Appeal to Nature

An appeal to nature is a logical fallacy used in arguments or rhetorical tactics in which a phenomenon is described as desirable merely because it is natural, or undesirable merely because it is unnatural, it is related but not identical to the naturalistic fallacy, as the latter considers defining ‘good’ in ethics in terms of any natural properties (even if not merely for being natural) as a fallacy.

The Fallacy of appeal to nature depends on a positive view about the nature, e.g. good, desirable..etc. as a foundation of the reasoning of the argument. To appeal to nature in an argument is to argue from a premise or premises claimed to be implied by the concept of nature.

The meaning and importance of various understandings and concepts of ‘nature’ has been a persistent topic of discussion historically in both science and philosophy. In Ancient Greece, ‘the laws of nature were regarded not [simply] as generalized descriptions of what actually happens in the natural world… but rather as norms that people ought to follow… Thus the appeal to nature tended to mean an appeal to the nature of man treated as a source for norms of conduct. To Greeks this… represented a conscious probing and exploration into an area wherein, according to their whole tradition of thought, lay the true source for norms of conduct.’

Philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas held that the ‘good’ was a process of actualization where the formal principle of a natural object fulfilled its final cause (purpose) such that a tree’s purpose is to develop another tree or a bouncy ball’s is to bounce. The formal principle to Aquinas was defined through Aristotle as ‘that which makes a thing what it is.’ Thus the source of potency to accomplish all natural object ends is through the formal cause of an object. For which Aquinas suggests a non-dualistic model for substance: Form and Matter. Aquinas held that what is good is what is natural in that God created all things and they were good.

However, he argued from human reason rather than faith when he discussed the ontological significance. He suggested that the end (fulfillment of its purpose) is the good and there are various degrees of Good, such as the processes of development in a living being. Arguably, happiness is the ultimate end for all human beings and thus all morality is in reference to what actualizes this ‘happiness.’ But Aquinas argued that there was an objective principle, not relative, which accomplished self-actualization. A simple example is that drugs simulate happiness but are only ‘apparent/false’ happiness while integrity, reason, and love all flow with nature and therefore permit actualization of the ultimate end: happiness.

In modern times, philosophers have challenged the notion that human beings’ status as natural beings should determine or dictate their normative being. For example, Rousseau famously suggested that ‘We do not know what our nature permits us to be.’ More recently, Nikolas Kompridis has applied Rousseau’s axiom to debates about genetic intervention (or other kinds of intervention) into the biological basis of human life, writing: ‘[T]here is a domain of human freedom not dictated by our biological nature, but [this] is somewhat unnerving because it leaves uncomfortably open what kind of beings human beings could become… Put another way: What are we prepared to permit our nature to be? And on what basis should we give our permission?’

Kompridis writes that the naturalistic view of living things, articulated by one scientist as that of ‘machines whose components are biochemicals,’ threatens to make a single normative understanding of human being the only possible understanding. He writes, ‘When we regard ourselves as ‘machines whose components are biochemicals,’ we not only presume to know what our nature permits us to be, but also that this knowledge permits us to answer the question of what is to become of us… This is not a question we were meant to answer, but, rather, a question to which we must remain answerable.’

Skeptic Julian Baggini explains: ‘[E]ven if we can agree that some things are natural and some are not, what follows from this? The answer is: nothing. There is no factual reason to suppose that what is natural is good (or at least better) and what is unnatural is bad (or at least worse).’ An appeal to nature is considered to have committed a logical fallacy in stating that something is good or right because it is natural, or that something is bad or wrong because it is unnatural or artificial; This is a fallacy of relevance in that the natural origins of a phenomenon are presumed irrelevant to their desirability, and possibly an informal fallacy if it states that because some natural things are good, therefore all natural things are good. In this type of informal fallacy, nature implies an ideal or desired state of being, a state of how things were, or how they should be: in this sense an appeal to nature may resemble an appeal to tradition.

In some contexts, ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ can themselves be vague terms, leading to unintended associations with other concepts. The word ‘natural’ can also be a loaded term — much like the word ‘normal,’ in some contexts, it can carry an implicit value judgement. An appeal to nature would thus beg the question, because the conclusion is entailed by the premise. Opinions differ regarding whether an ‘appeal to nature’ can constitute a rational argument. Sometimes, it can be taken as a rule of thumb that admits some exceptions, but nonetheless proves to be of use in one or more specific topics, (or in general). As a rule of thumb, natural or unnatural facts provide presumptively reliable good or bad values, barring evidence to the contrary. Failure to consider such evidence commits a fallacy of accident under this view.

Regulatory agencies occasionally draw a distinction between products with natural and non-natural origins, e.g. the USFDA states ‘Natural ingredients are derived from natural sources … Other ingredients are not found in nature and therefore must be synthetically produced as artificial ingredients.’ However, it goes on to state that ‘Food ingredients are subject to the same strict safety standards regardless of whether they are naturally or artificially derived,’ thus avoiding making appeals to nature. Some regulatory regimes may impose greater restrictions on products which are ‘new,’ and thus have not been in use for a long period of time, as in the case of novel food.

Novel food is defined in European Union law as food ingredients having no history of ‘significant’ consumption in the European Union prior to 1997, and in Canada as products that have never been used as food, foods that result from a process that has not been previously used for food, or, foods that have undergone genetic modification and have new traits. It is important to note that the classification of a food as ‘novel’ should not be confused with it being artificial, and draws a distinction between foods which are not known to be safe and foods which are so known either due to approved safety testing or through a history of long use.

Natural foods usually have histories of consumption (sometimes very long histories, by humans and/or human ancestors), so they usually do not qualify as novel, thus it is mainly artificial foods (with short histories or none) that do. This demonstrates that the ‘natural’ origins of a product can be relevant to health and safety considerations, insofar as the risks they pose to consumers (if any) are likely to already be known. In other cases, a ‘natural’ product (a product largely composed of unrefined, naturally occurring ingredients) may be deemed to be of far greater risk than its synthetic or processed counterpart. Like many countries, Canada heavily restricts the importation of unprocessed animal or plant matter as this is more likely to be harboring pests or disease than synthetic or processed products.

In G.E. Moore’s 1903 ‘Principia Ethica,’ Moore discusses another notable concept which he calls the naturalistic fallacy, and claims that many appeals to nature in ethics are made without defining what is supposed to be good about nature or natural properties – instead only assuming they are good. In its cogency and real-world applicability, Moore’s formulation of the naturalistic fallacy can be problematic, partly because, by his own admission, Moore was talking about a form of reductionism that can be found across philosophical perspectives, not just in naturalistic arguments. However, his arguments are still influential in some strains of popular discourse.

Some popular examples of the appeal to nature can be found on labels and advertisements for food, clothing, and alternative herbal remedies. Labels may use the phrase ‘all-natural,’ to imply that products are environmentally friendly and/or safe. However, many toxic substances are found in nature, including in common plant sources and herbs such as hemlock, nightshade, belladonna, and poisonous mushrooms, and these may have serious side effects. It has therefore been suggested that whether or not a product is ‘natural’ is irrelevant, in itself, in determining its safety or effectiveness.

For instance, cocaine is sometimes described as an ‘all-natural medicine’ derived from the coca plant, and which was prescribed for many years for everything from chest colds to depression, yet it is also highly addictive and can have serious and lasting deleterious effects. This description of cocaine is however controversial, cocaine is a chemical extraction of the coca plant, whose leaves are chewed as a medicine and tonic in traditional Andean culture. The same relationship is present between opium, its active compound morphine, and its diacetyl salt heroin.

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