Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Against nature

It won't die! Matt has some good comments there, especially this one:
if someone said to me that it should not be pursued because it was "against nature," I certainly would not find it obvious that this was wrong. I would want to know a lot more about what was being claimed before I would say whether I agreed, of course, just like with any other ethical slogan.
The post to which Matt is responding says that McMahan considers various objections to his argument and that:
Among the weakest of these are the idea that implementing his proposal - even with the specific provisos he gives - would mean “playing God”, or acting “against nature”. Such lines of argument have a host of absurd implications: for instance, one might just as well use them to condemn morally innocuous practices like contraception or vaccination. They are therefore quite easily dismissed.
It is not charitable to interpret reference to "playing God" as meaning some argument that implies the wrongness of vaccinations. What is going on here?

It's partly cultural, I think. A lot of philosophy, especially in England, is done by people who are openly contemptuous of religion and who have (or display) little to no understanding of it in any but its crudest forms.

It's also partly a matter of the superficiality of most contemporary moral philosophy. Although this too might be more a question of fashion than depth. Suggest that a world without tigers might be a good thing and you are provocative. Suggest that a world without contraception might be a good thing and you are an idiot. The two are connected. It is because of the perceived miraculousness of life that contraception (and all sex that excludes this miracle by design) is regarded by some as wrong. It is my perception of tigers as miraculous that makes me incapable of taking McMahan's argument seriously. In fact, taking it seriously (which seems to be what has to be done in order to get others to stop agreeing with it) can itself be regarded as an insult to nature, in the same way that taking racist arguments seriously is an insult to humanity in general and racial minorities in particular.

Two things: 1. I am not myself against contraception, but I think the argument that Anscombe makes against it (e.g. here) is interesting (and need not be Catholic or Christian--I think a Nietzschean version could be developed). 2. There is an awful lot of misunderstanding of the idea that wrong things are against nature.

Breyers ice cream advertises itself as "all natural," seemingly presupposing that this is a good thing. One might infer that artificial, or partly artificial ice cream, is not so good. You would be right, but is the point generalizable? Is opera singing morally bad? I suspect that much of it is (consider the word 'diva'--and, of course, there are male equivalents), but not because it is a form of art. Laptops are not evil just because they don't grow on trees. But no one thinks they are. Anscombe thinks contraception is evil because it is an insult to the value of life. Laptops and opera are no such thing. Is phasing out tigers? Well, it isn't an insult to the value of human life, but it does seem somewhat unappreciative of the work of the immortal hand and eye that framed the tiger's fearful symmetry. The seeming impossibility of appreciating Blake's poem while taking McMahan's argument seriously (combined, I suppose, with the obvious goodness of Blake's poem) is the kind of thing that makes me reject the argument and be depressed by it.

What does respect for life require? What is due? What is called for? Those are hard questions. But answering them requires appreciation of good things, and sensitivity. And they are not distinct from the questions, "What is life?" and "What is the value of life?", just as the question "Is torture ever all right?" quickly became "What is torture?" Ontology requires sensitivity too. And, as I've hinted, I don't trust people who can't appreciate a poem or a tiger to think well about value.


  1. This is an insightful post, Duncan. As I later said to Alexandre Erler, "the relationship between man and nature is complex and may give rise to a variety of moral demands; dismissing the very common way of objecting to something as 'against nature' seemed to me likely to obscure those demands."

    Thanks for some good discussion about the McMahan piece, I've learned a lot from your posts.

  2. Thanks, Matt. It's probably Hume's fault. In his essay on suicide he makes fun of the idea that suicide could be wrong because it is against nature when, after all, engineering projects such as diverting the course of a river are not considered wrong despite the fact that they are against nature too. I suspect that a lot of philosophers learn this early on without ever learning that no serious thinker in the natural law tradition is against engineering (even implicitly) per se. It doesn't help that there are defenders of that tradition who make foolish claims, especially in connection with sexual ethics. Even Anscombe has some arguments that are so bad I don't know where to begin with them (perhaps I have misunderstood her). So there's fault on both sides, and I don't mean that Hume says anything that isn't true. But I suspect that he is often wrongly taken to have shown that all claims that something is wrong because it is against nature are utterly misguided. You have to look at the context and the use of the words in order to determine whether what they mean is true, false, or nonsense.

  3. Indeed it won't die! Check out the comments here. The rather outspoken 'mostly anonymous' commenter says some good things about the problems with the approach and the intended audience.

    After thinking about it for a moment, I wouldn't think that "against nature" and "playing God" really mean the same thing at all--they aren't even the same sort of objection. "Against nature" and its ilk mean something like not in the proper order of things. (And that's why such claims can seem question-begging or whatever.) "Playing God" on the other hand is doing something that it is not one's place to do, or making a decision that is not one's (or anyone's) to make. God could intervene with a miracle and that would be unnatural, but that would be no objection to it. M says about this that if there is no God, then "To the extent that these matters are up to anyone, they are up to us alone." But I wonder whether the nonexistence of God--supposing we grant that to M--is really so decisive. And I could imagine someone saying, roughly, that we have no right to interfere with nature except the Hobbesian right that we get from our own natural power to put nature to our own use, and then reminding us that might doesn't make right at all. I can't articulate this next point very well, but I can't shake the thought that the idea that we need to do something about predation in nature, or that if we could do something about it, we should, expresses some kind of deep discomfort about something in us (and the system of which we are a part). It also expresses something that I've been annoyed by in many contexts lately which is the thought that it would be better if the world would conform to my will and my sense of things. (Something like a neurotic application of the principle of universalizability...)

