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The Ideal of Nature

Debates about Biotechnology and the Environment

edited by Gregory E. Kaebnick

Publication Year: 2011

Going back at least to the writings of John Stuart Mill and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, people have argued for and against maintaining a state of nature. Is there an inherent virtue in leaving alone a naturally occurring condition, or does the human species thrive when we find ways to improve our circumstances? This volume probes whether “nature” and “the natural” are capable of guiding moral deliberations in policy making. Drawing on philosophy, religion, and political science, this book examines three questions central to debates over the idea of “nature” in human action. Conceptually, it asks what the term means, how it should be considered, and if it is, even in part, a social construct. From a moral perspective, the contributors question if being “natural” is itself of value or if its worth is only as a means to advance other morally acceptable ends. Politically, essays discuss whether appeals to nature can and should affect public policy and, if so, whether they are moral trump cards or should instead be fitted alongside or weighed against other concerns. Achieving consensus on these questions has proven elusive and seems unattainable. This should not, however, be an obstacle to moving the debate forward. By bringing together disparate approaches to addressing these concepts, The Ideal of Nature suggests the possibility of intermediate positions that move beyond the usual full-throated defense and blanket dismissal found in much of the debate. Scholars of bioethics, environmental philosophy, religious studies, sociology, public policy, and political theory will find much merit in this book’s lively discussion.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. v-vi

List of Contributors

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xx

A wide swath of contemporary social debates features what might be called “appeals to nature”— claims that nature or a natural state of affairs possesses some special value that should be weighed in moral decision- making and perhaps protected in public policy. These appeals are of a variety of kinds and involve many different understandings of what “nature” means. While none of them fit easily ...

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1 Disposing Nature or Disposing of It?: Reflections on the Instruction of Nature

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pp. 1-16

In the well-known maxim “Culture proposes, Nature disposes,” it is implied that we humans may have hypotheses about the ways that nature works but that nature itself will settle the issue. The question at hand is precisely whether the invocation of nature to decide questions of environmental or biomedical policy can finally settle anything. On what grounds can we reasonably discriminate between ...

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2 In Defense of Living Nature: Finding Common Ground in a Medieval Tradition

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pp. 17-28

Science and traditional Christianity have often been regarded as adversaries between whom there can be, at best, a mutual pact of silence and disengagement. Yet the current environmental crisis has prompted thoughtful men and women in both camps to reconsider the terms of this standoff and to ask whether it might be possible to find, at the very least, common ground for shared action on behalf ...

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3 Nature as Absence: The Logic of Nature and Culture in Social Contract Theory

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pp. 29-48

Does the concept of nature have any force or function in ethics? Strong theorists today generally answer “no.” Judith Butler and John Rawls, while they may agree on little else, both dispense with nature as a normative category. When the category of the natural appears in the humanities today (at least where postmodernism or social constructivism hold sway), it is usually seen as a component of the ...

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4 Human Nature without Theory

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pp. 49-70

The feeling is by no means universal, but a decent-sized swath of the public thinks that what people might someday be able to do to modify human bodies using biotechnologies is at odds with some of their attitudes about the moral significance of human nature. Exactly how to describe these attitudes and exactly what “at odds” means lead into murky waters, however. We do not know our way around ...

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5 Preserving the Distinction between Nature and Artifact

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pp. 71-83

Is “nature” a signifi cant moral category for the development of public policy? The answer to this question depends on what public policy is being considered. The utility of the concept of nature for ethical and policy decisions cannot be determined universally and a priori; rather, it exists along a spectrum of relevance and appropriateness, and it must be determined pragmatically based on the...

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6 Why “Nature” Has No Place in Environmental Philosophy

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pp. 84-97

Environmentalism, both as theory and as practice, is traditionally concerned above all with nature. Its focus is on protecting nature against the harms generated by human action. The “environment” it wishes to defend is not the built environment of cities, or the technological infrastructure modernity seems to require—although many of us live in urban environments, and the technologies of...

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7 The Appeal to Nature

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pp. 98-113

The appeal to nature as a reason for moral commendation and even moral obligation has existed throughout the ages, beginning with the Stoics and the Epicureans. It appears in Roman law, canon law, and in modern times in international law. In “On Nature,” John Stuart Mill observes, “That any mode of thinking, feeling, or acting, is ‘according to nature’ is usually accepted as a strong argument for ...

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8 Thinking Like a Mountain: Nature, Wilderness, and the Virtue of Humility

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pp. 114-129

Aldo Leopold begins his famous essay “Thinking like a Mountain” by evoking the haunting call of a wolf. “A deep chesty bawl,” he writes, “echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defi ant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.” Leopold suggests that the cry of the wolf quickens the pulse of all ...

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9 He Did It on Hot Dogs and Beer: Natural Excellence in Human Athletic Achievement

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pp. 130-148

There is a great deal of sanctimony in the condemnation of Barry Bonds for allegedly using ste roids to acquire the muscle power to break the season and lifetime homerun records once held by Babe Ruth. Had steroids been available, the voracious Babe might have used them with the same abandon with which he consumed hot dogs and beer. But behind the sanctimony lies genuine...

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10 Sport, Simulation, and EPO

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pp. 149-167

This chapter addresses the morality of performance-enhancing drugs and modifications in sport. It is motivated by the belief that the decisions we as a public make about cyclists injecting synthetic EPO and weightlifters using genetic technology to make their muscles bigger will act as powerful moral precedents for the more dramatic revisions of human nature that may soon come. ...

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11 Commonsense Morality and the Idea of Nature: What We Can Learn from Thinking about “Therapy”

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pp. 168-178

Our challenge is to understand whether the appeal to nature helps orient judgments and practice in areas such as medicine, biotechnology, and the environment. My point of departure is a distinction between two conceptions of nature. The first is of nature as a whole, as a realm distinguished from others of equal generality. In this spirit, the Greeks distinguished between nature and...

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12 Rawls, Sports, and Liberal Legitimacy

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pp. 179-199

Discussions of human nature oft en center on empirical questions about human tendencies and traits. Sport might be seen, then, as an expression of the natural desire for competition or domination. This way of approaching human nature makes it diffi cult to see how such an account could be normative, how it could help guide us in determining what we ought to do in the arena of sport...


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pp. 201-208

E-ISBN-13: 9781421400709
E-ISBN-10: 1421400707
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801898884
Print-ISBN-10: 0801898889

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2011