The Naturalistic Fallacy

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.

So What?

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.

8 Responses to The Naturalistic Fallacy
  1. Rachel Wilmoth
    March 22, 2010 | 5:20 pm

    The trouble is, the naturalistic fallacy, and its other equivalents, are so much easier to understand. Complexity requires thinking about an argument, possibly researching it, and leaving one’s “comfort zone” and maybe even coming to a different conclusion. Those aren’t bad things, but it’s much less difficult to automatically equate GMOs with Frankenfoods, or healthcare reform with communism. So thank you for posting this–it’s always heartening to see someone point out that very little is black and white.

  2. Doug Watson
    March 23, 2010 | 5:09 pm

    Great column. I think all fallacies survive and prosper because to draw a conclusion based on rational assessment takes a resource in very short supply… intellectual effort. Thanks for spending yours so wisely to further the collective understanding of your readers to all our benefit.

  3. Jess
    March 24, 2010 | 5:01 pm

    Rachel – I agree with you completely that it is more difficult to understand an issue. I think what worries me the most is that even those who understand the complexity of the dialogue get sucked into arguing about the naturalistic fallacy.

    Perhaps it is, as Doug says as well, that we face a lack of intellectual effort. But I have heard educated people argue that GMOs are bad because they “aren’t natural.” They’ve done their research and know their stuff, but still fall into the trap, when there are plenty of perfectly excellent anti-GMO arguments that they…theoretically know? I think?

    I also wonder about the relationship between naturalistic fallacy and our intuitions, which in my unscientific experience are often right. Could “it’s just not natural” be a way of articulating that our gut is telling us something is wrong?

  4. Cage Free Family
    March 24, 2010 | 7:07 pm

    Great post. There have been so many times that I have felt that it would be better to just smash my head on a wall than attempt further conversation for this very reason.

    Often times though, despite my frustration I can “sense” what they are trying to convey… or rather… the reason that they are feeling this way but are not either aware of or able to articulate.

    If only people could better educate themselves on the issues their guts feel so strongly about…

    • Jess
      March 25, 2010 | 11:23 pm

      Thank you so much for the comment. I agree completely, and actually am writing a follow up about that last (educating ourselves about our gut feelings) right now. I also think articulation is fundamentally hard for some people. As you said, even some people who understand the complexity of the issue may have trouble communicating that in a way others can understand. The result may just be a simplified, “It’s unnatural!”

  5. [...] week, I posted about the naturalistic fallacy, and why it’s important to avoid falling back on this kind of reasoning.  But then I started [...]

  6. Matt Kreiling
    April 3, 2010 | 1:48 pm

    Thanks for this post.

    I am surrounded by friends who are vehemently opposed to GMOs, and have some anecdotes to back up their views.

    Now I have a great phrase and approach for opening them up to the possibility that GMOs are neither bad nor good in the abstract…

    • Jess
      April 9, 2010 | 11:12 am

      I’m so glad it was helpful, Matt! I did write a follow-up, which you might be interested in:

      It is good to compassionately consider that some people just have trouble articulating why they are so uncomfortable with certain things. I sometimes forget that not everyone is a crazy overthinking wordie like me!

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