The Appeal to Nature Fallacy and Transphobia
Earlier this year I was talking to an acquaintance who had mixed feelings about trans people undertaking hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgery. He did not consider himself to be transphobic because he didn’t have an issue with people identifying with whatever gender they wanted. The thing that elicited an emotional response for him was the idea of trans people dramatically changing their bodies in a way that is not “natural”.
There is a specific cognitive bias at play here called the appeal to nature fallacy. I think it is an important fallacy to understand because at worst it leads to phenomena such as transphobia, homophobia, anti-vaccination advocacy, and at best, it leads to people paying a shit tonne of money for unregulated supplements or products that are marketed as “100% natural.”
Simply put, the appeal to nature fallacy is the erroneous belief that things which are natural are good, and things which are unnatural are bad. It follows then, that natural things are better than unnatural things.
The premise of the appeal to nature fallacy is relatively easy to debunk. The example that is often evoked is the presence of cyanide in apple seeds and the pits of certain stone fruits. People can and do die from cyanide poisoning and the “naturalness” of cyanide does not make this okay. In this case, naturalness is not equated with goodness. As if to illustrate the appeal to nature fallacy, some natural health companies promote ground or whole apricot kernels as a superfood, despite the fact that they contain cyanogenic glycosides which can release cyanide when ingested.
In the same way, unnaturalness is not always bad. Consider someone getting braces to realign an underbite or straighten their teeth. The correction that the braces provide is not “natural” and yet most people perceive the impact of braces as a positive thing.
In reading these examples, you may have begun to grapple with another innate problem with the appeal to nature fallacy: There is no clear distinction between what is natural and what is unnatural. Yet because the appeal to nature fallacy is one of the cognitive biases humans use to distinguish between good and bad, most people have subconsciously drawn an arbitrary line to delineate between what is natural and unnatural.
Like most things, the placement of these arbitrary defining lines emerges from a mixture of nature and nurture, and as such, they can differ radically between individuals. For example, my Nan was opposed to piercings of any kind. Nan used to look at my earrings and say, if God wanted you to have holes in your ears, he would have put them there. That was her way of saying piercings are unnatural and therefore unholy and bad.
Let’s return to the conversation I had with an acquaintance about gender-affirming surgery. He had said something to the effect of “I’m fine with people identifying with any gender, but do they really need to interfere with their bodies in such a dramatic way?”. I was curious about the placement of his line between what is natural and unnatural.
I asked him if he would go to hospital if he broke his leg or needed some kind of surgery and he said yes.
He was wearing glasses and I asked if he considered those to be a disruption to the natural order of things and he laughed at that. He said he was okay with interventions that were corrective, curative, or life saving but was opposed to interventions that are primarily about self-expression or aesthetics.
Setting aside the fact that gender affirming surgery can be life saving, we explored the latter part of his claim. I asked how he felt about people wearing clothes, make-up or jewellery as an act of self-expression. He was all good with those things.
What about tattoos? Tattoos he felt were an unnecessary and unnatural addition to the human body. So we had found his arbitrary line between what is natural/unnatural and good/bad.
The above inquiries were not intended to be “gotcha” moments or traps to paint this person as a transphobic asshole. I am fascinated by cognitive biases because we are all subject to them. One of the reasons I am particularly interested in the appeal to nature fallacy is because I have made many misguided decisions based on this fallacy in the past and I hope to be less governed by it in the future.
Disgust Sensitivity, Conservatism and Reappraisal
For most people, the line between natural/unnatural and good/bad is not consciously chosen. Similarly, our initial moral judgements stem from a feeling or gut response. In moral psychology, this is known as the primacy of intuition principle.
Unfortunately, gut feelings are not always the best barometer for moral decision making. Sometimes gut feelings can be accurate but other times they can be wildly inaccurate. Disgust is a particularly powerful example of this. Disgust is thought to have evolved to protect us from ingesting harmful substances like maggot-infested or rotting foods.
Did you notice a sense of disgust even reading that? Disgust is a potent core emotion.
However, it appears the function of disgust has expanded to protect us from “disgusting” other people by motivating us to stay away from them. As such, disgust can influence our moral perceptions of other people and their behaviours.
This is the case with both state disgust and trait disgust. State disgust is the temporary experience of disgust that is induced by external stimulus. Trait disgust, also known as disgust sensitivity, refers to how likely one is to experience disgust. A 2008 study demonstrated that study participants are more likely to make harsher moral judgements about the behaviour of others if state disgust is induced through a foul smell or taste. Whereas higher levels of disgust sensitivity are correlated with conservatism and conservative attitudes towards abortion and homosexuality.
Correspondingly, progressively leaning people tend to have lower levels of disgust sensitivity than conservatives. However, a 2014 study suggests that there is another significant factor in differing political attitudes which is that progressives are more likely than conservatives to reappraise the emotion of disgust.
Reappraisal is a regulation strategy which involves reinterpreting a situation that elicits an emotional response such that the emotion is downregulated. I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that our best thinking, and therefore our best moral reasoning, happens when we are in a safe and regulated state.
