Naturalistic fallacy  

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"From Sidgwick [ G. E. Moore ] might have learnt that good is ever our good, and from Spencer and Guyau that what we can and do perceive as good is not remote from the background of life which nurtures us. And so, having disposed of his intrinsic good, we might take courage against that fearsome naturalistic fallacy to seek into the conditions of, and therfore to ask what is, the meaning of good."--"G. E. Moore and Intrinsic Goodness" (1928) by Edward F. Mettrick.

"G. E. Moore calls this the naturalistic fallacy. This is a mistake. On a naturalistic theory of ethics such as that of John Dewey, if ethical terms are to make any sense or have any relevance, they must be defined in terms of naturalistic terms."--Emotion in Aesthetics, page 181, Warren A. Shibles, 1995

"There are in nature neither rewards nor punishments — there are consequences." --"The Christian Religion" (1881) by Robert G. Ingersoll

"The naturalistic fallacy has been quite as commonly committed with regard to beauty as with regard to good." --Principia Ethica (1903) by G. E. Moore

"Let us consider this doctrine. Bentham seems to imply, so Prof. Sidgwick says, that the word ‘right’ _means_ ‘conducive to general happiness.’ Now this, by itself, need not necessarily involve the naturalistic fallacy. For the word ‘right’ is very commonly appropriated to actions which lead to the attainment of what is good; which are regarded as _means_ to the ideal and not as ends-in-themselves." --Principia Ethica (1903) by G. E. Moore

"Mr Spencer’s connection of Evolution with Ethics seems to shew the influence of the naturalistic fallacy." --Principia Ethica (1903) by G. E. Moore

"From what can "ought" be derived? The most compelling answer is this: ethics must be somehow based on an appreciation of human nature — on a sense of what a human being is or might be, and on what a human being might want to have or want to be. If that is naturalism, then naturalism is no fallacy."--Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995) by Daniel Dennett

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In philosophical ethics, the term naturalistic fallacy was introduced by British philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica. Moore argues it would be fallacious to explain that which is good reductively, in terms of natural properties such as pleasant or desirable.

Moore's naturalistic fallacy is closely related to the is–ought problem, which comes from David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature (1738–40). However, unlike Hume's view of the is–ought problem, Moore (and other proponents of ethical non-naturalism) did not consider the naturalistic fallacy to be at odds with moral realism.

The naturalistic fallacy should not be confused with the appeal to nature fallacy, which is exemplified by forms of reasoning such as "Something is natural; therefore, it is morally acceptable" or "This property is unnatural; therefore, this property is undesirable." Such inferences are common in discussions of medicine, sexuality, environmentalism, gender roles, race, and carnism.

The naturalist fallacy was criticized in the essay "The Naturalistic Fallacy" (1939) by William Frankena.



Is–ought problem#Responses

Bound-up functions

Some philosophers reject the naturalistic fallacy and/or suggest solutions for the proposed is–ought problem.

Ralph McInerny suggests that ought is already bound up in is, in so far as the very nature of things have ends/goals within them. For example, a clock is a device used to keep time. When one understands the function of a clock, then a standard of evaluation is implicit in the very description of the clock, i.e., because it is a clock, it ought to keep the time. Thus, if one cannot pick a good clock from a bad clock, then one does not really know what a clock is. In like manner, if one cannot determine good human action from bad, then one does not really know what the human person is.

Irrationality of anti-naturalistic fallacy

Certain uses of the naturalistic fallacy refutation (a scheme of reasoning that declares an inference invalid because it incorporates an instance of the naturalistic fallacy) have been criticized as lacking rational bases, and labelled anti-naturalistic fallacy. For instance, Alex Walter wrote:

"The naturalistic fallacy and Hume's 'law' are frequently appealed to for the purpose of drawing limits around the scope of scientific inquiry into ethics and morality. These two objections are shown to be without force."

