«Co-supervisors: E. David Cook, Fellow, Green College, Oxford University R. J. Berry, Emeritus Professor of Genetics, FIBiol, FRSE, University College ...»
An Appraisal of Naturalism in Contemporary Meta-Ethics
David Christopher Lahti
B.S., Gordon College
Dissertation submitted for the degree of Ph.D. in philosophy (ethics) on
28 February 1998.
The Whitefield Institute, Oxford.
E. David Cook, Fellow, Green College, Oxford University
R. J. Berry, Emeritus Professor of Genetics, FIBiol, FRSE, University College London
Reformatted and repaginated for Letter sized paper, 2000.
None of the following has been submitted previously for any degree or other qualification to this or any other university or institution; nor has any part of it been contributed by another party than the author, excepting passages which are enclosed in quotation marks and referenced by footnote; nor has any part of it been published.
Dedication To our friends who comprised 'The Recreators', with whom the inspiration for this thesis was given its first expression Hold thou the good: define it well;
For fear divine Philosophy Should push beyond her mark...
-Tennyson, In Memoriam, liii.
ii Acknowledgments My deepest and foremost gratitude is extended to my wife April, for constant patience and frequent extended discussions on nearly all the significant points in this thesis. I thank also my supervisors: David Cook of Green College, Oxford, and Sam Berry of University College London.
For the help provided by others, most significantly Kate Rawles of Lancaster University, I am greatly appreciative. Other philosophers and scientists who have taken time to read and discuss portions of this or earlier drafts are Roger Crisp of St. Anne's College, Oxford; Jimmy Lenman of Lancaster University; Felicity McCutcheon, Visiting Fellow at Christ Church College, Oxford; Holmes Rolston III of Colorado State University; and Michael Ruse of University of Guelph. Each has contributed to the improvement of this dissertation, although any remaining shortcomings are exclusively my own.
For helpful discussions I am thankful to Caroline King, formerly Visiting Fellow at St. Cross College, Oxford; and Roger Trigg of the University of Warwick.
My appreciation must also be mentioned for the teachers and trainers who are responsible for cultivating in me much of what was necessary to conceive and complete this thesis. For fanning a spark of interest in philosophy I didn't know I had, I thank David Cook again, and David Aiken of Gordon College. For my scientific training I am grateful to Richard Wright of Gordon College, together with the others who were at the biology department there and at Au Sable Institute in Michigan during 1990-93. Lastly, for raising me, teaching me, and providing for me so that I could have all of these experiences and opportunities, I thank my parents Ben and Jean Lahti.
The view that ethics is a discipline which can operate within the constraints of naturalism, whereby all principles, properties and terms are accessible to natural science, can be subdivided into logical, semantic, and synthetic. Logical naturalists defend the naturalist claim with an appeal to the validity of the logical progression from premises without moral terms to conclusions with them.
Semantic naturalists defend it with an appeal to an analytical equivalence between certain nonmoral and moral expressions. Both of these approaches have been thoroughly criticised in this century.
Relatively recently, naturalists have begun to defend their naturalist thesis not from either of these perspectives, but with a direct appeal to synthetic facts which can be employed or referred to in scientific explanations. Effective critique of naturalist theories of this newer type involves examination of both the scientific and the ethical claims made. One such synthetic naturalist approach to ethics is the evolutionary naturalism proposed by Michael Ruse. Critique based on a thorough examination of both the science of sociobiology and the moral philosophy involved in Ruse's theory yields informative conclusions, rendering his theory implausible from both perspectives. In light of this case study, a general strategy of argument can be developed which has potential for critique of other naturalistic ethical theories as well. This strategy is the Argument from Moral Experience, which operates by comparing descriptive claims regarding the fundamental nature of morality that are presented or implied by ethical theories, with the fundamental nature of morality as it is actually experienced. If arguments of this type are sound, they can be used in an exploration of whether or not naturalism is an appropriate perspective for morality to be understood and explained properly.
INTRODUCTIONChapter I: AN EXPOSITION OF ETHICAL NATURALISM A. The Naturalist Claim in Ethics B. Varying Levels of Justification of the Naturalist Claim C. The Relationship Between These Levels Chapter II: AN INTERPRETATION OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY CRITIQUE OF NATURALISM A. Attention to Level in Talk of Naturalism B. Arguments Against Naturalism on the Logical Level C. Arguments Against Naturalism on the Semantic Level D. Final Court of Appeal: Naturalism on the Synthetic Level E. Towards an Examination of a Particular Synthetic Naturalist Theory
Chapter III: EVOLUTIONARY NATURALISM IN ETHICS: AN APPROACH DESCRIBED
AND CRITICISEDA. Evolutionary Biology: A Brief Overview of the Science B. Sociobiology and the Biological Basis for Altruism C. Sociobiological Meta-Ethics: Description D. Sociobiological Meta-Ethics: Critique
E. ConclusionsChapter IV: SYNTHETIC NATURALISM AND THE ARGUMENT FROM
MORAL EXPERIENCEA. The Argument from Moral Experience
In the beginning of the seventeenth century Sir Francis Bacon mourned that science in his time was so embryonic that it could not even distinguish between what is good to wish for in life and what is not; but he spoke of a future where a complete science would remedy this situation.2 Thirty years later, René Descartes, delighted with recent scientific discoveries, was led to assert that 'all things, to the knowledge of which man is competent, are mutually connected in the same way', and so the same method is sufficient for understanding everything we are able to understand.3 He wrote of 'morals' as one of the most important areas that would someday be elucidated by the growing science.4 Towards the end of that century, John Locke too came to the conclusion that the new science would provide the keys for understanding morality, and explained something of what the new scientific ethics might look like when it was developed.5 The idea of 'science' has certainly been scrutinised and heavily debated since those early modern years. Some of today's prominent scientists and philosophers hold ideas about the nature of science which are very different from those of the early pioneers;6 whilst others describe the significant and meaningful continuity which has been maintained through the centuries.7 Whatever the relationship between the science of Bacon's day and that of our own, we are nearing four hundred years 1 Cross-referencing in this thesis follows the following rule: capitalised Roman numerals refer to chapters, capitalised letters to sections, and Arabic numerals and lower-case letters to subsections. (E.g. 'see IV.B.3a').
3 Descartes (1637), 16.
5 The general belief is asserted in Locke (1689), IV.iii.18-20; the outline of his ethical theory is proposed in II.xxi.31-47.
7 e.g. Stephen Hawking (1993), Preface; and Peter Medawar (1984).
Introduction 2 since the first of the confident prophecies above, and it may be interesting today to discuss the same issue in our own terms. Can science (however it might be understood today) provide all the raw materials which ethics requires in order to describe morality?8 This thesis will be an examination of this question and a contribution to the search for an answer.
Such an exploration could only be helpful, however, if it is sensitive to the historical backdrop of such questions at this point in the history of philosophy. We are presently at the end of a century during which this type of question has been asked and answered by a great number of philosophers.
Sensitivity to this history will affect at least two aspects of an exploration in this area: the terminology used, and the arguments presented.
The Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore sought to pin a label on a certain group of those who believed that science could provide the key to understanding morality. In his seminal work Principia
Ethica he elaborated upon their view, which he held to be erroneous:
'Ethics is an empirical or positive science: its conclusions could be all established by means of empirical observation and induction... This method consists in substituting for "good" some one property of a natural object or of a collection of natural objects; and in thus replacing Ethics by some one of the natural sciences... By "nature", then, I do mean and have meant that which is the subject-matter of the natural sciences and also of psychology.'9 Moore therefore concluded that the concept of 'natural sciences', and thus 'nature', was central to this view, so he categorised it as 'naturalism'.10 For Moore, and for many philosophers before and since who have used the term, 'naturalism' means other things in addition to the bare notion that science
provides the necessary raw materials for doing ethics; some of these are implied in this very passage.11 But this one root aspect of his understanding of 'naturalism' does by itself provide a safe and appropriately inclusive understanding of the term, in the opinions of several who claim to be providing overviews of modern philosophy. For instance, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy describes naturalism in general as dependent on the 'natural',12 which is defined as 'accessible to investigation by the natural sciences'.13 When applied to ethics, then, naturalism becomes the idea that any ethical property or term is 'one that can be employed or referred to in natural scientific explanations.'14 In a detailed history of naturalism, Philip Kitcher describes it as the attempt to use 'science to address the great questions of epistemology and ethics'.15 'Towards Fin de Siécle Ethics: Some Trends', another comprehensive paper which describes and assesses twentieth-century approaches to ethics, assumes this understanding of the concept as well.16 On this understanding of naturalism, the term is defined with respect to science. Another way of defining 'naturalism' is for 'nature' to be the fundamental idea instead, such that 'naturalism is something to do with nature'.17 This route might be better because it does not beg any questions about the content of nature or the extent of its accessibility to science, for the term 'nature' admits of a great latitude of interpretation. In fact, one study (and this before the bulk of this century's debate on naturalism!) distinguished thirty-nine definitions of 'nature', twenty-seven of them explicitly normative in a way relevant to ethics.18 Perhaps moral philosophers such as John McDowell and Peter Simpson, who have conceptions of 'nature' which are larger (to differing extents) than that portion of the world 11 For example, neither the claim that the term 'good' must be substituted by a natural property, nor the claim that ethics is substituted by a single natural science, is entailed by the idea that science encompasses ethics. With respect to the former claim, one could believe that science renders ethics ungrounded in any properties. With respect to the latter, one could believe that ethics is not encompassed by a single science but is a field which incorporates the conclusions of many sciences.
13 Lacey (1995), 603.
15 Kitcher (1992), 53. The relationship between epistemological and ethical naturalism is dealt with briefly in I.A, and I.B.2a.
17 Ruse (1995), 1. Ruse does later become more precise.
Introduction 4 that science presents to us, should nevertheless bear the label 'naturalism'. This, in addition to being an etymologically more respectable move, would prevent the above philosophers from being construed misleadingly as 'supernaturalists' or 'nonnaturalists', when both of them firmly insist on the naturalness of goodness in some sense.19 The imprecision of a definition of 'naturalism' in terms of 'nature' should perhaps be endured rather than evaded. But, since this thesis deals with the prospect of science providing the key to understanding morality, and since so many significant comprehensive works in recent years have used 'naturalism' to represent this prospect, such terminology will be retained here.
Any conclusions, therefore, cannot be seen to relate to the question of whether goodness is natural, unless 'natural' is defined in terms of science.