The fate of nature : ethical naturalism in historical and critical context.


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Ethical naturalism is an ethical theory that holds that practical norms are a species of natural norms. It was a position held by almost all ancient ethical theorists, but despite a renaissance among some in the past three quarters of a century, it fell by and large into ill repute centuries ago. This dissertation aims to assess contemporary naturalism in light of that history. In chapter two, I note that contemporary ethical naturalism has had little interest in the historical background of their own theorizing, and I try to fill that gap. The remaining chapters contribute to this task. In chapter three, I explore the concepts of nature at work in some of the writings of Aristotle and Cicero, suggesting that Aristotle has a richer conceptual repertory than usually realised, which could be of use to contemporary ethical naturalists, and that Cicero is needlessly neglected by them. In chapter four, I consider two significant historical developments that make the use of nature concepts difficult today. First, I consider the rise of the empirical human sciences. Second, I consider a line of thinking that concerns nature’s relation to history and society, a line that moves from Rousseau through Kant. I consider too the legacy of this line of thought among neo-Kantians. In chapter five, I consider a final challenge for ethical naturalists, that of genealogy and reflection. Certain kinds of genealogies have been put forth to show the irrelevance of concepts of nature to ethics, but I try to vindicate the notion that ethical naturalism not only can but must be vindicated using a kind of genealogical method. In conclusion, I remark on the prospects of an ethical naturalism more explicitly in conversation with the human sciences and with the history of nature concepts in ethical life.



Ethical naturalism. Nature. Ethics. Philippa Foot. Michael Thompson. Aristotle. Cicero. Genealogy. History.