Sex and Fallacious Reasoning

Like most people, I am keenly aware the reason you do not often see "sex" and "logical fallacies of relevance" in the same sentence together is because logical fallacies of relevance are intrinsically so exciting they do not need sex to sell them.

Merely mention one of the numerous fallacies of relevance -- say, the Ad Hominem Fallacy, the Red Herring Fallacy, or the Naturalistic Fallacy -- and you create an atmosphere of tingling anticipation.  To toss "sex" into the mix would only be overkill.
So it may astonish my readers that I am about to bring up both the Naturalistic Fallacy and the subject of biological reproduction -- together.

Make no mistake about it, though:  I am not mixing sex with pleasure logic merely in order to titillate you, my beloved readers.  Nor am I mixing sex with logic merely because I am a  man of passions -- strong, huge, even alarming passions.  No, there is nothing gratuitous about this.  Instead, it has simply become necessary to mention the two together.

And why is that?  Because someone -- someone! -- has made a mistake on the internet!  That is, they have committed the Naturalistic Fallacy in the all but certain presence of impressionable children. Children who might now grow up to promiscuously introduce fallacies into the very core of their reasoning.  Children who might one day run large multinational corporations, huge NGOs, entire governments, or even departments of philosophy.   DOESN'T ANYONE THINK OF THE FUTURE OF OUR SPECIES BEFORE THEY COMMIT FALLACIES OF RELEVANCE ANYMORE?

The person in question -- let us call him the "perpetrator" -- committed the fallacy in the course of arguing that we should derive our morals from "evolutionary biology".  Allow me to quote:
My position is that evolutionary biology lays on us certain [moral] absolutes. These are adaptations brought on by natural selection to make us functioning social beings. It is in this sense that I claim that morality is not subjective. [bracketed material mine]
As it happens, there is more than one way to lay out his argument. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, I shall now lay out the perpetrator's argument in the strongest possible manner I can come up with, despite the risk of giving us all the vapours:
  • We evolved various behaviors ("adaptations") that make us functioning social beings.
  • Because the evolved behaviors ("adaptations") make us functioning social beings, they are moral absolutes.
  • We ought to behave according to moral absolutes.
  • Therefore, we ought to behave according to the various behaviors ("adaptations") that make us functioning social beings.
As you see, the second premiss is the offending one.  It constitutes a mini-argument within the larger argument, for it has the form of a premiss ("our evolved behaviors make us functioning social beings") and a conclusion ("our evolved behaviors are therefore moral absolutes"). 

But that is precisely the form of the Naturalistic Fallacy, which can be described as, "An argument whose premises merely describe the way that the world is, but whose conclusion describes the way that the world ought to be...."  The Naturalistic Fallacy is a fallacy because you cannot reason from an "is" to an "ought".

If you could reason from an "is" to an "ought", you could reason all sorts of ridiculous things. "There is theft, therefore there ought to be theft." "There are wars, therefore there ought to be wars."  Even, "There are murderous fallacies of logic, therefore there ought to be murderous fallacies of logic."

Yet, for the moment, let us accept the perpetrator's reasoning, despite it's power to shock us.  What, then, might happen if we were to buy into his notion that "evolutionary biology lays on us certain [moral] absolutes?

Would not any behavior with a genetic basis that increased someone's reproductive success then become moral? I cannot see why it would not.

For instance, it appears that war has a genetic basis in territorial instincts and other such things.  But if that is so, then wars would be moral if they increased someone's reproductive success.  Again, there is a hypothesis that rape has a genetic basis.  But if that is so, then rape would be moral if it increased someone's reproductive success.

Such implications must disturb even the calmest of men and women.  To permit the notion that evolutionary biology lays on us moral absolutes seems to invite a deluge of undesirable consequences.  Fortunately we need not permit it, for sound logic does not compel us to permit it. For that, and for other reasons, men and women of conscience may justifiably and emphatically wag their fingers while saying to the perpetrator in the most passionate terms, "Buffoonery! Mr. Perpetrator, your notion is buffoonery!"


  1. What an interesting post! While I cannot judge this person's reasoning without knowing more about their philosophy, there are some generalizations we can all make here.

    1. "Adaptations" can mutate in human life to become, as Steven Pinker puts it, "evolutionary cheesecake". In other words, we evolved to eat sugar, but cake is just an exaggerated side effect of that and has no relevance to real needs.

    2. Humans are removed from primate ecosystems and there is nothing at all nature-based about how we live. We are the only species in any Kingdom on Earth that destroys rather than balances its ecosystem, so nature is irrelevant there too.

    3. There is something called evidence in science and we certainly cannot claim that anything is an adaptation without proof, and that kind of thing is very hard to prove.

    Many aspects of evolution have been questioned by Lynn Margulis (i.e. Gaia hypothesis) in that creatures do not just evolve, they co-evolve. So-called Social Darwinism is promoted by Dawkins (he says it's an evolutionary arms race - talk about machismo!) and is just false. It's not an arms race, it is a biosphere that is a layer of earth - it is dynamic and changes like everything else. Humans are so linear we can't begin to update our ideas of adaptation, and the layperson should not read media headlines in order to do so. Philosophy is far removed from science, and it should remain that way.

