Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Natural Ethics and Natural Law

First, let me thank all of those who have taken the time to respond to my post and send me emails. This is a fascinating topic and I've enjoyed learning the different facets of the argument very much.

Several people responding to my charge that moral premises cannot be derived from nature have misconstrued my argument. Brian Weatherson , and others who've left comments on his board, suggest that I'm either arguing for theism or claiming that ethics necessarily require God. They may be doing this deliberately, intending to refute not my specific argument but a strain of argument of the type I'm making. Either way, I point out that I have not claimed that theism is necessary for ethics. My claim is that naturalism is inapposite for a single moral premise (let alone an ethical system); and that no moral premise can be traced to nature.

Another problem is that Lawrence Solum and I are plainly speaking of different naturalisms. He knows of a naturalism that accepts purpose in nature -- that nature has a "purpose." I know of no such naturalism. The definition of naturalism from the Skeptic's Dictionary uses the well-known example of the sex drive, among others, to demonstrate the lack of purpose in nature. This definition tracks perfectly the claim I made about nature having no purpose. Notice too the definitions disavowal of any teleological explanations.

The term "teleological explanations" is another point we aren't using similarly. Teleological explanations, to my knowledge, are explanations based on the self-evident purpose (telos) of a thing. The teleological argument for God's existence relies on the assumption that we know the purpose of mankind in the same way we know the purpose of a watch. Solum suggested that the weakness of the teleological argument is when it moves from the premise "nature has a purpose, just like a watch has a purpose" to the conclusion "something must have willed nature to be, just as something wills a watch to be," but I've never encountered this argument. What I have seen many times, starting with Voltaire, Lichtenberg, and Hume, is the denial of the premise that nature has a purpose. As Lichtenberg sarcastically put it, "How convenient that God placed slits in a cat's skin, right where their eyes are!" Foot and Solum, on the other hand, accept the premise but not the conclusion.

Solum notes that I am "convinced that an atheist evolutionary biologist like Dawkins couldn't possibly have a respectable philosophical foundation for his belief that ethics is grounded in nature." (Note, however, that my claim only extends to the second half of this sentence. A theist monk could not ground ethics in nature either.)

Solum's belief that ethics can be grounded in nature, however, leads me to wonder how he views the strength of the philosophical foundation of those who believe they can derive laws from nature. Either laws and moral premises can both be derived from nature, or there is a crucial distinction between them that allows one to be traced to nature but not the other. My view, as you can guess, is that neither law nor morals can be derived from nature. I'd appreciate Solum's thoughts on this point.


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