Natural Does Not Equal Good

“Unnatural, mummy? You tell me, what’s nature’s way? If poison mushrooms grow and babies come with crooked backs, if goiters thrive and dogs go mad and wives kill husbands, what’s unnatural?”
Richard, The Lion in Winter

One of the claims to which people seem peculiarly susceptible at the moment is that if something is “natural”, it must be good. “Natural” foods are believed to be uniformly healthy. The finding that some particular behavior (say, polyamory) is found in nature is taken to be some sign that it is a good thing.

I think a fair amount of this results from our culture having lost a sense of tragic vision in regards to nature — we naturally assume that unless some active force comes along and makes things bad, that they will be good. This could not be farther from a traditional view of nature. While neo-pagans are sure that being “in tune” with nature would be a blissful and pleasant state, real pagans of the ancient world saw the natural forces that were bound up with their gods as capricious, sometimes cruel, and almost always unconcerned with the impact of their actions upon mortals.

We as Christians see nature as having been created by God and being something that He saw as good. Yet in a fallen world, I don’t think we’d be far off in taking a fairly tragic vision, similar to the ancients, of how we relate to nature and what “nature’s way” is.

This also comes up in the current debate over same sex marriage, where I’ve on a number of occasions had people tell me that if attraction towards members of one’s own sex is “not a choice” but instead something “natural”, then obviously same sex marriage must be a good thing and what God intended. It would be cruel, it is argued, if God allowed some people to have such an inclination but did not allow it to be fulfilled through marriage.

I don’t know if I’m just particularly heartless, but I find this mode of argumentation entirely unpersuasive. It seems to me that there are lots of strong, sometimes seemingly irresistible, desires that we have which it would not be moral to fulfill.

A tragic vision seems an essential means of coping with the world as we find it.  More Greeks and Norse, please.

51 Responses to Natural Does Not Equal Good

  • I think the appeal of “natural” things is really a reaction against the scientistic arrogance of the modern technocracy. And I think that is a good thing.

    Actually, I think that’s a really good point, Joe. And that can be a valuable check to our “we can do anything we want” modern outlook. I often find myself pointing to what we are and how we work as creatures in order to say, “No, human beings aren’t meant to work this way.”

    At the same time, I think there’s an unhealthy way to turn to nature as well.

    So sure, Bonobos engage in casual group sex to defuse social tensions and reduce conflict. They also at times engage in cannibalism. I don’t think that the fact these critters are comparatively closely related to us and exhibit these behaviors means those behaviors are “good”.

  • Pinky says:

    If we all acted on our natural desires, Charlize Theron wouldn’t get a moment’s peace. The men of the world would amass around her house and fight to the death for the chance to be with her.

    When did we accept this idea that all desires are to be indulged, anyway? I know you could trace it back to the Romantic movement, or the Enlightenment, or ultimately to the Fall, but no one actually believed it. It was a theory. Humans would sit around and talk about how cool it would be to do whatever we wanted, then our moms would call us for dinner, and we’d obediently go home. The only new thing under the sun is that we actually think that this nonsense is a workable life vision.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    “If we all acted on our natural desires, Charlize Theron wouldn’t get a moment’s peace.”

    First I would have to know who she is Pinky. If we get past that hurdle, I am sure my good wife would help make certain that my natural desires, such as they are, would keep themselves firmly in check. :)

  • If we all acted on our natural desires, Charlize Theron wouldn’t get a moment’s peace. The men of the world would amass around her house and fight to the death for the chance to be with her

    We need a comment of the year award at TAC. That’s awesome, lol.

  • So, while we must make it clear that what is natural IS good (and that is why NATURAL LAW is valid), we are not always engaging the world according to nature (and why people misconstrue natural law by assuming fallen mode of being as being what is natural).

  • I think there’s a general recognition that not everything natural is good but I also think people are skeptical of messing with nature in ways we don’t fully understand. Some of it is warranted. Things once thought safe have been proven to be unsafe. Some of it is due to ignorance of the science and some of it is due to the fact that the science is unclear. I see a paradox here. On social and economic issues, conservatives like to argue that we should be cautious because we don’t know the unintended consequences of changes. But on environmental issues, liberals make the same argument.

