Fallacy #8: The Naturalistic Fallacy

The naturalistic fallacy is an unwarranted connection between is and ought. There are many versions of it (it’s sometimes referred to as the is-ought problem), but the version of it I wish to focus upon usually appears as a response to a new idea, like this:

This is obviously the way things are. It’s the way they have always been… so your new idea is foolish.

What we see here is a strong is statement, implying that something that already is, and has been for a long time, obviously ought to be. Then the new idea is rejected because it differs.

The naturalist fallacy is wrong, of course, because “the way things are” is a horrible standard for judging what’s good, better or best. It stands in opposition to all things new, which means that it’s a permanent opponent of progress.

Almost every useful thing we have began as a new idea, which could have been rejected precisely because it wasn’t the way things had always been. That would have been the case for modern farming, cars, and more or less everything else.

The naturalist fallacy, then, is a silly statement. Unfortunately, it is used all the time, and very effectively, as many of us learned when we ran straight into it. Arthur Schopenhauer outlined the typical process in this way:

All truth passes through three stages:

First, it is ridiculed.

Second, it is violently opposed.

Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

So, we have a fallacy that’s flatly silly (things being a certain way doesn’t at all mean they should always be that way), but a fallacy that not only endures, but hobbles and attacks the best of us as we create new and better things. This, clearly, deserves some of our attention.

How The Trick Works

The naturalist fallacy collapses immediately when it confronts reason, which means that its support comes from things other than reason.

Really, what the naturalist fallacy relies upon is the authority of age. That is, it relies upon the belief that being old – “tried and true” – makes things right in some way. This is a very popular concept, even though it is logically wrong.

Governments, the largest and most feared organizations on this planet, call endlessly upon the fatherland, motherland, the wisdom of the founders and so on… at great length and over long periods of time. All these are appeals to age. (Appeals to geography as well.) That may be quite unreasonable, but in the jurisdiction where the idea is held as sacredly true, questioning it can be dangerous

So, the naturalist fallacy is very potent, even though implying ought from is remains a ridiculous thing to do.

I tend to think that this fallacy gets a lot of its power from mental inertia – treating age as a token of validity so many times that our minds are used to it and continue it without examination – but I’m not sure that has ever been proved. What is certain is that people fall for the trick a lot, and sometimes very deeply. It’s also clear that the fear of authority has a lot to do with it.

As we noted in our coverage of the appeal to authority, humans have weaknesses for both conformity and authority; weaknesses that remain, regardless that authority has disgraced itself over and over. Fundamentally it comes back to fear, and the strongest uses of this fallacy (“the wise, ancient founders”) tend to involve organizations capable of violence.

That said, this fallacy can also be supported with shame. Here are two ways that I used to run into it:

So, the whole world is wrong and you’re right?

Who are you to say that _________?

In both of these cases, ridicule is being threatened. And ridicule leads to shame, which is rather like a chemical weapon fired directly into a human brain.

This fallacy can also be used in a high intellectual manner. This has recently become more common, as many smart people have become dependent upon government grants while observing the lunacies of those same governments. And so they come up with “history-based” or “science-based” excuses for governments. Here are two examples:

History has shown the necessity of the monopoly of violence. (Thus the state is good.)

Our species includes high-status individuals who don’t merely plunder, but attempt to facilitate the common good. We’ve even developed bottom-up mechanisms for collectively choosing such leaders. (Evolution has brought us to democracy.)

After all the impressive theorizing, however, these are really just self-soothing statements. The speakers have no idea whether something else would be better, because trying new models of organization is violently forbidden.

What To Keep In Mind

When you encounter the naturalist fallacy – that something ought to be simply because it has been – you’ll have to make choices about your response. Making your counter-argument too directly may be risky in some cases, but it also may not be effective. Even if the person using the fallacy remains purely peaceful, touching a fear related to authority can cause people to close their minds and stop listening.

The first step in this process is simply to notice the mistaken connection between is and ought. That’s not the easiest thing to do when being rushed (as in most arguments), but you will almost certainly experience a feeling that something has gone wrong. That will be your cue to stop and buy yourself a few seconds, as we’ve noted several times previously.

Once you’ve obtained a moment of two to consider what sort of argument you’re dealing with, you can proceed. And here’s how I’d deal with a sensitive case such as a false justification for a local ruler:

Okay, I’m not saying you’re wrong in your conclusion, but I think you’re saying the Pasha is legitimate because his position has been maintained for generations. That, however, is the same argument the ruler right before the Pasha could have made.

But I warn you, there are places on this planet – and especially among people who hold you in suspicion – where such an argument can get you beaten, imprisoned or killed. So, please be careful. When dealing with users of violence, and especially with those who are easily offended, the best choice is to nod your head and get the hell away. Pointing out the naturalist fallacy can be dangerous.

From this we can see the depth of psychological attachments, the barbaric nature of power and the ability of reason to cut like a knife. This is a serious business; we must use our tools thoughtfully and with benevolence. In the end, our job is to create benefit in the world, not to prove ourselves right and certainly not to chop things down.

But even while using caution, you should remain clear in your own mind that an is does not imply an ought. A belief that it does is illogical, superstitious and even barbaric.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg


One thought on “Fallacy #8: The Naturalistic Fallacy”

  1. My dad used this on me every time I had an idea to improve something. His reaction (quoting his exact words) “If it’s such a good idea, why isn’t everyone doing it?” Infuriating.

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