Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Can Nature Serve as a Moral Guide?

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Can Nature Serve as a Moral Guide?

Article excerpt

However declasse, I have never quite given up the hope that nature might put in a reappearance in ethics. Unfortunately, it is hard to think of a once-robust tradition - that of natural law or naturalism - that is much more down at the heel. Even pragmatism and stoicism, also long pronounced dead, have staged a recent comeback. Is there any hope that nature can once again serve as a moral guide?

The principal modern obstacle has been, most broadly, the belief that given the human capacity to intervene in and often set aside what was once taken to be fixed and "natural," nature is much too malleable a concept in practice and too opaque in theory to tell us much of any value. The narrower obstacle, much like a hex, has been the intimidating force of the "naturalistic fallacy," the argument that it is impossible to deduce an "ought" from an "is." Thus the standard argument: the fact that murder leaves people dead does not justify concluding that murder ought not to be committed; only the insertion of a moral premise somewhere can produce that conclusion.

Should we be intimidated by these obstacles, generally thought insurmountable? Not necessarily. The supposed naturalistic fallacy is, on closer inspection, an odd kind of fallacy. Since "is" is all the universe has to offer, to say that it cannot be the source of an "ought" is tantamount to saying a priori that an ought can have no source at all - and to say that is no less than to say there can be no oughts. That cannot be correct, if only because the pervasive feelings of moral obligation are themselves a social and psychological fact that people act upon (which is not to say they are necessarily the obligations one ought to have); and because, as H.L.A. Hart has noted in defending a minimal kind of natural law, some moral rules are necessary constitutive elements of any and all societies - is and ought become, in effect, conflated; and because people commit the fallacy all the time, not because they are too obtuse to recognize that they are doing so, but because it turns out in practice to be next to impossible to reason morally at all without committing it.

If, for instance, we say that it is wrong to inflict needless pain on innocent children, that moral contention must assume that children do not want to be in pain, as part of their human nature. There is a slide from an is to an ought here, but it would seem bizarre not to make it - and even more bizarre to claim that the fact that children do not like needlessly inflicted pain does not, by itself and without an additional moral premise, show that the infliction of such pain is moral wrong. I would argue that even a superficial examination of human nature would show why that fact carries its own moral implication. I would also note that I have never heard anyone object to the contention that "ought implies can," where the "can" must be based on an estimate of a generic human capacity to meet a particular moral obligation. Here fact and value become one, and necessarily so.

Quite apart from these philosophical puzzles, it is useful to note that there is now a major field of inquiry and action right under our noses where nature is frequently held up - with little objection - as the standard for proper behavior. That field is environmentalism. Its central conviction is that human beings have to respect and live with nature, that nature must be our guide in determining how best to avoid the ruination of our environmental habitat. It is not necessary, to make that conviction plausible, to hold the view that nature always "knows best" or that nature cannot safely be modified to meet human needs. Obviously that is not true. But it has come to seem wise and prudent to understand the way in which organic nature works, including, most centrally, its evolutionary and adaptive mechanisms. If that does not tell us precisely what we should do as we evaluate human needs and desires, it does helpfully point us in a certain direction and alerts us to dangers to be avoided. …

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