Will Wilkinson meditates:

… if we’re talking about whether or not a certain constraint on self-interest ought to be normatively binding, I think you have to ask: Why? Because I’m a soulless, reductive, naturalist, I think there’s a good answer to that: because heeding the constraint will tend to make the person who heeds it better off, conditional on others heeding it, too. This is where a lot of people will part ways from me. They feel uncomfortable seating normativity in individual flourishing. However, I find all the relevant alternatives to be basically religious.

But doesn’t that epithet apply to all moral discourse? What is it about Wilkinson’s utilitarian individualism that makes it respectable from the standpoint of a “soulless, reductive, naturalist”, while alternative conceptions of the ethical are not? Put another way, how exactly is the “because” (or pair of “becauses”) in the second sentence supposed to be cashed out?

The difficulty here is that as soon as we start throwing around words like “good”, “bad”, “ought”, “should”, and the like, we’ve stepped into the realm of metaphysics and out of the strictly natural, at least as it’s “naturalistically” understood. The question of whether a certain set of putatively moral constraints on self-interest are or aren’t binding isn’t, in other words, one that’s going to be settled by looking at the physical facts, or at least looking at the physical facts in a physical way; this just isn’t the sort of inquiry that can do that kind of work for us.

There is of course one perfectly respectable naturalistic position that simply jettisons moral vocabulary altogether, treating all of it as nothing but a bunch of non-scientific spookiness. But Wilkinson isn’t going in that direction: he’s proposing a moral vision of his own, and arguing on the basis of it that the members of a specific range of supposed moral demands aren’t legitimate after all. That’s a fine thing to do, and in this case there may well be reasons to agree with him, but I don’t see how he can get all the way there simply by going on about naturalism and religiosity. Wilkinson may hold the moral convictions he holds, and not hold the ones he doesn’t, because he’s a naturalist, but his naturalism itself can’t do the work of justifying those convictions.