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Sturgeon, Nicholas L.
Cornell University 

Selected Bibliography:

Sturgeon, Nicholas L. 1982. Brandt's Moral Empiricism. The Philosophical Review 91: 389-422.

Sturgeon, Nicholas L: 1998. Naturalism in ethics. In:  Craig, Edward (Ed.). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (CD). London, Routledge.

Naturalism in ethics. Ethical naturalism is the project of fitting an account of ethics into a naturalistic worldview. It includes nihilistic

theories, which see no place for real values and no successful role for ethical thought in a purely natural world. The

term ‘naturalism’ is often used more narrowly, however, to refer to cognitivist naturalism, which holds that ethical

facts are simply natural facts and that ethical thought succeeds in discovering them.

G.E. Moore (1903), attacked cognitivist naturalism as mistaken in principle, for committing what he called the

‘naturalistic fallacy’. He thought a simple test showed that ethical facts could not be natural facts (the ‘fallacy’ lay in

believing they could be), and he took it to follow that ethical knowledge would have to rest on nonsensory intuition.

Later writers have added other arguments for the same conclusions. Moore himself was in no sense a naturalist, since

he thought that ethics could be given a ‘non-natural’ basis. Many who elaborated his criticisms of cognitivist

naturalism, however, have done so on behalf of generic ethical naturalism, and so have defended either ethical

nihilism or else some more modest constructive position, usually a version of noncognitivism. Noncognitivists concede

to nihilists that nature contains no real values, but deny that it was ever the function of ethical thought to discover

such things. They thus leave ethical thought room for success at some other task, such as providing the agent with

direction for action.

Defenders of cognitivist naturalism deny that there is a ‘naturalistic fallacy’ or that ethical knowledge need rest on

intuition; and they have accused Moore and his successors of relying on dubious assumptions in metaphysics,

epistemology, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind. Thus many difficult philosophical issues have

been implicated in the debate.

1 Naturalism versus other issues

refbib ethik naturalis

Ethical naturalism is the project of fitting an account of ethics into a naturalistic worldview. It includes nihilistic

theories, which see no place for real values and no successful role for ethical thought in a purely natural world. The

term ‘naturalism’ is often used more narrowly, however, to refer to cognitivist naturalism, which holds that ethical

facts are simply natural facts and that ethical thought succeeds in discovering them.

G.E. Moore (1903), attacked cognitivist naturalism as mistaken in principle, for committing what he called the

‘naturalistic fallacy’. He thought a simple test showed that ethical facts could not be natural facts (the ‘fallacy’ lay in

believing they could be), and he took it to follow that ethical knowledge would have to rest on nonsensory intuition.

Later writers have added other arguments for the same conclusions. Moore himself was in no sense a naturalist, since

he thought that ethics could be given a ‘non-natural’ basis. Many who elaborated his criticisms of cognitivist

naturalism, however, have done so on behalf of generic ethical naturalism, and so have defended either ethical

nihilism or else some more modest constructive position, usually a version of noncognitivism. Noncognitivists concede

to nihilists that nature contains no real values, but deny that it was ever the function of ethical thought to discover

such things. They thus leave ethical thought room for success at some other task, such as providing the agent with

direction for action.

Defenders of cognitivist naturalism deny that there is a ‘naturalistic fallacy’ or that ethical knowledge need rest on

intuition; and they have accused Moore and his successors of relying on dubious assumptions in metaphysics,

epistemology, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind. Thus many difficult philosophical issues have

been implicated in the debate.

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge

References and further reading

Many of these readings are demanding but, except as noted, are not especially technical.

Ayer, A.J. (1936) Language, Truth and Logic, London: Gollancz; 2nd edn, 1946, ch. 6.(Presents one of the earliest explicit

versions of noncognitivism.)

Blackburn, S. (1993) Essays in Quasi-Realism, New York: Oxford University Press, essays 6-11.(Defends a version of

noncognitivism, here called ‘projectivism’, and of ‘quasi-realism’, the thesis that this understanding will largely vindicate

rather than debunk ethical thought.)

Boyd, R. (1988) ‘How to be a Moral Realist’, in G. Sayre-McCord (ed.) Essays on Moral Realism, Ithaca, NY: Cornell

University Press, 181-228.(A defence of cognitivist ethical naturalism, especially important on the comparison of ethical to

scientific epistemology; the volume includes an extensive bibliography, much of it relevant to debates about ethical

naturalism.)

Foot, P. (1978) Virtues and Vices, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.(Essays by a prominent defender of

cognitivist naturalism. Chaps 7-9 question the autonomy of ethics, 10-13 its rational authority.)

Gibbard, A. (1990) Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.(Perhaps the most carefully

worked out version of noncognitivism, which extends that doctrine beyond ethics to cover judgments of rationality; a

sympathy for ‘Moore-like’ dismissals of cognitivist naturalism is conjoined with the reflection that the author’s disagreement

with that position may in the end be empirical. Pages 150-250 explore the extent to which, on the account presented,

normative judgment ‘mimics the search for truth’ (218).)

Hare, R.M. (1952) The Language of Morals, Oxford: Clarendon Press.(A highly influential presentation of noncognitivism,

which attempts to derive the autonomy of ethics from the distinctively action-guiding character of ethical language. Like

most writers influenced by Moore, Hare uses the term ‘naturalism’ for what this entry calls cognitivist naturalism.)

Harman, G. (1977) The Nature of Morality, New York: Oxford University Press, chaps 1-2.(Presents the argument that

supposed moral facts seem irrelevant to naturalistic explanation, without committing himself to this conclusion.)

Mackie, J.L. (1977) Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Harmondsworth: Penguin, ch. 1.(Makes a vigorous naturalistic

argument for ethical nihilism.)

Moore, G.E. (1903) Principia Ethica, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, sections 1-17.(Dense, technical and, by

Moore’s later admission, sometimes confused, this passage presents the ‘open question’ argument and claims to refute

cognitivist naturalism, called by Moore ‘naturalistic ethics’.)

Plato (c.380-367 BC) Republic, trans. G. Grube, revised by C. Reeve, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992,

book I.(Presents a classic debate about the nature and value of justice.)

Railton, P. (1992) ‘Some Questions about the Justification of Morality’, in J.E. Tomberlin (ed.) Ethics, Philosophical

Perspectives 6, Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing Co., 27-53.(A subtle discussion of how vindicatory a naturalistic

theory of ethics can be, and should be required to be.)

Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, ch. 1, section 9.(Describes the process of seeking a

‘reflective equilibrium’ among one’s ethical and other beliefs. This is accepted as an approximately accurate account of

thoughtful reasoning in ethics by many who then disagree about the philosophical implications.)

Sturgeon, N.L. (1985) ‘Moral Explanations’, in D. Copp and D. Zimmerman (eds) Reason, Truth and Morality, Totowa, NJ:

Rowman and Allenheld, 49-78.(A defence of ethical naturalism, with special reference to the explanatory relevance of

ethical facts.)

Wood, A.W. (1981) Karl Marx, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, chaps 9, 10.(Defends a careful version of an interpretation

according to which Marx holds (to put it much less carefully) that justice is nothing but the interest of a ruling

class.)

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge

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