August 20, 2005

Different Natures

Many moral debates end up as debates about what is properly considered natural. However, the definition of the word "nature" shifts and swerves throughout debates in such a way that anything can be proven. The problem is that "nature" is a term with multiple meanings, and unless the term is defined carefully, debates are, quite literally, meaningless. In this essay, I will discuss the conditions of a definition necessary for a moral debate and then provide the neo-Aristotelian definition.

All of the definitions of "natural" are useful in some context, and I am not arguing that one definition is per se better than others. What I will be arguing, however, is that only certain definitions are useful to ethics, while the others are, at best, distractions and confusions. It is worth noting that, in ethics, "natural" is normally considered a good term. Very rarely does someone justify something by saying that it is not natural. Instead, when the term is invoked at all, it is almost always in praise of something. This gives us our first criterion for appropriately using the term "natural" in ethics. "Natural", if it is going to be of any use at all in ethics, must not either include or exclude all behaviour as natural.

I will go through some of the two primary rhetorical uses of the term "natural", and explain what is problematic about them. The list isn't intended to be complete.

1) Versus Supernatural. According to this definition of "natural", everything in the cosmos is natural if it is made of matter and works according to natural laws. The only things outside of the natural would be God and maybe angels. This is, of course, a useful definition of "natural" for the natural sciences. Unfortunately, it is one of the most abused definitions in ethics. By this definition, everything that happens is natural, and can be used to justify everything. In this sense, war, rape and torture are all natural, as the only criterion for being natural is that it is something that happens in the world. This definition is used to remove or lessen moral culpability from any action at all. This makes it extremely useful for rhetoric but completely useless for ethics.

2) Versus Artificial. According to this definition, trees are natural and tables are unnatural, because tables have been mixed with human artifice. In this sense, anything at all that human beings have messed with in any way is now less natural. Wood is natural material, while plastic is not, for example. This is especially prominent in arguments with regard to social construction. The hidden charge of social construction is that any action, institution or even desire is socially constructed and therefore unnatural and either bad or indifferent with respect to change. The problem here is that, when applied to human action, all action is a form of artifice. Therefore, all action and any consequence of that action become unnatural, violating the first criterion of a useful definition. This again is extremely useful to rhetoric but completely useless to ethics.

These, then, are the two uses of "natural" most common in moral debate. By switching between them, one is able to excuse or defend any action at all. It is a neat trick, and was commented on as early as Callicles in Plato's Gorgias and by Aristotle in Sophistical Refutations. I will now introduce the neo-Aristotelian definition of "natural" as an example of a definition of "natural" that does not violate the first criterion of a useful definition.

3) Actualization. This is the neo-Aristotelian definition of "natural". Each species has a number of different capacities that it can actualise, from those of processing nutrition to locomotion to creating works of art. These capacities are species-relative in a straight forwardly biological way; they are normal capacities for members of that species. In so far as anything enhances these capacities, it is natural, and in so far as anything thwarts them, it is unnatual. So, for instance, medicine that corrects damaged or defective limbs in order to walk would actually be natural rather than unnatural, while murder would be unnatural, since it destroys all the capacites of another and there are better ways to become physically fit. The natural end, then, is the actualization of these capacities. As such, it meets the first criterion of a useful definition of "natural" which is that it applies to some rather than either all or zero actions.

It is worthwhile considering the various ways in which the term "natural" is being used in ethical debate. There are several definitions floating around, and keeping clear on definitions can help us talk to rather than past each other.


Angel said...

I think we must set aside the word nature. Science needs to grow and when it grows, the world grows.

Liar said...

Re: the Actualization definition:

Many species are normally capable of actualizing the capacity to thwart the actualization of others' normal capacities.

It looks like a lion eating a zebra is both natural (because it enhances the lion's capacities) and unnatural (because it thwarts the zebra's), according to your proposed def.

You might defend yout def'n by making the species-relative move you suggest, claiming that this action is natural-sub-lion but unnatural-sub-zebra. But consider intraspecies cases.

For an example in the human realm, consider a murder. Although it thwarts the victim's capacities, it is merely the actualization of a capacity (the capacity to murder) that normal humans have, and it enhances this capacity (it's probably way easier on the conscience (to say nothing of logistics) to kill your second victim). So murder is both natural and unnatural.

In fact, it's hard to find any action taken by a human that only thwarts or only enhances normal capacities (any proposals?). So it looks like your definition suffers from a version of the same problem you convicted the first two of; according to it, pretty much everything everything is both natural and unnatural.

Daniel said...

Thank you for the responses. There's a temptation in thinking about capacities as though it's anything people can do.

However, the neo-Aristotlian position is a little more subtle than that. There is a difference between natural capacities and the strategies we use to fulfil those capacities. There are the natural capacities to be actualised (gaining nutrients, cultivating relationships, learning truth) and then the strategies for actualizing these capacities (such as killing the guy with the pie, beating an unfaithful spouse or torturing prisoners to see how they react). A quick general rule is that if something is done as an end in itself, it is a capacity, and if something is done as a means to an end, it is a strategy.

This is, undeniably, a weird use of "capacity", but it is an attempt to translate dynamis, usually translated "potentiality", in a way more friendly to modern ethics.

Anonymous said...

When pondering "natural" relative to christian morality and abortion, it seems best to quote the pope.

For what is natural to men is what is brutish, we do not classify nature as "good and bad" in ethics.

When one advocates homosexuality as being "unnatural", it is unnatural in a papal sense. For what is natural in christianity is men and women uniting in intercoarse to become one, they have complimentary hormones and genes, when they unite in an act in total self-giving it is divine.

To defend homosexuality as natural relative to christian faith is ignoble.

"Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved"