Skip to main content

The (Social and Political) Wages of Naturalism

By Stephen Dilley, PhD

Department of Philosophy

St. Edward’s University

Austin, TX 78704


Author’s note to readers: This paper was written for a panel presentation, “Finding the Theistic Foundations of Morality,” at the 2014 American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. Because my presentation is the last of the panel—allowing me to elide a number technical issues and nuances already covered and, instead, to focus on ending the panel on a provocative note—I have opted to write in a manner more punchy and less technical than normal.



In this paper, I argue that naturalists cannot defensibly affirm as objectively good or superior any social or political desiderata. They also cannot defensibly condemn any social or political harms as objectively bad or inferior.[1] In addition, I contend that practically living out naturalism may be classicist and corrosive, especially with respect to the vulnerable members of society.

Before turning to the body of the paper, a few definitions are in order. While naturalism isn’t the easiest view to define,[2] I think it is safe to distinguish between ‘narrow naturalism’ and ‘broad naturalism.’[3] Narrow naturalism holds that (a) nature is all that exists and (b) nature itself is whatever will be disclosed by the ideal natural sciences, especially physics. Broad naturalism also holds that nature is all that exists but that nature itself is whatever will be disclosed by the natural and human sciences—not just physics but psychology, sociology, and the like as well. It thus affirms the emergent reality of consciousness, intentionality, valuing, and so on.


Ontological foundations

Having established some basic definitions, I now turn to the body of the paper. I’ll first focus on the ontological resources of naturalism. Since my colleagues have already done the heavy lifting, I’ll limit myself to a summary of some main ideas from my point of view. While there are a variety of ways to think about the matter, one way is to observe that, on narrow naturalism, nature itself is typically regarded as amoral because there are no ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ particles or forces (or groups of particles or forces). There are no ‘oughtness’ particles or forces (or groups) either. There are just brute particles and forces—fermions and bosons—describable by physics. As one narrow naturalist puts it, “In a world where physics fixes all the facts, it’s hard to see how there could be room for moral facts.”[4] As such, there are no objective moral facts (or ‘moral values,’ as I will call them). That is, there are no real, intrinsic, mind-independent moral values—about fairness, justice, equality, etc.—which are irreducible to, or not identical with, physical facts.

Broad naturalism, on the other hand, affirms the emergent reality of values, including moral values like fairness, justice, social stability, and the like. As such, humans’ subjective experience of good, moral, and right values are not reducible to, or identical with, say, the complex biochemical and structural features of the human brain. On typical formulations of this view, the human mind is something qualitatively different than the human brain. The human mind emerges from the complexity of the brain; one emergent complexity is the ability to form, maintain, communicate, and apply values. However, on this view such values are not ontologically independent of the human brain. In a real sense, their existence depends upon the existence of a physical brain. If human brains ceased to exist,[5] so would moral values. Thus, on this view moral values are not objective—that is, they do not exist independently of human brains and minds. While subjective experiences of valuing are real enough, objective moral values themselves are not. I might be passionate about a state that protects civil liberties, but the value of liberty is itself no more real than the tooth fairy.


Political Implications

In light of this result, it follows that naturalists cannot defensibly affirm any political state or political philosophy as objectively good (or superior), nor can they defensibly condemn any political state or political philosophy as objectively bad (or inferior). For example, naturalists cannot reject Hitler’s Third Reich as objectively wrong and affirm representative democracy as objectively superior. Recall that according to narrow naturalism, there are only physical particles and forces, all of which are amoral. So, one elaborate arrangement of fermions and bosons—say, a social and political system organized according to Nazi principles—is no more or less moral than another array of fermions and bosons, including one arranged according to the principles of democracy. These two (collective) states of affairs are distinguished exhaustively and exclusively by the spatio-temporal differences of their constituent particles and forces. Neither is ‘good’ and neither is ‘bad.’ Neither is ‘morally better’ nor ‘morally worse.’ Fermions and bosons just are.

