Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Naturalistic Fallacy Fallacy

Yes you read the title correctly it is not a typo. The standard objection to the type of ethics I am developing here - ethical naturalism - is that in so doing I am committing the naturalistic fallacy which is meant to be fatal to such endeavors as mine. We will briefly examine this argument here.

The Naturalistic Fallacy
This argument was developed by G.E. Moore who used it to support his moral intuitionism or moral non-naturalism "objective" theories. What these are does not concern us in this post but his naturalistic fallacy argument does. Following Frankena [Frankena, W.K. (1939). "The Naturalistic Fallacy," Mind, 1939.] there are three versions of this "fallacy"
  1. defining a non-natural property like "goodness" in terms of natural properties
  2. defining one property "goodness" in terms of other properties
  3. defining an undefinable property such as "goodness"
However versions 1 and 3 are question-begging as "goodness" assumed to be non-natural or undefinable. Whilst these more pertain to and weaken Moore's argument's for his own intuitionism, these questionable assumptions over undefinability and non-naturalness need to be born in mind. Simply put a natural approach will not assume at the outset that "goodness" or other moral properties are non-natural (whatever that means) as this implies some sort of mysterious dualism which a case needs to be made for (and Moore does not). Similarly to assume that goodness is undefinable is also mysterious and a case needs to be made that it is, in fact, indefinable, and his naturalistic fallacy does not make it, it only assumes so and so it cannot do the work required.

Properties and Reductions
So what this leaves and what does concern us here is version 2. This is not a relative approach but a reductive approach. This point often confuses relativists and will be explored in future posts but simply put it is not that Y is relative to X - where X and Y are distinct and both exist - but that Y is reduced to X - that Y is X they are the same thing, there no two distinct properties. Now Moore is saying that this cannot be done that whatever definition one gives of "goodness" - the definition being such a reduction - fails.

However his initial position here is also question-begging as he has to show that "goodness" is some other thing which has not done so, he has only assumed it. As such this is not a logical fallacy it was an act of rhetoric for Moore to call it that and indeed his initial claim is itself a fallacy - that of question-begging - regardless of which version he used.

Goodness does not exist
Another objection here is that there is no such thing as "goodness" and "badness", that is there are no such essential properties that could be reduced since they do not exist. This is due to Mackie's argument from queerness, "goodness" and "badness" are supposed to be properties of objects but they are quite unlike and queerly different to other properties like mass, dimension, colour or texture or what are called intrinsic (belonging to the object) properties. "Goodness" and other such moral terms are evaluative or prescriptive and so Mackie argues, and I agree, there is no such thing as intrinsic prescriptive properties or, for short(!), intrinsic prescriptivity. So although this is not something I would argue for however, still being an ethical naturalist, a modified version of the naturalistic fallacy still applies and needs to be dealt with. Well what is left?

The Open Question Argument

This states that for whatever definition of, let us say now, "good", one can always ask 'but is it good'? For example if one defines the good as 'what is pleasurable', one can still ask 'but is it good'? He argues that for whatever definition is provided it is always an Open Question as to whether that definition applies and so it fails. Please note this is now different to his three question-begging fallacies that he smuggled in to his original "naturalistic fallacy", although generally everyone conceives of this as the key question and which needs to be dealt with here. Of course with a poor or inaccurate definition of "good", the Open Question argument makes perfect sense but unless there is something different when an accurate or correct definition is provided there is either something fishy going on or Moore is indeed correct. Well which is it?

Quine, Intensionality and Referential Opacity
The answer came from Quine, and others, although I do not believe he applied it to this particular problem.

An intensional statement has at least one instance such that substituting co-extensive expressions into it does not always preserve truth value. Saying 'Sarah wants water' and 'Sarah wants H20' are extensionally the same, however if Sarah does not know that water is (or is reducible to, is identical to) H20 the intensional substitution leads to a different truth value. A similar point is made over the evening star and morning start which extensionally refer to the same object, not a star but a planet Venus. If one does not know these both extensionally refer to Venus then one can intensionally beleive that one is looking at two different "stars".

Another way of saying this is that thinking the morning star and evening star are different means the Venus here is referentially opaque, it is mistake of a person's (subjective) epistemology (what they know) rather than ontology (what there actually is). The Open Question argument is defeated by referential opacity. Of course just because this argument does no work does not mean that ethical naturalism is correct. A positive argument still has to be made for that and that is what I am doing in these posts.

In my opinion one of the main reasons why the naturalistic fallacy - which I hope you can now see is itself a fallacy - is still popular as a critique of ethical naturalism is that this referential opacity is the result of the theories being argued for by critics of ethically naturalistic theories. That is anyone who holds some form of subjectivist, relativist or non-congnitivist view will find this quite convincing being unaware this is due to their own referential opacity - their subjective opinion in other words! This is circular reasoning and question begging again!

