The Naturalist’s Dilemma

16, December, 2008 § Leave a comment

Naturalistic accounts of normativity, in the robustly real sense of an inescapable standard of correctness, face the ‘problem of violability’ in one or the other of two ways, as Mill’s hedonism usefully illustrates. If it is allowed that all people actually pursue pleasure, whether directly or indirectly, then there is a ‘natural’ impediment to wrongdoing: there simply isn’t anyone acting for the ultimate purpose of a painful experience, either one’s own or another’s. If, on the other hand, it is allowed that some can (and in fact do) pursue pain, then there is the ‘metaphysical’ (i.e. normative) challenge of demonstrating which of two different but equally explicable (naturalistically) pursuits is the wrong one.

This problem is Kant’s (and Aristotle’s and every naturalist’s) no less than Mill’s. Is the respect for rational nature embodied by the commitment to consistency universal to that nature? If so, whence then is disrespectful inconsistency? If not, what identifies inconsistency (no less psychologically explicable than consistency) with immorality?

This challenge to naturalism is not so much Moore’s as it is Frege’s (who used it against naturalism in logic). Nonetheless, the two are not unrelated. There are, considered broadly, two alternatives to naturalistic realism (to use a rather silly term). We can assess the natural world, and find it wanting, by positing a non- or super-natural standard (Moore’s and Frege’s ‘primitivisms’ being instances of the former). This is the option of the faithful.

Alternatively, we can allow an indefinite number of standards, all of decidedly human provenance. Each such standard will remain forever open to the question of its own authority, that is, whether it is good or right or rational or what have you, and there will always be another standard waiting in the wings to say that it isn’t. But for that very reason will it be violable, which any standard that aims for practical relevance must necessarily be.

Which option we prefer is, ultimately, a matter of philosophical taste.

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