Barth in Meta-ethical Terms, part II: Non-naturalist Realism

In the first post, we suggested that Barth might be a moral realist, as God is an external real, but that unlike Thomas, he is not a moral naturalist. This suggests that, if Barth is in fact a moral realist, he is a moral non-naturalist. This puts us in the neighborhood of G. E. Moore. Now, Barth is certainly not Moore's kind of non-naturalist. But if he is a non-naturalist, he may still be one of several other sorts.

To begin with, Barth is certainly not a moral intuitionist. We do not know relevant moral truth as though it were self-evident to us. This is also to say that we cannot learn Christian moral truth by experimental methods. Moral intuitionism hasn't answered the meta-ethical question thoroughly enough; the question remains, "what qualifies something as good or bad, or an action as right or wrong?" We have still to devise and justify operational definitions of the results that would demonstrate these values, so that we can justify what we intuitively know about them. And so my perception of right and wrong is still reducible, in the end, to the synthetic basis of that intuitive perception, and in any case, I am a natural being conditioned by the evidence of the natural world. My agreement or disagreement does not make something right or wrong.

Even apart from intuitionism, this is a basic weakness of moral non-naturalism. The effort to explain moral values in terms not reducible to natural facts also tends to involve reserving some natural things from consideration as natural, such as mind. The Cartesian discontinuity having broken down, it is very hard to sustain a moral non-naturalism when one does not have recourse to someting which is in actual fact not natural. (We'll get to this more under anti-realism.) It's one thing to assert, as Moore's "open question" does, that explanation of a moral value in terms of a natural fact is insufficient to actually define the moral in question, or that the moral is always greater than and irreducible to the natural. But unless we assert some form of supernatural ghost in the machine, even if we avoid what William James called "medical materialism" as an excessive reduction to physical factors, we wind up saying that morality is a property of a natural system, namely mind. And that gets us into another system entirely!

As far as I can tell, there is no seriously-considered moral non-naturalism that relies on a god. I see theistic systems labeled this way occasionally, but it seems to me that this is done mostly to subject them to the criticisms of Moore's weaknesses. Non-naturalism tends to become assertoric and descriptivist, trying to speak of moral values in their own terms, generally without reduction to any other values.

Still, non-natural moral realism seems like it could be a promising possibility as a category for Barth's ethics—but in philosophical terms, the moment you introduce a truly non-natural real, you generally step out of philosophy or land yourself squarely in anti-realism.

Next up: Barthian problems with even non-natural moral realism.

(But first, let's fix some of the problems with my coverage of non-naturalism.)


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