The Prescriptive Fallacy

19 February 2011


In my last post, Scientific Challenges to Over-Socialization, I summarized the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy as follows:

While it was the turn-of-the-previous-century academic philosopher G. E. Moore who formulated what he called the naturalistic fallacy, it is only recently that the opposite number of the naturalistic fallacy has been formulated, and this is the moralistic fallacy. We can understand the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy in terms of the is/ought distinction. The naturalistic fallacy makes an illegitimate inference from is to ought; the moralistic fallacy makes an equally illegitimate inference form ought to is. That is to say, naturalistic thought is vulnerable to concluding that what is, is right, while moralistic thought is vulnerable to concluding that what is right, is. Science taken up in an ideological or moralistic spirit, then, in contradistinction to a naturalistic spirit, is vulnerable to reading its aspirations and ideals into the world.

Since I wrote that (a few hours ago) I realized that there are a number of fallacies closely related to the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy, also derived from the is/ought distinction, but moving beyond the present tense of the “is” to other temporalities — those of the future and of the past.

Fervent belief in eschatological hopes is often a consequence of committing the Prescriptive Fallacy.

The most obvious and prevalent fallacy of the kind I have in mind I will call the Prescriptive Fallacy. The Prescriptive Fallacy is the invalid inference of ought to will be. The same fallacy also appears in its logically equivalent form of an invalid inference from ought not to will not be. The Prescriptive Fallacy is, in short, the fallacy of attempting to prescribe what the future must be on the basis of what it ought to be. This is a hopeful fallacy, and we find hundreds of illustrations of it in ordinary experience when we encounter wishful thinking and eschatological hopes among those we meet (I say “among those we meet” because we certainly aren’t foolish enough to make this invalid inference.).

The eschatological vision of the Technological Singularity proclaimed by Ray Kurzweil is a particularly obvious instantiation of the Prescriptive Fallacy in the contemporary world.

Let me provide an example of the Prescriptive Fallacy. When I was reading Kaczynski’s Industrial Society and its Future for my last post, I found that a section of this manifesto had been quoted in Kurzweil’s book The Age of Spiritual Machines. It was in this context that Bill Joy came across this passage from Kaczynski’s manifesto, and this was at least part of the motivation for Joy’s influential essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.”

Bill Joy was moved by Kurzweil's quotation from Kaczynski to write his influential dystopian essay on the dispensibility of human beings in the future.

Kurzweil (whose Singulatarian vision has made it to the cover of Time magazine this week), in the earlier iteration of his book, quoted sections 172 through 174 from Kaczynski’s manifesto, and after quoting this dystopian passage on the subordination of human beings to the machines they have created — a perennial human anxiety, it would seem — Kurzweil goes on to comment as follows:

“Although [Kaczynski] makes a compelling case for the dangers and damages that have accompanied industrialization, his proposed vision is neither compelling nor feasible. After all, there is too little nature left to return to, and there are too many human beings. For better or worse, we’re stuck with technology.”

Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Viking Press, 1999, p. 182

Kurzweil excells at inane happy-talk, and this is certainly a perfect example of it. He seems to imagine that a Kaczynski-esque renunciation of technology will be a peaceful process in which we will voluntary quit our cities and move out into the countryside, roughly retaining both our population numbers and our quality of life. Once we realize that there are too many us to do so, presumably we meekly return to our cities and our technological way of life. From the Khmer Rouge attempts to enact just such a social vision in the 1970s, and by the by committing one of the worse genocides in human history on the way to their goal of an ideal agrarian communism, we know that such a process will be attended by death and destruction, as has historically been the case with revolutions.

The Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge were a consequence of their attempt to put into practice their utopian vision of agrarian communism. This vision came at a high cost, and any future attempts at turning back the clock can be predicted to be similarly catastrophic.

I myself treated this theme, although coming from an economic perspective, in my book Political Economy of Globalization, section 30:

The absolute numbers of contemporary populations are important in this connection because if an economic system fails and population numbers are sufficiently low, people can abandon their formal economy in favor of subsistence through proto-economic activity. However, once a certain population threshold has been passed, there simply isn’t room for the population to scatter from urban concentrations to resume a pastoral existence on the land. When there are more people than subsistence methods can support (even if the same number of persons can be comfortably supported by industrialized methods when the latter are fully functional), competition for scarce subsistence resources would lead to instability and violence. But after violence and starvation had reduced the absolute numbers, the survivors could return to subsistence once all the bodies had been buried. Needless to say, this approach to economic self-sufficiency is not one envied among either nations or peoples.

