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May 06, 2005

a skeptical challenge

Don Herzog: May 6, 2005

Today's quiz has just one question.  All you have to do is fill in the blank and explain what "unnatural" means.  Notice that your account of "unnatural" has to justify the crucial closing clause, "and therefore wrong."  I'm happy to make it an open-book quiz, because you'll all fail anyway.  Ready?  Here goes.

        _____________ is unnatural and therefore wrong.

I hasten to note that I am not any kind of skeptic about moral or political argument.  My conviction that there is no sound way to fill in the blank here is a targeted skepticism.  We have to get along without any appeals to what's natural or unnatural, I think, because those appeals are strictly speaking nonsensical.

Oh, I know we talk this way all the time.  I know how we try to fill in the blank.  With gay marriage.  With anal sex.  With abortion.  And on and on.  All these claims, I assert cheerfully, are just nonsense.  The problem is not that nature is a critical standard that supports right-wing judgments.  The problem is that it supports nothing at all.

Eager students are cautioned that I will not accept answers suggesting that some moral and political options are unnatural in the sense of being impossible.  To pass the quiz, you have to find an account of "unnatural" showing that live options are wrong.  Yes, you are allowed to hone in on human nature.  I caution you that it's one of theory's great tarbabies, and you will rue the day you succumbed to the impulse that a deeper knowledge of human nature would tell you what we should do.  But hey! don't take my word for it.  Dive in.  Just don't blame me when you come up empty-handed.

I could bore you at great length with the history of why we can't fill in the blank, but still want to.  Here's the 78rpm or cartoon version of the story.  Aristotle's teleology, on which nature was shot through with purposes or "final causes" and often fulfilled them, offered a unified research program for doing science and morals and politics.  But notoriously, teleologists were never able to explain why nature sometimes failed to realize her intentions.  And teleology collapsed with the birth of mechanist modern science, but people kept talking about nature in the old, obsolete way.  A friend of mine likes to say, "the sun is trying to come out from behind the clouds."  Well, no, it isn't.

I'm not even skeptical about Aristotelian talk of flourishing.  Aristotle rightly argues that we want our lives to go well and that it's not immediately obvious what that means.  Confronted with philistine talk about preference-satisfaction, I reach for my Nicomachean Ethics.  But I prune out of it a thought Aristotle couldn't live without:  that nature assigns our proper ends.  In a mechanist world, there is no point fastening on any alleged unique traits we have and surmising that nature wishes us to use them, or that our good consists in exercising them.  "Man is the only rational animal!"  Yes, and then there are the later cracks in the tradition, from the likes of Hobbes and Nietzsche:  man is the only animal which can break promises; man is the only animal which can behave absurdly.  Or my favorite, from Mark Twain:  "Man is the Only Animal that Blushes.  Or needs to."  So does the good life consist in blushing? or doing things that warrant blushing?

Worse yet, with confusions piled on confusions, is trying to make just-so stories about evolutionary biology ground moral arguments.  We're free to reject the morality of rape or promiscuity even if we think it would pay off in gene pool frequencies.  And I don't mind talk of natural rights if that means we can argue sensibly about rights without thumbing through the local statute book.  But if it means that Nature bestows us with rights, well, I'm afraid I can't wrap my mind arond that.  And I suspect that neither can anyone else.

Ignoring the death of teleology, leading conservatives continued to appeal to nature.  Here's one of a zillion purple passages from Edmund Burke.  Burke is stunned, or anyway pretending to be stunned, by dissenting minister Richard Price's sermon saluting the French Revolution.

Why do I feel so differently from the Reverend Dr. Price, and those of his lay flock who will choose to adopt the sentiments of his discourse? — For this plain reason:  Because it is natural I should; because we are so made as to be affected at such spectacles with melancholy sentiments upon the unstable condition of mortal prosperity, and the tremendous uncertainty of human greatness; because in those natural feelings we learn great lessons; because in events like these our passions instruct our reason; because, when kings are hurled from their thrones by the Supreme Director of this great drama, and become the objects of insult to the base and of pity to the good, we behold such disasters in the moral as we should behold a miracle in the physical order of things.  We are alarmed into reflection; our minds (as it has long since been observed) are purified by terror and pity; our weak, unthinking pride is humbled under the dispensations of a mysterious wisdom.

Burke's language looks explanatory:  "Why do I feel so differently?" he demands.  But he clearly wants it to be justificatory.  He wants to exhibit his "natural" reaction as the right one to have.  Not to put too fine a point on it, he thinks Dr. Price and his fellow radicals have perverted judgment.  But this is to underwrite his political assessment with no argument at all, just handwaving.  (Behind Burke's nature is God.  It's a familiar eighteenth-century pairing:  recall for instance the Declaration of Independence's nod to the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."  But I propose that we leave God out of it for now and focus only on nature.)  Yes, plenty of academic commentators get misty-eyed and reverential when Burke writes this way.  I'm afraid that does nothing to chasten my skepticism.  On the contrary.  Nor do I find myself any less inclined to raucous skepticism by imagining the likes of a wide-eyed Pat Robertson mugging for the camera:  "these intellectuals on our campuses believe ... that nothing ... NOTHING ... is unnatural!"

Some leading liberals debunked the idea that nature is a critical standard.  David Hume mischievously referred to "the definition of the word, Nature, than which there is none more ambiguous and equivocal," and went to argue that it's hopeless to enlist nature as a critical standard.  If "natural" is the opposite of "rare" and means "common," it has no critical bite.  Unless you think it's wrong to excel.  If it's the opposite of "artifice" and means "what we haven't altered," it has no critical bite.  Unless you think people shouldn't wear eyeglasses.  If natural is the opposite of "supernatural" or "miraculous" and means "can be explained in the ordinary ways," it has no critical bite.  Unless you think only divine intervention is wrong.

