Appeals to nature should not limit our ambition
Falling prey to appeals to nature can cause us to turn a blind eye to suffering. Here's why we should resist these fallacious arguments when imagining how much better the world can be.
Appeals to nature often have been used to justify things like factory farming and sexism. Yet just because something is natural doesn't mean it’s good. In fact, many natural things are awful, such as plagues, earthquakes, and cancer.
Appeals to nature can have caused us to make moral errors in the past. Slavery was occasionally justified on the grounds that it’s natural and thus permissible. This was sometimes done by figures we would deem to be particularly thoughtful, such as Aristotle.
We might also be ignoring suffering in the present due to appeals to nature. There’s a growing body of research that suggests that trillions of animals suffer in the wild. Yet some people dismiss this suffering as unproblematic, simply because it’s part of the natural order of the world. If we are to ignore the suffering of trillions of sentient creatures, we should have stronger reasons rather than merely appealing to nature.
Finally, appeals to nature could also cause us to make potentially catastrophic moral errors in the future. For example, if we create artificially sentient beings in the future, we might mistakenly believe that they are not morally relevant because they aren’t "natural", and thus subject them to cruelty like we have to others who we have historically excluded from our circles of moral concern.
We should not blindly follow nature. Instead, we should use our intelligence and reasoning to craft a better world for all.
Nature is sometimes indistinguishable from evil.
Take for example the Bubonic Plague, a naturally occurring pandemic that originated in the 14th century from fleas carrying the Yersinia pestis bacterium. The Plague wreaked havoc on the world, killing approximately 10 percent of the global population according to some estimates.
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Yet despite nature’s ability to create catastrophe, 'natural' is often used as shorthand for good. This is known as an appeal to nature, which describes when one claims something must be good, ethical, or otherwise desirable simply because it's natural.
This fallacious reasoning has partly contributed to societal apathy responsible for tremendous suffering — historically, in the present, and possibly on an even larger scale in the future. And by appealing to nature when thinking about the way things ought to be, we risk committing serious moral errors by limiting the possibilities of human ingenuity to reduce suffering in the natural world.
Why appeals to nature are wrong
Here is a short (and non-exhaustive) list of some of nature's most wicked creations for you to consider:
A gigantic asteroid hurtling towards earth
The bacterium that causes anthrax
If I was told that a giant asteroid was about to crash into earth or that I had just swallowed a drop of cyanide, I would take little comfort in knowing that these things are natural. Ultimately, 'natural' only means that the atoms forming some object were brought together without human interference. Unless you believe in some divine higher power, this doesn't mean that nature's default way of assembling these atoms is good in a moral sense.
"In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature's every-day performances. […] Nature impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones like the first Christian martyr, starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve." — JS Mill
Our track record with appealing to nature is dismal. Moral errors we chastise in hindsight were occasionally justified on natural grounds, sometimes by the world's most clever thinkers at the time. For example, Aristotle viewed slavery as morally acceptable, arguing that some humans are naturally born to be enslaved. Homosexuality was supposedly a crime against nature, as claimed by Immanuel Kant, and ought to be "repudiated completely". Appeals to nature were used to justify sexism as well. Encyclopédie, a famous French encyclopaedia from the enlightenment era, contained an excerpt on the morality and equality of the sexes, which asserted that "Nature seems to have conferred on men the right to govern". While appealing to nature can be tempting, there's plenty of historical evidence that doing so leads to ethical mistakes.
Unnatural things can be good
Of course, many things are both artificial and good.
mRNA vaccines saved tens of millions of lives during the COVID-19 pandemic and could further reduce pathogenic risk. The Green Revolution, a series of technological advancements that led to improved agricultural yields, has been credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives. Silicon-based semiconductors have improved almost every aspect of life, including how we communicate, work, and entertain ourselves.
There is no strong a priori reason to think that the default path nature carves is desirable. The laws of physics, through which nature originates, do not come pre-packaged with normative stances about what is good and what is not.
As the world's most intelligent species (for now, at least), it's up to us to shape the world as we see fit. And by appealing to nature when thinking about what actions we ought to take to improve the world, we risk squandering vast amounts of value that challenging the natural status quo can unlock, such as longer lifespans through an improved understanding of how diseases work.
Appeals to nature can ignore suffering
Falling prey to appeals to nature would not just be a waste of our practically unbounded potential to improve the human experience. Perhaps more importantly, appeals to nature directly cause us to systematically ignore immense suffering in the present by justifying narrow circles of moral concern.
One salient example is eating meat, which is often supported because it's supposedly part of the natural order and is thus acceptable. Indeed, modern humans have eaten meat since we first came into existence hundreds of thousands of years ago. Yet even if we ignore how there is nothing natural about using sophisticated machinery to raise and slaughter animals for food, appealing to nature says nothing about whether eating meat is morally acceptable.
Human history, in part guided by nature, is filled with bloody conquest, unjust persecution, and pervasive violence that we now view as utterly barbaric. Perhaps one day in the future, we will view factory farming similarly, with little solace being found in the fact that past Homo sapiens of far less technological and moral sophistication had to hunt animals to survive.
