When Will People Learn That ‘Natural’ & ‘Ethical’ Aren’t Synonyms?!

25 03 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

(WARNING: Graphic Content!)

If anyone with a strong stomach hasn’t checked out the latest post on Darren Naish’s “Tetrapod Zoology”, I’d strongly suggest remedying the situation as it contains this most unusual image:

For those of you who may be wondering what exactly is going on in the featured photo, allow me to explain:

It depicts three male mallard ducks in the process of gang-raping a female.

According to one of Darren’s previous articles, “[A]s you’ll know if you’ve spent any time watching ducks, ‘forced extra-pair copulations’ are very common… The Mallard Anas platyrhynchos is the best (or should that be worst?) example of the lot: females are handled so roughly by males (sometimes by groups of as many as 12) that it’s quite common for people to speak of witnessing ‘duck rape’, and forced copulation is a common strategy used by males of this species.”

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: you simply cannot apply human moral ideals to nature and attempting to do so embodies the definition of foolishness. A few weeks ago, I discussed the implications of  “Nonmoral Nature”, which is arguably the late, great biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s most evocative essay. Though I had displayed the following quote in my analysis of the piece, I hope that my readership will forgive me for doing so once again, as the sentiment it contains is just as relevant for the purposes of this discussion as it’s ever been.

“[N]ature simply is as we find it. Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.”

Having made this point abundantly clear on several occasions, I feel the time has come to examine the infuriating disregard for it sported by an array of laymen, scientists, and world leaders alike.

Consider this: last June, when Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa was asked if the famed big American banks had a right to protest the potential approach of any new regulations on the grounds of monetary loss, he provided the following response:

“Greed is human nature. We shouldn’t blame greed any more than you’d blame gravity when a plane has an accident and goes down.”

It turns out that Grassley was partially right. Examples of greed occurring in nature are almost innumerable, with the dictatorial pecking order utilized by lions and the will to monopolize all available females in several primate species immediately coming to mind ‘ere the arrival of countless similar cases. In fact, the subject serves as the backbone of Richard Dawkins’ celebrated book entitled “The Selfish Gene”, which convincingly argues that egocentrism is, ultimately, the driving force behind evolution itself. Likewise, it’s nearly impossible to contradict the assertion that this most odious of emotions lies near the foundation of our own collective human psyche.

However, it’s fairly safe to assume that neither Mr. Grassley nor virtually anyone with whom he finds himself in agreement in this case have ever heard of what’s known in academic circles as “the appeal to nature”. This concept is a logical fallacy which falls prey to the assumption that something may be cited as good and/or excusable simply because it’s natural. Therefore, according to this school of thought, greed is perfectly acceptable because, at the end of the day, it’s a demonstrably natural phenomenon.

But so is rape.

So too, in fact, are the practices of infanticide, murder, bestiality, and even genocide. However, I strongly suspect that one would be hard-pressed to locate a sane individual who maintains that these actions are to be considered remotely tolerable.

Yet this is precisely the sort of logic which is routinely espoused by political activists on both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between. Although I fully and vocally support gay rights (as any of my friends and associates can testify), I nevertheless can’t avoid cringing whenever a fellow activist proclaims that ‘homosexuality is perfectly natural’ while, in so doing, assuming that he or she is effectively declaring ‘homosexuality is perfectly ethical‘.

Regardless of one’s personal ideology, such an assertion does not pass for an argument. If you believe that greed is a good thing or that homosexuality is in no way immoral, it’s your duty to explain these opinions to your intellectual adversaries without invoking the appeal to nature.

Ours is a world which, in its untouched state, regularly permits truly atrocious things to occur. The inherent constitution of our universe and that of all it contains is a thing to be respected, examined, and appreciated for the very miracle of its existence and intricacy. But we must never forget this simple, true statement: the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.




8 responses

25 03 2010

“Yet this is precisely the sort of logic which is routinely espoused by political activists on both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between.”- Tsk tsk. You should have learned by now that people in politics will do anything if it’s convenient to them. This often shows them to be morons, hypocrites, liars, or all of the above.

Planet of the Apes showed us that being destructive and war-like are part of human nature. however, the point of the movie is that those facets of our nature are bad things.

26 03 2010

“Tsk tsk. You should have learned by now that people in politics will do anything if it’s convenient to them. This often shows them to be morons, hypocrites, liars, or all of the above.”

True dat! I guess my personal expectations for political integrity are hopelessly high…

26 03 2010
Brian Beatty

I couldn’t agree with you more about all this… I feel a rant coming on….

