Making Sense of Morality: Problems with Naturalism 3

Various ethics terms
Image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay


Previously, I explored issues with Armstrong’s naturalistic kind of properties and how we cannot have knowledge on them. Now I will look at nominalism, which seems to be the most likely naturalistic view of properties. As Wilfrid Sellars (d. 1989) remarked, “A naturalist ontology must be a nominalistic ontology” (109). Yet, I will argue that nominalism undermines knowledge, and it will do so for naturalism, too, including in ethics. Yet that undercuts our clear knowledge of our core morals.


Unlike realists, who affirm the reality of universals, nominalists think that everything is particular. Literally, there are no identical qualities shared between two or more things. Moreover, every particular thing is just one thing (i.e., it is simple). But, how nominalist theories treat particulars varies.


As we have seen, nominalism has had a lengthy, deep influence on the west, including in ethics. I traced it back to Ockham, but since Hobbes, and running through Hume, Kant, Bentham, Mill, and almost every naturalist, nominalism has dominated philosophical thought, including ethics, as well as modern science.

For Further Reading

Keith Campbell, Abstract Particulars

Professor of ethics, philosophy of religion @ Biola's MA Christian Apologetics. Interests: ethics, knowledge, nominalism, & how Christians have been naturalized