Naturalism and moral living

Moral skeptics argue that morality is a sham. According to Richard Joyce’s version of moral skepticism, for example, morality is essentially an illusion foisted upon us by our genes. We’ve evolved to view certain social norms as having convention-transcendent authority (when, in fact, there is no such thing) because thinking about things this way made us more altruistic (“nicer”) and ultimately helped our ancestors make more babies.

I think of skepticism as an incompatibilist stance on the relationship between moral living and naturalism. Having a naturalist worldview, on the moral skeptic’s view, is incompatible with ordinary moral living.

Depending on whether a skeptic recommends fictionalism or abolitionism about moral language, we can think of the options as soft or hard incompatibilism, respectively. The hard incompatibilist views naturalism as completely incompatible with ordinary moral living and the ordinary use of moral language, and recommends abolishing its use (come what may, perhaps?). By contrast, the soft incompatibilist views naturalism as, strictly speaking, incompatible with ordinary moral living and language use, but thinks it best for most of us to continue thinking and speaking in such terms, lest the social fabric unravel.

Opponents of skepticism (who are not also realists) tend to fall into what I call an easy compatibilism. Easy compatibilism is the view that (of course!) naturalism and moral living are compatible. The stance is typically justified with a sophisticated, and largely non-cognitivist account of moral language. Ordinary moral discourse can go on, business as usual, because it simply serves to regulate social life. And so the adoption (or not) of a naturalist worldview is, for the most part, irrelevant to moral life.

In contrast to both incompatibilist and easy compatibilist views, I favor a critical compatibilist account of the relationship between naturalism and moral living. The idea is that the examined life and the moral life need not part ways (contra the skeptic), but that their reconciliation is more work than is sometimes assumed (for instance, by the easy compatibilist).

I’ll give the principal contours of this view in my next post.