site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of April 10, 2023

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

How about a pallet cleanser?

In the other thread a few people brought up surrogacy, and maybe I've spent too much time with TERFs, but am I the only one that overwhelmed with the feeling of Lovecraftian horror whenever it's brought up? The feeling is even more uncanny, because it's like I slept through some great societal debate where everybody decided it's actually a lovely thing that should be celebrated. Although maybe it's not all that bad, there's a certain "how it started, how it's going" quality to the NYT headlines. In any case the casual way it's supporters talk about surrogacy freaks me out even more than militant pro-choicers.

Then there's the whole slippery slope thing:

  • Love is love, we have a right to get married just the same as you! - Yes I agree!

  • We also have a right to adopt! - Sure! I mean I have my issues with adoption in practice, but in principle if there are kids without parents, and willing gay couples to adopt them I don't see an issue.

  • We also have a right to biological children! What? Do you expect us to be ok with not having children?

Wait what? Yes I do! I'm all for tolerance, and living and letting live, but you're not going to make me see this as a lovely family moment, and anyway I don't remember signing on to turning a fundamental human experience into an industry when I supported the gay rights movement. Accept the limits of your biology, and move on.

Which brings me to Dase's idea "postrat «don't mean-spiritedly dunk on a rationalist» challenge (impossible)". Indeed, I can't help myself, and even though I used to be rat/rat-adjacent, I find myself having growing disdain for the entire philosophy. There's a meme that's slowly gathering momentum, that all the trans stuff, and 72 genders is just a foot in the door for transhumanism, and after I heard the idea for the first time, I can't seem to unsee it. This twisted ideology will drive us to throw away our humanity, turn us into a cross-over between Umgah Blobbies and the Borg, or trick us into committing suicide, because there's a subroutine running on some GPU somewhere, that's somewhat similar to the processes in our brains. Given the utter dominance of the trans ideology, the vindication of the slippery slope argument, and the extrapolated trajectory of these ideas, I believe we have no other choice - Transhumanism must be destroyed!

You yourself commented a few months back about doing a 'double-take' when reading some of my recent writing, suggesting (in different language) that I was becoming 'radicalized' on a few topics. One area you've counter-radicalized me is the conversation around falling birthrates in the west, and frankly, I'm coming to align more with the TwoXChromosome worldview that it's just a trojan horse for social control.

Don't get me wrong, I'm more concerned about the birthrate than I was. I'll even grant that surrogacy makes me uncomfortable, though more because I dislike the idea of disempowered people (surrogates in the third world are even more gross) being exploited in yet another way.

However, in the last 24 hours, we've had two comments explicitly shaming people who want to have children, specifically because the way they're trying to have children is aesthetically displeasing to you.

Wait what? Yes I do! I'm all for tolerance, and living and letting live, but you're not going to make me see this as a lovely family moment, and anyway I don't remember signing on to turning a fundamental human experience into an industry when I supported the gay rights movement. Accept the limits of your biology, and move on.

The limits of our biology are changing by the year. Will you make your children accept the limits of their biology and watch them be crippled by polio, or something? As Doglatine put it when seeing the reflexive support amongst locals for Russia's invasion of Ukraine, your position is boiling down to a reactionary rejection of anything the left and/or mainstream like, rather than a prospective, constructive worldview. So with that in mind, I have to ask: If, tomorrow, I invented a way to boost the birthrate comfortably above replacement (or to whatever arbitrary value you want), it's eugenic, it's whatever you want it to be - but it doesn't involve traditional, cis-het men repeatedly sticking their penises inside conventionally attractive cis-het stay-at-home tradwives followed by 9 months of pregnancy discomfort and childbirth - are you going to be joyful that we solved our demographic problem and charted a course towards our brave new future of eugenic John Von Neumanns? Or are you going to be upset that we didn't do it the way you wanted and those nasty degenerates are still having buttsex and dying xir hair blue?

If your answer is the latter (and I suspect for many of the Katja Grace haters it is), then yeah, I have to say TwoX are probably right about you.

Given the utter dominance of the trans ideology, the vindication of the slippery slope argument, and the extrapolated trajectory of these ideas, I believe we have no other choice - Transhumanism must be destroyed!

Still reactionary. Have you ever laid out a positive vision for what you want the future to be, since you don't like mine? I'm curious to hear what you actually want as opposed to talking about those awful people doing things that you don't like.

