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 Fact/Value Dichotomy and the naturalistic fallacy

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mike lewis

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Join date : 2012-03-22

PostSubject: Fact/Value Dichotomy and the naturalistic fallacy   Thu 02 Aug 2012, 1:25 am

The apparent gap between "is" statements and "ought" statements, when combined with Hume's fork, renders "ought" statements of dubious validity. Hume's fork is the idea that all items of knowledge are either based on logic and definitions, or else on observation. If the is–ought problem holds, then "ought" statements do not seem to be known in either of these two ways, and it would seem that there can be no moral knowledge. Moral skepticism and non-cognitivism work with such conclusions.

The is–ought problem has been recognised as an important issue for the validity of secular ethics and their defense from criticism—often religiously inspired.

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The fact-value distinction is a concept used to distinguish between arguments that can be claimed through reason alone and those in which rationality is limited to describing a collective opinion. In another formulation, it is the distinction between what is (can be discovered by science, philosophy or reason) and what ought to be (a judgment which can be agreed upon by consensus). The terms positive and normative represent another manner of expressing this, as do the terms descriptive and prescriptive, respectively. Positive statements make the implicit claim to facts (e.g. water molecules are made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom), whereas normative statements make a claim to values or to norms (e.g. water ought to be protected from environmental pollution).

The fact-value distinction emerged in philosophy during the Enlightenment; in particular, David Hume (1711–1776) argued that human beings are unable to ground normative arguments in positive arguments, that is, to derive "ought" from "is". Hume was a skeptic, and although he was a complex and dedicated philosopher, he shared a political viewpoint with previous Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704). Specifically, Hume, at least to some extent, argued that religious and national hostilities that divided European society were based on unfounded beliefs; in effect, he argued they were not found in nature, but a creation of a particular time and place, and thus unworthy of mortal conflict. Thus Hume is often cited as being the philosopher who finally debunked the idea of nature as a standard for political existence. For instance, without Hume, Jean Jacques Rousseau's (1712–1778) "return" to nature would have not been possible.

The fact-value distinction is closely related to the naturalistic fallacy, a topic that is still open to debate in ethical and moral philosophy. G.E. Moore believed it was essential to all ethical thinking. However, more recent contemporary philosophers like Phillipa Foot have called into question the validity of such assumptions. Others, such as Ruth Anna Putnam, have argued even the most "scientific" of disciplines are affected by the "values" of the men and women who research and practice the vocation. Nevertheless, the difference between the naturalistic fallacy and the fact-value distinction is derived from the manner in which the fact-value distinction, and not the strict naturalistic fallacy, has been used by modern social science to articulate new fields of study and create academic disciplines.

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The is–ought problem in meta-ethics as articulated by Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711–1776) is that many writers make claims about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is. However, Hume found that there seems to be a significant difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive or normative statements (about what ought to be), and it is not obvious how we can get from making descriptive statements to prescriptive. The is–ought problem is also known as Hume's Law and Hume's Guillotine.

A similar though distinct view is defended by G. E. Moore's open question argument, intended to refute any identification of moral properties with natural properties. This so-called naturalistic fallacy is contrasted by the views of ethical naturalists.

Hume discusses the problem in book III, part I, section I of his work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739):

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

Hume calls for caution against such inferences in the absence of any explanation of how the ought-statements follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can an "ought" be derived from an "is"? The question, prompted by Hume's small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible. This complete severing of "is" from "ought" has been given the graphic designation of Hume's Guillotine.

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The phrase naturalistic fallacy, with "fallacy" referring to a formal fallacy, has several meanings. It can be used to refer to the claim that what is natural is inherently good or right, and that what is unnatural is bad or wrong (see also "appeal to nature"). This naturalistic fallacy is the converse of the moralistic fallacy, the notion that what is good or right is natural and inherent.

The naturalistic fallacy is related to (and even confused with) the is–ought problem, which comes from Hume's Treatise.

Some people use the phrase "naturalistic fallacy" or "appeal to nature" to characterize inferences of the form "This behaviour is natural; therefore, this behaviour is morally acceptable" or "This property is unnatural; therefore, this property is undesireable." Such inferences are common in discussions of homosexuality, environmentalism and veganism.

Steven Pinker has described two logical fallacies. "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)."

"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."

The term "naturalistic fallacy" is also sometimes used to describe the deduction of an "ought" from an "is" (the Is–ought problem), and has inspired the use of mutually reinforcing terminology which describes the converse (deducing an "is" from an "ought") either as the "reverse naturalistic fallacy" or as the moralistic fallacy. An example of a naturalistic fallacy in this sense would be to conclude Social Darwinism from the theory of evolution by natural selection, and of the reverse naturalistic fallacy to argue that the amorality of survival of the fittest implies the theory of evolution is false. Moralists Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant both indicated the is–ought problem in order to identify their theories of morality and law.

In using his categorical imperative Kant deduced that experience was necessary for their applications. But experience on its own or the imperative on its own could not possibly identify an act as being moral or immoral. We can have no certain knowledge of morality from them, being incapable of deducing how things ought to be from the fact that they happen to be arranged in a particular manner in experience.

Bentham, in discussing the relations of law and morality, found that when people discuss problems and issues they talk about how they wish it would be as opposed to how it actually is. This can be seen in discussions of natural law and positive law. Bentham criticized natural law theory because in his view it was a naturalistic fallacy, claiming that it described how things ought to be instead of how things are.

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The open-question argument is a philosophical argument put forward by British philosopher G. E. Moore in §13 of Principia Ethica (1903), to refute the equating of the property good with some non-moral property, whether naturalistic (e.g. pleasure) or meta-physical (e.g. God's command). That is, Moore's argument attempts to show that no moral property is identical to a natural property. The argument takes the form of syllogistic modus tollens:

Premise 1: If X is good, then the question "Is it true that X is good?" is meaningless.

Premise 2: The question "Is it true that X is good?" is not meaningless (i.e. it is an open question).

Conclusion: X is not (analytically equivalent to) good.

The type of question Moore refers to in this argument is an identity question, "Is it true that X is Y?" Such a question is an open question if a conceptually competent speaker can question this; otherwise the question is closed. For example, "I know he is a vegetarian, but does he eat meat?" would be a closed question. However, "Is the morning star the same thing as the evening star?" is an open question; the question cannot be deduced from the conceptual terms alone.

The open-question argument claims that any attempt to identify morality with some set of observable, natural properties will always be an open question (unlike, say, a horse, which can be defined in terms of observable properties). Moore further argued that if this is true, then moral facts cannot be reduced to natural properties and that therefore ethical naturalism is false. Put another way, what Moore is saying is that any attempt to define good in terms of a naturalistic property fails because all definitions can be transformed into closed questions (the subject and predicate being conceptually identical; it is given in language itself that the two terms mean the same thing); however, all purported naturalistic definitions of good are transformable into open questions. It’s still controversial whether good is the same thing as pleasure, etc. Shortly before (in section §11), Moore said if you define good as pleasure (or any other naturalistic property) you could substitute “good” for “pleasure” anywhere it occurs. However, “pleasure is good” is a meaningful, informative statement; but “good is good” (after making the substitution) is an empty, non-informative tautology.

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