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The concept of human nature is an interesting one. This is partly because, although it’s a familiar concept, and one of which most people have at least a prima facie grasp; there are problems with arriving at a satisfactory, robust definition of it that will support normative philosophical claims. (For an account of some problems associated with defining human nature, see David Hull (1986) ‘On Human Nature‘, PSA 2: 3-13). In trying to understand it and work out how to tackle such problems, it’s interesting to look at similar concepts. One that I keep coming back to is the concept ‘physical’.

Carl Hempel argued that physicalism—the doctrine that the physical is all there is—is either vacuous or false. Either ‘physical’ refers to the subject matter of current physics, or it refers to the subject matter of physics as it will be in the future, once the science is complete and correct. If we choose the former, then physicalism is false, assuming the plausible premise that there are physical phenomena which physicists are yet to discover. If we choose the latter, then physicalism is vacuous: we don’t know what sort of things might become the subject matter of physics in the future, and so anything whatsoever might turn out to be physical according to this definition. (Hempel (1970) ‘Reduction: Ontological and Linguistic Facets’, in S. Morgenbesser, et al. (eds), Essays in Honor of Ernest Nagel (New York: St Martin’s Press). See also Tim Crane and D.H. Mellor (1990) ‘There is No Question of Physicalism‘, Mind 99: 185-206. For a related discussion see David Papineau (1990) ‘Why Supervenience?‘, Analysis 50: 66-71 and Tim Crane (1990) ‘Why Indeed? Papineau on Supervenience‘, Analysis 51: 32-37.)

A similar dilemma arises in discussions about human nature. Either ‘human nature’ refers to what humans are like at a particular point in evolutionary history (usually now), or it refers to what they are like generally—that is, it describes them in a way that somehow transcends the fact that, as an evolving species, what it is to be human changes from time to time. These options raise problems when we consider questions about the sort of normative claims that can be derived from observations about human nature.

As an illustration of this, consider the debate about the ethics of human enhancement (that is, the use of medicine and technology to raise human capacities above what we might consider to be normal). Opponents of enhancement (bioconservatives) frequently object to enhancement on the ground that it could change human nature, which—for reasons they rarely or inadequately explain—they take to be sacred and worth preserving. Advocates of enhancement (transhumanists) can respond to this claim by offering bioconservatives one or other horn of the dilemma mentioned above. If they choose the first horn, bioconservatives must take human nature to refer to what humans are like now, in which case they need to provide an argument to show why it is so important to preserve human nature as it happens to be at this particular stage of evolutionary history. Given that current human nature includes such things as a capacity for cruelty and susceptibility to various diseases in addition to its more attractive features, the case for preserving human nature in its current state does not look very promising. If they choose the second horn, bioconservatives understand human nature to be static, either because they ignore the fact that humans are subject to evolution, in which case their beliefs about humans are false; or because they take human nature to consist in a generalised list of properties that applies to humans at all stages of evolution. In the case of the latter, their account of human nature is unlikely to be substantive enough to support their claims that it is worth preserving, and that it would be changed by enhancement. (Whilst bioconservatives rarely provide a detailed account of what they mean by human nature, most of them seem to concede that humans are subject to change by evolution, but hold that evolutionary change—unlike change via enhancement—is acceptable. For example, Francis Fukuyama tells us that ‘doing nature one better isn’t always that easy; evolution may be a blind process, but it follows a ruthless adaptive logic that makes organisms fit for their environments’ (Fukuyama (2002) Our Posthuman Future (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), p. 98).

That bioconservatives provide bad arguments for deriving normative claims from claims about human nature can make it tempting for transhumanists to dismiss human nature as a useless concept in ethics, and to focus instead on what sort of properties of humans it would be good to improve independently of a conception of human nature. However, this might be rash, just as most of us can probably agree that it would be rash to respond to Hempel’s dilemma by concluding that ‘physical’ is a useless concept. Hempel’s argument might show that our understanding of the concept is not perfect, but it does not show that we don’t understand it at all, that we can’t make use of it, or that we are mistaken in our belief that we do often make use of it. Likewise, that there are problems with the concept ‘human nature’ does not entail that it is useless, or that we can’t (or even don’t) derive normative claims from it. Perhaps most strikingly in the context of human enhancement, transhumanists’ evaluation of enhancing treatments is arguably influenced by their beliefs about human nature: those who believe that a treatment designed to improve cognitive performance is attractive do so at least partly because they believe we are beings for whom cognitive performance plays a central role in life; and those who believe that a treatment designed to improve our ability to remain emotionally detached from others is unattractive do so at least partly because they believe we are beings for whom emotional bonds with others are an important aspect of life. ‘Human nature’, like ‘physical’, then, seems to be a concept that, whilst useful, is difficult to analyse in a way that renders it robust enough to support many of the claims that philosophers want to make about it. I find the comparison with ‘physical’ especially interesting because—judging from my impressions about the volume of literature on the two topics—philosophers are generally willing to work harder to render ‘physical’ robust than they are to render ‘human nature’ robust, and so there may be some interesting methodological lessons to be learned from the literature on physicalism by those who are unwilling to dismiss the concept of human nature.

What do you think? Can appeals to human nature sustain normative claims despite the (incomplete list of) problems described above? If not, are there any other concepts whose treatment by philosophers might be instructive in solving the problems associated with the concept of human nature?


  1. 1. Posted by Adam Rawlings | July 11, 2007 2:49 pm

    I’ve never found transhumanism particularly compelling, in large part because they seem to fly right by an irreducibly normative understanding of human nature. (I think that may what you’re getting at here.) Bioconservatives seem to invoke human nature as a standard by which we can evaluate a human life. Where they go wrong, I think, is in how they unpack the physical basis for this value; it’s not uncommon to see a lot of hand-waving or rather crude reductions.

