Thursday, September 18, 2008

Human Nature and Morality I

We know that human nature has some significance or role in morality. It's not clear how so, so let's take a look.

There is a well-beloved theory (Aquinas, for instance) about all this which derives moral obligations from human nature. This derivation seems dubious in its supposedly inferring ought from is, since just because something is the case doesn't seem to entail anything at all about what ought to be the case. Why should we follow human nature's cues, after all? So, this standard theory includes God as the normative power in human nature. We can read in our nature a way for us to live. It is as though there were a sweet spot in human nature where one is said to be doing God's will and following the plan for us God has written in our nature.

So the theory goes. But it was proven long ago in Greece that morality is not dependent upon God's will. Socrates's argument was that since God loves certain things because they are good, his command is based upon their goodness, rather than determining their goodness. So, this theory won't do. (You may want to review this.)

We know human nature matters, but not in the old sense of the theory about God's plan. Here is the right theory.

We have a nature: desires, dispositions, inclinations and also abilities of certain kinds and degrees. We thrive only if we live in large measure in accord with the preferences determined by our desires; otherwise we are miserable. Morality is a component of our thriving. Therefore, morality is largely dependent on our inclinations and abilities. After all, morality cannot be something we find repulsive to our preferences upon cool and thorough reflection. We wouldn't recognize anything like that as morality.

Human nature is in the story of human virtue. What makes up good lives is closely dependent upon our inclinations and capacities. A deep understanding of human nature - wisdom, common sense - helps one to make judgments about goodness and rightness and to give advice about how to cultivate the virtues; it helps one to have moral wisdom. The excellences for human beings to strive for are dependent on our generic and individual natures, and the virtues are amongst those excellences. This is how human nature plays a central role in morality, and not as a plan someone else has given us. It is our preferences which are at work, and not someone else's. Also, notice that human nature inclines one to have a desire for the welfare of oneself and others (a fact which makes sociopathy and depression dysfunctions.) These natural desires are the substance of preferences which determine justice amongst competing interests.

Can you see how this might be so? If not, I'll fill you in in the next post in this series.