The limits of our biology are changing by the year. Will you make your children accept the limits of their biology and watch them be crippled by polio, or something?

You two seem to have an underlying philosophical difference that is causing this confusion. I would hazard a guess that Arjin, whether explicitly or not, has a Natural Law understanding of humanity. Curing children of polio is good, because humans are supposed to be healthy. Giving children tentacles and an extra set of eyes that can see infrared is bad, because humans aren't supposed to have tentacles or infrared eyes. If you give them tentacles and infrared eyes, are they still human?

Those who don't understand things in terms of Natural Law don't see the problem. To them there is no way humans are "supposed to be" so we can do whatever we want and be just as human as ever. Curing polio is the same kind of thing as transforming someone's body shape radically, or whatever. To someone with a Natural Law understanding, it is not at all the same kind of thing. One is fixing something that is wrong with someone, the other is creating things that are wrong with someone, insofar as wrong is deviation from what it means to be a human. Polio is a deviation; transhumanism is a deviation.

Similarly, humans naturally form families where a child has a mother and a father, because both sexes are needed to procreate and humans are the kind of creatures that care about their kids. If you don't care about your kids, then somethings wrong with you. If a kid doesn't have a mother or a father, then something's wrong with that family. Similarly, mothers are supposed to get pregnant, carry their child, and then care for it and raise it and be part of its life. If for some reason she can't (if she died in childbirth, if she's an unfit mother, if she is unwilling to care for the child) then adoption can happen, but adoption is not ideal. It's a deviation from how it should be. So deliberately creating situations where mothers bear children that aren't their own, for the purpose of giving them to someone else, is pretty "un-Natural" in the Natural Law sense.

Your primary disagreement is philosophical, that's where the debate would be most fruitful.

Curing children of polio is good, because humans are supposed to be healthy.

Are they? Assuming Natural Law then Polio existing in its natural state and infecting humans is part of it right? Humans either surviving or not based upon their fitness is what is natural. Interfering with that is unnatural.

Your interpretation only makes sense in a version of Natural Law where humanity is special for some reason. That us not being infected by X is the natural thing and therefore us wiping out X is natural.

The other argument is that our brains are natural, our inventiveness is natural, our ability to transcend what "should" be by using our brains is natural. Outside of a supernatural descriptor (this is how humans should be because God says so) what things should be and what is natural is very hazy.

Are humans supposed to want to defy their nature?

If not-

then clearly I'm already not human. So I'm free to follow my nature.

If so-

then excuse me while I go follow my nature.

Curing children of polio is good, because humans are supposed to be healthy. Giving children tentacles and an extra set of eyes that can see infrared is bad, because humans aren't supposed to have tentacles or infrared eyes

... are infrared goggles anti-nature? If they are, computers and agriculture are too, and much moreso.

This "natural law" approach dissolves into nothingness when it touches evolution - species are always adapting to their environments, evolving, and "nature" is that. So to say something that hasn't happened yet is unnatural, and therefore circularly, bad, rules out every existing adaptation. Single cells weren't supposed to come together into multicellular organisms and throw their genetic lot in with their clones, until they did. Multicellular organisms weren't "supposed" to have light-sensitive cells, until one randomly gained slightly-functional light sensitivity. Baby animals weren't supposed to develop inside their mothers' bodies and drink fluid secretions ... until they did. And monkeys weren't supposed to talk to each other, until, slowly, it developed ...

Even from your perspective, what are the natural laws? Is it natural law that all humans should live happily and peacefully? Or that they should fight and die in war for their nation/kin/religion? Attitudes on this have changed over the past few centuries - as they've simultaneously changed for those with other moral theories.

I think you've hit the crux of the problem.

Natural Law [...] polio

But this is a weird example of "against Natural Law" to use, isn't it? The polio virus isn't artificial. It's been infecting people for thousands of years. It doesn't even seem to have a zoonotic reservoir (one of the reasons why eradicating it is possible, ironically), so Mother Earth or Nature's God or whatever specifically pointed that bomb at millions of human targets. This is all about as far from "unnatural" as it gets.

