Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Natural Does Not Equal Good

"Unnatural, mummy? You tell me, what's nature's way? If poison mushrooms grow and babies come with crooked backs, if goiters thrive and dogs go mad and wives kill husbands, what's unnatural?"
Richard, The Lion in Winter

One of the claims to which people seem peculiarly susceptible at the moment is that if something is "natural", it must be good. "Natural" foods are believed to be uniformly healthy. The finding that some particular behavior (say, polyamory) is found in nature is taken to be some sign that it is a good thing.

I think a fair amount of this results from our culture having lost a sense of tragic vision in regards to nature -- we naturally assume that unless some active force comes along and makes things bad, that they will be good. This could not be farther from a traditional view of nature. While neo-pagans are sure that being "in tune" with nature would be a blissful and pleasant state, real pagans of the ancient world saw the natural forces that were bound up with their gods as capricious, sometimes cruel, and almost always unconcerned with the impact of their actions upon mortals.

We as Christians see nature as having been created by God and being something that He saw as good. Yet in a fallen world, I don't think we'd be far off in taking a fairly tragic vision, similar to the ancients, of how we relate to nature and what "nature's way" is.

This also comes up in the current debate over same sex marriage, where I've on a number of occasions had people tell me that if attraction towards members of one's own sex is "not a choice" but instead something "natural", then obviously same sex marriage must be a good thing and what God intended. It would be cruel, it is argued, if God allowed some people to have such an inclination but did not allow it to be fulfilled through marriage.

I don't know if I'm just particularly heartless, but I find this mode of argumentation entirely unpersuasive. It seems to me that there are lots of strong, sometimes seemingly irresistible, desires that we have which it would not be moral to fulfill.

A tragic vision seems an essential means of coping with the world as we find it. More Greeks and Norse, please.


cliff said...

For the neo-pagan, don't you think that Nature IS their god?

It would be nifty if the nature-worshiper could be swayed to Catholicism by starting with NFP as the natural way...

Anonymous said...

Natural does not equal good, but it does equal normal. If we're discussing what behaviors should be sanctioned by the Church then obviously the question of what is natural is irrelevant. But if we are discussing public policy - like, for example, marriage law - then the question of what is natural is critical.


Darwin said...

Really? Lots of things we classify as crimes are frequently found in nature (stealing, forced sexual intercourse, killing.) I'm not clear that the frequency with which we find these in nature has any bearing on their legality or desireability.

Anonymous said...

I am happy the natural phenomenon of females devouring males upon mating has been found neither good nor legal.

Bruce in Kansas

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Chimpanzees will kill and eat infant chimps to whom they are not closely related. One of my favorite examples of Things Found in Nature that are not automatically good nor worthy of imitation.

Darwin said...

"Oh, I'm sorry. Was this child yours? Well, have a drumstick."

joyfulpapist said...

Arsenic is natural. Infanticide is natural. Eating people is natural. (After all, they're made out of meat!)

Abubu said...

"While neo-pagans are sure that being "in tune" with nature would be a blissful and pleasant state, real pagans of the ancient world saw the natural forces that were bound up with their gods as capricious, sometimes cruel, and almost always unconcerned with the impact of their actions upon mortals."

## Would that be in accord with the teaching of the Zeno who founded of Stoicism ? He might be late, but he counts as a "real pagan", no ?

He said:

"All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature."

For further info, read Richard Sorabji.

There is of course an ambiguity in the idea of nature...

The Fathers were strongly influenced by Stoicism.

Anonymous said...

Darwin, please. Infanticide was considered natural in the Roman era but isn't today. Slavery was considered natural in the 19th century but isn't today. The question of what is considered natural today is the *only* question that lawmakers should consider when constructing civil law.

"But", someone says, "the definition of 'natural' keeps changing! Law will keep changing!"

Yes, it will. Unlike, say, the Bible, which doesn't condemn slavery, and which makes no mention of democracy or anything resembling it, the law will indeed keep changing to reflect society's view of "normal". This is the best way to run a civil society.

Anyone who has a better idea is invited to suggest it.


joyfulpapist said...

Infanticide is considered natural today, provided it takes place prior to birth. Slavery is considered natural today, provided it takes place offshore and all we see of it are the cheap consumer goods.

Lawmakers should only consider what is natural? Nonsense. Lawmakers should consider what is beneficial for civil society, and what it is that the majority of the people actually want. Not what works for vociferous lobby groups.

It's called democracy. I'd like to live in one some day, instead of the dictatorship punctuated by election system we currently have.

