Appeal to nature
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
General form of this type of argument:
- That which is natural, is good.
- N is natural.
- Therefore, N is good or right.
- That which is unnatural, is bad or wrong.
- U is unnatural.
- Therefore, U is bad or wrong.
In some contexts, the use of the terms of "nature" and "natural" can be vague, leading to unintended associations with other concepts. The word "natural" can also be a loaded term – much like the word "normal", in some contexts, it can carry an implicit value judgement. An appeal to nature would thus beg the question, because the conclusion is entailed by the premise.
Opinions differ regarding appeal to nature in rational argument. By some more permissive views, it can sometimes be taken as a helpful rule of thumb in certain limited domains, even if it admits some exceptions. When such a principle is applied as a rule of thumb, natural facts are presumed to provide reliable value judgments regarding what is good, barring evidence to the contrary, and likewise for unnatural facts providing reliable value judgments regarding what is bad. Within a limited domain, treating a rule of thumb such as “all else being equal, you should generally try to eat natural foods” as if it is an exceptionless principle can sometimes involve a fallacy of accident.
Julian Baggini explains the standard view of what makes this a fallacy as follows: "Even if we can agree that some things are natural and some are not, what follows from this? The answer is: nothing. There is no factual reason to suppose that what is natural is good (or at least better) and what is unnatural is bad (or at least worse)."
The meaning and importance of various understandings and concepts of "nature" has been a persistent topic of discussion historically in both science and philosophy. In Ancient Greece, “the laws of nature were regarded not [simply] as generalized descriptions of what actually happens in the natural world… but rather as norms that people ought to follow… Thus the appeal to nature tended to mean an appeal to the nature of man treated as a source for norms of conduct. To Greeks this… represented a conscious probing and exploration into an area wherein, according to their whole tradition of thought, lay the true source for norms of conduct.” (1995, Encyclopaedia Britannica)
In modern times, philosophers have challenged the notion that human beings' status as natural beings should determine or dictate their normative being. For example, Rousseau famously suggested that "We do not know what our nature permits us to be." More recently, Nikolas Kompridis has applied Rousseau's axiom to debates about genetic intervention (or other kinds of intervention) into the biological basis of human life, writing:
[T]here is a domain of human freedom not dictated by our biological nature, but [this] is somewhat unnerving because it leaves uncomfortably open what kind of beings human beings could become… Put another way: What are we prepared to permit our nature to be? And on what basis should we give our permission?
Kompridis writes that the naturalistic view of living things, articulated by one scientist as that of "machines whose components are biochemicals" (Rodney Brooks), threatens to make a single normative understanding of human being the only possible understanding. He writes, "When we regard ourselves as 'machines whose components are biochemicals,' we not only presume to know what our nature permits us to be, but also that this knowledge permits us to answer the question of what is to become of us… This is not a question we were meant to answer, but, rather, a question to which we must remain answerable." (Nikolas Kompridis)
On the nature of the 'natural'
- That exists and evolved within the confines of an ecosystem.
- Of or relating to nature.
- Without artificial additives.
- As expected; reasonable.
- Without, or prior to, modification or adjustment.
- Having the character or sentiments properly belonging to one's position; not unnatural in feelings.
- Connected by the ties of consanguinity.
- Born out of wedlock; illegitimate; bastard.
- Without a condom.
On the nature of the 'unnatural'
Some popular examples of the appeal to nature can be found on labels and advertisements for food, clothing, and alternative herbal remedies. Labels may use the phrase "all-natural", to imply that products are environmentally friendly and/or safe. However, many toxic substances are found in nature, including in common plant sources and herbs such as hemlock, nightshade, belladonna, and poisonous mushrooms, and these may have serious side effects.
It has therefore been suggested that whether or not a product is "natural" is irrelevant, in itself, in determining its safety or effectiveness.
- Ethical naturalism
- Green brands
- Green marketing
- Human nature
- Naturalistic fallacy – a fallacy often assumed to mean the same thing.
- Natural kind
- Natural justice
- Natural law
- Natural selection
- Norm (philosophy)