    Hooking human nature into the evaluation of a human life seems to me to connect it, strongly, to the ancient notion of the good life. This would require some analysis (which Plato et al. do try to provide, of course), but it would serve to accommodate the uses human nature is put to: for example, we could, in principle, argue against transhumanist technologies on the grounds that they interfere with living the good life.

    I don’t think this can be extended to Hempel’s dilemma about the physical, though. Physicality, at least in the sense he’s interested in, isn’t a normative concept at all.

  2. 2. Posted by Jeff Huggins | July 11, 2007 4:16 pm

    Rebecca, great post. Thanks. You indicate that (paraphrased) either ‘human nature’ refers to what humans are like at a point in time (usually now) or to what humans are like generally, in a sense that transcends time. Although this may be correct according to common views, it is a bit too ‘either/or’, I think. Depending on what specific aspect of ‘human nature’ one is considering, some aspects of human nature (as defined by some views) may be subject to change fairly quickly, while other aspects (e.g., some rather fundamental dynamics of reciprocity) are probably very slow to change, if they can change much at all (given basic math and the availability of benefits of cooperation). I agree that, as a broad term, it has its limits. But, that doesn’t mean that specific aspects of human design, emotion, thinking, and behavior can’t be considered much more specifically and validly. In other words, to a degree, the term ‘human nature’ is a shorthand, of course, and many uses of the term call for more specifics, not necessarily in terms of defining the term itself, but rather in terms of getting more specific about the aspect of humans that is relevant for a given discussion. Put another way, why spend too much time defining what is itself a generalization and shorthand term, when one can (and perhaps should) delve into the specific aspects of human-ness that are relevant for any given philosophical or moral argument?

    Although it is important to observe ‘how humans behave’, and why, as one important part of making normative claims, those observations are often necessary (or at least very helpful) but not sufficient to substantiate the claims, in my view. You ask, ‘Can appeals to human nature sustain normative claims despite …?’ I think the answer is two-fold, at least: First, as mentioned earlier, it helps to be talking about a specific aspect of human design, predisposition, behavior, etc. rather than a generalized ‘human nature’, at least in most cases. Second, appeals to observations of a specific aspect of ‘human nature’ are only part of the equation. Other parts include the ‘why does that aspect exist?’, ‘what effective function does it serve?’, ‘what larger function does that serve?’, ‘where did it probably come from?’ and related matters. I’ve written on morality from the scientific, logical, and philosophical standpoints, trying to bridge them into a more complete and grounded picture. If you like, you can reach me via my website, by clicking on my name.

    Finally, regarding the questions of human biological enhancement: As you mention, I doubt whether a strong argument can be made that ‘human nature’, precisely as it is currently reflected in all 6.5 billion of us, should be seen as ‘hands off’ in all respects. It has imperfections that can become extreme in some people, cause great harm, and so forth. Curing some diseases, if we can do so safely, would be a great thing. That said, this does not lead to a conclusion that ‘anything goes.’ The question is not a black-and-white ‘either/or’ question, of course. Put another way, there might very well be no philosophical/logical argument that formally and conclusively says, ‘thou shalt not alter human biology in any way.’ Yet, that would not necessarily (or even likely) mean that unrestrained freedom on the issue (i.e., do whatever you want) would be wise, responsible, or moral. Given the space I’ve already taken here, I won’t proceed here with that argument and where I think it leads. But, if you are interested, please feel free to contact me as mentioned above.


  3. 3. Posted by Rebecca Roache | July 12, 2007 10:27 am

    Adam and Jeff, thank you both very much for your comments!

    Adam, I agree with you that the ancient notion of the good life is relevant here. Martha Nussbaum has argued that human nature is an evaluative concept, in the sense that we would be unlikely to find plausible any description of human nature that didn’t mention any of the things that we value about ourselves. She asked, ‘Could we turn out to be naturally fitted for a life than none of us would find worth the living, and in which none of us would feel that the concerns and values with which we identify ourselves survive? This seems impossible, since to find out what our nature is seems to be one and the same thing as to find out what we deeply believe to be most important and indispensable’ (Nussbaum (1995) ‘Aristotle on Human Nature and the Foundations of Ethics’ in J. Altham and R. Harrison (eds.), World, Mind, and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams (Cambridge: CUP), p. 106). I find this sort of account of human nature attractive, because it captures the thought that our views about what would count as an improvement in our capacities (or the reverse) is influenced by the sort of beings we are.

    However, it’s not obvious to me how this could be put to use to argue against enhancement. I’m not sure what you have in mind when you imagine it interfering with living the good life (therefore, please excuse me if I go off on a tangent here!), but one possibility is that, since our account of the good life is influenced by the sort of beings we are (biologically and so on), and since enhancement might change the sort of beings we are, what counts as the good life for enhanced people might differ from what counts as the good life for the unenhanced. If this is an objection to enhancement, it must also be an objection to evolutionary change—but without further premises, it doesn’t seem to be an objection to either. If you’ll allow me to compare changes in human nature with changes to the nature of an individual human, there are changes that can happen to a person that plausibly affect what counts as a good life for that person. Whether this is good or bad depends on what sort of changes they are: if a talented musician, for whom the good life partly involves practising and performing music, suffers an injury that leaves him mentally retarded and permanently unable to play music, then what counts as the good life for him after the injury will not include practising and playing music—and probably we can all agree that this is a bad change, since it involves depriving someone of resources and skills that he previously had, and which enriched his life. On the other hand, if the change happened in reverse (i.e. if a mentally retarded person underwent some change that reversed his retardation and also left him with a talent for music, with no adverse side-effects), we’d probably think that something marvellous had happened. Alternatively, there might be changes so drastic that we can’t even meaningfully compare the life before with the life after in order to decide whether the change constitutes an improvement or the reverse. So, making changes that necessitate a revision of what counts as the good life isn’t straightforwardly either good or bad, and it certainly doesn’t seem to support an argument against changing human nature.

