Nature and Normativity

When I was an undergraduate in the early 1980s, there were two books you could always count on to appear at every local garage or lawn sale. One was Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a surprise bestseller offering Marxist analysis of consumerism and dead-end prosperity, now usually available for a quarter. The other was Leslie Stevenson’s short survey, Seven Theories of Human Nature, a 1974 book that cornered the market for introductory texts in philosophy. It might fetch 50 cents.

Stevenson’s seven theories and their exemplars—Christianity, Freud, Karl Lorenz, Marx, Sartre, Skinner and Plato—mark this book as a sort of 1970s intellectual time capsule, with an emphasis on psychological thinking now considered debunked (Freud and Skinner) and philosophical ideas distinctly out of fashion of late (almost nobody teaches Sartre anymore). More to the point, anti-essentialism, intersectionality and fluid identity movements of all kinds have called into question any singular account of the human, now revealed as the opposite of alleged universal truth and more a species of special pleading.

Meanwhile, wildly popular courses on human nature as such, a common feature of my own undergraduate era, have been decisively shoved aside by Black, queer, Indigenous, feminist and cyborg accounts of human life that scatter and confuse the old-school aspirants. And yet, Stevenson’s book remains compelling as both an amber-trapped academic fragment and a useful philosophical exercise machine. As introductions go, you could do worse than have something like it to push off against. With seven distinct theories, it offers a magic multiple, cracking open the once-solid ground of inquiry with a spell of multiplicity and omnivariant otherness.

The declining academic interest in a unified theory of human nature is more than just a matter of intellectual fashion, however. The very idea of the human has been thrown into doubt by ramifying lines of thought that have come to dominate social, cultural and psychological thinking at all levels. It is no longer strange to think that a lesbian woman might decide to transition into a gay man, for example, or that a body-modification devotee would opt for cosmetic surgery to look and live like a cat. Comprehensive experiment and expansion of experience and identity are the new normal, indeed the only natural norm there is. Theories of social construction have pushed any rigid category of naturalness to the margins, in short, even as the assertion of status for non-human animals challenges the presumed uniqueness of featherless biped consciousness, to use Aristotle’s sarcastic formulation of what humans are.

On the horizon, furthermore, lie new vistas of artificial intelligence and non-biological consciousness that will further erode the speciesism, or even biofascism, of the dominating human-nature regime. Provocative outlier humans, non-human animals, non-biological persons—the landscape shifts beneath our feet. In the midst of all this diversity, who do humans think they are? They’re not so special. They enjoy no special natural status, just the brute happenstance of landing atop the global food chain, busily indulging rapacious appetites and ruining their own environment along the way.

Even more fundamental, perhaps, is the fact that human nature has never been a stable category even in any one of the favoured theories thereof, let alone seven or more. All such schemata are procrustean, slicing off parts of the human experience in order to fit our scrambled, confused, contradictory and often violent behaviour into a neatly made theoretical bed. In some basic sense anything a human does is part of human nature. This must include actions we call unnatural, which is really just another way of saying “I don’t like that.” Serial killers and torturers are human, too, unless you want to attempt some very fancy normative footwork to exclude them. And then what about other “unnatural” actors, such as polygamists, homosexuals or extreme body-modification fetishists—to note just three handy examples of humans condemned by humans for not following natural norms.

“Something in the human mind, or heart, seems to need a word of praise for all that humanity hasn’t contaminated,” the food writer Michael Pollan wrote in 2015, “and for us that word now is ‘natural’. Such an ideal can be put to all sorts of rhetorical uses.” These include invocation of anti-vaccine “natural immunity” and selling points for “all-natural” snack foods. “Perhaps the most incoherent of these is the notion that nature consists of everything in the world except us and all that we have done or made,” Pollan continued. “Implicit here is the idea that nature is a repository of abiding moral and ethical values—and that we can say with confidence exactly what those values are. Philosophers often call this the ‘naturalistic fallacy’: the idea that whatever is (in nature) is what ought to be (in human behaviour). But if nature offers a moral standard by which we can measure ourselves, and a set of values to which we should aspire, exactly what sort of values are they?”

