Humanism and Naturalism: Two Moral Models

Jesse Callahan Bryant
9 min readJul 25, 2022

There are two moral models at play today throughout the West. One comes from the French Humanist tradition and the other from the Germanic Naturalist tradition.

The first is universal humanist capitalist morality which uses financial metaphors to make sense of the moral world. In this humanist sense of morality, moral well-being is conceptualized as wealth — the qualitative becomes quantitative and thus knowable in a mainstream commonsensical way.1 Things are good when they tend toward the generation of moral capital, and bad when they do not. Often going into moral debt is seen as bad, and the generation of moral credit is seen as good. In this capitalist universe of morality sensation we get things like MLK’s “I Have A Dream Speech”:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

And so morality is money. Justice is the settling of debts and when people get what they deserve. Reciprocation is giving someone something of equal value as they gave you. Retribution is stealing something of equal value as they stole from you. Restitution is getting something of positive value equal to the value that someone stole from you, and reparations is the same but from the State. Altruism is charitable giving. Turning the cheek is forgiving debts. Karma is getting credit from, or settling debts with, the universe. And self-righteous people keep close watch on their moral bank accounts.

Mathematics, being a universal language, renders this type of morality universally sensible across cultures. And in this frame the accumulation of moral wealth, for better and for worse, appears as the goal.

But the second is the local naturalist organismic morality which uses nature metaphors to make sense of the moral world. In this naturalist sense of morality, moral well-being is conceptualized as purity or naturalness — things are good when they are natural and bad when they are unnatural. In this moral frame, balance, alignment, and harmony with nature take the place of the accumulation of moral capital as the central moral goal. In other words, unlike the capitalist model one can privately possess moral capital, here one can only strive for more balance. In the naturalist model, one does not have morality in their bank account, but is instead constantly aligning with it like balancing on a yoga ball.

In this frame, things are good because they are organic and bad because they are synthetic. Foods become healthy and unhealthy. Politicians become authentic or fake. Species are native or invasive. Products are local or corporate. People are independent or dependent, good or bad, locals or tourists, patriots or traitors. We see this in the moral comments of Nazi Party Secretary Martin Bormann2:

“When we National Socialists speak of a belief in God, we do not mean what naive Christians and their clerical exploiters have in mind…The power of nature’s law is what we call the omnipotent force or God…We National Socialists demand of ourselves that we live as naturally as possible, that is to say in accord with the laws of life. The more precisely we understand and observe the laws of nature and of life and the more we keep to them, the more we correspond to the will of this omnipotent force.”

And Hitler, on how to be a good (moral) man:

“The man who contemplates the universe with his eyes wide open is the man with the greatest amount of natural piety; not in the religious sense, but in the sense of an intimate harmony with things.”

Or here, in an article trying to define Permaculture3:

The more diversity that we can attract to our surroundings, the better chances we have of allowing nature to find its balance…When we eliminate the elements of nature that cooperate with each other, we end up creating an artificial setting that is out of balance. The problems that we dedicate so much money and resources towards trying to remedy are problems that we have brought upon ourselves by working against nature, rather than with it. Proper nutrition, pest control, soil improvement, and water conservation are all directly linked to diversity in nature. Permaculture celebrates this diversity.

Here we are outside the domain of capitalist moral metaphor and in the domain of naturalist morality. When Nature is natural (good) it is diverse. Homogeneity (bad) is unnatural. So moral landscaping means facilitating diversity.

Eco-cultural binaries, being non-universal, render this type of morality illusive and usually embedded in time and place. A species that is native (good) somewhere will by definition be invasive (bad) elsewhere now, and perhaps may become native here sometime in the future. A person who is a local (good) somewhere will be a tourist (bad) elsewhere now, and perhaps after five, ten, twenty might even become a local, good, natural inhabitant of here sometime in the future. Foods that are healthy (good) — say, unsaturated fats — are unhealthy (bad) elsewhere now, and might even become healthy here sometime in the future. I mean, think about how what is healthy (aka natural) changes it seems like every year.

