• Doing What Comes Naturally

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    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    outdated superstitions.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.

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