Following up Hume's skeptical lead, John Stuart Mill suggested that we see nature as a homonym courting confusion, not a pregnant critical standard:

NATURE, natural, and the group of words derived from them, or allied to them in etymology, have at all times filled a great place in the thoughts and taken a strong hold on the feelings of mankind.  That they should have done so is not surprising, when we consider what the words, in their primitive and most obvious signification, represent; but it is unfortunate that a set of terms which play so great a part in moral and metaphysical speculation, should have acquired many meanings different from the primary one, yet sufficiently allied to it to admit of confusion.  The words have thus become entangled in so many foreign associations, mostly of a very powerful and tenacious character, that they have come to excite, and to be the symbols of, feelings which their original meaning will by no means justify; and which have made them one of the most copious sources of false taste, false philosophy, false morality, and even bad law.

It probably remains true today that more conservatives than liberals hanker after nature to ground our moral and political judgments.  But again, my point isn't directly political.  Except, that is, as it turns out to be political to say we should stop talking nonsense.


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» Is that Left2Right or Right2Left from Pseudo-Polymath
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Tracked on May 6, 2005 8:48:41 PM

» Ethical Naturalism from Philosophy, et cetera
Many theists [example] seem to think that 'ethical naturalism' is the claim that morality derives from human nature, or perhaps evolutionary principles, allowing inferences of the form "X is unnatural, therefore X is wrong." This simply isn't true. And... [Read More]

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» Unnatural Arguments from The Debate Link
The problem, of course, is that the presence of something in reality has absolutely no bearing on its morality. Murder happens (is natural?), but that doesn't make it moral. In a democracy, for example, you will hear all the time that "X is right bec... [Read More]

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» Natural ends and natural law, Part I from Right Reason
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» Natural ends and natural law, Part II from Right Reason
In a previous post, and in reply to some things said by Don Herzog on Left2Right, I argued that the claim associated with traditional natural law theory that certain actions are unnatural and therefore immoral was perfectly coherent and intelligible.... [Read More]

Tracked on May 23, 2005 2:15:42 AM


Posted by: Will

I might define natural as a frank description of the physical world and how its form defines a specific function.

For example, a man's member is perfectly adapted to impregnating a human female. Its form suggests a very specific function. I see nothing *nonsensical* in using this clear form->function observation as one possible foundation for establishing morality. Thus, homosexuality is unnatural and therefore immoral; unnatural because the form of a man's member is being put to a function for which it is not perfectly adapted.
C'est claire, non?
You can disagree that nature should serve as a basis for morality, or you can quibble about what function is connected to what form, but this line of reasoning appears no more unreasonable than that mankind should instead base morality on philosophical rumination -- a method that would be just as tricky IMHO.

Posted by: Will | May 6, 2005 8:51:49 AM

Posted by: john t

One would think that if there is a nature some things would be natural,or should there not be derivatives. Or,on the other hand,are there to be things natural which we can observe,test and measure,and belive in under the name of science but totally reject even an approach to that which is natural in human society. Further,is natural to be used in an all inclusive manner,does an assumption of "natural" exclude any and all exceptions and/or deviations,does the exception therefore totally negate the rule? And is it not possible that SOME exceptions might be natural themselves however they are judged morally,e.g. violence is natural and must be curbed by human constructed institutions,also a natural trait. I observe that this is beat up Burke week,a terrible waste of the effort of wading thru 32 vols. of his work. But speaking of Price and Burke,was the guillotine natural?

Posted by: john t | May 6, 2005 9:07:15 AM

Posted by: Terrier

I refuse the challenge because my tradition requires no justification. For example, one of my favorite sutra passages announces that "the Bodhisattva has learned to dwell without thought-coverings" and in a negative way Nietzsche said "the will to system is the will to weakness." My ultimate problem with Western Religion is that it places so my power the Gods that it is easy for the followers to not feel responsible for their actions. That is what is behind the appeal to Nature - the desire to avoid responsibility. "I'm not a bigot - I'm just doing what God (Nature) tells me." On a lighter note: I have long wondered why people who believe the world will end in an Armageddon would do anything to promote peace? Likewise some Christian here will answer that their tradition requires them to be responsible but if so, does it tell them that the fulfillment of the prophecy of Armageddon will be the responsibility of the people on earth or just the whim of God?

Posted by: Terrier | May 6, 2005 9:11:10 AM

Posted by: john t

I will have a go at Don's fill in quiz, A liberal is unnatural and therefore wrong. Now,now I did allow for exceptions in my first post.

Posted by: john t | May 6, 2005 9:11:51 AM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

Will, if that were so, homosexuality would not occur so frequently in the animal kingdom, because animals do what's natural.

But it does occur. In fact, it occurs frequently in our nearest genetic relatives. Homosexual behavior is clearly passed on in humans, apes, monkeys, and other animals. It happens generation after generation. It is clearly adapted for by evolution, and therefore moral.

Furthermore, the idea of "perfect" adaption *is* nonsensical. The prostate gland is "perfectly" designed to be stimulated by putting someting inside one's anus. Only men have them. The clitoris, however, is "perfectly" designed to be stimulated by the mouth. Only women have them. Therefore, the use of them, by your standards, is moral.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | May 6, 2005 9:14:09 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

No problem: That which is wrong because it is unnatural is unnatural and therefore wrong. So, what do I win?

Seriously, though, I might add two points:

First, the logic of your argument, with which I agree, applies with equal strength to various Luddite pronouncements from the ecolatry and PETA-phelia crowd in the perversely anti-human theology of environmentalism.

