Friday, January 21, 2005

Human Nature

Jason comments:
[W]e definitely observe animals acting according to some form of natural plan.
The question then becomes: What is the nature of man? Actions that are in accordance with that nature are good, while those that go against it are evil.

I brought up the obvious problem of rape, to which he responded:
I believe that man's fundamental nature--the part of his nature that is more important than all others--is that he (or she) is capable of making complex long-range plans: We plant in the spring and harvest in the fall, or loan money at interest, or design microchips. This long-range planning is both unique to humans and our chief means of survival (as large vertebrates go, we're quite puny otherwise). Because these things constitute our nature, it is wrong to violate the essential nature of another. This would include rape, which is wrong because it violates the ability of the raped individual to act according to the plans that they have made.

I hope I've cleared things up, but please let me know if I have not. This idea is more or less a derivation of Ayn Rand, but it's easy to see in Aristotle as well--and in Henry Veatch, another great modern exponent of Aristotle.

I'm happy to go along with the Kantian idea of respecting people's rational agency. But I don't see why we should want to justify this by appealing to some notion of 'fundamental nature'.

Firstly, I just don't see what normative force this descriptive fact is supposed to have. Perhaps rationality and long-term planning are unique to humans - but so what? I don't see how it follows that we have a moral duty to cherish this particular characteristic. It doesn't strike me as obvious that it's always wrong to "violate the essential nature of another". For what if someone's "essential nature" was to hurt and exploit others: would it be wrong of us to 'violate' a parasite's parasitism? I also find implausible the implication that it's somehow wrong to go beyond the confines of our common 'nature'. So long as you don't harm anyone, why not do something new, something 'unnatural' - what's wrong with being different? Simply put: what in the world does any of this have to do with morality?

Secondly, even if we wanted to base morality on human nature, what makes 'planning' the fundamental aspect of it? This choice just seems arbitrary. Language and communication are, arguably, even more fundamental to us. We're social animals, after all. Reproduction is something else that's pretty central to many people's lives. Eating and breathing are utterly essential to all of us. Walking on two legs sets us apart from other mammals, driving in cars even more so. More abstract characteristics would include creativity, love, hate, jealousy, etc. All seem important parts of our 'nature'. Which is 'fundamental'? What does the word even mean in this context?

Will Wilkinson has an excellent post on this subject:
You and I are both part of the club of humanity because we have a shared ancestor: the first human. This, however, implies nothing about our having a metaphysically deep shared natured. Evolution works on selection over natural variation. That is, evolution works because members of a species are not homogenous. So at any time, there is simply a distribution of traits throughout a population. Maybe the distribution is a normal curve. Maybe it isn't. In any case, the distribution changes over time, and thus so do the traits of the "typical" member (if there is one). There simply is no non-contingent common core of traits that ties us together other than our shared lineage and consequent genetic similarity.

This is why I find the idea that there is a right way to live according to nature extremely dubious... We have no "deep" nature. Right now, in this neighborhood of our evolutionary history, there is a distribution of traits that one might call "typical" in a statistical sense. But this has no more deeply normative significance than would the fact that 90% of us prefer almonds over pistacchios. It makes no sense to argue that we thus ought to prefer pistacchios. People with statistically "deviant" behavioral dispositions are by definition not "normal," but their behavior is not a scintilla less "natural" than that of the normals.

As I see it, to base morality on human nature is to confuse how people are with how we ought to be (the old is-ought gap). So if you're talking about 'human nature' in a purely descriptive/biological sense, it has little to say about ethics.

But if you're talking about some special sort of extra-biological, metaphysical 'human nature', then it seems you've already smuggled in normativity. That is, one could define our 'fundamental' human nature in terms of what's morally most important about us; but it would be circular to then try to explain morality in terms of this metaphysical 'nature'.

So appealing to human nature as the foundation of morality is either fallacious or redundant. This is clearly no good either way. Have I misunderstood it?


