Chapter II: Naturalistic Ethics.

§ 28.

But there is another slightly different sense in which the word natural is used with an implication that it denotes something good. This is when we speak of natural affections, or unnatural crimes and vices. Here the meaning seems to be, not so much that the action or feeling in question is normal or abnormal, as that it is necessary. It is in this connection that we are advised to imitate savages and beasts. Curious advice, certainly; but, of course, there may be something in it. I am not here concerned to enquire under what circumstances some of us might with advantage take a lesson from the cow. I have really no doubt that such exist. What I am concerned with is a certain kind of reason, which I think is sometimes used to support this doctrine—a naturalistic reason. The notion sometimes lying at the bottom of the minds of preachers of this gospel is that we cannot improve on nature. This notion is certainly true, in the sense that anything we can do, will be a natural product. But that is not what is meant by this phrase; nature is again used to mean a mere part of nature; only this time the part meant is not so much the normal as an arbitrary minimum of what is necessary for life. And when this minimum is recommended as natural—as the way of life to which Nature points her finger—then the naturalistic fallacy is used. Against this position I wish only to point out that though the performance of certain acts, not in themselves desirable, may be excused as necessary means to the preservation of life, that is no reason for praising them, or advising us to limit ourselves to those simple actions which are necessary, if it is possible for us to improve our condition even at the expense of of doing what is in this sense unnecessary. Nature does indeed set limits to what is possible; she does control the means we have at our disposal for obtaining what is good; and of this fact, practical Ethics, as we shall see later, must certainly take account: but when she is supposed to have a preference for what is necessary, what is necessary means only what is necessary to obtain a certain end, presupposed as the highest good; and what the highest good is Nature cannot determine. Why should we suppose that what is merely necessary to life is ipso facto better than what is necessary to the study of metaphysics, useless as that study may appear? It may be that life is only worth living, because it enables us to study metaphysics—is a necessary means thereto. The fallacy of this argument from nature has been discovered as long ago as Lucian. I was almost inclined to laugh, says Callicratidas, in one of the dialogues imputed to him, just now, when Charicles was praising irrational brutes and the savagery of the Scythians: in the heat of his argument he was almost repenting that he was born a Greek. What wonder if lions and bears and pigs do not act as I was proposing? That which reasoning would fairly lead a man to choose, cannot be had by creatures that do not reason, simply because they are so stupid. If Prometheus or some other god had given each of them the intelligence of a man, then they would not have lived in deserts and mountains nor fed on one another. They would have built temples just as we do, each would have lived in the centre of his family, and they would have formed a nation bound by mutual laws. Is it anything surprising that brutes, who have had the misfortune to be unable to obtain by forethought any of the goods with which reasoning provides us, should have missed love too? Lions do not love; but neither do they philosophise; bears do not love, but the reason is they do not know the sweets of friendship. It is only men, who, by their wisdom and knowledge, after many trials, have chosen what is best. (§ 28 ¶ 1)