Second, I have never entirely abandoned the argument from design as a probative but not dispositive influence in the way I think we should weigh various issues with moral implications. (For a more nuanced view of how the argument from design has shifted in the last century, see John Wisdom's brilliant "Gods.") However, as far as I can tell, the whole point of civilization is that it is decidedly and blissfully unnatural.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 6, 2005 9:19:50 AM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

Terrier: Armageddonists are *not* promoting peace. You've got the truth there. They're promoting war in the middle east, so as to fulfil prophecy.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | May 6, 2005 9:22:25 AM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

I'll take a stab at the quiz, though.

Genetic manipulations of human beings in roder to improve or frivolously modify our structure (not to cure disease) is immoral. It takes a potential human (not a human for the purposes of this argument) and brings him her or it into full human status to fulfil a goal, thus using that person as a means to an end. It also creates a cetogory of human that has a strong potential of causing social rifts in how they're treated in contrast to how 'natural' humans are treated.

Finaly, genetic manipulation of humans is the *only* unnatural act we can undertake. Even if it's through organized selective breeding for traits. Everything else huimans do is natural, as we exist in nature. Organized genetic engineering subverts nature, and in a moral sense, causes problems.

I'm not sure if this passes, but I do think it comes closest to the professors desired results.

I'd be interested to see Prof J. David Velleman's opinion on my attempt as well.

What do I get if I win, BTW?

Posted by: Josh Jasper | May 6, 2005 9:31:04 AM

Posted by: Dylan Barrell

how about "falling up" that is unnatural and wrong...

think it misses the point? I don't...

but I do have a criticism of the question...why does the unnatural have to be wrong and why does the wrong have to be unnatural? Driving a car is unnatural. Does that make it wrong?

Posted by: Dylan Barrell | May 6, 2005 9:38:46 AM

Posted by: anonymous coward

I have great sympathy for this argument, but one thought that I keep tripping over is the question of the origin of our moral faculties. I certainly have an intuitive sense of right and wrong. By which I do not mean that I am preternaturally just (ha!), but rather that certain actions trigger a sense of justness or injustness within me. These senses are feelings and not the result of a train of moral reasoning. Now, I can often create a reasoned argument about why a given action that has triggered a feeling of justness or unjustness is, as a matter of logical argument, just or unjust. But I doubt that the intensity of my righteous indignation or my feeling of satisfaction is a direct product of the force of my logical argument. I can certainly think of times when I have felt very strongly about the righteousness or lack thereof of something, but been unable to marshal my best arguments, or vice versa. It is of course simultaneously the case that a well reasoned argument can cool or excite the passions.

All this is just to say that there seems to be something natural about human morality, though to what degree it comes from our development as a species and to what extent from our culture, I couldn't possibly say. In either case, I think I'm on safe ground saying that the process of morality, at least, is natural, if we can accept Aristotle's claim that man is a political animal.

How does this get us to the point where we can say _______ is unnatural, and therefore wrong, I'm not sure. And it may well not. Certainly we can say at least that it is natural to think that certain things are wrong; "I think that murder is unjust, and it is natural for me to so believe" in the limited sense that it is natural for me to think that things are unjust and that, for me, torture is one of those things.

Here, of course, we have a problem. We don't really want to be limited to saying only that murder is wrong for me because I believe it to be wrong, because that leaves the door open to another person who might say that murder is okay, because he or she believes it to be. Thus far, I really don't have a lever from which to maintain that murder is wrong generally, even though I and I would think most everyone else would maintain that it is. In fact, I suspect that many people would experience a feeling of injustice if they saw a rational person defending murder as a moral activity.

However, if there is a consensus that murder is wrong, then might this be another way of saying that murder is unnatural, and therefore wrong? By this I mean that if man is a political and a moral animal then it's no surprise that he naturally forms moral judgments and that he naturally forms a consensus with other men, at least on some things. And about other things, we argue. So then, naturally, we form a moral consensus with our fellows about some activities. Can't we then say, at least, that murder, if we have developed a consensus condemning it, is against our nature, and therefore wrong?

At this point, we've fairly well thrown out the traditional distinction between the natural and the conventional. Since consensuses may change with time and also depending upon the community in which one happens to be and so this whole discussion may well be by the by with regard to the original question. And yet coming to a consensus (or arguing) is certainly a natural thing for humans to do, and shared moral consensuses do have a binding force upon us as in the prohibition on murder, not only in the sense that we fear legal sanction, but more importantly in the sense that we know that murdering someone is wrong. And those who do not know that murdering someone is wrong, we denote as insane, which is perhaps the same thing as saying that they do not share in the fullness of human nature.

So I think one might say that murder, for example, is unnatural and therefore wrong because we have come to a moral consensus about it.

Burke, then, was right in being cautious about the dangers of upending traditional moral consensuses. Because they seem to be an important anchor to the wind. To radically change the nature of things seems to run the risk of inviting chaos. At the same time, human nature is changeable and consensuses can shift over time. So, to take a famous example, while at one time it might have been said that slavery is natural, and therefore justified (Aristotle in The Politics) (Though I hasten to point out that without knowing the thoughts of the population of Athens on this subject it is impossible to say within my framework) now we can say that slavery is unnatural and therefore unjustified because the global consensus condemns it.

Posted by: anonymous coward | May 6, 2005 10:27:09 AM

Posted by: JeffS

Raising children (or birds) without parents is unnatural and therefore wrong.

unnatural = contrary to the way a creature is formed to adjust and adapt to its environment

(Yes, I know it's a synonym for "unhealthy" here, but "unnatural" really can be -- that's the word you chose)
Prof., Do you give partial credit if we replace "therefore" with "also"?

Posted by: JeffS | May 6, 2005 10:29:17 AM

Posted by: Tom Perkins

I don't think anything unnatural has ever happened--maybe a few things that are unlikely--but never anythig unnatural.

