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«1 Introduction Naturalism in philosophy is a special case of a more general conception of philosophy. In this conception there is no special ...»

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1st Shearman Lecture: Naturalism in Moral

Philosophy

Gilbert Harman

Princeton University

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

1 Introduction

Naturalism in philosophy is a special case of a more general conception of

philosophy. In this conception there is no special philosophical method and

no special philosophical subject matter.

Consider some of the ways in which philosophy interacts with and is

continuous with other disciplines.

Aesthetics is obviously pursued in philosophy departments and in de- partments of literature, music, and art. Monroe Bearsley, who wrote the most important survey of aesthetics in the 20th century, was one of the au- thors of the important paper, “The Intentional Fallacy,” a statement of a central aspect of the “New Criticism.” More recently, Richard Wollheim (who may have invented the expression “minimalist art”) and Arthur Danto have had a significant influence on art theory and criticism. They themselves have been important critics.

1 Alexander Nehamas is another important contemporary figure, who is by the way a member of both the Philosophy Department and the Comparative Literature Department at Princeton.

Anthropology. Anthropologists are often involved with philosophy and philosophers have sometimes acted as anthropologists to study the moralities of one or another culture. Richard Brandt, lived with the Hopi in order to study their ethics. John Ladd lived with the Navaho in order to study their ethics. The anthropologist Dan Sperber is the same person as the philosopher Dan Sperber.

Economics. Recent figures include Robert Nozick, Amartya Sen, maybe John Rawls, David Gauthier, Allan Gibbard, John Broome, Philip Pettit, and many more. Political theory is of course a related example with many of the same players.

Linguistics is another very clear case. Philosophers were involved early in the development of generative grammar (e.g. Jerry Katz and Jerry Fodor).

Many more wrote about Chomsky’s ideas and argued with them (e.g. Paul Ziff, Hilary Putnam). Famously, at the end of the first chapter of A Theory of Justice, John Rawls suggested that generative grammar might be a good model for moral theory. Even earlier, Robert Nozick tried to sketch how that might work.

In recent years there has been philosophical interest in and interaction with developments in linguistics. And there has been much interdisciplinary research in semantics involving philosophers and linguists.

Psychology is another clear case. In his Theory of Justice Rawls sug- gested that an adequate moral theory had to be sensitive to developmental 2 psychology, especially in Piaget. Rawls’ early work on justice in turn influ- enced the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s adaptation of Piaget.

Donald Davidson more or less regularly discussed rationality with psychologists like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, trying to get them to accept that there were limits on how irrational people could be interpreted to be.

J. L. Austin’s study of excuses was influencial on psychology studies of children’s development by John Darley and his colleagues.

In recent years there has been considerable back and forth between psychologists and philosophers on many issues. Relevant philosophers include Daniel Dennett, Stephen Stich, and many younger people working in the general area of (real) moral psychology.

One important issue has concerned whether social psychology undermines ordinary conceptions of character traits and threatens certain forms of virtue ethics. But there are many other issues too.

Computer science. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and related topics have been considered highly relevant to philosophy of mind. For example, the philosopher John Pollock studies epistemology by designing computer programs to simulate reasoning in accord with one or another set of epistemic principles.

Philosophy of science is another obvious example. Philosophers discussing the interpretation of quantum field theory may publish in physics journals.

I myself went into philosophy because it allowed me to pursue my own interests in issues in linguistics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science.

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and I organized workshops that brought linguists and philosophers together, including a notorious six week summer school in Irvine, California.

Later the psychologist George Miller and I started the Princeton University Cognitive Science Laboratory and an undergraduate program in Cognitive Studies. More recently, I have co-taught courses with faculty in linguistics, psychology, computer science, and engineering.

I do not mean to suggest that I am in any way special. Most of my colleagues at Princeton take a wide view of philosophy in one or another respect.

1.1 Naturalism Philosophical naturalism is a special instance of the wider conception of philosophy, taking the subject matters and methods of philosophy to be continuous with the subject matters and methods of other disciplines, especially including the natural sciences. From a naturalistic perspective, productive philosophers are those who (among other things) produce fruitful more or less speculative theoretical ideas, with no sharp distinction between such theorizing by members of philosophy departments and such theorizing by members of other departments. (In my view, department boundaries are of interest only to administrators.) Naturalism also often has an ontological or metaphysical aspect in supposing that the world is the natural world, the world that is studied by the 1 “Generative grammars without transformation rules: a defense of phrase structure,” Language 39 (1963).





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ism. But the main naturalistic theme is methodological.

I am going to discuss certain prospects for naturalism in moral philosophy. I begin with metaphysical issues of the sort just mentioned, having to do with naturalistic reduction in ethics. I will then say something about some recent naturalistic methodological approaches in moral psychology, taking up character traits and virtue ethics today if there is time, discussing a possible analogy between linguistics and moral theory tomorrow, and saying what is wrong with feelings of guilt on Thursday.

2 Naturalistic Reduction Naturalistic reduction in ethics attempts to locate the place of value in a world of (naturalistically conceived) facts.

In one view, goodness and evil and rightness and wrongness are not features that have a place in the naturalistic world as described by science.

Naturalists who take this view either abandon ethics altogether or try to provide a nonfactual account of it.

Alternatively, naturalists might try to identify an act’s being morally right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, etc., with certain natural properties of the act.

