• Natural oughts? Is there such a thing as natural?

    Here’s one I posted on my old blog.

    I was wondering today, as I lay there with one of my twins in my arms, as to whether oughts can be derived from a natural pre-programmed behaviour. For example, if an evolved characteristic, such as aggressiveness in males (I am generalising here, of course) or to want to eat meat, or, if it could be proven, that it were ‘natural’ to be heterosexual was inherent in a human, are we then obliged in some way to act in accordance with that ‘natural’ inclination?

    Or, indeed, is it just as ‘right’ that we overcome such ‘natural’ motivations with rational thought. For example, given that we are naturally predisposed to like and eat meat, are we obliged in any way to eat it? Or is this evolved programming simply irrelevant to who we are and what we do? Is it a genetic fallacy to think that in understanding how we got to where we are that we are in any way obliged to continue in that same framework. Thus to continue the example, if we find that it is actually morally reprehensible to eat meat, we are well within our rational rights to reject the eating of meat in favour of some form of vegetarianism, regardless of the fact that we might owe our large brains, or currently evolved form in some way, to the eating of meat.

    In the same way, people who argue (and I am posting this entry from a naturalistic, non-theistic viewpoint) that heterosexuality is natural and that homosexuality is unnatural are raising the question as to whether that matters at all. There are an awful lot of things we do which are ‘unnatural’: medicine, TV, fake tan (well, I don’t), fly to space etc etc and we do them without compunction. They have no moral dimension resulting from their naturalness. Therefore, my point here is that natural vs unnatural is completely irrelevant. So what that a particular behaviour is ‘natural’!

    This also brings us to another interesting point: what is the distinction between natural and unnatural? Is there such a distinction, or is it actually arbitrary? Surely any behaviour by a natural organism (i.e. human) is, in a sense, natural? I remember speaking to someone who thought that conceiving through IVF was unnatural and thus the resulting baby was unnatural; and yet he could not understand that keeping his mother-in-law alive with drugs in a hospital was exactly the same kind of ‘unnatural’. In fact, neither is natural or unnatural, but simply are. Everything, to one degree or another, is naturally derived, surely.

    Surely?

    Category: Philosophy

    Tags:

    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    • Vic

      Yes, I say with some confidence, and I agree completely with the irrelevance of “natural vs unnatural”.

      There is no unnatural behaviour, there is just behaviour.

      The distinction between unnatural and natural is, in my opinion, a relict of the time when we still made distinctions between animals and humans, between body and soul. The “natural order” of the Renaissance, with stones and fungi at the bottom and angels at the top.
      Concepts which seem ingrained in our “general conciousness”, yet have been overcome by science without becoming general knowledge.

      Saying something is “unnatural” is a placeholder, a nonargument. Something “feels” wrong, I don’t like it, I dont know much about it, maybe I can’t even say exactly why.
      Instead of being honest about it, we use this trick. And because it’s a nonargument, you can’t give a counterargument.

      It’s similar to “I don’t know the origin of the unviverse. – but I know, I call it god”. You replace something unknown with another unknown and have not said anything at all.

      I make this claim: everytime you hear that something is “unatural”, you can either find a different reason to oppose the matter hidden beneath or it’s a last resort.

      “Flying to space is unnatural.”
      – it’s too costly
      – it’s dangerous
      – it does not benefit us

      “Homosexuality is unnatural.”
      – I personally dislike it
      – it’s against my religius rules
      – it’s unhealthy and spreads STDs

      You can respond to each of these points with a counterargument. They are hidden beneath the blanket of “unnaturality” in order to prevent anybody from addressing them.

    • Richard Edwards

      As a biologist, I think there is a useful distinction to be made between pre-programmed inherent behaviour, driven by hormones and brain architecture etc., versus behaviours that stem from our “higher reasoning” and potentially over-rule “natural urges”.