The questions seems to be beside the point. Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp

Posted by: Tom Perkins | May 6, 2005 10:31:20 AM

Posted by: Steve Burton

How would one justify moral disapproval of parent-child incest (even when both parties act voluntarily and take pleasure in the relationship) without at some point mentioning the nature of parents, of children, of the parent-child bond, etc.?

Similarly, could one justify the prohibition of bestiality without bringing up nature?

How about necrophilia?

Common-sense moral intuitions against such practices are about as strong and as universal as moral intuitions get, so any moral theory that expects to be taken seriously had better accommodate them. But good luck doing justice to such intuitions without bringing "nature" into it.

Posted by: Steve Burton | May 6, 2005 10:43:57 AM

Posted by: Mona

Well, since I have been known to issue the same quiz (tho not so cleverly worded or freighted with Burkean passages) in order to make Don's same point, I would not now attempt to succeed where I have always seen (and expected) others to fail.

Will: if any act in which the penis does not ejaculate within a vagina is unnatural, and therefore wrong, then oral sex is wrong, masturbation is wrong, and confounding the "natural" purpose for the intromission by using a condom or other method of contraception, is wrong. Further, doctrines of clerical and nun celibacy are unnatural, since the member and the vagina are never to be put to a use for which they are "perfectly adapted."

Posted by: Mona | May 6, 2005 10:45:44 AM

Posted by: Tad Brennan


It's a bit worse than that, isn't it? The mouth was made for eating; therefore speech is unnatural (much less kissing!). The hands were made for grasping things: therefore typing on a keyboard is unnatural. The nose was made for breathing: therefore using it to support eyeglasses is unnatural. And so on.

DH--one caution.

You profess unconcern at the spectacle of a Robertson-esque figure charging you with believing that nothing is unnatural.

But that suggests that you agree (and are blasé about agreeing) with this characterization of your position. But *that* was not your position; you want to severe the link between unnatural and wrong, not deny that anything is unnatural. GIven your larger point, you should be happy to grant that some things are unnatural. You just deny that they are wrong as a result of that fact.

So--when the Robertsonesque figure says "these horrible intellectuals believe nothing is unnatural", your reply should not be a complacent agreement. Instead, you should say "I am happy to grant you that some things are unnatural. I just deny that this feature makes them wrong."

(After all, if you simply *denied* that anything is unnatural, then you would be committed to the vacuous universal "everything that is unnatural is wrong").

Posted by: Tad Brennan | May 6, 2005 11:04:37 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Brennan writes: The nose was made for breathing: therefore using it to support eyeglasses is unnatural.


"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles.

-- Dr. Pangloss, from Voltaire’s Candide

(Disclaimer: I wouldn’t have remembered Candide in a million years but for the fact my son just read it last month for his English class. I do, however, remember that the overture in Bernstein’s opera, Candide, was the theme music to the old “Dick Cavett Show.” So much for my liberal arts education.)

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 6, 2005 11:35:44 AM

Posted by: Bret

I'm surprised D.A. Ridgely didn't beat me to this one:

Taxation is unnatural and therefore wrong.

Posted by: Bret | May 6, 2005 11:42:28 AM

Posted by: Mona

Vaccination is unnatural, and therefore wrong.

Posted by: Mona | May 6, 2005 11:49:30 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Unfortunately, Bret, I can think of few things more natural than the strong preying on the weak or the many preying on the few.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 6, 2005 11:50:42 AM

Posted by: Tad Brennan

Mr. Ridgely--

Good--I was fairly sure someone would recognize my Candide reference. And of course it was exactly Aristotelian teleology that he was complaining about (or its scholastic descendant).

Thanks for posting the quote.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | May 6, 2005 11:54:32 AM

Posted by: Tad Brennan

As for the connection between unnaturalness and wrongness.

I find myself more willing to countenance such a link than most of you seem to be (you heathen, you). I don't say I have a very clear picture of how it works, but I don't think it's ruled out, either.

Some of you folks seem to think there's an unbridgeable gulf between nature and morality, that could only be bridged if we elevate "nature" to some sort of divine providence. Aristotle might have found that sort of thing plausible, but us hard-headed scientific types don't any longer. So since we cannot inflate nature high enough, we'll never raise it to the heights of morality.

But there's a different approach possible: keep nature where it is, and bring morality down to ground.

What I have in mind is that a lot of claims of "wrongness" are implicitly causal claims about who is going to get hurt and how. If I saw someone sprinkling colorful anti-personnel mines around a toddler park, I would feel outraged and appalled, and denounce the wrongness of their actions in the strongest terms.

Now at least part of what I mean is: if you do that, somebody's gonna get hurt.

That may not be all I mean--I may also mean that you ought to *know* that someone will get hurt this way, or that there is something especially heinous about risking the injury of children as opposed to others. Could be a lot packed in to a claim of wrongness (e.g. maybe David Velleman is right that a claim of wrongness has to have some universality packed into it).

But at least part of it, and maybe a lot of it, is a simple claim about welfare and damages.

And those sorts of claims seem to me sustainable on the basis of claims about nature. In fact, a fairly traditional way to bridge the gap between nature and normativity is by saying that nature specifies some general outlines for human welfare, and human welfare in turn provides the grounding for what is right and wrong. Indeed, this is not an utterly crazy way to read Aristotle (I think it gives insufficient weight to his theistic commitments, but some people like that).

Starting from human nature will probably not get you very much detail about ethics, or solve complicated dilemmas. But it might get you some no-nos.

Now--maybe Mr. Herzog will reply as follows: "I grant you some things are wrong in virtue of their *harmful* properties, to the extent that I'll accept a consequentialist account of morality. But that very fact shows that it's not the *unnaturalness* that explains the wrongness, it is the *damage to welfare*. Wellbeing is doing all the work; appeals to nature are superfluous."

