Date of Award

Spring 2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Walker, Margaret U.

Second Advisor

Snow, Nancy E.

Third Advisor

Tobin, Theresa


From the perspective of at least some of our valuing practices, the advance of the sciences can seem to constitute a threat. The question I take up in this dissertation is whether or not naturalism--understood as the picture of the world and of ourselves bequeathed to us by the sciences--should be understood as a threat to our moral practices, to moral living. On the account I defend, the knowledge we gain from empirical inquiry need not undermine moral living in toto, although a naturalistic mindset does raise some possibly dangerous questions for particular inherited moral norms and ideals.

In defense of my claim that the examined life need not destroy the moral life, I develop a social view of morality. On this view, both moral authority and moral justification are viewed as fundamentally social phenomena, and morality itself as a tool for social living. With a case study on the development of the ethics of care, I illustrate ways in which a concern for empirically truthful representations of humanity can also dovetail with liberatory political concerns. That is, I defend not only the claim that moral living can survive critical scrutiny, but also the claim that it can be enriched by this scrutiny--that the truth can be transformative.

Expansive moral ideals, such as those humanist views that see progress in the expansion of our moral vocabularies and institutions, are compatible with a naturalistic outlook, I argue. However, a strong defense of humanist views, according to which such ideals flow unproblematically from the nature of reason or from the history of ethical practice, does not seem possible. A weak defense of humanism, which connects the ideals of humanists to more widely held values, seems more promising. In working socially and politically for their cause, I contend that humanists in some sense have the truth on their side: sexist, racist, classist, or otherwise inegalitarian views regularly trade in falsehoods and obfuscation. Empirically truthful accounts of particular inherited norms and ideals thus continue to be dangerous, at least for those invested in the continued existence of the corresponding institutions.

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