23 Apr 2009

1 "Human Nature: An Oxymoron?" I: Modern Conceptions of Human Nature as Open-Ended, David Heyd

David Heyd

Human Nature: An Oxymoron?

I. Modern Conceptions of Human Nature as Open-Ended

The notion of human nature is prevalent in contemporary bioethics debates. It's theological implicates have faded. It regained its secular Aristotelian meaning. (151d)

«Human nature» has two primary senses:
1) it refers to the world as it is given (rather than arbitrarily contrived), and
2) it means the essential aspects or properties of human beings.
With this notion, we maintain «our commitment to a positivistic view of the world as the value-free object of scientific investigation» as well as «our search for a metaphysically stable perspective able to serve as a normative guide.» (152a)

The way humans are is used to indicate the way we should be. This form of «normative ethics» can be traced back to Aristotle. What distinguishes us from animals, he says, are not just biological features. We shape our fate.
Humans have the unique power of self-perfection, that is, of becoming something different from what they (initially) are. In other words, their development is partly self-induced and self-directed, which means that it is not necessary or deterministically fixed. The process of perfection is directed to the goal, the telos of humanity, which is exactly the essential nature towards which humans ought to aim. (152bc)
What makes us natural is found within us. Hence our reasoning is natural.
The faculty of reason, in its theoretical and practical uses, is thus no less natural than the biological and psychological faculties and properties which characterize humans in contradistinction to other animals. (152c)
To fulfill our purpose, we do not need to become something unnatural to humanity. We do not overcome our natures. We overcome our current unfulfilled condition.

However, in modern accounts, reason is no longer viewed as a part of nature. In fact, what makes us homo sapiens is precisely what makes us not natural. According to Rousseau,
animals act «by instincts»; human beings choose «by an act of freedom.» (153a)
Our minds may deprave the senses while «the will still speaks when nature is silent.» (qt 153b) Physics can explain the mechanism of the senses and the formation of ideas. However, our power of free will or choice is found in ‘‘purely spiritual acts about which the laws of mechanics explain nothing’’ (qt 153b) We are free from the mechanistic control of nature.

However, humans have another trait. We may perfect ourselves. Humans may raise themselves «far above nature». (153c) Hence we are an ever-changing and evolving species.
Rationality becomes the ultimate normative, non-natural guiding principle. The will, that distinguishing quality of humanity, in its universal operations as volont e g en erale, becomes the ultimate non-natural basis of the characterization of humanity. (154c)
Kant pursues this idea.
Reason is completely independent of nature and operates spontaneously or autonomously on a priori principles and laws. (155d)
We have a dual citizenship. We belong both to reason and nature. But now we cannot say that there is something essential or normative about humans. Now can we say that reason is some natural quality in the world. (155a)

For Kant, humans have non-natural ends. We use reason to act in accordance to universal laws. (155c) Hence the term «human nature» is an oxymoron.

However, in his Critique of Judgment, Kant reconciles reason and nature. The ends or telos of humanity is the
the ultimate end of nature, and the one in relation to whom all other natural things constitute a system of ends (Kant, 1928, p. 92).
(qt. 156c)
Paradoxically, we both belong to nature while being detached from it.

Pico della Mirandola gives a stronger open-ended conception of human nature in his 1487 Oration on the Dignity of Man. God creates the world, but wants someone to appreciate it. But for man to appreciate God's creation, he needed an indeterminate image. We are not bound to nature's laws. So we may shape ourselves however we wish. (157b) «God creates man as a creator, or at least as self-creator.» (157d)

According to Genesis, not only are we free from nature, we rule her as well.

Heyd, David. "Human Nature: An Oxymoron?" Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 2003 28(2):151-16.

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