There are many regulation strategies, but in regard to moral reasoning, I believe cognitive reappraisal through understanding the appeal to nature fallacy is a powerful tool. This is one of the reasons why I think it is important to explore, and perhaps expand, the distinctions we have drawn between the natural and the unnatural. .
The Appeal to Nature Fallacy and Transhumanism
I’ve had quite a bit of time to grapple with the appeal to nature fallacy, because for a few years my brother has been interested in transhumanism.
The transhumanism movement seeks to transcend the limitations of human biology through current and emerging technology. Tranhumanism advocates augmenting the human organism to increase longevity, enhance human cognitive, emotional and physical capabilities and reduce or eradicate suffering, disease and the impacts of the ageing process.
Many people instinctively recoil in response to the word “transhumanism.” Perhaps, for some it evokes the grotesque figure of Frankenstein’s monster along with a sense of moral disgust. Transhumanism is one of the topics that is more likely to hit up against people’s defining lines between what is natural and unnatural.
To explore this further, let’s do a little thought experiment. In the movie Limitless, the dude played by Bradley Cooper gets access to a nootropic drug called NZT-48. This drug increases his cognitive capacities a thousand fold. He is able to take in, analyse, and recall information at an incredible speed which allows him to rapidly learn new languages, predict trends within the stock market and reawakens his creativity so he can finish his novel. In the film, the drug has terrible side effects but for the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s imagine NZT-48 exists and does not have any negative side effects. My question is simple:
Would you take it?
Did you decide you would take it? If so, this is a form of transhumanism - transcending our cognitive limitations through an exogenous substance.
Many people intentionally expand their usual psychological limitations through the use of psychedelics. Everything we perceive is filtered through our senses and biochemistry so a chemically-induced altered state can radically change our perception of ourselves and the world. This too, is a form of transhumanism. It involves the transcendence of human biology through the use of psychoactive technology. Perhaps these examples help to expand the concept of transhumanism to include self-exploration, creativity, and growth.
Something I appreciate about transhumanism is that it refuses to see current humanity as the end-point of evolution. The belief that human biology is beyond critique has its roots in religion. It comes from the idea that humans are made in God’s image and God’s work should not be tampered with. However, transhumanism appraises the limitations of human biology through a secular lens. From this lens, it is possible to see that the human condition could be improved, and as such it is worth putting time and resources into aiding our evolution.
It is easy to see how the appeal to nature fallacy would be evoked in relation to transhumanism. Tampering with biology and physiology is unnatural! This may be true, but this in itself is not a cogent reason to refrain from doing so. Aiding our evolution is not unethical because it is unnatural. It should only be considered unethical to the extent to which it produces harmful consequences. For this reason, the consideration of accessibility, equality, risk evaluation and consequentialist ethics are paramount in the field of transhumanism.
Vaccinations and Transhumanism
Sayer Ji, a prominent figure in the anti-vaccination movement claims that vaccinations are part of a transhumanism agenda.
Under the definition we have been exploring vaccinations and indeed, medicine on the whole, could comfortably live under the umbrella of transhumanism. Humans utilise vaccination technology to enhance our immunity against certain viruses. However, it is clear in Sayer Ji’s article that he believes transhumanism is self-evidently bad in the same way he believes vaccinations are self-evidently bad because they are “unnatural.” All in all Ji’s article, Vaccination Agenda: An Implicit Transhumanism/Dehumanism is an excellent case study on the appeal to nature fallacy. Let’s take a look at some of the false equivalencies and claims that are made in the article. Sayer Ji writes:
“Can vaccines really co-opt, improve upon, and replace natural immunity with synthetic immunity?”
There is a false dichotomy in this question, as vaccines work with our natural immune response they don’t replace it. But in answer to the question, can vaccines co-opt and improve upon natural immunity? Yes. Both traditional and mRNA vaccines trigger the body’s natural defences.
Nonetheless, Ji forges on,
“[I]mplicit within the dominant medical model to replace natural immunity with a synthetic one, is a philosophy of transhumanism, a movement which intends to improve upon and transcend our humanity, and has close affiliation with some aspects of eugenics… The eugenic undertones of mass vaccination and the cult of synthetic immunity are now only thinly veiled, as we move closer to the point where a psuedo-scientific medical dictatorship lays claim to our very bodies, and the bodies of our children.”
There are a number of claims to address in the above passage. I’ll begin with Sayer Ji’s association with transhumanism and eugenics. He is not alone in making this association. Transhumanism is often conflated with eugenics, yet the aims and the morality of these two concepts are radically distinct.
Transhumanism seeks to transcend limitations and improve the human condition through technology. However, transhumanists value individual choice when it comes to enhancement technology.
In contrast, eugenics emerged out of social darwinism and as such eugenicists aim to improve the quality of the human gene pool. Historically, eugenicists have done this through controlling the reproductive rights of those deemed “unfit” or through mass extermination of entire groups of people such as in World War II.
