Doing What Comes Naturally

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

Traditionalists
are frequently ridiculed when they oppose some practice or policy
— sodomy, say, or putting women in combat — on the grounds that
it is unnatural, or appeal to the idea of natural law to defend
a moral or legal stance. Talk about what is "natural,"
the scoffers assure us, is merely an ideological smokescreen for
outdated superstitions.

Yet
it is the cultural Left, broadly construed, which in recent years
has made the most unabashed use of the appeal to nature. Radical
environmentalists demand that we go "Back to nature!"
— even "Back to the Pleistocene!" to cite a current variant
of this old slogan — and return to that state of harmony with each
other and with the environment and its flora and fauna from which
modern industrial society has allegedly dragged us.

Sexual
libertines purport to find in Darwinism a justification for throwing
off traditional moral restraints as incompatible with our true nature.
As the Bloodhound Gang's "The Bad Touch," in what passes
these days for a song for wooing, puts it:

You
and me baby ain't nothin' but mammals
So
let's do it like they do on the Discovery channel

Plausible
as both the ecological and libertine appeals to nature might seem
at first glance — at least to that chaotic mix of hormonal passion,
romantic fantasy, and sheer ignorance that is the adolescent mind
— it doesn't take much thought to see their absurdity and mutual
incompatibility.

To
start with the environmentalist's appeal: It is simply false to
say that primitive human societies ever were (or, where they still
exist, are) "in harmony with nature," if this is supposed
to mean that such peoples lived in a kind of Edenic paradise of
plenty, where everyone was equal and love was free and animals were
our friends, not our food. In fact, of course, such societies were
and are typically filthy, smelly, poor, disease-ridden, superstitious,
and ignorant; hierarchy and male dominance and jealousy are universal,
with primitive "free love" existing nowhere but in Margaret
Mead's fevered imagination; and animals were commonly hunted to
near extinction, as the buffalo, beaver, horse, and others were
by American Indians. (Horses, wiped out completely, had to be reintroduced
into North America by Europeans.)

Viewers
of the PBS series 1900 House saw how extremely difficult
it is for modern people, and especially modern adolescents,
to adapt themselves to a way of life a mere 100 years old — and
"deep ecologists" think we'd all find our bliss by going
back 10,000 years?!

It
is, of course, easy for young "idealists" to entertain
such nonsense over pizza, beer, and marijuana in the comfort of
a modern dorm room. Perhaps if they'd put the "activism"
and fornicating on hold for a few moments and open a book or attend
a lecture, they'd discover that Thomas Hobbes got the "state
of nature" just about right 350 years ago:

No
arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual
fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary,
poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Then
again, perhaps not: One has to be very ignorant indeed to treat
the "deep ecologist's" vision with anything but the contempt
it deserves, but such ignorance is nowhere better fostered than
in the modern university. In any case, the reality is that modern,
Western, science-and-technology-based, industrial civilization is,
certainly materially and to a very great extent politically (less
so morally — though hardly for the reasons Leftish environmentalists
think), the best of all worlds. (The fact that virtually no deep
ecologists actually forsake this civilization to live among
their sentimentalized "peoples of the earth" indicates
that deep down they, too, recognize the reality.)

Moreover,
the construction of this civilization, far from being something
that alienated human beings from their true nature, was entirely
natural for them. For whatever else man is, he is, as Aristotle
said, a rational animal, by his very nature the cleverest
thing on the surface of the earth.

It
is in man's nature, that is, to know — to learn what
the world is like and how to change it better to suit his
needs. Automobiles, computers, skyscrapers, nuclear power; capitalism,
global trade, individual rights to life, liberty, and property;
and all the other glories of the modern, civilized world, are not
in the least bit "unnatural" — they are every bit as natural
as birds' nests and beaver dams. They are the product of the unfettered
exercise of that natural attribute — reason — that distinguishes
us from, and puts us above, the lower echelons of the animal kingdom.

Which
brings us to the libertine's appeal to nature. Note first its inconsistency
with the ecologist's appeal: If we're "nothing but mammals,"
etc., mere animals who ought not to be expected to hold ourselves
up to moral restraints, surely there can be no objection to treating
"the environment" the way animals treat it, and treating
animals themselves the way they treat each other — that is, in whatever
way they feel at the moment like doing, however wasteful or violent.
(Moreover, the bizarre moral scruples of vegetarians notwithstanding,
there can, on anyone's construal of "natural" and
certainly on the libertine's construal, surely be nothing more natural
for human beings than the eating of meat, and thus the killing of
animals — anyone who doubts this is invited to examine his teeth
in the nearest mirror.)

