The Naturalistic Fallacy

Robert Wright, in The Moral Animal, explains that around the time that Darwin’s Origin of Species, some people sought to base their morals on the “morals” of Nature and of Evolution and Natural Selection. This led them to support credos like “Might makes right” and “No gain without pain”. Wright writes:

All of this now lies in the dustbin of intellectual history. In 1903, the philosopher G. E. Moore decisively assaulted the idea of drawing values from evolution or, for that matter, any aspect of observed nature. He labeled this error the “naturalistic fallacy.” Ever since, philosophers have worked hard not to commit it.

Moore wasn’t the first to question the inference of “ought” from “is.” John Stuart Mill had done it a few decades earlier. Mill’s dismissal of the naturalistic fallacy, much less technical and academic than Moore’s, was more simply compelling. Its key was to articulate clearly the usually unspoken assumption that typically underlies attempts to use nature as a guide to right conduct: namely, that nature was created by God and thus must embody his values. And, Mill added, not just any God. If, for example, God is not benevolent, then why honor his values? And if he is benevolent, but isn’t omnipotent, why suppose that he has managed to precisely embed his values in nature? So the question of whether nature deserves slavish emulation boils down to the question of whether nature appears to be the handiwork of a benevolent and omnipotent God.

Mill’s answer was: Are you kidding? In an essay called “Nature,” he wrote that nature “impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones like the first Christian martyr, starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve.” And she does all this “with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice, emptying her shafts upon the best and noblest indifferently with the meanest and the worst…” Mill observed, “If there are any marks at all of special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals.” Anyone, “whatever kind of religious phrases he may use,” must concede “that if Nature and Man are both the works of a Being of perfect goodness, that Being intended Nature as a scheme to be amended, not imitated, by Man.” Nor, believed Mill, should we look for guidance to our moral intuition, a device “for consecrating all deep-seated prejudices.”

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