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  • Putting Concerns about Nature in Context:The Case of Agricultural Biotechnology

Concerns about nature are playing increasingly prominent roles in a variety of social debates, including medical biotechnology, environmental protection, and agricultural biotechnology. These concerns are often simply rejected as incoherent: critics argue that there is no good account for how natural states of affairs can have moral value, and that the concept of "nature" is too multifarious and vague to be deployed in moral argument anyway. When these concerns are defended, they are frequently formulated as strong claims that make implausible ontological commitments and that ignore the linkages between these different debates. Agricultural biotechnology provides an especially challenging case study for evaluating concerns about nature. I offer a qualified defense that recognizes these concerns as conceptually linked, attends to social context at appropriate points, and overcomes the charges of incoherence. This defense supports a restrained treatment of concerns about nature in public policy: public policy can neither endorse nor dismiss them. In the case of agricultural biotechnology, this stance probably mandates some form of labeling.

The debate about agricultural uses of cloning and gene modification centers on whether these technologies might have adverse consequences for consumers, the animals themselves, or the environment, yet many people feel that something besides bad effects is at stake. The loaded labels some critics employ—Frankenfood for food that contains genetically modified (GM) crops, for example, and Monsatan for Monsanto, which has developed some of those crops—suggest that they find something downright evil about these technologies. A significant portion of the wider public also finds these technologies morally troubling (Hallman 2004; Marris et al. 2002). In a poll conducted by the Pew Initiative on Food Biotechnology (2005), two-thirds of respondents said they were "uncomfortable" about animal cloning, even though less than half thought the products were unsafe. A market research firm hired by a company that clones livestock reported that over a third of those it polled said they would not buy such products, even when first told that the FDA was likely to declare them safe (Sosin and Richards 2005). Three-quarters of respondents to a poll paid for by the International Food Information Council (2005), which is supported by the agricultural industry, said that they had an unfavorable impression of animal cloning.

The debate about agricultural biotechnology offers an interesting case study of concerns about nature because crops and livestock are already heavily modified, but similar concerns arise in the debate about using biotechnology to alter human nature, and in the debate about preserving endangered species and ecosystems. Some of the concerns in these other domains are about human health and safety, but others center on the purported value of a "natural" state of affairs. In the debate about altering human nature, for example, the President's Council on Bioethics (2003) calls attention to what it sees as valuable aspects of sexual procreation, in which two parents' genetic lines are commingled and a new being is created whose nature is not and cannot be fully specified by the parents (p. 105). Likewise, in the environmentalist movement, the Wilderness Act of 1964 presupposes the intrinsic value of spaces that are, in the language of the act, "untrammeled by man." If such spaces are untrammeled, then relatively few people are tangibly benefiting from their preservation, and the moral rationale for their preservation must lie in something other than their direct, instrumental value for humans.

The claim that nature has noninstrumental value poses a philosophical and regulatory puzzle. Some prominent scholarly analyses reject all such claims as incoherent (Rollin 1995; Straughan 2000; Thompson 1997, 2003). Those who defend such claims hope to make them not merely coherent but decisive, yet in the process end up with haphazard and unconvincing arguments. This article presents a defense of concerns about nature that is qualified yet philosophically plausible. It grounds the discussion in responses to the two broad kinds of objections typically lodged against invoking the value of nature in moral debate—namely, that there is no good account for how natural states of affairs can have [End Page 573] moral value, and that the concept of nature is too multifarious and vague a concept to be deployed in moral argument anyway.

Nature in General: Values and Sentiments

The first argument against regarding natural states of affairs as having moral value is that there is no good account for how natural states of affairs can have moral value. Valuing nature seems to be at odds with the overall drift of Western moral philosophy, which has largely been a search for firm justifications for moral judgments and which has tended to make use of the unique characteristics of humans—rationality, consciousness, the capacity for pleasure, or the practice of communication. Moral views about the nonhuman natural world thus do not appear capable of relying on the traditional moral concepts for justification. Worse, they may be fundamentally at odds with those concepts. Arguably, the very point of morality is precisely to contravene nature, insofar as morality enjoins people to restrain their natural urges and to compensate for the natural evils that befall other people. In contrast to other, seemingly well-grounded moral principles, views about nature seem purely sentimental. Thus claims about the value of nature depend partly on claims about the nature of value.

