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Naturalistic fallacy

A form of illicit moral transfer statement, in which how things ought to be is inferred from how things are.


Wars have been part of human history for as long as we can look back.
Therefore, war is a good and desirable state of affairs.

Even though human history has indeed been plagued by wars since it existed, one can not conclude that this is in any way a desirable state of affairs.

Other names

  • Is/ought fallacy (IOF)


The name of this fallacy originally comes from ethics or moral philosophy, where this term is used to describe moral rules that have no further justification than that the current state is also the “natural” and therefore desirable one. In this form, it indeed resembles an appeal to nature.

The difference is that the naturalistic fallacy can also refer to situations that have nothing to do with nature or a natural state – such as in the example above. In this context, the fallacy is not limited to moral statements alone, but can apply to any topic.

At its core, the naturalistic fallacy is a form of conservative appeal to tradition in which change is rejected on the basis of an (often flawed) moral argument. As such, this fallacy can also apply to issues that, at least on the surface, have little to do with moral philosophy (see examples below).


Similar to the appeal to tradition, it is also important to assess whether the present state is perhaps indeed preferable to possible alternatives. After all, there are often good reasons why things are the way they are. Change itself can also have negative aspects that should be taken into account in this calculation.

Ultimately, it is always necessary to weigh up the pros and cons of all possible situations. Neither is the old, nor the new automatically the better option.

Reverse naturalistic fallacy

Also an inversion of the above inferrence, i.e. to infer a descriptive statement (the is-state) from a prescriptive one (the ought-state) can be fallacious.

A good example for this might be if one infers a real-life situation from a legal regulation:

The law stipulates that “men and women are equal”.
Therefore, men and women are equal.

Indeed, most modern democracies have laws that prescribe equal rights of men and women in some way or another. However, these are provided as goals to strive for; if full equality already existed, these laws would actually not be needed.

See also

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