  4. 4. Posted by Rebecca Roache | July 12, 2007 11:57 am

    Jeff, you are right that our account of human nature is likely to differ depending on the use we want to make of it: we are going to want to highlight those features we think relevant and ignore those that do not interest us. An oncologist’s conception of human nature, for example, is likely to be quite different to a priest’s conception of it, and there may even be very little overlap between the two. Norman Daniels makes this point in an (as far as I know) yet-to-be published paper (‘Can Anyone Really be Talking about Ethically Modifying Human Nature?’). It is indeed likely to be pointless to try to develop an account of human nature that is intended to be useful to any topic of discussion. However, in many philosophical discussions of human nature, both sides of the debate share the same purpose, broadly conceived, and so this problem either does not arise or is much reduced. There is much more overlap between the features of humans that interest bioconservatives and transhumanists, for example, than there is between the features that interest oncologists and priests; and it is therefore easier to see how a meaningful disagreement about human nature could take place between bioconservatives and transhumanists than between oncologists and priests. Even so, it’s likely to be useful to keep in mind the question of the extent to which two sides of the debate share the same purpose; and the extent to which their disagreement is about which features of human nature are relevant to the debate, or about what the normative implications are of certain human traits that both sides agree are relevant.

    I also agree with you that, in deriving normative claims from observations about human nature, it is important to ask questions such as ‘why does that aspect exist?’ and ‘what function does it serve?’—indeed, an understanding of such issues will often be a necessary condition for evaluating the trait in question. For example, our evaluation of the appendix as a useless (or worse than useless) organ depends on our understanding that it serves no function in the body, and that its presence is felt only when it becomes diseased. Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg have written a paper which addresses the importance of understanding the function and evolutionary history of human traits before deciding whether it would be a good thing to try to alter them (Bostrom and Sandberg (2007, forthcoming) ‘The Wisdom of Nature: An Evolutionary Heuristic for Human Enhancement’ in J. Savulescu and N. Bostrom (eds.) Enhancing Humans (Oxford: OUP)). I don’t think transhumanists would disagree with bioconservatives that there may be some human traits that it would be unwise to try to change. More interesting is their disagreement about whether a given change would be bad qua change to human nature; and the issue of whether the answer to this question can be formulated in such a way as to render the concept of human nature less relevant to the debate than bioconservatives take it to be (for example, by answering the question without reference to human nature).

  5. 5. Posted by Martin C Cooke | July 12, 2007 2:32 pm

    I just fail to see how could Human Nature be interesting, or worth preserving. If we are created, then changing genes surely won’t change it unless God wants it to, and if not then there is a continuum of natures between us and other primates. And anyway, whatever it is I share it with Hitler etc.

  6. 6. Posted by Adam Rawlings | July 12, 2007 4:35 pm


    I’ll have to dig up that Nussbaum paper. Unless I miss my guess, she’s done a not insignificant amount of work on recovering some threads from ancient ethics, which is part of my confused tangle of interests as well.

    On to transhumanism and the good life. If you adopt a classical liberal view of the good life, then your objections seem to go through. After all, on such a view of the good life, there are many possible ways of living a good life, and it’s certainly not obvious that enhancement technologies would interfere with that. However, according to my understanding, the ancient concept of the good life was much more restricted, in that there were necessary conditions that a life must fulfill in order to qualify as good. As far as I can tell, Locke, Rawls, Dworkin et al aren’t t keen on the idea of laying down such conditions when they consider the good life. (Unless you count liberty, I suppose. I wouldn’t be quick to drop either Mill or Rousseau into this camp either, as their concepts of the good life were more developed.) For the ancients, consider Plato: in order to live the good life, one must know the Form of the Good-in-Itself. Consider even Epicurus: in order to live the good life, one’s soul-atoms must be in a certain structural relationship with one’s body-atoms.

    Hooking this into transhumanist/bioconservative concerns, the worry would be that enhancement technologies may impede a human’s ability to fulfill the necessary conditions of the good life. Of course, this issue would have an a priori and an a posteriori arm: respectively, we have to figure out what the necessary conditions of the good life are (and if there are any at all), and we have to figure out which (if any) enhancement technologies would prevent a human from fulfilling these conditions. But, this sort of exploration of human nature, I’d think, would get the bioconservative position off the ground, for if there are such necessary conditions for the good life, and if enhancement technologies would prevent a human from fulfilling them, then there is a coherent moral objection to enhancement technologies.

  7. 7. Posted by Jeff Huggins | July 12, 2007 5:42 pm

    Rebecca, thanks for the response. A few thoughts …

    In discussing the term ‘human nature’, I wasn’t trying to get at the notion that Person A and Person B might purposefully try to view ‘human nature’ differently in order to come to preferred conclusions they might have, emphasizing some of it and knowingly excluding other parts. That’s true in some situations, of course. (In any case, I’m glad to hear that bioconservatives and transhumanists might have less disagreement with each other regarding which aspects of human nature are relevant than, say, people with dramatically different outlooks might have with each other, relatively speaking.) Instead, I was intending to communicate the other idea which is that, rather than focusing on the term ‘human nature’, except when it serves both parties as a useful shorthand, it is usually more relevant and clear to identify the specific aspect of ‘human nature’ that is being discussed, e.g., human reciprocity, human empathy, human bipedalism, and so forth.