A further problem arises when we consider how the value of nature has been defended. Most of this work has considered one domain—agricultural biotechnology, medical biotechnology, or environmentalism—in isolation from the others and has developed arguments that cannot readily be adapted for views about nature in other domains. For example, critiques of agricultural biotechnology sometimes rest on claims about the value of preserving "animal integrity"—an animal's "wholeness and intactness" as a member of its species and its ability to sustain itself in a way suitable to its species (Bovenkerk, Brom, and van den Bergh 2002; Rutgers and Heeger 1999)—or "species integrity"—the biological norms for a species, such that individuals of the species should not be altered so that they are radically different from that norm. These views might be adapted to underwrite criticisms of human biotechnology, but they have no immediate relevance to the environmental debate. In any event, criticisms of human medical biotechnology are rarely based on blunt claims about biological norms; instead, they involve claims about moral values that are tied specifically to human nature. Thus Leon Kass (2002) argues that human embodiment, with its implications of finitude and sexual procreation, "makes possible the dignified journey of a truly human life" (p. 18), while Jürgen Habermas (2003), coming at the issue from a very different political angle, argues that parents should not enhance their children, because doing so would undermine the child's capacity for autonomy. Neither approach lends itself well to making any sense of concerns about animal nature or the environment. Meanwhile, environmental philosophers have considered whether, for example, ecosystems and trees may have value, and they have [End Page 574] looked for metaphysical systems that would ground value in the universe independently of human interests.

All of these approaches are associated with strong conclusions—prohibitions of agricultural or medical biotechnology and radical defenses of the environment. They do not merely offer views about the value of nature, they make claims about the inviolability of nature. But they are also all grounded in strong and highly questionable premises—claims about biological norms, human lives, and metaphysical systems that relatively few are likely to accept. Further, these premises differ from each other so markedly that the views about nature they support seem ad hoc and disconnected. This result is counterintuitive. On the face of it, the reticence about agricultural and medical biotechnology and human overhaul of the environment views appear to be analogs to at least some degree: they are all about the value of accepting, of resisting the urge to reengineer, natural states of affairs.

Another way of defending moral views about natural states of affairs is just to give up on elaborate argument about the foundations of these views. Instead, we can rally to a simple yet attractive account of morality, whose foremost standard-bearer in the philosophical tradition is that most hard-nosed of empiricists, David Hume. This account holds that value judgments are nothing more, and nothing less, than our own deepest commitments and interests. They are sentiments, or what Hume called "passions," ideas that originate from within, rather than from external impingements. Consider willful murder, Hume asks us: purely rational and empirical inquiry will reveal nothing in the act itself that is wrong. "You never can find [the vice], till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action" (Hume 1740, p. 469).

When one asks how natural states of affairs can have moral value, one presupposes that there is some account of how anything can have moral value, and further, that this account will show that valuing a thing makes sense—that it is rational or accurate, given how the world is or given the constraints of reason itself to value it. The Humean view declares that a valuation can "make sense" only in a limited way, for a value judgment is a stance, a way of responding to the world, to be explained more as a feature of human psychology than as a product of reason. It is not a matter of investigation. There are some core values that we can say "make sense" in the sense that we expect all "reasonable people" to endorse them, but their endorsement is a result of growing up in typical circumstances, being socialized in the usual way, having standard emotional responses to the world—not being psychopaths. It is not a result of correct investigation into how the world really is. Although on occasion we speak of value judgments as if they can be true or false, in fact, they are only acceptable or not—and to say that they are acceptable or not is itself only to make a moral assessment, not a rational assessment. [End Page 575]

This position has been applied to environmental ethics by J. Baird Callicott (1986) as a way of explaining how things in the environment can have "intrinsic value." Some environmental philosophers argue that nature must have value regardless of whether we humans recognize it as having value. This is a strong kind of intrinsic value, and defending it leads to ontological commitments that are difficult to sustain. One ends up claiming, for example, that values are themselves features of the universe. By contrast, in the Humean position, nothing has intrinsic value in this sense; things have value only because they are valued. But something may still have intrinsic value in the weak sense of simply being valued (by humans) for itself, of being noninstrumentally valuable. The fact that there is value only to humans does not imply that the only things humans value are humans. As Callicott points out, it is also possible to value states of affairs found elsewhere in the world—including "nature."

