On a challenge to the ‘naturalistic fallacy’

Greg asked:

Where is the following challenge to the “naturalistic fallacy’ weak? If energy is the source of all action; and its principles dictate that action; then: our actions are dictated by energy’s principles (whatever they are).

This is to say, our principles of action are principles of energy. If we seek an ethical principle to be a supreme a priori and a posteriori principle of behavior, i.e., action, we must consider energy’s principles of action. Hartmut Bossel (2007) claims that “values are not subjective inventions of the human mind, but are basic system requirements emerging from a system’s interaction with its environment.” If we are agents of energy, is “ought” a choice?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

It is weak. The first thing to point out (and this isn’t the main source of weakness although it might seem so on a superficial reading) is that ‘energy’ is a term from physics. Energy is defined as the capacity to do work. A living human body has more energy than a burning candle, but both could, in principle, with a suitable setup of pulleys and levers and other equipment, raise a 100 ton boulder. Very slowly. (And ignoring problems of overcoming static friction, of course.)

However, I can see a metaphorical use for the term ‘energy’ when applied to human action. The energy to get off your couch and do the washing or have a jog. Robert Pirsig uses the old-fashioned term, ‘gumption’, which has more to do with psychological motivation than with physical strength or energy. You can be physically very tired, but with sufficient motivation pursue a task long into the night.

So let’s talk about motivation, or, if you like the ‘springs’ of human action. The human being can be seen as a ‘system’, in the sense that we designed for a purpose by evolution. Legs are good for walking and running. Arms for lifting, hands for manipulating and so on. You wouldn’t normally use your feet to do what you can do with your hands. You wouldn’t use your arms or legs to do something you can do with your head (e.g. solving a problem involving basic arithmetic).

A central heating thermostat is an example of a simple ‘system’. A missile guidance computer is a more complex example. What they both have in common is a goal. The goal of a central heating system thermostat is to keep the temperature within certain limits. The goal of a missile guidance computer is to steer the missile to its target.

Human beings have certain basic instincts which they share. But unlike physical systems that human beings have constructed, or non-human animals that are interacting with their environment in the way that evolution ‘designed’ them to do, human beings have choice. I chose to answer your question, this morning, Greg. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion by any means, as I have been quite busy at the computer these last few days. But my conscience prodded me and, on this occasion unlike others, I listened.

You could say that your question piqued my interest sufficiently to give me the ‘energy’ (gumption) to tap these keys and compose an answer. (I haven’t heard of Bossel, by the way, but that doesn’t mean anything.)

I’m not getting into the debate about free will and whether human ‘choice’ is or is not ultimately an illusion. It is sufficient to point out that there are no ‘system requirements’ for human beings to do what they do, beyond certain basic limits. I don’t have any choices if I’m dead, so staying alive is obviously one necessity. Another might be to stay one step ahead of the law, or have sufficient funds for a quick getaway. Or it might be getting people to view my YouTube videos or like my Facebook page. Everyone is different, right?

The ‘naturalistic fallacy’, so-called by the British philosopher G.E. Moore, was the belief that what is ‘good’ can be defined in ‘natural’ terms, i.e. terms that do not imply a pre-existing valuation. To date, the basic principle that Moore was alluding to has not been refuted. The huge debate about what is ‘good’ for a human being that has raged since the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle will go on, and there are no short-cuts to a solution.

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