Integral ecology

The natural as a moral category

Where is the concept of nature that we use, for example, when we speak of natural law, natural food or natural theology? Why does the Church speak of ecology? How are nature and the finality of things related? These are some of the elements addressed in this article.

Emilio Chuvieco and Lorenzo Gallo-September 18, 2021-Reading time: 7 minutes

Photo credit: Nils Stahl / Unsplash

A few years ago, while searching for information on the internet, I came across a website called ecosophywhere they provided information on topics related to philosophy and the environment. I was struck by some of the answers that appeared there about what the followers of the site understood by nature. I transcribe two of them: "Nature is everything that man did not create with his own hands, that is: air, water, earth, animals, plants and others"; "Nature is everything we have around us except what man has made, of course".

It seems that these people, undoubtedly interested in the conservation of nature, understand nature as an external entity, alien to human beings. Now, if human beings are not part of nature, what are they part of? On the other hand, in this approach, the concept of nature is reduced to the biophysical elements that form the environment that surrounds us. Where is the concept of nature that we use, for example, when we speak of natural law, natural food or natural theology?

It can be seen that the word nature can be applied with very different meanings, which may seem equivocal, but which have a unity if we think about things more deeply. Following Greek thought, nature would be that which constitutes something as such: canine nature explains what a dog is and does, just as arboreal nature allows us to understand and differentiate a tree from other plants or inanimate beings. Nature is the environment, no doubt, with all its components: humans, animals, plants, soil, climate, etc., but it is also what makes one environment different from another. To conserve nature is to conserve the intrinsic characteristics of that environment, what makes it a wetland, a beech forest or a grassy meadow, in the face of the transformation that human beings might introduce (we must not forget that non-human beings also introduce changes in ecosystems, which are by definition dynamic).

Thus, to conserve nature is to conserve what things are, and this applies to landscapes, but also to animals, plants and, why not, to human beings. Hence it is reasonable to speak of a human ecology, which would lead us to seek a vital balance with the deepest characteristics of our constitution.

For several decades, different authors -in their eagerness to deconstruct any classical concept- have denied the existence of a human nature, understood as the set of universal values that affect all human beings. In line with this approach, the only thing left to do is to embrace moral relativism, in which each person defends his or her own values without claiming to extend them to others. In practice, this relativism makes it extremely difficult to establish universally valid moral principles and, therefore, to establish any declaration of human rights that would guarantee equal dignity for any person, regardless of the place and time in which he or she lives.

Thus, to conserve nature is to conserve what things are, and this applies to landscapes, but also to animals, plants and, why not, to human beings. It is therefore reasonable to speak of a human ecology.

Emilio Chuvieco and Lorenzo Gallo

In our opinion, nature conservation, increasingly linked to the concept of integral development, should also be linked to a revaluation of nature as an objective criterion of moral sanction.

Following the ethical approach proposed by Aldo Leopold, one of the pioneers of conservationism: "Something is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to something else" (An Ethics of the Earth, 1946). Following this idea, we could affirm that something is morally right when it is natural, when it follows what corresponds to the nature of a "biotic community". If we apply this to human beings, we could use this "ecological" criterion to qualify something as morally good if it is natural to human beings. Of course, identifying the moral with the natural requires us to agree on what the concept of "natural" means in depth and then how it applies to human nature.

Meanings of "natural"

We use the word natural in several contexts that do not, in our opinion, have a univocal moral sanction. On the one hand, we use natural as a synonym for normal, for what is usually done. Of course, someone who does unusual or even anomalous things, such as dyeing his hair green, need not be committing immorality.

Nor does it seem morally reprehensible when we qualify as natural a behavior that occurs spontaneously in certain people. It is natural for an autistic person to speak little and that does not make him a worse person. Nor does it imply the opposite: that all spontaneous behavior is morally good. A thief can have such an ingrained bad habit that leads him to do it spontaneously, and that does not make him a better individual.

Thirdly, we can qualify as natural something that is produced without human intervention. In this sense, neither can we assign a moral qualification to this naturalness, or to this lack of naturalness in the case of artificial actions, since there are human interventions that are very good, even if they are not natural, such as operating on a sick person or building a house. Finally, when we use the word natural to refer to phenomena that occur following the laws of nature, we should not qualify them morally either. An earthquake or a volcanic eruption are not in themselves bad or good, although sometimes they have effects that can be qualified as such.