In fact, for decades polio could have been used as a cautionary tale against trying to fight Natural Law! Historically most poliovirus infections were in infants and toddlers who had better odds of recovery, but we started being much more careful (dare I say unnaturally so?) with our sewage and cleaning up our drinking water, so we lost our early exposure and our population immunity, and then we started seeing epidemics in older age groups with much higher risks of paralysis. It would have been a clear case of hubris and nemesis, except we were able to follow up the sanitation improvements with vaccinations not too long afterward.

You don't really understand what Natural Law is, if you think that just because something happens in nature it is Natural, in the Natural Law sense.

It's an understandable mistake to make. English is a terrible language for these things. Natural used to mean according to something's nature, but now it also means "not artificial" or a vague "animals and plants and stuff".

I explained this once already over on ACX, so if you don't mind I'll just copy over my comments from there:

It is "natural" for people to get sick in the sense that getting sick is a thing that happens.

It is "not natural" to be sick because a living things "natural" state is to be well: the only way we recognize a difference between sickness and health is that sickness is an abnormality that is different from the "natural" functioning of an organism.

Natural in this sense means "According to somethings nature" and not "the oppisite of artificial." So, for instance, a dog "naturally" has four legs because part of the nature of a dog is that it is a four legged animal. The fact that some dogs are born with two or three legs doesn't change the fact dogs are "naturally" four legged.


You will better understand "natural law" if you interpret "natural" to be "best possible state", although that goes a smidge too far in the other direction.

A dog is "naturally" a creature with four legs, eyes, nose, digestive system, waggy tail, etc. If the dog gets cancer and his digestive system is blocked and no longer functions he has moved away from his "natural" state into an "unnatural" one. One way we know this is that the purpose of the digestive system is to turn food into nutrients that the body needs, and if cancer is blocking his intestines so that the food cannot pass and the nutrients cannot be absorbed then the digestive system is being frustrated in accomplishing it's "natural function".


...if you think of "natural" as meaning "intended" you are getting close to understanding what "nature" means in terms of "natural law" philosophy.

Natural law comes from ancient philosophy, later refined by medieval philosophers. It fits with the "four causes" understanding of how change can occur and what things actually are that was first laid down by Aristotle. Everything that exists has "four causes" or four "things that make the thing what it is and not something else". Formal cause is the form the thing takes, material cause is what the thing is made out of of, efficient cause is what caused the thing to exist, and final cause is what the purpose of the thing is. So a digestive system has the formal cause of consisting of a stomach and intestines and all the other "blueprint" type data, a material cause of being made of flesh (a variety of animal cells, if you want to be more specific), an efficient cause of having grown from the zygote over time through a variety of biochemical processes, and a final cause of digesting food to provide nutrition for the body. A violation of any of these causes could be seen as "unnatural": a digestive system with the wrong form (if the small intestine was missing, for instance) would be "unnatural" even if that defect might occur sometimes in nature, for example.


...even moderns treat things as if they had a final cause: just think of the term "digestive system": it's based completely on what the "purpose" of the organ system is, namely digestion. Strictly speaking you don't need a designer for things to have a purpose, a function, etc. Even if evolution did not "intend" anything it remains a fact that the digestive system is aimed at a particular end, the end of turning food into nutrition. Jettisoning final causes makes it harder to say what things are, exactly: if final causes aren't real then you could never meaningfully say that someone's "heart failed" (failed at what?), or that there is "something wrong" with their eyesight or hearing. Wrong compared to what? Without final causes, even unintentional ones, such judgements are nonsense.

What does Natural Law have to say about population-specific human traits, or individual mutations, which are adaptive in one environment but maladaptive in another. For example: dark-skinned descendants of American slaves, after moving to the northern half of the United States en masse during the Great Migration, found that they and their children and grandchildren were suffering high rates of Vitamin D deficiency and related debilitating conditions such as rickets; their highly-melanated skin, optimized by thousands of years of evolution to block out the oppressive and omnipresent African sunlight, could not effectively absorb the far more limited sunlight available in the cloudy and dark Northern winters. What had been an extremely advantageous trait in one context became an equally disadvantageous trait in a different context. And in the mirror-image counterpart to this scenario, Israel, until very recently, had the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, as a result of a largely Ashkenazi Jewish population - genetically mostly descended from pasty-skinned Central/Eastern Europeans - being transplanted to a very sunny climate. To this day, Australia does have the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, for very similar reasons.