In the case of broad naturalism, on the other hand, persons may value representative democracy more than Nazism. Nonetheless, democracy is no more objectively good than Nazism. On broad naturalism, it’s true that people’s experience of valuing democracy is qualitatively different than the corresponding subvenient physicality of their brains. But without any mind-independent status to morality, their experience of valuing democracy is no more objectively correct than someone else’s experience of valuing Nazism. Even if every person past, present, and future valued democracy over tyranny, this valuing would not count one iota toward the objective moral superiority of democracy over tyranny. Quite simply, there are no objective values. Accordingly, broad naturalists, like narrow naturalists, cannot affirm a ‘good’ political order as objectively superior to a brutal order.

The implications of this result are troubling. For example, naturalists who lean towards political conservatism, such as political scientist Larry Arnhart, have no real basis to affirm universal human desires—for things like friendship and justice—as the objectively correct basis for social and political order.[6] So, too, naturalists who favor a Rawlsian approach have no real basis to affirm the objectivity of the “principle of equal liberty” or “the principle of difference” nor the legitimacy of the veil of ignorance or the original position.[7] The same is true about negative judgments: Rawlsians have no grounds to attack conservatives, and vice versa. Something similar can be said for any naturalist who wishes to affirm the objective correctness (or objective wrongness) of the core normative principles of Locke’s Second Treatise or Hobbes’ Leviathan or Rousseau’s Social Contract or even James Carville’s It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! Thus, from the right to the left, naturalism decimates the objective moral status, positive or negative, of any political system or philosophy.

This result holds not just at a macro-level of political states or philosophies, but also at the micro-level of particular social and moral causes. Narrow and broad naturalists cannot affirm that women have reproductive rights, the rich ought to pay higher taxes, gays and lesbians have the right to marry, and that climate change ought to be countered. Likewise, naturalists cannot condemn rapacious capitalism, marriage inequality, pro-life legislative coercion, systemic racism, and so on. Naturalist Alex Rosenberg drives this point home: “We have to acknowledge…that many questions we want the ‘right’ answers to just don’t have any. These are questions about the morality of stem-cell research or abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or our obligations to future generations.” We may want answers but, as Rosenberg concludes flatly, “There are none.”[8] In the end, none of a naturalist’s favored positions are objectively correct or superior to their opposites. And no views are objectively bad or inferior, either. All that’s left standing are either particles and forces or subjective experiences.


An Objection

Of course a critic might point out that broad naturalists, at least, can still affirm, say, democracy over fascism as a matter preference. As long as this is true, they can live out meaningful, good lives supportive of democratic principles even if they have no objective basis to regard democracy as (in fact) superior.

By way of reply, it is true that any naturalist can live a certain lifestyle that most of us would regard as good and virtuous, say, one supportive of democracy. But so can a person who thinks he’s an eggplant but that all eggplants have special abilities as well as moral obligations to support representative government. Nearly anyone can live a good life in the limited sense of consistently acting in ‘good’ ways. But that’s not the issue.

The issue is whether naturalists have—on their own grounds—any ability to hold that, say, one political system is objectively better (or worse) than another, and that people ought to support the superior system. They do not have such grounds. Indeed, even a broad naturalist (who has more resources than a narrow naturalist) is in a pickle when he says he can live a good life. He can’t coherently call his life “a good life” in any objective sense. All he can really say is that he lives a certain way that he prefers, and this way happens to be preferred by a number of others.[9] That’s it. Like turtles, it’s just preferences all the way down.

