Natural Fallacy Files

Appeal to Nature

Taxonomy: Logical Fallacy > Informal Fallacy > Appeal to Nature

Alias:

Forms:

N is natural.
Therefore, N is right or good.
U is unnatural.
Therefore, U is wrong or bad.

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Example:

TASTE NATURE.
AND NOTHING ELSE.

You'll never find any additives in our tobacco. What you see is what you get. Simply 100% whole-leaf natural tobacco. True authentic tobacco taste. It's only natural.

Source: Ad for American Spirit cigarettes, Discover Magazine, 5/2007, p. 5

Analysis

Quote…

…[C]onsider the…argument that what is natural is somehow good and what is unnatural bad. …[T]he principle is rarely stated so explicitly, but if we look at what people actually do, this does seem to be an assumption that underlies people's behaviour. Consider, for example, the popularity of "natural" remedies. A great many people would always prefer to take a "natural" remedy over an "artificial" one. Similarly, people prefer foods that have "all natural" ingredients.

One obvious point to make here is that this very characterization of certain things as "natural" is problematic. What always strikes me about health food shops are the rows and rows of bottles and tablets. A greengrocer seems to be a much better source of natural products than such collections of distilled essences and the like. …

However, let us set aside such doubts about the category of "the natural" for the moment and just ask, 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).

…Unquote

Source: Julian Baggini, Making Sense, Oxford, 2002, pp. 181-182.

Exposition:

An argument is said to "appeal to nature" when it claims that something is good because it's natural, or bad because it's unnatural. What is logically wrong with appealing to nature? One problem is that the concept of the natural is vague. For instance, is the human use of fire "natural"? Maybe, maybe not. Is it "natural" for people to wear clothes? Yes and no. The vagueness of the notion of naturalness does not mean that it is useless, since there are many clearcut cases of the natural and the unnatural. However, it will be unclear whether an appeal to nature that is based on a borderline case is sound, because it will be unclear whether one of its premisses is true or false.

Another problem is that the word "natural" is loaded with a positive evaluation, much like the word "normal". So, to call something "natural" is not simply to describe it, but to praise it. This explains why it sometimes sounds odd to call some things "natural" or "unnatural". For instance, it is unnatural to wear shoes, but few would wish to condemn the practice. For this reason, to call something "natural" and then to conclude that it is, therefore, good may beg the question.

Finally, a little thought will indicate that there are many natural things that are not good, and plenty of unnatural things that are not bad. Riding a bicycle is a highly unnatural act, and bicycles are obviously manmade objects, but who would condemn the act of riding one? Similarly, poisonous plants and animals are as natural as any other living things, yet who would recommend eating them?

Nonetheless, one may still feel that there is something right about some appeals to nature. For instance, a diet rich in natural foods―such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains―is probably better than one based on more artificial foods―such as candy, pastries, and sausages. Also, it seems likely that a natural lifestyle―that is, one based on a natural diet and exercise―is in general a healthier one than a sedentary life spent watching television and eating doughnuts.

These forms of argument could be treated as rules of thumb which admit some exceptions, but are still reliable enough to be useful. On this view, the fact that something is either natural or unnatural would give it only the presumption of goodness or badness, and that presumption can be rebutted by contrary evidence. To ignore or dismiss such evidence would be to commit a fallacy of sweeping generalization, that is, to treat the rule of thumb as if it were an exceptionless generalization. So, at best, the appeal to nature is a useful rule of thumb in some limited areas, such as diet and lifestyle.

Exposure:

I have included the term "naturalistic fallacy" as an alias for this fallacy because it is frequently used as a synonym, though that is misleading. The term "naturalistic fallacy" was coined by the philosopher G. E. Moore, in his book Principia Ethica, to describe an alleged mistake in ethics: defining "good" in naturalistic terms. So, if one were to define "good" as "natural", that would be an instance of the naturalistic fallacy, according to Moore. However, the naturalistic fallacy is a much broader error: for instance, the utilitarian definition of "good" as "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" would also commit the fallacy, since all of the terms in the definition are naturalistic. Thus, there are three reasons why the appeal to nature is not the same thing as the naturalistic fallacy:

  1. The naturalistic fallacy is an alleged error in definition, not an error in argument.
  2. The naturalistic fallacy is an alleged error in ethics, not in logic.
  3. Defining "good" as what is natural is, at most, an instance of the naturalistic fallacy.

Sources:


Analysis of the Example:

American Spirit uses the slogan "it's only natural" and claims that its cigarettes are "100% natural tobacco". Some smokers may buy American Spirit cigarettes because they believe that "natural" tobacco is in some way safer or healthier than tobacco that contains additives. However, the carcinogens in cigarettes that cause cancer are natural components of tobacco.

Reader Responses:

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Emil William Kierkegaard for a criticism that led to a revision of the entry.