It should be no secret that I’m no fan of regurgitated arguments. If you’re going to recite a standardized argument as your own, you should first understand the argument. Evolution deniers spout off lies about “missing links” and “no facts to support” and “it’s just a theory” to perpetuate their vapid argumentum ad ignorantiam and arguments from incredulity. Partisan supporters of supply-side economics rattle off rhetoric about lower taxes increasing investment spending without any idea what the Laffer curve is – let alone the understanding required to argue that tax rate X is at or beyond its peak, or that its peak is the same for any individual Y or population Z.

Henceforth, I trust I shall hear nary a word of such contrivances of abominable nonsense. No dear sirs and madams, not so much as a peep.

This article isn’t about a full analysis of the philosophy of the naturalistic fallacy, the nuances that distinguish it from Hume’s “is-ought” problem, or Hume’s extensive, reasoned, and persuasive arguments on the topic. This is a precursor for my upcoming writings that will leave naive regurgitators of Hume behind. I’m not going to [intentionally] violate Hume’s arguments, but people who invoke the is-ought problem too often don’t understand him. This article, and its references, are where I will direct the unsophisticated who attempt to speak Hume’s name in vain in attempts to dismiss my endeavor out of hand by rhetorical slight of hand.

And no, the irony of quoting others arguments to make my argument in light of the first paragraph is not lost on me. However, be advised that I have read these papers and generally understand the arguments within.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

In a nutshell, the fallacy is typically reduced to “ought cannot be derived from is”. Things that evolved through Darwinian selection are natural, or what “is”, but that doesn’t mean we can justify them by then saying that they “ought” to be simply because they’re evolved characteristics.

Fourth Commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Scottish philosophers in vain: for the Scottish philosophers will not hold him guiltless that taketh their names in vain.

*King James, a Scotsman, really should have gotten this right the first time.

To take one of the most emotionally charged examples to illustrate the legitimate concerns… Some have argued for rape as an evolved strategy for increasing reproductive success in humans and other animals. The emotional nature of that question tends to preclude rational discussion, but it hasn’t been definitively answered one way or another. However, it becomes a political discussion when some assume that an ought can be derived from an is. The scenario as it stands would be invalid even if factually true (a premise that’s factuality is debatable).

Invalid structure:

Sexual rape of another person to increase reproductive success is an evolved behavior (factual premise).
Sexual rape of another person is right (ethical conclusion).

Hume would regard the following argument as deductively invalid:

Torturing people for fun causes great suffering (factual premise).
Torturing people for fun is wrong (ethical conclusion). (Wilson et al. 2003)

The problem is that Hume’s name and the naturalistic fallacy are often invoked any time something “is” or is natural is being discussed – as an implied refutation or an attempt to silence discussion. That’s not a problem in the two previous scenarios, but Hume explicitly outlined a path to making the connection. And… it’s not a complicated path so it’s easy to misapply the fallacy when its use is attempted without understanding it. Simply: one additional clause is required. Unfortunately, the argument is often dropped from the sky whenever an argument begins with a natural “is” and ends with an “ought” without respect to one, two, or a zillion additional clauses between them. This is a fundamental flaw in argumentation that can be (and regularly is) exploited for emotional and political purposes, then spread through the minds of those naive to what Hume actually said.

Various arguments obscured by the term “naturalistic fallacy”

*Section quoted from (Curry & Oliver 2006) but arranged in normal style for formatting and readability

“The first thing that anyone wishing to investigate the naturalistic fallacy discovers is that there is not one but many arguments that go by this name. A survey of the literature reveals not one but (at least) eight alleged mistakes that carry the label “the naturalistic fallacy”:

  1. Moving from is to ought (Hume’s fallacy).
  2. Moving from facts to values.
  3. Identifying good with its object (Moore’s fallacy).
  4. Claiming that good is a natural property.
  5. Going ‘in the direction of evolution’.
  6. Assuming that what is natural is good.
  7. Assuming that what currently exists ought to exist. 8. Substituting explanation for justification.
  8. Substituting explanation for justification.
This article has discussed eight different versions of the “naturalistic fallacy”, and shown that none of them constitute obstacles to Humean-Darwinian meta-ethics. Of course, there may be other versions of the naturalistic fallacy, or other arguments altogether, that succeed in establishing that moral values inhabit a realm distinct from the natural, rendering Humean- Darwinian and other naturalistic meta-ethics untenable.”

Hume already resolved the “problem”

As I said earlier, Hume’s only requirement to proceed from “is” to “ought” was than an additional clause must be added to the equation.

