Thursday, November 06, 2008

Human Nature and Morality IV

"Human nature" may be conceived in two ways:

1. As an essence, a station, a role in a larger scheme, in a certain robust sense. In this sense, human nature has normative force independently of your preference in a way of life. By analogy, consider that the airline pilot must fly the plane because he's the pilot, and the actor must play the part because the show is going on now. It doesn't matter what they prefer to do, they ought to behave according to their roles. In the case of human nature, we add to the story that the role is the one you are suited to play and there is no other.

2. As a set of functions, desires, and dispositions that are deep-set, not ephemeral, recurring not short-lived, genetic, not generational. In this sense, human nature is not independent of what anyone desires. Human nature is not a normative force independent of preference but rather, on the contrary, logically determined by preference in some way, as desire and disposition are mentioned in the very conception. (We leave for another time the discussion of just exactly what way the desires determine human nature and which "set" of functions, desires, and dispositions is nature.)

I don't buy into conception 1. It is a fantasy, in my view. However, I think it is the conception of human nature underlying most attempts to link morality to human nature (in the Catholic philosophical tradition, for the chief example.) These attempts have been unsatisfactory because there is no evidence of a role we are supposed to play independent of human preference. Even if there were such a role, there is no reason to suppose we ought to play it. The mere fact that some scheme in the fabric of things has it that we are to play role X does not entail that we morally ought to play role X. Even if we grant that there is a God who designed the scheme, it still doesn't follow that we ought to do as he has designed.

Conception 2 is much more fruitful. If you are conservative and you think human nature is connected to morality, I share your point of view. But you don't get there by preferring conception 1 but, rather, by conception 2. There is much more ground to cover in that regard and we'll get to that in future posts in this series.