The most obvious distinction between the two is that transhumanism values self-exploration and enhancement, whereas eugenics promotes scientific racism, ableism, nationalism, and population control.
Transhumanism is not about forcing people to utilise enhancement technology. A more pertinent ethical consideration is the accessibility of emerging technology. The profit motive inherent in capitalism incentivises the use of patents and paywalls for all new innovations. As such, unless we advocate for the democratisation of knowledge through intellectual commons and open source movements, enhancement technology, including cures to currently incurable diseases, will only be available to the rich.
The accessibility gap between the rich and the poor is clearly observable in relation to COVID-19 vaccinations. A 2021 appeal to G20 leaders published by the World Health Organisation states that:
“For every 100 people in high-income countries, 133 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, while in low-income countries, only 4 doses per 100 people have been administered. Vaccine inequity is costing lives every day, and continues to place everyone at risk. History and science make it clear: coordinated action with equitable access to public health resources is the only way to face down a global public health scourge like COVID-19.”
Let’s now turn to Sayer Ji’s claim that mass vaccination has “eugenic undertones”. My assumption is that Ji is associating vaccinations with eugenics because of the vaccination mandates. I can empathise with the discomfort of state mandates and the value of bodily autonomy. Balancing the needs for community health and individual autonomy has been and continues to be a collective challenge of the pandemic. Nevertheless, Ji has once again made a sweeping false equivalency. Eugenicists see the eradication of vulnerable and disabled people people as a net win for the human gene pool whereas vaccinations are designed to protect people, particularly disabled, elderly, and immunocompromised people.
Lastly, Sayer Ji attempts to evoke moral panic, or even disgust, through writing that, “a psuedo-scientific medical dictatorship lays claim to our very bodies, and the bodies of our children”. He is pitching medicine as the enemy of our bodies, rather than recognising the life-protecting, life-enhancing and extending capabilities of modern medicine. We are all living longer and healthier lives due to advancements in medicine, including vaccines.
Of course, people in the anti-vaccine movement refuse to believe that “synthetic” vaccines are good for personal or public health. Instead, they advocate for “natural” ways to boost your immune system such as sunlight and supplements.
I am not against sunlight or supplements. I’ve got my hat on and I’m sitting in the sun right now and I took a select number of supplements this morning. I am interested in anything that will make me healthier and happier. However, I think it is worth looking at how the appeal to nature fallacy does some heavy lifting when it comes to attitudes towards supplements.
Supplements and the Appeal to Nature Fallacy
One of the common anti-vaccination arguments in regard to the COVID-19 vaccines was that they were rushed through the clinical trials and approval processes, and therefore were unsafe. Yet the interesting thing is that many of the same people decrying vaccines as “unsafe”, promote and profit from supplements or alternative treatments that have no regulatory processes at all. Presumably, the appeal to nature fallacy plays some part in the proliferation of this double standard.
The lack of scrutiny towards supplements occurs at a structural level as well as the individual level. In the US, the supplement industry is largely self-regulated. The Food and Drug Administration is not authorised to approve supplements for safety and effectiveness until they are already on the market. Attempts to increase supplement regulations have been blocked by propaganda campaigns that promote the public to see supplement regulation as an infringement on their health rights. Sound familiar? Blocks to legislation and propaganda like this are implemented by politicians such as Senator Orrin Hatch who are handsomely rewarded by the supplement industry. (For a detailed and captivating exposé of the power and propaganda wielded by the US supplement industry, check out this episode of The Dream podcast.)
In Australia, companies need to obtain pre-market approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration before their products can be legally supplied to the Australian market. However, there are still gaps and issues in the regulatory process of supplements. For instance, it wasn’t until 2020 that certain sports supplements were regulated as therapeutic goods or medicines. Prior to this, sports supplements were regulated under the category of food which has less strict regulatory requirements.
It makes sense that medications should go through a thorough approval process and be assessed based on their risks and curative claims. Yet when it comes to some consumers being less discerning about the risks of “natural” supplements and medicines, there is an innate contradiction. On one hand, supplements are worth taking due to their profound healing properties, yet on the other hand, they are too benign to be considered harmful.
Again, I’m not advocating against the potential healing properties of all supplements or natural medicines. Many natural things are health-giving and wonderful - but their relative closeness to their “natural state” is not the sole determinant of this.
The appeal to nature fallacy is tenacious and pervasive. It can influence our perceptions of gender, sexuality, technology, conventional and alternative medicine. Further, if the appeal to nature fallacy is unchecked, it can heighten disgust and lead to unsubstantiated moral judgements and discrimination. However, if the fallacy is identified and challenged, it can be a useful tool for reappraisal. We can learn to reappraise initial instincts such as disgust towards concepts or groups of people that are outside our individual definitions of what is and what is not “natural”. My hope is that by recognising the prevalence of the appeal to nature fallacy, we can support one another to think more clearly and to make more compassionate and informed individual and collective choices.