Before closing, I have two more brief notes about living out naturalism in a practical way. The first is an observation; the second, a criticism. First, it is arguable that living this worldview may be a classist luxury, by and large. That is, this lifestyle is viable only for those of privilege. Because naturalism does away with objective moral values, living this view means that one must not take traditional moral and social norms as given but rather substitute one’s own personal perspective (or the prospective of one’s self-identified group). Doing so generally includes complex assessments of social expectations (not obligatory norms), combined with personal introspection and discovery of “what I really want” (or what my group “really wants”), which are negotiated and re-negotiated with one’s friends, peers, colleagues, associates, sub-cultures, and culture. All of this requires leisure time, wealth, verbal ability, education, and the like. But those who lack wealth, education, leisure time, and so on often do not have the wherewithal to engage in such negotiations. A single mom working two jobs, taking care of two kids, slaving through housework, struggling to parent, and collapsing on the couch at night simply doesn’t have the bourgeois luxury to spend two hours over cocktails with a cadre of professional friends discussing just how to maintain her “independence” in the face of archaic social expectations. Practically living out naturalism is, by and large, a plaything of the wealthy and privileged. Again, this is not a criticism per se but an observation. It is noteworthy because some naturalists who see themselves as marginalized or as fighting established powers—“check your privilege,” they tell us—don’t seem to realize just how fortunate they are.

Second, by way of a criticism: practically living a naturalistic view may be corrosive, primarily to the vulnerable. (By ‘the vulnerable,’ I mean those in the bottom tier educationally, economically, politically, socially, professionally, and/or psychologically—individuals, say, who never finished high school, are poor, come from deeply dysfunctional families, have drug addictions, ongoing depression, or the like.) Naturalists who constantly chip away at traditional social and moral norms end up helping to erode the very moral and social capital that traditionally help the disadvantaged. For example, in part under a ‘progressive’ assault, the sacred bond of marriage has become weaker (or less valued) over time. But marriage not only helps single, poor women, it also helps children.[10] Kids who are born out of wedlock, victims of divorce, or raised in single-parent homes are more likely to suffer from a range of difficulties than kids raised in two parent homes.[11] In trying to fight ‘those on top,’ naturalists inadvertently harm ‘those on bottom.’

In conclusion, then, narrow and broad naturalists cannot defensibly affirm or deny the objective goodness or superiority (or the objective badness or inferiority) of any political state, political philosophy, or position on any social or moral topic. And, as I have just noted, living out this view seems to be a classicist privilege and a corrosive stance against the vulnerable. None of this is to say naturalism is false, of course, but only that it comes at a very high cost indeed. Thank you.



[1] I assume throughout the paper that, for a person (or persons) to defensibly affirm social or political desiderata as ‘objectively good or superior’ or to defensibly condemn social or political harms as ‘objectively bad or inferior,’ there must be actual (or real) objectively good or superior (or objectively bad or inferior) social and political desiderata (or harms). (See below for my informal definition of ‘objective.’) But for those who disagree with this assumption, I can make a similar argument easily enough—namely, that, on naturalism, there simply are no objectively good or superior social or political desiderata nor are there any objectively bad or inferior social or political harms. The end result is much the same. My fundamental claim is metaphysical (there are no objective moral values given naturalism) although for stylistic reasons, I highlight epistemological elements (naturalists cannot defensibly affirm social or political desiderata as ‘objectively good or superior,’ etc.). I trust the reader will understand my (metaphysical) meaning throughout the paper.

[2] In fact, Michael Rea claims that “there is no clear answer to the question of what it means to be a naturalist.” Michael Rea, “Naturalism and Material Objects,” in Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, ed. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (New York: Routledge, 2000), 110.

[3] Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, Naturalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2008). Cf. David Papineau, Philosophical Naturalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).

[4] Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (New York: Norton, 2011), 94-95.

[5] Or, the brains of some other physical creature of sufficient cognitive complexity.

[6] Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1998). Larry Arnhart & Ken Blanchard (ed.), Darwinian Conservatism, second edition (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2009).

[7] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Belknap Press, 2005). “The principle of equality” holds that each person is to be granted the greatest degree of liberty harmonious with a  similar level of liberty for everyone. “The principle of difference” holds that practices producing inequality among individuals are acceptable only if they work to the advantage of disadvantaged people, and that positions of privilege must be open to everyone.

[8] Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide, 96, emphasis added.

[9] Undoubtedly, a number of others disagree with his preferences. All that’s left to settle the matter is force, fraud, or moving away.

