What is Ethical Non-Naturalism?


Ethical Non-Naturalism (or Moral Non-Naturalism) is a meta-ethical doctrine. It is meant as a counterpart to Ethical Naturalism. As the name suggests, in Ethical Non-Naturalism the propositions expressed are not reducible to non-ethical statements, which is the assumption held by Ethical Naturalism. For example, it is not possible to define ‘good’ and  ‘bad’ as natural properties – as in, say, what is ‘pleasurable’ or ‘desirable’. That is to say, Ethical Non-Naturalism holds that such conceptions as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cannot be defined in any other terms than the way they are already expressed. Or, to put it differently once again, the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cannot be reformulated without ultimately changing the meaning of the sentences/propositions in which they take place. While most words that describe actions (speed, dexterity, agility, etc.) can be altered without losing meaning, descriptions of actions in ethical terms (good, right, etc.) cannot be substituted without essentially losing their moral character. Substituting a good action with pleasurable action, or one done out of need or desire, essential changes the meaning of that action. By extension, this means that moral philosophy is an autonomous domain and cannot be conflated with natural sciences.

A simple example: “It is good to help those in need” is fundamentally different from “It is desirable to help those in need” or “It is pleasurable to help those in need”.

There are effectively four claims that Ethical Non-Natural aims to satisfy (and claims that these can be satisfied):

  1. Ethics can be expressed in propositions; which means that
  2. These proposition are either true or false;
  3. The truth of these propositions is independent of subjective opinions, beliefs, customs, etc. and can be verified by observations of the objective features of the world; and
  4. The moral objective features of the world are moral and are not reducible to any non-moral features.

Ethical Non-Naturalism is a type of Moral Realism and assumes Cognitivism. Both assume that ethics can be expressed through (logical) propositions and are thus either true or false. This view has been in particular defended by the British philosopher G. E. Moore, who in his Principia Ethica claimed that an attempt to prove a claim about ethics by appealing to ‘natural properties’ is fallacious at the outset (he calls is ‘naturalistic fallacy’). This is not to say that, because ‘good’ and bad’ are non-natural, it is therefore in some sense supernatural / spiritual / religious. Quite the opposite, ‘good’ an ‘bad’ simply cannot be reduced to natural properties such as ‘pleasure’ and ‘desire’. As Moore noted, “Goodness is a simple, undefinable, non-natural property.” Similarly, in early Wittgenstein we find that “It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.421). That is to say, ethical concepts cannot be reduced to a physically observable counterpart.

Unfortunately, the debate between Ethical Naturalism and Ethical Non-Naturalism is anything but clear. There remains a lot of controversy over the boundaries between the two doctrines; so much in fact, that some authors have claimed that there is equal amount of controversy about how to distinguish between the two as there is about which view is correct.

Ethical Intuitionism

Ethical Intuitionism is a variant of Ethical Non-Naturalism that was aimed at addressing the epistemological issue that arises from the above – namely, if it is indeed the case that ethical concepts cannot be reduced to physically observable counterparts, then how is knowledge of these concepts come about? How is one to distinguish between ethical concepts? And, how is one to justify their actions and beliefs as ethical?

While traditionally, these questions would be answered through religious dogma, and later with assertion of reason, some moral epistemologists have posited that these approaches are inherently misguided. The main reason is that either previously religious answers that have been adapted to contemporary conditions, or reason has aimed justify contemporary (im)moral bahviour. In other words, both approaches would only confirm the cultural and social biases that we already hold; they would just confirm whatever it is that we already think we know and not lead to actual knowledge of what is ethical behaviour.

Following Moore, British moral epistemologists have asserted an additional faculty that humans possess. Ethical Intuitionism claims that we are intuitively aware of ethical truths. What is ‘good’ and/or ‘bad’ is intuitively open to most human beings. As human beings, we have a special faculty – namely, that of moral intuition – which tells us what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ about our action or belief. This special faculty of moral intuition is thought of as a mental process where moral judgments are the output, and is often simply referred to as conscience (at least by the public).

Such an outlook, and the persistence of the epistemological issue that arose from Moore, has led to the question of whether moral knowledge is possible at all. Some philosophers have claimed that moral matters lack an objective reality and cannot be true. This view is often inappropriately attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, whose critique of Christian morality has translated in a misunderstanding of his philosophical endeavours towards a revaluation of values. Instead, a critique of moral knowledge is meant to encompass a different question: not whether there are such things as right and wrong, good and bad or indeed a spectrum between these actions, or thinking outside of such dualities; but rather that these are not epistemically knowable things, that they are not part of an objective reality that can be known in the same way speed, dexterity, agility of a particular action.

Further Reading

Moore, G.E. (2004). Principia Ethica, Mineola: Dover Publications.

Ridge, M. (2006). Principled Ethics: Generalism as a Regulative Ideal, Oxford: Oxford University Press (with Sean McKeever)

Ridge, M. (2014). “Moral Non-Naturalism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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