What is Natural?

Have you ever seen food labelled as having ‘natural ingredients’, or heard an argument that something is bad because it is ‘unnatural’?  ‘Natural’ is a valuable commodity in our society.  People like natural things – the word inspires feelings of nature, health, and purity.  Unnatural things, on the other hand, include all the harm and problems caused by human activities, things such as global warming and garbage.

I doubt that the discussion of ‘natural’ is new to most of my readers.  I am hardly the only one that believes that the word ‘natural’ is ambiguous.  What I wanted to examine in this post is the difference or differences that are being pointed out – what is the difference between natural and unnatural things?

What sort of things do we call natural?  Vegetables and plants, waterfalls.  There are also some concepts tied into natural – natural habitat, natural beauty, organic.

What sort of things do we call unnatural?  Usually man made objects, like cities, pollution, etc.  Some technologies are generally considered more ‘unnatural’ then others, like GMO.

Finally, there are some moral ideas that attract the terms as well.  Some call homosexuality ‘unnatural’, for example.  

From this I would propose that the ‘natural’ label is the intersection of two different judgements: human freedom, and morality.  By human freedom, I mean that part of the judgement of something being natural or unnatural is whether it is something created by humans exercising autonomy over ourselves to pull ourselves from nature.  Basically anything that has not been brought about by human autonomy is by default natural.  People do not usually bother to point it out though unless the natural thing has an unnatural counterpart (cities vs. forests, GMO vs. non-GMO).  The moral element is that usually ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ is only ever applied when the uttering individual also believes that the thing under examination is either morally good or bad respectively.  We do not label things that have been brought about by human autonomy which we consider good ‘unnatural’ and we do not really label things untouched by human autonomy which we consider bad ‘natural.’

This may not seem to capture why some people might call something such as homosexuality ‘unnatural’.  I would hypothesize its because they view homosexuality as something chosen autonomously, as opposed to something that an individual is born with.

Let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman


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