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Non-reductive naturalistic moral realism (aka ‘Cornell Realism’)

1. Reductive and non-reductive naturalism

David Brink, a Cornell realist, claims:

Ethical naturalism claims that moral facts are nothing more than familiar facts about the natural, including social, world. I shall gloss this as the claim that moral facts are natural and social scientific (e.g. social, psychological, economic, and biological) facts. (1989: 156-157)

However, Brink continues:

we should distinguish between the ‘is’ of identity and the ‘is’ of constitution. Because ‘are’ can represent the ‘is’ of identity or the ‘is’ of constitution, naturalism can be construed as claiming either that moral facts and properties are identical with natural and social scientific facts and properties or that moral facts and properties are constituted by, but not identical with, natural and social scientific facts and properties. (1989: 157)

Identity entails constitution, but constitution does not entail identity:

Moral properties can be natural properties … even if they are not identical with natural properties. F can be G even if the property (or properties) designated by ‘F’ is not (or are not) the same as that (or those) designated by ‘G’. If G actually composes or realises F, but F can be, or could have been, realised differently, then G constitutes, but is not identical with, F. (1989: 157)

Brink provides the following example of (physical) constitution:

a table is constituted by, but not identical with, a particular arrangement of microphysical particles, since the table could survive certain changes in its particles or their arrangement. (1989: 158)

Brink then applies this notion of constitution (without identity) to the moral case:

Similarly, moral properties are constituted by, but not identical with, natural properties if, though actually constituted or realised by natural properties, moral properties can be or could have been realised by properties not studied by the natural or social sciences. Moral properties may well be constituted by natural properties; they may be nothing over and above organised combinations of natural and social scientific properties. But if moral properties, though actually constituted by natural properties, could have been realised by some properties that are not natural – say, by supernatural properties of a divine being – then moral properties are not necessarily natural properties. Though constituted by natural properties, moral properties, on this counterfactual assumption, cannot be identical with natural properties. (1989: 158)

Brink’s resistance to identifying moral properties with natural properties applies at lower levels too:

A plausible claim about a variety of property types and tokens (properties and property instances) is that they could have been realised in a variety of ways … For example, both the property of injustice and particular instances of injustice, in whatever social and economic conditions they are actually realised, could have been realised by a variety of somewhat different configurations of social and economic properties and property instances. Moral properties could have been realised by an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of sets of natural properties. (1989: 158)

On the Cornell realist view, then, moral facts and properties are ‘constituted, composed, or realised by organised combinations of natural and social scientific facts and properties’ (1989: 159), but moral facts and properties are not identical with those natural properties. We have a non-reductive naturalist moral realism.

=== 2. Moral properties irreducible in moral explanations — Naturalism provides a direct response to Mackie’s queerness argument: there is nothing strange about moral properties if they just are natural properties. The appeal of naturalism is that natural properties are the object of study of the natural and social sciences. The natural properties we posit are meant to possess genuine explanatory power, as e.g. facts about chemistry explain and predict how molecules behave and interact, and facts about biology explain the development of living systems, and so on. If moral properties are natural properties then they too should be explanatorily potent, and should ‘pull their weight’ in explanations of our experience. (A property that ‘pulls its weight’ in an explanation is one that cannot be eliminated without explanatory loss.)

The non-reductive naturalist claims that moral properties, though composed of natural properties, can be realised by different natural properties in different circumstances. This is why the moral description of the property cannot be eliminated without explanatory loss. But, if so, moral terms better figure in our naturalistic explanations in ways analogous to other such natural phenomena.

3. Moral facts ‘pulling their weight’ in explanations

So how do moral properties enter into our explanations, on the non-reductive naturalist moral realist’s account? The basic idea is that, in at least some cases, social phenomena, whether positive or negative, are not entirely explicable without recourse to the moral qualities of e.g. institutions and governments. Some e.g.s: Sturgeon suggests that in order to explain ‘the growth of antislavery sentiment in the US, between the Revolution and Civil War,’ we must do so in part by saying that ‘slavery in the US became a more oppressive institution during that time’ (1988: 245); Brink points to the need to cite the injustice of ‘the South African political and legal system as the cause of its instability and of protest against apartheid’ (1989: 187).

The Cornell realists are careful not to insist that the explanations in question must be cashed out in terms of agents’ moral beliefs (even moral error theorists, like Mackie, might think that systematically fallacious moral beliefs could have social effects). So Brink:

there will be cases where the causal efficacy and explanatory power of moral facts precede their recognition. Because, perhaps, of prevailing ideology I may regard my society as basically just, but its laws and institutions are, in fact, unjust. In particular, they deprive members of my class of significant social goods and opportunities in a systematic, if ideologically disguised, way. Though still under the belief that that my society is basically just and that people are responsible for their own social positions, I begin to feel (unreflective) resentment about my own social position. I also begin to sympathize with other disadvantaged members of my class as I get to know them and their circumstances. In time, I begin to reflect on this resentment and sympathy and to examine the comparative social position of people in my class and its explanation. This reflection eventually produces the belief that my society is fundamentally unjust, and this in turn leads me to engage in social protest of various kinds. Here social injustice seems to explain both the feelings I experienced before acquiring the belief in the injustice of my society and, of course, the development of this belief. (1989: 189)

4. Some issues

(i) Lack of respect for morality; ‘noble realism’. If there were a group of people who subscribed to Nietzschean values, values which emphasise creativity, psychological strength, the will to mould the world in one’s own image, etc., and scorn sympathy, pity, conformity, etc, then according to the criteria for realism set down by the non-reductive naturalists, it might seem that if there are phenomena for which the best explanation requires the existence of such ‘noble’ properties, then noble properties will actually exist. One might suggest that this does not seem to provide an adequate account of the privileged status that the moral perspective is thought to have, and so is not a moral realism worth having.

(ii) What counts as non-natural for the Cornell realists? Clearly supernatural phenomena are meant to be left out. But Brink seems to think supernaturalism is only one type of non-naturalism and that his account is naturalist in contrast to non-supernatural-non-naturalism.

References and further reading:

Boyd provides a (difficult) one-essay overview of Cornell realism. For more on the issue caused by ‘noble realism’, see Morgan, S. (2006), ‘Naturalism and Normativity’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 72: 2, 319-344. For more on Cornell realism, see also e.g.: Brink (1989), Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics. Sturgeon, N. (1988), ‘Moral explanations’ in Essays on Moral Realism, Sayre-McCord, G. ed. 229-255.

Realism and Normativity


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