Monday, September 15, 2008

Sidgwick on the Naturalistic Fallacy

[I]n a sense, as Butler observes, any impulse is natural, but it is manifestly idle to bid us follow Nature in this sense... How then are we to distinguish 'natural impulses'--in the sense in which they are to guide rational choice--from the unnatural? Those who have occupied themselves with this distinction seem generally to have interpreted the Natural to mean either the common as opposed to the rare and exceptional, or the original as opposed to what is later in development; or, negatively, what is not the effect of human volition. But I have never seen any ground for assuming broadly that Nature abhors the exceptional, or prefers the earlier in time to the later; and when we take a retrospective view of the history of the human race, we find that some impulses which all admire, such as the love of knowledge and enthusiastic philanthropy, are both rarer and later in their appearance than others which all judge to be lower...

To an unreflective mind what is customary in social relations usually appears natural; but no reflective person is prepared to lay down "conformity to custom" as a fundamental moral principle...

-- Methods of Ethics (7th ed.)

(See also my old post on 'Human Nature'.)


  1. I guess Sidgwick would be surprised to learn that Confucius very seriously believed in conformity to custom as a fundamental moral principle. This is primarily because of an interesting reversal of the narrative according to which civilization progresses through time. According to Confucius, civilization had previously reached its apex during a period when mythical sage-kings ruled with perfect moral insight. Since then things have fallen apart. Thus the basic principle relevant to our moral judgments is that they ought to conform to custom. Maybe this would be uninteresting to Sidgwick.

  2. Colin, I think even that is not a case of taking 'conformity to custom' to be a fundamental moral principle. Rather, the fundamental principle here is that we ought to model ourselves on the sage-kings, and following custom is our best means of doing so. (Counterfactual test: change the alleged historical "facts", and Confucius would no longer recommend such conformity, I take it.)

  3. It's interesting that Sidgwick divides the 'natural impulses' into three camps, one that interprets 'natural' as 'original', one as 'common', and one as 'not the effect of human volition', since he quotes Butler but Butler falls into none of the three. Does Sidgwick ever get around to Butler's view?

    re Confucius: Confucius is actually fairly critical of custom precisely because he thinks customs have deteriorated since the days of the sage-kings; we need to rectify them by returning to the older model, not by conforming to custom as we find it in the world around us.

  4. "Does Sidgwick ever get around to Butler's view?"

    I'm not sure. What is Butler's view?

  5. I'd like to let Confucius himself respond:

    "According to ritual, the ceremonial cap should be made out of hemp; nowadays it is made of silk, which is more convenient; I follow the general usage. According to ritual, one should bow at the bottom of the steps; nowadays people bow on the top of the steps, which is rude. Even though it goes against the general usage, I bow at the bottom of the steps."
    --Analects 9.3

    "When nature prevails over culture, you get a savage; when culture prevails over nature, you get a pedant. When nature and culture are in balance, you get a gentleman."
    --Analects 6.18

    Seems to me that his view of custom was pretty nuanced.

  6. On Butler's view, 'natural' (in the relevant sense) is read as very similar to the way we tend to read another oft-forgotten normative term, 'healthy'; 'healthy' is not usually glossed as original, as typical, or as whatever happens independently of interference. Rather, it is usually understood to indicate something about the functional organization of the organism. Similarly, 'natural' in the relevant sense has to do with the proper functioning of all the parts of the human person, including reason and conscience. Butler's own preferred analogy, however, is government: if we were to talk about what is natural to a constitutional republic, we might mean what usually happens, or the way things were originally set up to happen, or some such, but 'natural' only takes on normative force when it takes into account the proper distribution of function and authority. From the third of the Rolls Chapel sermons:

    Every bias, instinct, propension within, is a real part of our nature, but not the whole: add to these the superior faculty, whose office it is to adjust, manage, and preside over them, and take in this its natural superiority, and you complete the idea of human nature. And as in civil government the constitution is broken in upon and violated, by power and strength prevailing over authority; so the constitution of man is broken in upon and violated by the lower faculties or principles within prevailing over that, which is in its nature supreme over them all. Thus, when it is said by ancient writers, that tortures and death are not so contrary to human nature as injustice; by this, to be sure, is not meant, that the aversion to the former in mankind is less strong and prevalent than their aversion to the latter: but that the former is only contrary to our nature, considered in a partial view, and which takes in only the lowest part of it, that which we have in common with the brutes; whereas the latter is contrary to our nature, considered in a higher sense, as a system and constitution, contrary to the whole economy of man.

  7. This may seem rather pedantic, but the naturalistic fallacy, as that expression was coined by Moore and is understood by philosophers today, refers to the putatively fallacious attempt to define moral predicates purely in terms of natural predicates. The claim that what is “natural” is, in some sense, “right” may also be a fallacy, but if so it is a fallacy of a different sort. One can commit one without committing the other; Mill, whose infamous "proof" of utilitarianism Moore regards as an instance of the naturalistic fallacy, most certainly did not look upon “nature” as a guide for moral conduct, as his essay on that topic makes abundantly clear.

  8. Pablo - sure, Moore's 'naturalistic fallacy' is different. But the term is also used as I have used it here (cf. wikipedia).


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