The Naturalistic Approach to Morality

April 13, 2010

How does the naturalistic worldview find a place for morality? Everyone has noticed that if naturalism is unable to accommodate the existence of morality, supernaturalisms are ready with a very different way to understand morality.

A naturalistic approach to morality requires that (1) the existence of morality, (2) the ability of human beings to be moral, and (3) the efforts of human beings to intelligently think about morality, must all be compatible with scientific knowledge about nature and humans.

The natural existence of morality hopefully needs no special argument -- it is easy to observe lots of morality going on all around us. Naturalists believe that nothing supernatural needs to be postulated to explain morality. The naturalist also believes that moral responsibility requires that people can judge what is moral without relying on some authority, such as a King or a God .

How does a naturalist explain and justify morality without using anything supernatural or appealing to religious authority?   A naturalistic approach to morality requires compatibility with our scientific understanding of human beings and how they live. The essential principles for this naturalistic approach should include the following points:

1. Morality is a kind of reliable practical knowledge that can be improved by applied human intelligence. 

2. People have some moral knowledge from being raised in a culture that teaches morality and from their own reflections on that inherited morality.

3. People can be responsible moral agents only if they can judge for themselves whether an authority should be obeyed. 

These principles can assist the naturalist in developing a humanist ethics: an explanation and justification of morality that does not rely on anything supernatural or on any religious authority. However, a major confusion about the aim of humanist ethics must be avoided from the start. A humanist ethics does NOT need to entirely reject moral rules or values taught by religions in order to maintain its independence. The purpose of a humanist ethics is NOT to simply contradict the moralities that religions teach, as if religions can only instill completely immoral conduct. Quite the contrary -- religions tend to instill much the same basic morality around the world.

Indeed, naturalism should be comfortable with supposing that religious cultures are sources of moral knowledge: a culture’s religion provides some practical knowledge about morality. Religious cultures contain accumulated human experience about what makes a good life and how to practically achieve it through various moralities. This observable fact about world cultures does not mean that all these religions are actually correct about what is the best morality. But they cannot be ignored as sources of morality, and they cannot be regarded as sources of nothing but immorality.

Naturalism gains nothing by depicting our ancestors as so unintelligent that they would create and use really counter-productive religious moralities. Naturalism could not then explain how such dumb religious moralities could successfully perpetuate themselves across generations and throughout cultures. It is far easier to explain the origin and evolution of religion if you first try the hypothesis that they are intelligently designed by humans and gradually modified for maximizing effectiveness over long periods of time. Religions did originate under conditions of vast human ignorance about the world around them -- that is why supernaturalisms got so popular. But here we are only speaking of the moralities of religions, and humans are pretty intelligent about sustaining their own communities under local conditions (we get into trouble when conditions change). Again, naturalism gains nothing by instead supposing that our ancestors were utterly ignorant about how to sustain cooperative communities. Think about it -- humans too dumb to figure out basic morality -- isn't that the start of the script for a religion which thanks a God for teaching morality to us?

Furthermore, religious cultures that promote nothing but the worst violations of trust, loyalty, cooperation, and dignity would tend to eliminate themselves in the long run. Of course, the same holds true for secular cultures. There is much common ground about morality to be found around the world. The smart question remaining is this: what shall be the appropriate kind of morality to be used into the future? Conditions have changed, all around the world. It is unlikely that a conservative ethics of "just say NO" to any moral change could be wise at this stage of human civilization. We need to think together about a Planetary Ethics.

Because humanist ethics insists that people can intelligently reevaluate cultural moralities, without any supernatural advice, any humanist ethics will be free to disagree with religions. Any moral wisdom in religions must be independently judged and improved by current intelligence. A naturalistic humanist ethics can be developed by working through the moralities of cultural/religious traditions and making some fresh judgments. After all, humanisms have themselves developed within Greek, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Confucian religious cultures. Humanism is hardly unprepared for further deliberations.

Do these observations on naturalism and religious ethics sound odd to you? The only alternative for a naturalistic humanist ethics, if appreciation or appropriation of anything traditional must be completely avoided, is to generate morality from something like pure reason or science. Some naturalists have thought that this option could work. I have my doubts, but this option must be taken up in another essay.


#1 Matt Miller on Tuesday April 13, 2010 at 11:36am

Whether or not you avail yourself of religions or tradition as a source of potentially valuable ideas for moral/ethical behavior, you’re still left with the need to measure such behavior against some reasoned value or set of values (i.e., you haven’t sidestepped the need for “something like pure reason or science”). The fact that oodles of people might agree doesn’t cut it, regardless of the source of your morality.

#2 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 7:04pm

The only alternative for a naturalistic humanist ethics, if appreciation or appropriation of anything traditional must be completely avoided, is to generate morality from something like pure reason or science. JS

You seem to forget that in doing that you would be appropriating a tradition, it just happens to be a tradition you like instead of one you don’t like.

Your “if” here isn’t something that is a necessity, as viewed by the fact that the majority opinion seems to be opposed to that idea.  That majority opinion, in this case, somehow not conferring the legitimacy you said it gave in your last post.  How you make that distinction, I’m not sure it’s worth trying but you might want to go through the exercise.

#3 Albert Rogers (Guest) on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 10:34pm

Let us not forget that ethics and morality may have been codified, in a traditional context, to suit the purposes of the ruling class. It is believed by some that the Minoan civilization (and possibly the Phoenician) was far less patriarchal than most of those that came down to us.

The belief that it is sweet and proper to die for your country was expressed by Horatius Flaccus, but is obviously more useful to the rulers of the country than to the families of the poor fellows doing the dying.

It is really strange that people who laud the sanctity of marriage and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ignore the fact that Abraham was given his wife’s “maidservant” to beget a child upon, and then at Sarah’s behest threw them both out.
Jacob was swindled into taking Leah, a wife he didn’t want, but got her pregnant five times nevertheless. He ended up with two concubines more on account of the rivalry of his wives, but at least had the decency to promote them to wife status.

#4 Vince (Guest) on Monday April 19, 2010 at 6:42pm

You still need a method to extract the valuable morals and leave the others behind. Otherwise you may pick up immoral beliefs like hatred of gays and lesbians. You suggestion is a bit like those who insist on using “natural” medicines. Yes, a particular root may have a valuable compound but you are better off isolating the useful bit and leaving the rest of the root behind (Thanks to Richard Carrier @ Skepticon I for this analogy). So your idea doesn’t get us very far.

The big picture of morality isn’t really that complicated. Decide what things are more important than others and then answer the empirical question of how to best achieve those things. Sure, picking what those most important things are (e.g. human happiness) is somewhat arbitrary but then so is saying we should want to do want god wants. And at least we know humans and happiness exist unlike asking what god, that probably doesn’t even exist, wants.

#5 Albert Rogers (Guest) on Monday April 26, 2010 at 5:48pm

Vince, I agree with you. You may already know of the dictum (Russell’s I think) that belief in the will of the majority is even more dangerous than belief in the Will of God, because the will of the majority can be ascertained.

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