Three Challenges for Naturalistic Ethics

By: John D. Ferrer
Originally: 13 January 2013, updated 28 September 2014

It is common for naturalistic thinkers in ethics to argue that our moral values are derived entirely from nature. Moral facts are facts of nature. For example, DNA wires us to desire pleasure and avoid pain. Our environment fosters community values, and social normas. Evolution filters out extreme deviancy and selects for altruism (charity, mercy, etc.). In schools today, naturalistic ethics is quite common if not the majority view in ethics departments around the country. Yet entering students are far more often raised with a different ethical framework, usually a religious framework where moral goodness is outlined in Scripture or based in God’s nature. For the student trying to forge a path for himself in the university, it may help to have a few responses ready in the event that an ethics teacher proves antagonistic to religious ethics.

  • The “Is-ought” problem—if nature is what it is, where do “oughts” come from? That is, moral prescriptions are a different category from the descriptions of nature we find in the sciences. This problem is well known in ethics, but it’s often misunderstood and rarely if ever solved. Christian ethics, for example, allows that nature can possess the endowed intentions of its creator. God made animals to serve people and populate the earth. God made man to care for the earth, love each other, and honor God. With a divine mind at back of nature, nature can carry His intentions even if it’s not itself intelligent and cannot “intend” things like moral duties.
  • The Problem of Relativism—some professors are committed relativists, others are working hard to avoid it. But however you slice, relativism is a compelling option intellectually even while it offends our moral senses. To justify objective ethics and avoid relativism one needs an objective basis that all people everwhere answer to. Nature doesn’t seem to have this, at least not any sort that is also moral. Also, moral laws differ widely across cultures, and (for naturalists) the grounds for ethics tend to be human desires and intentions. Since those desires and intentions vary between people and cultures, morality would seem to be relative. But several weaknesses stand out. Here are three. First relativism trivializes morality interpreting “Rape is evil” as dislike (“I don’t like rape”), emotional distaste (“Rape is icky gross.”), desire (“I don’t want to be raped.”), or natural hardwiring (“Evolution made me think rape is evil.”). None of these encompass what we really mean when we say, “Rape is evil.” Second, relativism prevents affirmation or disagreement with other people or cultures. If Turkey agrees to kill hundreds of thousands of Armenians then that’s “good” for them and our culture can’t judge them. If Bob enjoys banging his head against the wall, then who are we to judge? If France promotes freedom of speech we can’t even judge them to be right as that would be “passing judgment.” Third and finally, in cultural relativism minority views are intrinsically wrong/evil. Martin Luther was wrong to oppose catholic abuses since the majority disagreed with him. Relativism justifies some heinous things and is highly problematic.
  • A Thought Experiment on Nature: What if nature had produced a radically different set of values for people such as (a) killing the sick, elderly, and slow is “good;” and (b) loving outsiders is “evil,” would those values then be true? that is, would it be factually true that when people agree with those values? If the evolutionist says “Yes,” then he admits that his ethics are arbitrary or relative on the evidence of nature (see #2). If he says “No,” then he has smuggled in leverage from outside of nature. to be more specific, evolution could have made any number of atrocious outcomes to be normal for human populations just as it did for other animal populations. some animals eat their young, some rape their mates, some throw poo everywhere. All of these are offensive to our senses, yet all of it is arbitrary on the evidence of evolution.

Ethics is a great area of study, but be warned. There are a lot of bad and even dangerous ideas circulating in philosophical ethics and students should be careful and calculating in how they approach this field. These three challenges should help the naturalist refine and develop his ethics beyond many of his peers in naturalistic ethics. And for the religious ethicist, these challenges—used skillfully—may help forge a place for your own ethical system to survive.


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