The refutations from naturalistic fallacy defined as inferring evaluative conclusions from purely factual premises do assert, implicitly, that there is no connection between the facts and the norms (in particular, between the facts and the mental process that led to adoption of the norms).

Effects of putative necessities

The effect of beliefs about dangers on behaviors intended to protect what is considered valuable is pointed at as an example of total decoupling of ought from is being impossible. A very basic example is that if the value is that rescuing people is good, different beliefs on whether or not there is a human being in a flotsam box leads to different assessments of whether or not it is a moral imperative to salvage said box from the ocean. For wider-ranging examples, if two people share the value that preservation of a civilized humanity is good, and one believes that a certain ethnic group of humans have a population level statistical hereditary predisposition to destroy civilization while the other person does not believe that such is the case, that difference in beliefs about factual matters will make the first person conclude that persecution of said ethnic group is an excusable "necessary evil" while the second person will conclude that it is a totally unjustifiable evil. The same is also applicable to beliefs about individual differences in predispositions, not necessarily ethnic. In a similar way, two people who both think it is evil to keep people working extremely hard in extreme poverty will draw different conclusions on de facto rights (as opposed to purely semantic rights) of property owners depending on whether or not they believe that humans make up justifications for maximizing their profit, one who believes that people do concluding it necessary to persecute property owners to prevent justification of extreme poverty while the other person concludes that it would be evil to persecute property owners. Such instances are mentioned as examples of beliefs about reality having effects on ethical considerations.

Inconsistent application

Some critics of the assumption that is-ought conclusions are fallacies point at observations of people who purport to consider such conclusions as fallacies do not do so consistently. Examples mentioned are that evolutionary psychologists who gripe about "the naturalistic fallacy" do make is-ought conclusions themselves when, for instance, alleging that the notion of the blank slate would lead to totalitarian social engineering or that certain views on sexuality would lead to attempts to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals. Critics point at this as a sign that charges of the naturalistic fallacy are inconsistent rhetorical tactics rather than detection of a fallacy.

Universally normative allegations of varied harm

A criticism of the concept of the naturalistic fallacy is that while "descriptive" statements (used here in the broad sense about statements that purport to be about facts regardless of whether they are true or false, used simply as opposed to normative statements) about specific differences in effects can be inverted depending on values (such as the statement "people X are predisposed to eating babies" being normative against group X only in the context of protecting children while the statement "individual or group X is predisposed to emit greenhouse gases" is normative against individual/group X only in the context of protecting the environment), the statement "individual/group X is predisposed to harm whatever values others have" is universally normative against individual/group X. This refers to individual/group X being "descriptively" alleged to detect what other entities capable of valuing are protecting and then destroying it without individual/group X having any values of its own. For example, in the context of one philosophy advocating child protection considering eating babies the worst evil and advocating industries that emit greenhouse gases to finance a safe short term environment for children while another philosophy considers long term damage to the environment the worst evil and advocates eating babies to reduce overpopulation and with it consumption that emits greenhouse gases, such an individual/group X could be alleged to advocate both eating babies and building autonomous industries to maximize greenhouse gas emissions, making the two otherwise enemy philosophies become allies against individual/group X as a "common enemy". The principle, that of allegations of an individual or group being predisposed to adapt their harm to damage any values including combined harm of apparently opposite values inevitably making normative implications regardless of which the specific values are, is argued to extend to any other situations with any other values as well due to the allegation being of the individual or group adapting their destruction to different values. This is mentioned as an example of at least one type of "descriptive" allegation being bound to make universally normative implications, as well as the allegation not being scientifically self-correcting due to individual or group X being alleged to manipulate others to support their alleged all-destructive agenda which dismisses any scientific criticism of the allegation as "part of the agenda that destroys everything", and that the objection that some values may condemn some specific ways to persecute individual/group X is irrelevant since different values would also have various ways to do things against individuals or groups that they would consider acceptable to do. This is pointed out as a falsifying counterexample to the claim that "no descriptive statement can in itself become normative".

See also

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