More generally, a factual statement must be combined with an ethical statement to derive an ethical conclusion . Hence, ought cannot be described exclusively from is. The word “exclusively” is a crucial part of the naturalistic fallacy. If we remove it, the statement “ought cannot be derived from is” implies that the facts of the world have no relevance to ethical conclusions. (Wilson et al. 2003) [emphasis mine]

To resolve the invalid inductive example a few paragraphs back:

if we supply an additional premise, the argument can be made deductively valid:

Torturing people for fun causes great suffering (factual premise).
It is wrong to cause great suffering (ethical premise).
Torturing people for fun is wrong (ethical conclusion).

The addition of the ethical premise takes this from fallacy to logically stable footing. It certainly leaves open challenges to the premises, but not in terms of Hume’s critique.

My use of “is-ought”

I’m going to outline the general structure of my premises and conclusions, but be aware that this structure is not in itself necessarily complete. It can’t always be used alone to derive an ought from an is. Further, it appears problematic in that the grammatical construction appears somewhat circular. However, Darwinian evolution is a feedback mechanism. Thus, the circularity is not without merit.

Human nature is shaped by evolution (factual premise).
Judgments of right and wrong are made based on evolved biases and influences (ethical premise).
Examining human nature can lead us to insight on right and wrong (ethical conclusion).

In other words, if we’re using brains that have evolved ethical cues, all ethical premises are influenced by evolution. Thus, knowing about our evolved biases can help us answer questions in this realm. Further, this can help to spot sociocultural mismatches and assist in reconciling them with human nature apart from power structures.

A less nebulous example:

People evolved psychologically under politically egalitarian hunter-gatherer arrangements (factual premise).
Authoritarian structures are wrong because they limit freedom (ethical premise).
Imposing authoritarian structures on people is wrong (ethical conclusion).

Plainly, my conclusion that authoritarian structures are ethically wrong is subject to the factual premise and the ethical premise. As such, my conclusion are open to falsifiability in the face of sufficient damage to the premises. However, dismissal by illusory chants of “naturalistic fallacy” and clinging to the scraps from Hume’s table are not enough to lodge a successful complaint. At least… not according to Hume. Perhaps your intellect surpasses his, but I’m happy to bet against that occurrence.

Looking at this example more deeply reveals that I am merely adding a factual premise to a commonly asserted ethical premise. Paradoxically, this both bolsters the ethical premise while opening the endeavor to scrutiny by misapplication of Hume’s observations. This trick opens the door to questioning the ethical conclusion by the mere addition of the “is” to the equation. Beware incantations along any of these critical lines; cries of naturalistic fallacy violation may the be simple cries of ignorance.

My goal in future work is to continue to add and refine factual premises to bolster other commonly held ethical premises. Some will take Hume’s name in vain, but do not be distracted by the decontextualization of the is-ought problem and Hume’s own resolution.


Yes, that heading is a bit dramatic. I just wanted to point out that the two references not specifically invoked above have specific bearing on the application of evolutionary psychology in the way I’m using it. There is no doubt that the nurture Nazis will complain that evolutionary psychology is a hoax bla bla bla. If that’s your position, you’re wrong (Teehan et al. 2004; Walter 2006). But more on that later.

Curry, Oliver. “Who’s Afraid of the Naturalistic Fallacy?” Evolutionary Psychology (2006): 234-247. [pdf]

Teehan, John, and Roosevelt Hall. “On the Naturalistic Fallacy : A Conceptual Basis for Evolutionary Ethics.” Evolutionary Psychology (2004): 32-46. [pdf]

Walter, Alex. “The Anti-naturalistic Fallacy : Evolutionary Moral Psychology and the Insistence of Brute Facts.” Evolutionary Psychology, no. 1999 (2006): 33-48. [pdf]

Wilson, D.S., Eric Dietrich, and A.B. Clark. “On the inappropriate use of the naturalistic fallacy in evolutionary psychology.” Biology and Philosophy 18, no. 5 (2003): 669–681. [pdf]

  1. David Csonka 13 years ago

    Torturing people with logic causes great suffering.
    Torturing people with logic is wrong.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      But wouldn't you rather be tortured by logic than by Hume's Guillotine or Occam's Razor?

  2. Richard Nikoley 13 years ago

    Humans in some fashion distinguishable from other animals must consciously choose to obtain the values necessary for survival (factual premise).

    Such natural condition implies a natural right to obtain such values necessary for human survival free from the initiation of force (ethical premise).

    It is wrong to initiate force to deprive others of their natural right or to otherwise forcefully direct their productivity to means contour to their will (ethical conclusion).

    Corollary: other animals have no natural rights, only those granted them by the human who possess them.

    • neuromantic 13 years ago

      i'm really not sure what point you're trying to make with this post? are you putting forth an argument that you think is sound? if so, i'm sorry to have to inform you that the 1st premise is just flat out false.

