So, like a month ago, I started this series about ethics and why it helps in your writing. It’s been a little while since I wrote something in this series, and I thought it was about time that I got back to it. So, lets deal with Naturalism first. If you don’t remember the categories that we’re using to outline these theories they are: metaphysic, epistemology, philosophical anthropology, teleology, exemplar, and method. If you don’t remember what these mean, it’s all explained in this post. So, by naturalism I am referring to a set of philosophical ethical theories that all hold to a particular metaphysic. This metaphysic is the assumption (and it is an assumption) that only the material world exists, and anything that does not exist is automatically false. So, this includes pretty much all consequentialist theories, along with various forms of hedonism, nihilism, positivism, emotivism, etc, etc, etc. Pretty much anyone who rejects the supernatural fits into this category.
So, different types of naturalistic theories have different epistemilogical outlooks. For instance, emotivism rejects the reality of moral values. Instead, it argues that when I say ‘this cheesecake is good’ or ‘this waterfall is beautiful’, what I actually mean is ‘I like this cheesecake’ or ‘this waterfall gives me warm butterflies’. On the other hand, realist utilitarianism argues that there is a real good, that good is whatever is best for the majority, and that it can be know with mathematical precision. Many naturalistic theories do believe in an objective moral standard that is based in some clearly or even mathematically discernible good (i.e. physical pleasure, the good of society, demonstrable personal goods, etc, etc, etc).
The philosophical anthropology of naturalistic theories also has a fairly wide variety, but in a somewhat more interesting. The vast majority of ancient naturalistic theories failed because they realized that men weren’t particularly good by nature and thus had to descend into nihilism. If the world is an uncaring place, people are generally crap, and physical pleasure or emotional happiness are the only things worth living for, then really what’s the point of trying? However, many modern versions of these theories, such as Ayn Rand’s Ethical Egoism, Utilitarianism, Moral and Cultural relativism, and a variety of others generally manage to maintain a more positive outlook on life. The world might be all there is, but they live under the assumption (many would call it an illusion) that the world is a generally good and happy place, and that people are generally warm and fuzzy. Needless to say, I disagree with this.
The vast majority of naturalistic moral theories have no actual teleology. Consider here that there is an important difference between a teleology and the kind of goals that consequentialism aims for. Consequentialistic theories look for specific results (i.e. this particular decision made X% of the population happier), and then assume that the means by which those results are achieved is immaterial (seriously, Mill’s theory can easily be used to defend limited slavery). However, a teleology is directed at the final end of man. What is it that we are attempting to become (i.e. a good example of a teleology might be Christlikeness in Christianity or Eudaimonia in Platonic ethics). So, in teleological thinking the ends (not the consequences), and the means both play a part in deciding whether a potential action will be good.
Similarly, the majority of naturalistic models have no real exemplar. Hedonism points to the child as an exemplar of ethics: the child simply does what makes him happy in the moment. …True hedonists don’t tend to live long lives. Utilitarianism has no clear exemplar apart from it’s mathematical formulas (though some nerds will point to Spock as an example of rationalistic utilitarianism). Relativism and emotivism actually can’t have examples. When I should do whatever feels right to me then no one else can be my example.
Lastly, naturalistic theories, by and large, tend to be unconcerned with methods. Utilitarian thought can justify slavery or genocide as easily as it can compassion or mercy. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is actually an excellent example of this. Further, moral relativism and various forms of emotivism argue that anything that feels right to me actually is right, and thus absolutely any action can be right. Hedonism and Egoism both argue that I should act in my own interests (either physical or intellectual, immediate or long-term depending on the circumstance), and thus justify whatever I need to do to achieve those interests. So, one of the most significant problems with naturalistic moral philosophies is that they often give us little or no practical guidance about what is actually right or wrong.
So, how is any of this of use in your writing: I’ll be willing to bet that you have a few characters who just do whatever they want. We’ve all know people like this. Spock is a great example of strong utilitarianism in fiction, and a great character to boot. Similarly, Brave New World is a masterpiece of fiction that stands as a direct refutation of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian theory. On the other hand, you might want to move a character from some natuarlistic viewpoint to an idealistic or existential viewpoint. Perhaps one of your characters has given up on actually understanding the world, and is slowly coming to the conclusion that we can’t actually know anything. Or perhaps one of your characters is moving in the opposite direction. Perhaps the incredible science of a futuristic world is actively convincing him that truth is real and can be known. There’s a lot of potential uses here if you let them work for you. So, have fun, and get writing.