  • Mike Petrik says:

    “So sure, Bonobos engage in casual group sex to defuse social tensions and reduce conflict. They also at times engage in cannibalism. I don’t think that the fact these critters are comparatively closely related to us and exhibit these behaviors means those behaviors are “good”.”

    Much the same can be said for Bobos.

  • baba says:

    There is “nature” and then there is “natural law”. For the Catholic Church the natural law is God’s law. For a very complete and nuanced discussion of natural law and how it should be incorporated into the laws of the State, I would recommend reading Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Libertas”. If you don’t want to read the whole thing you can read my article on it here:
    Pope Leo XIII on Freedom

    The cult of freedom is one of the central problems which American society faces. Unrestricted freedom is not a blessing; it’s a curse. When America drops the teachings of Jesus Christ as the basis for morality, then it is left with no basis for morality at all. This is clear from reading the decision by Judge Walker on Proposition 8. Morality is one of those things that is not subject to reason. The same arguments that the Judge uses to say that religious arguments are absurd with regards gay “marriage” can be applied to just about any moral issue.

  • Pinky says:

    “Now, that is in contention for comment of the year. Ha!”

    As soon as people start saying you’re the best, every young kid with a revolver comes gunning for ya.

  • Donna V. says:

    It’s not surprising that both Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan are enthusiastically pushing this book. Both men are 1. gay and strongly in favor of gay marriage and 2. are or have been quite promiscuous. They want to have their cake and eat it too. They want the financial benefits and societal respect accorded marriage, but they also wish to continue to sleep around. If polyamory can be widely accepted as “natural” and thus superior to “oppressive” old monogamy, then they can continue to bedhop after marriage without censure.

    It’s hardly stop the presses! news to anybody that people may be attracted to other people besides their spouses. It’s also not news that some married folks will yield to temptation. What is a modern twist is the rather sad need some people have to have all of their own sexual quirks and proclivities and tastes applauded and approved of by “society.”

    What those people wish to avoid thinking about is the idea that unlike bonobos and dogs and chickens, humans form deep relationships with their mates. A hen does not suffer agonies because tonight her true love Col. Foghorn Leghorn is spending the evening with another cute chick. Anybody I’ve known who has favored polyamory (and gee, sorry guys, but it always seems to be men who argue that polyamory or polygamy are natural and therefore we women are much too hard on straying mates)ends up saying people, i.e. women “shouldn’t” shouldn’t suffer agonies, shouldn’t be possessive, shouldn’t get all hurt and unreasonable. Sorry, but they are and those feelings of betrayal and agony and hurt are every bit as “natural” as polyamory.

    What hedonists also ignore is that “nature” is pretty darn hard on the promiscuous. Before AIDS, there was syphilis and there are still quite a few lesser STD’s which can make one’s existence very uncomfortable.

  • baba says:

    Joe. You seem to be taking the Libertarian view towards freedom. This is the logical conclusion of the view that absolute freedom trumps all other values. This is the creed of the cult of freedom. “I believe in Freedom.” (Or Liberty if you prefer.)

    Catholic teaching is quite different. It emphasizes submission to God’s will which results in a very different kind of freedom which is freedom from sin. We are all slaves, we just serve different masters. A judge who is serving God can and should do everything possible to change a law that is against God’s will. So there is a justification for judicial activism if used properly.

    In fact there is nothing inherently good about democracy. If “we the people” are not guided by God’s law, then democracy is just another form of dictatorship. In fact Pope Benedict XVI talked about a “dictatorship of relativism”:

    “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
    http://www.vatican.va/gpII/documents/homily-pro-eligendo-pontifice_20050418_en.html

    You notice that the Church of Christ is not a democracy. (And neither are most businesses.) I think the “overturning popular opinion” argument is one of the weakest, and is a position that is being taken because it conveniently suits the purposes of those opposing gay “marriage”. If we concede that religion should not be the basis for morality and therefore the law, then we have lost not only the battle but also the war. The biggest flaw in the Constitution is that it does not mention God, but this is in line with Enlightenment thinking. And now we are seeing where this flaw finally takes us, which is back to the morality of the ancient Greeks.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    “Sorry, but they are and those feelings of betrayal and agony and hurt are every bit as “natural” as polyamory.”

