Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Naturalistic Fallacy

Announcement: “The Carnival of the Godless 37” has now been posted at The Neural Gourmet.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

Over the weekend, I got directed to a thread asking, "Is Goodness a Property?" posted at The Infidel Guy web site concerning the fundamental nature of morality. It is one of my favorite topics to write about.

In light of the position I defend, that ‘good’ = ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question’ and ‘moral good’ = ‘is such as to fulfill desires that tend to fulfill other desires,’ philosophically literate critics quickly recognize that I run afoul of a 100-year old objection to this type of view called “The Naturalistic Fallacy .”

This so-called fallacy was invented by G.E. Moore and presented in his book Principia Ethica.

Here’s how the objection would be applies to my claim above.

Alonzo, you claim that ‘good’ is the same as ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question.’ I am here to prove that this could not be the case. You have committed the naturalistic fallacy, which is the fallacy of trying to explain value in terms of natural (real-world) properties. This type of equation can never work.

We know that it can never work because, if it were true, than nobody would be confused or surprised by this equation. If by ‘bachelor’ I mean ‘an unmarried male’, then people who know the language are perfectly aware, when I say that I am talking about a bachelor, that I am talking about an unmarried male. Yet, people talk about value all the time without thinking that they are talking about ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question’ or any other natural property.

In short, for any natural property you may want to name, ‘X is good, but does it have this natural property?’ is a perfectly legitimate open question. Because of this, it is absurd to say that ‘good’ can be defined in terms of having this natural property.

This argument has carried a great deal of force over the years against any and all attempts to reduce moral concepts to natural terms.

Yet, this argument has a fatal flaw.

We can begin to see that there is reason to look for a fatal flaw by looking at the problems that arise if this argument were actually valid. If moral terms do not refer to any natural property, then it seems that they must refer to some sort of supernatural property. G.E. Moore uses the term ‘non-natural.’ However, I fail to see any difference between what Moore called a ‘non-natural’ property and what the rest of us would call a ‘supernatural property.’

‘Supernatural properties’ raise all sorts of philosophical problems. What are they? How do they interact with the natural (real) world such that they affect the real world and the real world can affect them? How do we sense them? How do we know that we sense them correctly?

It turns out that there is a problem with Moore’s “Open Question Argument”, and it has nothing to do with the fact that it supports the existence of non-natural (supernatural) moral properties.

Philosophers also recognize a fallacy known as the “Masked Man Fallacy.

Imagine yourself in London in the late 1800s. There is a robber about, known only as “the Masked Man,” who has been stopping carriages on dark roads at night and robbing the passengers. One day, while you are at a part, an inspector from Scotland Yard comes in. He walks up to the host of the party and says, “We have arrested your brother. We believe that he is the Masked Man.”

Your host answers the Inspector, “That cannot be true. Yesterday, I was talking about the Masked Man with some dinner guests. At the time, I certainly knew the name of my brother. However, I did not know the name of the Masked Man. Obviously, they cannot be the same person.”

Here, your host would be using Moore’s ‘open question’ argument. He is arguing that he can prove that his brother is not the Masked Man because, “Henry is clearly my brother, but is he the Masked Man?” is an open question. However, the fact that this is an open question does not prove that Henry cannot be the Masked Man.

Similarly, the fact that, “X is good, but is it such as to fulfill the desires in question?” is an open question does not prove that ‘good’ is not the same as ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question.’

We look to see whether Henry is the Masked Man by looking to see if there is anything true of Henry that is not true of the Masked Man. If we learn, for example, that Henry was attending an important business meeting at 10:00 yesterday evening – the same time that the Masked Man robbed a carriage on the corner of Wadsworth and Main, then we know that Henry could not be the Masked Man.

Similarly, if we can identify anything that is true of ‘good’ that is not true of ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question,’ then this would prove that they cannot be the same thing.

However, Moore’s ‘open question argument’ proves absolutely nothing.

Even if Moore happens to be right in his conclusion, his ‘open question argument’ proves nothing. It is a bad argument. The ‘naturalistic fallacy’ as he described it does not exist. Any use of ‘the naturalistic fallacy’ is itself a fallacy – the Masked Man fallacy.

So, in the theory that I use at the root of these essays, I see no reason to be concerned with G.E. Moore’s objections. It no more provides a reason to reject the identity that I use at the foundation of these articles than the Host’s claims prove that his brother could not be the Masked Man.

Besides, if Moore is correct, then value can only exist as a non-natural (supernatural) property. Of these options, it is far more likely that the open question argument is flawed than that supernatural properties actually exist.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to Carnival of the Godless. I've always got a huge laugh out of Kissing Hank's Ass.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr.

In your link, I find the same problem that I have found elsewhere in discussion of this issue. The link claims (and Moore claimed) that 'non-natural' is not the same as 'super-natural'. Yet, I see no attempt to explain how it is different.

This link draws an analogy between moral properties and consciousness. However, why is there no similar "naturalistic fallacy" regarding consciousness? Why is it that nobody in the philosophy of mind takes seriously the idea that "X is Y, but is it conscious?" is an open question proof that consciousness cannot be expressed in natural terms?

It is, in fact, while studying the philosophy of mind that I came up with this objection to Moore's Open Question argument. In the philosophy of mind, one of the objections to the proposition that 'mental states are brain states' is the idea that we can know something to be a mental state without knowing that it is a brain state. Cognitive scientists instantly brush this type of argument aside by saying, "Masked Man Fallacy".

Moral philosophers should learn to do the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

In case you've quite checking the comments on Good God, I've posted another response. I went on vacation.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. is right in the normal sense of the words. Twinkies don't occur in nature, they are made by people. They are thus non-natural but not supernatural. But, of course, strictly speaking, people are part of nature and so are anythings that we make. Twinkies then are as natural as wasp nests. In this strict sense, it would seem non-natural would have to mean supernatural.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr.

"supernatural" does not mean "divine." Ghosts are considered supernatural, but not necessarily divine.

"supernatural" means "outside of nature; not a part of the natural world." "Non-natural", to the best of my ability to determine -- also means outside "not a part of the natural world."

To my mind, "not a part of the natural world" does not exist. It does not matter what you call it -- supernatural or non-natural, it does not exist.


I do not think that it would be hard to argue that when G.E. Moore used the term 'non-natural', he meant 'man made'.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The laws of logic describe relationships between propositions. They are no more 'supernatural' than relationships between planets.

Propositions are a part of how the human brain is programmed -- using lines of code known as "propositional attitudes" (attitudes towards a proposition).

The two essential components of logic are truth (does Proposition A describe a real-world state of affairs?) and implication (is Proposition B contained within the meaning of Proposition A?)

I see no need to postulate any "supernatural" entities in logic.

Anonymous said...

I know this is really old, but...

Don Jr.> You're saying that the laws of logic (which are necessary) and the relations between planets (which are contingent) are of the same nature?

In what way, are the "laws of logic" necessary"?