Some well-intentioned people create arguments by equating the concept of natural with the concept of good. I say they are well-intentioned because it is by no means done out of malice or prospects of winning debate points. However, the equation is not valid. In fact, within philosophical circles it is known as the 'appeal to nature' fallacy.
The first problem we have is that it is unclear what 'natural' really means. The second problem, though perhaps not as difficult, is understanding what is 'good'. Most people seem to realize at a personal level that pain, ill-health, death are probably not good things while vibrancy, well-being, some extent of self-determination generally are good things. However, the idea of 'natural' is wrapped in murkiness and therefore lends itself to most peculiar self- serving manipulations.
Let's look at the idea of natural and good through some examples and see how they relate.
What is natural?
The usual definition for natural is the rather circular:
"something having to do with nature"
"being in accordance with or determined by nature".
Often this is interpreted by some to mean that if humans didn't do it, then it's natural, but otherwise it ain't so. In other words, if a human builds a house, that's not natural, but if a beaver makes a dam, then it is.
Some go to the other extreme and argue that since humans were created by nature anything they do is natural. So if a trapdoor spider digs a hole in the ground it is no more natural than humans digging a bigger and deeper hole to look for oil.
What is natural according to biology or physiology is a particularly interesting and diverse adventure. For instance, if you have that canine tooth, it is assumed that you must eat meat.
Proponents of this assertion range from the reasonable to the ridiculous.
In the latter group fall those who defend their practice of consuming corpse parts by gleefully pointing to their ferocious-looking canines and proudly asserting that humans are hunters by nature. Well, I suppose that these canines can come in pretty handy to rip open the cellophane wrapping on the bargain steak they've hunted down in the supermarket.
One rather amusing fellow who was desperately trying justify his corpse-eating habit in a discussion, irked by the cellophane comment, tried to explain how humans have become the 'natural predators' of the 'prey' in factory farms.
Some go even further and insist that because of that canine tooth, you can only eat meat and not other things - or if you do, dire things will occur. This is unfortunately propagated even by ethical vegetarians when it comes to their dogs and cats. They correctly describe the jaw and tooth structure, point out the shorter intestinal tract, emphasize the ph balance of the digestive juices and conclude that it has to be meat because nature so dictates!
It's a fine argument and appears very difficult to refute were it not for the fact that it completely overlooks
- the apparently 'unnatural' fact that dogs and cats do eat all sorts of things other than meat when the opportunity is present
- that even if they aren't given any animal products at all and are provided with properly supplemented and balanced meals, they do just fine
The phrase 'just fine' is not intended to be a term for mere adequacy. More rational feed-meat advocates at least acknowledge that dogs and cats can indeed 'survive', but insist they cannot 'thrive'. Exactly what is meant by 'thrive' becomes a bit unclear though. It seems to have something to do with having a great coat, plenty of energy, a delightful disposition and some other things, which apparently meat-eating dogs and cats possess. If you demonstrate that a veg dog or veg cat meets exactly the same criteria set here for 'thrive', for some reason your arguments are not always accepted as being credible by this faction.
Why? Because you are not feeding the 'natural' diet.
In other words, what is natural is good and what is not natural is bad, even if it is demonstrated to be good (and with dog and cat diets, often better).
Below is the fallacy in full swing: the equating of 'natural' with 'good' and 'unnatural' with 'bad', completely ignoring the actual realities.
Is something natural necessarily good?
In nature, some animals bully, attack and even kill others not for food, but just because they feel like it. As with humans, there are various motivations of territory, dominance or even cruelty. Masson's book, When Elephants Weep analyzes numerous documented instances of these behaviours that occur in nature. Is this behaviour natural? Some would say so. Is it good? Certainly not for the victims … and possibly in an evolutionary sense, not for the species either.
(Masson also writes about many instances of animal compassion and altruism as well. In other words, animals display the same sorts of behaviours that people do.)
It's not that there isn't morality in nature. It's that there seems to be no enforcement of any moral code. Civilization at least has made some attempt (albeit quite counter-productive in many situations) to institute laws to discourage immoral acts. In nature, there just isn't any police force.