Another example is something like the cluster of mutations that make someone like Yao Ming, or Giannis Antetokounmpo, two very abnormally-tall NBA players. Yao Ming’s extreme height, and Giannis’ massively long arms and enormous hands, make them ideally-suited to play modern NBA basketball. However, these same mutations would come with debilitating drawbacks in a different environment; firstly, the massive caloric load needed to feed them would make them extreme burdens in a harsh environment where food is scarce; their height would also be a massive disadvantage in, say, the Amazonian jungle, where they would constantly be smacking into trees, alerting predators and prey alike. In Yao Ming’s case, he also suffered from a number of injuries to his feet and ankles due to the extreme pressure out on his lower body by his height, significantly shortening his career. These men are very fortunate that they live in a period of human history wherein their atypical qualities could be harnessed into blessings, instead of being life-threatening curses. And on the flip side, the vast majority of Yao’s countrymen in China evolved to be significantly shorter than the global average, since they evolved in the frigid climates of Siberia, where a short and compact body allows for the optimal distribution of body heat. (The “yellow” complexion we associate with East Asians is also a result of the evolutionary pressure created by this same environmental history; it’s due to a thin layer of subcutaneous fat optimized similarly for preserving body heat.)

So, is it “natural” for humans to be dark-skinned, or to be light-skinned? And is it “natural” for them to be tall, or to be short? These questions are unlike questions of the type “is it natural for humans to be healthy, or to be sick?” While some human traits/conditions are purely negative - it is strictly worse to have a flu than it is to not have a flu, and it is strictly worse to have no legs than it is to have two legs - many traits and conditions provide complex sets of tradeoffs, and sometimes whether or not a trait is good or not is entirely context-dependent. Autism, at least of the high-functioning “Asperger’s” variety, is another extreme example of a particular way that some humans are, which provides both massive benefits and significant penalties, both at the same time. I don’t really have a good idea about what Natural Law has to say about those sorts of things. Maybe the sorts of traits and mutations that would be extremely advantageous for human beings trying to survive the ravages of long-distant space travel would be horrendously disadvantageous - even monstrous - here on earth.

I also think it’s amusing that you brought up dogs in the context of Natural Law, given that *nearly every extant dog breed in existence is the profoundly unnatural result of a millennia-long project of directed/molded evolution orchestrated by humans, which has produced bizarre chimeras which could never have emerged in Nature, and which bear essentially no resemblance to their ancestors of even a century ago in some cases. There are no wild pugs or lhasa apsos. The bulldog and the chihuahua are nothing remotely like wolves, nor are they all that much like each other. Do advocates of natural law look at a dachsund and feel existential Lovecraftian horror at the blatant perversion of the natural order which such a creature represents? Think what had to happen to turn a wolf into that!

sickness is an abnormality

You're hitting another of English's terrible ambiguities here - do you mean "abnormality" in the positive or normative sense? If the former then it's easy to think of counterexamples (again, including polio exposure!). I'd guess from

interpret "natural" to be "best possible state", although that goes a smidge too far in the other direction.

that you take a normative meaning, which lets us escape from nature red in tooth and claw, but then that other commenter's "Anyone can claim Natural Law is whatever they want" criticism suddenly sounds quite fair. Infrared vision doesn't sound better than Mark 1 eyeballs to you, but it does to me. I'd need technological help to get it myself, but I also needed that help to escape thousands of years of polio. Which of us is right?

Whether we think of "best" or

think of "natural" as meaning "intended"

the question jumps out: in whose judgement? Perhaps this made immediate sense in a polytheistic world, where a God of Humans might intend them to be healthy while a God of Disease intends polio to spread, and "naturally" we humans want to side with the first guy? But a monotheistic God made that poliovirus too, and in that world "He must have intended it" would seem to be a far safer assumption than "He might not have been paying attention that day". In an atheistic world we could almost get back to the polytheistic case, but not quite - we might try to anthropomorphize evolution, but we still don't end up with an Evolution of Humans that we can side with vs Evolution of Disease; we only have an Evolution of Particular Currently-In-Some-Humans Genes, which isn't universal enough or, ironically, human enough, to form a basis for a Natural Law. Even if Darwin won the argument in one sense, that only suggests that we were asking the wrong question.

