Naturalistic Fallacy: Attributes, History & Criticism

Naturalistic Fallacy: Attributes, History & Criticism
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  • 0:00 Fallacy
  • 1:12 The Naturalistic Fallacy
  • 3:54 Criticisms
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Some arguments are based in sound reason and logic. And some aren't. In this lesson, explore the naturalistic fallacy, which points out those illogical arguments, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


I would not be able to figure out how to build the pyramids by hand. Therefore, the pyramids were obviously constructed by aliens.

See what I just did there? I just committed a fallacy, basing an argument on invalid logic. Since I don't know how to build a pyramid, therefore no humans could, therefore the pyramids were built by aliens. That was my logic. And that logic is flawed on so many different levels.

A fallacious argument, aside from being extraordinarily fun to say, is one that passes itself off as truth while being subjective or inherently illogical. As I'm sure you've noticed, we humans are generally very happy to argue for things that aren't logical. So we have a great number of fallacies. Some have to do with morals, some with behavior, some with aliens. The alien argument is always fallacious, but according to some, arguments that define 'good' and 'bad' can be just as illogical.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

What is good? What is bad? Philosophers have spent quite a bit of time debating these questions over the last several thousand years, so obviously, we still have no clear answer. A common response has been that 'good' and 'bad' have natural traits to them. 'Good' can be described as being pleasant, or beneficial, or even that which is highly evolved, according to certain philosophers. But not everyone agrees. In fact, some see this argument as fallacious.

G. E. Moore, an early 20th-century philosopher claimed in his 1903 book called the Principia Ethica that defining 'good' through natural traits would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy. Bum bum bum. I know, serious accusation, right? According to Moore, the very principle of 'good' cannot be defined by anything other than itself. Just like how you can only define the color yellow as being yellow, you can only describe 'good' as being good. To try and give it other natural traits is illogical and invalid; therefore, a fallacy.

Here's Moore's reasoning. 'Good' is a basic, simple truth. All complex ideas are composed of basic, simple truths, but for simple truths to be truths they have to always be… true! So, simple things, like a base color or base truth, can't have even simpler components. They are as simple as it gets. That means that you can only define 'good' as good. You can't define it as something else. That would be fallacious.

I like pizza, pizza is pleasant, therefore pizza is good. That's a naturalistic fallacy. I can say that pizza is pleasant, but cannot naturally link that to being good. Look at is this way: if we define 'good' as something that produces pleasure, then we can say that doing something pleasurable means doing a good thing. So, does that mean that everything pleasurable is good?

Immediately, this becomes a much more difficult question. Moore called this the open question argument, in which you can turn any definition of 'good' into this open-ended question that really can't be logically proven. Is everything pleasurable good? Is everything beneficial good? Is everything made by aliens good? See, it can't really be answered.


Moore's naturalistic fallacy deals with a very complex topic and, like I said, after thousands of years of debate there really is no consistent definition of 'goodness.' So, Moore's ideas are not agreed upon by everyone. Many different branches of philosophy argue that 'good' can be defined by certain traits, perhaps the outcome an action produces.

Utilitarianism, for example, argues that any action producing the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people is a good action. Supporters of Moore claim that these criticisms only seek to demonstrate that an action is good and do not define the basic truth of 'goodness' itself, so they don't actually violate the naturalistic fallacy.

Other critics claim that there is no such thing as inherent 'good,' only that which we label as 'good.' And still others argue that the claim 'good is good' is circular logic, which cannot be proven or disproven but is just distracting and annoying.

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