Ought vs. Is: Reclaiming nature as a moral guide

Throughout the centuries, politicians, theologians and philosophers have pointed to nature as a way to guide our actions and beliefs. The equivalence between "unnatural" and "bad" seems to be as durable as ever. But philosophical anthropologist Lorraine Daston doesn't think using "nature" as a guide is necessarily all bad.

Using ‘nature’ to justify ourselves is a philosophical no-go, but we keep doing it. Why?

'In various and dispersed traditions, nature has been upheld as the pattern of all values: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful,' writes Lorraine Daston in her book, Against Nature. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

* Originally published on December 5, 2019.

Why do human beings across cultures and throughout history insist on using nature as a guide for our behaviour, our politics, our moral and ethical systems?

Lorraine Daston, wrote Against Nature to answer that very question — a book she describes as a work of "philosophical anthropology."

Lorraine Daston is director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and the author of over two dozen books. (Submitted by Lorraine Daston)

"Nature has been invoked to emancipate, as the guarantor of human equality, and to enslave, as the foundation of racism. Nature's authority has been enlisted by reactionary and by revolutionaries, by the devout and secular alike," she writes.

The problem with using nature as a moral guide is so well-known that it even has a name: the naturalistic fallacy.

According to Daston, the fallacy amounts to "a kind of covert smuggling operation in which cultural values are transferred to nature, and nature's authority is then called upon to buttress those very same values." 

In this context, nature is made, not found — it's a conceptual screen onto which cultural values are projected, and reflected back to the audience which already embraces the values in question.

"For centuries philosophers have insisted that there are no values in nature. Nature simply is: it takes a human act of imposition or projection to transmute that 'is' into an 'ought'," Daston writes.

Normativity is normal

The ought/is binarism is most identified with Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, and the dictum associated with his name, that you can't get an 'ought' from an 'is'. Description cannot become a prescription. Similar critiques were made by other heavyweight thinkers, like Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill.

But Daston isn't attempting yet another takedown of the naturalistic fallacy.

"I am under no illusion that another attempt to put 'is' and 'ought' asunder will succeed where the likes of Hume, Kant, Mill, and many other luminaries have failed," the philosophical anthropologist explained.

"Rather, I want to understand why they have failed: why, in the teeth of such sterling counsel to the contrary, do we continue to seek values in nature?"

To answer that question, Daston turns to the idea of normativity.

While it's abundantly clear that social, moral and political norms vary greatly over time and place, the principle of normativity itself remains a constant. She asserts that "there is no known human culture, past or present, without any norms at all… Normativity is the roof over the mansion of 'should'."

From this perspective, nature is an obvious choice for us to establish norms. Human beings, Daston believes, need to externalize our moral and ethical systems, to make the abstract concrete. 

We evolved in natural surroundings. Nature's expressions are virtually infinite, and lend themselves to becoming the screen, or surface, onto which our values can be reflected back to us.

An excerpt from Lorraine Daston's, Against Nature: '“nature” is a mille-feuille of meanings. It can refer to everything in the universe (sometimes including and sometimes excluding human beings), to what is inborn rather than cultivated, to the wild rather than the civilized.' (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
"It is natural surfaces that preponderate in our experience, by their sheer diversity, durability, and inescapability," Daston said.

She's careful about not sanctioning any return to the naturalistic fallacy. But she does lay the groundwork for a potentially legitimate use of nature in our moral imaginings —as long as we're aware of the constructed nature of the 'nature' we turn to, and are ever-mindful of not illicitly distilling "ought" from "is."

** This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.

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