The Naturalistic Fallacy

James Baldwin, in his essay “The Male Prison” makes a point about where homosexuality fits in to the natural world. He writes, “to ask whether homosexuality is natural is really like asking whether or not it was natural for Socrates to swallow hemlock….whether or not it was natural for the Germans to send upwards of six million people to an extremely twentieth century death. It does not see me that nature helps us very much when we need illumination in human affairs” (232). Baldwin pushes back against the vision of an ideal natural world by positing that one could call the suicide of Socrates or the genocide of millions of Jews natural as well. To Baldwin, what human beings intuitively want, or do, does not always link up to being moral. Baldwin is actually summarizing one of the informal logical fallacies called the Naturalistic Fallacy in Philosophy. The fallacy goes something like this: 

  1. Doing X is natural. 
  2. Therefore, you ought to do X. 

This is a fallacy because what is natural is not always ethical. Getting vaccinated, for example, is not classified as natural because vaccines “trick” your body into creating antibodies without actually exposing someone to a disease. But many would agree that getting vaccinated is ethical because it protects individuals and the larger community. Baldwin employs this fallacy to argue that the question about whether or not homosexuality is natural is not the question at stake. 

I would argue, though, that the argument against the Naturalistic Fallacy undergirds “Giovanni’s Room” too. Giovanni describes his life in Italy before he knew he was homosexual, “I thought I was like other men…I wanted to stay forever in our village and work in the vineyards…” (334). At first, this beautiful, natural landscape seems like a dream or a fairytale. Giovanni is happy. But the space does not remain this way: his wife births a stillborn and Giovanni leaves the village, cursing God. What at first seemed like a natural paradise became a place where Giovanni could not create life, where his love could not produce more love. What is natural is not always what is good. But Baldwin does not try to suggest that the city is any better just because it is not natural. There is more freedom for homosexuals to thrive and crossdressing and other modes of being are much more widely accepted. But Giovanni and David are still holed up in a small room. Even here, their love cannot flourish. 

I think Baldwin is showing us all of these spaces where homosexual love cannot grow not to say that homosexual love is impossible, but to critique what the world is at this point in time. In other words, he does not fall for the Naturalistic Fallacy that what is is what ought to be. The novel is so tragic because it has a larger political aim: to show that the conditions of the world did not allow for love to flourish, especially homosexual love, and to suggest that it needs to change.

3 thoughts on “The Naturalistic Fallacy”

  1. Margaret, thanks for this post! I had heard of naturalism in the past, but not this fallacy. It’s a nice way of tying together both Giovanni’s Room and “The Male Prison.” I find it especially helpful in making sense of the ending of Giovanni’s Room. For such a sad novel, I think you make a good point that it can be read as Baldwin’s commentary about what a different world might look like.

  2. Margaret, I loved your analysis! I really just agree with everything you say in this post. I especially loved the explanation of the Naturalistic Fallacy that you speak about. Your use of the vaccine example made it extremely simple for me to understand this possibly complex philosophical concept. This was extremely topical, given the the letter to the editor published in the observer, about the vaccines, today

  3. Margaret, this is such a great analysis! I wasn’t familiar with the naturalistic fallacy, but it’s nice to hear your analysis of it. Terms like “natural law” are often floated around, especially at Notre Dame, and people assume that something is “right” based on their perception of nature. But, as you mention, many “unnatural” things are “right.” And perhaps, some “natural” ought not to be ascribed moral rightness. Cancer, for example, is “natural” but by no means deserves to be called “right.” Thanks for analyzing and rejecting the false relationship between what we deem “natural” and what we deem “right.”

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