    More so Donna, since without those type of feelings it is impossible for the deepest of love to occur, something that hedonists eventually learn to their cost. When everything is reduced to the physical and the surface, with no intention of deeper attachments being formed, it becomes completely meaningless, and often sooner rather than later.

  • G-Veg says:

    Good Morning baba,

    I understand these principles in our personal lives. Free Will gives us the freedom to do whatever we wish; which is to say that we are entirely free to either follow God’s plan or go it on our own. Ultimately, there are consequences to choices and true freedom is the ability to sleep soundly because we are ready to be taken home at His command.

    I wonder if I might persuade you to tie this into the larger civil society though? I suspect that most readers and bloggers here agree and understand the principles you state. But, once we get past our personal lives, there is a bit of a vacuum as to the application. Perhaps you are saying that, while the larger civil society SHOULD be organized to direct us towards those principles, as a practical matter, it is not and never will be?

    I suspect that the last statement is true and look to the experience of the Israelites – each reorganization of society around different leadership principles meant to “correct” the defect of not following God’s commands and each failing miserably – and Christ’s admonition to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s for support. Do I have it right?

  • Andrew says:

    I’ve always refuted the natural=good argument (such as is found in “Marijuana grows in nature so it’s okay”) with “Arsenic is natural. Are you going to ingest some of that?”

  • baba says:

    G-Veg. I guess we need to ask why the US was successful at implementing a democracy, while in France it failed. I think this is because the US did not fully embrace enlightenment principles the way France did. The US did not reject Christianity, but rather embraced it. This kept the US from falling into a dogmatic death spiral like what happened in France.

    In the US there was an undeclared truce that was worked out between the deists that wrote the Constitution and the vast majority of the population which were Christians. The deists while not believing in Christianity took care not to denounce it – at least not in public. (The exception being Thomas Paine in “Age of Reason”.)

    There was an unwritten concordat (if you will) that delineated the boundaries between the state and Christianity. (In contrast in France under Napoleon there was an actual written concordat with the Vatican concerning the roles of the state and the Church in education and marriage, etc.)

    This arrangement worked well enough in the US until the 20th century. The biggest factor I think was the emergence of mass communication (radio, TV, movies) which was quickly seen by the Humanist forces as a powerful weapon which could be used in a cultural war. The dogmatism imposed by the state from above (by force) was replaced by a creeping dogmatism that infiltrated into the individual conscience through constant exposure (via the media) to enlightenment ideals.

    So to answer your question, the solution is not to impose Catholic doctrine in a dogmatic fashion from above. The only solution is to nurture a Christian conscience in individuals, and then encourage those individuals to work through society to make changes from within. This probably means that in the future Christianity will become a dwindling minority in the US. Of course we need to remember that for God all things are possible, and we must continue to have faith in His Plan.

  • Nate Wildermuth says:

    Well, I just can’t stay away! ;)

    Henry is right. We need to be careful to distinguish between natural desires and fallen desires. Natural desires are rightly ordered desires–ordered according to the meaning and purpose of human existence. Fallen desires are disordered (yet still natural and still good) desires–ordered contrary to the meaning and purpose of human existence.

    So while the feeling of sexual attraction that a man may have for a man is still *natural*, it is disordered, and hence, fallen.

    Yes, everything is natural. But no, not everything is ordered as it should be. Sexual attraction, and sexual behavior, is ordered toward the purpose and meaning of sexuality.

    Perhaps when someone says, ‘it is natural’, we should ask: well, what do you mean by ‘natural’? Do you mean that it is part of the natural order and oriented toward the purpose of that order? Or do you mean simply that you saw it happen somewhere at some time?

  • To Joe’s point in his first paragraph, Fr. Benedict Ashley OP has made the compelling point that Romanticism (which values nature in the sense which Darwin uses it) and modern technocracy are two sides of the same coin. I wish I could flesh out his point more, but the book in which he makes the point (Choosing a Worldview and Value System) is currently boxed up for an office move! In any case, it’s a provocative point which might be worth following up upon.

