Appeal to Nature
|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.3
[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).4
An argument appeals to nature when it claims that something is good because it's natural, or bad because it's unnatural. What is logically wrong with such arguments?
One difficulty is that the concept of the natural is vague and ambiguous. For instance, is the human use of fire "natural"? Maybe, maybe not. Is it "natural" for people to wear clothes? Yes and no.6 This means that people can pick and choose what they wish to praise as "natural" or condemn as "unnatural".
There are many natural things that are not good, and plenty of unnatural things that are not bad. Riding a bicycle is an unnatural act, and bicycles are 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, the word "natural" is loaded7 with a positive evaluation, while "unnatural" contains a negative evaluation. So, to call something "natural" or "unnatural" is not simply to describe it, but to praise or condemn it. As with other loaded words, unless such concealed evaluations are backed up by other evidence, they will beg the question.
The reader 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 playing video games 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. So, the fact that something is either natural or unnatural would give it only the presumption of goodness or badness, and that presumption could be rebutted by contrary evidence8.
So, at best, the appeal to nature is not a fallacy but a useful rule of thumb in some limited areas, such as diet and lifestyle. Moreover, even in those areas, some "natural" things―such as tobacco―are unhealthy, and some "unnatural" acts―such as brushing your teeth―are healthy.
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.
Q: "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
A: 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 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.
- Translation: "Argument to nature", Latin.
- 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 philosopher G. E. Moore, in his book Principia Ethica, to describe the alleged mistake in ethics of defining "good". 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, since any definition of "good" would commit it. 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.
See: G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: 1962), chapter 1, section 10.
- Ad for American Spirit cigarettes, Discover Magazine, 5/2007, p. 5. Mischa Barthel sent the following criticism of this example:
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.
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. This is why I consider the ad an example of the appeal to nature.
- Julian Baggini, Making Sense (Oxford, 2002), pp. 181-182.
- Thanks to Emil William Kierkegaard for a criticism that led to a revision of this entry.
- The vagueness of the notion of naturalness does not mean that it is a useless concept, 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.
- See the entry for Loaded Words.
- To ignore or dismiss such evidence would be to commit a different fallacy, namely, sweeping generalization.