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Ethical naturalism is the only authentic metaethical philosophy.

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 5/12/2012 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 6 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,881 times Debate No: 23566
Debate Rounds (5)
Comments (20)
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I will be arguing that ethical naturalism — defined on wikipedia as involving the following propositions:

Ethical sentences express propositions
Some such propositions are true
Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion
These moral features of the world can be reduced to some set of non-moral features
Supernatural/metaphysical claims are unacceptable bases for ethical claims.

I will have the burden of proof in this argument; the opponent will only have to successfully contradict these proofs.

The opponent's response and the Second round deals with definitions, and progressive rounds will consist of arguments and rebuttals. A player may decide not to participate in R5 if he thinks his position is strong enough already.


As my opponent has the self-imposed BoP I will not utilize this round to posit any arguments against the Pro's position. I will use this round only to properly define the term 'authentic' in the resolution. I will assume that here authentic is used to mean sound. Therefore in order to uphold the resolution my opponent will need to prove that the premises making up metaethical naturalism are all true. These premises will consist of the five tenets of my opponents position which he provided in the introductory round. In order to uphold his BoP my opponent will need to uphold all five of these premises ad I will need to disprove at least one of them in order to disprove the resolution. I look forward to this debate and wish my opponent the best of luck.
Debate Round No. 1


Okay, then!

More definitions, both for my opponent and for readers possibly not familiar with ethical philosophy.

Propositions are the meanings behind statements that can either be true or false. By arguing that ethical claims are propositions, I'm arguing that one can be wrong by saying that "Murder is right" just as one can be wrong by saying "Ants are bigger than humans".

By saying that some such propositions are true, I'm arguing that there are statements in the form "It is either wrong or right to do X" that can be true.�

"These moral features of the world can be reduced to some set of non-moral features."�
This means that I'll argue that ethical truths are reducible to something less glamorous than that. They are also reducible to something more continuous with aspects of the natural world.

"Supernatural/metaphysical claims are unacceptable bases for ethical claims."
This doesn't mean that I necessarily reject supernaturalism. I'm just rejecting supernaturalism as an authentic — genuine — epistemic basis for ethical claims.


I also need to define ethics, as there are two senses of the word, one Aristotelian and the other more...modern.�

Ethics in one sense deals with leading the good life, and doesn't have the social emphasis that "morality" does — it's more general, including all activities that lead to some good. It includes morality, but includes amoral issues as well, like eating too much. Morality is just a type of good, you see, a moral good.

But ethics in the moral sense deals specifically with social imperatives, like justice. When I speak of "ethics" from here on, it'll be in the Aristotelian sense. When I speak of "morality" from here on, it'll be specifically in the social-moral sense.


As per the rules of no argumentation in R1 or R2, I will utilize this round only to accept the expanded upon definitions my opponent provided this round.
Debate Round No. 2



I believe the first question that anyone should ask themselves when doing anything is to ask themselves — "Why bother?"�

There is a clear distinction between having a "reason to" do something, and understanding the "reason why" something is done. The latter is a naturalistic question, subject to study by psychologists. The former, however, deals with how we justify and make choices about which actions we perform — the former is the special niche of ethicists.

What, however, constitutes a good reason to do something? This question is wholly unapproachable without reference to psychological concepts like interests, desires and needs that comprise the basic units of human motivation. Without these units, not only is the sole impetus of human behavior lost, but so is all purpose behind it. Without a motivational system like ours, an organism is little more than a chemical reaction capable of thought, as capable of goal-oriented action as a rock.

So by reduction I posit as a premise that the basic units of motivation, by default, are also the basic units used by agents to select and justify actions.�

In essence, I'm saying that the ONLY good reason to do something is because you want to. Even God, himself, without compromising your free will cannot negate this fact. He can promise you hell for doing one thing and heaven for doing another, but in the end, you weigh the options and decide which course of action you want most — and that's that.

Of course, this might not be enough to call "want" a good reason, in itself. Epistemically, there might always be a better reason to do something that we simply don't know about — or even might not be able to comprehend. But I posit that the 'almighty want' is the best available justification possible for human action, and is ultimately the only one ever used.�



It's obvious that the fact that something is desired does not, by itself, make for a good reason to do something. Wanting to kill someone who has called you Pinkie ONE TOO MANY TIMES, for example, is not an intuitively good reason to actually do it. Obviously, there's something more in the mix. But if the framework of our entire ethical science depends on want, then how do we judge wants?

