Sunday, February 12, 2012

All-Natural Goodness, Part II: Does Natural = Good?

For people just tuning in to this series of blog posts (and if you are, many thanks), I've been on a kick of thinking about where morality comes from.  Is it an innate part of reality, or have we humans created it ourselves?  So far, I've examined the idea that good and bad are whatever God says they are, and found it wanting.  I've also considered the history of natural law ethics--the idea that there is a higher law in nature, discoverable by human reason, that can tell us how our laws and morals should be.  In that post, I talked about natural law as it has been seen by thinkers from Socrates, to Aquinas, to Jefferson, and concluded that that we can't conclude that morality is written into nature or reality in any simple way.  Maybe moral laws exist in the sense that they inevitably arise when thinking, feeling beings start to haggle over rules for treating each other decently.  That's plausible, but what isn't plausible to me is that detailed moral laws existed before conscious beings with preferences came along.

In this post, I want to return to the idea of intrinsic morality in nature, but from a slightly different angle.  Most people have an intuitive sense of natural law, even if they've never read a speck of philosophy.  This sense underlies the common belief that what is natural is good, and what is unnatural is bad.  Of course, most people today aren't thinking in the terms Aristotle or Aquinus did.  Some people take a religious view, thinking something like "God created nature, and nature is good.  Therefore, what is natural is good, and what is contrary to nature is bad."  These people may accept the idea that people should tame nature, but not directly contradict it.  Others focus on nature in itself, and separate it from the idea of God.  In fact, many of those convinced of the goodness and rightness of nature are not traditionally religious.  Lots of folks who gravitate toward nature and the outdoors have an reverence for the nature world that seems a lot like religion to me, even when they don't consider themselves religious.  

I understand this feeling, because reverence for nature comes, well, naturally to me.  I was one of those kids who spent my summers and weekends tromping around the woods, marveling at the wonder of it all.  Like many such people, I think nature has beauty and harmony, an implicit wisdom we should respect. It's not hard to see where this view comes from. Almost anyone thinks a mountain stream, for example, is more beautiful than a sewage drain or salvage yard. A meadow is a nicer thing to look at than a parking deck. But these are just surface appearances.  The apparent harmony and goodness of nature goes deeper than that. Examples abound of the amazing balance and stability of the natural world. For hundreds of millions of years, animals have inhaled oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide, while plants have done the reverse; and around it's gone in an efficient, stable cycle. Examples also abound of the unintended folly of human actions. DDT seemed great until we realized it was wiping out birds. Australia is now knee deep in rabbits, toads, and camels because someone thought it would be a good idea to introduce them.  Artificial trans fats seemed just as good as naturally occurring fats, until we realized...they weren't.
It's no wonder, then, that people make the generalization that natural is good, unnatural is bad. But the idea is usually based on gut feelings more than facts, so it tends to be both strongly held and vaguely formulated. The result is that people draw conflicting, often mutually exclusive conclusions from their intuitions about the "rightness" of nature. People have appealed to nature to justify or attack just about every idea imaginable. Some assume that herbal remedies are always safer and more effective than synthetic drugs, simply because they are natural, even though there's no scientific reason to think plants evolved to provide us with medicines. Sometimes it's true that natural remedies are better, but it isn't necessarily (or even usually) true. Arsenic, mercury, and hemlock, which are all quite natural, will kill you quite dead, while synthetics like sulfa drugs have saved millions of lives. Social conservatives often justify discrimination against gays on the grounds that homosexuality is "against nature". Various forms of social Darwinism, the idea that we should let the "fittest" in society rise to the top, leaving the unfit to their fate (because that's the way nature works) are still rather common. So, while there's no doubt we can learn a lot from the natural world, it's crucial that we take this intuition and clarify exactly what it means, and what it doesn't.

I learned this lesson once at a party.  I was talking to a good friend, who has degrees in philosophy and biology, about whether it was wrong to eat animals.  As an ethical vegetarian, she thought it was. I disagreed, telling her I thought there is nothing wrong with eating other animals, because that's the way nature works. I said, "Animals eat each other throughout the natural world, so why should we be an exception?" "Well," she shot back, "infanticide, robbery, and deceit happen all the time in nature too. Does that mean it's fine for us to do those things? Whether or not something happens in nature doesn't determine whether it's ethically right"
I opened my mouth to reply...and then shut it again.  I had no retort to her argument. I had always been the type to look to nature for guidance about how the world should work, and I had never thought about things this way. But I realized she was right. The fact that lions kill other lions' cubs doesn't make it ethically right for us to kill infants. If I find it indefensible to justify infanticide by saying it happens in nature, I have to admit that justifying meat-eating on the same basis is just as groundless. The logic is the same in both cases. This realization wasn't enough to convince me it was wrong to eat meat, but I did have to abandon my favorite justification for it. 

