The Naturalistic Fallacy

I have been known to invoke “The Naturalistic Fallacy” – in fact did so most recently in my immediately previous post – but I need to clarify how I’m using it.

I’ve been following Ed Gibney for a while, and am discovering that important aspects of his evolutionary philosophy, and many of the sources he cites positively, coincide with many aspects of my own. Dennett, Pirsig, Dostoevsky to name but three. Also, intriguingly like myself (and Pirsig), his preferred aim is literary fiction that delivers philosophical knowledge, though so far in my case that remains a mere aspiration.

In that vein Gibney has an important 2015 piece published in AESBL Journal [a bit of a mouthful … the Journal of the Association for the Study of
(Ethical Behavior) & (Evolutionary Biology) in Literature] entitled “Bridging the Is-Ought Divide: Life is. Life ought to act to remain so.”

He spends significant part of that paper debunking the naturalistic fallacy and indeed opens with this quote from Oliver Curry:

“The naturalistic fallacy…seems to have become something of a superstition. It is dimly understood and widely feared, and its ritual incantation is an obligatory part of the apprenticeship of moral philosophers and biologists alike.”

Mea culpa.

My own evolutionary metaphysics, and the epistemological ontology built on that, is entirely naturalistic with zero supernatural content, so clearly all the ethical / ought aspects of our evolved and evolving reality are part of that. No fallacy there, certainly not the kind that excludes the good / ought from the natural / is. (Gibney’s definition of life involving the “ought” to persist itself is a good one, and a regular topic here in recent years, but I digress.)

The reason the naturalistic fallacy nevertheless remains a useful concept is because a large element of “natural” worldviews held by humanist / sceptic / green / woke / “follow-the-science” types involves a much narrower “scientistic” view of natural science. One which practically excludes subjective human will, leaving the caricature that natural equals good, where human intent equals bad if not merely illusory and misguided.

The everyday sense that natural is necessarily good is the modern equivalent of the naturalistic fallacy, even though that’s not the sense in which Hume originally coined it. Good and bad are both naturally evolved elements of reality to be understood as such.

[Anyway there’s a lot more in that paper worth reflecting on, and another interesting dialogue with Massimo Pigliucci arising from his “Plants Don’t Think” post to come back to. I’ve had this problem with Massimo before.]


[Post Note: This piece from Dan Ariely et al in Behavioral Scientist bemoans this same modern “Appeal to Nature Fallacy.]

3 thoughts on “The Naturalistic Fallacy”

  1. The term “naturalistic fallacy” was introduced by G.E. Moore, but he himself admits it may be a poor term, because it incorporates his quite separate idea that “good” is not a natural object (that is, something found or observed in nature):

    “But, for the present, it is sufficient to notice this: Even if it were a natural object, that would not alter the nature of the fallacy nor diminish its importance one whit. All that I have said about it would remain quite equally true: only the name which I have called it would not be so appropriate as I think it is. And I do not care about the name: what I do care about is the fallacy.

    The fallacy seems to be that of identifying any thing with some other thing — that is, of assuming “is” to be the “is” of identity. Moore has in mind identifying “the good” with “pleasure,” but his elaborations in the cited passage makes clear (or rather, fails to make very clear), that this could just as well be about identifying an orange with its colour, or its sweetness — a more obvious mistake.

    His broader claim seems to be that “is” can never be usefully used as the “is” of identity. To say that something is something else — that an orange is yellow, that pleasure is the good — is meaningless if it’s supposed to signify that they are the same thing. This could quickly collapse into saying that everything is the same as everything else. The only practical use of such an assertion is to signify that tdifferent things are in a relationship of some sort.

    Unfortunately, his use of this argument to defend the “the good” as something other than any natural object, and his decision to call a fallacy of identity “the naturalistic fallacy,” has produce all sorts of confusion. One is led by the term in the direction of Hume’s observation that “is”never leads to”ought,” or toward discussing whether so-called “natural” behaviour, such as dragging women off by the hair to a cave, is defensible precisely because it is natural. As far as Moore is concerned, these seem to be misdirected invocations.

  2. Sorry about the missed closing quote for Moore, and at least one slightly scrambled sentence, and the typos. I really must learn to proofread.

  3. Hi AJ,

    Yes that sense of the fallacy that “good is not something natural” is clearly untrue, ie not really a fallacy.
    However difficult it is to define and/or empirically observe “good”, it is nevertheless a natural thing, a part of nature.

    (General use of “is” denotes class membership on the basis of some property or rule.
    The “is” of identity or definition is quite specific / different.)

    Anyway, my point in the post was that whatever this specialist ontological problem with defining / identifying the good, the everyday use of “natural” is often used to suggest “and therefore good”. That is the “modern naturalistic fallacy” – and it really is a fallacy, so the expression has real value, if used with care.

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