[Paleopsych] BH: The Supposed Sin of Defying Nature
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Betterhumans > The Supposed Sin of Defying Nature
[This is part one. Part two is appended.]
Why are policy debates still plagued by an irrational idea that refuses to
By Russell Blackford
1/19/2005 11:19 AM
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
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
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.
Betterhumans > The Supposed Sin of Defying Nature: Part Two
Arguments that something's unnatural are really expressions of fear, and
responses should be adjusted accordingly
By Russell Blackford
1/26/2005 1:37 PM
In part one of this column, I followed John Stuart Mill in
attempting to demolish simple arguments that there is something wrong
with "defying nature" or "interfering with nature's processes."
I then introduced a more sophisticated analysis by Richard Norman,
who believes that human beings need to make choices and shape their
lives against a quite extensive background of conditions that are seen
as not open to choice. These background conditions generally include
basic understandings of sex, procreation, nurturing, maturing, aging,
death, the necessity of work and the existence of illness and pain in
If technology is used to alter facts relating to these, such as by
allowing for conception and birth without sex, or by promising us
biological immortality, many people will feel that their sense of
leading meaningful lives is threatened, suggests Norman. They are
likely to express this sense by claiming that "nature" is being
interfered with--here, "nature" is equated with whatever is seen in
their particular culture as basic background conditions to human life.
Let's explore this line of reasoning further and look at an extension
of the theory. We'll see how arguments that something's unnatural are
really expressions of fear, and how responses should be adjusted
Threatening the background
In his recent book on bioethical issues, Stephen Holland
emphasizes that background conditions to choice are culturally
specific constructs based on natural facts. For Holland, the appeal to
nature is away of expressing hostility when a culture's very basic and
general understandings are threatened--and he believes that such
expressions of hostility are rational.
Threats to basic background conditions might include a threat to the
"natural connection between sex and procreation"; no one (so Holland
says) would want the emergence of a future society in which "all
fertilization takes place without sex." Although he believes that
there is utilitarian benefit in current reproductive technologies, he
thinks that Norman is too quick to conclude that complaints about
interfering with nature are unjustified.
Similarly, Holland explains the unease about genetic enhancement by
saying that it threatens basic background conditions for choices and
achievement in parenting. According to Holland, "we" feel threatened
by the prospect that too much of a technological guarantee of our
children's endowments would make parental nurturing seem meaningless.
Fears about human reproductive cloning are similarly explained as
threatening because cloning combines the separation of sex from
procreation with technological control of children's endowments.
Holland concedes that not all threats to basic background conditions
will be perceived, or perceived for long, as unacceptable. Where we
can see a real need for some new technology, we are likely to accept
it, perhaps after initial doubts. We are unlikely to oppose a
particular technology where to do so seems cruel or heartless, or once
the technology becomes familiar to us, in which case it is
accommodated into our sense of the background conditions, or they are
Holland's theory has some explanatory power. It can, for example, be
used to explain the widespread opposition to homosexual acts. First,
they violate what many conservative heterosexuals perceive as an
eternal verity about the relationship between sex and procreation.
Second, it may be difficult for conservative heterosexuals to see much
utilitarian value in homosexual acts, or to understand the cruelty of
laws that forbid homosexuality--it is difficult for many heterosexuals
to understand, really understand, how anyone could find pleasure in
acts that fill them with repugnance. Third, although homosexual acts
have happened for countless millennia, they are still unfamiliar to
Evaluating the theory
The theory obviously rings true for Holland as an explanation of some
of his own yuck factor responses. It also rings true for me, in
the sense that I can readily imagine how it could explain the yuck
factor phenomenon, or part of it. Furthermore, the theory seems a good
explanation of why some people feel threatened by minority sexual
practices, such as homosexuality, and also by technological
innovations that alter human biology, or involve procreation without
The hypothesis can also be tested. The theory predicts at least some
resistance to any new technology that seems likely to have a powerful
impact on the basic conditions of human life even for the better. This
a strength, as the prediction is consistent with historical
The theory also suggests why some people find emerging technologies
threatening, even though they may not be affected directly. And it
suggests plausible circumstances in which powerful new technologies
(or unpopular practices) will gain acceptance.
In short, the theory gives a coherent and plausible explanation of why
arguments against defying nature take the forms they do, why they are
applied in ways that initially seem inconsistent, why they persist and
why some powerful technological innovations get accepted more easily
Norman seems to have made a valuable contribution to our understanding
of memetics--of how ideas survive and reproduce themselves. At the
very least, the theory is worth accepting for the sake of argument.
None of this, however, entails that the behavior described and
predicted by the theory is rational behavior. Holland believes that
people are behaving rationally when they express their hostility to an
actual or predicted innovation by claiming it is "against nature." But
this is a very doubtful claim.
Even if the theory is true, people who oppose certain practices or
technologies for their supposed defiance of nature do not usually
understand their own psychological motivations. That is, few of these
people would, if challenged, justify their responses by enunciating
something like Norman's theory. This alone suggests a sense in which
claims that something defies nature are not usually rational. Such
claims are essentially expressions of fear, not articulations of
But could a rational argument based on the theory be put against, say,
homosexual acts, gay marriage, human reproductive cloning, genetic
enhancement or biological immortality? What might such a sophisticated
"defying nature" argument look like, if directed at a particular
innovation or practice? Here is an example:
Premise 1: It is morally wrong to threaten any of the basic
background conditions for people's choices in our culture.
Premise 2: The connection between sexual acts and procreation is
one of the background conditions.
