Answers to moral questions cannot be found in nature or the law book

Last week became known that American doctors have transplanted a pig kidney into a human for the first time. It was a brain-dead patient. Thanks to an adjustment in the pig’s DNA, the organ was not immediately rejected. Although it is still highly uncertain whether such a transplant will be successful in the long term, it is time to discuss this with each other: because suppose it will soon be possible in the Netherlands to get an adapted pig kidney, do we want that? also?

That is why NEMO Kennislink organizes social dialogues on this subject in collaboration with the Rathenau Institute. We are investigating a possible future scenario in which animal embryos are modified and mixed with human material so that human organs will grow inside the animal. The hope is that this will solve the donor shortage in the future. In Germany, researchers are already breeding pigs with modified hearts, in the Netherlands it is currently prohibited.

In preparation for these dialogues, the Rathenau Institute organized focus groups with citizens, kidney patients and experts. A number of arguments were discussed in these focus groups, which we present in this blog series to Paula Steenwinkel, author of the book Fallacies (2021). Today we will discuss: an appeal to nature.

Appeal to nature

Supporters of donor animals believe that it is human nature to discover new things. Opponents believe that making animal-human combinations goes against nature. “Nature intended it that way,” they say.

Sverre Frederiksen

During the focus groups, this argument was used by both supporters and opponents of donor animals. Proponents believe that it is human nature to discover new things. ‘We are just curious’. Opponents believe that making animal-human combinations goes against nature. “That’s not how nature intended it.” But does nature have a purpose? How legitimate are these arguments?

“Although the conclusions are contradictory, here we see two versions of the same type of argument,” says Steenwinkel. “Nature is called upon to justify the (in)correctness of an action. An ‘appeal to nature’ is a fallacy that states that something is true, justified or good because it is ‘natural’. In argumentation, this is also known as the is-to-oughtfallacy: just because something is, doesn’t mean it should beought).”

“It is actually very strange that we label something that is in our nature in advance as something we should strive for,” says Steenwinkel. “We naturally also have all kinds of bad qualities. People can be jealous, aggressive and self-centered. These properties are in our nature, but that does not make them worth pursuing.”

Just because it works that way in nature doesn’t mean it’s good. A lot of nasty things happen in nature that we don’t like at all. Simply appealing to nature, such as ‘we are curious’, is therefore never sufficient to show that something is morally right or wrong. An extra step is needed, according to Steenwinkel. “You could say, for example, that acquiring new knowledge gives us pleasure, and pleasure is worth pursuing. Or that new knowledge takes our healthcare to a higher level. And you then have to demonstrate why that outweighs the death of other animals.”

Appeal to the law

Opponents of donor animals say: ‘It is not forbidden for nothing!’ But that doesn’t mean it should always be banned.

Sverre Frederiksen

Steenwinkel mentions yet another fallacy that is-to-ought– fallacy seems to be: the ‘recourse to the law’. In her book she calls this a To read (according to the law). “The law is being called upon to determine whether something is right,” says Steenwinkel. “For example, it’s not prohibited by law, so I’m allowed to do this. Or the other way around: it is not allowed by law, so it is not right.”

“But the law can never be the only argument to determine whether something is morally right,” Steenwinkel continues. “We’ve had times when killing Jews was legal, but that didn’t make it right. And just because it’s not illegal to cheat, doesn’t make it morally permissible.”

For example, opponents of donor animals say: ‘It is not forbidden for nothing!’ But that doesn’t mean it should always be banned. Steenwinkel: “You have to keep assessing whether certain developments may lead to different judgements. There were once things forbidden that we have now legalized; think of gay marriage or women’s suffrage. Things that we have started to assess differently over time. We may end up sticking with a ban in the donor animal discussion, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reconsider the issue.”

In short: an appeal to a factual state of affairs (nature or the law) can never be a sufficient reason to determine whether something is morally right or not. You will have to think for yourself what you think is appropriate and why. Do you want to talk about this? Then come to the Donor Animal Dialogue on November 7, 2021 in NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam.

Source: Kennislink by

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