NON-LEFTIST ETHICAL NATURALISM:
A coherent alternative to moral relativism
By John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D. -- article originally written December, 2003 but subsequently expanded -- up to 2007)
In moral philosophy the view that "ought" or "is right" statements are ordinary statements about the world (empirical statements) rather than having some privileged and peculiar "moral" quality is termed "ethical naturalism". Like all positions in moral philosophy it has its difficulties but I believe that such difficulties arise from a misunderstanding of how moral statements arise.
In fact, I do not think that the nature of "ought" or "is right" statements is very problematical at all.
It seems to me that statements such as "X is right" (or "X is good" or "You ought to do X") can be unpacked in only four or perhaps five basic ways:
1. I like it when people do X
2. Doing X generally leads to widely desired results
3. It is the will of God that you do X
4. X has an eternal, inescapable, universal "moral" quality.
5. X is the prevailing rule around here (though if the person was asked why that rule exists he would almost certainly reply by referring to some version of one of the preceding three statements).
I think most people would agree that "You ought" statements can mean 1, 2, 3 or 5 above. I do. You might dispute the truth of any of them but you would understand what is being said and understand that it is a factual claim. I would for instance dispute an "ought" statement that is unpacked as 3 above because I am an atheist but I accept that the person making the claim is trying to make a statement of fact that can be proved or disproved in some way.
Interpretation 4 above however is untestable, undemonstrable and hence gibberish -- though it does seem to be widely believed. But lots of clever people believe in global warming so beliefs are neither any proof of anything nor any cause for surprise. Now isn't that simple?
Not everybody agrees that it is simple. A famous objection is the objection by David Hume. David Hume contends that there is an unbridgeable gap between "is" and "ought" statements -- so that you cannot justify "ought" statements by "is" statements. Yet that is precisely what people normally do. An "ought" statement always commends some course of action and when people ask WHY that course of action is commended the reply is often in terms of "is" (empirical) statements (e.g. the commendation of X can be explained as: "X leads to generally desired consequences" or "X leads to consequences that you would like" or "I like X" or "X is the prevailing rule in this culture"). So in my view the fact that an "ought" statement can be explained in that way shows that it is an empirical statement to begin with. Statements in general have all sorts of influences on people (for example, if someone said to me: "Your son has just died", it is clearly an empirical statement but it would also have an enormous influence on me if true. It would cause me to take many actions that I would not otherwise take) and an "ought" statement is an empirical statement with what is expected to be one particular sort of influence -- a commendatory influence. So an "ought" statement is often simply a shorthand (compressed) "is" statement that can be promptly expanded if desired.
A major way in which I differ with many philosophers, however, is that I accept that "ought" statements are used in a variety of ways rather than in one single way and I do not try to make sense out of ALL the ways that they are used. And I have SHOWN that usage of moral language differs from person to person by way of psychological research. As I see it, "ought" statements always commend but they are not always empirical statements. Sometimes they are in fact very incoherent statements (at best pseudo-empirical statements) and I think Hume's difficulty arose out of a determination to find meaning in incoherent uses of "ought" statements (i.e. when "ought" statements are elaborated as being or emanating from timeless and universal rules that are "known" only in some mysterious and untestable way -- typically expressed by saying "X just IS right", with no further explanation given) and I simply regard that quest as a fool's errand. The world is awash with incoherent gibberish and baseless assertions so there is no reason to be either disturbed by it or interested in it when such assertions occur in moral discourse. When I encounter it, my usual response is to point out its incoherence and untestability and then refuse to have any further truck with such things (as I did here).
Being primarily a psychologist, I am of course interested in WHY what I have called incoherent uses of moral terminology arise and I find the explanation given by philosophical psychologist John Maze persuasive: That they are a conscious or unconscious attempt at fraud -- an attempt to persuade by saying that immutable and peculiarly moral properties exist and that they have some claim on us because of that. Maze's work is not online but if you have access to a university library, you can find it in: Maze, J. (1973) "The concept of attitude". Inquiry, 16, 168-205. Maze also had a book published in 1983 called The Meaning of Behaviour which I have not read but which almost certainly would contain similar arguments. I have summarized Maze's arguments at somewhat greater length in my academic paper on the present topic.