  1. Richard, nice post. This is basically the standard argument against Rand, and I think it carries a lot of force. There doesn't appear to be an objective "human nature," and every attempt to define one is likely to be mired in circularity. It makes basing ethics on "human nature" pretty tenuous.

    Also, while Aristotle did use a "functional argument" to ground his ethics, his ethics was very different from Rand's. For instance, the reason we wouldn't commit acts like rape has nothing to do with violating another person's nature. Instead, we refrain from such acts because they throw off the balance of the community, and this gets in the way of the long-term pursuit of eu zên (ours, not their's).  

    Posted by Chris

  2. There are a lot of ways to define human nature, and I certainly don't propose that all of them are proper guides to morality. Humans appear built to walk, for example, but a person who loses their legs retains his humanity all the same.

    The reason the legless retain their humanity is because it resides in their ability to make plans and engage in goal-oriented behavior. That's the essential, not only for humans, but for all ethical agents: If a sentient robot existed, we would have to treat it as a moral agent as well: Morality is the code by which sentient beings interact with one another and with their environment.

    Will Wilkinson's argument about almonds and pistachios is pure silliness: It focuses on an inessential quality of humans. It is no more a good morality than the injunction to kill all the left-handers. We are not talking about perponderance here, but about the means by which humans appear designed to live. Almonds and pistachios have nothing to do with it.

    Have I smuggled normativity in here? I don't think so. In simplest form, I could say "The good consists of engaging in rational, goal-oriented behavior, and, whenever possible, of refraining from interference with the goal-oriented behavior of others." I find that this formulation is 1) non-tautological 2) quite powerful in explaining the basic commands of most ethical systems (ie, it easily explains why it is wrong to kill, rape, lie, steal and et cetera).

    So help me, I still can't see what is wrong with this formulation. Yes, there is a biological component to it--but no more than any ethical system, I think.

    As to the is-ought gap, I reject it for the same reasons I reject nihilism: I can always squint my eyes and claim that the world doesn't exist, but it changes precious little about my surroundings. Likewise to claiming that the facts of reality do not lead us to an understanding of the good. You can always close your eyes and say it isn't so, but that's not much of an argument. 

    Posted by Jason Kuznicki

  3. To answer two more of your questions, I do not believe that it is in the nature of any human being to live as a parasite. I would welcome examples to the contrary--but caution you that already you are dealing with a bizarre exception, one that cannot tell us very much about the way that the great mass of people ought to live.

    Second, you write, "I also find implausible the implication that it's somehow wrong to go beyond the confines of our common 'nature'. So long as you don't harm anyone, why not do something new, something 'unnatural' - what's wrong with being different?"

    I actually agree with you here: In a sense, going beyond the confines of our common 'nature' is the nature of human beings: We make vaccines, airplanes, clothing, and all sorts of things that aren't obvious extensions of the species. Our nature--the remarkable, essential feature that makes us human--is that we create new things, using our ability to plan for the future. Morality exists to protect this nature, to prevent us from sinking back to the level of the animals, as the expression runs.

    And yes, I'm aware that certain animals do exhibit the ability to plan on a limited scale. Accordingly, I favor treating those animals with kindness, particularly the higher primates. Who knows, one day we may discover how to impart our "human" nature upon them, too. 

    Posted by Jason Kuznicki

  4. WILL W evolution is possible because we have homogeneity not in spite of it.What sort of variation would we have without homogeneity? Also,are we to have shared lineage and genetic similarities without some kind of time transcendent traits? That is traits recognizable in different persons. 

    Posted by john t

  5. In the interest of shortness, I'll give a summary of my complete response, which can be found here.

    I think that a metaphysical component is required of us in order to introduce morality in the first place. I think that in order to make any act 'right' or 'wrong' one must be free to choose between any two actions. I think that in addition to rationality, a fundamental component of human nature is freewill. I do not think that it results in a circular explanation either, because I do not think the question of morality even arises if we are not free. You can explain morality in terms of human nature, but morality becomes pointless if there is no free will.  

