An appeal to nature is an argument that claims that something is either good because it is considered ‘natural’, or bad because it is considered ‘unnatural’. This fallacy frequently plays a role in debates on various topics, so it is important to understand it. The following article will explain how it works, highlight the flaws in this type of reasoning, and show you how to counter this type of argument.
Understanding appeal to nature arguments
This type of argument can be used to demonstrate support for something, by arguing that:
X is natural (and natural is good), so therefore X is good.
Herbal medicine is natural, so it is good for you.
Conversely, it can also be used to argue against something, by stating that:
Y is unnatural (and unnatural is bad), so therefore Y is bad.
Antibiotics are unnatural, so they are bad for you.
As you can see, there are some gaping holes in this type of reasoning. This is because the appeal to nature is an informal logical fallacy, which means that the content of the argument fails to support its proposed conclusion. In the next section, we will see why that is, and explain how to focus on the flaws in its reasoning when countering this type of argument.
Countering appeals to nature
There are two main issues that you can focus on when countering appeal to nature arguments. These are (1) the difficulty of defining what ‘natural’ means, and (2) the fact that ‘natural’ isn’t always good. You should generally pick one flaw and focus on that. If necessary, you can expand later on, and also attack the other flaw in the opponent’s argument.
‘Natural’ is hard to define
There is no clear way to classify something as ‘natural’, and people are often incorrect about believing that something is natural, even by their own standards. For example, people often use generic terms like “chemicals” to denote that something is unnatural (and therefore bad). However, this distinction is meaningless, since it is difficult to define what “chemical” means exactly, and most people who use this term won’t be able to do so if you ask them. Furthermore, there are plenty of “chemicals” which are naturally occurring, such as ammonia, and which these people often won’t perceive as ‘natural’ under their own definition.
Therefore, one way in which you can counter these arguments, is by asking your opponent to explain what they mean by ‘natural’. Then, you can give examples for things that will be classified as natural under their definition, but which contradict the point that they are trying to make about something being natural.
Another thing you can do is point out the fact that some things which people assume are unnatural are actually more natural than they think. Antibiotics, for example, were first derived from molds, and today plants still serve as a source for many antimicrobial drugs.
Finally, you can also point out the fact that the definition of what is ‘natural’ also changes over time. This is especially helpful when the argument revolves around social conventions, such as the acceptability of same-sex marriage. You can do this by juxtaposing your opponent’s current beliefs against older societal beliefs, such as the idea that it is unnatural for members of two different races to marry. By doing this, you are demonstrating the problem with the idea of defining certain social practices as ‘natural’ or as ‘unnatural’, while highlighting the bigotry in your opponent’s argument.
‘Natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘better’
Just because something is natural, doesn’t mean that it’s better. The best way to point this out is by using specific counterexamples, as you can see in the following cases:
- “Cyanide is also natural (it can be found in cherry, apple, and peach pits), so natural clearly isn’t always good for you.”
- “Cars and planes are also unnatural, so does that mean we should never use them again, and just stick to walking?”
- “Steve Jobs also relied on ‘natural’ medicine to treat his cancer, and it likely cost him his life.”
Accounting for the backfire effect
One thing that you need to keep in mind when arguing against people who use appeals to nature is the backfire effect, which is a cognitive bias that sometimes causes people to cling more strongly to their beliefs when they are presented with information that contradicts them.
Because of this effect, when you point out the flaws in an appeal to nature argument, people may cling to their fallacious reasoning even more strongly. To mitigate this effect, you don’t want to be too confrontational. This means that if you actually want to change the other person’s mind, the best course of action is to help them see the gap in their logic themselves, by introducing your counterarguments slowly, and letting them understand the issue with their original stance.
For example, if you want to point out that just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s good, you can help the other person reach that conclusion themself, by presenting them with relevant information, rather than by stating this directly. If someone says that a certain herbal medication is safe because it’s plant-based and therefore ‘natural’, your first instinct might be to say something like:
Well, cyanide is plant-based and natural too, so I guess natural doesn’t always mean that it’s safe.
However, if your goal is to get them to change their mind, you can benefit more from saying:
I understand where you’re coming from, but I still think you need to make sure that it’s been tested and shown to be safe. I read about some cases where simple herbal teas caused pretty severe medical complications, and apparently one of the issues is that these teas are often unregulated, so manufacturers aren’t required to list their potential side effects on the package, unlike with regular medication.
Again, your approach depends on what you’re trying to accomplish by discussing the topic. Specifically, ask yourself whether you just want to point out that the other person is wrong (which is perfectly fine in some situation), or whether you want them to understand and internalize the problem with their reasoning.
Using appeal to nature arguments yourself
First of all, consider the fact that you might be using this type of reasoning yourself, unintentionally. If so, try to be more critical of your thought process in areas where this might be the case. Essentially, if your only argument in favor or against something is that it is ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’, try to attack this reasoning yourself, by using the techniques we saw above for countering it. This will allow you to look at things in a more rational way, and to make better, more-informed decisions.
As with any other type of fallacious arguments, you can use appeal to nature arguments intentionally in debates. Since a smart opponent will want to counter your argument by using the techniques we saw earlier, you need to be ready to defend your stance, by explaining why X is natural/unnatural, and why that’s good/bad. Since your argument has no logical basis, it will probably be necessary to distort either the opponent’s claims or your own to make them easier to attack/defend, which you can do for example, by using a straw man argument in addition to the appeal to nature.
However, remember that using this argument means that your stance is based on fallacious reasoning, which in this case is relatively easy to notice. This makes your stance difficult to defend, and can reflect badly on you. Therefore, use this type of argument only if you’re sure that it’s appropriate in your situation.
Summary and conclusions
- An ‘appeal to nature’ is a logically-fallacious argument, which involves claiming that something is either good because it’s considered ‘natural’, or bad because it’s considered ‘unnatural’.
- This type of argument has two main flaws in reasoning, which you can focus on to counter people who use it.
- The first main flaw in this reasoning is that it’s difficult to classify something as ‘natural’, and people are often wrong about it even by their own standards. You can point this out by asking them to define what is ‘natural’, and by giving examples for things which under their definition are natural, but which they clearly wouldn’t think of as such.
- The second main flaw in this reasoning is that just because something is ‘natural’, doesn’t mean that it’s good, and just because something is ‘unnatural’, doesn’t mean that it’s bad. You can point this out by giving specific counterexamples.
- When you point out the flaws in this logic, your opponent might experience the backfire effect, which will causes them to support their original stance more strongly in the face of evidence that they’re wrong. To avoid this, you can point out the flaws in their reasoning in an indirect, non-confrontational manner, which will help them come to the right conclusions by themself.