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When I hear some people talk about ethical issues, the notion of something being "natural" often comes up. The most known example of this is probably the issue of homosexuality, where you'll see people on both extreme sides of the argument argue using the notion of naturality. Supporters of homosexuality will say it is moral because it's a natural urge on par with heterosexual desires and will point to how it is also found in animalia. Meanwhile, some opponents of homosexuality will argue that due to the obvious biological mismatch, homosexuality is inherently unnatural and not the way it is "meant to be".

My question is what validity does the naturality of some act have in ethical discussions? I fail to see why that should matter. An immediate reason to doubt its validity is that there are many natural urges which are obviously wrong. People are known to have natural urges such as violence, greed, domination, hatred, jealousy, and so on. Some people are even naturally attracted to the idea of raping children. So because these urges are natural, does that make them moral? Obviously not.

So why do people insist on using it as an argument? Is it just a pure fallacy bred from ignorance, or is there some validity to it that I am missing out on?

  • These arguments rely on natural law theories of ethics that go back to middle ages, "constituting the core of natural law moral theory is the claim that standards of morality are in some sense derived from, or entailed by, the nature of the world and the nature of human beings". They are rejected by post-Humean tradition according to which they commit the naturalistic fallacy. – Conifold Feb 19 '18 at 0:37
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I think the idea of what is natural, and what unnatural, in ethics stems from beliefs about the proper or normal development of a human being. Such beliefs need a context. Aristotle, for instance, in his 'Politics' and 'Nicomachean Ethics', plainly thinks of a human being as having an inbuilt developmental pattern such that he or she can flourish - enjoy objective well-being - only if a range of virtues or dispositions are possessed and exercised. These are the ethike aretai and the noetikai aretai : moral traits such as courage, justice, self-control, and intellectual traits such as phronesis or practical wisdom.

It's important to see that Aristotle regarded a life in which the moral and intellectual virtues were possessed and exercised as the right, the proper, the 'natural' life for a human being, just as natural as an acorn growing into an oak tree. All sorts of assumptions sit behind this view but mainly the idea of there being an authentic pattern of life which, as a matter of fact, human beings have an inbuilt tendency or drive towards and without achieving which they objectively cannot flourish. One of Aristotle's views was that the proper life for a human being involved participation in the self-government of the polis or city-state. He really believed this; political life is 'natural' to a human being, an essential element in a flourishing life : hence his famous phrase that we are 'political animals'. So Aristotle can tell us quite clearly what is unnatural - for one thing, it is life without political participation.

A similar view of proper or normal development can be traced in Christianity. A philosopher such as St Thomas Aquinas will tell you that you were born to live in a certain way : to have faith, to worship God, to act charitably towards your neighbour, to forgive offences against yourself, to avoid pride, to see the present world as only a prelude to the perfection of heaven, and so on. All this is presented as the objective essence of a human life - literally what we were created for. To refuse to follow this authentic pattern and model of human life is to deny our God-given nature. It is literally to act unnaturally.

When homosexuality is denounced as 'unnnatural' it is usually the Christian model that informs this view though Islam and Judaism also hold that homosexuality is unnatural - as not what the Creator intended in bringing us into existence.

You correctly point out that violence and anger are 'natural' urges and that this doesn't make them right. I think what Aquinas would say is that homosexuality can be a 'natural' urge in the sense of being something to which people (some people) are inclined involuntarily but that this does not make homosexuality 'natural' in the sense of being any part of the authentic model and pattern of human life. It is a deviation from what God intended, an imperfection in the individual who is inclined towards it even if the inclination is involuntary.

I am not trying to sell Aristotle or Aquinas to you. I just hope I have explained how homosexuality can be both 'natural' in the sense of being involuntary to the individual but 'unnatural', if this is what you think, in the sense of being a deflection from the authentic model and pattern of human life.

Both the examples I have used, Aristotle and Aquinas, belong to the Western tradition of thought. Similar examples could be taken from Eastern thought; I have left them out only because I do not have the expertise to discuss them.

My own views about homosexuality are neither here nor there.

  • One could add (classical) Confucianism to the list of views of naturalistic accounts of ethics -- supposing there's a pattern without necessarily linking it to a god or creator. – virmaior Feb 18 '18 at 22:48
  • @virmaior. Thanks for the addition. I thought of Confucianism but didn't know enough about it to include it in my answer. I did, of course, make a nod to the East so as not to be exclusionary. Comment appreciated. – Geoffrey Thomas Feb 19 '18 at 9:46
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That is a very, very interesting question. The biggest point missed thus far is establishing what exactly you consider to be "natural". We can work off of the assumption that you are referring to things which are a certain way without intervention, but there are a great many intervening factors in nearly everything. So the definition this answer will operate under is defining things to be natural if they fit what is typically true of a thing barring influence by external forces.

In that sense, whether something is natural or not does not have any significance in matters of ethics or legality. Both exist independently of the concept of naturalness. Under such a view, deviations from what is typical of something do not factor in to the quality of that thing - they simply are. However, theistic views often contend that something is considered to be "natural" if and only if it fits the model set forth in their religion. All else is considered to be unnatural and unholy, and that can be a significant factor in argumentation under their viewpoint. That is the basis of the particular argument you mention regarding homosexuality. Some theistic views are not in agreement with homosexuality, and so the people holding those views are not favorable of the concept as they consider it a violation of some of their most strongly held beliefs.

  • I agree with your answer. I deliberately focused on a normative sense of natural because I wanted to explain how what is natural can play a role in ethics. When people say that homosexuality is unnatural they don't mean only that it deviates from what is typical. They are using 'natural' and 'unnatural' in a different way from you, which is not to say anything against your usage. Also, of course, as the example of Aristotle shows, a normative use of 'natural' need not be theistic. Don't take this as a criticism. Your answer pretty much expresses what I also think. – Geoffrey Thomas Feb 18 '18 at 21:56

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