Evaluating Railton’s Ethical Naturalism through Loeb’s Criticism

In this essay, I’ll be talking about Peter Railton’s “Moral Realism” from The Philosophical Review, Vol. 95, №2 (April, 1986) pp. 163–207 and Don Loeb’s “Full-Information Theories of Individual Good” from Social Theory and Practice 21 (1995), pp. 1–30.

Ethical naturalism is a metaethical view that claims moral facts are facts of the natural world. According to the view, moral sentences are capable of having truth values independent of normative thoughts. This paper will first define ethical naturalism and explain the non-moral goodness discussed in section III of Peter Railton’s paper “Moral Realism.” I will then discuss attractions for this theory from Don Loeb’s and my point of view. I will continue with one of Loeb’s criticisms of full-information theories and how strong the objection is. I’ll finally evaluate how Railton responds and express my view on the criticism.

Peter Railton is a reductive ethical naturalist, so he believes that moral facts are natural facts that can have reductive definitions. He is a cognitivist and thinks moral judgments have the capability of being true or false. He is a moral realist; therefore, thinks moral facts have truth values independent of our thoughts. By being a reductive ethical naturalist, he thinks moral terms may be given reductive definitions in naturalistic terms. His paper “Moral Realism” argues for ethical naturalism.

There are two parts to Railton’s argument: non-moral goodness and moral rightness. He discusses non-moral goodness, which is what a person would want for themselves if they were fully and vividly informed about themselves and their circumstances, in section III of his paper. It is what is best for the person in a given situation.

To achieve this, Railton proposes a step-by-step account. First, we determine the person’s wants or desires that will bring something positive to the person. We then give a reductive basis for this subjective desire considering the perceiver’s qualities, object perceived, and surrounding contexts. The third step is imagining a version of oneself who has complete knowledge about oneself and one’s environment, which we call A+. This A+ version has perfect rationality and no cognitive errors. Then, A+ will combine all of one’s general knowledge with the reduced subjective interest in step 2 to arrive at A+’s views about what is good for A and what A should do were A+ was in A’s situation, which is called the reduction basis of the objectified subjective interest. The fifth step is that A now has an objective interest in what A+ would think A needs to do since that objective interest is rooted in A’s subjective interest and also what is good for A. The last step is the non-moral goodness where an action A is non-morally good for A if and only if A would satisfy an objective interest of A. This is the proposed naturalistic account of one’s non-moral good by Railton. He then continues explaining moral rightness, which is what would instrumentally promote the non-moral good of all members of society, where each person’s non-moral good is given equal weight.

There are some attractions to this theory. For Loeb, full-information theories, such as Railton’s, have good ‘surface appeal,’ meaning they can tap into our intuitions, namely the internalist and epistemic intuitions. The internalist intuition says that a person’s good is related to their motivations. So, my good is a function of my motivation. For example, making money might be motivating me to study. Without the motivation of wanting to make money, I would not be able to fulfill the action that will bring that good to me. If my motivation changes, it’s likely that what I think is good for me will change. The epistemic intuition is that our informed selves or motivations are improvements over our uninformed selves or motivations. This intuition comes from a general instinct that the more we learn, the more knowledgeable we are, and better we can make decisions. To give a basic example, let’s say I leave home early in the morning, and it starts raining in the afternoon. My afternoon self knows more about the weather, and therefore more knowledgeable on what I should have worn in the morning. Another example is that last year, I did not know about animals’ suffering and animal agriculture’s environmental effects; therefore, I ate animal products. Now, knowing more about that particular subject and being informed, I act accordingly by not consuming any animal products. Loeb raises these intuitions as to why we might be inclined to accept a full-information theory, so I’m taking them as reasons why Railton’s view is attractive.

I think there are some other attractions of Railton’s ethical naturalism. Firstly, the theory is cognitivist. Therefore, moral statements are capable of being true or false. This gives us a sense of purpose as if we could arrive at certain truths with the correct theory. Secondly, the theory is compatible with moral realism, so there are truths independent of our thinking of them. This means that there are objective and unchanging truths out there in the world that we could reason towards. Thirdly, theory accounts of psychological phenomena, namely motivation. Psychology is a big part of what makes us humans, and a good theory should acknowledge in some way that it plays a role in our thinking and our actions. Lastly, Railton considering both what is good for the individual and society is an attractive feature. We want an ethical theory to account for what is good for me and accommodate that with what is good for society as a whole.

In Don Loeb’s paper “Full-Information Theories of Individual Good,” he raises some objections to Railton’s theory. I take the objection against internalist intuition as the strongest. Loeb says that giving someone “unqualified cognitive and imaginative powers” would involve the person having different motivations than one’s original ones. In Railton’s theory, the person must be free from all cognitive errors, so needs such powers to be able to know what is good for oneself. This goes against the internalist intuition. Motivations could noticeably change if someone had perfect cognitive abilities. Loeb’s example of George, who would need his depression to be cured for his cognitive abilities to be perfect, shows that George +’s motivations without the depression would be dramatically different from George’s.

Another objection raised by Loeb is that motivations can also be changed by presenting the information more vividly, repeatedly, and in various orders (primacy and recency effects). The circumstances of the presentation also produce an unpredictable change in people’s motivations. I think these are reasonable objections that Railton needs to address for his theory to be accepted. I sympathize with Loeb in saying that we do not know what motivational changes bring in people. However, I would like to point out that Railton did not talk about how his ethical naturalism is good because of epistemic and internalist intuitions. One can very well like ethical naturalism without thinking of two intuitions Loeb presents. So, Loeb pointing out a reason why Railton’s view is attractive, and then getting rid of that attraction can be read as making a straw man.

Railton would respond to Loeb by pointing out that we could imagine a scenario where the person is fully informed without any external influence on her understanding of the information[1] . The epistemic intuition gives us no reason to pay attention to motivational changes which are caused by other factors, but only gives us reason to pay attention to motivational changes from the information itself. However, as Loeb also says, even if that’s the case, we do not know what that would look like. I could imagine a scenario as such, but I cannot go further into what would happen. Motivation is a complex psychological and biological phenomenon that is moderated by various brain areas and hormones like dopamine. Another issue I see is that we need to live in certain situations and make mistakes to learn from them not to do it again. One could argue that life is not about knowing the best thing for oneself but working to figure that out along the way. What is best for someone changes with each action they do, a thing they learn, and a person they meet. We seldom have the hindsight to know what is good until time has passed. Also, we don’t have any clue if ‘knowing all that there is’ and ‘having perfect cognitive abilities’ are good things. Evolution did not favor humans seeing the world as clearly as possible because it’s not necessary for survival. If anything, it might be worse for us. While ethical naturalism is attractive in many ways, I believe there needs to be more theorizing to improve the non-moral goodness account to resolve certain problems.


Loeb, Don. Full-Information Theories of Individual Good. Social Theory and Practice, 1995, www.jstor.org/stable/23560372?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.

Lutz, Matthew, and James Lenman. “Moral Naturalism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 30 May 2018, plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism-moral/.

Railton, Peter. “Moral Realism.” The Philosophical Review, Apr. 1986, www.jstor.org/stable/2185589?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.

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