      • Andrew 13 years ago

        You don't think conscious analysis of values is a difference between humans and animals?

        • neuromantic 13 years ago

          "conscious analysis of values is a difference between humans and animals" -yes, that's pretty much a given.

          but that's not what was said. what was said, is that humans "must consciously choose to obtain the values necessary for survival." that is simply incorrect. i mean how could humans have "chosen" the values necessary for survival before they even had a language of any kind…and yet they survived just fine, as we're all here to attest to.

          • js290 13 years ago

            I think a lot of people confuse luck with skill. My casual observation is people that confuse luck with skill will talk about Darwin in terms of "survival of the fittest" implying there was some skill or conscious choice involved rather than "natural selection" which implies luck of the DNA draw. I'm not accusing Richard Nikoley of missing this distinction, only adding to neuromantic's response.

            I'm not sure I agree with his statement about animals not having any rights. In the context of "civilized society" and arbitrary governments, perhaps not. But, if a crocodile is cunning enough to observe your behavior on the river shore and catch you off guard for its meal, it has every natural right to do so. Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between wild and domesticated animals?

  3. Emily 13 years ago

    I'm not the most philosophical of people (perhaps there are not enough y'alls and porches and summer breezes in philosophy), but I do despise fallacy. That microbe is more highly evolved than I am, having gone through a gazillion more generations, yet it does not have the moral high ground. Where does one go from rape? Murder? Infanticide?

    • js290 13 years ago

      Murder and rape is a problem of coercion. Infanticide and abortion is an economic (cost/benefit) problem.

      • Andrew 13 years ago

        Rape and Murder can also be (and have been) framed as economic problems with respect to mating and reproduction.

        For example: most murders are motivated by sexual jealousy, and sexual jealousy appears to be an emotion evolved for mates to "police" parental uncertainty by men and parental investment by women. The studies to support this show that men become more jealous when women cheat on them sexually, but women become more jealous when a man becomes emotionally connected to another woman.

        • js290 13 years ago

          Perhaps the expectations of faithful monogamy has made the cost of sex too high. A simple way to solve both the rape and murder scenario you describe is to reduce the cost of sex, e.g. legalize prostitution.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      Emily, I'm not exactly sure what you're asking by "where does one go…", but I'll try to plug these things into what I wrote and see what happens.

      People evolved a behavioral impulse to murder for parental investment protection (factual premise).
      Protecting parental investment is right (ethical premise).
      Murder is right (ethical conclusion).

      Even if we charitably grant the factual premise, the glaring problem here is that it requires the assumption that murder is the only and/or best method of ensuring parental investment. Clearly, murder is not the only method. I can't think of a scenario in which it would be the "best" method, but I have to say those scenarios would be rare even in the EEA. Fortunately, Maury Povich invented DNA paternity tests so the entire foundation of sexual jealousy (which underpins murder) almost completely negated.

      This is partly what I meant when I mentioned spotting mismatches. The evolved emotion of sexual jealousy is a mismatch in the modern world because of two things: 1) The disconnection of sex and reproduction via birth control. 2) The inanity of hypersensitive mate-guarding to preclude any potential for parental uncertainty because DNA tests eliminate parental uncertainty and therefore the potential of cuckoldry leading to investment in someone else's offspring.

      In other words, justifying murder with appeals to evolution is problematic from multiple lines of interrogation.

      • Emily 13 years ago

        Exactly my point. Though I didn't go through the mental gymnastics to get there. Perhaps it is lack of rigorous thinking on my part, but I can't see the "nature of man" to be absolute justification for much of anything when it comes to negating the basic right of existence or, in the case of rape, personal safety of others. Of course we can use ev psych to figure out the whys and wherefores, but we still have the basic responsibility of thinking humans.

        • Andrew 13 years ago

          It's certainly not an absolute justification. Also, I think there's value in using the lack of support in human nature to remove justification for socioculturally imposed claims.

          But… Since happiness (or any emotion X) is a mental state inside an evolved brain, judgments with respect to happiness are linked to human nature by definition. Emotional happiness is rather vague and isn't the same thing as ethics, but they're all being generated by evolved brains.

          • Emily 13 years ago

            It is possibly only psychiatrists who want everyone to be happy.

          • Andrew 13 years ago

            No, it's not. 🙂

          • Emily 13 years ago

            I can say with gruff experience that it is possible to over think some things.

          • js290 13 years ago

            Is evolutionary psychology related in any way to game theory?

          • Andrew 13 years ago

            Yes. Much of the foundational work is based directly on game theory.