Even the "Currently-In-Some-Humans" category gets fuzzy when you look through prehistory. I'm may only be a few dozen trivial mutations from a selection of my parents' genes, and so on with each stage of their ancestors, but do that a million times and we're looking at tree-hopping monkeys. The nature of my ancestors at that point was that they were four-legged animals! At what point did their increasingly-bipedal descendants become "unnatural", and then "natural" again?

Yeah, you're still not grokking Natural Law.

Set aside whether God intended humans to get polio. Lets focus down to ground level here. What does it mean for a human to be sick? How do we know if someone is sick?

Well, we know someone is sick because we have an idea of how healthy humans are supposed to be, and sick humans differ from that. Healthy humans breath easily, humans sick with a chest cold hack and cough and wheeze. Healthy humans are about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit: if you're much hotter or colder than that, you're sick. If you found someone whose leg is black and putrid with necrosis you say to yourself "That doesn't look right. This person is sick."

Yet all of these judgements require us to have an idea of how a human is supposed to be. What a "natural" human is like. When we compare sick humans to the "natural" human, we can see something is wrong. What's more, we believe that it a bad thing to differ from the "natural" human. We don't consider having a leg that is black with necrosis to be just as good as having two legs that are operating normally. Without our conception of a "natural" human, distinguishing sick from healthy is impossible. They're just different kinds of humans that have different ways of being.

Yet it doesn't seem that our idea of healthy and sick is arbitrary. Our concept of the "natural" healthy human seems to correspond to something real. It does seem that humans are "supposed" to have two legs, and that our digestive system is "supposed" to provide us with nutrients, and that our heart is "supposed" to pump blood through our body. It doesn't seem that a heart that stops pumping is just as good a heart as one that keeps pumping. Regardless of whether the heart was created by a mind or by blind evolution, it isn't arbitrary to say that the heart's "purpose" is to pump blood. Or that human's have two legs. Or that eyes that see are better than eyes that are blind.

So in that sense, regardless of whether God intended humans to get polio or not, we can say that a human sick with polio has something wrong with them: to be sick with polio is not "natural" to humans.

I hope that helped.

You've glossed over the question of "how do we define 'humans'" - even repeating "human's have two legs" after my questions about bipedalism. "Humans have two legs" sounds right from my point of view, just like "neohumans have infrared vision" would from theirs, but an Ardipithecus ancestor might think I was just an unnatural change, hopelessly bad at palm walking on my dwindling forelegs. From my ancestors' point of view, am I a natural human, or a deviation from Australopithecus? This question is isomorphic to "will any transhuman descendants of mine be natural transhumans, or deviant humans", save for special pleading.

If we're going to focus on the ground level, look at what we literally find in the ground. Fossils, of a connected web of species, none of which exist except as a series of changes to their ancestors. "Don't make biological improvements" is positively false, and normatively it isn't a "Law" that would preserve some definition of human, it is a rule under which humans would never have existed. Setting aside God(s) doesn't make this idea of Natural Law more defensible, because even just setting aside Young-Earth Creationism begins to make it incoherent. "What is natural for humans" is a dissolved question once you realize that the implicit presupposition of a well-defined "humans" category in space-time is a false premise. Anthropocentrism might have been a reasonable null hypothesis, before we knew any better, but at this point "why are nearly-human creatures so unnatural" makes about as much sense as "why are the stars so tiny". The stars aren't tiny, but realizing that for all but one of them requires perceiving things so far away in space that it requires careful thought for us to realize the exception is just another star rather than a special singleton category of "sun". Non-homo-sapiens hominids aren't unnatural, but realizing that for all but one of them requires perceiving things so far away in time that it requires more careful thought for us to realize the exception is a single link in a chain rather than a special singleton category of "human".

Even "how do we define 'healthy'" isn't a trivial question either.

we have an idea of how healthy humans are supposed to be

Do we? Not a rhetorical question - has the Hygiene Hypothesis been definitively refuted? Last I heard, there was evidence that "never get an infectious illness", even aside from increasing the dangers of any later infection, might also increase the risk of asthma and other autoimmune disorders.

And that's just counting the microorganisms which generally cause illness - breeding completely "germ-free organisms", with no microbiome at all, is even more fraught. For some for the very same microorganisms which cause illnesses in rare excess, the absence of those microorganisms seems to cause autoimmune inflammatory disorders if they're removed. Animals have evolved with asymptomatic infections of dangerous bacteria for so long that we don't actually have the capability of remaining healthy while uninfected! Are pathobionts' presence mandated by Natural Law? Is the answer immutable, or contingent on whether we can discover a safer artificial substitute to expose our immune systems to, like we did with polio?

