The appeal to nature is a logical fallacy where someone claims that something is either good because it is considered ‘natural’, or bad because it is considered ‘unnatural’.
For example, a person using an appeal to nature might advocate for the use of an ineffective herbal remedy when treating a serious condition, despite what medical research says on the topic, simply because they perceive the herbal remedies as more natural than the modern alternatives.
This kind of fallacious thinking frequently plays a role in people’s internal reasoning process, as well as in debates on various topics, so it’s important to fully understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the appeal to nature fallacy, see the main flaws in this type of reasoning, and understand how to successfully counter people who use it in order to support their stance.
Understanding the appeal to nature
There are four main ways in which appeals to nature are used:
- To claim that something that is perceived as ‘natural’ is good. This type of argument has the following basic structure: “X is natural (and natural is good), so therefore X is good”.
- To claim that something that is perceived as ‘unnatural’ is bad. This type of argument has the following basic structure: “X is unnatural (and unnatural is bad), so therefore X is bad”.
- To claim that one alternative is better than the other, because it’s perceived as more ‘natural’. This type of argument has the following basic structure: “X is more natural than Y (and natural is good), so therefore X is better than Y”.
- To claim that one alternative is worse than the other, because it’s perceived as more ‘unnatural’. This type of argument has the following basic structure: “X is more unnatural than Y (and unnatural is bad), so therefore X is worse than Y”.
All of these arguments revolve around the same fallacious premise, and namely around the idea that the quality of being ‘natural’ entails that something is necessarily ‘good’ in some way, with each type of argument using this premise while focusing on a slightly different implication of it.
There are two main issues with this premise. The first issue is the fact that the quality of being ‘natural’ is hard to define, and people who use the appeal to nature often fail to explain what it means, or do so in a way that is incorrect and even self-contradictory within the context of their argument. The second issue is the fact that just because something is ‘natural’, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily good or better than the more ‘unnatural’ alternatives.
Note: because the appeal to nature relies on a fallacious premise, which renders it unsound from a logical perspective, the appeal to nature is considered to be an informal logical fallacy.
Examples of the appeal to nature
A basic example of the appeal to nature is the following argument:
“Herbal medicine is natural, so it’s good for you.”
Another example of the appeal to nature is the following:
“Antibiotics are unnatural, so they’re bad for you.”
Furthermore, as we saw above, the appeal to nature can also be used in a comparison-style argument, as in the following example:
“Herbal medicine is more natural than antibiotics, so it’s better for you.”
Countering the appeal to nature
As we saw earlier, there are two main types of possible issues with appeal to nature arguments:
- They fail to properly define what ‘natural’ means.
- They incorrectly assume that ‘natural’ entails ‘good’.
In order to counter an appeal to nature, you will want to focus on these issues in your response. The appeal to nature will include either one of these logical flaws, or both of them. If both are included, you should generally focus on whichever one of these issues you feel will allow you to counter the appeal to nature argument most effect. If necessary, you can expand later on, and attack the other flaw in the opponent’s argument too.
Next, we will see some specific tips on how to attack each one of these logical flaws.
‘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 generally meaningless, since it’s 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 appeal to nature arguments is to ask your opponent to explain what they mean by ‘natural’. Then, you can give examples of 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’ changes over time. This is especially helpful when the appeal to nature 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 issues, such as racism or sexism, which appear in your opponent’s argument.
‘Natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’
In order to counter an appeal to nature, you can also point out that just because something is ‘natural’, that doesn’t mean that it’s good, and that just because something is ‘unnatural’, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad.
The best way to do this is by using specific counterexamples, as you can see in the following cases:
“Cyanide is also natural, since it can be found in cherry, apple, and peach pits, so natural things clearly aren’t always good for you.”
“Cars and planes are also unnatural, so does that mean we should never use them, and just stick to walking instead?”
Using the right approach when countering the appeal to nature
When arguing against people who use appeals to nature, you should keep in mind that, in many cases, being confrontational reduces the likelihood that the other person will be willing to listen to what you have to say. Furthermore, people can sometimes be vulnerable to the backfire effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to cling more strongly to their beliefs when they are presented with information that contradicts them.
Because of these issues, there may be cases where pointing out the logical flaws in an appeal to nature argument might cause an adverse reaction, and lead your opponent to cling even more strongly to their fallacious reasoning.
To reduce the chance of this happening, you should avoid being too confrontational when pointing out the issues with this type of reasoning. Specifically, 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 helping them internalize the issue with their original stance.
For example, if you want to point out that just because something is natural that 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. For instance, 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 often benefit more from saying something along the following lines:
“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, you should ask yourself whether you just want to point out that the other person is wrong, which is perfectly fine in some situations, such as when your main goal is to convince an audience that is watching the discussion, or whether you want the other person to truly understand and internalize the issue with their reasoning.
Avoid using the appeal to nature yourself
It’s important to consider the fact that you might also be using this type of fallacious reasoning yourself, unintentionally.
To determine whether this is indeed the case, you should ask yourself if you have argued in favor or against something simply because it’s ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’. If this is indeed the case, try to question your own reasoning, by using the techniques that we saw above for countering these arguments.
Doing this will allow you to look at things in a more rational way, and to make better, more-informed decisions.
Summary and conclusions
- The appeal to nature is a logical fallacy where someone claims that something is either good because it is considered ‘natural’, or bad because it is considered ‘unnatural’.
- For example, a person using an appeal to nature might advocate for the use of an ineffective herbal remedy when treating a serious condition, despite what medical research says on the topic, simply because they perceive the herbal remedies as more natural than the modern alternatives.
- The first main flaw in this type of reasoning is that it’s difficult to define what ‘natural’ means, which you can point out by asking your opponent to define what is ‘natural’, and by giving examples of things which are natural under their definition, but which they clearly wouldn’t think of as such.
- The second main flaw in this type of reasoning is that just because something is ‘natural’, that doesn’t mean that it’s good, and just because something is ‘unnatural’, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad, which you can demonstrate by giving specific counterexamples for ‘natural’ things which are perceived as bad, and for ‘unnatural’ things which are perceived as good.
- When responding to an appeal to nature with the goal of changing your opponent’s mind, you generally want to use a relatively indirect, non-confrontational approach, where you present the relevant information to them with the goal of helping them internalize the error in their reasoning.