Three Challenges for Naturalistic Ethics

by John D. Ferrer

It is common for naturalistic thinkers in ethics to argue that our moral values are derived entirely from nature. Moral facts are facts of nature.

For example, DNA wires us to desire pleasure and avoid pain. Our environment fosters community values, and social normas. Evolution filters out extreme deviancy and selects for altruism (charity, mercy, etc.).

In colleges and universities today, naturalistic ethics is quite common, if not the majority view in ethics departments around the country.

Yet entering students are far more often raised with a different ethical framework, usually a religious framework where moral goodness is outlined in Scripture or based in God’s nature. For the student trying to forge a path for himself in the university, it may help to have a few responses ready in the event that an ethics teacher proves antagonistic to religious ethics.

1. The “Is-Ought” Problem:

If nature is what it is, where do “oughts” come from?

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That is, moral prescriptions are a different category from the descriptions of nature we find in the sciences. This problem is well known in ethics, but it’s often misunderstood and rarely, if ever, solved.

Christian ethics, for example, allows that nature can possess the endowed intentions of its creator. God made animals to serve people and populate the earth. God made man to care for the earth, love each other, and honor God.

With a divine mind behind nature, nature can carry His intentions, even if it’s not itself intelligent and cannot “intend” things like moral duties.

2. The Problem of Relativism:

Some professors are committed relativists; others are working hard to avoid it. But however you slice it, relativism is a compelling option intellectually, even while it offends our moral senses.

To justify objective ethics and avoid relativism, one needs an objective basis that all people everywhere answer to. Nature doesn’t seem to provide this…


Three Challenges for Naturalistic Ethics



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