A constant argument I've been hearing recently is that people should be forgiven for engaging in unethical behavior if it is "natural" for them to do so. Examples:

  • It's natural for people to be ethno-centric, nationalist, tribal, etc...
  • It's natural for men to objectify women.
  • It's natural for people and groups to put their own self-interest ahead of the greater good.
  • It's natural for politicians and business leaders to resort to cronyism and influence peddling to further their careers and agendas.
  • It's natural for people to take advantage of whatever loopholes and legal ambiguities to avoid paying their fair share of taxes or to avoid honoring contractual agreements, etc....

Assuming all of the above examples are indeed cases of immoral behavior, how can one still maintain moral objectivism in the face of the fact that these behaviors are somehow natural?

For example how can feminist principles be morally objective if it is men's nature to be misogynists?

How can one claim that racism is objectively bad if it is "human nature" to be tribal and to want associate "with one's own kind"?

If moral principle go against human nature, then doesn't that mean that they are arbitrary social constructs that can be easily dispensed with since there is no use trying to enforce them?

The only way I can think of defending the objectivity of moral principles is if they had some theistic or platonic otherworldly existence.

Bur from a secular or materialist point of view, how can one reconcile moral objectivism with the fact that humans are naturally immoral?

  • So some behaviors are objectively immoral and at the same time natural for those who engage in them, what is the problem? Just because moral and natural are both objective (let's say) does not mean that they have to coincide. Naturality can serve as a mitigating factor because, say, it weakens the will and hence responsibility, not because it makes immoral any less immoral. "What is natural can't be immoral" seems like a non-sequitur to me, and so do "if not natural then socially constructed", and "if socially constructed then arbitrary". Social norms may well in part reflect objective needs. – Conifold Dec 6 '16 at 23:07
  • @Conifold I'm trying to counter arguments of along the lines of "Tribalism is natural so why should we impose diversity on people?" -- i.e. trying to go against natural (presumably genetically inherited) behavior is useless and maybe even in itself bad. – Alexander S King Dec 6 '16 at 23:31
  • I knew this sounded familiar, "whatever is natural is not shameful" is attributed to Seneca. But... "In rejecting anger, Seneca does not argue that we should try to deaden the natural impulses that sometimes result in anger -- that is, he distinguishes between anger and our impulsive response to, for example, moral wrongdoing, but argues that this impulse should be governed by reason rather than given over to anger". Only the impulse gets off on the "natural", not the actual response, which is also subject to reason. – Conifold Dec 6 '16 at 23:58
  • you've asked at least 5 distinct questions. – user20153 Dec 7 '16 at 0:52
  • For Kant, human nature is in fact the radical evil, as he expresses it in the Religion. But my guess would be that you confuse a completely social construct of 'natural' in the sense of 'common' with a notion of 'natural' that includes necessity or being essential. I totally agree that it is very common to act immorally. Kant even speaks of the possibility of no single act of morality at all, but how does this say anything about the objectivity of a moral principle? Moreover, if there wasn't such a thing, how could we even think of something common as being wrong coherently? – Philip Klöcking Dec 7 '16 at 1:06

I would adopt a naturalized version of Kantian theory here.

Empathy is also natural. Children spontaneously empathize across conventional boundaries where we socially decide to withhold empathy. This has become a sort of feel-good truism nowadays, showing Black and White babies getting along much better than Black and White adults, or dogs and hippos developing trans-species friendships. But stripped of the tendency of its presentation to jump straight to a saccharine oversimplification, it is a compelling argument. To some degree, the Categorical Imperative survives as a genetic fact.

Also, we cannot necessarily adopt Kant's dictum that true duties do not conflict, but we can look at the historical plasticity of our culture and see that we can make them not conflict for a large majority of the population. Humans seem to be capable of adopting almost any habit given adequate motivation.

We can take empathy and the motivation to be thought-well-of as human nature at a more basic level than, say, sexual objectification, because individual and cultural arguments that outlaw rape, are readily adopted and spread. It should be noted that self-governing collectives of men at sea generally adopted strict punishments for the rape of women, even when those women were mostly natives of places far from any governmental authority. (Sorry to say, my reference is an episode of QI.) That does not mean that the two competing natural motivations are not both natural, as history says we still have to actually enforce those punishments.

So there is a call for a certain level of empathy for the devil. Disapproved perspectives cannot simply be eliminated from discourse, real motivation to submit has to be part of the social contract, or evading punishment simply generates mass corruption out of the natural inclination to seek power and freedom at very high cost. It seems clear that the European crime rates were not lower in the Victorian period, when laws were far more strict and moral opprobrium much higher, than they are now. (Comparing http://www.historytoday.com/clive-emsley/victorian-crime to http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Crime/Violent-crime/Murder-rate-per-million-people.)

It makes sense, from an overall humane perspective, to let the more basic, more broadly experienced motivation win. And contrary to our perceptual bias, the stronger motivation is toward good citizenship and reasonable treatment of one another. (One might argue that this perceptual bias itself is an expression of this very fact. We notice violation to a degree that we do not notice productive contribution, because we have an inborn wish for it to become ever rarer. Many of us feel more guilt than is logical, because we intend to be better than is possible.)


You should ask yourself two kinds of questions:

First, are humans in fact naturally immoral? Why would those statements be true? Does the lived experience of men tell you anything about how they necessarily view people of other genders? Where would such behavior even come about, and is it not more plausible that it is inculcated in us by society?

(Consider the motives of those who say such things. If somebody is telling you that "it is men's nature to be misogynists" my guess is they aren't doing it out of a spirit of honest intellectual inquiry.)

And second, are humans in fact naturally anything? The idea that humans have free will is not a new one. If that's the case, then while there are biological requirements of humanity, there are no behavioral requirements. The idea that we "have" to act in some way is false, so there is no conflict between our "natural" obligations and our moral obligations.

  • "my guess is they aren't doing it out of a spirit of honest intellectual inquiry" - regardless of their own motivations. I don't care about their motivations, I do care about countering their argument by providing a basis for the objectivity of such values. – Alexander S King Dec 6 '16 at 23:04
  • True, and edited. Also relevant, though---what do you, or they, even mean by "natural"? – Canyon Dec 6 '16 at 23:10

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