  • baba says:

    Chris. The Romantics, if you’re talking about people like Percy Shelley, were anti-religious, so they fit in nicely with the thinking of Darwin and Huxley. The “theory” of evolution is largely a pretext to attack religion – especially the Bible. Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” reveals his anti-religious thinking. Prometheus is the Titan who stole fire from the gods of Mt. Olympus, who are used to represent religion. The fire which Prometheus gave to Man is used to represent technology.

    The hope of Darwin, Shelley and others (Malthus, Huxley, etc.) is to unbound science (Prometheus) from religion. This is the same sort of Enlightenment thinking that drives the French Revolution and socialism. One of the things that results from this is the absolute separation of Church and State. (Notice also the similarity between Prometheus and Lucifer the “light bearer”.)

    Shelley’s wife, Mary Shelley, wrote Frankenstein. The complete title is “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus”. You can see that even back then they were thinking of how Man could create a new form of life. The ultimate goal of this movement is for Man to become like God. This is Nietzsche’s Superman. (“God is dead.”) This is also the origins of the eugenics (“good gene”) movement.

    Today we have people like Craig Venter playing God through biotechnology. And we have the Humanists telling us how wonderful stem cell technology is – especially if they can use human embryos to experiment on – because this paves the way for creating a real life “Modern Prometheus” (Frankenstein).

    And the flip side of this is people creating a robot with artificial intelligence which is another way for Man to become God. The ultimate goal is to create a “Transhuman” which goes beyond natural evolution to create a new species of Man that incorporates both biological and computer technology. (Also nano-technology.) I’ve explored some of these ideas on my blog:
    Agnostica Eugenica Transhumana – A Dragon’s tail
    Iron Man as Prometheus Unbound

    So yes, Romanticism and Technology are oddly coupled. The Romantics would probably have been deists that looked to nature as their god and would have been revolting against Christianity since they would say that it Christianity against scientific reasoning. Not very “romantic” if you ask me, but then Humanist aren’t very humane either.

  • pb says:

    Clarifications:

    Henry is right. We need to be careful to distinguish between natural desires and fallen desires. Natural desires are rightly ordered desires–ordered according to the meaning and purpose of human existence. Fallen desires are disordered (yet still natural and still good) desires–ordered contrary to the meaning and purpose of human existence.

    Natural inclinations are rightly ordered through the acquisition of virtue (or through growth in the infused virtue). Fallen desires may be equivalent to desires not yet ordered by reason, or it may mean disordered desires. That they may have a good object does not mean that the desire itself is good, if it is opposed to reason.

    So while the feeling of sexual attraction that a man may have for a man is still *natural*, it is disordered, and hence, fallen.
    An analysis relying upon hylomorphism:
    A defect may be said to be natural in so far as it proceeds from matter and not form. I deny that SSA is natural in the sense that it is proper to the form. Those who wish to make same-sex attraction natural are implicitly arguing this.

    Yes, everything is natural. But no, not everything is ordered as it should be. Sexual attraction, and sexual behavior, is ordered toward the purpose and meaning of sexuality.
    The problem is ordering — if same-sex attraction is unchosen and pre-rational, then it makes no sense to say that it is not ordered as it should be, since order comes with reason and not prior to it. Unless you mean that it is not ordered with respect to the author of that desire, God Himself. This is akin to saying that God made them homosexual even though He wants them to be heterosexual.

    One cannot “order” a desire which has for its object that which is intrinsically opposed to reason. One can only not act in accordance with it.

    Thus to say SSA is “natural” without the necessary clarifications is to concede too much to the homosexual agenda.

  • Foxfier says:

    Baba-
    argument slightly weakened by Frankenstein (and the storyline, which has been copied to the point of parody) being a classic story of why it’s bad to play god– you’ll lose everything you love.

  • Foxfier says:

    PB-
    I think the “order” they’re talking about is from a specific theory– short version, in the ideal world it wouldn’t exist. No natural disasters, no babies with crooked backs, no inborn perverse desire. I can’t remember which philosopher it was, one of the classics?

