Today is World Water Day, which makes me feel like I should be writing something about water. Here’s a bit about water that I wrote while fasting in solidarity with the Climate Justice Fasters before COP15 (and more about it here as part of the same effort). But I honestly don’t have anything new to say about water at the moment. Water is crucially important. As far as climate change is concerned, water – in all its various forms – may be the issue of this century. The end.
Instead, I thought I’d write about the naturalistic fallacy, because that’s always fun stuff. Right? Right.
What Is The Naturalistic Fallacy?
You are probably familiar with the naturalistic fallacy, even if you didn’t know the term. It is the source of no small amount of conflict in discussions about environmentalism and sustainability, particularly when it comes to the dialogue between scientists and non-scientists.
Naturalistic fallacy is the assumption that something is “good” because it is so. It assigns a normative value judgment – an assumption of how something ought or ought not to be – based on how something is “in fact.” Because something is this way, that is how it should be.
One example of a conversation in which the naturalistic fallacy often provides fuel for conflict is the “real food”-driven discussions about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The debate about GMOs is complex and multifaceted, with many legitimate arguments on both sides. But the naturalistic fallacy frequently pops up, much to the frustration of scientists involved with the issue. The naturalistic fallacy argues that GMOs are bad because they are not “natural.” Food crops occur in nature without other species genes chemically inserted into their genomes. Therefore, that is how it ought to be. Artificial = bad. Natural = good. Naturalistic fallacy.
This drives the scientists crazy, and understandably so. It is fundamentally unscientific. And it would drive the non-scientists crazy if we applied it to other things, such as human casualties of natural disasters. While natural, few people would be willing to say, “it is, and so it ought to be” about the victims of a flood or an earthquake.
I mean, honestly, why do we even care about this? Who cares if there are a bunch of people running around saying something is good because it’s “natural?” And a bunch of scientists saying that they’re idiots because their arguments are unscientific (but using really big words).
We care because the naturalistic fallacy dilutes the dialogue. With an issue as huge and complex as sustainability and systems design, the dialogue is already pretty confusing. And the naturalistic fallacy further confuses and distracts scientists and non-scientists alike.
Sustainability encompasses well… everything. Every field, every market area, every culture, every social and governmental system. So what we really do not need is to muddy the waters with arguments that are fundamentally incapable of furthering the dialogue, particularly when there are so many valid and vitally important conversations going on all around us.