Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Naturalism and Ethics

Some Thoughts on Naturalism and Ethics

Can naturalism provide the needed intellectual framework in which objective values make sense?  A number of theistic philosophers have answered in the negative.  Earlier in this presentation I presented the thought of William Lane Craig and his understanding of Christian-theistic ethics regarding the areas of objective moral values, objective moral duties, and moral accountability.  Dr. Craig has also argued: “If theism is false, we do not have a sound foundation for morality.”[1]  Paul Copan argues similarly:

An ethic rooted in naturalistic evolution ends up being subjectivistic and ultimately reduces to relativism.  Ethics is simply illusory, as [Michael] Ruse argues (and, as [Daniel] Dennett notes, naturalistic evolution doesn’t leave room for genuine natural rights).  So Westerners may find abhorrent practices such as female circumcision or a widow’s self-immolation on the funeral pyre of her husband (outlawed in India under the British Raj).  But why presuppose moral duties or human dignity and rights?  On what metaphysical basis should one oppose such practices?  If ethical beliefs are simply hardwired into us for our fitness and survival, we have no reason to think these beliefs are true; they simply are.[2]

Sometimes it is alleged that moral virtue can be objectively obtained by looking for that which maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures.  In this conception “bad” refers to the suffering of conscious creatures.  This can be based on demonstrable suffering.  There seems to be a philosophical move here that is too quick and without argument.  Surely we can speak of prudential value—that which is conducive to a human’s survival and well-being.  But this is not the same thing as moral value.  William Lane Craig, in responding to Mark Murphy’s views, argues against the confusion on this issue:

The claim here is that ‘what makes a state of affairs morally valuable (or disvaluable) is grounded in what makes a people better- (or worse-) off’ [Murphy’s idea].  What justification is there on naturalism, for this assertion, which represents the second step of his proposal?

“So far as I can see, the only justification Murphy offers for this assertion is that ‘the kind human is obviously a distinct sort of organism, and distinct in ways that are obviously ethically significant.  To take one example: human beings possess reflective and objectivizing intelligence, which enables them to call their inclinations into question and to see themselves as one person among others.’  This leaves me baffled as to the justification of Murphy’s grounding claim.  Certainly, if naturalism were true, human beings would still b distinct organisms possessed with reflective and objectivizing intelligence.  Such properties could still be said to be ethically significant in the sense that they are necessary conditions of being an agent and, a fortiori, of being a moral agent.  But I see no reason to think, without begging the question, that humans are therefore objectively morally valuable or have any moral obligations.[3] 

            Of course, the issue is not whether a naturalist and theist can share some of the same basic moral values—they can and do.  The more important question revolves around the grounding of those values.  Given non-purposive naturalism “it is not clear how one can establish normative values on the basis of processes that are ultimately thoroughly unconscious, nonnormative, and contingent in nature.”[4]

     [1] Craig argues this case in his debate with Paul Kurtz in the book: Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics; editors, Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield).

[2] Paul Copan, “God, Naturalism, and the Foundations of Morality,” in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert Stewart; (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 153.  Available online:

     [3] Craig, “This Most Gruesome of Guests,” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough?, 177—bold-face added.  See also Craig’s review of Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape in which the same confusions between prudential value and moral value are evident.  “Navigating Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.  Available online: 

     [4] Steward Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, Naturalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008), 95.