    Posted by Peter

  6. I personally have no problem making value judgements that are based in facts. Values are derived from goals and motivations, and thus on practical reasoning that considers those goals and the conditions under which they operate. The question that Richard (and, in a somewhat mocking way, Will) ask is whether there are facts about human nature that are anything more than descriptions of "typical" behaviors or dispositions (and typical within a particular context, for the most part) is the important one, and I don't think you can dismiss it by just calling it worthless skepticism.

    For one, any definition of human nature is likely to exclude some individuals whom we would like to treat as moral agents. This is nicely illustrated by Peter Singer's reasoning about severely retarded individuals, many autistics, stroke patients and other patients with lesions in particular brain areas (especially the amygdala and other parts of the lymbic system), or Alzheimer's and AIDS patients in the latter stages of those diseases. These people generally do not exhibit Jason's "nature," and therefore either are not human, or are not moral agents, depending on what that nature defines (I assume he would want to include infants, because while they do not exhibit that nature, they have the potential to do so, whereas most of members of the above groups do not).

    The second problem is the one that Will raises, about the way biology works, and though his example of nut preference is probably a poorly-chosen one, the point is not so easily dismissed. Biology doesn't produce stable, universal natures. This is especially true where the sorts of complex behaviors that Jason' discusses are concerned. When genes determine behaviors, they so in rigid ways. The behaviors are stereotyped, and usually very context specific. Otherwise, genese produce certain behavioral tendencies (e.g., the tendency to act in such a way that one's long-term goals are more likely to be satisfied), for which you will find a range of manifestations across populations. Calling these tendencies parts of our species-specific (or even species-wide) nature becomes, at best, a statistical claim that will, at the very least, exclude outliers or people otherwise at the ends of the curve.

    The final problem is the most important one from my own perspective. The defining of human nature, natural law, and ethics from those two things, is inevitably a partially (and perhaps largely) social process, in which the goals of the group doing the defining are likely (perhaps inevitably) going to be incorporated. Making those goals a part of an "objective" human nature serves to reify, and legitimate those goals in a way that will inevitably exclude people with different goals. In other words, no matter how hard you try, the values we hold are going to delimit the possible features that we include in a human nature. This is what Will's example of nut preference does illustrate, albeit in a mocking way. This, I think, is one of the most important implications of the "Is-Ought" gap. Our values determine which parts of the "Is" that we select as important. This is why I described the difference I saw between Jason's formulation and Aristotle's. For Aristotle, the violation of another person's autonomy is bad, not because it violates their nature, but because it hinders the pursuit of the fundamental value, which for Aristotle was eu zên. While Aristotle does try to argue that this value is the function of human beings, he doesn't try to argue that the particular virtues that allow us to accomplish it are . They are a product of socialization, and good practical reasoning. Aristotle's functional argument based on human nature suffers from the same problems that Jason's does, ultimately, but the difference between their formulations is still informative.


    Posted by Chris

  7. Chris, and Richard,

    I think I agree with Chris's distinction between my idea of ethics and Aristotle's, though I'm not quite convinced that either system is broken. I'm going to try to respond to some of the objections here.

    "For one, any definition of human nature is likely to exclude some individuals... These people generally do not exhibit Jason's "nature," and therefore either are not human, or are not moral agents, depending on what that nature defines (I assume he would want to include infants, because while they do not exhibit that nature, they have the potential to do so, whereas most of members of the above groups do not)."

    I favor giving these individuals the benefit of the doubt, so long as they seem biologically part of the human species, and even if they are demonstrably irrational: In all cases I favor treating them humanely. The reasons for this are several. First, they may be far more rational than we think, as has lately been argued in the case of autistic individuals. Likewise, for centuries people who were eccentric--homosexuals, individuals with unusual knowledges, heretics, and the like--were attacked for reasons that are difficult to distinguish from many of the categories of oppression that we use today. We now regard this as barbarism, and rightly so. The utmost caution must be used whenever we infringe on the goal-oriented behavior of another human being.

