In 1903, British philosopher G. E. Moore in his book, Principia Ethica articulated what he called the naturalistic fallacy, an alleged logical fallacy committed whenever one attempts to prove a claim about ethics by appealing to natural properties. In essence, it states that it is illogical to conclude what is good based on what is true. This belief that facts and values are mutually exclusive has become entrenched last century in the minds of scientists and philosophers alike fostering an understanding of ethics that is normative, situational, utilitarian and relativistic. In the 1970s Biologist E.O. Wilson articulated a theory of human nature that rejected the notion that the mind was a blank slate and replaced it with a model that is predisposed to notice and favor certain features of the environment over others, and one with an instinct for language acquisition. In the subsequent decades the Wilsonian view of human nature has come to dominate in the sciences, yet still, when it comes to matters of goodness, virtue, and values, it seems that scientists and philosophers alike continue to invoke the alleged naturalistic fallacy before retreating to the wholly normativistic "blank slate" model of morality. Why?

As biologist Ursula Goodenough has written, "All creatures evaluate". Every living organism is attracted to certain features of its environment and repulsed by other features. My personal amateur hypothesis is that attraction and repulsion in the earliest living organisms informed ancient approach and avoid reflexes, which in higher animals today is mediated by physiological drives and emotions. In human beings, social emotions have evolved to distribute/normalize our perceptions and conceptions of what is to be approached and what is to be avoided. In other words, in our species, the biological imperative to discriminate between attractants and repellents is experienced as our sense of good and bad (good and evil).

A good life, if the positive psychologists are to be believed, is one where our material and psychological needs are met, including our needs for beauty and pleasure, focused engagement and the pursuit of excellence, and a sense of connection to things larger than ourselves. What is good for humans then can be defined as the common property of things which sustain our health and well-being, an idea that can be traced to Socrates and his conception of Eudaimonia:
Interest in the concept of eudaimonia and ancient ethical theories has spiked in the modern times, largely due to the work of Elizabeth Anscombe, who recommends a return the eudaimonistic ethical theories of the ancients, particularly Aristotle, which ground morality in the interests and well being of human moral agents, and can do so without appealing to any questionable metaphysics.

Done! The Naturalistic fallacy rendered fallacious by reforming our definition of goodness to accommodate concepts from modern science! Goodness, by this reformed definition, is the common property of anything that promotes the health and well being of the individual, the group and the environment.

The Philosopher Loyal Rue has written, "The good life presumes life, and life presumes healthy living systems." Is the ancient humanistic standard of goodness (eudaimonia) sustainable? That is, is it adequate for the maintenance of the healthy living systems upon which we utterly depend? I think so, but only so long as individuals understand that it is ultimately in our self-interest and in the interest of future generations that biodiversity thrive that we may continue to enjoy the riches in material, beauty and knowledge they afford. Therefore I suggest the following definition of human virtue.

Virtue: Any quality of character which guides behaviors that promote and optimally balance the health and well-being of the individual, the group, and the environment.

"Wisdom is the intellectual and moral wherewithal to live in harmony with reality."
Loyal Rue

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Sadly enough this was posted last year and received no responses. Hmm.

I keep thinking about your concluded definition of virtue there. How would "honor" fit into that definition? Or jealousy? What if you have "qualities of character which guide behavior" that promote the health and well-being of XYZ at the expense of other XYZ?

==> illogical to conclude what is good based on what is true

Kind of like "what is illegal is not necessarily immoral". How would anyone go about basing what is good on what is true? "The moon exists. Therefore the moon must be good". Doesn't make sense, and I'm struggling to find a fitting example. "It is true that the Holocaust took place. Therefore that the Holocaust took place is good". That's not right either. Hmm. I can't recover an example of a "X is true, so X is good". Seems as though you could fit just about anything in there, though.

Truth, according to Plato, isn't always indicative of good. He preferred that "noble lie", which in this case I could translate to "X is not true, so X must not be good". But he saw the utility of the noble lie; he saw that it could produce consequences that "promoted and optimally balanced the health and well-being of XYZ". But would either you or I want to live in a society where "the noble lie" is the overarching theme? (Come to think of it, some people would tell us that Americans already do live there). Of course, he also thought that the philosophers should run the city-state (or whatever particular sociopolitical unit you have in mind).