This reverses the usual way of employing Hume in philosophical arguments about the value of nature. Hume is typically cited in support of the thought that something's occurring is not alone a sufficient argument that it should occur. Hume certainly makes this claim, since he argues that it is impossible to derive a value claim from statements about the natural world. Human beings can still respond emotionally to the natural world, however, just as easily as they respond emotionally to human states of affairs. Thus, concludes Callicott, things in the natural world can have intrinsic value in the limited but meaningful sense of being valued for themselves.

Nature in Context: Concepts and Clarity

Callicott's deployment of Hume's meta-ethical point is philosophical brush-clearing: it serves to show that natural states of affairs can have value. Deciding whether they ever actually have value requires that we attempt to figure out how nature or the natural are understood. And this raises the second common objection laid against attempts to find value in nature—namely, that the concept is too multifarious and vague to be of use.

Most philosophers hold that concepts put to use in reaching moral conclusions must have a tidy logical structure: what counts as an instance of the concept must be identifiable by means of clear definitions for the terms that refer to the concepts. Under this view, an interpretation of a concept can be attacked by identifying logical problems with the definition. In this spirit, John Stuart Mill (1874) attacked the concept natural by showing that its two most promising definitions fail to support any recommendations for action. According to one definition, nature is everything that conforms to the laws of nature, but if so then nothing is unnatural, including whatever humans may do to modify their livestock and pets. Under another definition, natural refers only to that which is free of human interference, but if so then everything humans do is unnatural, including all agriculture and, for that matter, anything humans might have done prior [End Page 576] to the development of agriculture. Either way, the concept tells us nothing about how we should treat animals.

Nature sometimes has one of these all-or-nothing senses, but even in ordinary language it is often used in more complex ways. In particular, we use it to make a point about the degree or kind of human intervention in a state of affairs. There is a difference between, say, a weedless cornfield ready for the combine and an expanse of restored tall-grass prairie, and natural is a common way of pointing to that difference. Humans have intervened in both plots of ground, but if someone contemplating the two said she preferred the more "natural" scene, it would be obscurantist to ask which she meant. In this use, nature helps one make a point about the degree or kind of human intervention in the situation. It need not be an all-or-nothing case, nor need there even be any precise rule about what degree or kind of human intervention makes something "unnatural" for the term to be meaningful and useful. It might well be most helpful to begin with examples (rather than with definitions), starting with clear cases like a weedless cornfield and a never-ploughed expanse of prairie, and then work toward harder cases. A patch of restored tall-grass prairie could well be the product of much strenuous human intervention; on the other hand, as Steven Vogel (2003) has argued, the point of that intervention is "the putting into play of natural processes—of wildness—that we then allow to operate, unpredictably and unimaginably in ways that are outside our ability to control" (p. 162). We allow the restored patch of land "to develop as it would have had human beings not appeared on the scene" (p. 164).

Thus, claims about the value of nature also depend partly on claims about the nature of concepts. Many perfectly serviceable concepts often are—and must be—delineated only loosely. This is the approach to language associated with Ludwig Wittgenstein (1958), who famously exemplified it with the term game. Wittgenstein held that concepts in general are delineated, not by clear definitions, but by a range of features that are shared by instances of the concept. In philosophy of science his insight has taken the form of the "cluster concept," whose examples include both taxonomic categories like "species" and particular instances of those categories, like "Eastern Timber Wolf." Examples of morally significant concepts that illustrate this sort of structure include person, adult, sentient, decisionally incapacitated, informed consent, harm, and benefit. Most terms that refer to moral values themselves—kindness, cruelty, generosity, integrity—take this fuzziness to still another level; yet they are the terms we use on a daily basis to discuss our moral positions.

Recognizing this point about concepts has implications for moral decision making that, however true to life, will dash some hopes. Hard cases are not made easy by approaching them from simpler cases, and indeed they may sometimes have to be set aside as indeterminate—as cases in which we are not sure, and cannot be sure, how the relevant concepts apply. If an athlete sleeps in a low-pressure tent, is the athlete "doping"? Arguments can likely be made one way and [End Page 577] the other, with no great likelihood of decisively settling the matter. Still other cases may lend themselves reasonably well to some one understanding of how the concepts apply, yet still remain underdetermined: an athlete who takes testosterone because of a testicular malfunction is probably not doping—but how can one be sure?