It doesn't seem that a heart that stops pumping is just as good a heart as one that keeps pumping.

I strongly agree, and since human hearts have a distressing tendency to stop pumping before the rest of the human is ready, I hope neohuman hearts are more capable. By your definition, that would make them more "natural" than us, right? Similarly, it also doesn't seem that an eye whose sensitivity stops at 750nm is just as good as one that can see to 800nm or 850nm. We might thus conclude "neohuman eyes and hearts are more natural than human ones", or at our most justifiably parochial we might say "neohuman eyes are natural to neohumans, human eyes are natural to humans", but for us to say "neohuman eyes are unnatural" would make about as much sense as a non-primate mammal saying "primate eyes are unnatural" (does anyone really need a third visual opsin?) and less sense than a typical bird or fish saying so (wouldn't you agree that losing two independent dimensions of color vision wasn't just as good as keeping them, even if we eventually reevolved one dimension back?).

Maybe a pithy way would be to say "it's natural law, in the sense that it's in the scorpion's nature to sting frogs".

I sometimes see "Natural Law" brought up, the problem is that it's not a consistent framework. Anyone can claim Natural Law is whatever they want - and indeed the entire idea of what's in and out constantly changes!

I'm sure women being outside of the kitchen would've been against "Natural Law" a couple of centuries ago.

Can you provide a reason why I should consider Natural Law as anything other than a justification for arbitrary aesthetic preferences?

I sometimes see "Natural Law" brought up, the problem is that it's not a consistent framework. Anyone can claim Natural Law is whatever they want - and indeed the entire idea of what's in and out constantly changes!

The people claiming "Natural Law" is a thing explicitly reject the idea that they are merely "claiming that Natural Law is whatever they want." You can claim they're wrong, but assuming that their construction is mere whim is assuming the conclusion.

Would you agree that if "Natural Law" is, in fact, just "whatever people want", that our historical record of the formal conception of Natural Law should look like a random walk as peoples' desires shift and change over time?

If the historical record does not look like that, is it a problem for your thesis?

Can you provide a reason why I should consider Natural Law as anything other than a justification for arbitrary aesthetic preferences?

Because if followed, it delivers superior outcomes, presumably.

Clearly I misunderstood what Natural Law is - my experience is mostly idiots on reddit invoking it like some sort of catch-all argument-winning technique.

Well, for one, Natural Law is the philosophical setting out of which all modern Western societies came. It has a profound impact on our current institutions and cultural values, even if you reject it as being truthful. In that particular sense it is not arbitrary but conservative: not just anything can be considered Natural, there is a long tradition that is drawn on. You may think the tradition is arbitrary, but understanding what that tradition in is very useful to understanding where a great many people in the West are coming from, whether they know it or not.

Beyond that practical consideration, Natural Law seeks, at least, to be the opposite of arbitrary. The whole point is that things have a real nature, one that they can conform with or deviate from. That nature is rooted in what they are as a thing, and things are not arbitrary. For instance, Natural Law would say that humans have two legs. If someone is born with one leg, they have something wrong with them. Is the standard "humans have two legs" arbitrary? Did someone just decide it one day? Clearly not. Saying that humans have any number of legs would be far more arbitrary than that.

Most people, likely yourself included, have a lot of Natural Law built into your thinking already. If you say a bicycle is broken, it is because you have an understanding of what a bicycle is supposed to be, and comparing the broken bicycle to the Natural bicycle is how you know that the broken bicycle is broken. The same for a broken leg. If someone asked you whether we should vaccinate a child against polio, you likely wouldn't say "Why? Kids with polio are just as valid as kids without polio." Similarly, if your cat gave birth to a fish you would be surprised and dismayed: if someone told you "Why shouldn't a cat give birth to a fish if it wants?" you would think they were crazy.