We have left to the end what we consider to be the core of this reflection. What qualifies that something natural is good in itself is not because of any of the four meanings indicated above (the normal, the spontaneous, the non-artificial or that produced by the environment), but because it corresponds to the nature of that being, mainly of the human being. In this sense, and extending Leopold's previous quote, something would be good when it is proper to human nature and it would be bad when it goes against it. In short, something that goes against our nature would be unnatural, and therefore morally reprehensible. This principle has been present in classical culture, as can be seen in Antigone's voluntary surrender to Creon's unjust law or in the writings of Cicero, and continued with Christianity until the rupture brought about by empiricism and the Enlightenment, where alternative sources of morality were proposed, which have ended up being empty proposals of concrete content, and have given way to the ethics of agreement (what we agree to be moral is moral) or legal positivism (what the law says is moral is moral).

What qualifies that something natural is good in itself is the fact that it corresponds to the nature of that being, mainly of the human being.

Emilio Chuvieco and Lorenzo Gallo

The Catholic Church continues to consider that naturalness, understood in the deepest sense of the term, is a valid moral principle, as stated in the latest edition of the Catechism: "To respect the laws inscribed in Creation and the relationships that flow from the nature of things is, therefore, a principle of wisdom and a foundation of morality" (Compendium, n. 64). It can be applied to many morally controversial issues, such as, for example, abortion, euthanasia or birth control. After all, what differentiates natural regulation from contraception, for example? Basically, one is natural (it respects the natural cycles of female fertility) and the other is not (it prevents them, in fact), and hence the former is morally admitted by the Church and the latter is not (here we are talking about the object itself, not the intention of the agent, which can make a good act morally inadequate, but never the other way around).

Does this mean that any human intervention (therefore, not natural) is morally reprehensible? No, it will only be so when it is properly unnatural, or in other words, when it contravenes the deepest sense of our nature. To operate on an eye to restore a patient's sight or to perform kidney dialysis is unnatural, but it is aimed at recovering a natural function that has been lost or weakened (therefore, it is not unnatural). For their part, medical interventions linked to contraception are the only ones that are performed to repress what is functioning properly, contravening its natural course: it seems obvious to remember that being pregnant or fertile is not a disease. In the same vein, it is one thing to intervene to prevent pain in a chronically ill person and another to eliminate him or her.

These reflections also seek to connect natural ecology with human ecology, of which recent popes have spoken, which involves applying to our nature the profound respect that is also due to the environment. Benedict XVI underlined this approach in Caritas in VeritateWhen "human ecology" is respected in society, environmental ecology also benefits (...) If the right to life and natural death is not respected, if conception, gestation and birth of man are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed for research, the common conscience ends up losing the concept of human ecology and thus of environmental ecology.

It is a contradiction to ask the new generations to respect the natural environment when education and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible, both with regard to life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations, in a word, integral human development" (n. 51). Pope Francis has also recalled the need to approach ecology from an integral perspective, which affects not only the environment but also people, including their moral sphere: "Human ecology also implies something very profound: the necessary relationship of the life of human beings with the moral law written in their own nature, which is necessary in order to create a more dignified environment" (n. 155).

It is a contradiction to ask the new generations to respect the natural environment, when education and laws do not help them to respect themselves.

Emilio Chuvieco and Lorenzo Gallo

Finally, why should we consider the natural as a moral category? Precisely because it is what is most genuine to the person, what defines him most intimately and, consequently, what guarantees the attainment of his own perfection.

If we are believers, because human nature has been willed by God: it is not up to us to "improve" it (as transhumanists pretend); if we are evolutionists (believers or not) because it is the most advanced state of natural development, and it would be very pretentious on our part to alter it. In both cases, an additional reason would be that the natural has no negative side effects, precisely because it is in perfect balance with what we are.

We are well aware that maneuvering against nature always has negative consequences. It does in environmental ecology (deforesting a forest in the headwaters of a river will lead to flooding downstream), and also in human ecology (the decline of the family is a consequence, in large part, of the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s). Conserving nature, therefore, not only involves conserving ecosystems so that they continue to function stably, but also conserving our own nature, avoiding those actions that deteriorate it, seeking a balance between the three dimensions that compose it: animal, social, rational-spiritual.

The authorEmilio Chuvieco and Lorenzo Gallo

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