This view of concepts has several important implications for the debate over the value assigned to what is natural. First, it implies that when we examine the concept of nature, we should consider a wide range of examples. We will have to consider how nature is used in different domains—in debates about agriculture, the environment, and human nature, for example—and probably also within specific contexts within these broad domains. (Determining the appropriate bounds of "social context" will also not be straightforward.) Within the debate about human nature, for example, we might find that considerations about enhancement differ depending on context. We may find that what counts as "natural" is unproblematic in some cases, contestable in others, and too indeterminate to be of any use in others. If there are domains and cases in which the application of the term natural seems appropriate, we will have to think further about the question of whether and how what is natural is valued. We might conclude, for example, that claims about what is "natural" are important and defensible in debates about sports doping (perhaps arguing that athletic competition is to test and celebrate natural human abilities as developed and refined through training and discipline), but that they are beside the point in assessing the use of human enhancement in military contexts (where the point is simply to win, with the only constraints provided by our values being those of prudence and, perhaps, justice; Murray 2007).

This fuzzy view of concepts also implies that examples cannot support some of the uses to which they are often put in moral philosophy. On the one hand, a few examples will not establish the existence of a general principle that cuts uniformly across all contexts in which the term can be used. Similarly, a counterexample shows only that there is no such general principle; it cannot show that all uses of the term are mistaken. Giving counterexamples is one of the more common strategies for objecting to claims about the value of nature. Such counterexamples can be subtly misused—the fact that gene flow between species occurs in nature, for example, does not mean that it is natural for humans to move genes between species (Streiffer 2003). Even when used correctly, however, what counterexamples show is merely that something's being natural is not always a sufficient reason to leave it alone.

Giving up on firm general principles does not mean that we must give up entirely on generalizations, however. It is possible to give voice to a general concern about interfering with nature. We can wish, for example, that human beings could allow themselves to be in the world in the ways they find themselves, that they could be grateful for the bodies they have instead of constantly wanting to be more or different. Formulating the general concern may help us articulate our sentiments and may flag something we should pay attention to. [End Page 578]

Natural Foods

Can we speak of what is "natural" in agriculture, and does it matter? Agricultural biotechnology provides a particularly challenging example of the concerns about nature because it asks us to think about purportedly natural phenomena in a thoroughly human context: it is nonhuman states of affairs that we are asked to consider, yet as we confront them in the barnyard, they are already heavily altered. And therefore, two of the usual ways of trying to justify concerns about nature—by appealing to conceptions of human nature, and by extolling the value of nature "in the raw"—are not available.

The argument so far has been that we must consider views about nature in the context of the debate in which they are employed. For the debate about agricultural biotechnology, this means attending to the way nature is understood and employed in reference to foods. Some of these uses have received very heavy criticism, and they can be hard to distinguish from mere marketing pap, especially the grandest and most sweeping, such as that a food product is "all natural," "100% natural," or "made from 100% natural ingredients" (Sagoff 2003). These statements contrast natural with artificial or manufactured and sometimes also suggest that "natural" foods are free of chemicals. In any of these ways of understanding natural, of course, all foods are unnatural. All food items purchased in stores have been processed, and sometimes what is sold as "natural" is very heavily processed (Pollan 2001a). Nor does the degree of processing correlate neatly with naturalness, since processing sometimes preserves what seems "natural": frozen vegetables may preserve more of the plant's naturally occurring vitamins than "fresh" vegetables. Likewise, all foods are composed of chemicals, and they are healthful (or toxic) only in virtue of the chemicals they contain. Many foods even include an assortment of chemical additives—colorings or other ingredients—yet may still qualify as "natural" (IANPP 2006). Colored, fried vegetable chips may count as natural, for example, if the coloring and the frying oil are extracted from plants through appropriate processes.

