Last edited: January 23, 2005

The Supposed Sin of Defying Nature: Part One

Why are policy debates still plagued by an irrational idea that refuses to die?, January 19, 2005

By Russell Blackford

Appeals to what is “natural” have a long history in policy debates about unpopular practices—such as homosexual acts, technological innovations and, particularly in recent times, manipulating DNA. The assumption is that there is something wrong morally about interfering with nature’s processes, or defying nature itself—however, exactly, those ideas are to be understood.

You’d think that any concept of the inviolability of nature would long have been abandoned by philosophers, ethicists and cultural commentators. But sadly it isn’t so. Nature’s inviolability is still a club to bash any controversial practice or technology that conservative thinkers dislike.

John Stuart Mill’s essay On Nature seemingly exploded the whole idea more than 100 years ago, but it persists in 21st century policy debates. It’s like a vampire with a stake through its heart that refuses to die. Choose any of a vast range of controversial topics, from gay marriage to genetic enhancement and beyond, and you’ll find a few thinkers willing to argue that it must be stopped because it defies nature.

And so we’re left with two questions: Why does this argument persist? And is there anything that we can do about it?

The simple argument

The idea seems hopeless from the beginning. As Mill and many others have demonstrated, there are various ways that we can think of nature, and none of them make defying nature a sin. Once we clarify what is meant by “nature,” there seems to be no easy way to make a morally salient distinction between “the natural” and “the unnatural.”

The most obvious definitions are as follows. Nature is either:

  1. The totality of all the phenomena and their causal relationships, as investigated by science; or

  2. Those things which are not artificial, i.e. not produced by human agency or technology.

If these are the only ways we can understand what is meant by “nature,” the first difficulty is this: nothing we ever do is unnatural in the first sense. After all, we are part of nature (so defined). Using this first sense, there is no distinction between natural actions and unnatural actions, such that the former are morally acceptable and the latter are not. No such distinction can be made because every action is natural.

The second difficulty relates to the second sense of “nature.” Using this definition, every action that we ever carry out is unnatural, since it is a product of human agency (unless perhaps someone is so drunk that she is essentially running on automatic pilot; I’ll leave that small class of actions out of the discussion). It follows that everything we do must be morally wrong, if unnaturalness is our criterion. Once again, no distinction can be made between natural and unnatural human actions, so we cannot use such a distinction to separate what is morally acceptable from what is morally unacceptable.

But here’s an idea. We could replace the word “or” in the second definition with “and.” What’s more, we could think of technology rather narrowly. If we made those two moves, we could (for example) include in the realm of “the artificial” only those activities that use some form of advanced 20th or 21st century technology. Note, however, that if we take this approach some supposedly “unnatural” activities (e.g. homosexual acts) end up being defined as “natural,” and hence morally okay, since they do not require any advanced technology. That causes a problem for some extreme conservatives.

But what about the sort of moderate bioconservative who considers homosexuality to be morally acceptable, yet wishes to condemn various technologically based actions that supposedly defy nature? Well, some acts or technologies can clearly be condemned by our modified criterion, such as genetic engineering and the contraceptive pill. Unfortunately, however, this modified idea of “the unnatural” also covers many modern medical therapies that are not controversial. It also covers computer technology, aviation, advanced building techniques and materials, and a host of other innovations that no one seriously has moral qualms about. Clearly this won’t do. It still proves far too much.

In the end, it seems impossible to make a simple distinction between morally acceptable “natural” practices and morally unacceptable “unnatural” ones. Something much more sophisticated is required if the idea is to work at all.

A dose of sophistication

Nothing I’ve said so far completely rules out the possibility that there is a sin of defying nature. It is always conceivable that someone will come up with a new sense of “nature” or “the natural” that is, indeed, morally salient. It’s not easy to see how this could be done, but the understandings of what constitutes nature that I’ve offered so far (guided by Mill) are not the only ones that have ever been given, and still others might be offered in the future. They are not logically exhaustive of all the possibilities.

But there is a more general difficulty lying in wait. Anyone who wants to rehabilitate the idea of defying nature must first define “nature” in a way that really is morally salient, and must show us why it is. Then, to put this concept to use in moral argument, he or she will also need to show how some controversial practices fall under the new concept—not merely some other concept of nature, such as those already discussed. From where I sit, achieving both of those requirements at once looks to be an insurmountable problem. We’ll have to see how much it frustrates, and continues to frustrate, actual arguments that are brought by conservatives, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for a cogent argument to be delivered.

I don’t have space to deal with a whole range of novel understandings of “nature,” much less the time to test each one to see whether it can overcome this general difficulty. I’ll simply underline my skepticism and leave the exercise for readers.

