The Call of the Natural, Part 1 (A Distinction)

We generally mean the word “Natural” in one of two ways.  We might mean that something is “Natural” because it conforms to Nature.  (Let’s call this first sense the “normative” sense.)  We might mean that something is “Natural” because it occurs if nothing interferes.  (Let’s call this second sense the “native” sense.) It’s important that we not confuse the two though.  Sometimes the two sorts of “Natural” overlap, but other times they’re practically opposites.

For example, my daughter likes to play.  This is “Natural” in both senses.  If we look around the world we discover that a lot of young animals play, that it seems to be how young animals develop the skills they need as mature animals.  It makes sense that young humans would play too.  Anyone who remembers being a child though, or who has been around children, knows that it isn’t something that requires coercion.  I don’t have to goad my daughter into playing.  She will play unless I actively try to stop her.  (And frequently she will play in spite of my actively trying to stop her.)  Playing both conforms to Nature and occurs if nothing interferes; it’s both kinds of “Natural.”

What about physical fitness?  I think it’s clearly “Natural” in the normative sense.  When we’re physically fit our bodies seem to operate better; they do all the things they need to do better than they would otherwise.  Even more, looking at other animals again, we discover that most animals are pretty fit.  Actually, this almost seems too obvious to argue; would anyone argue that physical fitness doesn’t conform to nature?  Oddly though, it’s thoroughly not “Natural” in the native sense.  If we don’t interfere in the trend our bodies follow on their own, we simply won’t be physically fit.  In fact the two senses of “Natural” are opposed:  we can either be “Natural” in one sense or the other, not both.

Gardens are another good example.  They’re clearly “Natural” in the normative sense.  Soil, seeds, water and sunlight–all pieces of nature–combine to produce plants according to the same process we see all around us.  Sometimes we muck about with the pattern by replacing one of the natural things, like with hydroponics and “grow lights;” sometimes we throw in things that are not pieces of nature, like genetic modifications and chemicals.  Mostly though gardens are “Natural,” albeit only in the that normative sense.  They don’t occur naturally.  If I don’t interfere in my yard, I simply can’t expect tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and broccoli.  Like physical fitness above, gardens aren’t natively “Natural,” natural in the second sense.  Also again the two senses are opposed.  If I don’t interfere, I won’t have a garden.  If I want a garden, I have to interfere.

There are a couple of interesting things to notice.  Most obviously, if you think about the various “Natural” things of your experience, you’ll probably discover that in almost every case it’s better to be “Natural” in the normative sense than in the native sense.  It’s better to be in shape than out of shape, better to have vegetables than weeds.  I could provide other examples:

  • We wash things even though dirt is natively “Natural,” because cleanliness is normatively “Natural.”
  • We educate our children even though ignorance is natively “Natural,” because skills and knowledge are normatively “Natural.”
  • We perfect corrective lenses even though practical blindness is natively “Natural,” because seeing is normatively “Natural.”
  • We put on winter coats even though frostbite is natively “Natural,” because survival is normatively “Natural.”

In almost every case, we recognize the inferiority of that which is merely naturally occurring.  Our loyalties seem to lie with “Natural” in the normative sense.

The second thing to Notice is that often Nature itself produces what is simultaneously natively  “Natural” and opposed to what is normatively “Natural.”  Nature grows the weeds in my garden; Nature causes my muscles to weaken if I don’t use them; Nature spreads dirt and disease; Nature kills me if I go out naked in Winter.  That is to say, Nature often produces that which we might call “Unnatural,” and being natively “Natural” does not in any way prevent us from disliking something that is normatively “Unnatural.”  Again, our loyalties seem to lie with “Natural” in the normative sense, even when that means we are more loyal to what is “Natural” than we are to Nature.

A third thing to notice is that, especially with regards to human beings, when a conflict arises between the normative and native senses, we don’t just prefer the normative, we think human beings ought to prefer it and ought to pursue it when possible.  We tend to understand that the only reason to settle for something natively “Natural” at the expense of something normatively “Natural” is the presence of an obstacle: an external limit, an illness, an injury, or a disability.  If there is no obstacle, settling for something natively “Natural” is a character flaw.

To make what I mean clear, consider the example of physical fitness.  An astronaut in space for an extended period might not be able to pursue physical fitness; someone with pneumonia probably shouldn’t pursue it; someone in the hospital after an automobile accident probably can’t; Stephen Hawking certainly can’t.  Someone who faces no such obstacle but prefers being out of shape to being in shape, we would probably call that person lazy.

This seems to hold in most cases.  There are lots of reasons why a person may not grow vegetables, but if that person lives on a farm, has the ability and resources either to work it or have it worked, and doesn’t grow anything, that person is irresponsible.  There are lots of reasons why things might get dirty, but someone who can clean themselves and clean up after themselves but does neither, that person is a slob.  There are lots of reasons why children might not have the opportunity to learn, but a parent who can easily send his children to good schools but doesn’t, that parent is neglectful.

“Natural” in the normative sense has a kind of moral force.  We generally understand that human beings acting rightfully will pursue it.  We make allowances for those who have difficulty pursuing it, we generally don’t condemn people for difficulties they can’t overcome, but we recognize that not pursuing it is somehow wrong.

There’s one last thing to notice: obstacles which prevent a person from achieving what is normatively  “Natural” don’t justify that person pursuing what is natively “Natural.”.  The goal doesn’t change, even if it’s unattainable.  It doesn’t become rightful for sick people to try to be as out of shape as possible just because they can’t try to be in shape.  It doesn’t become rightful for people to let their yards become overgrown wilderness because they don’t know how to garden.  It doesn’t become rightful to refuse to educate children just because those children are born with severe learning difficulties.  What is normatively “Natural” may be out of reach, but we still admit that it’s what we wish we could reach, and what we should try to reach as best we can.


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