How to Be an Ethical Naturalist

  • Jennifer A. Frey
Part of the Philosophers in Depth book series (PID)


The ethical naturalist asks us to take seriously the idea that practical norms are a species of natural norms, such that moral goodness is a kind of natural goodness. The ethical naturalist has not demonstrated, however, how it is possible for a power of reason to be governed by natural norms, because her own attempts to do this have led her into a dilemma. If she takes the first horn and stresses that ethical naturalism provides objective, natural norms of the species, then she fails to show how such norms are practical, or operative from a deliberative point of view. If she takes the second horn and stresses that ethical naturalism yields a picture of knowledge of human life that is practical because it comes through virtuous dispositions of intellect and will, then she fails to have an account of how it is knowledge of facts about a life form, potentially accessible to a non-human knower. In this paper, I argue that one potential resolution to this dilemma can be found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. On a broadly Thomist account of practical reason, the first principles of practical reason are our common human ends or goods, which are constitutive of a good human life. The work of practical reason on this naturalistic account is twofold: (1) to conceive and order these ends into some general conception of how to live, and (2) to apply this general conception to the particular situations of one’s life in order to realize one’s vision of the good life, here and now.



Thanks to Rosalind Hursthouse for her insightful commentary on this paper at a workshop hosted by the Center for the Study of Mind and Nature at the University of Oslo, as well as audiences at Boston College, CSMN-Oslo, Johns Hopkins University, Mt. Saint Mary’s University, and The University of Auckland for their feedback on earlier versions. This chapter also benefited from feedback at a working group meeting of the “Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life” project, which is generously underwritten by The John Templeton Foundation (grant #56194).


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© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jennifer A. Frey
    • 1
  1. 1.University of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA

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