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October 5, 2021 / Congau

The Essence of Naturalism

Ethical naturalism is essentially the idea that what something is determines what it should be. What ought to be done, a right action, is restricted by what is suitable for the actor. You better not do what is against your nature; it would be bad for you, and it would be wrong.

But what are you? What is anything? What does it mean to be something? 

That is the problem of the most elementary branch of philosophy, the one that deals with pure thought, first philosophy, also known as metaphysics. It asks the simple, yet exceedingly difficult question: What is being?

It may perhaps seem like an irrelevant quibble, far removed from practical life and our immediate concerns. We think we know being; our problem is doing. But the one follows from the other. Practical philosophy needs a basis, and morality and politics, the science of right and wrong, must be based on what exists and to understand what that might be we need to have some grasp on the fundamental question of existence, of being, of identity, if you will.

You may have red hair and play the guitar, but is that who you are? Does that have any ethical relevance? Well, it may or may not, but to have any opinion on the matter at all you must form a notion of what is essential; in other words, what is it that makes a thing what it is. Would you really become another individual altogether if you shaved your red hair? There might be a reason to consider its ethical relevance but how could that possibly be the case. What is essence?

Aristotle explains that there is a difference between a thing and its so-called predicates – that which you can say about that thing. “This man is unmarried” means there is primarily a man and he happens to be unmarried. The man is the subject or the “underlying” (hypokeimenon) and what is said about him is not the man himself. He could have had another marital status and still be a man. The accidents of his attached properties are irrelevant for his substance or his being.

But if instead of talking about a man we mention a particular kind of man, his essence might seem more blurry. Consider the sentence “This bachelor is unmarried”. Here the predicate “unmarried” does not add anything to the information already given. When it is already stated that “This is a bachelor”, that next element of the sentence is redundant. The essence of being a bachelor is to be unmarried and that property could not be removed without eliminating the existence of the thing. Something that is not unmarried is just not a bachelor. 

However, it might seem puzzling that what is essential for a bachelor is not so for a man. A bachelor is of course also a man and that means that what is essential to him at one moment ceases to be at the next. He is essentially unmarried as a bachelor but not as a man. What is then his real being?

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