Some people think their dogs should be allowed to hunt - the assumption being that hunting is natural for the canine family and natural is supposed to be good. What they don't seem to take into account is that their dog may not have the foggiest idea how to hunt, that there may not be sufficient or suitable prey, that the catch may be diseased or full of parasites, that hunting can be hazardous to the hunter sometimes resulting in serious injury, that hunting is a low-success proposition (wolves for instance average under 8% success rate).
For some reason, advocates of vegetarian diets point backwards to primates, claiming that these are vegetarians and therefore humans should be as well. This is a non sequitur to begin with: just because certain apes are vegetarian, doesn't mean that all primates are also vegetarian. A larger difficulty is that chimpanzees display not only non-vegetarian dietary habits, but somewhat cannibalistic ones too:
"The gorilla, chimpanzee, and orangutan are generally considered to be strict herbivores, although there is evidence that chimpanzees may hunt and eat termites and smaller monkeys (van Lawick-Goodall 1968)."
(Other "Apes Are Vegetarians" Claims)
This is nature, but if we base our existence on following nature, we may end up devouring each other!
A more amusing attack on this illogical line of reasoning was presented by my friend Sheepdog during a physics forum discussion ironically against a creationist trying to utilize the evolutionary chimps-eat-meat argument for his own purposes.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I put it to you that it is not for vegetarians to justify our diet, but it is for the meat eaters to justify meat eating. And I further put it to you that anyone who has a choice about his diet and chooses to eat meat can only justify it with reasons all of which fall into one category, the "Because I want to screw like a chimp" category. Look:
"Because I want to (and I want to screw like a chimp)"
"Because it tastes good (and it feels good to screw like a chimp)"
"Because my ancestors ate meat (and they were chimps and I want to screw like a chimp)"
"Because it's natural (and chimps naturally screw a lot and I want to screw like a chimp)"
And if someone insists that you tell them why you do not eat meat, it is enough to say, "Because I do NOT want to screw like a chimp. We can do better than that."
A simple, clear, ethical choice. And therein lies the paradigm shift.
Sheepdog's post rocked the forum with an intensity comparable to the big bang.
Unfortunately, some proponents of natural theory do run the argument in very dishonest ways by doing a reverse application. They take a particular practice and from it dictate what is natural. For instance, they isolate behaviours such as stealing or bullying or even murdering and argue that since some people do greedy, unkind or vicious things, it is in their nature to be greedy, unkind and vicious. After that, it is just a small step to claim that people really are greedy, unkind and vicious. Philosopher Barrows Dunham wrote an entire book Man against Myth to refute this sort of nonsense (Faulty Induction Fallacy), but you don't need to read it to realize that there are plenty of people whose actions resonate generosity, compassion and gentleness. Surely, these behaviours have just as much merit as those unsavory ones the self-proclaimed 'naturalists' are putting forth with their selective filters.
Quite often, the loudest voices that try to 'naturalize' damaging, unproductive qualities do so in an attempt to justify their own behaviors. Greed and selfishness are made into virtues by the corporate world who maintain they are merely following the 'natural' law of the jungle or worse, Darwin's survival of the fittest to give it a more scientific bent. This latter rationalization is especially unfortunate, since Darwin never used it as a scientific description (the phrase was actually coined by Herbert Spencer). Unfortunately, "we must annihilate" has become the war-cry of nationalistic pride and in its most extreme forms is used to justify genocide.
Our rabbits live in a very unnatural setting. They have to put up with existing in a space of about 300 sq ft (which is our bedroom) and endure eating fresh organic veggies that cost $150/mo during the winter season. They aren't even allowed to go out on their own - they have to be carried to an enclosed area near the compost where they play each warm day with our veg cats for about an hour, under supervision of our veg dogs (who don't seem to have the slightest interest in eating them, by the way).
Some would protest this treatment most vociferously! Rabbits should be free and in nature! They should be allow to play in the wind blown grass with the wild hares, fight and injure each other over territory, and multiply to their hearts' content so predators don't deplete their population too drastically. We think not.
