Larry Solum has a typically insightful post responding to Matt Evans’s criticism of Richard Dawkins for proposing a naturalistic ethics. I think Larry’s criticisms are spot on, but for my money much too tentative.
Matt relies on a fairly crude no ought from an is principle. It’s notoriously difficult to get a statement of that principle that isn’t vulnerable to immediate and obvious objections. I won’t go through them all here, partially because I’d rather discuss the ethics than the logic of this point, and partially because Gillian Russell has a nice summary of the objections in her paper In Defense of Hume’s Law. As the title suggests, she thinks some version of the no ought from an is principle can be salvaged, but it’s clear that it won’t be easy.
But let’s set aside the technical concerns about the premises. The real problem is the conclusion that Matt reaches. Here’s the important passages.
[T]here are no ethics in naturalism. Naturalism is an acceptance of what is, and ethics is the domain of what should be. There is no way to bridge the is/ought gap without referencing an extra-natural source. ..Other atheists and agnostics take naturalism seriously; they believe there are no moral absolutes, there are no ethics. .. To these people it isn’t wrong to kill Jews for being Jewish, it’s just that some people think it’s wrong to do so. Though I spoke with many atheists and agnostics in college and law school, I never found one who adopted this view. …Dawkins was wrong when he said his ethics are based on naturalism. His religion, like all others, ultimately rests on non-rational faith.
The core point seems to be that without some non-natural entity there are no ethics. Let’s spell out some conclusions of this position, because really it is just about the most absurd thing anyone could possibly say.
Say we know the following facts about the world. It contains creatures who are capable of feeling pleasure and pain, who have hopes and plans and fears and regrets, who are capable of great learning, and creating works of great beauty, who often love their children and parents and occasionally love each other, and who have emotional attachments to those people who they love so they are affected by the pleasures, pains, successes, failures etc of those they love. Now a naturalist could easily come to know all these things about the world.
The person who thinks naturalism can’t ground ethics thinks that we could know all those things about the world and still think it’s a wide open empirical question whether it is morally wrong to torture one of those creatures for one’s own amusement, or to kill all of these creatures to relieve a minor headache one has, and so on. Now I can imagine that some people really do think this is an open question, but only because some people are psychopaths. I really don’t think that anyone around here seriously thinks that in such a position we have to do extra work to find out whether it’s right or wrong to torture these creatures for fun. We already know enough to know full well that it isn’t. (Which is not to say that anyone who says that there’s no naturalistic ethics is psychopathic, but rather that they just aren’t being careful enough about following through the consequences of their own position.)
In case this isn’t entirely obvious (and frankly I can hardly think of a more secure premise in ethics, but just in case) try the following thought experiment. Imagine we find out tomorrow that all theistic theories are just wrong. (Everyone makes mistakes.) There’s really nothing around here but us baryons. Would anyone, I mean anyone, think that suddenly we had no ethical obligations whatsoever? That it was now OK to torture babies for fun? To put the point in Bayesian terms, anyone whose confidence in any extra-natural hypothesis is as high as their confidence in the proposition that it’s wrong to torture babies for fun has a very odd worldview.
There’s an analogy here with an argument Jerry Fodor makes in one of his attacks on teleosemantics. On some teleosemantic theories, it would turn out that if Darwin was completely wrong and we really were all created by a divine being, none of our words or mental states would mean anything. But maybe Darwin was completely wrong and we really were all created by a divine being. It’s not very likely, but everyone makes mistakes. It isn’t at all plausible that if Darwin messed up then none of our words or thoughts mean anything at all. So evolutionary theories of content can’t be necessarily true.
The analogy here cuts reasonably deep. Since evolutionary theories are true, they may affect the precise nature of our semantic theories. In particular it’s probable that the evolutionary facts affect the boundaries of biological terms. And similarly if an extra-natural theory of some kind is true, it’s possible that it will affect the precise nature of our moral theories. (But note it’s not trivial to see how theistic theories could have such an effect, a fact I’ll come back to presently.)
Since naturalism and ethical obligation are clearly compossible, any argument that they aren’t must be mistaken. Still, it’s fun to run through (over?) some of the simpler arguments that they are not.
For example, some may argue that you can’t have ethics in a natural world because it’s impossible to see how to logically derive ethical claims from microphysical descriptions of reality. But this is probably just a fact about our inability to engage in complex reasoning. After all, it’s more or less impossible to see how to derive economic facts from microphysical descriptions of reality, but still I’m pretty sure that statements like “Inflation was higher in Britain in the 1970s than the 1990s” are true, and are true solely in virtue of the arrangement of microphysical particles around the world. Just how the connection between microphysics and economics is maintained is a mystery, but there must be one. Facts about inflation are not magical facts that need to be ‘added in’ to the physical world, even if it isn’t clear exactly where they are to be found in it.
Similarly, some will argue that naturalism and ethics are incompatible because it isn’t entirely clear in virtue of exactly what natural feature of the world it is wrong to torture babies for fun. Maybe, as Larry suggests, an explanation in terms of what makes for natural flourishing will be the start of a solution. But you know, this question stays hard even if we add in extra-natural entities. The arguments in the Euthyphro against the claim that something is good in virtue of being loved by the god(s) still look pretty good. The problem of saying what makes an action right or wrong is a hard problem for everyone. To conclude from that that the naturalists can’t answer it is a bad mistake.
Slight disclaimer: I know there are arguments more serious than a blog entry for the views I’ve been ridiculing here. A decent response to them all would also take longer than a blog entry. But essentially my response is going to be the same kind of Moorean response. (Kind of because I’m being a Moorean about epistemology to draw very anti-Moorean conclusions in ethics.) I’m more confident that torturing babies for fun is wrong, even if there is no super-natural force in the world, than I am in the premises of any complex philosophical argument, so if you have a complex philosophical argument for the conclusion that whether torturing babies for fun depends on the presence of super-natural entities, I’m just going to reject one or more of your premises. Given enough time, I’ll usually be able to figure out which premise I want to reject.
More serious disclaimer: This is my second pro-Bright post in two weeks, which is quite disturbing since I really don’t want to stand up for them particularly. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to endorse bad anti-Bright arguments.
Final disclaimer: This has been edited slightly to moderate somewhat some of the ranting, and edited to fix a typo.