I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 20 years, and I never seem to have friends that are vegetarians. Why? Because most vegetarians I know are so for reasons like “not being able to eat anything with a face” or that ilk. When I was a kid and started learning about resource use of different trophic levels, I simply came to the conclusion that being a vegetarian was one way of using vastly less resources as an individual, and that if I started early I would make a difference in reducing my negative impact on the environment. I don’t go overboard, I still occasionally fly and drive, but try to ride a bike or walk when I can, and that sort of thing. But it is all simply a way of using less, not because eating animals is wrong (although I would prefer people to more fully understand how their meat gets to the table). If it weren’t so alien to me to consider eating meat because I haven’t done it in so long, I would probably do so in limited quantities now, and for most I suspect that eating less meat is a better solution. So, as for ethics, vegetarians need to think things through more and stop anthropomorphizing animals.
It is a similar thing as the way people view religion as the only source of morals. As a good friend of mine put it in college, “There is a good thing about religion. For most, it helps by teaching the ignorant morals. Most people would ultimately learn that being a decent person is in one’s own best interests as a social human being, but for those too stupid to get it, religion mostly fills in those gaps.” That might be a bit harsh, but I think it gets the idea across nicely. There are some excellent recent books on morals/ethics of atheists, and are worth reading.
Still, I am disinclined to tell people what to believe or not, and wish that disinclination were more universal.

27 03 2010

It’s great to hear from you, Brian!

I can completely relate with regards to your views on vegetarianism. I, too, have opted to ‘go veg’ recently. However, despite being an unambiguous animal lover, I didn’t arrive at the decision to completely abandon meat for such anthropomorphic reasons as “I don’t want my food to have eyes” or some comparably sappy explanation. Honestly, the idea of eating meat in and of itself has never bothered me. However, like you, I feel that the methods with which meat is harvested are absolutely revolting, inhumane, and environmentally disastrous. As Bill Maher once said, “It’s actually more eco-friendly to eat a salad in a hummer than a burger in a Prius”.

Furthermore, I’ve discovered a fairly persuasive humanitarian argument against meat consumption: not only are cattle adversely affected by the grain and corn we’ve overwhelmingly decided to feed them in place of grass, but these same products could easily serve a better purpose by feeding untold thousands of starving families.

31 03 2010

Brian, your last sentence notwithstanding, I take issue with the condescending attitude toward people of faith. We represent the entire intellectual spectrum, as do non-believers. Advancing one’s views by putting down those of others is unacceptable. Bottom line is no one knows for sure what the truth is and we all need to respect each other’s personal beliefs.

2 04 2010

Great piece. I was directed here by a friend, and it was a good read.

I’d like to try to situate the argument you suggested defenders of gay marriage in context, though. You point out that you cringe whenever defenders of gay marriage (and gay rights in general) state that homosexuality is perfectly natural, and your point is that this is in no way to show that it is ethical in any way.

You’re right, I think, to think that, if this is the move they are making, it is too quick and invalid. However, we could understand these activists a little more charitably, as responding to an argument rather than presenting a new one. That is, they are responding to the argument against gay marriage which has as its premises that homosexuality is unnatural, and therefore sinful or immoral or wrong. What the defender of gay marriage might be understood to be doing, perhaps, is the following – she is saying to the opposition, look, I’ll grant you your premise that what is unnatural is immoral, for the sake of argument. But EVEN if I grant you that, your argument is still unsound, because homosexuality isn’t unnatural. Look at all these bonobos, or penguins, or whatever.

All that said, I’m not sure we should throw out nature altogether when we try to understand morality. Sure, we shouldn’t think natural equals good or right, nor that unnatural equals evil, but to divorce good and right from the natural world is, at least prima facie, an odd move. We are parts of nature, if the evolutionary story is right, and what is good for non-human organisms must have some bearing on our understanding of what is good for us.

2 04 2010


Perhaps I did come across as being a bit harsher than I intended regarding this issue. In the context you’ve provided, I can fully understand and respect someone’s decision to simply discredit the contention that homosexuality is unnatural for refutation’s sake if it means potentially converting an anti-gay bigot.

As for throwing out nature entirely when the subject of morality arises, I’m of the rather utilitarian opinion that natural instincts (along with traditions for that matter) ought to be deemed ‘ethical’ or ‘unethical’ on the basis of the degree to which they positively affect their constituent beings. In other words, those natural instincts, behaviors, and emotions which ultimately deliver far more good than harm to their adherents ought to be encouraged while those which are primarily detrimental should, if possible, be eradicated or otherwise heavily restricted.

For instance, although I’ve long since accepted the fact that greed is a part of human nature which is unlikely to ever fully vacate our human psyche, I maintain that it ultimately causes immeasurably more suffering and discontent than any antithetical experience to this end. Hence, I tend to support legislation which confines the amount of damage that this tendency can bring about at the hands of those it’s enslaved.

21 08 2010
My 2010 Booklist Part 2 of 3: May-August « The Theatrical Tanystropheus

[…] E.P.’s routine political incorrectness is merely an examination of the way things are and not necessarily the way they ought to be. However, the authors are far more careless with regards to the headings given to various segments […]

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