Saturday, January 22, 2011

Is the Naturalistic Fallacy Real?

If the world shouldn't be like the natural world is, why not?

Rape of Lucretia (Tarquin and Lucretia) by Titian (1568-71)

The founding fathers of the United States were an eclectic mix of deists, skeptics, enlightened free-thinkers and devout evangelicals. Despite their individual differences it was a stroke of genius on their collective part to agree to include within the Declaration of Independence the proposition that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

In spite of many false starts, trials, and missteps, the viability and the survival of this republic, and by extension, all republics, rests upon the shared idea that our unalienable rights come to us by a non-negotiable divine mandate, and are not granted to us on the basis of either mutual consent or coeercion. We can look back at the diversity of that group of men who drafted the declaration and recognize the sheer brilliance in the way in which a "creator" is referred to.

This emphasis on our rights being unalienable inheritances from a creator is crucial, because there is not much in the natural world to support the notion that there is any such thing as Truth, or liberty, or that we are all equal, or that we have any rights at all, certainly not "unalienable" ones.

In a couple of earlier posts about Frans de Waal, I was exploring the idea of whether of not a Darwinist needed to be a Social Darwinist by necessity. De Waal emphatically said no. He also said that it was a mistake to try to derive the goals of society from the goals of nature. He said that trying to do so is an error known as the naturalistic fallacy, which is the impossibility of moving from how things are to how things ought to be.

The definition is subtle. I've heard of the naturalistic fallacy being referred to in a variety of ways. Sometimes when it is used it is actually referring to the appeal to nature argument, or the is-ought problem. Basically speaking it was a term defined by the philosopher G. E. Moore in 1903, noting the error inherent in drawing values from evolution or from any aspect of observed nature.

I understand what is being stated about the fallacy and its variants, but what I have a harder time grasping is why it is actually considered a fallacy. It might be very unpleasant to contemplate that evolution's goals, "red in tooth and claw" as they are usually described, might serve as the basis for what we consider to be moral, but I'm not sure why that disqualifies them automatically, especially if there are people who want to take God honestly and completely out of the discussion. There are still nihilists around, and even sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson who are willing to face this.

If nature is indifferent at best, and pitilessly cruel at worst, can a moral system be built without a belief in God? If so, on what basis?

Last year I took a run at reading Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, by Harvard's Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, an ordained Humanist Rabbi. I wasn't able to get all the way through it. I should have known I'd have issues with it just by the very nature of the fact that he refers to himself as a "Humanist Rabbi," a non-sequitur, or oxymoron if you will, if I've ever heard one.

Epstein's book is a spirited defense of secular humanism. I had very much looked forward to reading it. I was extremely interested in learning what the argument was for building a subjective system of morality based upon reason alone, written in a tone that was respectful of the sensibilities and opinions of theists, but I was disappointed in it. It was a work of apologetics, with more than a couple of derisive remarks of the "man in the sky" variety thrown in with the purpose of rankling people of religious belief.

I admit that I might have been hasty in this judgement, not having read the book all the way through, but the passage below reflects the sort of thing that bothered me, and it comes back around to the naturalistic fallacy, or Is-Ought Problem:
As the great eighteenth-English philosopher and skeptic David Hume pointed out, there is a huge difference between what “is” – what exists, the way the world is – and the way the world ought to be. One of the basic questions philosophers have occupied themselves with, then, is where do we get our values? Who says something that is one way ought to be another way, if not God?

This is not a mere egghead question that only professional philosophers and theologians deal with. It is the first thought that goes through the head of a young husband and father of three, sitting in an oncologist’s office, told that his pancreatic cancer has metastasized and is inoperable. “You may have about six months,” the doctor softly informs him. He understands that that’s what is. But with every fiber of his being he feels: it’s not what ought to be! And some theologians claim that the only way we can justify believing that it shouldn’t be that way is if God told us so.

God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, Catholic theologian John F. Haught
asks, “Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?”

This question – where do we get timeless values (such as the fact that it is good to heal a sick father of three so that he can live and be with his wife and kids) without God – is a variation of the is-ought problem, and it comes up not just in the doctor’s office but in most of our debates about political and social issues. Of course, when it does, we should ask our questioners what they mean by timeless values, inviolable “oughts.” They usually cite as an example that murder is wrong, which of course makes you wonder why they aren’t pacifists. Or they may say that rape is wrong, which is despicable when you realize they’re implying we need religion to figure that one out…

As for those … who would suggest that there cannot be any justice or any good without God, Plato’s dialogues Euthyphro, written in 380 BCE, provides … the “knockout punch” against them.