In this case, it's because we also work under a moral framework, where agape love, social needs, and practical requirements, among other things, motivate us to take the interests of others into consideration. It's common sense that some wishes can 'outweigh' others; this evinces the existence of an inner practical calculus that, by factoring in relevant desires, can be used to compare possible courses of action.�

— From this we can infer that we not only aim, but that we aim for the best possible. —

The fact that we seek the best possible provides coherence to our pragmatically-oriented ethical framework.�

We now understand what it means, in at least one sense, to say that one "ought" to do something in normative discourse. "Ought" is now a clean signifier that our "something" is the most effective (best) course of action in a situation with respect to the motivational schema of the agent.�

It's not some divine imperative that entreats you to do something. It's simply a really good idea to do it. The Ten Commandments [2] teach us that one ought not kill, �but this only makes sense with reference to our obeisance to God and willful conformity with his aims. "Ought" only makes sense as practical instructions with some implied aim in mind (here, to avoid sin, estrangement from God!).�

But note that I have talked much specifically about morality, here, which I'm holding as a mere subset of what goes into our ethical calculus. Morality is only one part of good decision-making.�

We humans are astutely aware of what our ultimate wish is when we're performing actions. Our final goal is to achieve a wonderful state of affairs called happiness. I'm not talking about happiness in the enjoyment sense of the word, but in the Aristotelian sense that one is living well, flourishing — eudemonia. As Aristotle points out in his Nichomachean Ethics [1], our own flourishing (which is a state of being-in-action) is the highest good we can aim for, the one thing we would still choose even if nothing resulted from it.

Having determined the object of our action, we now have a clear standard from which to evaluate and justify our choices. As Aristotle puts it, "Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?" [1]

With in mind the ultimate aim of our own actions, we are now made aware that either morality has to make sense with respect to this, or else it is senseless (we lack a good 'reason to') to actually act by it.�

Descriptively, morality consists of the norms set by society (or a smaller group, or even an individual) to differentiate condemnable actions from commendable ones. The norms imposed develop naturally through both sociobiological and cultural evolution (i.e., incest condemnation stems at least in part from the evolutionary adaptiveness of not inbreeding [4], and homosexuality condemnation stems at least in part from condemnation of the practice in the Bible [2], and especially by the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages [3] ). These norms are often imposed with arbitrary aspects that are senseless with respect to any ethical calculus, and are made relevant to the calculus only by the social demands that constitute them and the cultural identity bestowed by them.

The senselessness of social norms, however, can be not only inefficient, but harmful. Entire social groups, including women and Black Americans, have been subjugated by arbitrary norms [3], creating both economic and social problems that persisted longer than the norms ever did. Without an intelligent ethical compass guiding the production of moral rules, the law-giving archers missed their marks. These episodes were no more ethically sound than New Guinean natives' moral belief in corpse cannibalism as respect for the dead (which led to several nasty epidemics among them) [5]. These are key examples of moral fallibility and the significance of ethical naturalism as a superior guiding principle.

In order to give sense to morality and naturalize it such that dumb norms can be contrasted from the rational ones (and so the concept of moral progress can be vindicated), the point of morality with respect to our ethical aims needs to be specified.�

The point of morality is the achievement of social harmony (the combination and orchestration of social agents to achieve some effect) among human social groups. That's why it evolved, that's why we can rationally be glad that it did, and that's why it's so significant to our pursuits. As social animals navigating in a social world, we can be thankful that the other relatively hyperintelligent creatures among us have a conscience.�

Harmony, itself, of course, is not enough. Adolf Hitler organized Germany pretty harmoniously to orchestrate the genocide of over 6 million Jews [3]. But this is where things get tricky. Heretofore, morality has been organized harmoniously in the name of plenty of — dare I say it? — crappy things.�

The most subtle of these has been "biological fitness". We've evolved to prefer some norms over others (fairness being our crowning achievement, with evolution embedding into our species an informal system of reciprocal altruism) that improve how efficiently we reproduce and pass on genes [6]. Gene replication, though our biological 'aim', is not the aim by which we select actions. We have psychological wishes to actualize, and if we want to be nerdy, dateless scientists instead of Ghengis Khan imitators, there's nothing wrong with that. Biology explains why things happen, but as agents, we choose actions for distinct reasons.