IMO, the statements that the human is, at birth, a tabula rasa and saying that we have an innate predisposition to "notice and favor certain features of the environment over others" are not incompatible. I submit that you can take a fresh human being and shape them however you want; given enough time and enough control and the right environment with the right resources, you could do this. At the same time, we are not a blank slate: It is not surprising that we have such an innate predisposition; the eye-blink reflex, the biochemical impulse towards sex, conditioned taste aversion, etc., are all products of evolution. Some things are built in by evolution because they increased survivability, and so were thus passed on and on. That accounts for your hypothesized "approach and avoid reflexes". The brain, with its amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus, has a means to determine what "out there" is good and bad. A critical skill of discrimination if one is to survive.

Social emotions such as love, jealousy, compassion, sympathy, worry...and then you get socialized forms of emotions like anger (when you are angry at someone or someone is the source of your anger), or anxiety (social anxiety)...these didn't necessarily evolve for the purpose of distributing or normalizing perceptions and conceptions of what and what not to approach. However, via evolution, they would have come about for *a* survival function...they must have helped somehow in the process. But I think positing that they served a function relevant to the "avoid/approach" schema is stretching it. To say that our sense of morality is an analog to brain functions which serve to keep us safe from harm or keep us thriving is, IMO, incorrect, or at most half of the story, if it could be shown to be somewhat true. We have gotten to the point where discriminations between good and evil are as much derived from cognitive activity and utilitarian analysis, which sort of cuts out some of the room for biology. Toss religion into this equation of deciding what is good and evil and,, not gonna touch it. It is an interesting perspective, though.
Hi Joseph and thank you for your thoughtful response.

Q: "How would "honor" fit into that definition? Or jealousy?"
A: Honor is a social, or group-serving emotion. Jealousy is a primitive, territorial self-serving emotion. No single emotion can optimally balance the health and well-being of the individual, the group and the environment. In fact nearly all of our emotional repertoire is evolved in service of the individual and groups. While some of our social emotions are aroused by nonhuman animals, and while emotions like curiosity and awe can valence us in favor of the natural environment, "valuing" the environment is largely learned. "Virtue" as I've defined it requires strong environmental values, is therefore largely learned. As Loyal Rue has written, "The good life presumes life, and life presumes healthy living systems."

Q: "What if you have "qualities of character which guide behavior" that promote the health and well-being of XYZ at the expense of other XYZ?"
A: Then those "qualities of character" are merely selfish or tribal and would only be virtuous if they somehow promoted the enduring prospect of life itself by optimally balancing the health and well-being of the individual, the group AND the environment.

"==> illogical to conclude what is good based on what is true"
Fair enough. Using philosopher Loyal Rue's analogy, water does not care whether it is heated into steam or cooled into ice. It has nothing at stake. Living systems, on the other hand do care and have their health and well-being at stake. So, changing your statement by narrowing its scope, we get:

It IS logical to conclude what is good for living systems based on what is true.

I'm not a big fan of Plato, or of "noble lies" but if a religious conservative, in order to repress his most violent impulses, requires a belief that he is being surveilled by a judgmental god, I guess I can live with that.

In our species, the approach and avoid schema includes our impulse to protect some things and destroy others. Normativity would not exist without biology. Utilitarian analysis is an evaluative cognitive process. Again, I am not arguing that "good and bad" are out there in any ultimate sense, but rather they are human constructs derived from REAL evaluative processes derived from REAL biological systems that we share with all of life.
the environment
that's the hard part for some these days
Should we call homosexual behavior unethical because it isn't "normal," or "natural" as the wingnuts would like us to believe? Both words are imprecise and loaded with preconceived bias.

Very interesting comments, Revelator. Both normal and natural in the context you give are intended as moral judgments by the users, in this case, "wingnuts". Their use of the word natural to describe their idea of appropriate sexuality does indeed betray "preconceived bias". It also reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of naturalism. According to naturalism, if it occurs, it occurs within the confines of nature, a closed system. This is unsavory to many because it follows then that atrocities, torture, cannibalism, etc. are also natural. The fact is that they are. There is nothing about the word natural in the context of the philosophy of metaphysical naturalism that suggests that all that occurs naturally is beneficial or desirable. Naturalism is not so much a predictor of behavior as a system for explaining it. Even this is offensive to some that would conflate the terms explain and excuse.

How then is naturalism a useful worldview? Instead of writing off groups or individuals as morally defective or inferior, it provides a framework for understanding harmful behaviors in a nonjudgmental manner, explaining it as the result of genetics and environment. Once again, this is not to be confused with excusing or allowing the harmful bahavior. Greater understanding of what contributes to harmful behaviors enhances our efforts at modification and prevention. It also fosters compassion as opposed to retribution.




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