  • WJ says:

    Apropos to this interesting topic is an essay written by Paul Griffiths that was published in April or May in First Things, in which he denies our epistemic ability to distinguish between natural and unnatural desires given the fall. That essay caused a big ruckus, but I think its main point holds, and is an important point for American Catholics to keep in mind. (For one thing, it eviscerates the pretensions of new-natural law theorists who pretend as though we can read off from the structure of practical rationality a conclusion about same-sex marriage, among other things.)

  • WJ

    Paul is right, and I have discussed similar topics before when dealing with the problems behind “natural law.” The issue is not that the idea behind “natural law” is in error, nor that there is an element of truth which we can get to when addressing it, it is, however, limited and obscured by sin. For an interesting thinking who writes on the problems of natural law, I would always recommend Ellul. I think he goes too far (too much Barth and negativity toward the human) but I do think he reminds us concerns.

  • mundabor says:

    The “not a choice” supporters should explain why they do not approve of incest, bestiality and ephebophilia or paedophilia (all very “natural” to those who commit them, who will claim that they “do not have a choice”). Instead, the liberals pick a particular perversion (homosexuality) and decide that *that* is all right because it’s “natural”.

    If they do approve of all the other abominations, they shouldd say it out loud so that the majority of decent (if gullible) people may become fully aware of their evil thinking.

    M

  • WJ & Henry,

    Sadly, I’m not a First Things subscriber at the moment, so I can’t get to Griffiths’ essay right now, though I’ll make a point of seeking it out in a month or two when it comes out from behind the subscriber-only wall.

    It does certainly strike me, at a practical level, that one of the big problems with natural law is that it is hard to get people of differing viewpoints to agree on what it is. There is most certainly a reality of how things work in regards to our nature and the nature of the world which we can know through experience and observation. But there’s also, obviously, a lot which goes on in nature and can thus be observed which is not natural in the sense of conforming to our nature/ideal form.

  • WJ says:

    pb,

    I had not read that response. Thanks. I wonder, though, if the response of Snell doesn’t just push the problem to a different level. Snell writes:

    “The Thomist never looks at the soul to find some natural shape to its structure; the Thomist examines the intentions of the human being, the “why?” and “what for?” of action. A person does x. Why? Well, for the sake of y. He or she intended y and so chose x. This is the domain of intelligibility, of form.”

    But I take it that one of Griffiths’s major points–a point supported by Augustine, Nietzsche, and Freud–is that the answer to “why?” is never so tidy as a typical new natural lawyer would present it as being. At issue is not the contention that such a domain of intelligibility exists (at least not for Augustine, which distinguishes him from Nietzsche), nor that that domain does not, if fully understood, reveal the hierarchy of ends culminating in God (which distinguishes Augustine from Freud), but that our *epistemic* access to such intelligibility is so impaired that, beyond the most general or abstract level (say, the level of the primary precepts of the natural law), we must simply throw up our hands. This, I take it, is the Augustinian alternative to what many perceive as the naive optimism of new natural lawyers.

    Of course, both positions are well within orthodoxy; though they sometimes issue in very different assessments of what can or should be expected of a polity not formed by Christ and his Church, and consequently of whether, for example, arguments against gay-marriage should have any rational force for those not already being formed in Christ.

  • pb says:

    “The Thomist never looks at the soul to find some natural shape to its structure; the Thomist examines the intentions of the human being, the “why?” and “what for?” of action. A person does x. Why? Well, for the sake of y. He or she intended y and so chose x. This is the domain of intelligibility, of form.”

    I don’t know what sources he has consulted, but Snell is just wrong on this point if this is meant to be exclusive. The Thomist looks not only at the intention but also at the external act. But as to the more important point — how is our epistemic access. I don’t think it’s a problem with the intelligibility of ends, as those who advocate same-sex marriage, for the most part, appeal to the same set of goods. The question is of the means, and whether the means is correctly ordered to the ends. And yes, here it is possible that the lack of order in the soul, whether it be through vice or an unnatural inclination, can affect our moral reasoning. The problem is not with the reasoning or the “intelligibility” but with will’s influence on the act of judgment.

