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  • Writer's pictureCrone

'On Nature'

I'm back to the hero worship of John Stuart Mill.

The human enhancement debate often focuses on what is or is not natural - and not just that, I came across a good examination of his paper 'On Nature' in Janet Radcliffe Richards' The Sceptical Feminist.

The paper is essentially arguing that 'Conformity to nature has no connection whatever with right and wrong.'

Mill starts off by saying that two different ideas are assumed when talking of nature: 'The word "nature" has two principal meanings: it either denotes the entire system of things, with the aggregates of all their properties, or it denotes things as they would be, apart from human intervention.'

In the first case, nothing is outside nature - as in, we can't avoid gravity, entropy and the like; in the second case, everything that we do is artificial - and surely not everything we do is bad! He says, 'If the artificial is not better than the natural, to what end are all the arts of life? To dig, to plough, to build, to wear clothes, are direct infringements of the injunction to follow nature.'

But what he sees happening - and what still happens in debates over enhancements - is the claim that nature does indeed have some ethical import. Here's a longer quotation:

Those who set up Nature as a standard of action do not intend a merely verbal proposition; they do not mean that the standard, whatever it be should be called Nature; they think they are giving some information as to what the standard of action really is. Those who say that we ought to act according to Nature do not mean the mere identical proposition that we ought to do what we ought to do. They think that the word "nature" affords some external criterion of what we should do and if they lay down as a rule for what ought to be, a word which in its proper signification denotes what is, they do so because they have a notion, either clearly or confusedly, that what is constitutes the rule and standard of what ought to be.

One reason Mill sees for this presumption is the belief - even if just held unconsciously - that a benevolent God made the natural world perfectly and that it is thus somehow blasphemous to go against what is natural:

Any attempt to mould natural phenomena to the convenience of mankind might easily appear an interference with the government of those superior beings; and though life could not have been maintained, much less made pleasant, without perpetual interferences of the kind, each new one was doubtless made with fear and trembling, until experience had shown that it could be ventured on without drawing down the vengeance of the Gods.

He counters this by pointing out how destructive of life nature can be - hurricanes and floods, earthquakes and volcanoes, predation and disease. But he is also critical of the awe-response (of which I am so fond!). He says, 'Those in whom awe produces admiration may be aesthetically developed, but they are morally uncultivated.'

One part of the argument that strikes a true note with the misanthrope is the section on human nature:

It is only in a highly artificialised condition of human nature that the notion grew up, or, I believe, ever could have grown up, that goodness was natural: because only after a long course of artificial education did good sentiments become so habitual, and so predominant over bad, as to arise unprompted when occasion called for them. In the times when mankind were nearer to their natural state, cultivated observers regarded the natural man as a sort of wild animal, distinguished chiefly by being craftier than the other beasts of the field; and all worth of character was deemed the result of a sort of taming; a phrase often applied by the ancient philosophers to the appropriate discipline of human beings. The truth is that there is hardly a single point of excellence belonging to human character which is not decidedly repugnant to the untutored feelings of human nature.


Finally, the word "natural," applied to feelings or conduct, often seems to mean no more than that they are such as are ordinarily found in human beings; as when it is said that a person acted, on some particular occasion, as it was natural to do; or that to be affected in a particular way by some sight, or sound, or thought, or incident in life, is perfectly natural.

In all these senses of the term, the quality called natural is very often confessedly a worse quality than the one contrasted with it; but whenever its being so is not too obvious to be questioned, the idea seems to be entertained that by describing it as natural something has been said amounting to a considerable presumption in its favour. For my part, I can perceive only one sense in which nature, or naturalness, in a human being, is really a term of praise; and then the praise is only negative - namely, when used to denote the absence of affectation.

In all, I think his case is presented persuasively - and it's useful for me in my paper. So, thanks once again, Mr. Mill!

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