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Naturally Good Print E-mail
By M.T. Lu   
Saturday, 21 June 2014

Almost everybody has the intuition, at some level, that the natural is good. This is why advertisers are so eager to label their products “all-natural.” At the same time, many find incredible the claim that a certain kind of act – say, the use of artificial contraception – is wrong because it is unnatural. Indeed, it is a curious fact of modern life that many of the very same people who insist that their all-natural dairy products come from hormone-free cows don’t bat an eye at dosing themselves with artificial hormones for decades on end. So there’s an opportunity here, if only we can figure out how to grab it.

People also need to see that this mode of moral judgment is in no way unique to sexual acts. The standard of goodness as naturalness applies to all moral judgments. For instance, properly understood even something like murder is an unnatural act in that it involves a violation of natural justice. So there is nothing ad hoc in seeing the unnatural as evil; rather, it reflects a metaphysics of goodness that entails not only that the unnatural is bad, but, perhaps more surprisingly, that nothing is bad except the unnatural.

The most common confusions around this point stem from a failure to recognize that there are different senses of natural, and that appeal to one of them does not necessarily invoke the others. In particular, we need to distinguish between natural as: (1) the opposite of artificial, (2) congenital, and (3) perfective, i.e. realizing what a thing most essentially is.

We often hear a reflexive reaction to the claim that some act is unnatural: so are clothes, computers, medicine, etc., and surely you don’t think those are bad! Here, obviously, unnatural means artificial. Indeed it would be ridiculous to affirm that something is wrong or bad simply because it is artificial – which is, of course, why that is not what is meant.

Rather, to say something is bad because it’s unnatural specifically means that the act is contrary to nature. Many artificial things are not contrary to nature (e.g., medicine), and some things are contrary to nature that are not artificial (e.g. bestiality). Something can be unnatural without being contrary to nature.


         Loves nature. Takes contraceptives.

Consider someone born with a heart defect. There is a colloquial sense in which the defect is “natural” insofar as the victim was “born that way.” Yet in a much more important sense, the defect is unnatural. What determines what is natural is the proper activity of the organ, not its contingent condition at birth. The congenital defect is properly understood as unnatural precisely because it undermines the natural activity of the heart and thus the health of the person whose heart it is.

Contrast this with surgery done to repair the defective heart. Obviously the surgery is highly artificial in making use of advanced tools and the skill of the surgeon. Yet in a deeper sense, the reparative activity of the surgeon is natural insofar as it restores the proper function of the heart. And this is true despite the fact that the heart is “restored” to a condition that it never actually previously possessed. Here some of the most technologically advanced and artificial tools of human intelligence are put in the service of nature: to establish what should be by nature, but is not by accident.

Properly understood nature must always be the standard for medicine. It’s true that artificial means are used to “restore” natural ends. However, it’s vital to see that these artificial means are fundamentally in accord with nature. Even if the patient happened to be born that way, the congenital defect is nonetheless fundamentally unnatural because it is contrary to the natural, organic activity of the organ. This contrast should help us to see why evil is contrary to nature; evil is what’s missing, what should be there, but isn’t.

This, then, is what we mean when we oppose the good as natural to the evil as unnatural. It expresses the deeply traditional idea – found in Plato and Aristotle, and developed in the subsequent Catholic moral tradition – that nature is fundamentally teleological and what counts as good is dependent on some end (or telos) that things possess “by nature.” Thus, it is only because beings have an innate nature or essence that we can meaningfully say that any particular individual is good (insofar as it realizes that essence), or bad (insofar as it doesn’t). And this is true of all natural kinds: plants and animals, as well as human beings.

Thus an individual person is good simply to the degree that he or she manifests the characteristic perfections of rational human nature – i.e., what we call the virtues. Unlike plants and animals, however, human beings are also creatures of will and practical reason; that is, we make choices. No plant or animal can choose to act against its nature; it merely flourishes or fails. In contrast, as rational creatures we possess the freedom to choose contrary to our own nature and best interests, which means we are capable of moral evil – freely choosing against the good.

The tradition teaches us that the goodness of nature is a law written on our hearts; in our deepest recesses we cannot not know this, which is of course why so much effort is expended in the modern world to deny it. In the end, this effort is incoherent and must fail, but in the meantime, much harm is being done. And yet the widespread desire for the natural represents an opportunity. All we need to do is get people to see that “all-natural” is as good for their ethics as it is for their milk.

 
M. T. Lu is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
 
 
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written by Rich in MN, June 21, 2014
Thank you, Dr. Lu, for fleshing out a critical distinction, but is there a way it can be applied to the "Doughnut Attack"?