Indeed, what? You cannot derive an ought from an is, this philosopher might say, but an inverted version of the naturalistic fallacy is even more revealing: Nothing is natural until we make it so. This assertion reveals that claims and counter-claims about human nature or nature more generally are always (a) inherently normative, not factual, and (b) invariably used as rhetorical or actual clubs in condemning behaviour some sub-population does not like. Appeals to the non-human parts of the natural world are of no help here, except as desperate last resorts. You can show me monogamous family-oriented penguins, for example, but then I will show you polymorphously active bonobos who live for multi-partner sex and the pleasure of food. For every cooperative beehive there is a hungry lone wolf red in tooth and claw.

Once we start down this road, philosophical consistency forces some other uncomfortable conclusions upon us. Human consciousness—the universe becoming aware of itself, so to speak, speculating on its own nature—may be so far unique to our homo sapiens experience. But there is nothing in principle that forbids such consciousness arising in other animals, perhaps on different worlds, or in entities that enter the world not through biological procreation but by way of directed making. Thus a kind of pincer movement becomes evident, where the so-called natural world impinges on our human sense of self, even as, on the other flank, our own efforts at innovation and convenience push toward the creation of rivals for dominance in the environmental space we all occupy. Even creativity is not subject to a human monopoly: primates can paint, and algorithms can compose music.

There is no evading this ongoing strategic envelopment, but there may be tactical moves still open to us. On one side, since we are the articulators and arbiters of explicit law, it is up to us whether and how the rights and responsibilities of non-human animals, not to mention environmental features and cultural realities, are recognized and protected. Both ethics and law will need to expand their horizons to open up the necessary new spaces of moral significance for non-human entities. On the other side, we should recognize that technology is among the most natural features of human experience, part and parcel of our conditions of possibility here on Earth.

The first task—expanding the realm of entities that should be considered persons—is relatively easy in principle though not always so easy to practise. The difficulty is partly a matter of confused thinking. Why do we eat lambs but not cats? Many of us want to make exceptions for smart non-humans like chimps, whales, dolphins and elephants but still imprison and consume vast numbers of pigs and octopi, among the cleverest creatures on the planet. Consistency is not always a virtue, becoming, when foolish, the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson wrote, but here we stand justly accused. Straightening out our thinking about human nature would help.

Matters are likewise pressing on the technology side. Humans tend to see themselves as a privileged middle term between a tech-free natural world and the encroaching influence of the built environment, wearable technology and total-immersion mediated life. It is as if we imagine ourselves on the order of gardens, a middle term standing between free outdoor growth and the ordered, protected indoor spaces of comfort and convenience. The latter becomes oppressive when it is all-encompassing; thus the frequent calls to get back to nature, heed the call of nature and so on. But the former is dangerous and indifferent to human aspiration; witness the devastation routinely wrought by the elements, from rain and freezing cold to lack of food and shelter.

The way out of this latter flanking manoeuvre is not to demonize technology as hostile and external to human nature but to reconceptualize our relation to it. Tools are so intrinsic to the human condition that they be cannot considered anything except natural. Just look at your hands, with their hard-wired willingness to grasp, hammer, throw, pat and twist. Technology does not stand against us; it is us. Whether or not we have prostheses, implants, phones, or other late-model manifestations of cyborg existence, every human who has ever lived has been immersed in some elaborate system of sublunary techno-reality. A map is technology; so is a pencil, or a knife, or a hut. The cave paintings at Lascaux are fascinating precisely because they display the use of representational technology (pigment and surface) to memorialize basic hunting technology (weapons and tactics). All aspects of human experience, including the wish to acknowledge memory by externalizing it—what philosophers would call “the extended mind”—are here on early display.

This is not to say, of course, that our own human desires cannot sometimes run amok when it comes to technology. There are imperatives lurking within the logic of innovation that can, especially when combined with thirst for military victory or an overarching profit motive, make it seem as though technology is an alien force, working to subjugate us via our own perverse incentives. Technology is instrumental reason, which means that it is geared to solving specific problems and designed to execute that imperative. The old saying notes that, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Inherent tendencies are part and parcel of all tools. You can use a .45 automatic pistol as a paperweight, but it is designed to shoot people; and a pillow can be used to kill someone, but it is designed to make sleep more pleasant. Even benign-seeming technologies can become self-perverted. Social media facilitate connection between distant people but also encourage the spewing of anonymous bile and the erosion of public discourse. Splitting the atom is, as Robert Oppenheimer said, “sweet physics” but also created the most destructive weapon in human history. Cities create wondrous buildings and cars or planes take us anywhere we want to go—but evidently at the expense of the fragile biosphere in which wonder and adventure are possible.

One could multiply these examples, but they all point to the same conclusion. Technology is part of the human condition, wedded to human nature, in fact, if we want to continue using that language. It is not the true enemy; we ourselves are. This is not to say that technology is neutral. Rather it is directed by specific use values that are sometimes buried underneath distracting verbiage or outright deception. In the face of this, critical thinking must maintain a principled optimism that these occluded purposes can be made visible, and thus assessed against our positive desires—the better angels of our nature, if you like, with all due credit to that consummate optimist Abraham Lincoln, who knew that enslaving other humans was not natural, or made so by proffering bogus claims of inferiority based on pigment in the skin. (Aristotle falls down on this point, too, alas: he argues in his Politics that conquered peoples are meant to be slaves, because their natural weakness is evident in defeat itself—a classic circular argument indulged by a classical philosopher.)

There is really no point in being anti-technology or technophobic: these stances are a bit like being antihuman, or reality-denying on the order of flat earth thinking. And yet, it remains essential to be what I want to call neo-Luddite. The original Luddites, secret, oath-based groups of English workers active in the early 19th century, destroyed textile machines they believed were threatening to their livelihoods as skilled craftspeople. They took their name from Ned Ludd, a weaver from Ansley, near Leicester. Though the term later became a blanket insult for anyone who expressed skepticism about any new technology, in fact the Luddites were a pro-labour movement who considered swift insertion of mechanized production a danger to the overall social good, driven entirely by profit and a surfeit of unskilled workers. Many economists have challenged the so-called Luddite fallacy, the premise that technological innovation leads to unemployment, but it is surely the case that heedless implementation of new systems, especially under the banner of the upgrade imperative (the newer model must be the better model), have undermined job stability and the ability of some workers to earn a living. Demanding that such workers adapt or die is one of the worst examples of human nature one can imagine, since it invariably arises from the comfortable looking down on the afflicted. Planned obsolescence is not inherent to technology as such; it is inserted into dominant technological ideology by those who stand to profit by it.

Let us consider, instead, examples of technology that reveals human aspiration in its best forms, such that we need not fear it or imagine some future takeover of our lives by intelligent, all-seeing systems, perhaps with their own desires and aspirations. Cognitive scientists call this potential gap between biological and artificial entities “the alignment problem”: why should we imagine that non-human conscious entities would have anything like the same goals as we do? And yet, wouldn’t their very existence demand measures of respect and even legal status beyond that of, say, your refrigerator or the algorithm operating your self-driving car? If the alignment problem cannot be resolved in principle, perhaps it can be managed in practice.

We have evidence of this everywhere around us, when technological innovations mesh with human desire in fruitful ways. This hybridization can create the most beautiful manifestations of longing made material: tall buildings, jet airplanes, massive ocean-spanning ships. All of them have potential deadly downsides, as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Exxon Valdez oil spill show all too vividly. But they are creations that expand the human imagination, making aspiration present in the world. Even a structure as basic as a bridge is a human intervention into the so-called natural world that alters and expands its possibilities. Martin Heidegger, no friend to overweening or totalizing technology, which he characterizes as “enframing” (Ge-stell), making the entire world disposable to use as “standing reserve,” saves particular regard for the idea of a bridge. Writing of the specific one in the German university town of Heidelberg, he asserts its ability to reveal “the fourfold” of earth, sky, mortals and divinities. This revelation allows us to “dwell in place”: the bridge creates a meaningful location that orients us to the world where natural circumstance combines smoothly with human wants and limitations.

