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Causality, Compassion, and Control:

Ethical Implications of Naturalism

 Presentation for the Ethical Society of Boston

Summary:   First, a lightning tour of naturalism.  Second, the ethical implications for ourselves personally: naturalism changes our self-conception and thus attitudes about ourselves and others, and so affects our behavior.  Third, some social policy implications.  Conclusion re causality, compassion and control: naturalism, in its understanding and acceptance of causality, and in changing our understanding of human agency, works to inspire compassion while providing the basis for effective action.  Lastly, I've appended a short bibliography of further reading.


A lightning tour of naturalism

 What is naturalism?

No soul or free will

How does this change our views on human agency?

Old story, new evidence.

Fears and environmental impact



Personal ethical implications of naturalism 


Social policy implications

Examples of issues and social policies


Conclusion: Causality, Compassion, and Control 

 TWC 8/04 (talk originally delivered 11/23/03)


- Recent quotes on the soul and free will -

 1. “It has been tempting over the ages to imagine that …striking differences [between individuals] must be due to the special features of some extra thing (a soul) installed somewhere in the bodily headquarters.  We now know that as tempting as this idea still is, it is not supported in the slightest by anything we have learned about our biology in general and our brains in particular.  The more we learn about how we evolved, and how our brains work, the more certain we are becoming that there is no such extra ingredient. We are each made of mindless robots and nothing else, no non-physical, non-robotic ingredients at all.” Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves (2003), p. 2.

2. “My primary target…is the widespread belief in our permanency as persons, the belief that there is an abiding “I” that accompanies experience but is irreducible to the continuity of our natural lives as embodied beings…[W]hy am I questioning these beliefs?  Perhaps they are false, but they aren’t causing trouble.  The answer is that they are causing trouble. Most philosophers and scientists in the twenty-first century see their job as making the world safe for a fully naturalistic view of things.  The beliefs in nonnatural properties of persons, indeed of any non-natural thing, including – yes– God, stand in the way of understanding our natures truthfully and locating what makes life meaningful in a non-illusory way.”  Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul (2002), pp. 167-8. 

3. "Do …scientific advances challenge the first principles that the majority of our citizens believe provide the very foundation upon which our civilization rests – free will and the capacity to make moral choices?....Does this growing understanding of genetic and environmental influences on human behavior leave any room for free will?....How can the ever-mounting discoveries of biological, genetic, and environmental factors shaping human behavior be integrated into our culture without contributing to further erosion of individual responsibility?"  Dr. Frederick Goodwin, opening remarks, conference on Neuroscience and the Human Spirit, 1998. (

 4. “I claim the varieties of free will I am defending are worth wanting precisely because they play all the valuable roles free will has traditionally been invoked to play.  But I cannot deny that the tradition also assigns properties to free will that my varieties lack.  So much the worse for tradition, say I.” Daniel Dennett,  Freedom Evolves, p. 225

5. “My goal is defensive: to refute the accusation that a materialistic view of the mind is inherently amoral and that religious conceptions are to be favored because they are more humane.” Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (2002), p. 187 

6. “Determinism is a threat to retributive desires, and more generally to reactive attitudes … because determinism is incompatible with origination… [G]iven human nature, determinism will serve as a reason to relinquish these attitudes.”  Derk Pereboom, Living Without Free Will (2001), p. l34.

7.  “Our practices of holding people morally and rationally accountable will need to pay close attention to the many forces that constrain our choice and our reason.  By so doing, we will show due respect for our increasing knowledge of human nature and perhaps discover more humane ways or responding to and treating our fellows.”  Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul, 158.

8.  “The view that assumes nonnatural causation of the sort a Cartesian free will requires not only assumes something we have good reason to believe is false …but is actually a morally harmful picture.  It engenders a certain passivity in the face of social problems that lead certain individuals to be malformed.”  Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul, p. 152.

9. “The death penalty is so popular that abolition will be impossible without a significant shift in public opinion.  Such shifts have occurred several times in the past 250 years, however, and may occur again.  In the past they have been caused by changing attitudes about the extent to which crime is a consequence of the criminal’s free will, changes that seemed to flow from better understanding of human behavior.  We can expect similar developments in the future…[T]he balance of Americans’ beliefs about free will is not likely to remain static forever.  When it changes, so too will opinion on capital punishment.”  Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (2003), p. 310-11

10.  "...if we understand that there are good evolutionary reasons for our wanting people to suffer when they have done direct or indirect harm to us, then we can account for our strong feelings about the appropriateness of retribution without presuming they are a guide to moral truth.... We may be able to recognize our retributivist feelings as a deep and important aspect of our character - and take them seriously to that extent - without endorsing them as a guide to truth, and start rethinking our attitudes toward punishment on that basis"  Janet Radcliffe Richards, Human Nature After Darwin, (2001) p. 210. 

11. “It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one's initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases."  John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1974) p.104.



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