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Moral Normativity: Naturalism vs. Theism


It is widely assumed that theism is superior to metaphysical naturalism in explaining moral phenomena, especially with regard to the practical aspect of morality. In this article, I will firstly clarify what this practical aspect amounts to and present two challenges against metaphysical naturalism, by John Mackie and Richard Joyce. Then, I will critically engage with two main attempts to argue for the superiority of theism over metaphysical naturalism: One of them is the appeal to the existence of afterlife, and the other is Robert Merrihew Adams? divine command metaethics. I will argue that both are problematic for different reasons. Relying on the main aspects of Adams? metaethical framework, I will advance my proposal to maintain the practical aspect of morality which lends theism superiority over metaphysical naturalism, and then follow with certain implications of the proposal for theistic metaethics.

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  1. See Shafer-Landau (2001: 144–145, n. 3) for a list of different options on this issue.

  2. An anonymous reviewer suggested that I give some examples of state invasion and war crimes, and also that I mention the practice of moral accountability that is discussed immediately below.

  3. See Smith (1994: 4–11, 39–41) for a good discussion of these two and other relevant features of moral discourse. In addition to moral absolutism, Smith takes the view known as motivational judgment internalism (if any agent judges that an action is morally right, he is motivated to do so) to be part of the practical aspect of morality. But this is not obvious according to many philosophers. See Shafer-Landau (2001: Ch. 6) for a criticism of motivational judgment internalism. Hence I take moral absolutism about moral obligations to be the practical aspect of morality.

  4. All the references in this section are to Mackie (1977) unless otherwise stated.

  5. Similar arguments against moral naturalism are proposed from a theistic perspective by Matthew Carey Jordan (2011). Jordan deals with three different types of moral naturalism, taking into consideration metaethical desiderata including objectivity, normativity, and moral knowledge; and, finds these three types of moral naturalism to be unsuccessful in capturing the core features of morality. He concludes: “Whether any naturalistic account of the nature of morality would be able to do so is unclear” and suggests that “pessimism on this front is warranted” (2011: 22).

  6. A recent exception is Lambert’s (2021) argument that theism is compatible with moral error-theory.

  7. I stated Adams' view in similar way before at Yöney (2019).

  8. What I deal with in this and the next section will clarify why I prefer prima facie obligations to actual moral obligations. David Ross’ list of prima facie obligations, which includes duties of fidelity and duties of gratitude among others, is suitable for my purpose here, although my argument is not committed to the truth of this list or any other. Ross himself does not claim his list to be complete or final (2002: 20). Moreover, my argument is not committed to Rossian deontological pluralism (2002: 16–47) in normative ethics. In a rule consequentialist view, prima facie obligations could be utilized, and this will also suit the objectives of my argument here.


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Correspondence to Ferhat Yöney.

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I have dealt with the problem in this article before in my Phd dissertation which is completed at 2015 and some of the ideas in this submission appeared there. This article is a far more expanded and developed version of the earlier ideas.

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Yöney, F. Moral Normativity: Naturalism vs. Theism. Int J Philos Relig (2022).

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