Davidson’s Meta-Normative Naturalism


  • Robert Myers York University




Although Donald Davidson is best known for his account of motivating reasons, towards the end of his life he did write about normative reasons, arguing for a novel form of realism we might call anomalous naturalism: anomalous, because it is not just non-reductive but also non-revisionary, refusing to compromise in any way on the thought that the prescriptive authority of normative reasons is objective and reaches to all possible agents; naturalism, because it still treats normative properties as perfectly ordinary causal properties, and thus avoids many of the epistemological problems that bedevil realisms of the sort recently advanced by Thomas Nagel, Derek Parfit, and T. M. Scanlon.

In the first section of the paper, I discuss Davidson’s understanding of objective prescriptivity and one important challenge that it faces. In the second section, I show how an answer to this challenge can be found in Davidson’s holism of the mental. As we shall see, Davidson’s holism of the mental makes the possibility of strongly prescriptive properties much easier to take seriously. In the final section of the paper, I take up various grounds for doubting that such properties could also be causal.


Bilgrami, Akeel, 2006. Self-Knowledge and Resentment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———, 2010. “The Wider Significance of Naturalism: A Genealogical Essay.” In Naturalism and Normativity, edited by M. De Caro and D. Macarthur, pp. 23–54. New York: Columbia University Press.

Blackburn, Simon, 1985. “Supervenience Revisited.” Reprinted in Essays in Quasi-Realism, pp. 130–48. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Boyd, Richard, 1988. “How to Be a Moral Realist.” Reprinted in Moral Discourse and Practice, edited by S. Darwall, A. Gibbard and P. Railton, pp. 105–36. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Brink, David, 1989. Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davidson, Donald, 1963. “Actions, Reasons, and Causes.” Reprinted in Davidson (1980), pp. 3–19.

———, 1967. “Causal Relations.” Reprinted in Davidson (1980), pp. 149–62.

———, 1969. “How is Weakness of the Will Possible?” Reprinted in Davidson (1980), pp. 21–42.

———, 1970. “Mental Events.” Reprinted in Davidson (1980), pp. 207–27.

———, 1973. “The Material Mind.” Reprinted in Davidson (1980), pp. 245–59.

———, 1980. Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

———, 1990. “Representation and Interpretation.” Reprinted in Davidson (2004), pp. 87–99.

———, 1993. “Thinking Causes.” Reprinted in Truth, Language, and History, pp. 185–200. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.

———, 1995a. “The Objectivity of Values.” Reprinted in Davidson (2004), pp. 39–57.

———, 1995b. “The Problem of Objectivity.” Reprinted in Davidson (2004), pp. 3–18.

———, 2004. Problems of Rationality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Enoch, David, 2011. Taking Morality Seriously. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hurley, Paul, 2002. “A Davidsonian Reconciliation of Internalism, Objectivity, and the Belief-Desire Theory.” The Journal of Ethics 6: 1–20.

Mackie, J. L., 1977. Ethics. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

McDowell, John, 1985. “Values and Secondary Qualities.” Reprinted in McDowell (1998), pp. 131–50.

———, 1996. “Two Sorts of Naturalism.” Reprinted in McDowell (1998), pp. 167–97.

———, 1998. Mind, Value, and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McLaughlin, Brian, 2013. “Anomalous Monism.” In A Companion to Donald Davidson, edited by E. Lepore and K. Ludwig, pp. 410–42. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Myers, Robert, 2012. “Desires and Normative Truths: A Holist’s Response to the Sceptics.” Mind 121: 375–406.

———, 2017. “Holism in Action.” In Wittgenstein and Davidson on Language, Thought, and Action, edited by C. Verheggen, pp. 8–27. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Myers, Robert and Claudine Verheggen, 2016. Donald Davidson’s Triangulation Argument. New York: Routledge.

Nagel, Thomas, 1986. The View from Nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press.

Parfit, Derek, 2006. “Normativity.” In Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 1, edited by R. Shafer-Landau, pp. 325–80. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, 2011. On What Matters, vols. 1–2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, 2017. On What Matters, vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scanlon, T. M., 2014. Being Realistic about Reasons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schroeder, Mark, 2007. Slaves of the Passions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Michael, 1987. “The Humean Theory of Motivation.” Mind 96: 36–61.

Sturgeon, Nicholas, 2006. “Ethical Naturalism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory, edited by D. Copp, pp. 91–121. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wallace, R. Jay, 2009. “The Publicity of Reasons.” Philosophical Perspectives 23: 25–36.