Natural + Unnatural behaviour

This terminology depends on the judgement that observation of all aspects of the universe in which we live, shows that there is a biologically and physically given pattern, which provides norms for behaviour. These can and should be identified as morally acceptable or unacceptable. That there are such patterns, as for instance amongst animals, is not in contention. However, whether they provide a basis for extrapolating to how human beings should behave is very much in dispute. For instance, does the ‘survival of the fittest’, both between and within species, justify indifference towards the ‘weaker’ human beings on the part of the strong? That Nazi eugenic and extermination policies took this view, by no means makes them morally acceptable. Objections to homosexuality once found justification in the claim that this does not happen ‘in nature’. In fact, it is now well documented in other species besides humans, but that in itself is no guarantee of its morality or otherwise. By contrast, self-correcting ecosystems do provide a remarkable model of living harmony, and both birds and animals show a capacity for self-sacrifice in their behaviour, when their offspring are in danger.

Illustrative scenarios

A farmer’s natural lore

As far back as we can tell from family stories, and from any written records which I’ve been shown, the Cassons have always been in farming. It’s changed a lot in recent years, especially because of all the new machinery, which takes the place of farm workers, and also because of the techniques available now for selective breeding of cows. It’s always involved financial calculations, but now the scale of the business is greater than ever.

One thing I’ve always known and been grateful for is the natural rhythm of the year. As they say, there’s a time to sow and a time to harvest, a time to suckle lambs and a time to cut thistles. There’s a lot of rabbits in the fields this year. I’m shooting them, because they breed like viagra – and their holes make a mess of the banks. And I quite like a bit of rabbit pie.

We’ve had some campers in one of the fields. Two of them heard the gun and came over. They said they thought I was wrong to be killing animals. This was a shock. It’s not easy to explain that this is nature’s way. Rabbits are fine, but not if you have too many of them; in any case we don’t deliberately breed them. Like the grass in the fields, there has to be some control. Sheep and cows are good in themselves, and also for their wool or milk, and eventually meat. We do breed these, and if we didn’t they wouldn’t live in the first place. It’s important that campers and city folk learn more about the nature of farming and of food.

You might say that farming is cruel. I admit it has a cruel side. But this is the cruelty of nature and of life. In some respects, humans too are animals, and in the natural cycle just as they are interdependent, so are we with them. We depend on each other for sustenance. Take that away, and eventually we’ll become wary of breathing oxygen. Then we’ll stop altogether. And that wouldn’t be natural!

question: how consistent is the farmer’s perspective on what can be learned from nature? Why kill animals for human convenience, but not other humans? Why engage in the selective breeding of animals, but not of humans?

Unnatural dying, unnatural healing?

As a young Dr she’d had no such worries. She took it for granted that the preservation of human life was her life’s vocation. Now, however, she was becoming daily more troubled. The range of available technologies and drugs on which she could draw was continuing to increase, and life expectancy was undoubtedly extending beyond the seventies and even eighties. But the quality of that life, which she helped to preserve, wasn’t always great. At the same time, she was more frequently being faced with requests, sometimes from the patients themselves, sometimes from their relatives or friends asking for assistance, not just to ease pain but to hasten death.

The argument she most frequently heard against any such easement of death, or euthanasia, was that it would be assisting suicide. That would be wrong - immoral, a criminal act – illegal, a religious offence – sinful, and against nature. Life is a gift from God; any voluntary shortening of it is ingratitude and unnatural.

Whilst she respected such views, she saw that they were flawed. Was there not much in life that involved natural illness – and does not that come as in some sense a gift – albeit a poisonous one. Medicine intervenes to defeat illness, and the techniques it uses often go way beyond the processes of natural healing. She’d no qualms about using them. They gave opportunities for giving life back to people who might otherwise be dead, or enabling them to function in ways that would have been impossible for previous generations. And in this they went beyond what was naturally given.

However, when someone really believed that they had come to the end of their tether, why should she not comply with their wishes for assistance with dying? It would be no more ‘unnatural’ than some of her other medical interventions. ‘Nature’ may contain moral pointers, but they may easily be ambiguous. And then again, even nature has within it a place for human intention and willing.

question: are appeals to nature at all relevant for medical care?

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