    Using that thought, and relating it specifically to the question of human enhancement, I can convey a point that I see as being very important in the quandary. Consider human height, for example. I doubt (very much) that it is possible to forward a compelling argument that ‘human nature’ equates to a height of 5-ft. 10-inches (my height!) or any other specific height. A broad range might suffice. But even the range shifts slightly over time, given evolution and population changes, nutrition, and so forth. So, it’s unlikely (as I think you’d agree?) that a compelling and conclusive argument can be made that it is, by definition, wrong or right to enhance human height simply by virtue of the notion that doing so would violate some specific inviolable height aspect of ‘human nature.’

    However, that’s not the end of the story, of course. Humans are, alas, social beings who compare a lot, by ‘nature.’ Science has shown (I believe) that, on average, height does make a difference in some important aspects of human life, at least in many cultures. And, humans want things to be reasonably fair. Humans tolerate perceived unfairness only to a degree, and then they don’t tolerate it any more. Same goes with inequality (related to fairness, of course). Humans have limited tolerance for persistent (or growing) inequality that is perceived to be unfair. These are all aspects of human nature. So, if it becomes possible to pay (for example) $US 150,000 to enhance the height of your child so that he grows to be 7 ft. 3 inches, and if (as would be the case) only upper-class or upper-middle-class people could conveniently afford such treatment, that might very well create some concerns, “mess”, and instability. People who could pay for the treatment could more easily become professional basketball players, more ‘successful’ business execs, more attractive spouses (to some), models, and etc. So, that type of change, while not morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ by definition alone, might not be a wise or even moral change for other very real reasons. Other (i.e., other than height itself) aspects of ‘human nature’ might not be able to ‘handle’ the increased unfairness (real or perceived) associated with the fact that the rich can pay for height increases. This reminds me of a quote I use fairly often: ‘It is all too evident that our moral thinking simply has not been able to keep pace with the speed of scientific advancement.’ (Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama). Or, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it: ‘The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.’ Thus, of course, even if science makes something possible, and even though that something may not be ‘wrong’ by definition or by appeal to some inviolable idea of ‘human nature’, the questions still remain: Are humans ‘ready’ for this change? What will the likely impact be? For what benefit? At what cost? This is not an argument for or against specific changes. It is an argument for holistic analyses and a high degree of caution.

    What do ya think?

  8. 8. Posted by Martin C Cooke | July 13, 2007 9:22 am

    I don’t like to entangle my naive thoughts into your more interesting dialogue, but I’m recently interested in comparisons of physics and ethics, and it strikes me that the concept of logical might make for a better comparison (?) Insofar as we have a human nature, it seems to be one that changes itself, since we make machines (to increase our freedoms) and laws (to restrict them), one that defines itself to an important degree, e.g. when we decide what our human rights are, for all that we then (naturally) see that as a discovery about what we are (and that latter property in particular reminds me of logic, since physics is much more clearly a matter of actual discovery).

    Anyway, sorry for that digression. Regarding human modification, it seems to be our human nature to decide how best to change our natures. Therefore to put forward a blanket rule against modifying our natures would seem to go against our nature (insofar as we have one, and if we don’t then there is nothing to protect of course). Even in the spiritual realm, we are supposed to try to change ourselves for the better; so in short, the onus seems to be on the bioconservatives to specify this “human nature” that needs protecting.

    But although bioconservatives have failed to do that, and although it seems to be natural for us to try to improve our natures, I also agree with your last point (which I suspect is the main motivation for bioconservatism) i.e. that we ought to be very (unnaturally?) careful. What we know of ourselves says that until we get a genetics and sociology that is as comprehensive and well tested as our chemistry, maybe bioconservatism is a good idea. And given the way people are nowadays, in the global marketplace, maybe anything less simple and rigid than a blanket bioconservatism would be dangerously ineffective. (Incidentally, on my previous comment my name should have been ‘Enigman’ as that is more ‘mEaning’-full :)

  9. 9. Posted by Martin C Cooke | July 13, 2007 10:22 am

    It seems to be in our nature to change ourselves (e.g. by making machines to add to our freedoms, and laws to restrict them) and to think about what we are doing but as you say, history seems to show that we are not very good at it yet. They say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but if we break ourselves who will be around to fix that? I say that if we have enough to eat then why try an odd looking fungus too? On the other hand, some of us can already buy good looks (and good educations etc.) so what are a few inches in height?

  10. 10. Posted by Tom Douglas | July 13, 2007 11:29 am


    A small point. I wonder if some bioconservatives might be using a concept of human nature something like the following: human nature is what humans would be like (past, present and future) barring ‘artificial’ interventions. The bioconservative could then plausibly claim that enhancement would alter human nature without having to offer a fixed view of human nature (denying that human characteristics change over time through evolution) or to give seemingly unjustified precedence to current human characteristics. I doubt that this will help the bioconservative’s anti-enhancement argument, since (a) there will be difficulties defining and demonstrating the normative importance of artificiality, and (b) there are many characteristics that humans would have in the absence of artificial intervention that don’t seem to be desirable. But it will convert the dilemma that you pose into a trilemma. It may also illustrate a disanalogy between human nature and the physical, since I’m not sure that anyone would want to understand the physical as what would be the subject matter of physics were that discipline to develop in such-and-such way.

  11. 11. Posted by Guy Kahane | July 13, 2007 10:27 pm


    To be sure, if there is no coherent concept of human nature, then claims about human nature could hardly be expected to ground normative claims. But even if we identified a coherent conception (or conceptions) of human nature, this would hardly show that human nature has any normative significance. Let me make some remarks on this second question.

    You seem to think there might be something to the view that human nature has normative significance. For example you write that

    those who believe that a treatment designed to improve cognitive performance is attractive do so at least partly because they believe we are beings for whom cognitive performance plays a central role in life;

    What role is human nature supposed to play in such claims? We are humans, we have certain cognitive capacities, and we value these. But it hardly follows their value has anything to do with the fact that we are human. There are humans who have limited cognitive capacities. And any intelligent life form would presumably have such capacities without being human. So perhaps we value them because they are constitutive properties of persons or rational beings. But then our humanity does no normative work.

