What is meant by “nature”? Mill identifies in the first sense, the nature of any given thing is an aggregate of its powers and properties so nature is “the ensemble or aggregate of the powers and properties of all things”. In this sense of nature practically everything we know is “nature” and most of these things have little else in common. If nature is the sum of all things and all properties, any changes we make to fundamental properties of objects are also part of nature because they become the nature of the thing.
The second meaning he attributes to nature is “what takes place without the voluntary and intentional agency of man” (Mill p.253). Any process or object which is untouched and unaltered by human contact can therefore be described as nature, or natural. What about animal contact? Presumably animals are part of Mill’s second concept of nature and anything altered by them would remain within the umbrella of nature in the second sense (for example, animals creating and employing tools; Pickrell, 2003; Kohler, 1927). Nature is therefore, a distinctly human-centred concept since we only seem to want to include whether we have affected something in whether it is part of nature or not.
Mill goes on to present a further possible sense of nature – that which produces a ‘follow nature’ rule (Mill p.254-255; Benson p.124). If natural is used as an ethical term (what ought to be), and we call a certain behaviour natural and say we ought to follow it (also saying what ought to be), because it is natural, we would be saying we should do what we ought to because we ought to and this makes no sense at all (Benson p. 125). Some further reason needs to be given for following nature, and just ‘because it’s nature’ is not enough.
Why do people think that ‘nature is good’? Benson argues that many things that contribute to our well-being depend on the existence of an unspoiled natural environment (Benson, p.97). But Wilson suggests most things we use are in principle replaceable by synthetic products that have the same causal properties, and indeed, if we value our environment purely in an instrument way, there would be no reason to reject a wholly artificial environment (Wilson, pp.178-86; Benson, p.41).
Those who believe in God think that both humans and nature are God’s creation and therefore the creator must know best for us. The argument would go something like,
Premise 1: A creator knows what is best for its creation
Premise 2: God created both humans and nature
Conclusion: Therefore, what is natural must be best for us.
This argument makes some assumptions (and I won’t argue Premise 2 because it is clearly a whole different subject):
Firstly it assumes that God actually means to act in our best interests but maybe God is not all the good/all loving creator that we envision him to be. After all, many elements of nature are, individually, harmful to us – for example, walking around in the sun without (man made) protection can lead to skin cancer. The idea that everything God does is good for us is another human-centred concept – maybe God does not regard us as the most important aspect of his creation.
Secondly it assumes God created nature for us but maybe God knew some elements of nature (such as diseases) were not good for us. We could save God here by saying he acts in the best interests of his creation as a whole, not just us, and change our conclusion to ‘What is natural is good/best for the system as a whole”.
Religion inhibits changing or improving on nature because it believes nature or natural things must be as good as they could be. The religious argument might be stated,
(premise) God made nature; and
(premise) all God’s creations are perfect. Therefore,
(premise) nature is perfect and
(premise) any change to perfection must make it less than perfect.
(conclusion) Therefore, changes to nature must make things worse
Whilst this is a valid argument it is rather difficult to prove it is sound (to do so we’d need to prove premises 1 and 2).
Clearly we have made advancements from nature – for example, we have created vaccines to prevent serious diseases and we have created medicines to cure illness (and many diseases and illnesses are ‘natural’ as such). Even the example given above, of the risk of skin cancer where (man made) sun protection is not used, shows that human intervention is sometimes required for nature not to be harmful to us. Therefore, nature cannot be perfect, certainly at least not for humans, because it is not the best it can get. Mills concludes, if nature was made wholly by God, it could only be as a designedly imperfect work which man in his limited sphere is to exercise justice and benevolence in amending (Mills para 17). Again this is a human-centred approach.
Arguably those diseases and illnesses are part of nature, they are natural, not created or altered by humans. Natural disasters such as fires, floods, hurricanes and tornados are also part of ‘nature’. Mill argues that such forces produce awe or admiration in those who are “aesthetically developed but morally uncultivated” (Mill, Para 18). Nature is, he claims, perfect and absolute in recklessness, inflicting tortures such like the greatest monsters whom we read of purposefully inflicted on their living fellow creatures. It displays a disregard for both justice and mercy and even when it does not intend to kill it inflicts the same tortures in apparent wantonness (Mill, Para 20).
Thus, according to Mill, nature is not good and it would be immoral to follow it. But what is the meaning of ‘good’? ‘Good’ is a word often used in relation to human purposes. But natural disasters can be good, maybe not for us but for nature in general. In The Silver Lining, Reice explains;
“A fire burns out a patch of forest and opens it up to sunlight. Now, small plants, which had been suppressed by the shade of the trees, can thrive, and then a meadow can develop…. biodiversity is the foundation of the natural ecosystem services upon which all life depends. Contrary to common thinking, disturbances are not bad, but rather they are.. essential for healthy ecosystems. The nature of nature is change.” (Reice, 2001)
Nature is, therefore, not the equilibrium model of constancy that we imagine, nor the sense of ‘what ought to be’ that Mill explains. Neither is the religious view that nature is perfect or best or even better than unnatural, at least not for us, although it may well be true for nature as a whole. By the same note, nature is not the “anarchy, a reign of terror” or disorder” that Mill describes. Although parts of nature may seem horrendous, the nature of nature as a whole is change, and Reice argues quite successfully in his book, there is not one natural disaster which does not produce some ‘good’ for the system as a whole.
