Nature and Norms: A review of Lorraine Daston’s ‘Against Nature’

by Emrys Westacott

The relation between what is natural and what is morally good is a topic that has concerned philosophers from ancient times to the present. Those who view the part of a human being that belongs to the material world as sordid, unclean, and irrational have understood morality to require the suppression or the taming of nature; the angel in us must control the beast. This outlook is endorsed by Plato and is commonly found in Christian theology. Hobbes’ social contract theory, which presents moral life and political order as the way we escape the miseries of the state of nature, also takes morality and nature to be in certain respects opposed. Many others, though, have looked to nature for some sort of moral guidance. The Stoics viewed the implacable order observed in the heavens as a model for a serene human life. Defenders of rigid social hierarchies pointed to the successful arrangements in a bee hive. Critics of homosexuality argue that it is “unnatural,” while advocates of gay rights deny this. Appeals to what one finds in nature have bolstered social Darwinism, the subordination of women, arguments for and against slavery, egalitarianism, and the idea of universal human rights.

In Against Nature, Lorraine Daston (Director of Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Science), poses the following question: “Why do human beings, in many different cultures and epochs, pervasively and persistently, look to nature as a source of norms for human conduct?”[1]The book belongs to the Untimely Meditation series published by MIT Press. At seventy pages, nine of which are taken up by illustrations, and four of which are blank, the book is essentially an 18,000 word essay on this topic.

The modern view of nature that emerged and took hold during the scientific revolution is that it contains no values. In the thought of intellectual pioneers like Descartes and Boyle, the material world is best understood as a vast machine operating predictably according to universal laws of nature. The implications of this outlook for ethics were first noticed by Hume when he observed that there is a logical difference between “is” statements that describe facts, and “ought” statements that express values; moreover, because of this logical difference, it is impossible to fully justify the latter by appealing to the former. Descriptions, by themselves, never logically entail prescriptions. Since then, the “fact-value gap” has haunted much moral philosophy. But even though John Stuart Mill and others have warned against using nature as a moral guide–think preying mantis and sexual relations–according to Daston, “the temptation to extract norms from nature seems to be enduring and irresistible.”[2]

Daston does not offer too many examples of this tendency, and those she does give tend to be from the past (e.g. Enlightenment universalism) or related to mainstream moral controversies (e.g. slavery, Apartheid). Nor does she discuss her examples in much detail. Consequently, a suspicion lingers that what she calls an enduring and irresistible temptation may not be as significant as she maintains. She references many scholars who write about the way scientists, philosophers, and theologians conceived of nature in the past, but identifies no contemporary ethicists who succumb to this alleged temptation. Still, one can perhaps grant her the premise that in Western civilization, the attempt to ground moral claims in nature has been fairly common.

Daston’s concern is not so much with how specific moral rules might be derived from observing nature as with normativity in general. Every known human culture exhibits normativity in the sense that they all establish and enforce certain norms that dictate whether some behaviour is good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust. Specific norms can, of course, vary enormously between cultures, but one can’t really imagine a human society without any norms. “A culture without norms,” says Daston, “is as much an oxymoron as nature without regularities.”[3]

The connection between normativity and nature, Daston argues, lies in our perception of order. She identifies three kinds of order related to nature that have been particularly important in Western civilization. First, there is the order provided by a thing’s specific nature(a.k.a. its essence). Whether we think of this in Aristotelian terms as some inner principle or along more contemporary lines as residing in an organism’s DNA or a substance’s chemical composition doesn’t much matter. The basic idea is that the intrinsic nature of a thing explains what it does: it explains why sheep only give birth to lambs and why copper conducts electricity. Specific natures confer stability on things over time, and they enable us to classify items in our experience (trees, conifers, spruce, etc.).

The second kind of natural order Daston discusses is found in what she calls local natures, a notion that remains a little vague. The key idea seems to be that in any particular locality there is a distinctive pattern of regularities in, for instance, its climate or physical geography. The activity of humans in this place can harmonize with this local nature, or it can disturb it.

The third sort of natural order identified is that exhibited by universal natural laws. The ancients did not use this concept, explaining regularities in nature as flowing from each thing’s specific nature. (This is the standard view, which Daston endorses, although I would argue that precursors of the idea of universal natural laws can be found in some pre-Socratic thought.) The idea of a law-governed universe, says Daston, really originates with the Christian doctrine of predestination which posits a God who decrees the exact course that history will take. Extending the theological/judicial notion of divine law to the scientific concept of a law of nature seemed problematic at first, since the sort of law involved is different. A decree can be violated by a person exercising free will; a law of nature allows no exceptions (unless one believes in miracles). Eventually, though, the metaphor of nature “obeying” certain laws became ingrained in the modern scientific outlook.