      At the same time, I agree that the calling some behaviour “natural” and others “unnatural” is neither helpful nor correct, though. It is “natural” for us to overcome our own “natural” urges because (a) they are imperfect and not always in our best interests, and (b) there is a conflict of interests between the conscious self and the gene carrier. It is most certainly natural to fight against OTHER natural things, like disease, death and other animals. The rest of nature does this all the time. (Including building structures to protect them from the environment, and simple tool use.)

      Getting back to your title, though… what is the connection between “natural” and “oughts”. Almost none. Examining nature tells are how things are and why they are like they are. They tell us nothing of how they ought to be from a moral/ethical standpoint. Nature is “red in tooth and claw” and full of horrific behaviours that should not be emulated. IMO, the connection between the “natural” and the “ought” is simply that by understanding where various urges and behaviours come from, we can help combat or promote them (in ourselves and others) as appropriate.

      I cannot understand any Christian who uses “natural” as an argument before OR against anything as their god created it (natural = good) but then it was corrupted (The Fall) so the “natural” state is irrelevant.

      There’s a similar false dichotomy between natural and unnatural foods/drugs that really annoys me. (Chemical v Natural, as if all of Nature isn’t chemistry!) Just because something is found in nature, it doesn’t mean that it is good (e.g. flu); just because it’s man-made, it doesn’t mean it’s bad (e.g. flu vaccine). To combat the on-coming fallout of global climate change, we’re going to need every “unnatural” tool at our disposal, including (perhaps especially) things like genetic modification of crops.

      • Some interesting stuff, Richard. It is, at the end of the day, an exposition of the genetic fallacy.

        However, i am interested in your comment: 

        ” It is “natural” for us to overcome our own “natural” urges because (a) they are imperfect and not always in our best interests, and (b) there is a conflict of interests between the conscious self and the gene carrier.”

        This seems to me to be incorrect and i sort of disagree that natural can be used in such a way. The genetic influences that inspire us to overcome our ‘natural’ urges are themselves natural genetically motivated urges. Thus these genes are fighting for their own survival and duplication, no? it is all natural.

    • Richard Edwards

      As a biologist, I think there is a useful distinction to be made between pre-programmed inherent behaviour, driven by hormones and brain architecture etc., versus behaviours that stem from our “higher reasoning” and potentially over-rule “natural urges”.

      At the same time, I agree that the calling some behaviour “natural” and others “unnatural” is neither helpful nor correct, though. It is “natural” for us to overcome our own “natural” urges because (a) they are imperfect and not always in our best interests, and (b) there is a conflict of interests between the conscious self and the gene carrier. It is most certainly natural to fight against OTHER natural things, like disease, death and other animals. The rest of nature does this all the time. (Including building structures to protect them from the environment, and simple tool use.)

      Getting back to your title, though… what is the connection between “natural” and “oughts”. Almost none. Examining nature tells are how things are and why they are like they are. They tell us nothing of how they ought to be from a moral/ethical standpoint. Nature is “red in tooth and claw” and full of horrific behaviours that should not be emulated. IMO, the connection between the “natural” and the “ought” is simply that by understanding where various urges and behaviours come from, we can help combat or promote them (in ourselves and others) as appropriate.

      I cannot understand any Christian who uses “natural” as an argument before OR against anything as their god created it (natural = good) but then it was corrupted (The Fall) so the “natural” state is irrelevant.

      There’s a similar false dichotomy between natural and unnatural foods/drugs that really annoys me. (Chemical v Natural, as if all of Nature isn’t chemistry!) Just because something is found in nature, it doesn’t mean that it is good (e.g. flu); just because it’s man-made, it doesn’t mean it’s bad (e.g. flu vaccine). To combat the on-coming fallout of global climate change, we’re going to need every “unnatural” tool at our disposal, including (perhaps especially) things like genetic modification of crops.

    • SmilodonsRetreat

      The same could be applied to genetic engineering of organisms.  The fact that we’re using actual genetic sequences from another organism, just putting them in using a virus… that’s unnatural?  But if it happens without human influences (ERVs) that’s natural?

      Why?