Moralistic Fallacy

moralistic fallacy by A Richard Allen

The moralistic fallacy is in essence the reverse of the naturalistic fallacy (defining the term ‘good’ in terms of one or more natural properties). The moralistic fallacy is the formal fallacy of assuming that what is desirable is found or inherent in nature. It presumes that what ought to be—something deemed preferable—corresponds with what is or what naturally occurs. What should be moral is assumed a priori to also be naturally occurring.

Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker writes that ‘The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is found in nature is good. It was the basis for Social Darwinism, the belief that helping the poor and sick would get in the way of evolution, which depends on the survival of the fittest. Today, biologists denounce the Naturalistic Fallacy because they want to describe the natural world honestly, without people deriving morals about how we ought to behave — as in: If birds and beasts engage in adultery, infanticide, cannibalism, it must be OK.’

Pinker goes on to explain that, ‘The moralistic fallacy is that what is good is found in nature. It lies behind the bad science in nature-documentary voiceovers: lions are mercy-killers of the weak and sick, mice feel no pain when cats eat them, dung beetles recycle dung to benefit the ecosystem and so on. It also lies behind the romantic belief that humans cannot harbor desires to kill, rape, lie, or steal because that would be too depressing or reactionary.’

Moralistic fallacies include: Warfare is destructive and tragic, and so it is not of human nature; Eating meat harms animals and the environment, and so no one has physiological use for it; Men and women ought to be given equal opportunities, and so women and men can do everything equally well; and Unfaithfulness is immoral, and so it is unnatural to feel desire for others when in a monogamous relationship. By contrast naturalistic fallacies include: Warfare must be allowed because human violence is instinctive; Veganism is folly because humans have eaten meat for thousands of years; Men and women cannot have the same roles in society because men have more muscle mass and women can give birth; and Adultery is acceptable because people can naturally want more sexual partners.

Sometimes basic scientific findings or interpretations are rejected, or their discovery or development or acknowledgement is opposed or restricted, through assertions of potential misuse or harmfulness. In the late 1970s, Bernard Davis, in response to growing political and public calls to restrict basic research (versus applied research), amid criticisms of dangerous knowledge (versus dangerous applications), applied the term moralistic fallacy toward its present use. In natural science, the moralistic fallacy can result in rejection or suppression of basic science, whose goal is understanding the natural world, on account of its potential misuse in applied science, whose goal is the development of technology. This blurs scientific assessment, discussed in natural sciences (like physics or biology), versus significance assessment, weighed in social sciences (like social psychology, sociology, and political science), or in behavioral sciences (like psychology).

Davis asserted that in basic science, the descriptive, explanatory, and thus predictive ability of information is primary, not its origin or its applications, since knowledge cannot be ensured against misuse, and misuse cannot falsify knowledge. Both misuse and prevention and suppression of scientific knowledge can have undesired or even undesirable effects. In the 20th century, development of quantum physics enabled the atomic bomb through applied science. Without quantum physics, however, much technology of communications and imaging, by other applied science, could have been renounced.

Scientific theories with abundant research support can be discarded in public debates, where general agreement is central but can be utterly false. The obligation of basic scientists to inform the public, however, can be stymied by contrasting claims from others both rousing alarm and touting assurances of protecting the public. Davis had indicated that greater and clearer familiarization with the uses and limitations of science can more effectively prevent knowledge misuse or harm. Natural science can help humans understand the natural world, but it cannot make policy, moral, or behavioral decisions. Questions involving values—what people should do—are more effectively addressed through discourse in social sciences, not by restriction of basic science. Misunderstanding of the potential of science, and misplaced expectations, have resulted in moral and decisionmaking impediments, but suppressing science is unlikely to resolve these dilemmas.

The ‘Seville Statement on Violence’ was adopted, in Seville, Spain, in 986, by an international meeting of scientists convened by the Spanish National Commission for UNESCO. UNESCO adopted the statement, in 1989, at the twenty-fifth session of its General Conference. The statement purported to refute ‘the notion that organized human violence is biologically determined.’ Some, including Steven Pinker, have criticized the Seville Statement as an example of the moralistic fallacy. Research in the areas of evolutionary psychology and neuropsychology suggest that human violence has biological roots.

