The Meaning of Nature
|April 6, 2014||Posted by Fred Foldvary under Editorials|
The concept of “nature” is logically distinct from that which is not nature. The definition of “nature” that makes the most meaningful distinction is that nature is everything that is apart from human action. Human action and anything altered by human action are no longer in pure nature.
“Natural” means “of nature,” so it has the same meaning. The physical universe – space, galaxies, atoms – and the laws of physics and chemistry are of nature. Biology is also natural, as are the natural laws of life such as of genetics and natural selection. The behavior of non-human animals which have not been affected by human action is also of nature. The unaltered human body is also natural.
Only human action is non-natural. Human action consists of purposeful choices. A person has various ends or goals, and chooses which ends to pursue at some moment, and chooses the means towards the goals. Everything people choose to do is non-natural.
Resources are natural prior to being altered by human action. Oil and minerals in the ground are natural resources. After they are extracted, they are no longer natural, and become capital goods. Space, however, always remains natural, so spatial land is always a natural resource, regardless of the materials in that space.
People use the term “unnatural” for acts which they deem to be repugnant. But this is only an opinion, since what is pleasing to one person can be displeasing to another. This usage treats one’s personal viewpoint as though it were universal. Hence, to call any human action “unnatural” is nothing more than a reflection of one’s personal beliefs and values, and therefore it is really a somewhat arrogant misuse of the concept of nature.
Some philosophers have pondered the question of whether human beings are naturally good or bad. But the moral concepts of good and evil are properly applied to acts rather than persons, since people can do good and bad things, even in the same action. Therefore it is not meaningful to label a person as morally good or bad, other than to imply that most of his actions are morally good and that few of his acts are morally evil or only trivially so.
“Natural moral law” is a universal ethic derived from human nature. The natural-law philosopher John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government, identified the premises of the ethical “law of nature” as the proposition that human beings are “all equal and independent.” These premises are based on the biology of human nature, prior to any human action. The derived natural moral law is, as Locke put it, that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
The morality that applies to human action is natural, but the actions themselves are non-natural. The universal ethic, as the expression of natural moral law, designates human action as good, evil, or neutral. This moral designation could not be made if human action were natural, because natural behavior such as reflexes cannot be morally judged.
One could ask whether natural moral law applies also to the actions of highly sentient animals such as dolphins and apes. If we are certain that these animals make conscious reasoned choices on the same level as done by human beings, then morality would apply to them as well. But we are not certain, so although human action should give these animals the benefit of the doubt, for purposes of defining nature, it is clearest to draw a bright line around human action.
When people have pets, breed and train animals, and confine them so that their behavior is changed, then these animals have been altered by human action, and their behavior is not purely natural.
Applying this concept of nature to the law, legislation should never be based on designating any human action as “unnatural.” If people seek to base legislation on what is natural, they should base governmental law on natural moral law, by which only acts that coercively harm others are evil and penalized.
The term “natural” has been used in economics in contexts different from the distinction between nature and non-nature. There is, for example, the badly termed concept of the “natural rate of unemployment.” This rate is simply the long-run average rate caused by institutions such as minimum-wage laws, taxation, and employment laws, in contrast to the higher temporary unemployment during recessions, and this so-called “natural rate” changes with time.
Another concept in economics is the “natural rate of interest,” which is the interest rate that would prevail in a pure free market, unhampered by taxation, arbitrary government borrowing, and central-bank manipulations. In this context, “natural” refers to a pure free market, free from the governmental interference into peaceful and honest human action.
The “natural rate of interest” is a useful concept, but it should be kept in mind that this is a different meaning than the distinction between nature and non-nature. The spontaneous order of a pure free market is not designed by human action but is nevertheless a non-natural outcome of human interaction.