. (The Economist, Survey on the Mind, November 2007)

David Chalmers, has divided the concept of consciousness into a hard
problem and an easy problem. Importantly, it is the hard problem that
aims to tackle the first-person epistemic experience of what it is to be
aware of our own consciousness and thus, our own morality. Since our
direct knowledge of subjective experience stems from our first-person
access to that experience, subjective experience arguably comprises the
core of what we want a science of consciousness, and, inherently, a
science of our moral reasoning, to explain. Chalmers states, “As I see
it, the science of consciousness is all about relating third-person data
- about brain processes, behavior, environmental interaction, and the
like - to first-person data about conscious experience.” (Chalmers,
First-Person Methods in the Science of Consciousness, 1999) Yet, since
science has not been able to produce a solid explanation for this as of
this moment, its debate still resides squarely within the realm of
philosophical inquiry. So, consequently, we must ask, how is it that an
objective outside experience can give rise to what appears to be a
subjective internal motivation, neural or otherwise? And, subsequently,
are the moral properties of our moral concepts necessarily motivating,
and thus internalist?

Antirealist, J.L. Mackie, develops a
conception of moral claims that is a modern version of error theory.
Based on an idea originally postulated by Hume and Spinoza, Mackie’s
view is a combination of two central claims. The first is that moral
statements are designed to state facts, and thus must possess a
truth-value and have cognitive content. The second is that there is no
such thing as a moral fact. What follows from these two positions is
that all moral claims are false. So, for Mackie, it is important to note
that moral claims are evaluative, prescriptive, and objectively
descriptive. Yet, at the same time, for these moral properties to have
the right semantics, they must also be non-naturalistic. Why? Because
Mackie argues that naturalism is inconsistent when it comes to the
evaluative and prescriptive features of morality. It is ostensibly
incompatible to state that moral properties are both objective actions
and necessarily reason giving- it just seems like it would be queer.
For, if moral reasoning and motive are a function of what is in one’s
own head, then how can they be objective features of the world? Since
Mackie believes that natural properties cannot be necessarily
motivating, he posits that we ought not to subscribe to any naturalist
viewpoint, since, for Mackie, morality must be intrinsically and
internally motivating.

Epistemically, it seems that Mackie is
attracting attention to the same problem that Chalmers is. How in the
world can we know whether these moral properties are actually present
since our sense faculties don’t seem to be able to tell us that they
are? It seems that we would need some sort of faculty of moral intuition
to explain this, yet this also seems highly implausible. So, in
response, the easiest way to circumnavigate the problem is to simply
deny the internal aspects of the argument altogether. If we posit that
it is not packed into our moral claims that our moral properties are
necessarily reason-giving, we deny internalism, and hence, deny Mackie’s
argument. But, is this the correct route to take?

Well, let’s
imagine someone saying the following: “I understand that it is wrong to
steal a car, but since I want the car, I am going to steal it anyway.”
Does this statement truly give us a reason to think that the speaker is
incoherent? Intuitively, it seems that he is not incoherent since he
understands exactly what he is saying; he is just simply an immoral
person. But, importantly, internalism would entail that he was
incoherent, because to say that something is wrong is to say that it is
also necessarily motivating- it is simply built into the meaning of the
word wrong. So, in this respect, we might deem that internalism is

Thus, what is the true account of our morality, moral
reasoning, and moral facts? We have viewed various theories from the
worlds of anti-realism, realism, naturalism, and science, yet, have we
truly uncovered the correct position? If we can stipulate that moral
facts exist, and that, more importantly, that they are not internally
motivating, we can arrive at a weak version of naturalism that is no
worse off than any realist position in science. Yes, there will always
be hard cases and disagreements on what exactly constitutes the meaning
of wrongness. But, is this not true of all natural predicates and their
corresponding properties? As such, it does not follow from the existence
of controversial cases that moral predicates do not express moral
properties. Thus, for a moral case P, the physical facts that make it a P
are the physical facts that make it the case that P is wrong (Dr. Mark
Balaguer, lecture CSULA). And, yes, although it can be difficult to
decide what constitutes the sufficient conditions for wrongness, if we
can avoid giving an analytical definition of wrongness, then perhaps it
is enough for moral realism to say that we simply recognize wrongness
when we see it.

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