In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 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
Roger Crisp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0215


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. 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 Lutz and Lenman 2018 and Ridge 2014, 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. Naturalism as a methodology is well discussed in Nolan 2017.

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

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2007.00102.x

    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.

    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.x

    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.

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

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

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0149.1994.tb02417.x

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

  • Lutz, Matthew and James Lenman. “Moral Naturalism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2018.

    Scholarly introduction, focusing on realist forms of naturalism. Contains sections on the nature of moral naturalism and the reasons for holding it, on objections to it, and on contemporary naturalism (neo-Aristotelianism, Cornell realism, and Jackson’s functionalism). Includes a lengthy bibliography.

  • Nolan, Daniel. “Methodological Naturalism in Metaethics.” In The Routledge Handbook of Metaethics. Edited by Tristram McPherson and David Plunkett, 659–673. New York: Routledge, 2017.

    Helpfully distinguishes the question whether we should be naturalists in our moral theorizing from the question whether we should be metaethical naturalists.

  • Ridge, Michael. “Moral Non-naturalism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014.

    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.

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

  • Suikkanen, Jussi. “Naturalism in Metaethics.” In The Blackwell Companion to Naturalism. Edited by Kelly James Clark, 351–368. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118657775.ch25

    A helpful introduction to moral naturalism, covering the open question argument, arguments for naturalism, and recent developments.

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