The good of something is often connected to how useful it is to us, its instrumental value. But this is another human-centered idea, and indeed, things can be good in non-instrumental ways. Human beings for example are not living purely for the good of others so we have a non-instrumental value (Audio Cassette 6, Side 1). Taylor explains, all living things are entities pursuing their own good in their own way according to nature, and all ways of promoting and protecting a being’s good are, by definition, beneficial to it” (Taylor, p.244). But there is no logical connection between agreeing that something has a good of its own, and asserting that we are morally compelled not to destroy it. Taylor argues that some things have, in addition, an inherent worth and we should treat them with respect. This point is not argued very extensively – basically she means some things have a value independent of their use to us, their ‘likeableness’ and their merits, and this is the reason we respect them.
Returning to Mill’s view that nature is reckless and inflicts great torture such as the monsters we read of, is there really a parallel between nature killing someone in its path and a human killing someone on purpose? Mill uses a number of words in relation to man which show there is no such parallel – man’s killing is “purposefully inflicted”, it is both “voluntary and intentional”. Nature, he says, may not intend but may be reckless, without regard to mercy and justice. We may define recklessness as acting not with intent but careless as to the consequences, or marked by lack of proper caution. But nature has no intent at all – it does not think or act according to reason and logic.
So there is no parallel and we cannot say to follow nature is irrational simply because nature recklessly inflicts atrocities like the worse men who we would condemn – because a.) nature has no such “intent” and b.) those “atrocities” may be in themselves horrific but as part of the overall picture – the whole of nature – they are not horrific at all but simply nature running its course, “humming the old well-known air through innumerable variations” (Emerson, 1841). Mill does consider to an extent that the “horrors” of nature might promote good ends, but states that even if this is so, it does not mean we should follow nature and imitate them. This most people would accept. We might however argue that in many cases it is wiser to let nature run its course (a slight rethink of the concept of ‘following nature’). We may not go out and kill people in imitation of nature, but might argue against interfering with it. For example, the destruction wrought by the 1988 fires in Yellowstone park would have been far more limited if previous natural fire disturbances had run their course (Reice, 2001).
Should we therefore hold back from taking control of our own evolution by interfering with nature, for example by suppressing tendencies we don’t like that have evolved naturally, such as ‘philandering men’? Radcliffe-Richards argues that activities which change the course of what otherwise would have happened are not disruptions to the evolutionary process but are themselves part of it, and whether these are good or bad depends on each case individually. So our interfering with nature is just the next step in the evolutionary process and therefore becomes a part of nature (Radcliffe Richards pp.295-296).
Not everyone agrees. One author writes:
“Artificially induced characteristics… will be passed on to all subsequent generations and to other related organisms. Once released, they can never be recalled or contained. The consequences of this are incalculable… Because many of the damaging effects of genetic engineering are irreversible, we must prevent problems before they occur.” (Fagan)
This passage is clearly pro natural-is-good, unnatural-is bad. The reasons it cites are that we will never be able to get back the pure natural state of things once we ‘mess’ with them. But at which point was that thing ever in a pure natural state? Plants, animals and people are in a constant process of change, so to which natural stage are we referring? The answer is simply that the author is thinking of the hypothetical equilibrium of nature that Reice described, ‘what ought to be’. Nature is constantly changing and our progress and use of things is part of that evolving process. Further, the author offers no evidence that ‘tampering with nature’ causes problems (indeed, in suggesting we must prevent problems before they occur, he seems to suggest there is no such evidence).
In conclusion, in assessing whether there are sufficiently good reasons for believing that nature is good, it has been necessary to try and define nature and it has proved to be ambiguous. Further, in considering whether it is “good” it has been seen that sometimes nature is good for us, sometimes it is not. What is true about some aspects of nature is not true about others or nature as a whole. So there are no good reasons for believing ‘what is natural is good’ because “natural” cannot be used as a criterion for distinguishing what is good and bad. These are purely objective standards – what is good to me may not be good for someone or something else, and what ‘good’ means is again objective since things can be good in an instrumental and a non instrumental way, things can have (arguably) an inherent worth although no particular use to us.
Benson, J. (1999) Environments, Ethics and Human Concern, Reading 11 pp.251-266, The Open University, Milton Keynes
Emerson, R. W (1841) History” in Essays (First Series, 1841) cited in Reice. S. R (2001) The Silver Lining: The Benefits of Natural Disasters, Princeton University Press
Fagan, J. Genetically Engineered Foods, a Serious Health Risk (no date given) http://www.netlink.de/gen/fagan.html
Hughes, J (1996) Embracing Change with All Four Arms: A Post-Humanist Defense of Genetic Engineering, Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics June 1996, 6(4):94-101
Kohler, W (1927) The Mentality of Apes, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, London.
Mill, J. S. (1904) Nature Watts & Co, Rationalist Press http://www.lancs.ac.uk/users/philosophy/texts/mill_on.htm
Mill, J. S. (1963-77) Nature in Collected Works, University of Toronto Press Vol.10 pp.371-86, 391-3, 401-2 in
Pickrell, J. (April 23, 2003) Crows Better at Tool Building Than Chimps, Study Says, National Geographic News
Reice. S. R (2001) The Silver Lining: The Benefits of Natural Disasters, Princeton University Press
Wilson, E. O. (1994) The Diversity of Life, pp. 327-35 Penguin, in Benson, J. (1999) Environments, Ethics and Human Concern, Reading 3 pp.178-186, The Open University, Milton Keynes
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