The "Doughnut Attack" (not to be confused with the "Twinkie Defense") asserts that we do some things (e.g. consume doughnuts) that are basically contrary to the best use of our natural design (e.g. eating for nutrition) but we do them simply because they are pleasurable and we crave them. Regarding sexual expression and the plethora of rationalizations surrounding it, the "Doughnut Attackers" usually remind us that most of the world's evils are due to overpopulation and that we will all be forced into cannibalism by 1975 (or 1995, or 2015, or 2050) if we do not stop reproducing immediately. Furthermore, if "The 1%" will not give up their billions of dollars to raise wages and save the poor, why should we give up our new, 3-dimensional iPhones with their turbo-charged shopping apps and 6G streaming capabilities in order to afford having kids? And why can't Adam and Steve get married? What is the commensurate harm that comes from treating sex like a Crispy Cream doughnut?

And, before you even start formulating your response, you well know that the "That Study Has Been Discredited" Counterattack is already in the missile silos and is set for launch.

St. JPII once told someone, preach the truth and do not be consumed with trying to answer every objection because objections will never end, and you will end up wasting all of your time and energy answering objections. Still, I think St. JPII would agree that it's good to have some sort of answer to the "Doughnut Attack."
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written by Howard Kainz, June 21, 2014
Sigmund Freud in his "A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis" defines sexual perversion thus: "It is a characteristic common to all the perversions that in them reproduction as an aim is put aside. This is actually the criterion by which we judge whether a sexual activity is perverse -- if it departs from reproduction in its aims and pursues the attainment of gratification independently... [Such activity] is called by the unhonored title of 'perversion' and as such is despised." But this was published in 1943, before many psychological definitions changed.
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written by Gus, June 21, 2014
I think that before we try to figure out a way to apply the “standard of goodness as naturalness,” someone first needs to figure out a fool proof way to quash the philosophy of “relativism,” since it is relativism that is being used to refute the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas.
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written by Benedict Augustine, June 21, 2014
Well said, Dr. Lu. It takes a while to grasp this sort of understanding of nature, but I think it's important in perfecting one's morality. That which is natural restores and perfects what is essential in a particular being.

As Rich suggests, apologists who intend to use this argument may want to anticipate some objections from those who could care less about the naturalness of the things they consume. A doughnut won't kill a person; fornication, in turn, won't kill a person either. Nevertheless, using that kind of criteria as a basis for one's morality works as a rationalization for a particular habit but it doesn't work for a person who hopes to live life to the fullest in all ways. One could make the case of perfecting one's soul (or moral character, for those who don't believe in souls) to ensure a healthy spiritual life (or psychology). Thus, one could criticize promiscuity and perversions as severe harms against such healthiness, on par with exposure to radiation or a gunshot wound rather than eating a doughnut. That wouldn't finish the argument, but it might move the objector to think of what might be more natural and conducive to health, moral behavior or immoral behavior.
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written by Rich in MN, June 22, 2014
Benedict Augustine, I really like your idea of focusing the argument on the notion of personal health. Most "Doughnut Attackers" will get this vacuous look in their eyes when presented with arguments involving abortion or a child's right to know, love, and be loved by their biological parents in a committed, permanent relationship. However, these same, glassy-eyed doughnut attackers are often keenly aware of their own health. Making the argument that giving someone your body also involves giving them part of your soul (or "psyche") by the very act itself, this is something that resonates as true with many people, maybe all people, if they just take a moment to consider it. And, since we would be talking from a self-focused angle to a self-focused person, it might be a 'good fit,' as they say.
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written by Richard A, June 23, 2014
ctually, the "Doughnut Attack" can probably be helpful as an illustration. After all, it is surely obvious that most acts of sexual intercourse are performed for the enjoyment of it, not for the conscious purpose of procreation, and I think we would be precipitate in condemning as unnatural sex engaged in for that purpose. It becomes unnatural when performed in a manner that deliberately acts against the obvious physiological purpose of the activity, as binging and purging does in the case of eating. Eating, like sex, is a biologically necessary behavior that among rational animals such as ourselves also has an important social function. It fosters fellowship. We share food among ourselves - even particularly tasty food - to enhance comity as at family dinners, wedding receptions, birthday parties, or nights out with friends. In fact, the biological necessity of the activity is important in understanding the social aspect, because it communicates that we are here for each other at a fundamental level.
The definition of medicine provided here is an important one, probably one even the promoters of Obamacare would say they agree with, until confronted with the obvious consequence that Viagra would have to be covered and artificial birth control would not. Because their real category for both kinds of drugs is not "medicine" but "facilitates sex".

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