An Appraisal of Naturalism in Contemporary Meta-Ethics

Lahti, David Christopher (1998). An Appraisal of Naturalism in Contemporary Meta-Ethics. PhD thesis The Open University.



The view that ethics is a discipline which can operate within the constraints of naturalism, whereby all principles, properties and terms are accessible to natural science, can be subdivided into logical, semantic, and synthetic. Logical naturalists defend the naturalist claim with an appeal to the validity of the logical progression from premises without moral terms to conclusions with them. Semantic naturalists defend it with an appeal to an analytical equivalence between certain nonmoral and moral expressions. Both of these approaches have been thoroughly criticised in this century. Relatively recently, naturalists have begun to defend their naturalist thesis not from either of these perspectives, but with a direct appeal to synthetic facts which can be employed or referred to in scientific explanations. Effective critique of naturalist theories of this newer type involves examination of both the scientific and the ethical claims made. One such synthetic naturalist approach to ethics is the evolutionary naturalism proposed by Michael Ruse. Critique based on a thorough examination of both the science of sociobiology and the moral philosophy involved in Ruse's theory yields informative conclusions, rendering his theory implausible from both perspectives. In light of this case study, a general strategy of argument can be developed which has potential for critique of other naturalistic ethical theories as well. This strategy is the Argument from Moral Experience, which operates by comparing descriptive claims regarding the fundamental nature of morality that are presented or implied by ethical theories, with the fundamental nature of morality as it is actually experienced. If arguments of this type are sound, they can be used in an exploration of whether or not naturalism is an appropriate perspective for morality to be understood and explained properly.

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