Plainly, defining natural as meaning "free of human intervention" or "free of chemicals" will not work. However, natural could still be pegged in some way to the degree or kind of human involvement (rather than to the mere fact of human involvement). Ultimately, then, the concern that the distinction is meaningless gives way to a concern about precisely where and how to draw the line between "natural" and "unnatural." In ordinary parlance, such line drawing is not necessary and probably not feasible: we will simply allow that in between the clearer cases at the extremes lies a gray area of variously underdetermined or indeterminate cases. If natural is to be made to do any work in collectively guiding human actions concerning agricultural biotechnology, however, line drawing will be necessary, and further it will be to some measure arbitrary. It is not possible to set out a single clear rule for marking what falls inside and outside the use of the concept. Instead, it will be necessary to generate lists of what counts as "natural," much as the World Anti-Doping Agency (2006) draws up lists of [End Page 579] what constitutes unacceptable doping in sports. In effect, these lists are attempts to work through a range of examples to stipulate more precise understandings of an inherently vague concept. The generation of these lists is not cut loose from reason—the process can be guided both by some general principles and by analogical reasoning from case to case—but since the procedures for the argument (including institutional issues such as eligibility for participation in the argument and rules for cloture and voting) are controlled by the body making the list, a degree of arbitrariness remains. Another group of decision makers might well come up with another list.

But there need be nothing to complain about here. Whether this arbitrariness is acceptable depends on whether the procedures are acceptable, which in turn depends on the authority of those generating the decisions. There is no social authority capable of rendering dispositive judgments about how words are appropriately used or about what moral judgments are correct. However, the list-making body can acquire authority by convention within a delimited domain: those within the domain can simply grant the list-making body authority to make certain decisions about what will count as natural, or the list-making body may acquire it through democratic processes. The International Association of Natural Product Producers possesses authority of the first sort; the U.S. Department of Agriculture has the second.

Most proponents of natural and organic foods classify GM organisms as not natural. As with the concept of "natural food," some of what is said about genetic engineering can be easily dismissed. It is easy to forget that genetic engineering is not the only way genetically and phenotypically novel organisms come into being. Too, given a widespread but mistaken view about the importance of genes, modifying an organism's genes can seem tantamount to changing its essence, but if we get beyond such genetic exceptionalism, then the mere fact that something is a genetic modification is not grounds for regarding it as not natural. Even setting such misconceptions aside, however, modifying an organism's genes is arguably qualitatively different from other interventions. The usual point lodged against GM organisms is that the genetic rearrangements possible through gene transfer are much more radical than those possible through breeding. With breeding, one is stuck with manipulating a species' existing genetic pool, combining genes from closely related species, and waiting for chance mutations; with gene transfer technologies, genes can be moved across kingdoms and phyla. Also, breeding involves a different kind of relationship with the organisms one is modifying. Breeders merely select from genotypes already given, and the relationship with the organism is what Michael Pollan (2001b) has called a "conversation." The emergence of a new cultivar through traditional breeding can be seen both from the human perspective and from the "plant's eye perspective": for humans it is the exploitation of a natural resource, while for the plant it is the exploitation of a new ecological niche. In the development of a GM food, however, the [End Page 580] agronomist directly inserts the desired genetic variation. The relationship is one-sided: human beings direct, organisms obey.

Although many people will be unmoved by all this, many others will find it compelling—which is just what we should expect when we are thinking through hard cases. The reasoning is defensible but not decisive. Further, the generality of the claim is limited: there might be other cases in which GM organisms would be widely regarded as natural. Suppose genetic technology could help us create blight-resistant American chestnuts that were phenotypically indistinguishable from "natural" American chestnuts, with the exception that they survive while "natural" American chestnuts are mostly dead and dying. Eastern forests that have only "natural" trees are forests with an "unnatural" mix of species. Perhaps, on balance, even those who are troubled by human genetic control over other species would find this an acceptable exercise of it.