Nature is callous to wild animals
Tacitly endorsing factory farming by appealing to nature is a serious moral error. Yet ignoring wild animal suffering on natural grounds might be even worse.
There's a growing field of research exploring the idea that trillions of animals might endure unfathomably miserable lives in the wild. Yet despite the potential importance of the problem, merely suggesting that we should investigate ways to improve wild animal welfare often elicits glaring eyes and befuddled expressions. These expressions and glares are usually followed by protests that we shouldn't meddle because that's just the world's natural order.
Though if we are to make sweeping declarations about what ought to be done about the welfare of trillions of sentient creatures, we should ideally have a better rationale than simply beckoning towards the natural origin of wild animal suffering as proof that the status quo is preferable. Indeed, we might be making a catastrophic moral error by disregarding the importance of improving wild animal welfare on natural grounds, as Aristotle did when he foolishly justified slavery.
What might happen in the future
Appeals to nature have not just caused suffering in the past and the present. They might cause even more suffering in the future.
There are some reasons to think we might one day create artificially sentient beings capable of subjective experiences. For example, David Chalmers, a philosopher who specialises in the study of consciousness, claims that there are no apparent differences between biological and non-biological intelligent systems that imply consciousness for the former but not for the latter. Others contest this claim, such as Peter Godfrey-Smith, who argues that our brains' complex chemistry and biology cannot necessarily be replicated with digital systems.
Even if we might not create conscious digital systems, we might still be able to create digital agents with moral patienthood. Shelly Kagan ponders this idea in his book on the moral status of animals, noting that there might be "two potentially distinct bases for moral standing, sentience and agency, and either one is sufficient for grounding some sort of moral standing". While the research is unsettled, it doesn't give sufficient evidence to rule out a future containing digital beings with moral standing.
My fear is that, should they be created, digital beings won't be considered morally relevant on the grounds that silicon-based brains are 'unnatural' compared to biological-based brains. Disregarding digital people's moral status by appealing to nature could therefore cause enormous suffering.
In a paper exploring how we might share our world with digital minds, Nick Bostrom and Carl Shulman posit that digital people could be "super-beneficiaries" that are capable of having subjective experiences far more intense than humans. And due to the potentially low costs of recreating digital sentience — indeed, copying digital beings is far easier than biological beings — there could be an enormous number of digital people. Consequently, there could be a tremendous amount of suffering should we turn a blind eye to the moral patienthood of digital people.
A large number of digital people, who might be capable of subjective experience that is far more sophisticated than humans, raises tricky ethical questions regarding how we ought to think about who we assign moral status and share resources with.
This is quite abstract, so let us relax these assumptions to better concretise the core of my argument. Suppose we reject the idea that there might be an unfathomable amount of digital people capable of having more intense subjective experiences than humans. Even if this is true, our track record with appeals to nature gives reason to be sceptical that we will avoid committing grave moral errors when considering the moral status of relatively rudimentary digital agents.
Indeed, it's difficult to concretely speculate in the present what we ought to do if — or perhaps when — digital beings come into existence. Crucially, that means we should think carefully about these philosophical questions in the meantime. And for the trillions of wild animals suffering on factory farms and in the wild today, moral progress might be far more tractable if we avoid appealing to nature.
What we should do
We should not turn a blind eye to the well-being of trillions of sentient creatures who rest in the merciless palms of Mother Nature. Instead, we should use our collective intelligence and reasoning to craft a better world for all, especially those most vulnerable to nature's harsh indifference.
This does not mean we should be rash or foolish with our prescriptions. It could be disastrous if our interference leads to worse outcomes than the status quo. But the inherent difficulty of changing the world's natural order is insufficient justification for inaction. Rather, we should use careful reasoning and forethought to ensure that we don't cause unintended adverse side effects as we tackle natural-originating suffering. Funding research by organisations such as Rethink Priorities and Wild Animal initiative that can improve our understanding of the depths and bounds of wild animal suffering, and what can be done about it, is a good start.
Despite nature's complexities, progress is possible. It would be a shame to relegate human ingenuity to the default confines of the natural world. With sufficient motivation, we might be able to improve the welfare of other morally relevant beings.
"The scheme of Nature, regarded in its whole extent, cannot have had, for its sole or even principal object, the good of human or other sentient beings. What good it brings to them is mostly the result of their own exertions. […] The duty of man is to cooperate with the beneficent powers, not by imitating, but by perpetually striving to amend, the course of nature - and bringing that part of it over which we can exercise control more nearly into conformity with a high standard of justice and goodness." — JS Mill
The risk of unintended side effects has not stopped humanity from revving the engine of progress thus far. I write this essay from a plane that would not have taken off without the bold ingenuity and thirst for discovery of past innovators such as the Wright brothers. Like them, we should resist the arbitrary ceiling that nature ostensibly places above our heads in pursuit of a more ambitious future — one filled with flourishing and happiness for all those who live in the natural world, not just those who have the power to shape it.
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