In his 1903 work Principia Ethica, the analytic philosopher G.E. Moore argued against approaching the good reductibly – that is, defining it according to some other attribute, or breaking it down into components.
Not reducing the good to something else means not reducing it simply to the pleasurable, or to the useful. If what we’re talking about is “pleasure” or “utility” than we’re talking about these things, not “the good.” And if we’re to state, meaningfully, that “X is a good” then “good” must mean something beyond “x” itself. In order for us to argue that pleasure is a good (as opposed to the good), “good” has to mean something. And it must be something directly apprehensible by anyone with a faculty of grasping, just as “the color blue” is directly apprehensible as itself, not something else, and irreducible to any other quality – so long as one has the faculty to perceive it.
So much for hedonism or utilitarianism.
But it also means not reducing the good to the natural. The “naturalistic fallacy” as Moore describes it entails arguing that something is good on the basis of its being natural in the sense of “natural physical processes” – or for moral acceptability on the basis of natural occurrence.
To take an extreme example: it is natural for parasitic wasps to lay eggs on tomato hornworms, and for the wasp larvae gradually to devour the horn worm from the inside out. That does not mean that this is a “good.” One could argue that the result of this is “good” for the tomato farmer, but not that the process itself is “good.” One could even argue that trying to disrupt this natural process would lead to overall bad effects for ecosystems, but one could NOT argue that it is wrong to disrupt the process because the process is natural and ergo good.
Misapplications of natural law theory fail because they commit the naturalistic fallacy, though this does not invalidate natural law theory correctly applied (i.e. pertaining to the “nature” of beings).
Unfortunately, an incorrect application appears to be all the rage among internet philosophers. And what in some cases one could simply laugh off as sloppy reasoning by people who ought to know better (I’ve noted at least three instances of people with PhDs making the error), in other cases leads to the kind of moral confusion that is downright dangerous.
When one regards sexual morality, for instance, in light simply of what occurs in nature, it opens the door for people to make the argument that sexual assault and rape are not all that bad, because they are “natural.” Men have “natural” impulses towards domination, and are “naturally” more sexually passionate, the argument goes.
We’ll leave aside, for the moment, the problems with these assumptions when it comes to human males. We’ll also leave aside the fact that even if we go to the animal kingdom for sexual paradigms there is no one set mode of interaction (regardless of what Jordan Peterson may make of his lobsters). Even if the animal kingdom, inclusive of humans, were to present us with a single set paradigm for male dominance and sexual promiscuity, this alone would be no basis for arguing that this is morally good.
Approaching sexual ethics this way is profoundly de-personalizing. It takes away agency and responsibility from males, reduces women to sexual objects (except for when it magically becomes a woman’s fault for being drunk or scantily clad, of course), and removes sexuality from the sphere of personal action, choice, consent, and mutuality into the realm of instinct. And it does this without even bothering to respect the variability and fluidity of action in the “merely” natural world.
Sexual morality has to do with the “nature” of the human person – or human animal, if you will. It is in our nature to flourish as rational creatures, in community and relation – and as free beings, autonomous, self-owning, able to assent or dissent – to say yes or no. A sexual ethic that ignores this does harm to the nature of the human. It is in our nature to be harmed by suffering, so an ethic that ignores the value of pleasure and disvalue of pain also leads to personal harm, stunted development, and even trauma.
I would even argue that a reductionist approach to the ethics of the body is harmful to non-human animals, reducing them to objects for use, disregarding their interiority and mystery – but that’s a matter for a different essay.
The particular moral confusion of reducing the ethical to the natural is dangerous also because it allows for rampant “whataboutism” among assault apologists. If one of their own committed rape, well, that’s bad, but look at all the people on the “other side” who will tolerate gays! Look at Fr. James Martin!
This phenomenon demonstrates that sloppy moral reasoning isn’t just a problem because it’s stupid. Stupidity is connected with evil (the medievals at least knew this!). Bad ethics can be practically dangerous as well as theoretically stupid. In this case, it allows for a culture that excuses and enables sexual assault, while furthering the bullying and scapegoating of LGBTQ persons.
image credit: www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/20774879515/