Dunno if DH will go that way or not. If he does, it makes the quiz harder. (Because we now have to show not only that something is wrong in virtue of being unnatural, but that it is also directly and immediately in virtue of its being unnatural, i.e. without any middle term between the two).

I am still open to the possibility that what people mean by these claims is not utterly nonsensical, but rather grounded in the idea that nature sets some broad guardrails for ways that it is possible to live happily, and claims of wrongness are at least in part claims about what sorts of actions will be conducive to or destructive of that same happiness.

Or maybe I've just read too much Aristotle.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | May 6, 2005 12:10:42 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Brennan:

Don’t thank me, thank my far better read (well, for his age anyway) son, who foolishly lets his father read his essays. But wasn’t Voltaire’s primary beef with Leibniz; or am I, as they said at the philosopher’s funeral, putting Descartes before the hearse?

(Meanwhile, I can’t get that damned tune out of my head now!)

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 6, 2005 12:13:00 PM

Posted by: tony

>Similarly, could one justify the prohibition of bestiality without bringing up nature?

I must say, I have NEVER read a blog that mentions bestiality so frequently as this one.

The answer to your question is that there is no justification for the prohibition of bestiality. Holding up something so completely inconsequential as bestiality as a critical question of morality makes a mockery out of morality itself, particularly since those raising the question rarely know anything about the practice.

However, for those whose sexual orientation is as firmly turned towards animals as a heterosexual man's is turned towards women, the prohibition of bestiality is immoral for the simple reason that it makes their lives miserable. And this, in contrast, is not a theoretical argument, since many such people exist.

For that reason, I suggest abandoning bestiality as a moral whipping-post. This repeated reference to bestiality as some ultimate standard of (im)morality is nothing but sophistry. When you see and understand actual sexual relationships between humans and animals and understand their actual implications, then perhaps you will have something to say on the subject.

Posted by: tony | May 6, 2005 12:19:01 PM

Posted by: Tad Brennan


and for those of you having a field-day finding counter-examples (e.g. vaccination, taxation, eyeglasses)--does finding such examples settle the question?

DH asked for anyone to provide a true instance of his sentence-schema above. First person to find a true instance wins. (Not sure what you win--something unnatural? No, that's wrong.)

Is anything proved by providing false instances of the schema?

No! says the logician: DH is claiming a universal negation (there are no true instances), and finding particular negations (here is an instance that is not true, and here's another one...) cannot prove the universal negation. DH's opponent should be unphased by your examples; no number of them can prove DH right, but even one positive instance, even one true sentence of that form, will show that DH is wrong.

Wait! says the logician's nephew: doesn't the "therefore" make a difference here? The claim is, it's unnatural, *therefore* it's wrong. The winning instance must be wrong *by virtue of* its unnaturalness. I.e., it must be the case that it is wrong exactly and precisely *because* it is unnatural.

But if unnaturalness had that sort of power to make things wrong--if it brought wrongness with it everywhere it goes--then those other things that are unnatural should also be wrong. And they are not. Eyeglasses and vaccines are surely unnatural. But that unnaturalness brings with it no taint of wrongness. It is perfectly consistent for something to be unnatural and innocuous--and that shows that DH must be right!

Even if we have something that is unnatural and wrong, it cannot be wrong *exactly in virtue* of being unnatural, or the same unnaturalness would have made eyeglasses wrong, too. So even if someone finds something that is unnatural and wrong, this will only show that some unnatural things are right, and some unnatural things are wrong, and what is making the wrong ones wrong must be some further factor, additional to their unnaturalness.

So who's right--the logician or his nephew? Is there any point to racking up more instances of unnatural things that are not wrong--will no number of them help DH's case (as the logician says), or is even one of them sufficient to establish it (as his nephew says)?

Posted by: Tad Brennan | May 6, 2005 12:25:26 PM

Posted by: Mona

tony intrigues with:For that reason, I suggest abandoning bestiality as a moral whipping-post. This repeated reference to bestiality as some ultimate standard of (im)morality is nothing but sophistry. When you see and understand actual sexual relationships between humans and animals and understand their actual implications, then perhaps you will have something to say on the subject.

Would you care to elaborate?

Posted by: Mona | May 6, 2005 12:29:34 PM

Posted by: Mike

Don's post is confused because he conflates two separate issues and ends up giving arguments for neither. The first issue is how to separate unnatural behaviors from natural behaviors. The second issue is whether or not some, all, or no natural behaviors should be considered wrong. I'm not saying either of these issues are easy to deal with, but that does not necessarily mean that they are the wrong questions. But Don has loaded the dice by asking for a "sound" way to fill in the blank he offers, without defining "sound." If he took the trouble to define this key term, it might become clear that he has begged the question by defining valid moral argument in terms that the natural/unnatural distinction cannot possibly fulfill.

In the rest of the post, Don has only argued against natural teleology and against the definition of "natural" as common. He thereby concludes that no conclusion about what is natural can help us determine what is wrong.

I'm not saying Don is definitely wrong. I'm saying that Don't post lacks argument, and effectively boils down to, "It is difficult to distinguish the natural from the unnatural, and it is very difficult to further distill that distinction into a normative statement." But this is nothing but rhetoric (admittedly good rhetoric). One might even say it is "just handwaving."

Posted by: Mike | May 6, 2005 12:30:22 PM

Posted by: Tad Brennan

Mr. Ridgely--

Yes, Pangloss is more directly a lampoon of Leibniz (best of all possible worlds etc.). But this line about teleology is a caricature of scholastic Aristotelianism.

And I too am very fond of that score--"Any questions? Ask without fear!"