[10] For example, Emma Green, “Wealthy Women can Afford to Reject Marriage, but Poor Women Can’t,” The Atlantic, January 15, 2014. As for children: Hyun Sik Kim, “Consequences of Parental Divorce for Child Development,” American Sociological Review, vol. 76, no. 3 (June 2011): 487-511. Toby L. Parcel, Lori Ann Campbell, and Wenxuan Zhong, “Children’s Behavior Problems in the United States and Great Britain,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 53 no. 2 (June 2012): 165-182. Toby L. Parcel, Lori Ann Campbell, and Wenxuan Zhong, “Children’s Behavior Problems in the United States and Great Britain,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 53 no. 2 (June 2012): 165-182. N. Glenn, S. Nock, and L. J. Waite, “Why marriage matters: Twenty-one conclusions from the social sciences,” American Experiment Quarterly 5 (2002): 34–44. G. E. Weisfeld, D. M. Muczenski, C. C. Weisfeld, and D. R. Omark, “Stability of Boys’ Social Success among Peers over an Eleven-year Period,” In Interpersonal Relations: Family, Peers, Friends, edited by J. A. Meacham (New York, NY: Karger, 1987). B. Defoe, Why There Are No Good Men Left (New York: Broadway Books, 2003). G. R. Weitoft, A. Hjern, B. Haglund, and M. Rosen, “Mortality, severe mortality, and injury in children living with single parents in Sweden: A population based study,” Lancet 361 (2003): 289–95. S. Rhoads, Taking sex differences seriously (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004). W. B. Wilcox, Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences. A Study from a Team of Family Scholars Chaired by W. Bradford Wilcox (New York: Institute for American Values, 2011). P. Wilcox Rountree and B. D. Warner, The State of Our Unions 2011: Marriage in America (Charlottesville, VA: The National Marriage Project, 2011). M. Parke, Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? (Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy, 2003). S. R. Aronson and A. C. Huston, “The mother-infant relationship in single, cohabiting, and married families: A case for marriage?” Journal of Family Psychology 18 (2004): 5–18. P. Fomby and A. J. Cherlin, “Family instability and child well-being,” American Sociological Review 72 (2007): 181–204. M. Gallagher and L. Waite, The Case for Marriage (New York: Random House, 2000). J. T. Cookston, “Parental supervision and family structure,” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 31 (1999): 107–27. Some of the data: “Children from divorced homes suffer academically. They experience high levels of behavioral problems. Their grades suffer, and they are less likely to graduate from high school. Kids whose parent’s divorce are substantially more likely to be incarcerated for committing a crime as a juvenile. Because the custodial parent’s income drops substantially after a divorce, children in divorced homes are almost five times more likely to live in poverty than are children with married parents. Teens from divorced homes are much more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use, as well as sexual intercourse than are those from intact families…. They are also more likely to suffer child abuse. Children of divorced parents suffer more frequently from symptoms of psychological distress. And the emotional scars of divorce last into adulthood.” See Amy Desai, “How Could Divorce Affect My Kids?” available at See also Jann Gumbiner, “Divorce Hurts Children, Even Grown Ones,” Psychology Today, October 31, 2011. For an opposite view, see Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld, “Is Divorce Bad for Children?” Scientific American, vol. 24, no. 1. Yet even Arkowitz and Lilienfeld conceded that kids of divorce are more likely to suffer a range of difficulties than kids raised in two-parent homes. LaVar Young reports on children born out of wedlock: “Fragile families [in which parents are not marriage at the time of the child’s birth] are shown to have harsher parenting practices and fewer literacy activities, and children of such families produce lower cognitive test scores and a have a higher incidence of aggressive behavior. Furthermore, previous research demonstrates that children who live apart from one of their parents at some point in their childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age 20, and one and a half times as likely to be out of school or work by their late teens or early 20s.” LaVar Young, “Fragile Families: Most Children Born Out of Wedlock Aren’t OK,” Huffington Post, June 6, 2011.

[11] Ibid.




Photo: “Dachau Nazi concentration camp’s main gates reading “arbeit Macht Frei” meaning “through work one will be free”. Dachau, Germany” by Zoriah. CC License. 



Leave a Reply