Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Naturalistic Fallacy And How It Creeps Into Our Thinking

The naturalistic fallacy can refer to a few things. It can refer to the idea that something is good if it is natural, or bad because it is unnatural. In the context of morality and politics, the fallacy pops up a number of ways and affects our ability to reason. Here are two examples.

Conservatives will often argue that homosexuality is unnatural, and that it's therefore morally and politically wrong to allow it. Catholics who espouse natural law theory are very privy to this kind of reasoning. But it's simply false, on two levels. First, it makes the naturalistic fallacy. What is unnatural is not bad, because plenty of things are "unnatural" in the sense of being man-made, like technology, nose jobs, or medicines, and they can be positively good. Second, it is simply wrong that homosexuality is unnatural. Homosexuality is in fact, natural. But that also doesn't make it good either, since plenty of things are natural and aren't good, like cancer, HIV, poisonous mushrooms, and gamma ray bursts from the sun. The goodness or badness of a thing does not depend on its naturalness.

For liberals, it is very popular to say that there are no fundamental differences between men and women other than the obvious physical differences, and this leads many of them to argue that the low number of women to men in particular fields like science, technology, and engineering, are necessarily due to systemic sexism. But there are good arguments against this. Psychology and biology shows that men and women are not the same in our general preferences. Men tend to prefer working with things, and women tend to prefer working with people. That's why there are so many men in the physical sciences, engineering, and technology, and so many women in the social sciences, healthcare, and education.

The fear on the left is that if we acknowledge these biological differences it will be used as a license to discriminate against women in certain fields. In other words, there is a fear of a policy outcome based on the assumption of the naturalistic fallacy. So the fallacy creeps into our reasoning even when we assume others will be making it. Once you become aware of the fallacy, there is no need to deny the facts. If women generally prefer working with people more than things, there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about that, and that is no reason to discriminate against women in those fields men tend to do. In fact, because of recent efforts to get women into STEM fields, there may even be a bias in favor of women. We must keep in mind that just because there isn't equal parity in the numbers of men and women in STEM fields, we cannot conclude it's because of sexism.

Because the naturalist fallacy is so widespread, it creeps into our thinking even when we assume other people will make it. This is a perfectly natural reaction, because other people do frequently make the fallacy. But in recognizing the fallacy it will help your critical thinking ability because it can help you avoid challenging demonstrable facts—the "is" claims—in order to avoid challenging the faulty conclusions—the "ought" claims.

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