Posted by: Tad Brennan | May 6, 2005 12:32:28 PM

Posted by: tony

>Would you care to elaborate? [on bestiality]

I am inclined to keep it short, as this is a wildly unpopular subject (for reasons that escape me). A few observations:

1) As someone who knows a lot of people and is known for being very open-minded on sexual subjects, I find that bestiality is frequently encountered as a practice and quite common as an unfulfilled desire.

2) While most bestiality occurs out of curiosity or opportunity (i.e. the vast majority of the 18% of rural males that Kinsey identified as having experience in this area), it also exists as a sexual orientation. As with homosexuality, I see no reason to characterize such an orientation as a "mental illness". I suppose one might invoke the term "fetish" or "paraphilia", but it strikes me as having more in common with an orientation.

3) The actual relationships I have seen are inarguably consensual (the animals involved actively pursue sexual activity) and harmless to all parties involved - excepting, of course, the hazard of prosecution.

In other words, like the appeal to "nature" being discussed here, bestiality is a subject that is often raised in the abstract, but the actual practice is quite contrary to its popular image.

If I might relate this to the theme of the post, we humans are now so profoundly divorced from nature, and the world of animals in particular, that hardly anyone knows what they are talking about anymore. The "nature" that is being invoked in such arguments is usually a projection of the speaker's prejudices, rather than anything based on observation or study. Fewer than 1% of Americans live on a farm; only a fraction spend any time observing nature directly, in a relatively undisturbed form. "Nature" is a subject whose role in discourse has come completely detached from real-world experience.

If you want to see something unnatural, go to a factory pig farm sometime, and consider that the animals there are more intelligent and sensitive than your average dog. The term will take on a whole new meaning.

Posted by: tony | May 6, 2005 12:55:53 PM

Posted by: Aaron S.

"But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?"

-JS Mill

Posted by: Aaron S. | May 6, 2005 12:59:07 PM

Posted by: Sans Serfs

Blogging about bestiality is unnatural and therefore wrong.

Posted by: Sans Serfs | May 6, 2005 1:02:20 PM

Posted by: 818

Aircraft carriers are unnatural.

ICBMs are unnatural.

F-17s are unnatural.

The wealth of a Bill Gates is unnatural.

Posted by: 818 | May 6, 2005 1:08:55 PM

Posted by: Sans Serfs

More seriously, it's obvious that everything is contained in nature, but I don't think that gets you very far down down Ethical Boulevard or Morality Lane.

Posted by: Sans Serfs | May 6, 2005 1:10:31 PM

Posted by: progressivelibertarian

I agree that there is no way to fill in the blank to get a true statement. But to deny that naturalness (read: not being the product of human reason and choice) *per se* is normative is not to deny that *certain* natural features of human psychology and biology are or give rise to normativity (oughtness, rightness, to an agent having reason to act).

Which features? Our desires and values, insofar as we do not form them by reason and choice, are -- or come to be via relatively unreasoning, unchosen action -- to be directed toward some features of ourselves and the physical and particularly social world around us and not others. Thus states of affairs are good for or important to an agent and agents ought to do certain things.

Here are some examples. Each of us has (nondefinitive) reason to avoid his or her own pain. Each of us has (nondefinitive) reason to alleviate the pain of others. We each naturally expect others to respect our bodily integrity and "personal space" and we respond positively to such expections in others (as when I step on your toe: my obligation to get off, and your authority to demand that I do so, is constituted by an interpersonal structure of action-coordinating attitudes, not a structure of attitudes that we reason ourselves to and explicitly agree upon -- as we would if we were consciously trying to solve a collective action problem). These sorts of things are the initial, given normative "inputs" into our normative and moral reasoning.

(This of course leaves open the idea that more derivative, creative, and individually and culturally variable values or commitments which are rationalized and chosen, will play definitive or framing roles in our personal and social lives. It is also consistent with there being no one correct, non-context-relative set of values and norms appropriate to most sorts of personal or social behavior. That nature is the starting point does not mean that it is also the end point -- or even that it specifies a *single* endpoint in any given case.)

Skeptical that such "inputs" are genuinely normative? Try this thought-experiment. Say you were born, not a human, but a "Homer." Homers, which are natural biological organisms, are born with one and only one desire: the desire to eat donuts. They are born utterly indifferent to everything else and develop no further intrinsic concerns as they go along. You, as a Homer, ought to eat donuts. There is nothing else that you ought to do, but you genuinely ought to do this.

Of course, this sort of view brings to mind your own Peter Railton and Stephen Darwall (it should, as both have influenced my thinking on these matters) way before it brings to mind, say, Leon Kass. But Don's rather sweeping dismissal of naturalness (natural ends or purposes, human nature, etc.) as a basis for morality is way too glib.

Posted by: progressivelibertarian | May 6, 2005 1:15:32 PM

Posted by: Mona

tony, thank you for elucidating your points. While I am not morally outraged about bestiality, I suspect my actual sentiments might offend you even worse. Pictures of Gene Wilder and the little lambie in the black garter belt have come wafting into my head, and the giggles ensued.

Posted by: Mona | May 6, 2005 1:16:33 PM

Posted by: DBCooper

The fatal flaw in this post is Don Herzog’s suggestion that nature is used as a critical standard to support right-wing judgments. As DAR points out, the left is just as prone to invoke what is natural/unnatural to support their beliefs. Josh Jasper and 818 provide good illustrations of this tendency. Here are a few others examples I'm sure they would agree with... Nuclear Power, genetically modified foods. Polystyrene, Hexamethyldisilazane, clearcutting....

Posted by: DBCooper | May 6, 2005 1:18:18 PM

Posted by: Steve

Utterly petty. You've proven that political slogans are occasionally logically unsupportable. How about "All men are created equal."? "Racism is wrong." "Do unto others as they do unto you." "Share and share alike." I challenge you. Are they logically supportable?