  4. Thanks, Matthew. There has been so much discussion of this that I've glossed over most of it, and hadn't read "Mostly Anonymous"'s comments before. They are pretty good, I agree.

    I also agree with you that the "against nature" complaint and the one about playing God aren't the same at all.

    Your last point (or is it two points really?) is interesting. The thought that the world should conform to my will is the kind of thing that the Stoics, Spinoza, Weininger, and Wittgenstein opposed. It's also a Christian idea, of course (Thy will, not mine, etc.). It's very Schopenhauer and Simone Weil, and appealing up to a point. The trouble is that you can't completely renounce your own will without seemingly accepting bad things and without something that seems a lot like depression or renunciation of the world or life. It's this latter problem, I think, that leads Nietzsche to reject Schopenhauer's ethics. But then Nietzsche says we must embrace everything, even the terrible, and that's hard to support.

    Discomfort with our own predatory nature also makes me think of Nietzsche, who I think would reject such discomfort. Although he does believe in changing whatever can be changed that we don't like about our own natures. Everything else is to be embraced. He might go too far, but at least he's positive.

    But vague allusions to historical figures might not help get to the bottom of McMahan's thinking and what might be wrong with it. I have a half-baked (if that) idea relating to this stuff, which I might turn into a blog post soon.

  5. Right, and I wouldn't advise going as far as the Stoics. Where I disagree with them is their rationalism about desire (I'm re-working the stuff about integrity and struggle on this point now), and the thought that the inner is fully "up to us." Embracing the terrible seems problematic, though accepting what we cannot change might be relevant here (and relevant to the thought that M's views are too distant from any truly possible sense of "can"). And perhaps accepting what cannot be changed is connected to Jean Kazez's thoughts about humility.

    Of course, none of this is a direct objection to what McMahan is doing as a thought experiment, and I imagine he would say as much. And I think we discussed that it's not obviously silly to wish the world were different than it is, even if one can't do anything about it. The question would be whether there is some other practical reason (say, connected to the ordering of our thoughts and basic moral attitudes) for maintaining such desires. And in that case, our disagreement with McMahan would just be that we don't accept the kind of value theory he endorses. And here we hit something like bedrock. (And I don't think it's lazy at this point--bearing in mind the amount of thinking and writing it's taken to get to this point--to finally invoke that concept.)

  6. Yes, the idea that the inner is wholly within our control seems like something you might tell yourself if you were struggling to deal with some trauma. Similarly, Nietzsche presents his "What does not kill me makes me stronger" as a motto from the military school of life. Mottoes are not so much true as they are useful or inspirational. If I'm being tortured (like Epictetus or James Bond Stockdale) then Stoicism might be useful or inspirational for me, as it was for them. But it's hard to believe in not-being-tortured circumstances.

    Embracing the terrible might be all right if it comes wrapped up with all the good stuff too, as Nietzsche says it does. But I'd much rather say "OK, if I have to" to it than Nietzsche's "Yes!"

    As for bedrock, yes, perhaps. I certainly don't accept the value theory he endorses, or even the kind of value theory he endorses. And maybe that's all there is to it. But I suspect he might insist that only his kind of theory is rational, and I would disagree with that claim. I also find it hard to resist wanting to subvert his conception of rationality and value. But if I really want to try to do that I suppose I should post my thoughts where he might see them. I doubt he can be converted, though, whereas more ambivalent people might be.

  7. that temptation to convert seems endemic among wittgensteinians.

  8. Well, you've got to do something.

  9. yes, that's what tenure review boards think.

  10. I need a 'Converts' section on my CV.

  11. 'people driven from the discipline by being returned to sanity'

  12. I like it. That section is currently blank though. Must try harder.

  13. A common equivocation on 'nature' seems to be lurking here. Usually, when natural lawyers and virtue ethicists speak of 'nature,' they mean human nature in the Aristotelian sense. In this sense, technological products are not against nature. How could they be, since they are the result of 'natural' human functioning. On the other hand, some uses of those products may be 'against nature' if they are vicious. Vice, after all, is contrary to human proper functioning. Tigers, in this sense (the ethically relevant sense) of 'nature,' are neither natural nor unnatural.

  14. Yes, although I think that some religious believers might use 'unnatural' to mean contrary to God's plan, which need not refer to human nature specifically. As Matt said, if someone objects that something is "against nature" it seems wise to try to find out what they mean by this, rather than assuming they mean something stupid. I (think I) have heard people object to natural law theory on the grounds that it implies that computers and opera singing are morally wrong. And McMahan seems to think that if what is "against nature" is wrong then vaccination must be. That seems like a mistaken inference to me. Or an uncharitable one at least.