Appeal to NatureTaxonomy: Logical Fallacy > Informal Fallacy > Appeal to Nature
- Argumentum ad Naturam
- Naturalistic Fallacy (see Exposure)
|N is natural.
Therefore, N is right or good.
|U is unnatural.
Therefore, U is wrong or bad.
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
[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).
Source: Julian Baggini, Making Sense, Oxford, 2002, pp. 181-182.
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.
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:
- The naturalistic fallacy is an alleged error in definition, not an error in argument.
- The naturalistic fallacy is an alleged error in ethics, not in logic.
- Defining "good" as what is natural is, at most, an instance of the naturalistic fallacy.
- Antony Flew, How to Think Straight (1998), see index under "natural".
- G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: 1962), chapter 1, section 10.
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.
- "In the article, you fail to point out one of the significant flaws with the 'nature = good' assumption underlying appeals to nature: there are, in fact, many 'natural' things which are extremely harmful, for example, flesh-eating bacteria."―Darren P. Meyer
I intended the Example to make that point, since tobacco is natural and the carcinogens that cause lung cancer are a natural part of tobacco rather than some artificial additive, as American Spirit would like you to believe. However, if the Example didn't make that point clearly enough, your email should help clarify it. Thanks!
- "I was wondering, is the appeal to nature fallacy not also often an example of ignoratio elenchi, as whether something is natural or not is irrelevant to whether something is ethical or not?"―Ashley Stewart
I can see why you'd think that, but I hesitate to classify it that way because some ethical theories may make what is natural relevant to what is good. Of course, any simple equation of the natural with the good is easily refuted by counter-examples such as flesh-eating bacteria, tobacco, hemlock, etc. However, a more complicated definition might be immune to such refutation. More importantly, this is not really a logical problem, but a philosophical one. The logical problems with appealing to nature are the result of the vagueness and loadedness of the concept of the natural. I suspect that most people who appeal to nature are confused by the vagueness or loadedness of the term "natural", and will realize their mistake when counter-examples are pointed out to them. But if someone still insisted on appealing to nature in the face of counter-examples, I would think that they were making a philosophical mistake rather than a logical one.
- "Although I concur that appealing to nature is indeed a fallacy I think that your example is ill-chosen. American Spirit's only claim is that their product is 100% natural. (They might be able to back that or not.) However in your analysis you are (successfully) attacking the claim that such cigarettes are more safe. Perhaps that is the 'subliminal message' that American Spirit wants to get across. But they are not stating it. In fact in the ad they are stating the opposite (forced by law, I guess). So: I think your example is weak in the sense that it attacks a claim that is only made by yourself. More precisely: The statement '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' is introduced by you and it is not at all shown that this statement is implied by the ad."―Mischa Barthel
First of all, it's important to keep in mind that the example is an advertisement. Ads, especially modern ones, seldom present explicit arguments with argument indicator words, such as "hence" and "therefore". However, the purpose of an ad is to sell a product, in this case cigarettes. So, to the extent that an ad contains propositions, those propositions give the reader some reason to buy the product advertised, that is, they are premisses in an argument. In the Example, the propositions in the ad simply claim that the cigarettes are "natural". This is why the ad is an appeal to nature.
Secondly, it's important to realize that not all fallacies are committed by the arguer, rather it is sometimes the audience that commits the fallacy. This is why I suggested that some smokers may infer that the cigarettes are safer because they are "natural", even though the ad itself doesn't make such a claim. In that case, it's the smokers who are committing the fallacy, rather than the advertiser. The worst that the cigarette company can be charged with is setting up a boobytrap that ensnares some unwary smokers.
The fact that some people are likely to draw such a fallacious inference is supported by the explicit warning in the ad that you allude to. Like you, I don't know whether this warning was mandated by the government―as is the Surgeon General's warning―or it was simply added to avoid lawsuits. However, it is clearly designed to look like the Surgeon General's warning. As such, some smokers may either ignore it, or dismiss it as government propaganda. However, the fact that the warning is issued at all indicates that there is a known danger of some people inferring that the cigarettes are safer.
Given the popularity of "natural" foods and remedies, it should be obvious that any time the word "natural" is attached to something that enters your body, it's likely that some people will infer that it is healthy. It's clear that the advertisers are aware of this danger, and should know that they are setting a boobytrap. Moreover, any smoker who falls into the trap commits the fallacy. For these reasons, the ad is an excellent example of an appeal to nature.
Acknowledgment: Thanks to Emil William Kierkegaard for a criticism that led to a revision of the entry.