We tend to assume that if something is normal or habitual to us, it must be “natural”. What does it mean that it’s natural? Without spelling it out, what we mean to say is that possessing the trait in question is a biological inevitability, or a consequence of our personal history that can never be undone. It should simply be accepted as part of life and exempt from critique.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, we often try to legitimize poor behaviour by labelling it as natural. Sometimes, we even go as far as making the natural synonymous with the good and just.
Here’s an example. I presume everyone has received sage advice along the lines of, “Feeling jealous when your partner is talking to somebody else is natural and healthy for a relationship.” But how would they know? Have they been in a relationship without jealousy and found it to be worse? Has anyone ever?
Traits like arrogance, laziness, and anger, too, have all been defended by some of their possessors as part of their nature and as healthy. But by calling them natural and healthy, we are really just trying to justify our poor behaviour. It’s an attempt to avoid admitting our flaws and accepting the responsibility to change them.
Maybe there are some undesirable traits wired into our reptilian brain that we cannot keep under control at all times. They may even be deserving of the label “natural”. Fine, so what? That doesn’t mean we can’t improve on them. What’s so holy about the natural anyway? British philosopher Julian Baggini says: “Even if we can agree that some things are natural and some are not, what follows from this? The answer is: nothing. There is no factual reason to suppose that what is natural is good (or at least better) and what is unnatural is bad (or at least worse).” 1
Individual personality traits are not the only phenomena that we label as “natural”. In society overall, we tend to apply the same label to conventions and traditions. The older the tradition, the more natural we think it is.
In this context, the word “natural” seems to imply that it’s part of the laws of the universe, of God’s will, or simply of some higher order. We humans often add a grand meaning or value to the social norms and rules that we see around us, and eventually everyone is expected to respect those norms. We are meant to believe that the phenomena in question can’t or shouldn’t be changed.
Just as with individual traits, some awful societal traits are also occasionally defended by appeal to nature. People were supposed to accept racial discrimination, for example, by that argument. In the so-called “Cornerstone Speech”, Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States in 1861, said: “Our new government is founded upon […] the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” 2
Sure, you may think white supremacy is detestable and ridiculous, and you are right. But there was a time when, if you were black, you would have to wait in a “blacks-only” line to get water. Even if the “whites-only” line was empty. And you would probably have accepted it as the natural order of society. And think of the US, where homosexuals are struggling to gain the right to adopt children because having two gay parents is considered “unnatural”.
It goes to show that we shouldn’t take any “truth” for granted, as it may simply be a temporary, societal truth. We must question everything, especially that which seems unquestionable.
If people were allowed to act in ways that were justified solely by tradition or compulsion, you would be left with a deplorable society. Consuming poisonous substances, raping, killing, stealing, and enslaving each other, to name a few, are all things which either feel compulsive to many people, or of which our species seems to have a long tradition. Clearly, these are pretty loose criteria by which to measure whether a phenomenon is natural and can’t be enough to justify its continuity.
What we assume to be natural about the world is somewhat coincidental. Through history and repetition, we have come to believe that certain traditions and worldviews are self-evident, while others are ridiculed or not even considered. Some are incredibly useful, such as moral and scientific paradigms that benefit us all. Other ideas are detrimental for everyone, however, and only continue to exist because they are propagated by people who are either ignorant or stand to profit from making us believe them.
To Be Natural Is To Evolve
So when someone tells you what’s natural, ask yourself (or them): Did they try their utmost to change themselves, or, in the case of worldviews, have they carefully considered all counter-arguments before coming to their current point of view? Or is it more likely that they are too lazy to honestly explore their own limits and the validity of their beliefs?
People who use appeals to nature to argue that something shouldn’t change seem to forget the most essential feature of nature: It always changes. Evolution never stops. An idea that was appropriate in the past may be obsolete in the present. What was in our nature yesterday may not be so tomorrow. (Looking far enough back in time, humans evolved from fish, but you don’t hear anybody arguing that we should breathe underwater because it’s “in our nature”.) As circumstances change, so must the organisms in them.
You don’t have to agree with my ideals, that’s okay. We don’t all have to strive towards the same goals. But no matter how good intentions your friends or your society may have for you, don’t let them tell you what’s normal or what your limits are. What’s natural isn’t necessarily given, and it isn’t necessarily good.
We have the extraordinary opportunity to intentionally shape our own nature. It’s up to us to decide who we want to be. “We do not know what our nature permits us to be”, as Rousseau said.3 By purposefully changing your habits and acting on your knowledge with intellectual honesty, you can influence both your character and your society. Neither ought to be products of chance and tradition, but of design and intention. Don’t do what’s natural. Do what makes sense.