In This Article Moral Naturalism and Nonnaturalism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies and Special Issues
  • Nonrealist Naturalism
  • Analytical Naturalism
  • Realist Naturalism or “Cornell Realism”
  • Contemporary Nonnaturalism
  • Neo-Aristotelian Naturalism

Philosophy Moral Naturalism and Nonnaturalism
by
Roger Crisp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0215

Introduction

Understood broadly, the debate between naturalists and nonnaturalists in ethics concerns the question of how morality, and in particular moral value, is related to the natural world. In contemporary philosophy, this is usually seen as primarily a metaphysical issue, though in the past the term “nonnaturalism” was sometimes applied to intuitionist positions in epistemology. Moral naturalists can be divided into two categories, realist and nonrealist. Realist naturalists believe that moral properties are a subset of natural properties, or are in some sense identical with or constituted by such properties. Nonrealist naturalists believe that although we can speak of moral properties, those properties are not themselves real in the way that natural properties are: their attribution may be the result of, say, our expressing certain attitudes we have, rather than our detecting certain properties “out there” in the world. This nonrealist view can still be described as a form of moral naturalism, since it seeks a naturalistic account of morality. However the metaphysical debate is understood, some account of what it is for a property to be natural will be required. This debate continues, but one position, influenced by G. E. Moore, identifies the natural properties in some way with those properties that feature in scientific explanations, or that are in some sense reducible to or constructible from such properties. But that of course raises the question of what counts as a science. The term “naturalism” is also often used to refer to theories, usually neo-Aristotelian, according to which value is bound up with human nature.

General Overviews

Good places to start are Lenman 2008 and Ridge 2010, followed by Dancy 2006, Sturgeon 2006, and Cuneo 2007. But anyone seriously interested in the modern debate will soon want to get to grips with Moore 1903 (cited under the Naturalistic Fallacy and Moore’s Nonnaturalism). Franklin 1973 provides good historical background. Those especially interested in the issue of realism should consult Little 1994 and Finlay 2007.

  • Cuneo, Terence. “Recent Faces of Moral Nonnaturalism.” Philosophy Compass 2.6 (2007): 850–879.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2007.00102.xE-mail Citation »

    Provides a definition of, and arguments for, nonnaturalism. Includes a detailed discussion of work by Kit Fine, Jean Hampton, and Russ Shafer-Landau.

  • Dancy, Jonathan. “Nonnaturalism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Edited by David Copp, 122–145. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Helpful survey including a critique of naturalism and an introduction to Derek Parfit’s arguments from triviality and normativity.

  • Finlay, Stephen. “Four Faces of Moral Realism.” Philosophy Compass 2.6 (2007): 820–849.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2007.00100.xE-mail Citation »

    Places discussion of naturalism and nonnaturalism within the context of recent debates on moral realism. Includes a discussion of naturalism in the work of Paul Bloomfield, Philippa Foot, and Michael Smith, and of nonnaturalism in that of Russ Shafer-Landau and T. M. Scanlon.

  • Franklin, R. L. “Recent Work on Ethical Naturalism.” American Philosophical Quarterly 7 (1973): 55–95.

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    Covers the lively debate between Foot, Hare, and others in the 1960s, referring to over 250 items.

  • Lenman, James. “Moral Naturalism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2008.

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    Scholarly introduction, focusing on realist forms of naturalism. Contains sections on the open question argument, internalism, and contemporary naturalism (neo-Aristotelianism, Cornell realism, and Jackson’s functionalism). Includes a lengthy bibliography.

  • Little, Margaret. “Moral Realism.” Philosophical Books 35 (1994): 145–153, 225–232.

    E-mail Citation »

    Outlines the arguments of US naturalists and British nonnaturalists in the late 20th century.

  • Ridge, Michael. “Moral Non-naturalism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2010.

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    Useful survey, distinguishing between different varieties of nonnaturalism: the semantic thesis that moral predicates cannot be analyzed in nonnormative terms; the epistemic thesis that certain moral propositions are self-evident (intuitionism); the metaphysical thesis that moral properties are not to be identified with or seen as reducible to natural properties. Covers G. E. Moore, the issue of motivation, and supervenience. Includes a bibliography.

  • Sturgeon, Nicholas. “Ethical Naturalism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Edited by David Copp, 91–121. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Introduction by a major naturalist of the “Cornell realist” school. Covers both metaphysical and epistemological aspects of the debate.

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