I don’t think Kaczynski was at all deluded about this process in the way that Kurweil seems to present himself. In fact, Kaczynski’s willingness to turn to militancy and violence suggests a tolerance for violence in the spirit of the end justifies the means. For Kurzweil, the ought of a happy, comfortable future for everyone so completely triumphs over any other possibility, especially those possibilities that involve misery and suffering, that the ought he has in mind must inevitably come to pass, because the alternative is, for him, literally unthinkable. This is why I say that Kurzweil commits the Prescriptive Fallacy of invalidly inferring will be from ought.

Kaczynski's turn to militancy and violence represents a frank admission of the costs associated with utopian visionary schemes. In this respect, Kaczynski is a more honest and radical thinker than Kurzweil.

The mirror image of the Prescriptive Fallacy is the invalid inference from will be to ought. This I will call the Progressivist Fallacy. This is the fallacy committed by every enthusiastic futurist who has seen, at least in part, the changes that the future will brings, and affirms that these changes are good because they are the future and because they will come what may. To commit the Progressivist Fallacy is to assert that change is good because it is change and because change is inevitable. Rational, discerning individuals know that not all change is for the better, but the Progressivist inference is based on a starry-eyed enthusiasm and not a rational judgment. I’m sure that if I read Kurzweil in more detail, or other contemporary futurists, I could find a great many illustrations of this fallacy, but for the moment I have no examples to cite.

The Golden Age Fallacy is based on an invalid inference from “ought” to “was.”

Yet another temporal-moral fallacy is what I will call the Golden Age Fallacy. This is parallel to the above Prescriptive and Progressivist fallacies, except projected into the past instead of the future. The Golden Age Fallacy is the invalid inference from ought to was. This is the fallacy committed by political conservatives and the nostalgic, who conclude that, since the past was better than the present as we live in an age of decadence and decline, that all good things and all things that ought to be were in fact instantiated in the past.

While the most obvious examples of the Golden Age Fallacy are found in our own times among those who imagine a lost, idyllic past, the Golden Age Fallacy represents a perennial human frame of mind. Prior to the advent of modernity in all its hurried insistence (and with is tendency to commit the Progressivist Fallacy), it was quite common in the past to believe in a perfect Golden Age before civilization. We find this in the Hellenistic rationalism of Plato, and we find it in the Zionistic prophecy of the Old Testament story of the Garden of Eden. Even today those who read Hermetic texts and believe that they are acquiring lost, ancient wisdom are re-enacting the pre-modern presumption that truth lies at the source of being, and not in the later manifestations of being. This is one form that the Golden Age Fallacy takes.

Finally, the mirror image of the Golden Age Fallacy is the invalid inference from was to ought. This I will call the Primitivist Fallacy, though it is quite closely related to the Golden Age Fallacy (the two are even more closely related than the Progressivist Fallacy and the Prescriptive Fallacy). Kaczynski, as reference above, commits the Primitivist Fallacy; it is common among anarchists and back-to-the-land types. Discontent with the present causes many to look back for concrete examples of “better” or “happier” institutions (or the lack of institutions, in absolute primitivism), and so the inference comes to be made that what was, was good, and from this follows the imperative, among those who commit the Primitivist Fallacy, to attempt to re-instantiate the institutions of the past in the present. The Taliban and others who wish to return to the times of the Prophet and the community he founded in Medina, commit the Primitivist Fallacy, as do those Muslims who look to a re-establishment of the Caliphate. Again, rational people know that older is not necessarily better, but those taken in by the fallacy are no longer able to reason with any degree of reliability.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


3 Responses to “The Prescriptive Fallacy”

  1. Ant said

    Good stuff

  2. xcalibur said

    Toynbee refers to these fallacies. Archaism – wanting to return to a golden age. Futurism – wanting to violently move forward to a future state and cut ties with the past. Then there’s withdrawal from the world, and what he considers the best solution: withdrawal and return. This refers to a shift towards introspection, reflection, and study, and coming out of this and interacting with the world with a new perspective – like leaving Plato’s cave and then returning to it. iirc, Toynbee saw philosophy and religion as movements that can both withdraw, and withdraw and return. Religion is more popular because it is open, encompassing, and proselytizing. Philosophy is less open, and it’s more of a challenge, asking its adherent to work at understanding it, rather than just believing. But, this is a tangent.

    As for the primitivist fallacy, I think the idea of the noble savage fits with it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: