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Is & Ought:
Lorraine Daston’s Against Nature

2,530 words

Lorraine Daston 
Against Nature 
Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019

Loraine Daston’s Against Nature has two qualities that make it a good book. First, it is physically a good book: slim but well-bound, it fits comfortably in the hand and slides easily into the pocket. And there is more than tactile pleasure to be had. Daston untangles a concept so familiar you may have thought that you understood it: nature. In Daston’s clear and pleasing prose we are guided through the scientific history of this concept by someone who seems to have read everything about it. There are problems with the book, including its train-wreck of a conclusion, but I think you’ll find as I did that the journey makes up for the destination.

One problem with the book is the title: Against Nature. Daston isn’t against nature; she’s for it, because she thinks that nature runs through all of our thinking and is the source of morality. I don’t know why she chose that title; the point of the book is to clarify the concept of nature and then show how fundamental it is to moral thought. Most of the book is taken up with clarifying the concept. Daston shows that there are three separate ways to think of nature, or three distinct orders that we might have in mind when we speak of the order of nature.

Specific natures are the first sort of order. It is natural for fish to live in water, which is to say, the specific nature of fish includes living in water. The specific nature of trees includes growing toward the light. Every natural thing, including man, has a specific nature, which spells out what that kind of creature does.

A second way that we think about nature is in terms of the dynamic structures of local natures. Fish, trees, man and other creatures fit together in the balance of an ecology. In Greek an ecology is, Daston points out, a logos of an oikia, an ordering of a home. So the local order of nature is like the order in our most intimate home, that of our nuclear family, where men and women and children each play different roles suited to their specific natures. When the father leads, the mother supports and the children learn and obey, the local order of nature emerges from the interplay of their specific natures. In the case of the larger home in which we live alongside all the other creatures, local order emerges too.

The last way to think about nature is through universal laws of nature: the puzzling constants that characterize the universe. Familiarity has made the idea of a universal law unremarkable to us. Daston’s book is worth the money just for the section on universal laws (pages 23-31), where her guided tour through the Enlightenment invention of the concept shows how weird it truly is. Just think of the term: we call gravity a law. But laws are something that apply within a community. When laws are broken, as they often are, the police try to find out who did it and punish him. Old laws are sometimes removed from the books. How similar is that, really, to the law of gravity, which is never broken, requires no enforcement, and is as relevant today as it was in the days of Socrates?

Because there are three natural orderings, there are also three ways in which they fail. When a specific nature fails to take, like a cookie that oozes out of the mold, the result used to be called a monster. The characteristic emotion of encountering a monster is horror, Daston tells us, choosing her words very carefully, for here she is in politically dangerous territory. In the liberal West, monsters have been elevated: cripples, inverts, the retarded, and social and sexual deviants are pets of the ruling class. Not accidentally, I think, a recurring theme in film and literature of the last half-century has been to rehabilitate even literal monsters, and to suggest that those unwilling to make their peace with monstrosity are perhaps the true monsters among us.

The local order of nature can break down as well. Ecologies can collapse, leaving artificial deserts, sinkholes, or smoldering radioactive ruins. This too brings forth a characteristic emotional response. We feel terror, sometimes infused with guilt, at the prospect of nature taking her revenge.

Perhaps universal laws never break down. If they do it will be due to miracles (manifestations of overriding divine agency) or cases of radical freedom (manifestations of the agency of created beings). In both cases, the characteristic emotional reaction is wonder. But whether there really are any such cases is part of another philosophical conversation.

Horror, terror and wonder are reactions to a breakdown that cannot easily be pinned on a person. In this respect, they are unlike anger, which Daston describes beautifully in one of the flashes of insight that fill this book: “For all its sound and fury, indignation ultimately aims to reintegrate the culprit into the community by shouting out its values and extracting a shame-faced acceptance of them.” (p. 40)

When nature breaks down, it is not like that; there is no one to rebuke.

You can buy Greg Johnson’s From Plato to Postmodernism here [1]

As you read through Against Nature, it’s easy to forget that Daston is building to a conclusion. There are many places to pause for observations Daston has picked up over a long career, like this one about perception:

We are outfitted with senses that convey the surfaces of things. Even when intellectual curiosity and technological ingenuity makes possible anatomy, geometry, the microscope, X-rays, and other ways of peering beneath surfaces, our way of probing the viscera of the world is to turn them into yet more surfaces. (p. 65)

But Daston is trying to get somewhere in particular; she wants to rehabilitate the idea of a moral order within nature. In this, she’s at odds with a rough philosophical consensus of the last three hundred years, which holds that that trying to find morality in nature is to commit the naturalistic fallacy, sometimes called the is-ought fallacy. The latter term comes from this passage in David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning. . . when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. (Treatise

We can illustrate Hume’s point using the orders of nature to which Daston has introduced us. It’s true that by nature man lives on land and fish live under the water. But does it follow that they ought to do so? Would it be wrong to build underwater cities? Or take a more topical example. It’s true that in nature, children have a mother and a father. But does this ‘is’ get us to an ‘ought’? Is there any reason to conclude that two fathers, two mothers, or perhaps a merry-go-round of surgical sex changes is wrong?

Hume’s complaint is that authors start with an ‘is’ claim and then feel entitled to an ‘ought’ claim. To be fair to Hume, he’s not just saying this, he has a conceptual analysis of experience in which there are technical reasons to distinguish an ‘is’ claim from an ‘ought’ claim (those with some familiarity with philosophy will recognize a similar pattern of argument to that which Hume deploys against causal connections). But most people who appeal to Hume don’t buy Hume’s apparatus. They really are just saying that ‘is’ does not imply ‘ought’, as though that is obviously true. Is it?

I don’t think so. At any moment in a game of chess, there are a certain number of possible things that can happen next. The future is constrained because of the rules of chess (a little like the universal laws), the state of play (a little like local natures), and what the pieces can do (if the pieces were living, such abilities would be their specific natures). Something similar is true of us. The future will be produced from the ingredients already here in the present. (Hume, again for technical reasons, would disagree.) If you think it makes sense to say that the present is pregnant with the causal order of the future, why not say that the present is pregnant with moral order as well?

The reason, Hume would reply, is that a natural order does not necessarily lead to any moral conclusion. Hume illustrates this with examples from nature that seem to undermine our moral certainties. Do you think it’s wrong to kill your parents? Well, a tree might drop a seed that grows up to choke it and take its light. The tree kills its parent, but we wouldn’t say that’s wrong, would we? So you say you’re against incest? Well, if two animals commit incest, is it a sin? Hume’s conclusion is that the acts themselves, parent-killing and incest, don’t have any moral valence. Wherever morality is, it can’t be out there in nature.

Daston’s little book has already shown us how we might answer Hume. He is mixing up two orders of nature: specific natures and local natures. He is transposing animals who do not have the specific natures of human beings into the situations that make up human local nature. But in a local nature, it matters who is playing what role. Moral significance doesn’t just depend on what is done, it depends on what kind of creature is doing it. That’s true even outside the moral realm. It’s a big day when a baby learns to walk on two feet. It’s not a big day when a dog learns to walk on two feet. Dogs and humans live together, but they can’t take on each other’s roles.

The correct way to get an is from an ought, I think, is to regard the hierarchy of nature as a whole. We don’t expect much from entities so low on the great chain of being as plants. But I can’t resist pointing out that Hume’s assumption that plants kill their parents is false: even plants recognize the roots of their kin and behave altruistically toward them [2]. The seed that Hume describes would be defective, even if we wouldn’t call it bad. And as for incest, even such humble creatures as mites [3] exhibit evolutionary strategies of inbreeding avoidance. The ways in which animals avoid incest are their own area of biological study. For example, young lions are driven out of the pride to find a different pride and challenge the dominant lion for control over the lionesses. The process of male dispersal ensures that they will not mate with their sisters, nor will the formerly dominant lion be dominant for long enough to mate with his daughters. Incest among lions would, therefore, be unnatural and defective, eliciting as much moral condemnation as would be appropriate for a lion. I stress these examples because they illustrate a general truth: Hume’s amoral picture of nature where beasts rage and claw irrationally at one another while only man is moral is an Enlightenment fiction. There are many specific and local natures, but each is characterized by a hierarchy that is pregnant with moral order. The same hierarchy characterizes the sub-species of man. We recognize, for example, that no amount of punishment or education will make blacks or American Indians behave as we do; we rightly expect less from them. That is also why it is folly to try to accommodate them in our local natures.

Daston knows that thinking about hierarchy often leads to conclusions like mine about human beings. “Norms that invoke nature. . . run the political gamut from apartheid-style racism to Green Party environmentalism.” (p. 46) But Daston avoids both of those cogent and compatible conclusions as well as all those in between. “For any example from natural history I can come up with to support my favorite norms,” she writes, “you can come up with a plenitude of other, equally natural analogies to support very different norms: the matriarchy of bees versus the patriarchy of baboons.” (p. 68) Well, maybe, but one can’t help but notice that the animals closest to us are the patriarchal ones.

At any rate, Daston sets out to show not that any particular moral order is grounded in nature, but that moral thinking in general is grounded in nature.

[M]y argument. . . hinges on a distinction between the content of specific norms — for example, those that prohibit stealing or lying as wrong — and a more general claim to what philosophers call normativity, the justification that gives any and all norms their force. (p. 46)

Yes, Daston admits, moral teachings vary, but no culture is completely without moral teachings. Why is that? It is because, she thinks, you can’t have normativity without some underlying order. “Normativity presupposes order, both practically and theoretically.” (p. 51) OK, but why think that nature is the basic order, the MS-DOS on which the operating system of morality runs? Daston’s answer is that nature is everywhere and all of our orders seem to be prefigured in nature (p. 55).

Wait. . . what?

Daston never really explains why normativity comes from nature. Her 2002 Tanner Lectures at Harvard [4], which appear to be the inspiration for the book, similarly end in vague hand waving. In this way, Daston’s project is typical of work in today’s academy: strong on research but weak and without conviction. The correct response to her thesis that moral order in general is grounded in nature in general isn’t “Is that true?” but rather “Who cares?” It’s a trivial point that we could easily prove by noting that since we are parts of nature, all moral speculations are going to be natural because they are ours — and we knew that before opening this book.

A lot of academic writing today is like this, starting out strong but ending in a peer-review approved, inoffensive, and politically correct whimper. One of the skills of the modern scholar-dissident is to extract what is good from such books while maintaining an appropriate level of contempt for the sterile state of the academic debate. Daston’s book makes this easy. You won’t regret walking with her through the history of science, and you’ll easily forget the conclusion she tries to reach at the end.

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