The more infamous of these guiding forces of moral law-giving is transcendental, and it is a guiding precept of ethical naturalism that such guides are inane. The idea is that someone has somehow been approached by God with a set of (arbitrary) moral rules to guide humanity. And, of course, these rules come attached with a series of threats and promises. The problem with supernaturalism as an ethical basis is epistemic.

Not only are supernaturalistic claims unreliable and usually rationally inconsistent/specious, but evidence to support supernaturalistic claims is inexistent. Beyond that, there's also no evidence that the supernatural messengers aren't liars or being misinterpreted.�

No, the point of human morality is simply a large-scale version of the point of human action — to foster social harmony so that each involved agent can individually flourish in an optimal social environment. Norms are imposed according to how well they suit this goal, along with how practicable they are and so forth. Condemnable actions are those which go against these ideal norms, and moral progress is the transformation of a society/group/etc such that its norms conform better to this.

A wrong action is a legitimately condemnable one with respect to true morality, and a right action is a legitimately commendable one.


The opening post dealt with the term "ethical" in its moral sense, which I will emphasize here. A summary of my position:

Moral claims express propositions about which behaviors would be condemned/commended in a society whose norms aren't organized senselessly (i.e., they are organized with respect to the general aim of human action). Some are true.

Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion. Specifically, they are made true by 1) human nature, especially with regards to human motivational nature and 2) optimal (most effective) action given said motivational nature.

�These moral features are reducible first to optimally selected moral norms, which are, themselves, reducible to practical guidelines — instructions — about the most effective way to achieve human aims.

And supernatural/metaphysical claims are unacceptable bases for ethical claims.

1 - The Basic Works of Aristotle (edited by Richard McKeon)
2 - The Bible
3 - Western Civilization by Spielvogel
4 - The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology edited by David M. Bus
5 - Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
6 - Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Abridged Edition by E. O. Wilson


===The Primacy of Want===

My opponent argues that justifiable actions are best reduced to the "basic units of motivation" by ethical agents because "the ONLY good reason to do something is because you want to". In effect, my opponent has conflated the meta-ethical requirements of goodness with the psychological presuppositions of action. Surely it is obvious that in order to do something on one's free will, one must want to do it. But where does my opponent make the jump between that and the proposition that what one wants to do is the best reason to do it? My opponent claims that even if there are better reasons to do something, mere want and desire are the only epistemically available options for discerning good. However, doesn't this more add to the theory that what justifies action simply can't be reduced to psychological states or if this standard does exist that it is simply epistemically elusive? It appear to be special pleading to make the jump simply because my opponent wants there to be an objective state of justifiability and can't seem to find it.

===Evaluative Calculus===

Here, my opponent makes the concession that desire does not in itself imply goodness, evolving his position to be that only wants can be the basis of justifiability but not all wants may serve this function. In this argument, my opponent offers a way of deciphering between which wants are good and which are not, effectively offering a standard from which to weed out bad wants. As the standard for wants, my opponent offers social responsibility and needs co-aligned with personal valuations. My opponent argues that out of all of our near infinite amount of wants, those which take our own interests as well as the interests of others into consideration will yield the just course of action. However, far from an objectively "evaluative" calculus, the "inner practical calculus" that my opponent describes isn't objective at all. At the end of the day the correct course of action (according to my opponent's conception of ethics) rests on one's inner weighing of their own personal values (therefore losing the title of ojectivity) as well as their own epistemically unverifiable opinions on the valuations and needs of others (therefore losing the title of epistemic verifiability). There is no way for me to know what you or anyone else truly values, only my own values can be known for sure. So my opponent's inner calculus not only isn't objective (as it rests on personal valuations which are definitionally subjective), but is also epistemically incoherent.

