Wednesday, February 21, 2007

If It's Natural Does That Mean It's Good or Good for You?

Some quick thoughts:

If it's natural does that mean it's good or good for you? That's what a lot of people seem to think and what a lot of advertisers want you to think: Such and such activities are natural and therefore good or at least permissible; such and such a product is all natural and therefore good for you; etc. But is all that really true? Is naturalness equivalent to goodness? Does an activity's naturalness render it good and unnaturalness bad? To think about such questions we need to be clear and separate out the most common notions of naturalness, notions that people tend to confuse:

Natural (1) - due to non-human causes or made from ingredients which are

Natural (2) - capable of showing up in a naturalistic theory (e.g., being physical, being part of the causal network, being spatiotemporal, being a subject of the sciences or natural sciences, or etc.)

Natural (3) - being statistically common or the most common (perhaps: normal or average)

Natural (4) - genetic or inborn, or the result of a genetic or inborn disposition

Natural (5) - in accordance with or at least consistent with a thing's telos (its end, goal, purpose, or function)

Foods or ingested products claim to be natural (1). Obviously, though, something can be natural (1) but not good for you. Various poisons are natural (1) and if all the other ingredients in a pill or recipe are natural (1), that makes the entire pill or recipe natural (1) as well. But clearly if there is enough of the poison, this all-natural ingestible is definitely not good for you. Let that be a warning the next time you want to pick up some unknown, untested (probably herbal) medicine which claims to be all-natural and therefore, presumably, good for you - its naturalness (1) is no cause for approval. Artificial stuff can be just as good as the natural (1) or even better! It all depends on what exactly it is.

Wars and lying are respectively natural (2) and natural (3) but they are not necessarily good either. Few people, though, seem to think that being natural (2) or natural (3) lead to goodness (especially for the former). So what about the last two notions of naturalness?

Take homosexual behavior or being disposed towards such behavior as an example. There's a huge nature vs. nurture debate there - gay activists trying to argue that homosexual behavior is the result of genetic or embryonic dispositions and anti-homosexuality activists arguing that such dispositions are purely choice. The assumption in this debate seems to be that if such a disposition is natural (4) then such behavior must be good or permissible or not blameworthy. But of course that doesn't follow in the least. Someone may have a genetic or inborn disposition towards child molestation or violence but that doesn't mean that such things are good or permissible or not blameworthy. In fact, probably all of us have some sort of sinful disposition inborn in us but that doesn't make things any better for all that. Really, little or nothing of moral consequence seems to follow immediately from the fact that something is natural (4).
Perhaps what is going on here is a confusion of naturalness (4) with naturalness (5). Naturalness (5), unlike the other notions, does have something to do with what is good or with what we ought to do or be like. And I think a perfectly acceptable, consistent, and plausible Christian view of the matter would be to take homosexual behavior (or alcoholism or aggression or infidelity or whatever else you want to pin on genetics or fetal development) as natural (4) but not natural (5). On this sort of view, that kind of behavior would be against our proper function as human persons and bad but still a result of genetic or inborn dispositions. And unlike naturalness(4), there is no reason or evidence to suggest that homosexual (or whatever) behavior is natural (5). So naturalness (4) in this debate is just a red herring. The real question - the philosophical and religious one - is whether such activities are natural (5). And that's a question the Christian tradition, in line with the New Testament teaching, answers in the negative.


Corrie said...

I found myself having to scroll up and down to remind myself of the different definitions of natural, which was good exercise for my mouse finger. :-) Well-put, I enjoyed this post!

Ian said...

Glad to be of help in getting people to excercise! :)