    Now, the “real world situation” may be the same regardless of which account is better, but even there I’d disagree with what you wrote to a point — just because arguments for certain laws do not have rational force for some people does not mean that those laws should not be put into effect. Good Catholic moral theology (or Catholic teaching, for that matter) has never endorsed the sort of egalitarianism which demands that all laws must be assented to by all before they can be promulgated.

  • WJ says:

    pb,

    We are really not very far away from each other, are we?

    I agree with you that Snell’s (and Finnis’ and George’s) is an attenuated Thomism. I suspect that the reason why it is so is that–at least in Finnis and Grisez–the is/ought distinction is accepted as the starting point for ethics.

    I suppose that I am not as certain as you are that the question “why are you doing x?” is as easily answered as you present it as being. It may be that these parties, while they appear to agree, are in fact using the same terms in equivocal senses; it may be that each party is doing x for some reason other than what he/she presents to him/herself upon refletion, and that he/she really has no access to a determinate answer to this question, etc.

    But of course I grant that, assuming a non-equivocal response, the arguments most usually turn upon whether the means advocated by each party in the dispute align with or fall away from the ends toward which they are directed.

    I also agree on what you say about law at the conclusion of your comment. I’d just want to add that, once you realize that certain laws do not and cannot be expected to have rational force for large sectors of the population, you are then faced with the *prudential* decision about how the Church should act in relation to it. To take up the case of same-sex marriage, for example, Paul Griffiths holds (unsurprisingly) that Catholics should forget about what the American polity can or cannot be rationally persuaded of and should instead refocus their energies on revitalizing their own ecclesial community, hoping by doing so to display the beauty of Christian sexuality and thus, God willing, gain converts. Robert George has a different answer to this question, of course. And they both seem to me to be well within the Catholic tradition.

  • pb says:

    WJ, apparently not! It seems likely that I’d disagree with the substance of Griffith’s argument, but I do agree with his practical recommendations for the most part–though I do see a place for some sort of “political activism” at the local or state level in those areas where such can be effective.

  • G-Veg says:

    Would that I was as well read!!! It has been a fascinating discussion to watch unfold. Thank you.

    I wonder though if the personal experiences of Catholics are as conflicted as the theoretical framework seems to suggest we should be.

    I know what I do is wrong and I know why it is wrong from the moment that it enters my head. It is not a rational response. I simply “know” that a particular act is wrong. Unfortunately, I often do it anyway. Tragically, I frequently analyze before action – specifically recognizing both that the particular act is wrong and that there are alternatives. It is this reality – knowing what is wrong and consciously choosing to do it – that condemns me.

    I have absorbed tens of thousands of rules that are at play behind the scene – “do unto others…, Thou shalt not…, It is unlawful… etc.” and I do not doubt that the basis of the conscious conscience is formed rather than imbued. My experience though is that there is a deeper understanding – something that drives the eyes down in shame before reason kicks in – at work. It is THAT force that I think of as “natural law.”

    It is my experience that the force that wells up from beneath reason is a surer test of right and wrong than my later analysis. It is haunting in a way that cannot be managed or manipulated, it can only be accepted or rejected. All of the rules that are laid on top, even those which come verbatim from Scripture, can be maneuvered around: I apply exceptions and allowances that let me get some of what I want (and know to be wrong) – like I am negotiating with God.

    In case I’ve failed to make my point clear, my experience has been that I simply “know” (perhaps “feel” is a better word) that something is wrong and then, after I have done it, reason kicks in to explain away my culpability. Even if reason cannot fully exonerate me, the exercise allows me to imagine that I am not as guilty. And yet I am ashamed and that shame is the surest proof that no reasoning can take away the reality of my sins.

  • G-Veg says:

    Reading over what I wrote, I had one thought to share: those “tens of thousands of rules that are at play behind the scene” tend to be extremely valuable for avoiding the opportunity for sin more than as the reason for knowing that something IS a sin or that I ought to avoid it. It is because I know the Golden Rule (and because I know that “what goes around, comes around” that I DON’T embarrass someone I dislike at a meeting. That particular acts are unseemly removes opportunity to sin.

  • G-Veg says:

    Me thinks I need to go back to the drawing board. The images is of St. Michael but it is too complicated for so small as space. Shrunk down, it is unintelligible.

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