            *Hamilton's 'The genetical evolution of social behaviour' from 1964 [pdf]
            *Trivers' contribution 'Parental investment and sexual selection' in the book 'Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man' from 1972.
            *Axelrod's 'The Evolution of Cooperation' from 1981

        • Bert 13 years ago

          Emily: Your feeling that 'negating the right to existence' is wrong is the same as human nature, who does not feel that way? Only the right to existence is not and never will be equal as long as people are different and therefore not equal, for example a psychotic murderer does not have the same right to existence as a child, something that has surely evolved to protect the elements that should enable a society to work and discard what will destroy it.

      • Bert 13 years ago

        A recent maternity test invention may make the reason for the evolved behaviour obsolete but it doesn't change the evolved brain, unless maternity testing was around in 100,000 BC that is. People don't think 'i want to murder X because it protects my paternal investment', they feel jealousy, hatred and rage, they don't know or think why. This makes whatever inventions we come up with irrelevant except in the context of future evolved brains, which is another concept in doubt anyway if you agree with the 'we've stopped evolving because everyone now survives to re-produce' theory.

  4. David Moss 13 years ago

    I think you can make the point you want to about the 'naturalistic fallacy' much more simply.
    Simply: Hume (nominally) establishes the invalidity of moving from a factual non-moral premise to a moral conclusion. So Hume establishes that one needs to include some moral premise in order to produce moral conclusions. Hence, if you do include any ethical premises then this whole 'Humean challenge' doesn't really have any teeth. So it should be egregiously easy to avoid committing this fallacy- although invoking "natural rights" is a surefire way to either ensure that you do, or commit you to wildly implausible ethical assumptions- so long as you openly state your ethical assumptions and reason validly from them.

    In any case, I pretty much agree with the post but your Hume-acceptable argument below looks unnecessarily spurious, because you've left out a few premises:

    A) People evolved psychologically under politically egalitarian hunter-gatherer arrangements (factual premise).
    B) Authoritarian structures are wrong because they limit freedom (ethical premise).
    C) Imposing authoritarian structures on people is wrong (ethical conclusion).

    Which would seem to require the addition of something like:
    Ai) Because people evolved under and adapted to egalitarian arrangements, authoritarian structures tend to limit our freedom.
    Otherwise it's not clear at all what the factual elements of your argument are supposed to be doing, since you gain just as valid an argument from B and C alone.

    Also the following argument seems to have a few problems:
    D) Human nature is shaped by evolution (factual premise).
    E) Judgments of right and wrong are made based on evolved biases and influences (ethical premise).
    F) Examining human nature can lead us to insight on right and wrong (ethical conclusion).

    E isn't an ethical premise, it's just a factual premise, that one of the elements of human nature that is shaped by evolution is our moral judgement. Note that *judgements* of right/wrong aren't right/wrong. Facts about our moral judgements do not necessarily tell us anything about the ostensible objects of those judgements. Thus F doesn't follow from E. The best you could get is a factual conclusion from factual premise E: Examining human nature can lead us to insight on judgements of right and wrong. Alternatively you might say that it can lead us to insight about our *concepts* of right and wrong, but this tells us nothing whatsoever about right and wrong.

    For example, let us say that evolution influenced our disposition to believe in witches, fate, God, magic, the Unclean etc. Examining the relevant evolved biases and influences that influence our judgements about these supernatural elements, may reveal to us various things about said judgements, but it doesn't necessarily lead us to any conclusions concerning the supernatural things about which we are making judgements.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      I think it's fair to say that every point I've ever made can be made more simply.

      I'm particularly in agreement with you on the second example. I wasn't happy with it when I wrote this and agree that it needs some work.

      Thank you for your apt analysis.

  5. Andrew 13 years ago

    I think it's fair to say that every point I've ever made can be made more simply.

    I'm particularly in agreement with you on the second example. I wasn't happy with it when I wrote this and agree that it needs some work.

    Thank you for your apt analysis.

  6. evilperson 13 years ago

    People evolved psychologically under politically authoritarian power structures (factual premise).
    Authoritarian structures are right because they limit certain freedoms necessarily (ethical premise).
    'Imposing' authoritarian structures on people is right (ethical conclusion) (only they don't need to be imposed, they happen naturally in human groupings without effort, even where the sole aim is egalitarianism).

    The evolved ethical cue is difficult to distinguish from culturally influenced belief. Culturally influenced beliefs can tap in to primitive 'group' mentality so fiercely that one would happily delete comments and refuse to partake in genuine debate of them. In order to discover what is an evolved ethical cue one must look at human behaviour and belief systems over time and cultures, and discover common links between them. To distinguish the ethical from fashion/culture should be the aim.

    To discover that you are wrong and to willingly challenge your own ideas is the essence of finding the 'truth' – however close we can get to it. You have inspired me to start my own blog, thank you.

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