Naturalism and Norms

My recent exchange with Taner on ethical naturalism (EN) prompted a good bit of stimulating comment and criticism. I’ve been out of town for a couple of weeks and away from blogging, so I have not been able to reply to each comment as it arrived. Rather than attempt to do so now, I would like to address the issue that seems to me to be at the heart of much of the discussion: How do naturalists justify norms? The prima facie problem is this: Norms tell us what should be, not what is. Many philosophers accept Hume’s argument that a recitation of the facts, however detailed or nuanced, cannot entail an “ought.” Hume concluded that “ought” is something we bring into the discussion as a consequence of our feelings, our feelings of approbation or disapprobation as he often puts it.

Hume’s subjectivism is a form of moral antirealism. That is, for the subjectivist, moral judgments, though they take the form of factual assertions, cannot really assert facts. “Murder is wrong,” though superficially similar to “Fluorine is a halogen,” does not assert that an objective property, wrongness, somehow attaches to the act of murder. Rather, saying that murder is wrong is a roundabout way of expressing the collective sense of revulsion we feel towards heinous acts (I call Hume an “intersubjectivist” because he invokes the collective rather than individual sentiments). Moral realism, on the other hand, holds that judgments like “murder is wrong” or “abortion is wrong” are assertions capable of being true or false. Rightness and wrongness are objective properties (perhaps non-natural ones) of acts, volitions, intentions, or whatever is the subject of moral judgments.

EN is a form of moral realism. Ethical naturalists hold that true moral judgments express facts. The true judgment that an action is good expresses the fact that the act really does tend to promote objective value. Educating children, for example, is good because it tends to promote the objective value of human well being. What, then, constitutes value and what makes it objective? A value is the basis of a norm, and, concomitantly, a norm is a rule that admonishes us to perform acts that tend to promote the realization of what we value. For instance, the norm “always practice safe sex” tells us to practice behaviors that tend to promote the objective value of health. Ethical naturalists therefore justify norms by their actual tendency to promote objective value like health. For the ethical naturalist, a norm is simply information about how a value may be actualized. Norms are not distinct from facts. A normative assertion is a factual assertion: If you want to promote the realization of value V (e.g., health), then do X (e.g., practice safe sex). Thus, for EN, ethical imperatives are hypothetical, not categorical.

All of this would have horrified Kant, of course. For Kant a genuinely ethical imperative must be categorical. It must be binding on all rational creatures qua rational. A merely hypothetical imperative is not binding on someone who rejects the desideratum specified in the antecedent clause of the hypothetical imperative: “If you want x, then do y.” For instance, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man repudiates happiness, and prefers to be spiteful despite the fact that living spitefully deprives him of happiness. In this case, the norms that tell us to promote happiness would not apply to that person. He does not even value happiness for himself, so why should we expect him to desire happiness for others? For Kant, a genuinely ethical injunction cannot depend on our contingent desires (as, e.g., for happiness), but must be dictated by reason itself.

I think that most critics of EN find it unsatisfactory because, at bottom, like Kant, they want a categorical imperative, and EN can only provide hypothetical imperatives. Value for ethical naturalists can only be value for creatures of a certain organic constitution who, in virtue of that constitution, will find certain things valuable. Further, ethical naturalists think the Kantian idea that a substantial account of norms can be derived from pure practical reason is a fantasy. Indeed, speaking for myself, I find the whole idea of a categorical imperative, one binding on all rational creatures qua rational, to be extremely dubious. As Kant recognized, a norm based only upon what pure reason gives us has not got much to go on. Indeed, since it can have no contingent basis, it must be based only upon the pure abstract form of universal moral law. The result is the famous, and vacuous, injunction: Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law. But practically any scheme of deranged wickedness can be made consistent with this rule. Nazis, the Taliban, and the Khmer Rouge could all declare that their maxims (e.g., “repress all non-Aryans”) should be universal law.