    Part of the problem is that, for contingent reasons,
    ‘person’ ‘rational being’ and ‘human’ happen to be co-extensive in most contexts. So it’s easy to forget that they are quite distinct (Kant notoriously shifts from talk about rational nature and humanity).

    The question of coherence might be a side question in this context. Another useful analogy might be with the concept of a person. There’s plenty of deep disagreement about this concept as well. But almost nobody doubts it has normative significance. And we know which everyday moral beliefs make use of it. If human nature nature had a parallel significance, we should expect to know what this significance is even prior to having a good philosophical account of the notion. But do we really know this?

    Now there are uses of ‘human’ that are distinctly normative: we speak of inhumanity, of being humane, and, as Bernard Williams pointed out, saying ‘but it’s a human being!’ seems to have intrinsic normative force. But for the reasons cited above, it’s doubtful we need to appeal to human nature to be able to say such things.

  12. 12. Posted by Jeff Huggins | July 13, 2007 11:09 pm

    In one very important sense, ‘human nature’ involves (note, I did not say is) the following: to strive to survive long enough and well enough, on average, to reproduce, and to help those wonderful (often) products of our reproduction (i.e., our children) to survive long enough and well enough to continue the process, if they like. For those who opt out of the reproduction opportunity and (often) temptation, it is still ‘human nature’, on average, to try to help others in ways, or to at least allow the above-mentioned process to continue, or to at least think that one is doing so and to make excuses when one is caught not doing so.

    Yes, this is not at all a precise exacting definition of ‘human nature’, and it’s not meant to be. That said, it does roughly outline an important central aspect of the broad and ambiguous shorthand term ‘human nature.’ If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be 6.5 billion of us today. And if it stops doing so some time in the future, we probably won’t be around much longer (in universal timeframes) after that.

    This view also helps us relate this conversation to moral considerations and to discussions taking place in the Kamm Reading Group threads. Our human social-moral faculties and enabling mechanisms (in a biological sense) exist because we are alive. They will continue to exist (and still evolve to a degree) only to the extent that we continue to exist, i.e., to the extent that we humans continue to survive as a species, i.e., to the extent that we continue to proceed with the approximate cycle mentioned above. And, they (our human social-moral faculties) were roughly shaped by this process, that is, by the process of evolution by natural selection acting upon variation. Thus, although they are all somewhat imprecise terms, ‘human nature’, ‘human social-moral nature’, and ‘human morality’ are all intimately interrelated, of course. A central thread in all of them is survival and movement from one generation to the next.

    Put another way, take a look at your right hand. Although it has many other roles, and many ancillary roles, and can also be used to facilitate happiness, the most foundational role of our human hands is to help facilitate human survival from generation to generation in some important way. The same holds true, of course, for our eyes, hearts, lungs, and unmentionables. The same holds true, in my view, for the much broader and ambiguous concepts ‘human nature’, ‘human social-moral dynamics’, and ‘morality.’ That’s not the complete story, of course, nor the end of the story. But, it’s a central and foundational aspect of the story, I believe. The full argument includes aspects of science and logic that go well beyond what the shorthand ‘human nature’ (even in its more precise particulars) is, of course.

  13. 13. Posted by Martin C Cooke | July 14, 2007 9:03 am

    Re Tom’s (comment #10) “human nature is what humans would be like (past, present and future) barring ‘artificial’ interventions,” I agree with Tom’s (a): either ‘artificial’ excludes self-interference, in which case human nature would probably be a pre-primate nature, since we probably evolved from social animals by developing tool (especially weapon) use and then adapting to our own social environment; or it does not, in which case if there is a principled place to draw a line between natural and artificial self-interference (and if it is to be useful to the bioconservatives) then it would seem to have to involve a (different) definition of human nature anyway.

    Re Tom’s “the physical as what would be the subject matter of physics were that discipline to develop in such-and-such way,” that seems quite close (from my outsider’s viewpoint) to science being what scientists do, and hence to what is effectively done by physicists when they place primary importance on their methodology. (Incidentally, sorry for repeating myself above, I thought I’d accidentally deleted #8:)

  14. 14. Posted by Rebecca Roache | July 16, 2007 2:23 pm

    I have a lot to catch up on! I’d like to be able to spend more time addressing these comments than I currently have, so my apologies if some of this is rushed.

    Adam, one option for transhumanists would be to reject the ancient conception of the good life: they might point out that if changing ourselves via enhancement would impair our ability to lead the good life, then evolutionary change (which writers like Plato and Epicurus were not in a position to take into account) will also presumably impair this ability. Since we’re going to change anyway (as a species, at least), avoiding enhancement on the ground that it will change us and thereby impair our ability to lead the good life would be a confused strategy. Any conception of the good life that assumes that humans are unchanging, then, should be rejected as an unrealistic guide to how we ought to live. However, I’m not convinced that they need to reject the ancient conception. Some changes that we could make to ourselves are going to be better than others: some changes would undoubtedly impair our ability to lead the good life, and others could even enhance it (consider cognitive enhancements that, for example, improved someone’s ability to grasp, appreciate, and adhere to Plato’s conception of the good life). Enhancement per se, then, does not obviously threaten to undermine people’s ability to live the good life. I agree with you (as would transhumanists, I think) that it would be important to consider whether a particular enhancement might – despite seeming initially appealing – turn out not to improve one’s life, on balance. One could assess this with reference to a classical conception of the good life, or some other way.

    Jeff, I agree with most of what you say. You’re right that it’s often more useful to talk about specific features of humans rather than about human nature; and that the claim that a particular change to humans is wrong must – if it is to be convincing – appeal to more than the mere observation that the change in question is a change to human nature. (Despite this, bioconservatives’ objections to enhancement often go no further than the claims that enhancement changes human nature and that this is wrong.) You’re also right that certain enhancements might be unfair. My view is that as a society we ought to be concerned about any resource that might exacerbate inequalities in society; but the possibilities that access to enhancement might be unequal, and that those who do get access may end up better off than those who don’t, are not obviously objections to enhancement. (Consider that not everybody who needs a lung transplant gets one, and that those who do get one end up better off than those who need one but don’t get one, but few would conclude that we should stop people having lung transplants.) We can attempt to resolve inequalities in ways other than restricting everyone’s access to enhancement – for example, Nick Bostrom suggests we could tax those who enhance and use the proceeds to subsidise enhancement for others. Your example of height enhancement is one of a so-called ‘positional good’, i.e. one whose value to those who have it depends on others not having it. It would probably be best if people didn’t pursue such goods (although many currently do, without much social outrage – consider private education), but note that not all of the goods that enhancement might confer would be purely positional. Increased intelligence, improved moral sense, increased altrustic behaviour, and better health would all arguably be good for their own sake, and would likely indirectly benefit other people.

    Martin, I agree that ruling against changing our natures would itself go against our natures. We are constantly striving to improve our situation, for example by educating ourselves to improve our minds, saving money to buy a house to improve our living conditions, working out to improve our health appearance, and so on. The desire to improve seems to be central to our nature, if anything is, and so there is something odd about those who simultaenously endorse the sanctity of human nature and urge us to be content with what we’ve currently got. (Michael Sandel does this.) Recognising this is compatible with accepting that our attempts to improve ourselves do not always go to plan, and that there have been (and no doubt will be) attempts to improve that we probably ought never to have made.

    Tom, that’s an interesting point, and despite the difficulties in fleshing out exactly what ‘artificial’ means, I think you’ve captured pretty well what bioconservatives mean when they talk about human nature being somehow inviolable. Bioconservatives seem concerned to give voice to the unexamined intuitions of the general public (or, perhaps more accurately, the unexamined intuitions of those portions of the public with whom they sympathise), and such intuitions do not always turn out to be well-founded or rational. In this case, that an intervention is deemed ‘artificial’ might be important to people with bioconservative tendencies even if, on closer examination, it’s difficult to define ‘artificial’ in a way that does not also include accepted interventions (like chemotherapy). However, because of problems about defining ‘artificial’, I’m not convinced that it converts the dilemma into a trilemma, because I don’t see how we could draw a clear distinction between human nature as it will be in the future if we don’t intervene artificially, and human nature as it will be in the future if we do allow such interventions. And, even if we did, we are unlikely to be able to foresee in any useful detail what human nature will be like in the far future, with or without artificial interventions.

    Guy, what you say here really gets to the heart of the issue that originally inspired the post. Let me address your points in reverse order. You comment that it’s not obvious that ‘human nature’ is normatively significant in the way that ‘person’ is, and that our confusion about whether the former is indeed significant in this way may cast doubt on the claim that it is significant. Something like this is perhaps behind the temptation to dispose of the concept ‘human nature’: it’s not clear that ‘human nature’ is normatively significant, whereas it is clear that certain other things that we can say about humans are normatively significant, so let’s talk about the latter instead. My worry is that this move might be too hasty, in part because it may not be possible fully to account for the value we place on certain of our traits without reference to some general observations about the sort of beings that we are. For example, the quality and quantity of value we place on cognitive capacities depends on our being certain types of beings (i.e. those who use cognitive skills in their lives in certain ways), and if we were different types of beings we may not value them in the same way and/or to the same extent. And, the type of beings that we are influences which sort of changes to ourselves we are likely to see as desirable or the reverse. In addition, it seems to me that certain groups of people are liable to over-estimate the extent to which it’s obvious that a certain trait is valuable or not: I’ve noticed that some philosophers assume that it’s obvious that rational capacities are more valuable than physical ones (for example, Thomas Hurka does this in Perfectionism (Oxford: OUP, 1993)), and it’s occurred to me that many people outside academia (professional sportsmen and -women, for example) might have a different view! If this is an academic prejudice, it’s one that is apparently easy to fall into, and is discoverable by trying to take the perspective of certain groups outside acadmia; however, an analogous, species-wide bias, may not be so easy to spot. For this reason, I think it’s important to remain open to the idea that the sort of beings that we are might be exerting a greater influence on our evaluation of our traits than we might think. Having said that, if it’s true that human nature does ground some normative claims, I’m not sure it’s the ‘human’ part of ‘human nature’ that’s doing the work. If there were beings that were like us in all relevant respects save for the fact that they did not belong to the human species (for example, if someone created a human-like being in a laboratory, and we decided that such a being could not count as human because it did not have the right sort of causal history), it strikes me that a description of their nature would stand the same chance as a description of human nature of grounding normative claims. Perhaps what I’ve just said amounts to a denial of the usefulness of human nature along with an assertion of the importance of taking a holistic view of human traits – but this is something I’m still thinking about, so I’m sorry if I haven’t done justice to your comment!

  15. 15. Posted by Guy Kahane | July 16, 2007 4:19 pm

    One way to get clearer about a possible normative role for claims about human nature (or even simply, humanity) is to recognise the relativity that would be implied by such a role.

    Roughly, for a given normative claim that seems to appeal to human nature, we could ask whether it would lose at least some of its force if asked by some non-human being with otherwise equivalent characteristics. In particular, it would be useful to imagine that the relevant characteristics of that being are not part of its nature in the biological sense (in the Ethics of Killing and elsewhere, Jeff MacMahan has the useful example of a ‘superchimp’, roughly the chimp equivalent of a transhuman.)

