The Call of the Natural, Part 2 (An Inconsistency)

I’ve suggested that we use the word “Natural” to mean more than one thing.  Sometimes we mean it in what I’ve called the normative sense, to describe something that conforms to Nature, other times we mean it in what I’ve called the native sense, to describe what happens when nobody interferes.  The two senses often conflict–I provided examples like gardens, fitness, and education–but when they do we have a surprisingly regular response.

In general if there is a conflict between what is normatively “Natural” and what is natively “Natural,” we act according to the following four claims:

  1. What is normatively “Natural” is superior to what is natively “Natural.”
  2. What is normatively “Natural” is superior even to Nature.
  3. If we are able to pursue what is normatively “Natural,” it is wrong not to pursue it.
  4. Even if we are unable to pursue what is normatively “Natural,” it is wrong to pursue what is natively “Natural” if doing so comes at the expense of the normatively “Natural.”

We respond this way so consistently that we have no practical method for questioning these claims.  They function almost like our senses or our memory, things so common and reliable that we don’t think about how often we employ them.

I’ll discuss later what metaphysical assumptions are needed to make sense of this behavior, but first I want to look at one particular topic with regard to which our response is entirely different: human sexuality.  (For the sake of clear distinctions, I’m going to limit the discussion to one aspect of sexuality–orientation–but the critique applies just as fairly to almost every aspect of the modern approach to sex, and I am not singling out any group for special criticism.)

In terms of human sexuality, heterosexuality is the normatively “Natural” approach.  Male and Female exist and go together.  The anatomical expression of Male and Female form an obvious pair.  The union of Male and Female performs an indisputable biological function, with a sociological corollary that’s  only slightly less certain.  Male and Female go together so obviously that we even refer to inanimate objects like wiring by those terms.

As a society we might want to dismiss this as prejudice, but it’s difficult to conceive of a way for homosexuality to be included in the normatively “Natural” without changing the subject.  That is to say, attempts to express it as part of the normatively “Natural” have to step away from anatomy, biology, and sociology, which are clearly unhelpful to the endeavor, into an arena such as love, freedom, or self-expression.  We can’t include any of the various alternative sexualities in the normatively “Natural” without artificially excluding the most obvious criteria for determining what is normatively “Natural,” but we have no reason for excluding those criteria except that we happen not to like what they suggest.

It’s far more common to argue that homosexuality is natively “Natural,” that people are “born this way” or have certain preferences as an innate part of their identity.  People who reveal alternative sexualities frequently suggest that these are a part of their unaffected selves, who they are when they’re not hiding or trying to be something fake.  If they don’t interfere in their sexual identity by trying to be something they’re not, they will be homosexual.  This is “Natural” in the second sense.  While the claim that heterosexuality is normatively “Natural” might be contentious, I suspect few would argue that alternative sexualities aren’t in some sense natively “Natural.”  In fact the suggestion that alternative lifestyles are natively “Natural” has featured prominently in defense of those lifestyles for some time.

What’s interesting is that our societal approach to this natively “Natural” phenomenon is entirely the reverse of the usual described above.  We demand that what is natively “Natural” be equal to what is normatively “Natural.”  We use claims about causes within Nature as sufficient evidence that homosexuality ought to be accepted as normatively “Natural.”  We object to the notion that those with homosexual inclinations might yet be held to a heterosexual standard, nor will we describe homosexuality as an illness, injury, or disability: the usual situations that might excuse someone from normatively “Natural” behavior.  Most importantly, granting that homosexual orientation acts as an obstacle to pursuing heterosexual relationships, we think it right for those thus obstructed to pursue the natively “Natural” instead.

To explain the contrast by parallel, we wouldn’t argue that being out of shape should be seen in all respects as being as equally good and acceptable as being in shape.  Evidence that genetics influence fitness hasn’t caused us to change fitness standards.  If someone is inclined (temperamentally, genetically, or however) towards being out of shape, we don’t think it rude to encourage them to be fit regardless, and we’re more than willing to discuss their inclinations either as handicaps or moral failures.  Finally, we don’t tell those who are disinclined to pursue fitness that they ought instead indulge in the sort of unfitness toward which they are inclined.

It isn’t my point here to attack homosexual behavior (or any of the other modern sexual practices).  My point is merely to suggest that about the topic of sexuality our response to the “Natural” is at odds with our response in every other situation.  We are being inconsistent; those claims which we unwavering apply in every other instance are abandoned in favor of claims almost entirely opposite when we discuss sexuality, yet we have no clear justification for the switch.

We don’t question the claims themselves, not only because they are overwhelmingly reliable in our experience but because applying the nearly opposite claims in other arenas would result in absurdity (e.g. freezing to death in winter, never teaching our children to speak, adding cholesterol to vegetables instead of seasoning).  Nor do we question the identification of certain things as natively “Natural;” that they are natively “Natural” is one of the most popular things to say about them.  We might question the identification of other things as normatively “Natural,” but the move can only be described as counter-intuitive, almost forced, and largely unsupportable.

It’s entirely possible that our resistance to defining what is normatively “Natural” with respect to sexuality is at least partially inspired by an attempt (perhaps unconscious) to avoid the implications our normal response would generate.  That is to say, if we stop resisting what seems to be obvious, we would then impugn behaviors we don’t want to abandon.  To continue the above parallel, I might argue against certain aspects of fitness as being normatively “Natural” because if I accept them, through the process we consistently apply, I would have to recognize that my stubbornly sedentary lifestyle is a fault.  Not wanting to be at fault, but not wanting to behave differently, I cast doubt on the judgment of what is normatively “Natural.”


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