The Place of Normative Ethics Within a Biological Framework

  • Arne Naess


The central question of my paper may be thus formulated: Is there a place for normative ethics within the conceptual framework of biology—the term “biology” taken in a broad sense, as in G. Gaylord Simpson’s view when he says that social science is a branch of biology.


Normative Ethic Objective Validity Warm Blood Textbook Biology Free Decision 
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  1. 1.
    The modest program and thesis of understandability should not be confused with the ambitious thesis that at least one pure norm is objectively valid. When we look through the list of proposed examples of valid pure norms, it is normal to find that one cannot accept them unconditionally. We find exceptions, if’s and but’s. The proposed norms are, however, more or less general. For the affirmation of the existence of one pure norm, it is not necessary that any norm is discovered that holds for more than one single situation, and it is not necessary to find an interpersonally unambiguous formulation. With reference to the controversy on pure norms, I might class the following as opposed to the non-cognitivism of Stevenson, Ayer, Hägerström, Ross, Kelsen and others: G. E. Moore (Principia Ethica, 1903), H. A. Prichard (Moral Obligation, Oxford, 1949), F. Brentano (The Origin of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong, transl. London 1902), M. Scheler (The Nature of Sympathy, transl. New Haven 1954), Nicolai Hartmann (Ethics, transl. London 1932), R. Reiner (Gut and Böse, Freiburg 1965), F.S.C. Northrop (The Complexity of Legal and Ethical Experience, Boston 1959), W. D. Ross (The Foundation of Ethics, Oxford 1939). A sceptical epoch in these matters is manifested by G. E. Moore in his latest writing, see The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (ed. Schilpp, New York 1942, p. 543 et seq.), and by myself, in “Do we know that basic norms cannot be true or false?” (Theoria, 25, 1959) and in “We still do not know …” (Theoria, 28, 1962).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This statement cannot hold without modifications when the “mass of knowledge” in question is increased until it covers the whole of knowledge. By means of certain modifications, the otherwise inevitable conclusion that knowledge as a whole is postulational, can be avoided.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Thus reduced, ethical statements have the same kind of validity as other sociological and psychological statements. Either it is the case that I feel shame, or it is a mistake. Either a man conforms to the role of a physician in a definite kind of society or he does not. “Naturalistic objectivism” is one of the professional labels of the ethics obtained by transforming pure norms into psychological or social science statements. Ethics thus conceived does not pose any special problems for biology. Therefore, I have not treated it in more detail.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    The philosopher and dramatist P. W. Zapffe compares the overdevelopment of the human brain with the overdevelopment of horns in Megaceros euryceros. Cf. Om det tragiske, Oslo, 1941.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Michael Servetus would not admit predestination. Rather be burnt on slow fire. He might have said with Nietzsche “Woran ich zugrunde gehe, das ist für mich nicht wahr,” only that the “I” here is not the narrow “I” of textbook biology. See Stefan Zweig’s Ein Gewissen gegen die Gewalt.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    An alternative formalism might be tried out enlarging S. Körner’s approach to “physically effective and independent choices,” p. 216 et seq. in his Experience and Theory, London, 1966.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    For a more comprehensive treatment of “maze epistemology” see my “Science as Behaviour: Prospects and Limitations of a behavioural Metascience,” in Scientific Psychology, ed. B. B. Wolman, Basic Books, 1965, p. 63 et seq.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1972

Authors and Affiliations

  • Arne Naess
    • 1
  1. 1.University of OsloUSA

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