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20/12/2014

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Natural and unnatural

Kenneth Boyd examines our attitudes

The public sometimes object to new developments in science on the grounds that they are ‘unnatural’.  If we can tease out exactly what we mean by that, we might be able to think more clearly when we’re asked our opinion of the next development.

Moral judgements

The charge is sometimes made of hybrid embryos, genetic enhancement and synthetic biology. If being ‘unnatural’ simply means that they would not have emerged without human intervention in ‘the ordinary course of nature’, the description is correct: but it could equally well be applied to cooking, agriculture, or medicine. Indeed, if humans are set over against ‘nature’ in this way, everything we do is, strictly speaking, ‘unnatural’. On the other hand, if humans, like other animals, are seen as part of nature, how can anything we do, however foolish or destructive, be ‘unnatural’? 

Simply as description of what exists in the absence or as a result of human activity, the distinction between natural and unnatural doesn’t seem to make much sense. But the way we commonly use these words in everyday speech suggests that they are not just descriptive terms. Whether someone is ‘natural’ (at ease) or ‘artificial’ (stilted) in their conversation, or is ‘unnaturally’ detached from or attached to their children, or whether a material is ‘natural’ (genuine) or ‘synthetic’ (fake), are ways of expressing approval or disapproval of people and things and of making moral or cultural judgements about them.

Context and means

When such judgements are made however, what is seen as natural or unnatural in one context may not seem so in another. Anaesthesia at birth once seemed unnatural.  In times or places relatively isolated from the outside world there may be sufficient cultural consensus to make what is natural or unnatural seem obvious. But if that consensus is seriously challenged, views on what is natural or unnatural can begin to appear subjective; and if the distinction is to remain viable it needs to be articulated in more universal terms.

This has sometimes been attempted by asking whether the means employed in the relevant human activities ‘imitate’ natural processes and work with them, in order to ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’ nature, or whether they ‘violate’ nature and work against it. In practice however it can be difficult to discover technologies which do not ultimately derive from the study and refinement of natural processes, and this makes ‘unnatural means’ rather an empty category.

Unease

Today, to call something ‘unnatural’ may be a way of articulating a sense of unease about science moving ‘faster than moral understanding’, or being driven headlong by commercialisation or professional ambition. Or it may be about the commodification or instrumentalisation of living things, or the effects on future generations of interventions on the environment. The very variety of worries we label natural and unnatural  suggests that any balanced consensus on the ethics of biotechnology can only be temporary. In some cases, organ transplants for example, the feeling that an activity is ‘unnatural’ may lose force as safety concerns are satisfied and the process becomes more commonplace. In others, doubts may remain, and even strengthen.

All we can do is to learn from practical experience and work through the complexities of moral experience towards a thoughtfully balanced consensus about what risks, safeguards, permissions and prohibitions are appropriate in particular circumstances.  

The age-old debate about what is natural or unnatural seems likely to be with us for some time yet; but a public with some insight into this sort of labelling will be better able to think about new scientific developments than one without it.

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Kenneth Boyd
Kenneth Boyd is Senior Honorary Professorial Fellow in Medical Ethics at the University of Edinburgh
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