I found out later that I had been caught red-handed committing a well known philosophical fallacy, called the naturalistic fallacy, or the appeal to nature fallacy (there's a difference, but it's too subtle to concern us here). The first to point out the problems with this way of thinking was the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume said that just because things are a certain way doesn't mean that things should be that way. The way he put it is that there are no logical grounds for inferring what ought to be from what is. A similar idea was put forth by G.E. Moore at the beginning of the 20th century, using a more sophisticated logical argument. Today most ethicists accept that the naturalistic fallacy is a logical error.  Of course, this doesn't mean that nature as it is has no bearing on what is right.  We obviously ignore nature at our peril. But it does means that just because something exists in nature, that does not mean it's right or good. 

With most natural processes, from colliding molecules to evolving species, it doesn't make much sense to talk about morality, because those processes happen mindlessly.  You may regret that a rock fell on you, or that a virus made you sick, but it doesn't make sense to blame them for their actions, because they have no minds.  They don't know they're doing it.  For an entity to have a moral capacity, it has to have things like awareness, preferences, and the ability to make choices.  Moral beings didn't exist on Earth until animals evolved brains sophisticated enough to have such abilities.  It seems to me that, once an animal develops sensations and preferences, it deserves some degree of moral consideration.  Moving up the scale of moral sophistication, once an animal--a human for example--realizes that other animals are capable of pleasure, pain, and preferences, and becomes able to consider and choose its actions, then we can talk about whether it is behaving morally, based on how its behaviors affect other sentient animals. 

I don't know when in the history of our world the capacity for awareness began, but at some point (long before people came along, I suspect) living things began to feel what was happening to them.  This was a revolution in nature, because it added a subjective--and eventually intellectual and moral--dimension to what had previously been the blind shuffling of matter and energy.  But this revolution has been a mixed blessing for us sentient beings. The simple capacity to feel is a double-edged sword. It introduces pleasure and satisfaction, but also hunger and pain. Because nature is blind, there is no guarantee that the pleasures will outweigh the torments. I have seen pairs of beavers (which often mate for life) carefully groom each other at dusk. Young deer romp and chase each other, and even snakes and lizards seem content when they bask in the sun. I'm convinced that pleasure and appreciation have been around far longer than we humans have. But I've also seen seagulls rob their neighbors' nests and eat the babies. Tragedy and pain are also much older than we are.

I think the romantic vision that nature is unfailingly harmonious and beneficial, and that it offers a sure guide to morality, is deeply flawed.  We need a new, more nuanced way of thinking about about nature, one that recognizes its horrors as well as its glories. I think the Hindus can teach us westerners a lesson here.  The well-known image to the right is the Hindu god Shiva. Typical of Hindu deities, Shiva assumes many contrasting forms. He is simultaneously the god of asceticism, destruction, and sensuality. In the picture, he assumes a form called Nataraja, Sanskrit for "lord of the dance". In this form, Shiva brings the world into being through an awesome cosmic dance of creation. Standing on a dwarf who represents human ignorance-our limited view of reality--he holds a drum symbolizing creation in one of his four hands, and a flame signifying destruction in the other. In Hinduism, the world emerges in the swirling play of these two forces. I think this is a perfect symbol for the way the natural world works. Like a dance, nature is an ongoing process of creation, full of rhythm, balance, and harmony. It's truly a thing of beauty, like many well-orchestrated acts of creation. But, like Shiva, nature frequently creates by destroying. In the cycle of national selection that has built the gorgeous diversity of living things, there is no safety net for those that aren't able to survive and reproduce. Survival of the fittest often means the death of the imperfect. I don't mean that's how things should be.  I'm just saying that's how they are.
Nature may be beautiful, but for the most part it's merciless. For every example of cooperation or nurturing you can find another example of predation, competition, or parasitism. This only makes sense if nature has evolved unconsciously, through a blind process that requires no planning, foresight, or feeling. Nature judges new behaviors and forms on one basis-whether or not they work. With the exception of a few animals with nervous systems, there is little evidence of any awareness in nature. It's senseless to talk about the morality of the natural world, just as it's senseless to blame a tree for falling on your house. Morality presupposes awareness and preference. Unless these abilities are involved, nature is amoral. It is neither good nor evil. It simply is.
We humans probably didn't invent pleasure and pain, or appreciation and tragedy, but we have refined them. Our species has invented sensory and aesthetic wonders, from chocolate ice cream to the Sistine Chapel. But we have also invented iron maidens and concentration camps. We've taken feelings, good and bad, to heights never seen in nature. But our world also differs from the natural world, in ways beyond intensification and refinement. In contrast to the rest of nature, we have a great deal of control over the quality of human life. 
That's one of the bonuses of our ability to imagine things that aren't immediately present. We can imagine alternatives and try to choose the better ones. I think this is the challenge of the human condition--unlike much of nature, we are at least partially responsible for what we do. We can decide how we want to live, how we should treat others, and what kind of society we want to have. Because we have foresight and choice, we have the capacity (some might say duty) to act purposefully and morally. This means it's possible for human society to progress--to improve the world, or at least our own societies. While nature makes decisions based solely on what is stable or viable, we can go beyond these criteria, and chose based on what improves the quality of the lives around us; on what is right and just. The question is whether we have the wisdom and will to do so.