    Another benefit of this stance is that it inculcates a general tendency toward moral behavior, making it easier to practice overall. This is akin to the categorical imperative, but I do not consider it foundational to ethics.

    I would not, however, accord many of the things we now term "rights" to those who demonstrably violate the system of ethics I suggest. Yes, these people should still be treated humanely, but they should not given the wide range of liberties that my ethical system would demand for the general run of people. The ancients dealt harshly with murderers; so do we, and we do not think this especially barbaric of them.

    Chris mentions the rights of infants, but these are a separate issue: The telos of an infant is to become an adult; the good in their case is to help him become the best adult he can.

    I suppose where we differ is that I view these cases as "patches" to fix a system that certainly has some limitations, but that is still quite workable. You seem to believe that these questionable cases are refutations of the system.

    Chris, your final objection, I think, does more than you intend it to do: "The defining of human nature, natural law, and ethics from those two things, is inevitably a partially (and perhaps largely) social process, in which the goals of the group doing the defining are likely (perhaps inevitably) going to be incorporated." I would suggest that because this objection can be applied to essentially all statements of both fact and value, it is more or less unhelpful. We are still condemned to be free.

    (And I hope that last sentence dispels any doubts about my being a Randroid...) 

    Posted by Jason Kuznicki

  8. Jason, thanks for the thoughtful responses.

    I want to (re-)emphasise that I more or less agree with your substantive moral positions (respecting others' rationality, etc.). I just think your foundations are in the wrong place, by trying to ground these claims purely in human nature.

    It's simply fallacious to argue 'this is how we are, therefore this is how we ought to be'. Don't mistake my point about the is-ought gap: I entirely agree that values are grounded in facts (indeed if you follow the link, I set out how I think this is so). But I think you're looking at the wrong sort of facts. 'Oughts' don't arise merely out of facts about how we are - such facts simply don't have any normative force, like I complained above. Rather, 'oughts' arise out of facts about what we want (as I've argued in some of the linked-to posts). It is possible to bridge the is-ought gap, but you must offer some plausible explanation of how it is to be done. I don't think you've done this.

    As for the parasite hypothetical, the point of that was to show that whatever it is that grounds morality, brute nature isn't it. If something's essential nature was bad (and this seems possible, though your position implies it is somehow a contradictions!), then it wouldn't be wrong of us to 'violate' this 'essential nature'. This seems to clearly demonstrate the inadequacy of 'it is always wrong to violate the essential nature of another' as the foundational principle of morality!

    Lastly, I still wonder how we are to find the 'essential' nature of something - what distinguishes this from all the other, merely 'accidental', characteristics of our nature? 

    Posted by Richard

  9. Jason,
    I agree that it can be applied to any ethical system, which is why I think we should do two things with all of them:
    1.) Recognize that they are not "objective," in the sense that they are derivable, deductively, from facts, and be suspicious of any claims to that effect.
    2.) Instead, they are products of values, and, because they are culturally, historically, and subjectively variable, we should always allow them to be subject to revision, be it due to the discovery of new facts or changes in the goals that require us to utilize those facts.

    Also, while it's probably true that the examples I gave (autistics, alzheimers patients, and the severely retarded) are not good examples (though your justification for treating them as moral agents stands outside your moral principle), as I noted, they are only extreme examples. Because of the way genetics affect behavior, there are likely many otherwise normal individuals who don't fit within any definition of human nature that you can come up with. 

    Posted by Chris

  10. Chris: I would disagree that "many otherwise normal individuals don't fit" within my definition of human nature. I define the essential characteristic of human nature as the ability to have goals and make plans. I submit that very few people are incapable of making plans. They may be good plans or bad plans, but they are capable of plan-based life, and thus they are subject to morality as I would define it.

    Richard: I think the merit of my argument is precisely that it draws on the fact that humans do make plans (or, as you put it, have wants), and that these plans really do exist, not in the world of wants or desires, but in the world of actuality--We do make plans; it's something we almost cannot help doing. I'm not sure how much difference, then, there is between us... Except for the parasite example.

