Wednesday, January 02, 2013

What is "Natural?"

I realize this is a question so basically philosophical it could not possibly be settled (if settled at all) by a brief blog. But I am stimulated to consider it by the argument made by some that Gay marriages are “unnatural.” This is an argument that would seem to have some merit, depending upon what is meant by “natural.” If you assume that marriages are natural because they produce offspring, and Gay marriages do not, this position makes some sense. But many marriages do not produce offspring. Marriages between seniors, for example, do not result in offspring. Similarly, there are many couples who marry but have to desire to have children. There are also marriages between Gays and “Straits,” as well as marriages between Lesbians and Straits. Similarly, if you examine marriages around the world they do not necessarily involve the goal of having children, or even, necessarily, paternity. There are, for example, polyandrous marriages in which one woman has two or more husbands who take turns claiming paternity whether the particular husband is truly the progenitor or not. There are marriages in which a woman claims to be married to the ghost of her deceased husband and brings in a lover to actually father her child. Indeed, a woman can marry another woman to be considered the father of her child if the woman has enough cattle or whatever to marry. Among some American Indians there was a custom called the couvades in which a woman could marry as a husband or a man could marry as a wife. There is a long-standing claim that in at least one society (perhaps more than one) the role of sex in procreation is not even recognized, the fetus being given to a woman by an ancestral ghost or some kind of spirit.
Now you might argue that such strange customs do not constitute true marriages as we think of them. But as far as I know they all involve public ceremonies that recognize the legality of the relationships and also the parental rights and responsibilities that derive from them. You could, it seems to me, argue that “marriage” is itself somewhat unnatural. That is, no other mammalian species relies on anything like marriage to propagate their species. The human species could certainly, and often does, reproduce itself without the benefit of marriage. When you consider polygamy, serial monogamy, common law, and such, it seems pretty clear that while such unions may be “unusual” they are not necessarily unnatural.  So how does one distinguish the natural from the unnatural, and the unnatural from the unusual? I cannot say that I know, but I regard it as a most interesting question, and I would suggest that if someone does not know they should exercise caution before condemning things as unnatural.
What about left-handedness? Is this merely unusual or is it unnatural. Years ago some considered it so unnatural as to try to force the left handed to use their right hands, often resulting in undesirable consequences. What about someone like Phil Mickelson who is apparently “naturally” right handed but plays professional golf left handed, or the rare ambidextrous people who seem proficient with either hand?  They are, it is true, unusual, but are they also unnatural? It does not seem so to me. Similarly, when I look out my living room window I see a forest of various evergreen trees. They are all virtually perfectly straight, tall, and beautiful, except for one that has a strange and unattractive bend in it. Is that unnatural or merely unusual? How does one distinguish between the unusual and the unnatural?
If one person is unusually attractive and another unusually unattractive, does that make attractive more natural than unattractive? What about those unfortunates with physical defects, like harelips or club feet? If they exist in nature, as they do, how can they be considered unnatural? In order to make such judgments you have to have in mind some kind of standard, however abstract, of what a natural human is supposed to look like, a standard of “normality.” If one deviates sufficiently from this standard we say they are unnatural, or abnormal. But if they exist in nature in the same way “normals” do how can we say they are unnatural? You can say, of course, they do not represent God’s intentions, but how do we know what God’s intentions are? It was recently argued by one of our “leaders” that even when a child was conceived by an act of rape it must have been God’s intention.” Does that make sense? In some cultures those who are somewhat “insane,” or even epileptic, are regarded as especially gifted and can become shamans or perhaps seers, whereas in other cultures they can be seen as most undesirable. In some cultures speaking in tongues and falling into trances are regarded as perfectly normal, at least in some circumstances. While such individuals may be regarded as unusual they are not regarded as unnatural. Even human customs like headhunting and cannibalism have been seen as perfectly natural by some people but regarded as completely unnatural by others. I could go on but of course this seems perfectly obvious.
In any case, when you hear someone claim something or other is God’s will or a Natural right, bite the bullet, take a deep breath, pause for reflection, consider the source, look for the motive, and watch your wallet. Do we even have a right to be born: an American, African, Asian, wealthy, poor, healthy, sick, handicapped, brilliant, dull? I do not know, it is all part of the Great Mystery.

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