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Morality in a Natural WorldReview - Morality in a Natural World
Selected Essays in Metaethics
by David Copp
Cambridge University Press, 2007
Review by Tatiana Patrone, Ph.D.
Jan 29th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 5)

In his recent collection of essays, Morality in a Natural World, David Copp brings together a set of arguments in support of the plausibility of moral naturalism.  (Three essays in this collection -- 3, 4, and 7 -- have not been previously published; the remaining seven have appeared before in journals such as Social Philosophy and Policy, Synthèse, and Canadian Journal of Philosophy, as well as in Peter Schaber's anthology -- Normativity and Naturalism (2004).)  Copp's aim in many of the essays is to "motivate taking [moral] naturalism seriously" (33).  While he believes that moral naturalism is in fact "the default view" in metaethics -- i.e., it is the view that "one would intuitively be led to if one approached the subject without prior theoretical commitments" (10) -- he acknowledges that moral naturalism faces a set of metaphysical, epistemological, and semantic challenges that are in need of solutions if naturalism is to be made genuinely plausible.

Moral naturalism, according to Copp, is the view that there are moral properties (e.g., wrongness) and that these properties are natural.  He further defines natural properties in the following way: "a property is natural if and only if any synthetic proposition about its instantiation that can be known, could only be known empirically" (39).  A moral naturalist, therefore, denies that there are synthetic a priori moral truths (especially if we take it that an a priori truth cannot in principle be undermined by experience, i.e., that it is 'strongly a priori') (47).

Even though the account of moral properties as real and as natural sounds to be prima facie quite plausible, this account also seems to be undermined by our intuitive take on moral propositions.  For instance, while moral naturalism claims that all substantive moral truths are empirical, our intuitions concerning moral propositions tell us that we often arrive at ethical conclusions through mere reflection (rather than through observation), which suggests that their truth is a matter of conceptual connections between their terms.  Also, we believes that some ethical claims are self-evident (which is a mark of a priori truths), and that some moral truths seem to be necessary (which also suggests that they are a priori).  In essays (1)-(4), Copp deals with these challenges to naturalism.  Instead of undermining the intuitions that fuel these challenges, he takes these intuitions to be fundamentally correct; Copp then shows that the truth of these intuitions is quite compatible with moral naturalism.

The synthetic nature of moral propositions has also been challenged on semantic grounds.  Terence Horgan and Mark Timmons argue that the semantics for terms that refer to natural (and artificial) properties developed by Putnam -- the semantics that accounts for identity propositions such as "Water is H2O" -- cannot be successfully applied to moral identity statements such as "Wanton cruelty is wrong".  In essays (6) and (7), Copp answers the objections proposed by Horgan and Timmons (and their 'Moral Twin Earth' case) and shows that moral naturalism is quite compatible with the original Putnamian semantics, and that propositions such as "Wanton cruelty is wrong" can in fact be considered synthetic empirical truths, and that, furthermore, this account of moral truths does not violate our basic linguistic intuitions either.

Apart from examining the epistemic and the semantic challenges to moral naturalism, Copp also discusses the relation between naturalism and normativity (essay (8)), the relation between naturalism and expressivism (essay (5)), and the nature of practical rationality in general (essays (9) and (10)).  What emerges from the wide set of topics that Morality in a Natural World explores is a picture of moral naturalism as an intuitively plausible and a theoretically sound doctrine.  (This is notwithstanding Copp's modest claim that his arguments are not designed to prove that moral naturalism is the correct metaethical theory, but that they rather aim at inspiring "optimism" for moral naturalism (249).)

Morality in a Natural World is without a doubt a valuable and a pleasant read for any serious student of philosophy.  To a reader who is not fluent in contemporary metaethics, Copp's work can serve as a good starting point that introduces the main issues and the major players without overly technical jargon.  While this collection of essays does not require fluency with the current discussions in metaethics and with the arguments in the recent history of Anglo-American philosophy, it masterfully weaves these discussions and these arguments into Copp's account of moral properties and of practical rationality, and it provides a comprehensive context for moral naturalism.  An advanced student of philosophy will, therefore, benefit not only from exploring the arguments for moral naturalism but also from following Copp's project of making moral naturalism compatible with the prevalent contemporary theories of knowledge, of language, and of values.  Finally, an expert in metaethics will find insightful arguments, subtle clarifications, and fine analyses pertaining to her field.  Copp engages authors such as Michael Smith, Alan Gibbard, Michael Bratman, and Simon Blackburn (to name just a few) in a series of arguments concerning the frontier of metaethics.  Fortunately, he does this without sacrificing the overall clarity of his writing and the lucidity of his arguments.

© 2008 Tatiana Patrone

Tatiana Patrone, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Ithaca College, NY

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