One Comment to “Moralistic Fallacy”

  1. “…Moralistic fallacies include: Warfare is destructive and tragic, and so it is not of human nature…”

    Surely human nature and morality are not necessarily interchangeable concepts? Or at least we must keep them separate in our minds, even when they do reflect each other (as they so often do).

    Warfare is certainly immoral ….. AND it goes against human nature.

    Warfare is against human nature because it goes against our most basic survival instincts. Warfare is a totally stupid idea – like playing tennis on a busy highway. Avoiding senseless self annihilation is a core aspect of human nature.

    Warfare is also immoral. Most people avoid behaviour which they know to be immoral – provided they have a choice.

    But in both cases we can be broken or rewired (so to speak) so that we do become self destructive/ violent towards others and immoral. But does that mean that these are also aspects of our human nature – or is it that human nature is able to be broken or warped in some way?

    A teapot can be broken by sitting on it, but is correct to describe a broken teapot as a teapot? Human nature works like this. A teapot does not change into something else when if you break it, yet it can’t be called a teapot anymore either.

    Things that exist (human nature, teapots, pasta etc) can be broken or warped in some way.

    Just as human nature can be warped, or broken in some way (our ideas about) morality can also be warped too.

    Modern warfare is ALWAYS immoral and it will ALWAYS be against out nature too. And this is why throughout history all wars have always been sold to the public (on both ‘sides’) as being both the morally right thing to do AND a matter of survival. An enormous amount of effort must be made and maintained in order to entice or compel ordinary people to go off and fight in wars.

    “…..Why of course the people don’t want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don’t want war neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country….” —- Hermann Goering

    Modern wars are paid for by forced taxation (AKA theft) as well as through government debt ….. this debt will eventually be recovered from future generations, also by taxation (AKA force) making government debt a form of theft committed across time and space. Wars are also paid for by the printing of fiat money in a monopolised economy (monopolised also by force).

    The same coercive and violent agency (AKA government and their friends) which does all of this also, on occasion, uses force to conscript young men and women to fight their wars. And they generally control the education of all citizens from the age of about four (also by force) and make everyone pay for this through taxation (by force).

    Behaviour can only be judged as moral/ immoral if the people involved are able to act and think freely for themselves (free of coercion, intimidation, theft, propaganda, mind control, information control etc).

    If you remove all of the force, intimidation, violence, theft, propaganda etc from society, such that everyone must personally PAY for their own weapons, be morally and legally RESPONSIBLE and ACCOUNTABLE (liable) for any murdering of strangers which they commit, as well as any violent or coercive behaviour against their own neighbours or their children, then warfare would end immediately and society would become 100000x more civilised and peaceful.

    As humans our *true nature* and our morality rarely permit us to commit warfare above the level of a drunken brawl in a pub or town square or perhaps a road rage style waving of a fist along with some with foul language. Hardly rates as genocide does it?

    I believe this suggests our true morality and nature. ie not very violent and actually pretty darn virtuous most of the time :)

    But instead we live in a society where we’ve all been trained since the age of four to believe that murder, theft, coercion, intimidation and brainwashing are morally virtuous AND are essential for survival…… provided it is done in the name of a special agency (called a ‘government’).

    (Of course no such agency actually ‘exists’ in reality. Any agency is just a convenient term we use to describe a group of PEOPLE). And so we can just as easily describe the situation as this: From early childhood we are trained in moral principals and survival skills – this training in many ways serves just to reinforce our human nature. But we are also trained that one group of people must be allowed to break all of those rules – in fact civilisation depends on it! When someone breaks our most basic moral codes and goes against our core human nature *in the name of a government* they are allowed to get away with it! They must in fact be applauded. And we must ‘vote’ for them to carry one doing it.

    The point of this rather long and rambling comment (sorry!) is that one can’t judge human morality or human nature simply by looking at ‘world events’ because the average man / woman in the street spends their entire life in a state of profound confusion and acting under constant duress…… and probably without even realising it.

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