Daston elaborates on her account of these three sorts of natural order with systematic connections of which Kant would be proud. Each of them forms the basis of (or is illustrated by) a particular science: for specific natures the discipline is taxonomy; for local natures it is ecology; for universal natural laws it is celestial mechanics. And violations of each is said to give rise to particular passions. When the order of specific natures is violated (as when genetic engineers start mixing up species), the result is a sort of monstrosity and the passion this evokes is horror. Violations of local nature (e.g. an avalanche) are said to produce terror. Violations of universal natural laws excite wonder. According to Daston, these three “passions of the unnatural jangle the soul with an almost unbearably dissonant chord.”[4]She also claims that understanding them throws light on the sources of our moral intuitions. But I have to admit to finding her discussion here rather unconvincing. The tripartite schema seems rather forced, and the “passions” she describes are not inevitable responses to breaches in the natural order. Freaks or monstrosities can just as easily produce amusement as horror; apparent miracles may evoke confusion or suspicion rather than wonder.

The discussion of the three types of natural order prepares the ground for the last three chapters which explore the connections between normativity and order. Our most terrifying nightmare, says Daston, is absolute chaos–the complete absence of order. One can imagine two kinds of chaos: a lack of regularity in nature, and the absence of any sort of basic normative order in a society. Either kind of disorder would render impossible any system of specific moral norms such as characterize every actual human culture, for “if minimal conditions of order are not met, the idea of normativity crumbles.”[5]

Daston concedes that we could articulate and support our moral norms without reference to nature since alternative examples of order are available from within human culture: e.g. mathematics, machinery, or the arts. But she insists that in seeking to satisfy an “irrepressible urge to….render immaterial ideas concrete and tangible,”[6]we often “use natural orders to represent moral orders.”[7]We are led to do this, she claims for two reasons: first, because nature is so very familiar to us, being all around us at all times; and second, because nature contains so much variety that it “supplies exemplars of all conceivable orders.”[8]Precisely because of this variety, though, nature does not point to any specific set of norms that we ought to adopt. Any moral outlook can find and make use of some appropriate natural analogy.

As mentioned earlier, the premise that we constantly represent moral orders through natural analogies can be questioned. Daston concedes in passing that other sources of analogy are available, but she apparently thinks these are far less important. Yet moral philosophers from Plato onwards have presented their ideas using various elements of human culture, including, for example, medical science, sport, music, military discipline, war, farming, and cooking.

But even if one grants the premise in question, Daston’s explanation of the alleged tendency still seems rather vapid. The problem, it seems to me, is that we aren’t usually interested in merely representing a normative order. When we do anything like this, our purposes usually include justification and persuasion. We want to justify our moral norms to others (and perhaps to ourselves), and we most commonly do this as part of an attempt to persuade others that our moral outlook is correct, or at least better than theirs. If we keep this in mind, other reasons for appealing to nature immediately occur. For one thing, nature exists independently of human beliefs, hopes, and desires. In this sense it offers the default paradigm of objectivity. So when we assert that a moral outlook reflects or is grounded in nature, we imply that it has a validity that goes beyond a point of view that is only valid subjectively or relative to a particular culture.

A second reason for appealing to nature is prudential. Nature is famously intractable. We can exploit the way it operates, but we can’t change it. So it is makes good sense to ensure that our norms in certain respects conform to nature, since trying to defy or contradict nature will inevitably lead to failure. This, for instance, is the sort of argument used to defend the view that same-sex love will not make people happy, or that capitalism is the best economic system since human beings are inherently self-interested and competitive .

In the final chapter Daston does touch on the fact that appeals to nature often occur as part of some justificatory project. In response to those who view any such appeal as necessarily fallacious since it crosses the is-ought border, she argues that it is only fallacious if it seeks to justify some specific moral order. If the purpose is merely to support the idea of normativity itself then it is unobjectionable since, as she notes several times, any human society must have some sort of moral order.

One gets the impression here that Daston would really like to go further in defending appeals to natural orders as an argumentative strategy in ethics, that she would, in fact, like to challenge the view that moving from is to ought is necessarily fallacious. This, I suspect, is implicit in a claim she makes that serves to frame the entire essay: namely, that we should conceive of human reason not the way Kant does, as something that can be abstracted from our specifically human nature, but as a cognitive resource that is inalienable from our nature as embodied, natural, social beings who must live in normatively ordered communities. Values, on this view, should not be thought to lie outside rationality but must be constitutive of the only form of reason we have or know.

Ultimately, though, the essay fails to vigorously affirm or adequately support this thesis or, really, any thesis that one could describe as controversial. The essay is erudite, the writing is elegant, and there are plenty of interesting observations made along the way. But in the end, I have to admit to finding the central question insufficiently motivated, and the conclusions reached rather commonplace.

[1]Lorraine Daston, Against Nature(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019), p. 3.

[2]Against Nature,p. 5.

[3]Against Nature, p. 46.

[4]Against Nature, p. 35.

[5]Against Nature, p. 49.

[6]Against Nature, p. 52.

[7]Against Nature, p. 53.

[8]Against Nature, p. 60.