2014 Res Philosophica Essay Prize

Moral Nonnaturalism

Guest Editor: Terence Cuneo

Abstract (Show/Hide)
There is perhaps no more widely shared conviction in contemporary metaethics, even among those who hold otherwise divergent views, than that practical normativity must be capable of being naturalized—i.e., captured fully within a metaphysically naturalist worldview. My aim is to illuminate the central reasons for skepticism about this. While certain naturalizing projects are plausible for very limited purposes, it is unlikely that any can provide everything we might reasonably want from an account of goodness and badness, rightness and wrongness, and unqualified reasons for acting—at least if we are unwilling to accept certain deflationary or bullet-biting moves. Some naturalizing moves can be shown to fail outright to capture the relevant normative facts or properties, while others have more promise but can also be seen to carry certain limitations and costs, failing to capture elements that some of us take to be important to an adequate theory of practical normativity. There are, of course, far more naturalizing moves than can be considered here, so the aim is not to establish the truth of non-naturalism through a process of elimination. But I hope to say enough to bring out the central worries about naturalizing projects and to pose some challenges that apply more widely, with the aim of showing that ethical non-naturalism remains an attractive and well-motivated option at least for those of us who reject both nihilism and various forms of ethical deflation.
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William J. FitzPatrick is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rochester, and serves as an associate editor for Ethics. His research ranges across metaethics, normative ethical theory, and applied ethics, and he has published articles on various topics in these areas in Ethics, Mind, Analysis, Philosophical Studies, Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, and other journals. Among his current projects are the development of a robust, non-naturalist ethical realism, a refinement and defense of the doctrine of double effect, and an exploration of questions at the intersection of ethical theory and the sciences. In particular, he has been developing a defense of non-skeptical ethical realism against recent epistemic debunking arguments that appeal to evolutionary biology to challenge the possibility of ethical knowledge within a realist framework.
Original Call For Papers (Show/Hide)

Moral Nonnaturalism

Guest Editor: Terence Cuneo (University of Vermont)

Deadline for Submission: April 1, 2014

Prize: $3,000

Call for Papers

Res Philosophica invites papers on the topic of moral nonnaturalism for the 2014 Res Philosophica Essay Prize. The author of the winning paper will receive a prize of $3,000 and publication in the special issue of the journal on the same topic. Submissions for the prize will be automatically considered for publication in the journal's special issue unless otherwise requested.


The recent history of moral nonnaturalism has been both tumultuous and unpredictable. In the early 20th century, thanks to the work of philosophers such as G. E. Moore and W. D. Ross, nonnaturalism was arguably the dominant metaethical position in Anglo-American philosophy. By mid-century, however, the view had fallen into disfavor, eclipsed by various versions of expressivism and moral naturalism. Indeed, by century's end, most philosophers had given up nonnaturalism for dead. The view seemed to be of historical interest only.

Few, then, could have predicted that nonnaturalism would receive fresh and vigorous defenses in the early 21st century. Philosophers such as Russ Shafer-Landau, Ralph Wedgwood, David Enoch, and David Parfit each offered book-length defenses of the view, developing the case that moral nonnaturalism is a far more resilient, resourceful, and plausible position than most had assumed.

While nonnaturalism is now, once again, a view that philosophers take very seriously, challenges remain. Some of these challenges concern the view's ontological commitments: How ought we to understand what a nonnatural property (or fact) is? What are the best reasons for holding that moral features (or facts) are not reducible to natural features (or facts)? Are these reasons persuasive? Moreover, what should nonnaturalists say in response to the charge that their view requires us to believe that ontologically discontinuous entities such as natural and nonnatural facts bear necessary connections to one another?

Other challenges concern the view's epistemological commitments: Given the fact that our moral views have been heavily influenced by contingent cultural, historical, and evolutionary forces, how could nonnaturalists plausibly hold that we reliably track the moral truths? Moreover, nonnaturalists have tended to defend intuitionist views in moral epistemology, maintaining that some moral propositions are self-evident. To what extent, though, is nonnaturalism committed to a version of ethical intuitionism? And are these views defensible?

Still other challenges are broadly semantic: If nonnatural features (or facts) do not enter into the causal flow of nature, how could we get them in mind or refer to them? Are nonnaturalists committed to broadly descriptivist accounts of reference? Or can they join forces with naturalists in championing nondescriptivist accounts of reference?


These are just a sample of the sorts of issue that submissions might address. Papers that address other topics in the neighborhood are welcome.

All papers will be triple anonymous reviewed. Please format your submission so that it is suitable for anonymous review.

Papers may be up to 12,000 words long (including footnotes).

We accept pdf and Microsoft Word documents. Papers may be submitted in any standard style, but authors of accepted papers will be required to edit their papers according to the journal's style, which follows The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition). Style instructions are available here.

Please use the online submission form for submitting your essay, available here.