    Let's consider a tapeworm. To be a "good" tapeworm is to be very parasitical, because that is the form of excellence that is peculiar to tapeworms. But that is not how humans are set up. What is the form of excellence that is peculiar to humans, at least in virtually all cases? That would be "the" good, or ethical goodness, and I would again offer my definition of the good as meeting all the necessary requirements.

    I'm sorry if I'm seeming pedantic here, and I suspect that I'll stop after this comment. I would like to see what might be wrong with this position, but I am afraid I really do not yet. 

    Posted by Jason Kuznicki

  11. I refuted Mr. Wilkinson's post on human nature here:

    He never answered. Hope to hear from you.  

    Posted by shulamite

  12. "it is simply fallacious to say 'this is how we are, therefore this is how we ought to be'"

    So if I say "Joe ought to have been here by now, he's a punctual guy" or "you ought to put diesel in there, since its a big rig", or "you shouldn't defraud people, because it's unjust" Then by your account, I am commiting some fallacy?

    Certain things are intrinsically good or bad for things because of what we are. We can dispute about WHAT these things are for human beings, But we cannot dispute THAT certain things are good and bad for us. Throwing a fish off a boat into the ocean is good for it, doing the same to a man is bad for him. Is it wrong to notice that one reason for this is that men have no gills, and fish do? There may be other reasons too, such as what we want, but te gills/no gills distinction remains true.  

    Posted by Anonymous

  13. Anon, your examples involve an implicit appeal to human wants and desires. (If you read my previous post you'll see that I entirely agree that "certain things are good and bad for us", on the basis of such desires.) That's altogether different from saying "it's a big rig, therefore it ought to be a big rig". Or "X is part of human nature, therefore everyone ought to X".

    Shulamite, at the end of your post you suggest that nothing metaphysical follows from our biological natures. So would you not also agree that no ethical claims follow from our biological natures? If so, I'm not sure in what sense this is a 'refutation' of anything I've said or quoted here. 

    Posted by Richard

  14. "That's altogether different from saying "it's a big rig, therefore it ought to be a big rig". Or "X is part of human nature, therefore everyone ought to X"."

    I'm confused. I never said that, and I am unaware of any person (even a very foolish one) who has claimed that there is any moral system that involves saying "you are X, therefore you ought to be X". What could this possibly mean? The idea is not fallacious, it is simply unintelligible. I would assert that if I am a rational animal, what is good for me are the things that are good for a rational animal- but this is entirely different from saying "I am a man, therefore I ought to be a man"- this could found no morality... it would't even require us to do anything.

    The appeal is not to desire at all, but to definition. A just act is good, not by desire, but by definition. What is good for rational beings is good for human beings- not because of desire, but by definition. What is good for aquatic beings is good for fish, not because we desire it, but by definition.

    It is superfluous to try to give some account for why what is good for reason is good for humans, or why what is good for aquatic animals is good for fish, or why what is good for diesel engines is good for a big rig. We don't need to appeal to desire but to definition, or the nature of a thing.

    It is this nature that causes the goodness of desire. If desire were the cause of goodness, than all we desired would become good- a sort of King Midas fantasy. Things are good for us because of what we are- and this nature we have is the judge and at least necessary cause of our desires.  

    Posted by shulamite

  15. No-one would deny that what's good for us is what's good for us. But it's just an empty tautology. The question is where that 'goodness' comes from. I argue that the answer is desire-fulfillment, and I've defended this view in various past posts (click the 'ethics' category on the sidebar).

    Now, it seemed to me that Jason was saying that the source of goodness was simply acting in accordance with one's biological nature. In other words, "X is part of human nature, therefore everyone ought to X". So that's why I brought up the is-ought fallacy.

    The 'nature' of a thing doesn't tell us what's good for it - at least, not in any non-question-begging way. It all depends on one's purposes - these are what define the 'good' in any particular situation. Scissors are good for cutting but not for glueing, and so forth. Different value judgments arise relative to different ends (desires). 

    Posted by Richard


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