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Let's Get Rid of 'Nature'

September 23, 2012, 12:13 PM

I want to put an end to this argument, since I’m seeing it frequently touted and pointed to and nodded at like a mantra. Phrase it however you want: “it’s natural”, “it’s a biological urge”, or the corollary, “it’s unnatural”, “not even animals do it”, etc. There are variations - but the essential theme is to line up a (moral) claim with something called “nature”.

A classic example that’s making the rounds – that I’ll be writing about later – is the idea of parenthood, thanks to Jessica Valenti’s new book. Many have told me and continue to maintain that it’s “perfectly natural” to have/want children; that it’s the most “powerful biological urge” (how this measures up against starvation or thirst, I’m not sure). Because of this power and potency, it’s moral to breed.

However, this is not true: that’s an explanation for why breeding occurs, not what makes breeding moral! People move from a description to a normative claim: just because it is the case that things occur – for example, racism, sexism, violence – is not a reason to think it moral or not worth questioning or criticising. All we’ve been given is a description of the situation, not what makes the situation moral.

There are also more pressing concerns in terms of this thinking. Firstly, it’s highly selective. By defending this position, we are being dishonest thinkers because we’re only reporting one side, namely the “good” part: rainbows, cute animals, having children (I guess), and so on. We are ignoring the other: diseases, earthquakes, predation, and so on, which are awful occurrences and natural. To be accurate and scientific, we must have a broader scope in our thinking. Otherwise we’re selectively choosing one type of occurrence, making the whole framework of ‘natural’ seem entirely preferable.

If we align ourselves to nature, does it mean eating our young, killing violently, and so on, just because it occurs in nature? Why ignore this category of natural occurrences but embrace the other “good” one? We must know the broader framework to make accurate assessments. Selective thinking like this is unscientific and unhelpful: choosing to view “natural” only in terms of what is “good” is selective.

Secondly, it also becomes redundant.

If “natural” is “good”, what use does it serve as a moral rubric? When people say “homosexuality is unnatural”, they are saying “homosexuality is wrong”. But how does that help the discussion? “It’s wrong because it’s unnatural” is the same as saying “it’s wrong because it’s wrong”. That doesn’t tell us why it’s wrong: it’s again “a description” – a false one in this case since, since, as I indicated previously, there are 1,500 animal species that engage in homosexual behaviour.  The assertion becomes a tautology. But just showing that a supposedly unnatural act occurs in nature does not make it moral either! The entire point is to get rid of linking so tightly “moral” and “natural”: whether something does or does not occur in nature doesn’t aid our deciding whether that act is moral.

After all, wearing glasses, building hospitals and using crutches don’t occur in nature – are these to be considered “wrong” based on that category? If they’re not, why use the category of “unnatural” or even “natural” at all when discussing morality? 

We need to stop this appeal to nature in our thinking, in our application to actions, and in our moral deliberations. There are better, reasonable and, indeed, evidence-based justifications for these, which better serve us than mere appeals to this thing called “nature”.

Nature is just a description of things that occur “naturally”. Presumably this means “without interference from humans”, but why remove humans from the natural? We’re as natural as daffodils – with which we share genetic ancestors. What exactly is unnatural? Cars? Plastic? The Internet? I see no difference between a beaver’s dam and the Internet: both are made using materials from the Earth. Sure iPods don’t grow on trees, but like beavers’ dams, they have origins in raw, “natural” materials. At what magical point from the mining of metals to downloading the latest Linkin Park song does your iPod become “unnatural”?

‘Nature’ to a large extent  is an entirely useless notion in moral thought that is high time we got rid of.

Update: I originally wrote about "otters' dams" but reader Thom Shanken kindly corrected my idiocy.

Image Credit: Biogradska gora/Wikipedia (source)


Let's Get Rid of 'Nature'

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