The most straightforward naturalistic reductive strategy appeals to the supervenience of the moral on the natural facts. Any change in what the agent ought morally to do requires a change in the (natural) facts of the case.

This appears to imply that there is a more or less complex natural relation

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a whole possible world) that holds when and only when the agent in that situation is morally permitted to do that act. The idea then is to identify the property of being what an agent is morally permitted to do in a given situation with the property of being a possible act for which this natural relation holds.

For example, suppose that act utilitarianism provided the correct account of what an agent is morally permitted to do. Given that supposition, the supervenience strategy identifies a possible act’s being what an agent is morally permitted to do in a given situation with its being an act that maximizes utility in that situation.

More generally, the strategy identifies a possible act’s being what an agent is morally permitted to do in a given situation with the holding of the relevant natural relation, whatever it is, which exists between agent, act, and situation if and only if the agent is morally permitted to do that act in that situation.

It is not a good objection that such an identification fails to capture the meaning of “morally permitted.” To suppose that water can be identified with H2 O is not to say what the word “water” means as used by ordinary people.

It is true that the moral case raises a methodological issue for naturalism, since different moral theories disagree with each other and so offer incompatible naturalistic reductions. There are various versions of utilitarianism, social contract theory, virtue theory, Kantianism, and many others. Is there a naturalistically acceptable way to resolve disputes between these compet

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theories can be tested?

Instead of trying to answer this question directly, let us consider three kinds of naturalistic reduction, associated with theories of normative functionalism, response dependent theories, and social convention theories.

2.1 Normative Functionalism and Virtue Ethics One kind of virtue ethics2 appeals to a normative functionalism that seeks to derive normative results from assumptions about functions—about designed or natural functions, purposes, roles, etc. For example, the most important function of a clock is to keep time. Whether something is a clock depends on its function, not on what it is made of or what it looks like, as long as it can serve to indicate to an observer what the time is.

Furthermore, a clock can be evaluated in terms of its function. So, a good clock is one that keeps time accurately. That’s what a clock ought to do. If it does not do so, something is wrong with it. The features of a good clock that contribute to its accurate functioning are virtues of the clock.

Bodily organs are also defined by their proper functions. A heart is an organ whose nature or function is to pump blood steadily. Lungs are organs that function in breathing. Whether something counts as a heart or lung is not a matter of its shape or what it is made of, but whether it has the relevant function. One that actually does so is to that extent a good heart or lung. A heart that fulfills its function poorly, by irregular pumping, or by 2 Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Clarendon, 2001); Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

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of a heart include steady pumping and not leaking.

People who have social roles have associated functions or purposes. A good teacher is one who teaches well, who enables students to learn. Something is wrong with a teacher whose students do not learn. Virtues in a teacher are those characteristics that enable the teacher’s students to learn as well also they can. A teacher who cannot get students to learn is not a good example of a teacher, not a real teacher.

It is in the nature of human beings and certain other animate beings (bees and chimpanzees, for example) that they are social beings. A good human being has various virtues, like courage and compassion. A man lacking courage is not a good example of a man, not a real man.

Various issues arise for views that attempt to derive moral assessments from functionalism. Do human beings have functions or purposes as part of their nature as human beings? Is the relevant function or purpose to lead a good life, or even the best life? Can this function or purpose be characterized naturalistically? Given competing views of the best life, is there a way of testing these views against the world in the way that scientific hypotheses can be tested?

I am pessimistic about this approach.

2.2 Response Dependent Theories and Social Convention Theories Another rather different naturalistic approach identifies moral categories in terms of something about human responses to the consideration of pos

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something about the responses of normal human perceivers.

In this approach, an act’s being wrong might be identified with the dispositions of impartial unbiased sympathetic people to feel moral disapproval of the act on being made vividly aware of the facts of the situation.

David Hume and Adam Smith defend different versions based on different

interpretations of sympathy. Hume has a tuning fork account of sympathy:

Humean sympathy leads someone to vibrate in tune with others and feel similarly (if less intensely) what others are perceived to be feeling. This yields a utilitarian result. Since people would rather be happy than unhappy, they will favor situations in which there is more net happiness.

Smith objects that Hume’s conception of sympathy cannot account for the fact that unhappy people crave sympathy and feel better when they receive it. Humean sympathetic vibrations would make an acquaintance of an unhappy person sympathetically unhappy and then the unhappy person would vibrate with the acquaintance’s unhappiness, making the originally unhappy person even more unhappy. Since the sympathy of an acquaintance makes an unhappy person less unhappy, Hume is wrong about what sympathy is.

Smith observes that ordinary sympathy involves approval. If someone gets a minor bump and moans and complains, observers who are aware of the minor pains involved will not sympathize, because they will not approve of the complainer’s reactions. According to Smith, people want sympathy because they want approval. Furthermore, in Smith’s view, the relevant sort of approval tends to be an internalized reflection of community standards.

–  –  –

react to me. I imagine being one of them to consider how I would react, in this way internalizing their standards. This yields a different view of morality from Hume’s—one in which what counts as right or wrong is more heavily influenced by the conventional practices of one’s society. Smith’s theory, while response dependent, sees morality as more of a matter of social convention than Hume’s does.

It is true that Hume takes social convention to be important for those aspects of morality having to do with justice: People are disposed to approve of those conventions that promote the general welfare. But for Smith social conventions affect approval and disapproval more directly.3



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