In
fact, though, we are, though animals, not mere animals. Assuming
that because human beings evolved from apes, they must act
like apes, is as stupid as assuming that because whales evolved
from land animals, they really ought to be walking about
on land on those little fins of theirs. It is the difference
between human beings and the creatures they evolved from that matters,
and that difference is the presence, in human beings alone, of reason
— and of the capacity for evaluating the world and themselves in
terms of the complex cultural, aesthetic, and moral categories that
are the concomitant of reason.

To
describe human beings as if they were "nothing but" lumps
of meaningless matter, beasts subject to only the most base desires,
would thus be to mis-describe them in the most brutally inept
way. Human beings, being by their very nature reasoning creatures,
cannot help but see themselves and their behavior in terms of complex
concepts like free will and right and wrong, and trying to understand
their behavior in a way that discards these concepts is like trying
to understand the behavior of the lower animals without applying
the simpler concepts of hunger and fear.

As
the philosopher Roger Scruton has argued persuasively and at length
in his An
Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy
, the tendency of
modern intellectuals to try to reduce complex, intelligent, and
meaningful human behavior to simple, brute, and meaningless animal
behavior — that is, to reduce it to what it patently is not — is
not genuine science, but crude pseudo-science, and is among the
true causes of any sense of alienation and unease that exists
in modern life.

Those
inclined toward such a reduction also abuse the concept of what
is "natural" when they seek to excuse some form of behavior
traditionally condemned as unnatural by looking for some genetic
cause of it. For though much of what is "natural" to human
beings no doubt has a genetic basis, it does not follow that anything
having a genetic basis must be natural, especially in any sense
of "natural" which has moral implications. A squirrel
which, due to some genetic mutation, is inclined to eat and store
pebbles rather than nuts, or to try to mate exclusively with other
squirrels of its own sex, is obviously behaving in a way contrary
to what we might call "squirrel nature" — and in a way
dysfunctional and harmful from a biological point of view, as such
behavior rather decreases the chances of the squirrel's either surviving
or reproducing.

Similarly,
that there might be a genetic factor responsible in human beings
for alcoholism, or over-eating, or homosexuality, or violence, or
whatever, by no means entails that such behaviors are "natural"
or morally unproblematic. Of course, precisely how the moral evaluation
of such behaviors should go is a complicated business, and must
be examined carefully and dispassionately. But however it should
go, the identification of some genetic component is merely the beginning
of the matter, not the end of it.

At
the end of the day, though, it is the traditional moralist who has
the advantage where questions of what is "natural" for
human beings are concerned. The sorts of moral rules that are most
conducive to human well-being must, of necessity, be those which
are most in tune with human nature. Whatever rules those rules happen
to be, no community of human beings which disregards them for a
long stretch of time is likely to thrive or even survive, especially
if competing against communities which do follow them.

It
follows that the moral rules that have survived the longest are,
in general, the likeliest to be in tune with human nature and conducive
to human well-being — for if they were not, those rules would probably
have died out, since the groups observing them would have
died out. Traditional moral rules, then, must get the benefit of
the doubt, and be presumed to be the ones most conducive to human
well-being until proven otherwise.

Thus
it is no surprise that the research of sociobiologists, in applying
Darwinian evolution to human beings, and of writers like Hayek,
in developing quasi-Darwinian theories of cultural evolution, should
so often seem to confirm the utility of traditional attitudes and
mores dismissed as "prejudices" by self-described progressives.
Indeed, the political theorist Larry Arnhart, in Darwinian
Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature
, argues
that Darwinian sociobiology — or evolutionary psychology, as it
is often known these days — far from undermining traditional morality,
in fact supports the natural law tradition in moral thinking associated
with St. Thomas Aquinas, a tradition notoriously conservative in
its moral implications (and thus abominated by the cultural Left).

Perhaps,
then, "doing what comes naturally" means, ultimately,
doing quite the opposite of what the libertines and "back to
nature" types recommend. Indeed, perhaps "Back to nature!"
itself ought to be the rallying cry of traditionalists —
it could, in their mouths, finally be used to say something meaningful
and constructive.

July
24, 2001

Edward
Feser (send him
mail
) teaches philosophy at Loyola Marymount University
in Los Angeles.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare