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1161380.  Sat Dec 05, 2015 10:43 am Reply with quote

Nature (and other ‘N’s including Nietzsche, the Naturalistic Fallacy and Napoleon Chagnon)

Nature loves to hide.
— Heraclitus, fragment B123

A philosopher of my acquaintance frightened people at his local supermarket. He did so by demanding to know what the word ‘natural’ – in ‘natural skincare’, ‘natural ingredients’ and the like – actually meant.[1] The most discomforting thing about this performance may have been this: our philosopher inflicted upon shoppers the troubling realisation that they could not define this apparently simple – and supposedly good – property of being natural. In so doing, of course, he was acting in the best philosophical traditions.[2]

It can seem that either everything or nothing is natural. If we define nature as, in J. S. Mill’s words, ‘the aggregate of the powers and properties of all things’,[3] then everything is natural (perhaps even including the supernatural). A different construal might seem better suited to distinguishing items in the supermarket: the natural as (Mill again) ‘that which takes place without human intervention’. However, everything in the supermarket involves some human intervention; at the least, the stuff had to get onto the shelves. Now, if we step outside the supermarket, we might hope to encounter, if we go far enough, ‘pristine nature’, i.e. flora and fauna wholly unaffected by humans.[4] It is uncertain though that any part of the world is wholly unaffected by human doings. Perhaps then nothing is truly natural (although we might ponder about how here we seem to be counting ourselves as unnatural).

What of the idea that the natural is good? As Mill and indeed Nietzsche remarked, this is a strange bedfellow for the everything-is-natural view.[5] Even on a restricted notion of nature there are difficulties here. Consider again the supermarket. Some fiddling with food, such as freezing and cooking, seems a more or less unmitigated Good Thing. Other interventions, such as (some?) additives, are controversial. Outside the supermarket, the picture remains mixed. Consider town-destroying earthquakes, leprosy and death in childbirth.[6] These are natural, but bad. By contrast, the aforementioned pristine nature is, one might think, good. But a problem lurks here too: if pristine nature is good, that cannot be because of what it does for us; the very idea here is that we are leaving that nature completely alone. Still, perhaps we are capable of valuing things without using them – valuing them non-instrumentally. Some philosophers go so far as to believe in an ‘intrinsic value’ that can exist in the absence of valuers. This would be a value that would it make it wrong for the last man alive to destroy all the forests before he, too, died. The Norwegian philosopher and ‘Deep Ecologist’ Arne Næss seems to have held such a position.[7]

We may draw some fairly straightforward lessons from all this. First, Heraclitus was right, in that nature is hard to capture in a definition. Second: even given a defensible division between the natural and the not, the natural is not automatically good. To claim that the natural is automatically good is to make a mistake that philosophers are apt to call ‘the Naturalistic Fallacy’.[8] Here are some closing thoughts. A comparison between things that have been found positively unnatural in various times and places would be interesting. Attitudes towards corpses might be a striking place to start. Within that, one might begin with a people who – according to Napoleon Chagnon – eat the ashes of their dead, in soup. Chagnon was an anthropologist who thought that his adventures surpassed those of Indiana Jones.[9]

Notes (including references)

[1] Or so I have heard. My purposes do not require the tale to be true.

[2] Socrates made people realise that they did not actually know what they meant by, say, ‘justice’ or ‘piety’. (See almost any work by Plato.) Compare also St. Augustine on time: ‘What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one who asketh, I know not’ (Confessions, book XI; translation from p. 218 of an edition published by Airmont in 1969).

[3] John Stuart Mill, ‘Nature’ / ‘On Nature’ (some editions of Mill’s essay use the one title, others the other). An aside: Mill was a feminist and people have had lots to say about the relation between ideas of femininity and ideas of nature.

[4] For (slightly dated) statistics on pristine nature, and on its shrinkage, see Holmes Rolston, ‘A Managed Earth and the End of Nature?’, pp. 143–64 of Marina Paola Banchetti-Robino, Lester Embree, and Don E. Marietta, eds. The Philosophies of Environment and Technology, vol. 18 of Research in Philosophy of Technology (JAI Press, 1999), p. 146.

[5] Mill, op. cit. In Nietzsche, see Beyond Good and Evil (various editions) part I, §9. It is notable that Nietzsche called Mill a ‘blockhead’ (or ‘flathead’: Flachkopf) (Nietzsche, The Will To Power, §30.e, various editions). This of someone who read six Platonic dialogues, in the original Greek, at the age of seven! I note also that some religious views do hold that the whole of creation is good.

[6] Shakespeare writes of ‘the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to’ (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene I).

[7] More precisely, Næss seemed to hold that a very wide range of entities have value that is both non-instrumental and intrinsic. See, for instance, Andrew Brennan and Yeuk-Sze Lo, ‘Environmental Ethics’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (forthcoming in the Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.); present URL = <>, §§1 and 3.1. §2 of that piece discusses the ‘last man’ thought experiment.

[8] The notion of the naturalistic fallacy owes to the British philosopher G. E. Moore and is somewhat complex. Certainly, though, one view that Moore means to damn with that term is the idea that, simply by being natural (in some sense), something is good. See various parts of his Principia Ethica (Cambridge University Press, 1903) and, for a summary, Thomas Hurka, ‘Moore's Moral Philosophy’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), URL = <>, §1. A notion somewhat similar to Moore’s, and more accessible, is David Hume’s view that one cannot get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ – although admittedly there is some doubt about whether Hume did actually hold that such a derivation was impossible. At any rate, the central text here is a famous and wonderful passage in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (book III, §1). That passage starts as follows. ‘In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not’ (Oxford University Press, 1978; 2nd ed., p. 469).

[9] See Chagnon, The Yąnomamö, sixth edition (electronic), Wadsworth, 2013, p. 118 (preview available via Google Books). On the Jones comparison, see New York Times, ‘Who Are the Real Savages?’, February 17, 2013 (available at <>). Apparently the Elizabethans indulged in ‘necrophagous’ practices too: QI Unaired: Cannibalism, URL = <> (published July 15 2014 and containing material from various series). Compare also, for instance, ‘Mmmm, yummy ... mummies!’, The Guardian, Tuesday 9 December 2008, online at <>. I came across the word ‘necrophagous’ on the page for the letter N at The Phrontistery; URL = <>.

Other sources consulted

Mendelson, Michael, ‘Saint Augustine’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Mill, John Stuart, An Autobiography (various editions; first published 1873).

Schwarz, Walter, ‘Arne Næss’ (obituary), The Guardian, Thursday 15 January 2009, available online at <>.

Wilson, Fred, ‘John Stuart Mill’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

The fragments of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus are available in various editions (and translations).

1175953.  Tue Feb 09, 2016 7:09 pm Reply with quote

So . . I may have got just a little bit too philosophical there, given the context . .

Spud McLaren
1175976.  Wed Feb 10, 2016 4:22 am Reply with quote

Continuing with "too philosophical", it's no more valid to state that Nature is good than it is to state that Good is natural.

1178900.  Tue Feb 23, 2016 8:41 pm Reply with quote

> Continuing with "too philosophical", it's no more valid to state that Nature is good than it is to state that Good is natural.

Thanks for the reply. However, I do not understand you well. Are you taking issue with a claim in my piece? I can't see how you are. Instead, I take it that you are thinking as follows. My piece argued that it is problematic to believe that what is natural is, just by dint of that, good (not to mention that it is hard to give a reasonable sense to 'natural'). You want to add something to those ideas - specifically, to the denial that the natural is, as such, good. OK. Now, what you want to add is a denial that . . 'Good is natural' - yes? Yet, what do you mean, exactly, please?

PS: In a strict (and helpful) use of the term (a use found in logic), 'valid' is a property that arguments - not lone propositions - can enjoy.

1289691.  Wed Jul 11, 2018 2:46 am Reply with quote



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