Many people -- Roman Catholics in particular -- are nonetheless very attracted to the view that some moral statements just ARE right, regardless of time and place. They say that killing babies is ALWAYS wrong for instance. If one objects that killing babies was perfectly normal and perceived as "right" in the most brilliant civilization of ancient times -- Greece -- they are quite unmoved and just say that the Greeks were wrong. But how do they KNOW? What is their authority or source of information about the "wrongness" concerned? Basically, they cannot tell you. Their only authority is a "gut reaction" and different people in different times and in different places have many different "gut reactions", of course. Pro-abortionists, for instance, seem to have the gut reaction that killing babies is OK as long as the baby is young enough. So "gut reactions" simply reduce to "in my opinion". What starts out looking like a very authoritative statement turns out to have no authoritativeness at all.
Leftists make great hay out of that. They popularly refer to such views as "moral absolutism" (a philosopher would say "ethical non-naturalism") and assert a version of ethical naturalism which is popularly referred to as "moral relativism". They reject what I have called meaning 4 above and say that only meaning 5 is possible for "ought" statements. In other words, they say that right and wrong is only what is accepted behaviour in a given society at a given time. And I in part agree with them. I too believe that there is no timeless and forever fixed right and wrong and that what is right and wrong varies from society to society. That does NOT mean, however, that all ways to live are equally wise -- which is the extension of moral relativism that Leftists usually glide into without people noticing. Leftists normally seem to ignore totally what I have called above meaning 2 for "ought" statements: that some ways of living lead to generally desired outcomes and some do not. Such claims are simple empirical propositions for which there is much evidence. Most people, for instance, desire material prosperity but only some ways of living lead to that. Laziness, for instance generally does not lead to prosperity so laziness is generally unwise, or, in shorthand, "bad" or "wrong". So there is no need for anybody to be embarrassed into abandoning talk of "right" and "wrong". Such terms do have real and important meanings -- even if you are an ethical naturalist.
And at least from Edmund Burke onwards, conservatives have taken the matter one step further. That some value is merely the custom of a given society is taken by Leftists to imply that the value concerned is NOT worthy of respect or continuation. Conservatives draw precisely the opposite conclusion. That some custom has evolved through trial and error over a long period of time is seen by conservatives as indicating that it is probably a wise and valuable custom that should not be abandoned except for very strong reasons. The custom may not be "right" in any absolute, immutable or unimprovable sense but it may still be very wise and valuable in enabling a civil and healthy society to function and give its members what they desire -- such as peace, security and prosperity. In that sense, courage, honesty, democracy and the rule of law are "right". Countries where such values are widespread generally have more peace, security, freedom and prosperity than countries where such values are not widespread. Values and standards of behaviour are very important matters indeed.
Amusingly, however, Leftists are very prone to using the language of right and wrong (which they claim not to believe in) when it suits them. They will claim that things like Apartheid or "racism" are WRONG without batting an eyelid. The moral relativists suddenly become moralists. They will happily say things that they do not remotely believe in if it suits their ends of gaining power and influence. I did some research into the dishonest Leftist use of moral language which is reported here. And when Leftists do use moralistic language, it is rather fun to use the arguments of moral relativism to show how shallow their arguments are -- as here.
It may be that some see a contradiction between my statement above that gut instincts are not authoritative and my statement elsewhere that most morality is instinctive.
There is however a large distinction to be made between the truth of a statement and a person's motivation for making it. What I said above was about truth claims, not about why that claim is made. One hopes that there is usually some connection between the truth of a statement and why people make the statement concerned but that there is no obvious or necessary connection is all too obvious.
Some 2007 research by Haidt would seem to be of considerable interest in connection with the above. Haidt argues that the basis of morality is instinctive but that conservatives display greater cognitive complexity in dealing with moral questions. Given the frequent Leftist assertion that "there is no such thing as right and wrong", that is not inherently surprising. Although they often use moral talk in an attempt to influence others, Leftists would seem, on their own admission, to have no serious interest in or committment to morality of any kind. That does make the invariable brutalities of Communist regimes rather understandable.
Part of a summary of Haidt's research:
"Haidt argues that human morality is a cultural construction built on top of -- and constrained by -- a small set of evolved psychological systems. He presents evidence that political liberals rely primarily on two of these systems, involving emotional sensitivities to harm and fairness. Conservatives, however, construct their moral understandings on those two systems plus three others, which involve emotional sensitivities to in-group boundaries, authority and spiritual purity."
There is a longer account of Haidt's research here
Click here for a list of all John Ray's comments on moral philosophy