What is natural and what isn’t? This is an interesting question because within the public sphere there are many assumptions about what constitutes natural behavior, and many attempts to justify arguments by appealing to nature. Unfortunately, this is often an incorrect usage of the word.
One reason for constant misuse of naturalistic arguments might be because “natural” has numerous definitions. Its core connotation, however, is best defined simply as “conformity with the ordinary course of nature.”
The problem is when appeals to nature don’t actually align with processes in nature. For example, much of the justification for anti-gay sentiment hinges on the belief that marriage or sex between a man and a woman is natural, whereas it is unnatural between two men. Yet, zoologists and anthropologists have shown that this is a naturally occurring behavior found in many different animals and across cultures. Thus, it can’t be said to be unnatural.
This isn’t to discredit the value of marriage. Indeed, that it’s not natural is sort of the point of it. What a man and woman are saying is something like, “I really like you, and I know as time goes on I may be tempted to go off with someone else, but I promise I won’t!” The natural impulses toward infidelity that may arise are willfully and unnaturally resisted.
Many also misattribute the word natural to mean the will of some kind of deity or other perceived ideal states of being. Yet isn’t it a common religious teaching that man’s natural tendencies lead toward sin? If this is the case, someone with those kinds of beliefs could hardly condemn one behavior for not being natural or praise another for being so. Greater care should be taken in such instances to distinguish idealism from naturalism.
As mentioned, natural also means different things to different people. For instance, in Thai culture, wives assume it is perfectly natural that their husbands will sleep with prostitutes. They are OK with this as long as it doesn’t involve an emotional connection. This, along with countless other examples, suggest that those who justify their arguments on the basis of the naturalistic fallacy are likely referring to what is normal in their culture, not actually what is natural.
Capitalism as we practice it is often hailed as being especially in line with human nature. While this may be true in some aspects, there are big flaws in that assumption. The biggest one is that in nature animals establish equilibrium within the environment in which they live. Our current capitalist model, however, often does not do this because it usually has only one goal: constant growth. Whereas nature limits destructive growth, capitalism too often doesn’t.
While there are some things that everyone can agree to be natural—like survival instincts and earthquakes—still, too many things thought of as natural are just social constructs. An appeal to nature is usually an appeal to a tradition that is mistakenly assumed to be natural. In short, there is usually nothing “natural” about the word natural.