Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Ethical Reductionism

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Ethical Reductionism

Article excerpt

Naturalistic moral realists hold that moral properties are part of the natural world. (1) They can accept either reductionism or nonreductionism about how moral properties relate to properties invoked in the best natural and social scientific explanations, which I call "scientific properties." (2) This article argues that reductionism is the best form of naturalistic moral realism.

Reductionism and nonreductionism differ about whether moral properties and scientific properties are identical. (3) Reductionists see moral properties as identical to individual scientific properties or disjunctions of scientific properties. Supposing for illustration that hedonism is the true theory of moral value, reductionism treats goodness as identical to pleasure, just as water is identical to [H.sub.2]O. (4) Nonreductionists see moral properties as natural properties supervening on and constituted by scientific properties without being identical to them. (5)

Again assuming hedonism for illustration, nonreductionism treats goodness as supervening on pleasure without identity. The Cornell Realists liken this to how psychological properties supervene on neuroscientific properties in Jerry Fodor's influential view of the special sciences. (6)

Both views share many features. They address the conceptual is/ought gap by agreeing with G. E. Moore that normative ethical truths are synthetic and not analytic. (7) They reject his view that moral properties are nonnatural. They answer John Mackie's argument that moral properties are unacceptably queer by denying that they produce categorical reasons. (8)

Today, nonreductionism is the dominant form of synthetic naturalistic moral realism. (9) Russ Shafer-Landau describes the consensus, writing of Richard Boyd's moral semantics:

Boyd himself does not believe that application of his theory will yield
a reductive view... no one has supplied any reason for thinking that
he has erred in this regard. No one has done anything towards showing
that his semantics, when well applied, would yield the surprising
conclusion that goodness (and rightness, and forbiddenness, etc.) is
identical to some specific natural property. (10)

This consensus should be overturned. Naturalistic moral realists should accept identities between moral properties and scientific properties, even if they believe that properties of special sciences like psychology are not identical to properties of neuroscience or physics. If reduction is easier than Fodor allows, ethical reductionists may have more resources at their disposal than I use here. (11) But even if reductionism fails in psychology, it succeeds in ethics.

Ethical nonreductionists borrow two arguments from Fodor's philosophy of mind, which the two main sections of this article answer. First, nonreductionists argue that the multiple realizability of moral properties defeats reductionism. I solve multiple realizability in ethics by identifying moral properties uniquely or disjunctively with special science properties. This eliminates the main purported disadvantage of reductionism. Second, nonreductionists argue that irreducible moral properties explain empirical phenomena, just as irreducible special science properties do. But since irreducible moral properties do not succeed in explaining additional regularities, error theorists can rightly say that they are pseudoscientific. Since reductionism entails the existence of moral properties when combined with the existence of the reduction bases, it is the more defensible form of naturalistic moral realism.

In recent years, the popularity of nonnaturalistic realism has exceeded that of naturalistic realism. (12) The dialectical situation makes this unsurprising. The best-known versions of naturalistic realism are the Cornell Realists' nonreductionism with its dubious moral explanations, and Jackson's reductionism with its ties to a very different philosophy of mind than the one that the Cornell Realists invoke against their opponents. …

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