A dilemma for non-naturalists: irrationality or immorality?

Abstract

Either 1. the non-naturalist is in a state of mind that would treat as relevant information about the existence and patterns of non-natural properties and facts as they make up their mind about normative matters, or 2. the non-naturalist is in a state of mind that would treat as irrelevant information about the existence and patterns of non-natural properties and facts as they make up their mind about normative matters. The first state of mind is morally objectionable, for one should not change one’s normative beliefs to pander to the patterns of some non-natural realm. The second state of mind is irrational, for if you think you are aiming to represent non-natural properties correctly, you should (rationally) be interested to know which actions share a non-natural property and which do not, and you should (rationally) be prepared to change your mind accordingly.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    It is actually quite difficult characterize in other terms what inherent, authoritative guidance amounts to, but we seem to get the idea when we contrast the claim “That it would relieve someone’s suffering is a reason to do it”, which does seem to convey inherent, authoritative guidance, with claims like “This religious text requires you to do it”, and “The conventions of the club forbid it”, which do not (cf. McPherson 2018). ‘Robust’ is to be contrasted with ‘Minimal’ and ‘quietist’ versions of non-naturalism.

  2. 2.

    See, e.g., Cuneo (2007), Cuneo and Shafer-Landau (2014), Enoch (2011), Fitzpatrick (2008), Hampton (1998), Huemer (2005), and Shafer-Landau (2003).

  3. 3.

    They might think that these answers hinge on non-natural patterns if there are non-natural properties, and if there are none, the answers hinge on patterns in natural properties. This conditional will not help them avoid the problem I present below, however, as I assume that there are non-natural properties and I consider the morality of tracking them with our normative judgments. See also note 10.

  4. 4.

    I adopt the use of plural pronouns in the place of gender-specific singular pronouns.

  5. 5.

    Cf. Blackburn’s discussion of divine command theory (1993, p. 156, 2000, p. 80).

  6. 6.

    The hypothetical grants the existence of non-natural properties that pattern in ways that imperfectly line up with our normative convictions. An alternative argument would have the oracle report on the absence of non-natural properties. The argument then would be that is it immoral to alter one’s normative convictions simply because the natural is all there is.

  7. 7.

    If the non-naturalist here charges me with begging the question, it is because they see nothing objectionable about changing their views about the badness of certain kinds of pain based on non-natural information (and holding fixed how the pain feels and other natural facts). I might not be able to convince them simply because they have a very different moral sensibility than my own.

  8. 8.

    The metaethicist that most clearly evinces this state of mind is Derek Parfit, who appears to plan to be a normative nihilist if it turns out there are only natural properties and facts, and who thinks he has wasted his life if it turns out there are only natural properties and facts (Parfit 2011, p. 367).

  9. 9.

    Consider Scanlon on this point.

    The property [of being a reason], on my view, is not a ‘normative idler.’ To claim that R(p, x, c a) [i.e., p is a reason for x to a in circumstances c] holds is precisely to claim that (for x in c) p justifies doing a; it is not to claim that p has some further property which does the justifying (Scanlon 2014, p. 51).

    NB: Scanlon would probably reject the way I frame the discussion, for he thinks true normative claims need no metaphysical backing (Scanlon 2014, p. 62).

  10. 10.

    FitzPatrick (2018, p. 558) argues against my (2014) by pointing out that non-naturalists do not have to drop their normative beliefs once convinced that there are no non-natural properties. They could change their metaethics instead. That is true. But even those who would change their metaethics would also adjust their credences in normative beliefs—that is, if belief in non-naturalism had any ex ante credence, which it presumably does for non-naturalists. And that sort of sensitivity to the mere non-existence of the non-natural is immoral. In addition, unlike my (2014), the present argument does not ask “What if there were no non-natural properties?” but rather “Even if there are, what is the morality of tracking them with our normative beliefs?”.

  11. 11.

    There is one more argument in this ballpark that I do not have the space to consider. Dasgupta (2017) levels an explanatory demand: If you, non-naturalist, think that some non-natural property P ought to be promoted, we need an explanation for why we ought to promote P rather than, say, Q. Dasgupta thinks the non-naturalist has no good explanation to offer. I think there are deep parallels with Dasgupta’s argument and my own, but I do not here have the space to uncover them.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to the audience at the Ways of Knowing Conference at SFU in 2018 and an anonymous referee for this journal for helpful feedback on an earlier draft.

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Correspondence to Matthew S. Bedke.

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Bedke, M.S. A dilemma for non-naturalists: irrationality or immorality?. Philos Stud 177, 1027–1042 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-018-01228-2

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Keywords

  • Normativity
  • Non-naturalist realism
  • Ethical idlers
  • Moral epistemology