Dissertation, University of Michigan (2010)

Lei Zhong
Chinese University of Hong Kong
Many philosophers insist that moral facts or properties play no role in explaining natural phenomena. The problem of moral explanation has raised metaphysical, semantic and epistemic challenges to contemporary moral realism. In my dissertation, I attempt to vindicate the explanatory efficacy of moral properties, while at the same time respecting the autonomy and normativity of morality. In doing so, I will advocate a sort of non-reductive ethical naturalism, according to which moral properties are natural properties, and yet remain irreducible to non-normative natural properties, such as psychological, biological, and sociological properties. More specifically, I develop a form of moral functionalism to vindicate moral explanation. Moral functionalism understands moral properties as second-order, functional properties, the natures of which are characterized in terms of functional roles. My version of moral functionalism has two particular features. First, it is a form of a posteriori moral functionalism. The moral theory used to characterize the functional roles of moral properties can only be discovered by appeal to empirical investigation. Second, it is a holistic version of moral functionalism. The functional role of a moral property cannot be identified solely in terms of non-normative properties; rather, it essentially involves a network of connections to both non-normative and normative properties. It is important to note that the question of whether moral properties have explanatory power bears on the question of what explanation or explanatoriness is. In my dissertation, I attempt to show that my vindication of moral explanation presupposes a plausible account of explanation. Obviously I cannot discuss all theories of explanation; my dissertation will rather focus on two influential accounts of explanation: the causalist model and the unificationist model. Then I argue that moral properties understood as functional properties of the kind I have described can do causal-explanatory work and play a distinctive unifying role.
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