Practice and Policy

If foods were merely packages of nutrients, to be assessed solely on grounds of health and safety, the objections to GM foods would dissolve. But as Mark Sagoff (2003) has written: "It is the classifications of social life—not those of biological science—that clothe food and everything else with meaning." At stake in the decision to avoid GM foods (or for that matter, actively to seek them) is a feeling about the kind of relationship to the natural world one wants to stand in. This sentiment could be construed in various ways. It might be a moral or religious stance, similar in respects to vegetarianism or adherence to Jewish dietary laws: avoiding GM foods could be expressive of deep commitments one holds about one's place in the cosmos or in God's plan. One might object to the sheer human control, to the expansion of the realm of manufacture, to the "industrialization of life." Or one may feel, with Sagoff, that natural foods possess a kind of "authenticity," as contrasted to what is specious, illusory, or superficial. They are unadorned, one might say, because they emerge from nature's spontaneous course (Sagoff 2003). These concerns can blend with deeply motivating aesthetic reasons, analogous to the more-or-less aesthetic considerations that can lead one to maintain a vegetable garden, to avoid food produced from "companion animals" like dogs and cats, or to favor foods from small, local family farms rather than from industrial complexes. Such aesthetic considerations can lie very close to one's views about what gives life point and depth. Food choices, including a decision to avoid GM foods, can also be connected with a sense of cultural identity. Perhaps part of the reason Europeans have been more reluctant than Americans to accept GM foods is that the quality, variety, and preparation of food from particular sources in particular ways is sometimes intimately associated with European cultures.

All of these concerns are loosely about where food comes from and what has [End Page 581] happened to it along the way, and this is probably the right way to think about the concerns people have about GM foods: as one of a set of widespread and often deeply felt views people have about where their food comes from. Here, the particular concern is about the relationship with nature that some people see in their relationship to their food: they want their food to come from the earth.

Still, these concerns are restricted in ways that follow from the limitations noted earlier. First, they leave open a possibility that some forms of GM foods might seem worth tolerating. Conceivably, a person who wishes to avoid GM foods herself might still sensibly decide to promote a GM food that could stave off famine in Africa. Second, these concerns are far from universally shared. Some people may not connect the human relationship to nature with what gives their life meaning, or they may value a very different relationship to nature—one that leaves them unconcerned about GM food or even leads them to celebrate the human ability to design new organisms.

All of this suggests that the policy response to GM food should be a compromise: the policy should make it possible for people to uphold their commitments but should not force others to conform to them. This stance conforms to the Rawlsian approach to GM food policy that Robert Streiffer and Thomas Hedemann have elucidated. What Streiffer and Hedemann (2004) call "intrinsic" moral positions, which would encompass a commitment to eating natural foods and a derivative objection to GM foods, may justify public policy when they are part of society's "overlapping consensus" of reasonable moral and philosophical worldviews. Plainly, the commitment to eating "natural" foods falls outside the overlapping consensus in the United States. Assuming GM foods are safe, then, aggressively oppositional policies such as outright bans cannot be justified. At the same time, though, food policy proposals that would force citizens to relinquish their commitment to natural foods cannot be justified either, since the over-lapping consensus also does not reject this commitment.

The way to strike this compromise is probably through some form of labeling. Labels are sometimes thought to be appropriate only for informing consumers of health and safety issues, but this is not how the relevant statutes are written. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires, for example, that labels indicate "the name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor" (FDCA sec. 343(e)). Where a food is produced is not a property of the food itself; it is a "relational property" between the food and those who consume it (Streiffer and Rubel 2004). Thus labels could also let consumers act on the relationships they wish to maintain, through food, with nature.

Some questions remain unresolved, of course. Should labels be voluntary or mandatory? What should they identify—food that lacks GM ingredients or food that contains them? Can labels allow producers to trumpet a selling point, or should they merely convey information clearly? For all that has been said so far, labeling might prove to be so onerous and expensive for producers as to out [End Page 582] weigh the good of protecting consumers' ability to act on their commitments, although the good in question seems significant and industry's misgivings about new product regulations regularly turn out to be inflated.

Also unresolved are large questions about the positions and policies appropriate for other social issues in which concerns about nature arise. Plainly, each new domain must be approached on its own terms. Presumably, restrained policy responses will also be attractive. Unfortunately, compromises seem easier to strike on some issues than on others. We can decide to preserve some wildernesses, some stretches of old-growth forest, and some wetlands, and let others be developed and improved. It is more difficult to devise a policy approach that lets some species go extinct and saves others. How to strike compromises on the especially emotionally fraught issues of human medical technology will be particularly vexing.

The Hastings Center, 21 Malcolm Gordon Drive, Garrison, NY 10524. E-mail:


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