We are still very much enthralled to the notion that because something is natural, or innate, it is therefore acceptable. This comes from all sectors of society, is employed in many different kinds of arguments, and it seems to me to frequently have dangerous implications. Here are two examples I come across frequently: same-sex relations, and cooperation vs competition.
One common argument for the permissibility of same-sex love is that no one chose to be gay or lesbian. I cannot count the number of times that well-meaning liberal comedy or commentary has poked fun at the conservative notion that gays can be cured because it’s just a choice. Anti-homophobia campaigns often try to make that same point. One popular video seizing on this idea, is the following:
Presumably the notion behind it is that if no one chooses to be straight, and no one chooses to be gay, how could we possibly resent it? The insidious and cruel implication is that if they had chosen to be straight or gay, then we could perhaps point our fingers. That’s preposterous. What makes being gay a perfectly good thing is not that it was (or wasn’t) an uncontrollable involuntary accident of nature. It’s that people should be free to love who they want. Free to love them whether by choice or by innate disposition. A defense of same-sex love on the basis of “they had no choice” is insulting to the well deserved recognition of the beauty of love among people of any sex or gender.
Another point of frequent debate is the cooperative vs competitive view of human nature. Pseudoscience plays a big role here. If we skip the controversial point about what does “human nature” even mean, the idea goes that if science can show that humans are fundamentally cooperative, then that serves as evidence in favor of an argument for abandoning the notion that we should organize society on the basis of principles of competition. Maybe we should, or maybe we shouldn’t, but the competitive vs cooperative reality of human nature plays a secondary role in the debate. If you allow me to pose the hypothetical premise that murder and rape are part of human nature, would that somehow make them practices that we should honor, recognize, and consequently organize our society to promote and encourage them? What matters is to try to have some kind of common vision of the society we want to live in, and then encourage and/or discourage manifestations of particular facets of our human nature according to our goals. Self preservation is certainly part of human nature, yet we honor altruism. More to the point: we especially honor it the more it departs from self-interest. Not that altruism cannot be considered to be part of a human nature, the point is rather that violating the innate tendency of self-preservation can be seen as good if it produces consequences that we want. Then, so too with competition vs cooperation.
Understanding human nature, or understanding the sources of particular dispositions and behaviors, is undoubtedly interesting as well as useful. But they are rarely persuasive arguments in themselves when it comes to deciding what kinds of actions we should seek to encourage or curtail. Let us drop the debate about what is natural, what is (or is not) backed by science as part of human nature, what is innate etc.., and let us focus instead on what we want for society and what consequences the actions of people have. In these two examples, we could then defend love and cooperation not on the (questionable) grounds of genealogical/natural legitimacy, but because they are good!