    Wow, sorry about the essay, but it's your fault Paul for writing such a good piece! ;)

  2. Haroomf! Haroomf! Good thrashing of Mr. Perpetrator!

    Regarding Amelie's second point, I don't think that is entirely accurate. "Balance" in nature is a rather transient concept. Overall, from 60,000 feet, we can look at it and say there is balance. However, the truth is that there are quite often imbalances due to combinations of circumstances, such as food sources,weather, diseases in apex predators, etc. Epic infestations of rodents, or locusts, or [insert "lower" specie here], reveal that, given the opportunity, animals other than humans can and do destroy their environments. We've just managed to take it to a whole new level. Go us!

  3. Buffoonery indeed. Variety is the stepping stone of evolution. If life and its trimmings were 'absolute' it would have died out in the single cell stage. How about this logic: 'Nature experiments with sex, and so should we!' *giggle*

  4. @ Amelie: Thank you so much for your kind words! Please allow me to assure you that your comments would be welcomed and cherished even if they were three times as lengthy as the one you just made! So, there is absolutely no need to apologize for their length. In fact, the more, the better.

    I agree we cannot claim something is an adaptation without adequate proof -- as your fascinating mention of Pinker's "evolutionary cheesecake" would evidence. Therefore, it opens up an entire new can of worms to suggest we derive our morals from evolutionary biology.

    I regret I am not familiar enough with the Gaia Hypothesis to say much about it. I wonder how one would test it? Any ideas?

    In this case, I am inclined to agree with The Wise Fool that other species, besides our own, also sometimes destroy their ecosystem. But I think only our own does so while knowing it is destroying its ecosystem. And only our own creates havoc on the scale we do.

    If you ever feel like blogging on the Gaia Hypothesis, I would be fascinated to read your post(s) on it!

  5. @ The Wise Fool: I am inclined to agree with you. I think one might say that the balance of nature is an ever-changing dynamic, rather than a fixed and static balance.

  6. @ Garnet: You just managed to not only make me grin, but also to reconsider my celibacy!

  7. Very interesting! And logical.

    About a month ago, I read an essay that included the term "normative statements", and I thought "Jeez, I keep hearing this term 'normative', and I don't know what it refers to. So, I Googled it and made my way to a blog that made clear that these are the 'should' 'ought' statements. What was not clear to me, until reading your post, was how often people try to reason from 'is' to 'ought'. It's really true.

    One of the ideas about normative statements that came up in the other blog was that whenever one speaks of 'should' or 'ought' it always make sense to add 'if you want to achieve such-and-such an outcome'. So, 'you ought to make your bed every morning' doesn't make much sense unless you add 'if you want people to think that you're a very orderly person' or something like that. (For me, 'if you want to avoid being scolded by your significant other').

    --- Hi Amelie, we've caught each other hanging out at the great Cafe' of the Cosmic Dance!

  8. I kept expecting this to turn toward an indictment of Rick Santorum's reasoning on the subject of sex as covered in recent news. Please have at it.

  9. @ Jon: Thanks! Conditional statements ("If I go to bed now, my significant other will be pleased.") are for me the most compelling moral statements. In contrast, something in me revolts against unconditional commands ("Go to bed!"). I want to know why I'm doing something.

    I think you're right about the naturalistic fallacy being a popular one. I see it employed quite often in discussions of homosexuality. Someone tries to argue that homosexuality is immoral because homosexual sex is unnatural. Of course, that argument falls flat for more than one reason, and one of those reasons is that it invokes the naturalistic fallacy.

    I think it's interesting that you, Amelie, The Wise Fool, Nance, me, and most of the others who read this blog can be thought of as a class of people who might be included in the intended audience of such people as "Mr. Perpetrator". That is, if his ideas are going to go anywhere, then either he or his followers pretty much must convince lay people like us that his ideas are sound. Otherwise, the only people who will end up holding his ideas are him, six professional philosophers, and his mother. But it seems he isn't doing his homework when it comes to convincing us!

  10. @ Nance: Thanks for the suggestion! I'm always looking for good blog topics. I will take a look at Santorum's ideas, but I can't guarantee I'll blog about them. The problem with politicians is they often enough don't present arguments so much as they simply toss out slogans. Thus, I'm not too hopeful he's actually said anything that constitutes a reasoned argument.

  11. The Perpetrator doesn't stand a chance. He will wither like a dried reed in the white hot fire of your logic, Paul.

    Actually, Santorum just said something to the effect that marriage should be only between a man and a woman "because that's the way we were made." (paraphrasing). Sounds to me like he's reaching hard to make a biological argument in the context of his theological beliefs.

    Like Nance said, have at it.

  12. Thanks for the sweet encouragement, CD! I've started googling in the hope of finding a reliable source where Santorum is quoted as saying something along the lines of "sex is only for procreation". I think it would be interesting to take a look at that notion.

  13. @Paul, thanks so much. You have created a great vibe on your blog and thanks for inviting me to write more. I agree in part about balance (see my response to Wise Fool) and it is indeed an interesting can of worms. I would love to post about it again, it is a rich discussion each time. I did write once on Gaia, here is my brief post on it. If you like I shall do so again, would give me a nice excuse to write more on the topic!

  14. @Wise Fool, thanks for bringing up that point. It is indeed somewhat lazy to put forth the word "balance" without a few caveats. I suppose a better description would be ebb and flow. My main point is that the biosphere has no intentionality. Whereas humans live and die by their social nature and of course we would project that onto nature. As you pointed out, though, balance is a relative term, and most of the ecosystem is far more self regulating than humans. (Go us, LOL. Well put).

  15. Amelie, thank you for the compliment! It means a lot to me. I will check out the link you gave.


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