===A Practical Imperative===

My opponent makes two mistakes in this point. The first is that my opponent posits a state of affairs which are self-justifying purely on the grounds that we aim for that end. This is a mistake which has been at the core of my opponent's case and I will point it out again here. My opponent again makes the fallacious conflation of one's subjective psychological desires and something that is metaphysically good in an objective sense. This is an unwarranted jump by my opponent. For one's personal subjective valuations can by definition not be an objective standard since it rests on subjective whim.

===Morality and Social Norms===

I am in full agreement with my opponent that many social norms are not self-justifying and many rest on purely arbitrary grounds i.e. discrimination against homosexuals, women, etc. However, I fail to see how this point in any way furthers the case for ethical naturalism and I implore my opponent to explain how it does.

===The Point of Morality===

This is more of a lesson in descriptive ethics than an argument in favor of any meta-ethical system (though I'm not complaining as this is an incredibly fascinating topic). It is true that humans have evolved to support certain norms over others (recripricol altruism for example) but that doesn't lend credence to any specific ethical systems authenticity or soundness. For as my opponent himself mentioned, biological fitness and eugenics are also adaptable traits which have led to events which my opponent would not describe as particularly ethical i.e. the Holocaust. So it doesn't appear that this point (like my opponent's previous point) helps with his case.


I concede to my opponent the ethical naturalist tenet that "Supernatural/metaphysical claims are unacceptable bases for ethical claims."

===Directing Harmony===

My opponent here argues that human morality has with it the goal of social harmony. I agree with this in a sense. It is true a la descriptive ethics that morality (conscience, evolutionarily advantageous feelings) evolved in order that we as humans would better be able to survive. Again, reciprocal altruism would seem to be moral evolutions crowning achievement. However, my opponent has provided no bridge between what is evolutionarily advantageous or reinforced to what may be described as metaphysically good.

***Refutation of the Pro Case***

Wants, Needs of Others and Epistemic Incoherence

My opponent has succeeded in proving this point insofar as he can show one can have an epistemic basis in deciphering when the actions which he argues are moral are attained. However, this is not the case (my opponent is also wrong in what actions he defines as moral but that is a different matter). As I pointed out earlier, taking the desires, needs, and wants of other people into account as the deciding factor of ethics is epistemically impossible as one cannot intimately know the various needs and wants of others. As my opponent even admitted, we can't even be sure to know what is in our own best interest. Therefore even if one grants to my opponent his argument for what makes actions moral, the verifiability factor makes it impossible. If these propositions are true, we can never know them and thus my opponent's argument cannot be epistemically proven or practiced.
Debate Round No. 3


Prox forfeited this round.


This is troubling. Extend all arguments and refutations.
Debate Round No. 4


Prox forfeited this round.


Unfortunately my opponent forfeited this debate when it was getting very interesting. Extend arguments and refutations.
Debate Round No. 5
20 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by Prox 6 years ago
Ok! I've figured out my angle.
Posted by Prox 6 years ago
Posted by socialpinko 6 years ago
I would have preferred had you defended each tenet of ethical naturalism specifically i.e. that ethical sentences express propositions, that some are true, etc. all in different clearly labeled points.
Posted by Prox 6 years ago
Very nice! Thank you for this.
Posted by socialpinko 6 years ago
Will try to delve into this tonight or tomorrow.
Posted by Prox 6 years ago
Grammar fail in the first sentence.

QQ it's too long.
Posted by socialpinko 6 years ago
Posted by Cody_Franklin 6 years ago
I'd definitely accept a challenge on moral nihilism. The resolution could be something like "There is no compelling reason to believe that objective moral facts exist," where "moral facts" might be defined as any positive assertion of moral content, e.g., "X is right/wrong", "Y is morally valuable" (i.e., propositions that we usually associate with moral truth). That avoids any snarky counterarguments about "Well, saying there are no moral facts is a moral fact, hurkadurkadurkashuckinandjivin'."
Posted by Prox 6 years ago
(typing argument now, btw)
Posted by Prox 6 years ago
I see nihilism. I'd join a debate challenge as Con regarding nihilism.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by F-16_Fighting_Falcon 6 years ago
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Total points awarded:01 
Reasons for voting decision: Forfeit.