The Naturalistic Fallacy is itself a fallacy in five ways:
  1. It is not a logical fallacy
  2. It question begs over moral properties being non-natural
  3. It question begs over moral properties being indefinable
  4. It question begs over moral properties being other than the property it is being reduced to
  5. The Open Question relies upon referential opacity making it a fallacy.
Phew! For a simpler and admittedly more user friendly but equally effective argument see the Alonzo Fyfe post The naturalistic fallacy.


The Barefoot Bum said...

I don't think you're quite correct, for a number of reasons.

Even if Moore's arguments were actually invalid or unsound, concluding ethical naturalism would be fallacious: the Fallacy Fallacy.

The three definitions of the naturalist fallacy are not really question-begging, since they're definitions, not arguments. After you've determined, for example, that some property is not "natural" (in Moore's sense), you can use definition 1 to classify the argument as the Naturalistic Fallacy.

(I do agree, that definition 2 is shaky. Reduction and emergence are perfectly good tools of analysis, and not at all fallacious.)

Keep in mind when evaluating the Open Question argument that as an analytic philosopher, Moore is in no small part attempting to understand what human beings mean by the word "good". Noting that the question remains open, in a way that, when I put a rock in your hand, the question. "Is the rock there?" does not remain open argues that our conception of goodness is very different from our conception of ordinary reality.

I'm not a big fan of the whole project of pure analytic philosophy — understanding how we think and speak is not necessarily understanding how the world works — but I do think we should keep in mind the intended scope of the argument when criticizing it.

Quine's referential opacity is definitely a plausible candidate answer, but without a positive argument, we cannot, I think, declare it the correct answer.

The Barefoot Bum said...

You can read an alternative view in my series on Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism.

martino said...

Hi the barefoot bum

I don't quite follow what you said here: "Even if Moore's arguments were actually invalid or unsound, concluding ethical naturalism would be fallacious: the Fallacy Fallacy."
All I am saying is the the NF is itself fallacy if used as an objection against ethical naturalism but that is all. Other arguments need to be made for ethical naturalism (EN). Did I mis-understand you here?

wrt to your other points if Moore did make these other arguments - I do not believe he did, but if he did - they are not the NF, they are other arguments and we need to see what they are and it would be those that are objections against EN and not NF.

Finally your comments have helped me realize a far better and simpler means to make objections to the Open Question Argument. I will check your arguments in the links you provided when I have a chance but will probably create an updated version of this post within a week I think making a far stronger case against the NF/OQA than here.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Other arguments need to be made for ethical naturalism (EN). Did I mis-understand you here?

You understand me correctly. We seem to be in agreement on this point.

wrt to your other points if Moore did make these other arguments - I do not believe he did, but if he did - they are not the NF, they are other arguments and we need to see what they are and it would be those that are objections against EN and not NF.

I think you're too hung up on the strict literal meaning of "fallacy" as the use of invalid logic. The word "fallacy" has a well-established history of denoting unsound arguments — i.e. arguments with faulty premises or evidence — as well as invalid arguments.

The Naturalistic Fallacy concludes post hoc that the arguments for ethical naturalism seem generally unsound. The Naturalistic Fallacy might be mistaken, but it's not question-begging per se.

I'm looking forward to your positive arguments.

martino said...

I just want to add that I am using the broad sense of fallacy too and saying that the Naturalistic Fallacy is itself unsound.

martino said...

The Barefoot Bum

"I'm not a big fan of the whole project of pure analytic philosophy — understanding how we think and speak is not necessarily understanding how the world works "
I agree and this was the underlying thrust of my "Morality is a physical process" post.

The Barefoot Bum said...

the Naturalistic Fallacy is itself unsound.

The Naturalistic Fallacy is not an argument. It is a category error to call it sound or unsound.

martino said...

Interesting I will research this some more but as far as I know a fallacy is a component of an argument which is flawed in its logic or form. When it is a flaw in logic - it is a form of invalid reasoning (a formal fallacy), when in it is a flaw in the premises it is a form of unsound reasoning (a type of informal fallacy).

I am not saying that the NF names no such flaw - invalid or unsound - it does indeed names three flaws, I am saying that if one is an ethical naturalist, it is a fallacy to use the NF unless one can show that the ethical naturalist has committed one of those three flaws and the NF does not show this only assumes this and, I think you mean I should be saying that it is the Open Question argument that is itself is flawed, question begging not just referentially opaque and I now agree. And I have better criticisms of it but wait for the revision :-)

My complaint is that the NF is used as a rhetorical tool by those who have fail to show that any of these flaws have been committed by the ethical naturalist.

Most importantly, it does not rule out a priori - which it was once considered to do - the attempt to generate an ethically naturalistic theory and this is still a current misconception widely held amongst scientists.

I think you are looking at this in the following fashion:
Yes it is a flaw to reduce a non-natural property to a natural property, if that is the case here but the NF assumes it and does not show it. I am not committing this version of the NF if the property is not non-natural. As a naturalist I do not assume that it is non-natural, nor have I seen any convincing argument that it is (but wait till my fact/value post for more on that).

Ditto for the other two versions.

However I will revise this post carefully in the light of what you have commented and lets see what I come up with next week...

Bring it on :-)

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