Perhaps the most high profile example of these (un)natural binaries has been the recent history of vaccine hesitancy, where the Covid vaccine became pitched by influencers not only as unnatural, but aligned with the binary immoral valence of corrupt politicians and greedy corporations. Thus the vaccine is not only unnatural (bad), but corrupt (bad) and greedy (also bad) and elitist (bad bad) and Bill Gates (neolib bad) and scientists (nerd bad). Thus, in a moral sense a person who takes a the Covid vaccine is not just an immoral person, but a transcendently immoral person — an unnatural, corrupt, greedy, elitist, neolib nerd.

But for real, in any given moment what is understood as natural/good or unnatural/bad is unbelievably important to our understanding of moral reality, let alone consumer trends, and yet this moral frame has nothing to do with historical (in)justice. It has almost nothing to say about the fact that it is obvious “today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” The naturalist moral frame might even have a different take, perhaps one that considers Americans of color invasive, unnatural citizens of the United States.

For instance, while Thomas Jefferson believed slavery to be unnatural, “contrary to the laws of nature, which decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty” he also believed that a multiracial society was equally unnatural. And thus, rather than abolition and integration Jefferson, drunk on his sense of nature, proposed emancipation and deportation4:

“Jefferson’s belief in the necessity of abolition was intertwined with his racial beliefs. He thought that white Americans and enslaved blacks constituted two “separate nations” who could not live together peacefully in the same country. Jefferson’s belief that blacks were racially [naturally] inferior and “as incapable as children,” coupled with slaves’ presumed resentment of their former owners, made their removal from the United States an integral part of Jefferson’s emancipation scheme. Influenced by the Haitian Revolution and an aborted rebellion in Virginia in 1800, Jefferson believed that American slaves’ deportation — whether to Africa or the West Indies — was an essential followup to emancipation.”

Anyway.

Why I think this matters, if at all, is that I think most of us are using some combination of both of these models more or less all the time, yet in different proportions. That is, our internal moral environment — how each of us processes and organizes moral information on an individual level — is some foregrounding and backgrounding of these models always all the time.

But also, and perhaps more relevant to me as a (budding) sociologist, there are moral cultures: the way that these two models manifest as the cultural shit between us…the words, text, images, memes, myths, Netflix specials, character arcs, etc etc.

I think of the prototypical social justice warrior and their undying commitment to slashing the debts owed to some identity group in society as a results from past racist state policies. I think of the yoga community and their absolute focus on nature, harmony, and balance through ritual practice.

I think of the ongoing clash between these two models over how to make sense of the liminal realities of transgenderism, where the humanist model identifies these folks as the most marginalized of all, the group to which society is the most morally indebted to, while many operating primarily on the naturalist model label trans people as unnatural, and thus immoral, and thus deserving of nothing except more punishment. When the discourse gets to naturalness our red flags should go off because at that point we’re not talking about who deserves what, but instead reality altogether.

Why these cultures matter is that I think, maybe wrongly so, that the naturalist model is behind a lot of our political mysteries today. Most of mainstream political discourse in the United States happens within the presumed bounds of humanist morality. Sometimes I think about the Permaculture/organic farming podcast host that told me once that he thought that, despite his best intentions, perhaps 10% of his audience were far-right Nazis. Perhaps what’s behind Trump-Bernie voters and the anti-vax coalition and Nazi organic farmers has more to do with shared beliefs about naturalist moral logic than anything to do with our traditional left-right humanist political spectrum concerned only with who gets what, when, and how. Perhaps it’s when this naturalist moral logic is projected onto the humanistic moral spectrum things get weird, and organic farmers look like conservatives and socialists at the same time.

Most of us on the individual level are somewhere in between these two models. We unconsciously dip in and out depending on where we’re at. In the end, individuals are weird. I always tell people I’m a vegetarian that eats meat, but I also always have the sense I have fewer purity issues than most.

I remember when I was at the University of Wisconsin a professor saying that the idea of Nature has animated all of the best and worst things humans have ever done. Sure, “God” has probably done as much heavy lifting, but this is important to point out because I think in the actual reality of a totally globalized interconnected planet the naturalist moral scheme has a much higher capacity to lead to wholesale atrocity than the humanist one. In both Nazi Germany and Soviet Union there were BIG thoughts about the natural form of the nation, both of which led to the genocide of individuals who did not fit their particular scientifically-justified model of nature.

Importantly, nature is bigger than our moral models.

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Jesse Callahan Bryant

Jesse is a Ph.D. student at the Yale School of the Environment, creator of the Yonder Lies podcast, and instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School.