    I suspect that many normative claims don’t pass this test. Some might, but they are not central ones. For example, we may have some reason to hope to preserve basic human physical features, simply because they are part of our identity, or even for the same reasons we regret the disappearance of some natural phenomenon. So that if we were offered a somewhat better life at the price that people would, say, look utterly alien or ‘artificial’, then we would have some reason to reject the offer. (The bare concept of a person would certainly not give us such reasons.) The question though is whether such reasons aren’t very weak, especially when weighed against possible dramatic increases in e.g. well-being or justice or knowledge.

  16. 16. Posted by Jeff Huggins | July 16, 2007 9:34 pm

    Guy, Rebecca, and others, …

    First, as we have been discussing, there are many different specific aspects of ‘current human design (biologically speaking)’ and ‘typical dynamics of current human behavior’ that might or might not fall within someone’s use of the term ‘human nature’, using the term here as a somewhat ambiguous shorthand. Some of those aspects are (probably) uniquely human, at least currently, and some of those we share to a degree with other beings that are at least somewhat like us, and some of those (when defined in certain ways) we share with a very wide range of living beings.

    Second, among those deep aspects of our ‘nature’ that we share with a wide variety of living beings, and for ‘good’ reason, is the essence of those I described in my Post #12 having to do with surviving long enough and well enough, on average, to create future generations, and so on. The human details of how we go about doing that are in some cases uniquely human, in other cases very much like those of our closest biological relatives, and in other ways very much like those of a much wider variety of life. But, the ultimate foundational function of those dynamics is shared.

    Consider humans, hive bees, dolphins, and ants. The details of ‘human nature’, ‘hive bee nature’, ‘dolphin nature’, and ‘ant nature’ are very different in most respects. The details of hive-bee, dolphin, and ant social dynamics are also different from our own and from those of each other. But, the foundational ‘purpose’, i.e., the effective function, of the social dynamics of these different species is the same in a very important sense. We humans can, of course, use the word ‘moral’ when considering central aspects of our own human social dynamics because of the nature and degree of our abilities having to do with self-awareness, communication, the concept of time, and so forth. With respect to the other species, we could say (and do) that their social dynamics play a vital role in their survival and regeneration from one generation to the next. With respect to our own species, we could similarly say that our social-moral dynamics play a vital role in our survival and regeneration from one generation to the next. (See my earlier post for a better statement of this same relationship.)

    Reflecting on the second paragraph of Guy Kahane’s post (#15), I must first admit that I haven’t read MacMahan’s ‘superchimp’ example. And, I may very well be misinterpreting what Guy meant when he wrote “it would be useful to imagine that the relevant characteristics of that being are not part of its nature in the biological sense.” That said, that phrase brought to my mind the following thought: As ambiguous as the general notion of ‘nature’ often is (e.g., as in ‘human nature’), and as much of a shorthand as the term is, it is hard for me to imagine important general ‘characteristics’ of a being that are not part of its ‘nature’, at least in the sense of being totally independent of the organism itself and disembodied from it. Consider: What characteristics (intellectual, logical, other?) might be completely independent of, and disembodied from, their specific biological owner or ‘housing body’ and yet still be important characteristics of that owner? To a person who believes in a god, such characteristics would perhaps be viewed as those of god her/himself. To a person who doesn’t believe in a god, such characteristics (i.e., those that are completely independent of specific biological beings, species, etc.) are none other than characteristics, principles, and dynamics of nature itself.

    I may very well be misunderstanding “this test” that Guy mentions, or maybe I have it (the test) backwards. Depending on his meaning, I’m not sure that I agree completely when he writes, “I suspect that many normative claims don’t pass this test. Some might, but they are not central ones.” In my view, some (or at least one) of the most foundational/central claims that can be made about ‘morality’ are those that do (or would) also apply to other social species if we were to allow use of the word ‘moral’ (for these purposes) in relation to those species rather than limiting ourselves to ‘social’ (in the case of those species) and limiting our use of the word ‘moral’ to ourselves. (By saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that members of other species are ‘moral beings’ in the same sense and degree that humans are. I’m only saying that claims about the foundational ‘effective’ function of human ‘social-moral dynamics’ are, to the degree they are valid, essentially the same as, or highly similar to, our observations about the foundational ‘effective’ function of social dynamics in other social species.)

    Of course, these are not arguments in direct defense of bioconservatism or in direct defense of transhumanism.

  17. 17. Posted by Adam Rawlings | July 17, 2007 3:29 pm

    I tend to agree that there’s options for transhumanists and bioconservatives when it comes to understanding human nature in this way or that. That is, the human nature question is independent of the transhumanist/bioconservative debate. Problems only arise when we don’t really know what we mean when we talk about “human nature” and try to deploy the concept to prop up either transhumanism or bioconservatism.

    I’m not sure that evolutionary change and pressure is entirely relevant, though. Certainly, if we take “human nature” to be a shorthand for a set of capacities to achieve certain goods (which is what I take the ancient conception to amount to, in its most defensible form), it’s possible that evolutionary change will alter these capacities to the point where they are either (a) supplanted by other capacities (i.e., made redundant) or (b) prevented from operating (i.e., become (metaphorically) vestigial). But if the analysis of “human nature” is right, then what’s happened is we’ve evolved out of being human, just as, at some point, we would have had to evolve into it. This detaches the concept of “human nature” from the biological continuum, but I’m in no way convinced that this is a bad thing. After all, just plain “human” is a way of breaking off part of the biological continuum.