And another one. "Espousing smarmy witticisms makes one wise."


Posted by: Steve | May 6, 2005 1:25:29 PM

Posted by: 818

Here are a few others examples I'm sure they would agree with.

No really relevant comparisons, great psychologist, to a nuclear war. Moreover, the infatuation of the right (common to the bourgeois left as well) with the sex issue is really a deception tactic. You want to discuss "unnatural", how about high finance and speculation, or any number of IT billionaires, the GOP economic policy, and the ability of the republicans to completely ignore the thousands of iraqi civilians killed in a war which was based on "liberation."

BTW, though I am admittedly quite distracted by hearing moan chat about beastiality (a link! a link! arf arf) I do enjoy some natural forms of entertainment such as stepping in a ring with moronic right wingers and showing them my rather unnatural jab. Care to indulge me?

Posted by: 818 | May 6, 2005 1:30:31 PM

Posted by: 818

oops, that would be mona....with an mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

Posted by: 818 | May 6, 2005 1:32:21 PM

Posted by: arbitrary aardvark

The talented Mr. Ridgely answers with a tautology. Does that count? Does that win?
How about Falwell's answer, "Nothing"? Does that count, does that win? If not those, "a supernatural explanation is unnatural, and therefor wrong" said the materialist.
What is the operational definition of natural?

Posted by: arbitrary aardvark | May 6, 2005 2:01:03 PM

Posted by: DBCooper

818....aka stick...aka ya hozna...aka benny profane) writes: I do enjoy some natural forms of entertainment such as stepping in a ring with moronic right wingers and showing them my rather unnatural jab.

Unnatural Jab? I'm sure you meant jabbering.

Posted by: DBCooper | May 6, 2005 2:11:01 PM

Posted by: 818

Nope, J. Edgar Cooper, da crimefightah, I meant jab, as in punch. Come a lil closer, lemme show ya.

AS I said, Christian, did you count the number of iraqi civilian deaths yet?

Posted by: 818 | May 6, 2005 2:15:01 PM

Posted by: noah


Posted by: noah | May 6, 2005 2:23:17 PM

Posted by: john t

In the fall 2004 issue of Daedalus is an article"Human Universals" by Donald E Brown,Prof Emeritus of Anthropology,U Cal. It opens"Human universals-of which hundreds have been identified-consist of those features of culture,society,language,behavior,and mind that,so far as the record has been examined,are found among all peoples known to ethnography and history". On the debate between culture and nature,or nature V nuture," There is good reason to distinguish the cultural in human affairs-but in almost everything that humans do it is as useful to insiston EITHER culture OR nature as the source as it is to insist that water is either hydrogen OR oxygen". Might we consider then,and not just because of Prof Brown,that there are things/acts that are natural so there must be likewise that which is unnatural. That that which is unnatural is detrimental,if not in every case then in most cases. And if the unnatural is not detrimental in every case that might be attributable to frequency of occurrence or compensatory factors in society. I'd like to add that eyeglasses are no more unnatural then a chimp using a stick to get food or neanderthal man fashioning a hand axe,having noticed some dispute earlier over these.

Posted by: john t | May 6, 2005 2:27:11 PM

Posted by: noah

But thats not true either. Many things are unnatural in the sense that most people use the term but "therefore" doesn't work for any of them.

Posted by: noah | May 6, 2005 2:28:22 PM

Posted by: Mona

Based on email I have received, it appears some do not take tony seriously, suspecting he is a troll. While I find it difficult to take bestiality per se seriously, I assure y'all, there are committed and credentialed advocates of it, and tony is singing from their hymnal. This William Saletan piece at Slate explores the subject, with reference to the issue Don has presented, namely, natural v. unnatural. A quote:

[Peter] Singer's essay tackles a series of objections to doggie-style intimacy. The first is that it's unnatural. If nature had wanted you to mate with your pet, the argument goes, you'd be able to procreate together. Singer points out, however, that we've come to tolerate other non-procreative practices, such as contraception, masturbation, oral gratification, and homosexuality. But isn't sex with animals a uniquely radical affront to tradition? Nope. Dog-bites-man is the oldest story around. Singer cites literary and anthropological evidence that humans throughout history have been attracted to animals—swans, horses, dogs, satyrs, calves—and some have acted on that attraction. OK, but aren't these acts cruel and harmful? Not necessarily, says Singer. "Sex with animals does not always involve cruelty." ... Liberals have a different problem. Most of them want to say that sex with your dog is wrong, but sex with a human of your own gender isn't. The trouble is, Singer explicitly connects the two practices (both are non-procreative), and people who advocate sex with animals—"zoophiles," as they prefer to be called—borrow the language of gay liberation. "I'm the first out-of-the-closet 'zoo' to be attacked because of my sexual orientation," Philip Buble, a zoophile, told the Bangor Daily News four months ago. Buble says the "relationship" between man and beast "can develop to be a sexual one."

Posted by: Mona | May 6, 2005 2:34:39 PM

Posted by: Achillea

Since I agree with Tom that nothing unnatural has ever happened (I call it 'if it happens, it's possible' teleology), I'm somewhat hard-pressed to answer the question. Sorry. There are things that exceed even my high Ick Threshold, and there are things which I view as wrong, but I've found no correlation, let alone causation, between them.

DH: ... man is the only animal which can behave absurdly.

Clearly, you have never met my cats.

Posted by: Achillea | May 6, 2005 2:46:56 PM

Posted by: Alex

Obviously, if we're talking teleology, then some things that do happen (and so in some sense count as natural) are un-natural. For example: heart failure, is un-natural in the sense of being counter to the natural function of the heart, but natural insofar as it is not super-natural. So remember: just because it happens does not mean it is natural. Also, what is natural (part of the natural functioning of an organism or organ) needn't happen all that often, even. Witness the vast numbers of acorns that never develop into trees, for example.