Meanwhile, I’ll concentrate on a line of argument developed by Stephen Holland in a recent bioethics text, Bioethics: A Philosophical Introduction. Holland, in turn, draws upon a 1996 article by British philosopher Richard Norman, published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy. Norman himself is not inclined to attack any particular practice on the basis that it defies nature; indeed, he actually defends IVF against that kind of attack. But he develops an understanding of “the natural” that can be exploited by bioconservative thinkers, and Holland puts it to good use in suggesting that there really is something morally problematic about contemporary and prospective reproductive technologies.

Norman begins his article, “Interfering with Nature,” by pointing out some of the well-known difficulties in this area, following a similar line to that of John Stuart Mill. However, he then sets out on a more adventurous path. Early in his discussion, he makes three main points:

First: As a matter of logic, our choices of actions, projects, life plans, and so on must be made against a background in which some things are not open to choice. Otherwise, we would have no basis on which to choose. The background conditions for us will vary but they typically include general facts about sex, procreation, nurturing, maturing and aging, death, the necessity of work and the existence of illness and pain in our world—eternal verities, it might be thought, of human experience.

Second: It turns out that this causes various paradoxical threshold effects. For example, the fact that the world contains illness and pain is a background condition which informs our choices to attempt to avoid them, or ameliorate them, in any particular case. But if illness and pain disappeared from the world entirely, or almost entirely, and we no longer had to fight against them, much of what is valuable in our lives would disappear with them. For example, we would no longer need doctors and medical science. We would no longer guard our children’s health, or our own. So many important practices would be lost that our lives would become “shallow and empty.”

Third: Where threshold effects are concerned, the risk is not that some specific harm will be done. Rather, the threatened elimination of basic conditions from the background of our lives creates the specter of a loss of experienced meaning.

Norman is sophisticated enough to realize that different cultures will understand these basic background conditions of life in different ways. Also, because these background conditions are very broad and general, not just any innovation will threaten people’s sense of experienced meaning in their lives. Furthermore, some of the basic conditions understood in particular societies or cultures may actually not be eternal verities, even if they seem to be so within the culture. For example, many cultures have beliefs about the inferiority of women among their most basic background “knowledge.” At the same time, Norman believes that what is seen in a particular culture as the basic background conditions is not entirely arbitrary: background conditions are shaped not just by culture but by our evolved biology and the physical world that we all live in. Thus we can expect a great deal of intercultural agreement about them. Furthermore, he says, it seems to be a psychological fact about human beings that we need a quite extensive conception of what must be accepted as part of the basic background to our choices—conditions without which our sense of leading meaningful lives may be threatened.

For Norman then, the discomfort that some people feel about IVF and such things as the prospect of biological immortality comes from their sense that important background conditions relating to procreation and death are under attack. If technologies are used for fertility enhancement and life extension, then very basic conditions of human life in the culture concerned no longer obtain, or are at least eroded. A sense that this is happening can be expressed as a claim that “nature” is being interfered with; here, “nature” is equated with the basic background conditions recognized by the culture. However, Norman defends IVF on the basis that incremental changes to our culture’s background conditions can be absorbed into our thinking, and do not constitute “taking an axe to the natural order,” as alleged by one conservative commentator.

Is it rational?

Norman’s theory seems to have a great deal of explanatory power. It explains why some technological innovations, but not others, seem to make people feel threatened. It also explains what they have in common with such practices as homosexuality, which are not products of high technology. Anything that might challenge our main background assumptions about how ordinary human life works—especially our understanding of sex, its relationship to conception and birth, the development and rearing of children, the roles of men and women, the processes of aging and death—is likely to seem threatening. Rightly or not, if the facts of these matters change it can seem to pull out the rug out from under various constant understandings of life that we assume in all our decisions. That is unsettling.

So, if Norman is right, we have an explanation as to why the supposed sin of “defying nature” lingers in policy debates.

I am prepared to accept this theory, at least for the sake of argument. It appears to be a good theory to explain some human motivations. That does not, however, entail that people who react in the way that the theory predicts are thereby behaving rationally. Perhaps they are in some sense, and I’ll discuss that in part two of this column. Note, however, that the theory predicts that there will be opposition to sufficiently powerful technological innovations even if they are beneficial. If a new technology is powerful enough to alter fundamental conditions that are relied on by people making choices within a particular culture, it should be expected to cause unease and attract opposition.

In part two, I will analyze the view of Holland, who believes that the responses predicted by Norman’s theory are not only relevant and rational but often justifiable. I’ll try to answer this claim, and I’ll comment on the implications of the theory for advocates of radical technological change.

Part two of this column will be published next week.

  • Russell Blackford is an Australian writer, literary and cultural critic, and student of philosophy and bioethics. He has a Master of Bioethics degree from the School of Philosophy and Bioethics, Monash University, where he is now a graduate student, enrolled in a philosophy PhD program.

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