Where disagreement occurs is outside the realm of the concrete. We can agree that kids aren't supposed to have polio, and that humans have two eyes, but when it comes to how a society should be we likely come into sharp disagreement. Natural Law comes from the perspective that since humans have a specific nature, human societies have a limited number of ways they can be structured for humans to flourish in them. Just as a human can't flourish if you stab it in the guts, because of the nature of the human body and digestive system, so to it can't flourish if society metaphorically stabs them in the guts. You are not free to structure society, or your life, any way you want to because the reality of what it means to be a human means that some choices are unavailable to you and some choices are really bad ideas (just as it's a bad idea to stab yourself in the guts: saying you shouldn't stab yourself in the guts may be trying to limit your freedom, but its good advice nonetheless).

Now people can disagree on how society should be structured, given the nature of what it is to be a human. That doesn't make those disagreements arbitrary. If someone is working from a Natural Law background then their arguments should be grounded in what it means to be a human. If you disagree with them you can use that grounding in human nature as support. You may be able to defend a great many positions on Natural Law grounds, but you cannot defend any position you like. You can't say that blindness is as good as seeing, or that humans by nature love to be tortured, or that if we pass this specific law people will suddenly start working together without incentive.

Without Natural Law at your back things get more arbitrary, not less. You might argue that transhumanism will prevent disease; without Natural Law I can retort "What's wrong with disease? Why should we value being healthy over sick? Sickness is just an arbitrary category that society puts on those who do not conform to it's expectations." If you argue that transhumanism will increase human ability I might respond "Why should humans have more power? If we have more power we will destroy the Earth, and every living thing on it. We should de-industrialize instead, and fade away until none of us are left." If you argue that transhumanism is a great step forward in human progress, I could respond "Progress is a meta-narrative designed to hide the crimes of industrialists and tyrants, and has no meaning beyond that."

Yet, as a follower of the Natural Law, if you argue to me that transhumanism will prevent disease I may be swayed, for humans are supposed to be healthy. If you argue that transhumanism will increase human ability I might support you, for it is the nature of humans to improve themselves and seek excellency. If you argue that transhumanism is human progress I may or may not disagree, but I would at least agree that there is something to progress towards. You might convince me that transhumanism will allow us to be more fully human than before.

TL,DR: You should take Natural Law seriously because deep down almost everyone in the West, including you, believes in Natural Law, and if you don't then there's nothing left but arbitrary narratives and you become the kind of ghoul who is mad the people are curing the blind because blindness is just as valid as seeing.

without Natural Law I can retort "What's wrong with disease? Why should we value being healthy over sick? Sickness is just an arbitrary category that society puts on those who do not conform to it's expectations."

And we arrive at the bonkers ideology of fat acceptance.

I think a compounding (and also, maybe somehow, complementing?) factor here is that Natural Law is implications in the direction of morality and moral absolutism. In the same way that arbitrariness creates more chaos and leads to negative outcomes for society, moral relativism creates far more pain, chaos, and evil than it "defeats" through its message of radical acceptance. A dirty trick that a lot of intellectually dishonest folks play is to intentionally conflate something amoral with something definitely moral(istic). Take for example the fat acceptance movement...he/she isn't a bad person for being fat! Of course. No one is disagreeing here. But a doctor will tell you you are an unhealthy person for being obese. Unhealthy? How dare you.

But excessive moralism has always been a favorite safety blanket of folks of all stripes. People have always traded social status for anything and everything else for more than they ought to for all of time. Being "right" may, in fact, feel a million times better than being independent and self-sufficient.

But, to quote the noted bard, Tyga, "I don't want to be famous / I just want to be rich."

It sounds like Aristotle’s telos and Plato’s Forms repackaged into a different system. I absolutely respect those ideas I just hadn’t seen that sort of framework before.

I’d argue it might better suit you to go back to the arguments of Aristotle and Plato for the sake of aesthetics and avoiding the No True Scotsman problem at the least. I appreciate the write up and agree with what you’ve spelled out as Natural Law, but I’ve seen so many others use it to arbitrarily justify what they like I honestly have trouble taking it seriously.

Are there any significant differences from Aristotle and Plato’s thought that are unique to Natural Law?

That's an excellent question, and one I'm not fit to answer. All I can tell you is a potted history of Natural Law. Aristotle and Plato are considered some of the first writers to expound on Natural Law, and the Romans (particularly Cicero) expanded on their ideas, particularly as they apply to society. Natural Law got refined further through the Middle Ages and beyond, particularly by Aquinas. A lot of Enlightenment thought was explicitly based in in Natural Law. I'd skim the Wikipedia article on it for more details. Beyond that, you'd have to ask a philosopher.