Here is a hypthesis, then: the reason it is wrong for parents to abandon their children to starvation or expose them to the elements is explained by its un-naturalness.

Consider Judith Thompson's view about abortion: On her account, one can only have obligations to another insofar as one has consented to be bound in various ways. That one has not consented to a pregnancy is supposed to explain the permissibility of abortion.

Now she has the problem of explaining why allowing infants to die (say by neglecting to feed them) is wrong, while abortion is permissible. The point she makes is that in taking possession of the child, one has as good as bound oneself to take care of it. Tacit consent, though, is not really consent. So one wonders what is really going on here... it is not that babies are persons, while fetuses are not... (ever seen a baby?)

Why would taking possession of a child be like binding oneself? I suspect it works like this: Taking the newborn child establishes a parental relationship with the child. It is the natural function of parental relationships to provide care for a child. In light of this fact (that parental care for a child is natural in the relevant sense), parents have obligations to care. Failing to care is counter to (and not merely different from) the natural function of a parent and so wrong.

Parental infanticide (certainly after a parental relationship is established -- however that magic is worked) is unnatural and so wrong.


PS: Interestingly, that something is natural seems to generate permissions... Why do you like pie so much, dude? What justifies your preference? Answer: It is only natural. Seems like a pretty good answer to me. Why do you care for your children more than for other equivalently excellent (or better) children? Answer: Having particular care for one's own children is natural... and so permitted. What reason do you have for seeking pleasure? etc.

Posted by: Alex | May 6, 2005 3:07:23 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

As a friend of mine once concluded, “I’m not entirely sure about necrophilia or bestiality, but havin’ sex with dead animals just ain’t right!”

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 6, 2005 3:08:33 PM

Posted by: Steve Burton

tony: the reason why things like parent/child incest, bestiality and necrophilia come up so frequently in philosophical discussions of morality is not because they are "critical question[s] of morality" or "ultimate standard[s] of (im)morality," (whatever you mean by those phrases), or because right-wingers are weirdly obsessed with such subjects.

No. The reason is because they are such difficult cases for some philosophical theories of morality. It's not at all obvious, for example, that traditional Kantian or utilitarian moral theories can easily make sense of widely held moral intuitions about such things - so, to whatever extent philosophical theories of morality need to make sense of our pretheoretical moral intutions, they pose a serious problem for these theories.

Compare some of the typical counterexamples to act utilitarianism: the healthy hospital patient who can be carved up for organs to save the lives of six others etc. Philosophers go on about such cases endlessly, even though they are totally divorced from real life, simply because act utilitarianism has such a horrible time making sense of normal intuitions about them. Personally, I never worry about such bizarre situations as I go about my daily life, any more than I worry about my unholy trio of incest, bestiality, and necrophilia. But when it comes time to discuss moral theory, both the former and the latter suddenly become quite relevant.

If anything, I think that various widely shared sexual taboos get unfairly neglected in serious philosophical discussion, partly because they point in directions that many philosophers find ideologically unpalatable, and partly because the horror of such things runs so deep for so many that to bring them up even in philosophical discussion is something of a social faux pas. The nervous tittering begins, and the subject changes.

I wish you luck in persuading people that "the prohibition of bestiality is immoral" because it makes life miserable "for those whose sexual orientation is...firmly turned towards animals." And it is a great load off my mind to learn that "the actual relationships [you] have seen are inarguably consensual."

I believe this is what is known as "biting the bullet." One must admire your forthrightness.

I wonder if anyone would care to "bite the bullet" on my other two cases - i.e., parent/child incest and necrophilia?

I am also still wondering about my original question - whether anyone can philosophically accomodate such sexual taboos without appealing to nature. I don't know the answer to that question.

Posted by: Steve Burton | May 6, 2005 3:09:59 PM

Posted by: 818

The idea that "anything that does or can happen is natural" is irrational as well as nihilist. Yet it's an easy way to avoid addressing ethical problems or real tragedies brought upon by wars, poverty, natural disasters.

The unnatural aspects of human acts, sexual or otherwise, are related to consentor non-consent, but also on whether the other person is capable of consent--under 15-16, humans are not prepared for the psychological consequences of sexuality. Where to draw the line is difficult, but pedophilia, either het. or homo, is abhorrent at least in one regard because the adult cares nothing for a child's psychological status but is simply interested in getting off: the adult exploits and takes advantage of the younger person's naivete in order to orgasm. So pedophilia is unnatural.

Two adults--a brother and sister over 18, say-- have no inherent restrictions on incest except pragmatic ones; in fact I think incest say between mom and son or daughter, or dad and dau., is more commonly fantasized about (and acted upon in secret) than most realize. Incest with younger children is certainly a crime and exploitative just as it would be for the non-related adult and child, isn't it.

As far as the weirder examples--women/men having sex with animals and necrophilia--though such acts are perhaps nauseating, it seems if an adult woman wants to go to the pound and find herself a great dane to take the place of her man or galpal, what rights do we have to stop her? It may exploit the beast to some extent but I imagine she would take care of him as well or better than the average pet owner. It is, intuitively, somewhat disgusting but then so are many marriages or other sexual encounters.

Id say necreo depends on consent as well: if woman signs form or something saying her husband can continue to have sex with her corpse after she passes on it then seems permissable; lacking clear permission it seems a crime but of little consequence.

Murder rape and so forth are obviously unnatural , and I think it's because of total lack of consent as well as physical and psychological pain inflicted. If someone agrees to being killed (say assisted suicide ala Kervorkian) he has given consent and then it is not murder.

Posted by: 818 | May 6, 2005 3:59:23 PM

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