In the dialogue, Socrates reminds his friend Euthyphro that a crucial question is not simply whether we can know if one or another particular action is good, but on what basis we determine whether any action is good. Euthyphro answers “Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.”

But Socrates responds: “Is that which the gods love good because they love it, or do they love it because it is good?”

If the former is true, then who says the gods are not evil, unfair, or frivolous? The gods could choose to love anything they want, regardless of whether or not human beings would consider it just. Is that the kind of system we want to live by? Do the gods want us to be blindly, unquestioningly obedient to them, even if they behave like murderous scoundrels? And if the gods love the good simply because it is good, then it could damn well be good on its own. We wouldn’t need a god or gods to tell us what morality is – we’d be responsible for figuring it out just as they were.

In either case Euthyphro drives home the point that mere belief in God can’t make us good, and it can’t point the way to “timeless values” that we humans aren’t capable of arriving at on our own terms. Gods don’t – can’t – create values. Humans can, and so we must do so wisely.
I see the point he's trying to make with Euthyphro, but for me, it's a poor response towards addressing the Is-Ought problem. In particular, I have a real problem with these particular passages when he refers to the arguments made by theists:

They usually cite as an example that murder is wrong, which of course makes you wonder why they aren’t pacifists. Or they may say that rape is wrong, which is despicable when you realize they’re implying we need religion to figure that one out…
Well, the disgust over even discussing the topic of rape in a naturalistic context is a good preemptive strike by Epstein. His firm and heartfelt outrage boldy stated is a good way to close the issue without having to defend his basic premise. It's a clever debating tactic on his part, for sure. Yes, rape is despicable, but if it is despicable he needs to spend more than half a sentence explaining why it is despicable in a naturalistic universe.

What we could categorize as "rape" is commonly seen in the animal kingdom. In addition, when we look at the widespread prevalence of human sex trafficking across the globe with its victims numbering in the hundreds of thousands, it is evident that a large part of the human family, at least of the male gender (unfortunately), finds rape largely unobjectionable as well. Our natural human outrage over this is not as cut-and-dry as Epstein supposes. A number of books and articles have actually been written speculating that rape, despicable as it may be to our sensibilities, may have evolved as an evolutionary strategy. Robert Wright notes in The Moral Animal:
The rape and abduction of women was once a common feature of war in pre-literate societies...

There is an ongoing debate within evolutionary psychology over whether rape is an adaptation, a designed strategy that any boy might grow up to adopt, given sufficiently discouraging feedback from his social environment…. One (non-Darwinian) study found the typical rapist to possess “deep-seated doubts about his adequacy and competency as a person. He lacks a sense of confidence in himself as a man in both sexual and nonsexual areas.
If it seems I'm playing fast and loose with Epstein's argument, I do actually understand the point he's trying to make - that is should be intuitively obvious to us that what causes human pleasure is relatively good (as long as it does not harm anyone else) and what causes human suffering is evil.

Still, as far as I see, a problem remains... if you take God out of the mix.

If we can theorize that everyone of good will can agree that happiness (or contentment) is good, and suffering is bad, why isn't it equally valid to take an unflinching and bracing look at nature like the Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer did and follow the flow (as he saw it) instead of fighting it, and see morality couched in terms of what benefits the survival and trajectory of the species overall? If the behavior we see in a particular evolutionary adaptation benefited the survival and longevity of the human race as a whole, even if the trait seems on it's face to be obnoxious and repugnant to us, why can't it be concluded that that behavior is moral? If it can be shown that another type of behavior does not benefit the survival and longevity of the species, why can't it be categorized as immoral?

There are debates that occur right now in scientific circles about whether or not we are the product of "selfish" genes or if "group selection" was the key to our adaptation and survival as a species, but the key seems to me - if people wish to postulate the absence of a deity, that is - that morality depends upon us rejecting certain facets of the natural word. That we treat the general thrust of evolution in particular as an enemy. Robert Wright, once more in The Moral Animal:
Once Darwin fathomed natural selection, he surely saw how deeply his ethics were at odds with the values it implies. The insidious lethality of a parasitic wasp (who feeds within the living body of a caterpillar), the cruelty of a cat playing with a mouse - these are, after all, just the tip of the iceberg. To ponder natural selection is to be staggered by the price for a single, slight advance in organic design. And it is to realize, moreover, that the purpose of this "advance" - longer, sharper canine teeth in male chimpanzees, say - is often to make other animals suffer or die more surely. Organic design thrives on pain, and pain thrives on organic design...

