The Naturalistic Fallacy
How it is used to Justify Cruelty to Animals
Some of the most common excuses for harming non-human animals fall under a single category of appealing to a commonly-believed myth; a myth of the world’s “natural balance of power.” The myth comes in many varieties, but they all can be reduced to a single claim that human-beings hurt other species since that’s how the world works. In other words, hurting animals is natural, and is therefore OK. This claim often relies on both seemingly rational, or scientific arguments (which we’ll soon discuss) and religious/metaphysical authority. The distinction between these two authorities is academic; in real life, both appeals may be used simultaneously.
Note that the word “nature” has many different meanings, based on the context in which it is used. In this article, we won’t use the term narrowly, as is common when imagining romantic images of flowers, wild animals, and fresh air, but rather, in much more generic terms, as in describing anything that exists in the world. At the same time, we won’t use the term “nature” in contrast to terms such as “artificial”, “cultural” or “humane”. For our purposes, “nature” and “natural” will refer to what is expected. A “natural” event, for example, is one that is anticipated considering the information one is given. Consequently, “natural” behavior is anticipated under specific conditions, even if it is possible to act differently or have other outcomes.
The Naturalistic Fallacy and its Origins
The “scientific” claim that humans hurting animals is natural and hence ethically justified, is based on a logical error known as “the naturalistic fallacy”. The naturalistic fallacy presents facts as value—the way things are is the way they should be, and the way things should be, is normal. Justifications for harming animals allege that because people harm animals, the animals should be harmed and it is normal for us to do so. The mere fact that animals suffer is its own justification. This is a false assumption and leap of logic; the fact that humans harm animals is unrelated to the moral quality of the action. To put it another way, simply stating that something occurs does not have any bearing on whether it is good or bad.
Knowing what is right and wrong always depends on empirical knowledge: we must determine which objects have moral status, which properties gave them that status, and how we should treat those objects accordingly. But if we look deeper, that determination isn’t really based on empirical knowledge about the objects; in truth, the properties we deem as relevant to the moral status is pre-supposed in our minds.
To explain it another way, there is nothing about animals that justifies hurting them; not the fact a bird has a crest, not the fact it cannot protect itself from humans, not that fact it can feel pain. This argument goes the other direction, too: there is nothing about certain animals that forbids hurting them: not their crest, not their weakness, and not even their ability to suffer. The fact that most people don’t see a bird’s crest as relevant when it comes to determining moral status, but the bird’s ability to suffer is relevant, has nothing to do with these qualities themselves. Rather, we determine which qualities are relevant based on our moral values on both crests and suffering, and these values come from our minds and do not exist in the animal itself.
Scientific findings, then, don’t dictate the value judgments that we assign to them, rather; the findings absorb our value judgments since they are perceived through the distorting lens of ideology. But the typical scientific rhetoric presents research as neutral, ideal, pure, rational, and free of any value judgments.
But even if we could make claims free of value-judgments, we would still have to admit we can use these claims to justify different, even contradictory values. For example, the fact our ancestors ate meat a million years ago can be used to justify eating meat by saying humans need to accept their nature, or it can be used to justify veganism by arguing that humans must overcome their primitive instincts and become cultured.
In modern, western social thinking, the “scientific arguments” in favor of harming animals are often perceived to carry more weight: the more scientific and rational a description of facts seems, the more persuasive it appears. This faith in scientific-sounding arguments is so powerful, that its reach extends even to ethical, non-scientific claims; the psychological effect of scientific authority blurs the line between objective and subjective assertions.
We now come to religious and metaphysical justifications for the naturalistic fallacy, which arose from western, Judeo-Christian culture and ideology. According to the Judeo-Christian creation story, god created animals in a specific, hierarchical order, which also serves as a description of ethical importance. The fact that humans were created last is used to assert their superiority over other animals. In addition, humans govern these animals by virtue of god’s decision. Challenging that narrative, which is considered the natural order, is perceived as both denial and contradiction of the text.
The Cultural Basis for Defining “Natural”
To believe that human domination and exploitation of other species is part of the natural order requires that one see the two groups as fundamentally different, and that each has their own “essence.” This, however, disguises, the fact that these essences are defined by human culture and not objective properties of the world.
And yet it would be absurd to assert that there are no differences between humans and other species. But these differences become less distinct when viewed in a certain light: how do humans and other species differ with respect to their ability to experience fear, pain and pleasure? And how do these differences compare between differences among only humans? Consider the ability of a baby to feel fear vs that of an adult or a person with mental disabilities and you will see that it is quite difficult to make definitive claims about the subjective experience of other animals.
Karl Marx is often credited for introducing and discussing the idea of “human nature”, and in recent history, this idea has been studied comprehensively, especially with respect to racial and chauvinistic oppression. These lessons can be readily applied to non-human species. For example, according to the feminist theorist, Colette Guillaumin, presenting certain characteristics of individuals as “their nature” is a part of the ideology of oppression, since the alleged natural characteristics are determined by a context in which one group controls another. Classifying individuals according to “natural” groups, such as “blacks” or “women” causes and reinforces a social structure of control, ownership, and exploitation. Under this schema, individuals are classified in a way where they can be interchanged with any other individual in their group, rather than being perceived as their own, unique being. Once an individual is labeled as part of a specific group, their membership in that group becomes the only essential character that individual has, and their other characteristics have no value. Therefore, the reason certain individuals are subjugated to another isn’t because the individual’s nature, but because of their group membership.
The above logic applies equally to non-human animals. For example, the claim that cows are used as food due to their nature, (passive creatures with a tendency to get fat and be eaten) conceals the fact that the term “cow” in our culture was created under an exploitative controlling relationship, which does not permit other characteristics of the controlled (the cow) to be realized.
The naturalistic fallacy is one of the most common rhetorical tools in the west, used to justify the harmful acts humans commit against other species. Despite being based on a logical fallacy of deriving values from facts, the myth has persuasive power. In secular culture, this power is derived from the authority commanded by the “scientific method.” The myth’s strength also comes from viewing “nature” as an ethical authority; far too frequently are ethical discussions on animals sidetracked by descriptions of facts as outcomes in themselves. The hidden assumption, again, is an “is-ought” fallacy: that what is ethical can be derived from what currently is. Descriptions of nature do not come from any innate “essence” or property, but from an exploitative culture.