“Pure reason” then can tell us precious little about which norms to adopt. A sufficient ground for norms will have to specify some substantial set of values, so we are back with the question of where values come from. For ethical naturalism values are empirical discoveries. We find that humans do in fact flourish when they live in certain ways and enjoy certain circumstances. What is valuable for human beings is therefore whatever is conducive to, or constitutive of, human flourishing. It follows that on EN values are objective. Humans flourish in certain conditions and not others. That is a fact. It is not a matter of choice, or, at least, not entirely. If someone says that they are happier letting their brain rot watching garbage TV (apologies for the redundancy), then that person is wrong, just as wrong as someone who says that a diet of Whoppers and Twinkies is as good for you as a balanced diet.

“But why should I care for human well-being, even my own?” demands the Underground Man. When someone asks a question like this, what is he really asking? Is he asking what makes human well-being valuable? As Aristotle points out at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, you can justify a good by showing that it is conducive to another good, and that good by showing that it leads to another, and so forth. However, when you come to the highest good—that good that lies at the end of chain of justifying goods—there is no further to go. If human well-being is found to be the summum bonum, then there can be no further or higher good to justify its goodness; we simply find it to be that which is valuable for its own sake and not for anything else. This will be the case for any summum bonum in any system of ethics.

What the Underground Man really seems to mean is this: What moral obligation do I have to value human happiness? Most moralists, Peter Singer, for instance, hold that we are morally obligated to care for the well being of others, for instance starving children in impoverished countries. Indeed, Singer holds that we are so strongly obligated that we should be willing to significantly simplify our own lifestyles so that we can devote more (if not most) of our income to Oxfam. Can EN support the judgment that we are morally obligated to care for the wretched of the earth, or can it only say that we do, in fact, care for them?

I’ll bite the bullet. If someone says honestly (and is not just being an asshole) that he does not care for human well-being—not even his own—then I do not see how EN can rationally engage that person and convince him to follow any norm. As I say, for EN norms are hypothetical imperatives; they have a tacit antecedent clause “If you value human well-being.” If someone honestly and consistently rejects that antecedent, then, as an ethical naturalist, I can offer no argument to persuade that person to follow ethical norms. I have no categorical imperative to impose on them. What I can do is to test the honesty and consistency of that person’s rejection of human well-being.

I am reminded of a story about a student in an introductory ethics class who turned in a brilliant paper defending ethical nihilism. The professor graded the essay and returned it to the student. The professor commented: “Brilliant paper. It is cogently argued, clearly written, effectively organized, and well-researched. One of the best undergraduate essays I have received. Grade: F.” The understandably chagrined student inquired about his grade and the professor merely shrugged and said “I just don’t like you and I was in a bad mood when I graded it.” Pretty soon, of course, the student realized what the professor was getting at: If you honestly reject morality, you have no grounds for complaint when you are treated unfairly. (According to the story the professor changed the grade to “A” when the student got the point). People who declare themselves indifferent to human well-being, even their own, could also be put to such tests.

In my experience, to get people to do the right thing, you do not convince them to have certain values, but remind them of what they do in fact value. One of the chief justifications of the study of the humanities is that great works of literature and art engage us in such a way that they make us confront our real values and to make decisions about what really is important in life. For instance, reading the Oresteia makes you confront what you really feel about vengeance. Aeschylus masterfully makes you feel Clytaemnestra’s obsessive hatred and rage, and the terrible satisfaction she feels when she gluts her (justifiable) outrage in hacking Agamemnon. Aeschylus shows that vindictiveness devours you from the inside like a parasite, until it consumes you entirely. You cannot read the Oresteia without having to confront your feelings, your true feelings, about vengeance. Great art and literature, by engaging our emotions at a very deep level, have the power to penetrate self-deception, pretension, and ideology to make us confront what really, fundamentally matters to us. Philosophical argument is a very weak tool, far inferior to literature, when it comes to reminding people of their true values.

Indeed, how would any system of ethics argue with the Underground Man? If you tell him that God wants him to care for himself and other people, he could just as easily reply that he does not care what God wants and why should he? If you respond that God will send him to hell if he does not do what God wants, you are merely threatening him, not engaging him in ethical debate. Ethical naturalists could threaten too, though we lack the sanction of eternal punishment. Really, if there are no categorical imperatives, all norms in any ethical system will be hypothetical imperatives, and can be rationally rejected with the rejection of the value named in the antecedent clause. The upshot is that EN seems to be no worse off when it comes to formulating and inculcating ethical norms than any other ethical system.