it doesn’t have to be natural to be right

As a culture, we have a love-hate relationship with the idea of things being “natural.” We like to use it as an excuse for things that we like: “We must accept it, because it’s natural!” But at the same time, we feel free to dismiss it in cases we don’t like: “We are humans, not animals! We have free will! The root of human society and morality is our ability to rise above basic nature!” We have endless arguments over whether homosexuality is natural, whether altruism is natural, whether contraception is natural, and in some circles even whether government is natural.

The entire notion of “naturalness” is itself a social construction. The idea that some things are “natural” and other things are not is a purely human, cultural invention. Not to be glib, but: it’s not a natural distinction. It does not occur in nature. When a bird builds a nest, it does not ask itself, “Is this birds nest part of nature, or is it an artificial creation?” When an ant picks up pebbles to build an ant hill, it doesn’t try to decide which pebbles are “natural” and which ones are not. When a jungle gorilla comes across a stream, it doesn’t worry about whether wading into the water is a “natural” behavior for a gorilla.

Yet for some reason, in our culture, we attach psychological, physical, and even moral explanatory power to whether something is “natural” or not. What I find most interesting is that we find arguments rooted in the “naturalness” of something compelling, even though we will simultaneously make contradictory or opposite arguments (and find them just as compelling) when it is convenient.

Ask someone who doesn’t like gay people why he feels that way, and he may say that it is unnatural. Ask that same person why a man shouldn’t act on the “natural” desire to sleep with lots of women, and he says that people are moral and spiritual beasts and must overcome their animal nature.

On the flip side, there are people who support gay rights who argue specifically that gay people shouldn’t be discriminated against because they think homosexuality is natural.  But then you can ask that same person about war, and he might tell you that the entire point of civilization is to overcome and protect against humanity’s natural combative and violent urges.

There is no consistency when people try to link the idea of a thing being “natural” to the idea of something being “right.” Every time I’ve pointed this out to people, however, they seem to already be aware of it. Everyone that I’ve talked to knows that not all natural things are good, and not all good things are natural. Yet the power of the argument persists. Even when people “know better,” they will get into arguments and act as though saying “it’s natural!” is a justification for–or against–whatever they are arguing.

Misunderstanding DarwinThe “natural” argument is especially abused in politics, and when people try to apply “naturalness” to economic policies. Proponents of pure free-market capitalism are especially guilty of this: they point to biological evolution as the epitome of a “natural process” and try to claim that free-market capitalism is “natural” because it can be described in a way that is analogous to biological evolution: there is variation (although not random) and there is selection.

The full argument is actually in two parts: 1) Because free market capitalism like evolution, it is “natural”; and 2) because it is “natural,” it is therefore good and right and the best thing to do.

People have also made the same arguments in defense of Bain Capital and Mitt Romney’s business practices while he worked there, and various parasitic investment practices in general. Interestingly, arguments of this type do not claim that these practices are not “vulture capitalism.” The arguments instead claim that there is nothing wrong with that, because hey: vultures are a species that has evolved, they represent a perfectly natural approach to the problem of survival.

Continuing the same analogy, consider leeches. Many people criticize parasitic corporations that do not actually produce anything, but that leech off of the system by sucking money and resources from other companies and people. The real hard-core conservatives, the real free-market advocates, will not dispute this analogy. They will not say: “No, that company isn’t like a leech!”  Instead, they will make the “natural” argument. After all, hey: leeches are things that evolved in nature! They are a perfectly valid way for an organism to survive and get nutrition! That’s just how nature is!

This kind of argument is weird, it is wrong, and it has to stop. Whether “free market capitalism” is the correct way to run an economy has nothing to do with whether it is “natural” or not. Whether being gay is okay has nothing to do with whether it is “natural” or not. If you go down the garden-path of the “naturalness” argument, you will never get anywhere.

Something doesn’t have to be natural to be right, and it doesn’t have to be unnatural to be wrong. “Nature” has nothing to do with “right” and “wrong.” Let it go.

 

 



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  1. Rousseau has a lot to answer for in his insistence that “natural” ways of life were more, well, natural for people. He basically groomed Enlightenment types for Diderot’s Supplemente au Voyage de Bougainville, which basically pulled the explorer-Captain’s memories of Tahiti out of context to the point that certain flavours of philosophes had Tahiti syndrome en masse, which set woment’s rights – apparently women were to be shared between men – back centuries. If Diderot had read Bougainville’s memoirs more closely, he would have discovered the Captain’s admission that the had made a terrible mistake about Tahiti; it wasn’t such a paradaisical place as he had thought. I imagine he read too much Rousseau.

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