As people who live in a natural world, we tend to associate “natural” as being good and beneficial and “unnatural” as being bad and harmful. This is clearly the case in some instances; for example, water is more natural and better for you than soda pop. Breathing air is more natural and better for you than breathing laughing gas. However, concluding that something is good or better just because it is natural, or concluding that something is bad because it is unnatural is not an absolute rule. In fact, the cases where such a conclusion holds may be less than one thinks.
To begin with, it can be difficult to define what qualifies as “natural.” We say that drinking water is natural, but is drinking coffee natural? Flying in an airplane seems unnatural, but that does not mean it is bad or harmful. Should we walk as opposed to fly? As can be seen, it is a mistake to conclude that being natural necessarily makes something better, and that being unnatural necessarily makes something bad or harmful. Nevertheless, people will sometimes think otherwise – a fact that motivates many companies to sell their products under the label “natural,” and to use more “natural” ingredients, as opposed to artificial ones. Because many people associate such products with a healthy diet, they will purchase them instead of other products made with “unnatural” ingredients. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to purchase healthier food, thinking that something is better for you because it is “natural” can be fallacious. Consider the following examples:
Jack says, “I always purchase food that has the “all natural” label on it. It is far healthier than foods which do not have such a label on it.”
Jennifer replies, “Why do you think that it is better for you?”
Jack replies, “Because it is “natural” as opposed to being heavily processed. Food that is more the way nature intended it to be is better for you.”
There are two appeal to nature fallacies in Jack’s comments. The first fallacy is committed by Jack’s assumption that foodstuffs which are “all natural” or “natural” are healthier than foodstuffs that are not “natural.” The reason this is fallacious is because Jack’s assumption that “natural” or “all natural” foodstuffs are healthier assumes that there are actually some legal standards that are enforced upon foods which bear the “all natural” label. However, in the United States, the standards that foodstuffs have to meet in order to be labeled as “all natural” is minimal at best. Unlike the label “organic,” the Food and Drug Administration does not have a strict set of guidelines for the term “all natural.” Therefore, Jack has succumbed to clever advertisements designed to compel him to commit the appeal to nature fallacy and to purchase “all natural” products.
Just because a product, such as a cut of beef, bears the label “all natural,” does not mean the animal was raised, fed and slaughtered without anything artificial, such as chemicals and hormones. Therefore, just because the food is “all natural” does not mean it is good for you, nor does it mean that the manufacturer has not used other unhealthy ingredients.
However, let us assume that there were some guidelines associated with the “all natural” label, guidelines that required such products to be made with few artificial methods, such as the use of pesticides. Though that may make such foods healthier, Jack’s statements would still be fallacious, due to his second appeal to nature fallacy. Jack assumed that simply being natural as opposed to artificial makes something better and healthier for you, for he said that “food that is more the way nature intended it to be is better for you.” Clearly this is not the case. Did nature intend for us to cook our meat as opposed to eating it raw? Is it more “natural” to eat raw meat and raw grains as opposed to cooking meat and eating bread? If someone is in pain, is it better for them to take a pain killer such as Advil or Tylenol, or should they drink plenty of water and just deal with it? Pain killers seem to be fairly “artificial.” Is it healthier for someone to eat a heavily processed can of SPAM, or to eat raw bamboo, tree bark, and grubs? As can be seen, just because something is “natural” does not automatically mean it is better than something that is not natural. To see this even more clearly, consider another example:
Jill says, “I personally think that it is good for humans to go to sleep strictly according to the day-night cycle, that is, to wake up when the sun rises and to go to bed when the sun goes down.”
Michael replies, “Why do you think humans should do that?”
Jill responds, “Because it is much more natural for humans to do that as opposed to going to bed later after the sun goes down, and getting up either before it rises or after it does so. Many other animals follow the day-night cycle, so I believe it must be healthier for humans to do so as well.”
Michael replies, “I don’t think that is a good reason at all. Animals do a lot of things that humans do not and should not do. It may be more “natural,” but that does not mean humans should practice it.”
Michael is right, of course. Just because many wild animals follow the day-night cycle does not automatically mean humans should follow their example. It may be more “natural” for humans to follow the day-night cycle, as our hunter-gatherer ancestors probably did, but that does not mean it is better and should be done by us today. Consider the behavior of some animals that humans should not imitate, such as the predatory behavior of some animals. Clearly, just because wild animals behave in a certain way does not warrant concluding that humans should behave in an identical or similar way. In addition, just because past humans acted in certain ways does not mean we should follow their example.
However, while Jill’s statement committed the appeal to nature fallacy, that does not automatically falsify her conclusion that following the day-night cycle is healthier. It just shows that she has not justified such an assumption. It would be different had she attempted to argue that science and research has provided support for such a claim. We could then take her argument more seriously, as it does seem that many aspects of high-tech society can be unhealthy (such as internet and television addiction). However, she did not present any such argument. Rather, she made a fallacious appeal to nature, arguing that humans should follow the day-night cycle because many other animal species do as well.
The Bottom Line: While in some cases, being “natural” is better, it is a fallacy to assume that something is better or healthier only because it is more “natural” than something else.