The Self-Defeating Nature of Naturalistic Ethics

The self-defeating nature of ethical naturalism

There has been a big move among naturalists to explain how ethics can work in light of naturalism. For some this doesn’t seem like a problem – the fallacy of “nature-did-it” (the alternative to “God-did-it”) is brought full swing and we’re told that our ethics simply evolved.

Of course, such an ethic is highly problematic, because survival becomes the greatest goal in ethical pursuits and not the good. Thus, what is “good” is what leads to or enhances survival of the species. Under such an ethical viewpoint almost anything can be justified. However, I don’t wish to look to the consequences of such a view and how they are a priori wrong. Rather, I want to point out that such a view is self-defeating (as much of naturalism is self-defeating).

We ask the naturalist the question, “Why did virtue ethics come about?” Virtue ethics teaches there are ultimate goods that we must work towards that are absolute, no matter our culture or time, and that regardless of the consequences we must obtain the good. Even if doing the right thing lowers our changes for survival, we must act in an ethical manner. One can obviously see how such an ethical standpoint conflicts with naturalistic ethics; virtue ethics looks to an abstract, non-physical good that must be sought after regardless of personal consequences while naturalism denies anything abstract and says that ethics evolved out of a need for survival.

The naturalist would explain that virtue ethics, in some manner, aided in human survival (which is a cop-out). But this answer is self-defeating to naturalism in a few ways:

1)   Then why contradict virtue ethics? If virtue ethics aids in human survival, then why teach naturalistic ethics? Why teach something that is unproven in our survival (what is essentially pragmatic consequentialism) over something that has been proven for two thousand years? The naturalist, in acting enlightened, only seeks to rid us of something that has been essential to human evolution. There is, therefore, no reason to teach naturalism if virtue ethics is essential to human evolution. So naturalism negates its own existence if it’s true.

2)   What about natural selection? The naturalist could retort to the above point that humans have evolved beyond the need for virtue ethics. Just as a babe needs milk to grow, so too did early humans need virtue ethics to evolve. But we’ve now evolved “beyond good and evil” and no longer have to worry about such things. But if this is true, why attempt to convince people to change their ethical viewpoints? Natural selection is about which species – or part of a species – is adaptable to changing environments. Since naturalism doesn’t allow for free will and dictates that we’re biologically predetermined to certain belief sets, those who embrace virtue ethics simply can’t adapt to the changing environment and can’t change their minds. So why not let them breed out? Why not let evolution take its natural course and simply breed such ethical Neanderthals out of existence?

3)   Natural selection strikes back. The naturalist could argue that because people who have a strong adherence to virtue-based systems (such as Christians, Muslims, and the like) have more offspring than naturalists, the naturalists are forced to educate the masses onto the new ethical construct that will aid in our survival. But again, such a view is self-defeating; if the virtue ethicists are producing more offspring and “out-breeding” the naturalists, this would only prove – from an evolutionary standpoint – that naturalistic ethics hinder survival (or adaptability). The fact that virtue ethicists out number naturalists would prove that virtue ethics actually aids in survival; so teaching naturalistic ethics makes little sense. Even if virtue ethics is false, it still aids in survival, which under naturalistic ethics makes it superior to naturalistic ethics.

4)   The final Catch 22. The naturalist can look to the above three points and say, “Ah yes, but we can convince people of the truth! Even if virtue ethicists currently outbreed us, we can convert their children to believing in our way.” But this, of course, implies free will. It implies that humans have the ability to choose, and such an implication is another self-defeating notion in naturalism. The naturalist could imply that the offspring have been predetermined to change and to accept the new ethic, but that’s not how evolution works. Evolution doesn’t dictate what style will be acceptable 20 years from now, what music people will listen to, or what ethical choices people will make. Evolution can’t predict what will happen, so it can’t prepare a species for change; it can only rely on what is already inherent within a species once change comes.


If we advocate that such allowance for change was within the genes, to the point that offspring x would embrace the new ethos and would do so on a wholesale scale, then we must accept that there is an intelligent force or person behind the programming of human biology. This would only be logical considering that such genetic information could only be known by an intelligent force.

If the naturalist desires to go with this forth point, he is ultimately faced with three additional ends, all of which defeat naturalism:

  1. He must accept there is an intelligent designer that caused everything and such a designer must be free from biological determinism (or once we go down the line of designers, at some point we must have a libertine agent), which would mean that such a designer is free of natural confines, i.e. supernatural.
  2. He must say that free will exists, but this means that humans aren’t determined by biology, meaning there is something that cannot be explained by nature.
  3. He must embrace 1, 2, or 3 as alternatives to 4, but as we have seen, all three are defeaters to naturalism.

Of course, the naturalist could always go about believing there is no God and that nature is all there is, simply ignoring the defeaters of naturalism. But such a viewpoint is intellectually unsatisfying and a form of fideism for naturalists. Such an action is the ultimate form of circular logic; a refusal to admit the defeaters for one’s primary metaphysical view because one cannot come to terms that one might be wrong.

Ultimately, naturalistic ethics are shown to be self-defeating. This is done without even appealing to the consequences of the belief (which are horrendous). None of this is to say that naturalists can’t be or aren’t ethical, on the contrary, they are ethical because they are made in the image of God. But their beliefs are quite absurd because naturalism always collapses on itself.