SOPhiA 2019

Salzburgiense Concilium Omnibus Philosophis Analyticis

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Programme - Talk

An argument for the vacuity of the natural/non-natural distinction in metaethics
(Ethics, English)

There is an ongoing debate in metaphysics over the application of the term physical, especially as used in contrast with the mental. Noam Chomsky has been a prominent critic of the usefulness of the term physical, arguing that the notion of the physical is vacuous. What is physical, Chomsky argues, consists in nothing more than what is more-or-less presently understood. There is no constraint on how future understanding may alter or eliminate the stock of things to which we presently ascribe the label non-physical and re-ascribe the label physical. As such, to contrast physical with non-physical is to make a vacuous, uninformative contrast, because non-physical has no stable meaning other than being that which we presently more-or-less understand.

I argue that Chomsky's argument can be extended to the domain of metaethics, where the term natural, especially as used in contrast with non-natural, can by the same argument be shown to be vacuous also. Just as Chomsky argues in the physical case, I argue that there is neither an a priori nor an a posteriori constraint on what may count as a natural moral property. My argument runs as follows:

1) The property of naturalness is exhaustively determined by those properties identified by the natural sciences

2) There is neither an a priori nor a posteriori constraint on what sorts of properties the natural sciences might identify

3) To contrast natural with non-natural is to make a vacuous, uninformative contrast, because non-natural has no stable meaning other than being that which we presently more-or-less understand

Arguments in favour of either a naturalistic or a non-naturalistic metaethics trade on identifying features of moral properties as being either consistent with or deviant from the properties presently understood by those working in the natural sciences. But just as this leads to vacuity in the physical case, given that there is no a priori or a posteriori constraint on what may count as physical in the future, so this is true in the case of the term natural also.

Chair: Damiano Ranzenigo
Time: 14:00-14:30, 18 September 2019 (Wednesday)
Location: SR 1.004
Remark: CHANGE. The talk is cancelled!

Thomas Walton 
(University of Oxford, United Kingdom)

I obtained a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Leeds in 2015 and was subsequently admitted to Oxford University where I completed the BPhil masters degree in 2017. I am currently studying for the DPhil, writing a thesis on motivational judgement internalism and moral nativism. I worked as a research assistant for Professor Noam Chomsky at MIT in 2013, where I developed strong interests in linguistics and philosophy of mind. I continue to write on matters related to these topics in addition to my thesis work.



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