Moralistic fallacy

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The moralistic fallacy is a type of argument wherein one assumes that one's own moral values are reflected in the natural world, or, alternatively, that because some course of action is good, reality must be such that that course of action is the simplest or most obvious. This fallacy is closely related to the "naturalistic fallacy".

The moralistic fallacy often appears to be the same as an appeal to consequences. The difference is that the appeal to consequences suggests that if it would be beneficial for something to be true, it must be true, whereas the moralistic fallacy starts with a value and asserts that because holding that value is good, it must be supported by a natural phenomenon.


An infamous example:

War, prejudice, and senseless violence are bad.
Therefore, war, prejudice, and senseless violence are artificial human inventions, not present in other species.

Theist examples:

Faith in God is a virtue.
Therefore all human beings naturally believe in God (there are no atheists).
Belief in a divine plan gives more purpose and meaning to people's lives.
Evolution is either false or was orchestrated directly by God.
Prayer and meditation can have some psychological benefit, such as by reducing anxiety.
Therefore prayer and meditation have whatever natural or supernatural effects the practitioners think they have.

Regarding evolution:

Complex organisms, especially intelligent ones such as humans, are more (ethically) valuable than other types of organism.
Therefore the "goal" of evolution is to produce more "highly evolved" creatures like humans out of "lower" organisms like bacteria.
Note: evolution, of course, has no "goal". Natural selection simply says that organisms and genes which are not good enough at producing copies of themselves will die out and/or be displaced by competitors. It is indifferent to human judgments regarding which organisms are "more complex" or ethically better.

Typical defenses of moralistic fallacies

Someone who is caught making a moralistic fallacy will almost never defend the reasoning itself. They will usually use one of these tactics:

  1. Actually admitting the mistake (most common when there is clear evidence against the conclusion, and on occasions when emotions do not run high).
  2. Changing arguments or changing subjects.
  3. Defending the original value rather than the reasoning.

If they chose to defend the original value, they will usually talk about how necessary the value is and accuse their opponent of undermining that value. They will accuse their opponent of using an (equally fallacious) contrapositive argument: "You are saying that violence is naturally part of our instincts because you want to prove that War X should continue." or "You are saying that we evolved through an unguided process, so you believe that there's no purpose or meaning to be found in life." These arguments are naturalistic fallacies that many people would never fall for, but someone who uses a moralistic fallacy may not recognize this because a) they probably identify good and natural as being closely related, and b) they assume that other people share the same viewpoint.

There are two ways to proceed against this type of defense. One is to continue to point out that the value mentioned in the premise may in fact be very important, but note that the conclusion still does not follow from that premise. The other is to go along with the change of subject and actually attack that value directly, if it is a value (such as faith) that is dubious and open to criticism.

Either way, moralistic fallacies can be some of the most difficult to expose, because they often involve a strong identification between a moral code and a particular set of beliefs. The person who uses the fallacy may interpret an attack on the argument as an attack on their entire system of values. This is particularly true for theists who have spent their entire lives believing in some form of natural law governing the universe, handed down by God, and for those with New Age or pagan beliefs who (sometimes literally) worship nature.

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