If there's one thing natural selection "wants" us to believe, it is that our individual happiness is special; by pursuing goals that promise to make us happy, we will maximize the proliferation of our genes. Leave aside for a moment that pursuing goals which promise to make us happy, in the long run, often doesn't; leave aside that natural selction doesn't actually "care" about our happiness in the end and will readily countenance our suffering if that will get our genes into the next generation... We are designed not to worry about anyone else's happiness, except in the sort of cases where such worrying has, during evolution, benefited our genes...

There were of course, the utlilitarians like John Stuart Mill who tried to deal with the problems posed by this realization. According to the utilitarians things could be considered "good" to the extent to which they raised the amount of happiness in the world and "bad" to the extent to which they raised the amount of unhappiness and suffering. The goal was to raise the overall happiness. Darwin himself tended to agree with this, even if he preferred to stress "the general good and welfare of the community" over the notion of "general happiness." Distinctions have arisen between "act" utilitarians who focus on the pleasure principle and emphasize personal liberties and "rule" utilitarians who focus on the common good and emphasize that which most benefits the whole society.
One of the first to shift from the Spencerian view, in which ethics should imitate nature, to one in which the state of nature should be viewed as an enemy to be conquered, was "Darwin's bulldog," the biologist Thomas Huxley. I have to say, I found Huxley far more helpful in this area than Epstein. In his 1893 paper Evolution & Ethics he compared our imperative to build an ethical civilization to that of a horticulturalist's never-ceasing attempt to cultivate and rescue his garden from the state of pure nature and cosmic forces.

The practice of that which is ethically best—what we call goodness or virtue—involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows... It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence... Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process.

Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before. Some day, I doubt not, we shall arrive at an understanding of the evolution of the aesthetic faculty; but all the understanding in the world will neither increase nor diminish the force of the intuition that this is beautiful and that is ugly.

Not only is the state of nature hostile to the state of art of the garden; but the principle of the horticultural process, by which the latter is created and maintained, is antithetic to that of the cosmic process. The characteristic feature of the latter is the intense and unceasing competition of the struggle for existence. The characteristic of the former is the elimination of that struggle, by the removal of the conditions which give rise to it. The tendency of the cosmic process is to bring about the adjustment of the forms of plant life to the current conditions; the tendency of the horticultural process is the adjustment of the conditions to the needs of the forms of plant life which the gardener desires to raise.
Of course, this type of view has always been hard for theists like myself to get our heads around. In our imaginations, the naturalists have always extolled the goodness of nature, and as a result we've imagined them believing that ethics divorced from God should imitate nature. This is not necessarily so... Going even further than Huxley was the recently deceased Stony Brook biologist George Williams, who said:
Huxley viewed the cosmic process as an enemy that must be combated. I take a similar but more extreme position, based both on the more extreme contemporary view of natural selection as a process for maximizing selfishness, and on the longer list of vices now assignable to the enemy. If the enemy is worse than Huxley thought, there is a more urgent need for biological understanding.
What these philosophically-inclined biologists discovered as a truism is similar to what the great religious minds over the centuries have discovered as well. The origin of human suffering often (though not exclusively) lies in selfishness, and the origin of human happiness (both individually and for the largest number) depends upon our own individual willingness to be unselfish and to self-sacrifice for the good of others.

Closing out with Robert Wright again, who uses the issue of homosexuality as a backdrop and example:
Why should the “naturalness” of homosexuality in any way affect our moral judgement of it? It is “natural,” in the sense of being “approved” by natural selection, for a man to kill someone he finds sleeping with his wife. Rape, may, in the same sense, be “natural.” But most people rightly judge these things by their consequences, not their origins.

What is plainly true about homosexuality is the following:

1) Some people are born with a combination of genetic and environmental circumstances that impels them strongly towards a homosexual lifestyle;
2) There is no inherent contradiction between homosexuality among consenting adults and the welfare of other people. For moral purposes (I believe) that should be the end of the discussion.

In this light, the argument for a utilitarian morality can be put consicely: widely practiced utilitarianism promises to make everyone better off; and so far as we can tell, that’s what everyone wants.

Mill followed the logic of non-zero-sumness to its logical conclusion. He wanted to maximize overall happiness; and the way to maximize it is for everyone to be thoroughly self-sacrificing. You shouldn’t hold doors open for people only if you can do so quite easily and thereby save them lots of trouble. You should hold doors open whenever the amount of trouble you save them is even infinitesimally greater than the trouble you take. In short, go through life considering the welfare of everyone else as important as your own welfare.

This is a radical doctrine: People who preach it have been known to get crucified. Mill wrote: “in the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.

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