Premise 3: To commit a homosexual act is to threaten the connection
between sexual acts and procreation.
Conclusion 1: To commit a homosexual act is to threaten one of the
background conditions. (This follows from Premise 2 and 3.)
Conclusion 2: To commit a homosexual act is morally wrong. (This
follows from Premise 1 and Conclusion 1.)
As formulated, this argument is logically valid. Accordingly, its
conclusions are true as long as its premises are true, and the various
expressions used in the argument are used in the same way throughout
(otherwise it fails because of equivocation).
However, all three premises are highly controversial. Premise 1 cannot
be accepted as it stands, if only because many background conditions
in various societies should be threatened. Threatening a background
condition may unsettle people, but it is not necessarily disastrous.
Some background conditions actually distort cultures and their moral
assumptions in highly undesirable ways. A good example is the belief
in many cultures that women are intellectually inferior to men. If
something such as Premise 1 is to be accepted, it will need to be
narrowed in a way that makes it far more plausible, but how exactly?
Perhaps we should confine it to conditions that are matters of fact,
not false belief, and perhaps to facts that are widely relied upon by
people. But these might be very difficult to "threaten" (as required
by Premise 3). I am not sure how Premise 1 could be reworded to make
the argument a better one.
Furthermore, in the argument given, Premise 2 is true in our own
culture only if interpreted loosely. There is a connection between sex
and procreation, but it is a very loose one in any culture that uses
both the contraceptive pill and IVF. If the premise is interpreted
loosely enough to be true, then the rather tenuous connection that it
asserts does not seem to be threatened in any way by the fact that
there are homosexual acts going on. Thus Premise 2 and Premise 3
cannot simultaneously be true if the same terms are used in the same
I feel that it is going to be very difficult to find any case where an
argument with this structure is rationally compelling. Premise 1 needs
to be qualified, even though this threatens to undermine the whole
argument. Meanwhile, one of the other premises is always likely to be
false, or else the premises cannot be stated truthfully and
simultaneously, without equivocation. Those pesky premises just won't
However, let's try a more high-tech example.
The case of cloning
Perhaps the argument's failures, as outlined above, are case specific.
Let's give the benefit of the doubt and try another example, an
argument against human reproductive cloning. Such an argument would be
Premise 1: It is morally wrong to threaten any of the background
Premise 2: That sex is necessary for procreation is one of the
Premise 3: Human reproductive cloning threatens the situation that
sex is necessary for procreation.
Conclusion 1: Human reproductive cloning threatens one of the
Conclusion 2: Human reproductive cloning is morally wrong.
Here, Premise 2 seems to be false. I'm sure that most people plan
their lives against the belief that sex is usually necessary for
procreation, but I am not sure that anyone in our culture believes
anymore that it is always necessary. So how can the latter be a basic
background condition for choice? After all, we now have such
technologies as IVF, not to mention AID--whether with sterile,
clinical methods or the proverbial turkey baster. For Premise 2 to be
true, it surely needs to be rephrased considerably--perhaps along the
lines that the following is now a background condition for choice in
our culture: "Sex is usually necessary for procreation and the
alternatives are likely to be difficult and expensive."
Reworded in this way, Premise 2 is probably true, and the background
condition that it now states is a reasonable one for people to accept
and rely upon in making choices and planning their lives. But it is
not likely to be threatened by reproductive cloning, so if we reword
Premise 2, we make Premise 3 false. Those premises still won't sit
Encouraging acceptance, avoiding dread
I invite you to try for yourself to come up with workable arguments
against particular emerging technologies, using premises about basic
background conditions for choice. I am quite certain you will meet
with intractable problems.
However, I concede this much: The theory of background conditions
confirms that there is a limit to human psychological adaptability.
Accordingly, there is a limit to how much we can reasonably expect
individuals to adapt to if rapid and sweeping changes are made to the
basic circumstances in which they, personally, made their life plans.
Thus there may be good reasons not to support technological changes
which would be that dramatic--and, as I've hinted at elsewhere,
there may be reasons not to frighten people with gung-ho predictions
of imminent, sudden, total change, even if it seems beneficial.
But this can't normally ground an argument against particular
practices or technologies. For example, the fact that some people are
engaging in homosexual acts doesn't pull the rug out from under
anyone's individual choice to lead a more conventional lifestyle. This
choice remains viable and meaningful, even in a society that actually
provides a system of gay marriage. Again, if some people used
reproductive cloning to conceive children, it would not undermine the
plans of couples who'd had kids in the usual way. Nor would those
who'd used cloning find that their children's nurturance was a
Holland worries about the possibility that people in the distant
future may routinely procreate without sex, but why is this a problem?
The change would surely not come as much of a shock to the people of
the time, as long as it happened fairly gradually. Nor does the
likelihood that future societies will be very different from current
ones, with different sets of basic, widely-understood background
conditions, cause any disadvantage to those of us who are alive today.
Such change is something that we can be confident will happen, but so
what? It's something that we'd now be wise to accept as one of the
basic background conditions to our lives.
The analysis in this two-part column suggest that it will, to say the
least, be very difficult to mount a good argument against any practice
on the ground that it "defies nature." Indeed, claims that some new
technology is a sin against nature, or its processes, should be
treated as expressions of fear, not as rational arguments. The theory
developed by Norman and elaborated by Holland does not rehabilitate
the idea of nature's inviolability. It does, however, offer useful
insight into why the idea lingers on, vampire-like, and how we might
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