Naturalism

Intuitionists, emotivists, and prescriptivists all agree that "facts" are distinct from "values"—that an "ought" cannot be deduced from an "is." G. E. Moore coined the term, "the naturalistic fallacy," to describe the frequent attempts on the part of philosophers to define "the good" by deducing it from some matter of fact about human beings and their desires. A number of philosophers have challenged this no-ought-from-an-is doctrine by providing counterexamples to it, in effect denying that the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy.

Philippa Foot (1959), for example, has cited "rude" and "courageous" as concepts whose evaluative meaning cannot be pried from their descriptive meaning. The criteria for identifying someone as "rude" or "courageous" are factual. If someone fits a given description, one has warrant for saying that he or she is rude or courageous; thus, the proposition "She is rude/courageous" is cognitive. But to describe someone as rude is to evaluate that person negatively. Consider the absurdity of saying: "You're rude, cowardly, and abusive, but that isn't meant as a put-down." So, according to Foot, valid moral arguments can draw evaluative conclusions from factual premises.

Peter Geach (1956) makes an analogous point in his analyses of "good." To say that a thing is good is to say something concerning the kind of thing it is. "Good" does not mean precisely the same thing in the following sentences: "That car is good"; "that watch is a good watch"; and "Mohandas Gandhi was good." To say of each one of these that it is good is to employ criteria determined by the kind of thing being evaluated. But this is to say, again against the emotivist and the prescriptivist, that the criteria that fix the meaning of evaluative terms such as "good" are not ultimately matters of choice, but rather matters of fact. To know a good watch, one needs to know what a watch is and what it is for; to know a good person, one, likewise, must know what a human being is and those ends at which humans aim in their actions.

Finally, John Searle (1964) accuses noncognitivists of harboring an arbitrarily constricted notion of what constitutes a "fact." Human institutions are part of what is the case, and these "institutional facts" can appear in descriptive premises in valid deductive arguments that generate evaluative conclusions. For example, to acknowledge the institution of promising is to grant that under certain circumstances, when one utters the words, "I promise to do X," one places oneself under an obligation to do X, and therefore is obliged to do X, and therefore one ought to do X. Because institutional facts are determined by the rules guiding the aims and actions of participants, one can deduce values from them.

Naturalists sketch a picture of moral language in which moral concepts are understood by deriving them from nonmoral, "naturalistic" ones, upon which moral knowledge rests. A robust naturalism in bioethics, then, would show no qualms about defining "the good" or "the right" in a medical context by appealing to certain key facts about human beings (e.g., their pain, dignity, mortality, etc.) and about the social and institutional setting for these facts.

At this point, however, the prescriptivist can offer a rebuttal that is difficult to answer on the naturalist's own terms without begging an important question. The prescriptivist concedes that moral language necessarily has a factual or descriptive component, but insists that it also makes ineliminable reference to the agent's desires, aims, and wishes. These can be more or less rational depending on whether their satisfaction interferes with or complements other sets of desires, aims, and wishes, but no desire can be judged rational or irrational per se. These basic desires and attitudes might differ from person to person; there is no escaping the fundamental choice behind all evaluations and prescriptions. So when the naturalist claims to have deduced an "ought" from an "is," either the major premise harbors an implicit prescription (e.g., "One ought to honor institutions like promise-keeping") or the argument is not a strict deduction.

Naturalists might reply that the "natural" premises to which they appeal and that ground moral judgment and description are rooted not in the desires or aims of individuals but in general facts about human nature of which it is the philosopher's job to remind us. For example, Aristotle understood eudaimonia, or "human flourishing," to be the good for a human being, because it was a result of acting in accord with one's rational human nature; Thomas Aquinas defined the good in terms of human creatures' reestablishing a right relation to God; and John Stuart Mill's psychological theories stand behind his definition of the good as pleasure seeking and pain avoidance. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Mill all pursued ethics in the context ofwhat might be called "philosophical anthropology." Yet this simply elevates the naturalist's dispute with the prescriptivist to a higher level of abstraction. The prescriptivist could deny that there is any fact of the matter that might constrain the choice between philosophical anthropologies, while the naturalist could just as adamantly insist upon it. Thus naturalism might provide a coherent, consistent alternative to prescriptivism, but only by accepting philosophical stalemate at a higher level.

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