    What seems to follow is that “human nature” in this sense doesn’t track human identity — that is, a biological non-human can have the ethical sort of human nature, and a biological human can fail to have it. That doesn’t strike me as much of a problem either. It would be very convenient if biology lined up with our ethical concepts, but I suspect the world is not quite that forgiving. Given that, the superchimp could very well count as human, or even count as whatever we become after human (call it “transhuman” for the sake of having a relevant word). It depends on the capacities of the superchimp. (Incidentally, am I the only one who imagines the superchimp in a blue spandex suit with a red cape?) I don’t think the ancients were really sensitive to this issue; I think there was a tendency to conflate biological humanity with ethical humanity. I also think there’s a prevailing and ongoing tendency to run together issues of personal identity and (capacity for) moral good: physical characteristics of a human being may be directly relevant to the former, but I can’t see them as being more than indirectly relevant to the latter.

    It’s important, though, as Jeff notes, is to keep in mind that many of the capacities we might want to drop into “human nature” are really of practical survival/propagation advantage, rather than strictly ethical. Although, I suppose, with a sufficiently plausible story, it may turn out that the latter is somehow metaphysically or semantically connected to the former. (I think this is something the ancients were very sensitive to (and probably the moderns, too), in their search for what distinguished humans from other creatures.)

  18. 18. Posted by Jeff Huggins | July 24, 2007 3:51 pm

    Adam, thanks for your post.

    I thought I’d respond to a couple of your comments in order to clarify my views on a couple fronts.

    First, yes, there are many ways that one can (as you put it) ‘conflate biological humanity with ethical humanity.’ Some of the ways of ‘conflating’ the two incorrectly—in misinformed and misleading ways—in the past have unfortunately (to put it mildly) led to great harm and misunderstanding, of course. That said, human biology and ‘human nature’ (using the term as a shorthand) are very related to human morality/ethics, for a variety of reasons, some obvious and some less so. Put another way (and at risk of oversimplification and misinterpretation), human morality, human biology, and the requirements and dynamics of human life are intimately intertwined and are not cleanly or completely separable (in most senses), in my view. Rather than going into detail here, I’ll simply say that this doesn’t mean some things that some people might think (or worry) that it means.

    Second, you wrote: ‘It’s important, though, as Jeff notes, is to keep in mind that many of the capacities we might want to drop into “human nature” are really of practical survival/propagation advantage, rather than strictly ethical. Although, I suppose, with a sufficiently plausible story, it may turn out that the latter is somehow metaphysically or semantically connected to the former.’

    In my view, human morality is very interconnected with the human social faculties (biologically speaking) and human dynamics (biologically, interpersonally, and socially speaking) that we use as humans to ‘move’ successfully from one generation to the next as members of our social species—i.e., to live long enough and well enough to (on average) create a ‘next generation’ (i.e., children) that itself will live long enough to succeed in having a ‘next generation’ of its own, and etc. Put another way, morality is most foundationally ‘about’ survival from one generation to the next, and so on, in my view. Because we (humans) also have the capacity to understand the concept of time, and because we can see (albeit imperfectly) our interdependence, this statement can/should in my view be expanded to: Morality is most foundationally ‘about’ sustainable survival. And, for other reasons, it should be expanded to include a few additional important considerations.

    In an important sense, the statement “morality is most foundationally ‘about’ survival” (‘survival’ here taken to mean the survival of humanity across generations, not merely of individuals, who, of course, eventually die) is a modern species-wide parallel to Heraclitus’s observation, ‘Character is destiny.’

    Thus, ‘human nature’ (realizing that this is an ambiguous shorthand term) includes, as you mention, traits that help us survive and reproduce, and it also includes human ‘social-moral nature’, and these are highly interrelated with each other as well as with the requirements (and complexities!) of life in our social species.

  19. 19. Posted by Michele Loi | August 20, 2007 9:59 am

    To me it seems that you are too oriented towards conceiving a theory of human nature as an empirical generalization. That is why Hempel’s dilemma arises. (In the form of this question: what range of individuals should we generalize over? Should it represent humans at the current stage of evolution or at any stage of evolution.)
    But a theory of human nature can be something different from that, and at the same dime differ from a straighforward “normative” conception, like “this is how human beings *should* be”. A theory of human nature of any philosophical and ethical importance will focus on those features of the human condition which are plausibly universal and moreover are so deeply embedded with our image of ourselves as a species that we cannot think they can change, or such that we would doubt that something which lacks them will be regarded as a human. Traditional candidates for this role have been language and rationality. In This post. I expand on the whole point and add my own favorite candidate: what is most characteristic of human nature is the condition of not knowing and having to discover what it means for a human to flourish.

  20. 20. Posted by Michele Loi | August 26, 2007 4:05 pm

    As with regard to the other main question in this thread. I am against transhumanism. My arguments against it is connected to issues about equality. I think that the possibility of using techniques of genetic engineering as tools for the enhancement of human capacities in a capitalistic world would give first of all a morally objectionable advantage to a selected group of people. Of course people who are born with “golden genes” have such advantages already, but the natural mechanisms underlying genes distribution make it the case that “golden genes” hardly remain a monopoly of a group of selected families (despite people’s attempts to the opposite.) But what I fear even more is that people would choose to select for traits that are of current market value, which may lead to a shortage of other – less often valued but still valuable – human traits and moreover to a loss in terms of human diversity.
    Nor I think that these problems would not exist in a non-capitalistic society. In real socialism, for example, these techniques will give selected elites the opportunity to “plan” for human development, which would increase they already excessive power over the destiny of the community, something I really abhor.

    In the light of such arguments, I rarely ask myself whether I have deeper reason to object transhumanism and similar projects: the one I gave are strong enough. However, in more philosophical terms, these arguments are unsatisfactory. The first argument relied on the assumption that equality is a value. This will be okay for some readers but other will be insatisfied. I myself do not think that equality as such has the sort of moral importance that certain other philosophers ascribe to it. The second argument relied on the analogously unproved premise that diversity is important. However I think that genetic enhancements techniques threaten *one* kind of equality and one kind of diversity that are important. I’ll try to expand on this point in my blog.

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