Which leads us to the practice of spaying and neutering. Permanent prevention of reproduction is one of the most unnatural things that can be inflicted on an individual. As my friend jeff on Veghaven says, "Detaching your dog's balls or ovaries might deprive them of the greatest joy in the world, and it's not natural."
However, responsible guardians ensure that the reproductive mechanisms are surgerically removed and not just to avoid progeny. Altered cats and dogs usually live longer and are in better health because their bodies don't have to deal with urges that are being prevented from fruition. It is very unnatural, but so is being a pet - a case in this instance of 2 'wrongs' making a 'right'.
Let us consider emergency medical treatments (please note that i am not talking about medicine in any of its forms allopathy, homeopathy, natureopathy etc). When one breaks a bone, the thing to do is to set it properly. This is a very unnatural act and it certainly doesn't happen in the wild. In fact, deer rescuers sometimes don't even set the broken leg of injured deer simply because it is too stressful for the animals, who do manage to live out their lives with a 'weak' limb. However, one would be hard-pressed to argue that we shouldn't set broken bones and just let them heal on their own without interference. Several other emergencies fall under the same category suggesting that unnatural intervention in certain cases is quite a good thing.
An example that is closer to the fruitarian communities are the completely unnatural fruits being consumed. First, early humans weren't able to eat exclusively fruit because they lacked the convenience of supermarkets. They ate what they could when they could and spent a large part of their time trying not to be eaten themselves. The man as hunter idea is a bit of a myth.
They certainly didn't eat cultivated, hybridized fruits or vegetables because these didn't exist. There were no red rome, winesap, macintosh apples for instance. Many of the myriads of hybrid creations were done by Luther Burbank in the latter half of the 1800s. Watermelons likely didn't exist since historically their appearence is noted around the time of the ancient Egyptians. Durian has been known since only the past 6 centuries and oranges likely for even a shorter period of time.
So what is being eaten by fruitarians is not natural beyond the frugivoric criteria that fruit is being eaten. Does this mean eating fruit isn't good? The anecdotal results, at least, for say the 811 system would indicate that it is very good indeed!
Most would agree that civilization is probably the most unnatural product ever created. Should we simply decide that civilization is bad because it is unnatural? Some would certainly argue that civilization is a bad epidemic on the planet and could produce ample evidence to justify this assertion which is valid to some degree. However, one cannot deny that much good has also come as a result of civilization, such as an attempt at societies where the strong don't oppress the weak, where those in need are not left to perish, where internal moral qualities such as honesty, sincerity, compassion and co- operation are encouraged and instilled in progeny. So it seems that again, it is not the unnaturalness that is the issue, but what one does with it. As Gandhi said when asked what he thought of western civilization, "I think it would be a good idea".
The various examples above demonstrate the pitfalls of the appeal to nature fallacy. Neither statement:
If natural, then it is good
If unnatural, then it is bad
is necessarily correct.
What seems to be of greater value is to weigh the actual merits of an action and evaluate its 'goodness' or 'badness' based on the circumstances, the action itself as well as the results it is likely to produce.
Some find this task of weighing merits daunting because they are unwilling to commit their mental facilities to notions of 'goodness' or 'badness', as though such matters are always open for debate. There are others who, for some reason, line themselves up exclusively on one side or another with sweeping generalizations such as 'everything that happens is good because nature is beautiful' or 'everything we do is bad because we were born in sin'.
One may never be able to determine if an event is good or bad, because we really don't know how the results will play out - causality is a tricky business. What is of significance though is how we conduct ourselves, because here we can take responsibility. We do have an innate understanding of morality, numerous individuals throughout history to guide us, as well as inspiration from the highest of sources.
Our conscience was not put there by accident.
Pretty well all religions, in some form or another, use the 'we are made in the image of god' line. I do not think this is done to promote anthropocentricity though the idea certainly has been abused for that purpose. Rather, I think it is intended as an evolutionary magnet which entices us to live to our potential.
God being an ideal requires ideal characteristics. Therefore god has the wonderful qualities of compassion, kindness, dignity, courage, awareness and respect for the myriad of creations.
If we are indeed made in god's image then surely our creator also blessed us with these same qualities. May be we should start living up to that image. It's only natural.