Felix the Cassowary said...

How on earth can you change what is natural? "Natural" is what is in nature. It only changes inasmuch as what's there changes. So if infanticide was considered natural in the Roman days but isn't today, then that's only because either we're wrong, or they were wrong. Normal is, of course, completely different from natural, except for the first and last letters. Houses are normal (where I come from), but not natural.

How do you decide whether something is natural? Most definitions either exclude humans, which is stupid, because people have numerous features which distinguish us from dogs, cats and chimps. Other ones are racist, excluding Western peoples as if we're the only group advanced enough to have an "artificial" culture.

Frankly, I think the law today is based on the idea of "I want". And that's all democracy can provide. Popular ethics (and the terms of the desires) is "I want to feel good". That's why homosexual relationships are considered acceptable today: Because those who advocated them provided a convincing argument about why you can feel good if you permit them, and those who oppose them provided no convincing arguments, but only said "the Bible says 'no'".

So how can you convince someone today—without relying on appeals to authority, which we're taught to question or outright ignore—that they can only feel good by rejecting homosexual relationships? Unless you can the argument will be lost sooner or later.

Darwin said...


I'm not sure if I'm entirely following your line of thinking, because it seems almost like you're saying, "Societies should rule themselves in the way they think they should rule themselves at the time."

This is probably a fairly accurate description of what ends up happening, since societies which fail to be won over to the idea that something is a good idea (example: prohibition) don't end up following rules even when they somehow manage to get passed by a majority.

However, it doesn't seem like it gives any guidance in questions of "ought". Circa 1850, was banning slavery a good idea? Well, some people thought it was clearly evil and abnormal. Others thought it was acceptable or even good and was the only natural way to order a society.

I'm not sure an appeal to what is "natural" or "normal" gets one anywhere in trying to solve that question, in that the question is which view society as a whole should accept as the "normal" one. In this sense, it's an argument about "good". Which way of ordering society is good. One can make arguments from nature in trying to establish what is good, and those arguments will at times be convincing and at times not. But I don't really see how, "I have observed several species that do this," constitutes an argument as to how society should order itself.

Darwin said...

Felix the Cassowary,

Can I just say that is the most awesome handle I've seen in a long time? (It helps that cassowaries are cool to start with, but wow.)

Felix the Cassowary said...

Thanks, but I'll ruin it for you:

Felix = the name Mum wanted to give me (but dad vetoed it)

Cassowaries = the coolest bird (and probably animal) that ever was in existence

Felix the Ca... ~= Felix the Cat, whose personality shows some degree of similarity to mine. Although for some time before the adoption of this particular handle, I was calling myself "Alexander the X" or "Felix the Y" for various values of X and Y, so it's more a happy coincidence than a copy or intentional reference.

CMinor said...

I think Felix's definition of nature brings up a point, though--Joel was using the word "natural" when he meant "normal."

Infanticide was "normal" for the ancients. It is not "normal" today (at least, as long as the kid has made it out of the uterus.) Is it "natural"? Depends on species, gender, and familial relationship to the infant, as well as, in some species, whether the infant itself is "normal." Some human societies in the past have practiced infanticide (usually under unnaturally stressful conditions), but many have viewed it as abhorrent. Does it come "naturally" to humans? I think you'd have a time making that case. Common though it may be, it appears to require overcoming some absolutely "natural" human responses that prevail in most cases.

We have a representative republic and not a democracy precisely because law made by a semi-informed mob and based on the latest fads, trends, and pop philosophies will be constantly in flux and frequently unjust. If law is to serve humanity, it has to be based on what is just and equitable for those affected by it, not what is popular today. As I frequently nag, Switzerland has pretty close to pure democracy, and it took them until 1976 to decide to give women the darn vote.

BTW, while it does not amount to outright condemnation of slavery (which may have reflected a social reality rather than assent) I can think of NT passages that make it clear that slavery was neither "natural" nor "normal" in the eyes of God:
There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The letter to Philemon also comes to mind.

Keep in mind too that, among the Hebrews, slaves had to be released after seven years unless they became bond slaves by choice (which essentially made them family members.) Also, slaves had frequently sold themselves into servitude to defray some debt. So the Hebrew concept of slavery wasn't really equivalent to the form that was in practice in the 19th-century Americas or even modern-day debt bondage.

Thomas said...

Thanks for saying this, ever since my teen years I have thought that it was erroneous to claim that anything that "natural," is automatically good. If that were true we should all give up the majority of the trappings of human civilization.