The bridge doesn’t simply allow us to move from shore to shore, in other words. Rather, it builds a place where dwelling and hence thinking are possible. All genuine building does this, in Heidegger’s view—hence, not least, the favour he enjoys among intellectually inclined architects. But when technology takes on, as we might phrase it, a life of its own, the earth is reduced to raw materials, our mortality is forgotten or obscured, and the divinities come down to the ground in the form of multi-billionaire tech entrepreneurs. Now we are slaves to our all-too-handy devices and desires, lazy semi-content prisoners of bogus convenience and the dominant logic of use. In this state of “permanent requisition and planned ordering,” we can no longer hear what Heidegger called, discussing the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, “the song of the earth.” We then need to recall, perhaps daily, a lesson at least as old as Aristotle: use is not the same thing as purpose. The latter is, rather, the fourth or final cause of a substance, what Aristotle labelled its telos. Only by heeding the call of Being can we attune ourselves to such ultimate purpose, in ourselves or our actions and creations.

Naturally (as we still like to say), there are deeper challenges when we imagine conscious, self-directed artificial entities rather than very advanced but mute systems such as bridges, airplanes and buildings. Naturally. But even here, why should we imagine that the nightmare scenarios, in which threatening robot overlords work to subjugate or eliminate their messy, shambolic human forebears, will offer the likely future scenarios? It is both a blessing and a curse to possess human imagination. Yes, we can conceive of the universe and our place in it. We can query our own motivations and reasons, including sub- or unconscious ones, for doing or not doing certain things. We can embrace both good and evil in ourselves, such that (like the Roman playwright Terence) we can affirm this statement: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto—I am human, nothing human is alien to me. But that must include the darkness as well as the light in the human soul. We can dream up forms of torture, be indifferent to suffering and indulge vicious behaviour through rationalization or sheer cruelty. We can and do lie and cheat, steal and go back on our word, or act out in violence. Humans are vain, nasty, petty, narcissistic, selfish and stupid. Of course they are!

Bottom line? You can’t really go any farther back to nature, metaphysically, than wherever you currently stand. Naturalness does not offer inherent norms, only a plethora of confusing and contradictory examples of what humans are capable of doing. You can use naturalness as a normative weapon, sure, condemning unnatural natural acts as part of some rhetorical or ideological strategy. But the norms are human-formed, not derived from nature: they are not woven into the fabric of the universe. You can also seek authenticity or restoration in the unbuilt parts of the global environment, finding vigour and succour there. But nobody enters the wild without artifacts of human civilization along for the journey: clothes, equipment, at a minimum the socially conditioned mind that is bent on problem solving and survival.

Neither, indeed, can you look at the world around you without various forms of artificial filter to mediate experience. Despite the aspirations of certain still-life painters, there is no such thing as “the empty eye,” perception entirely voided of preconceptions. All experience is intentional in structure: that is to say, it has elements of “aboutness” built into it a priori. Otherwise, we could not make sense of even the most basic visual fields such as colour or shade, let alone perspective, representation, or composition. Just as they say that JMW Turner invented the sunset or Caspar David Friedrich the visual sublime, there is no looking or feeling that is not always already conditioned by networks of pre-installed perception. You can drop your smart phone down a sewer—maybe no bad thing—but that won’t halt the growing immersion we all experience of living in a comprehensively mediated world.

No, as so often, the only solution is critical intelligence, and eternal vigilance is the price of happiness, human or otherwise. Luckily for us, humans cannot, despite herculean efforts to do so, stop thinking about our condition. That is, we may indulge periods or categories of willed ignorance, or decide to rest complacently in received wisdom and unchallenged ideology, but for most of us this state cannot last or expand to fill the vastness of consciousness. Doubts creep in, as do new possibilities and bright ideas that may or may not pan out into anything much. This roller coaster of consciousness can sometimes make life hard. All we know for sure is that it is harder when you’re not thinking. Though we may indulge it in hard cases—most of us don’t want to know the precise future moment when we will die—ignorance is not bliss. It is, instead, a form of self-imprisonment.

And if there is one logically inescapable thing we know from thinking about the human condition, it is that we crave knowledge. As Aristotle said on a better occasion than when he condemned the defeated to slavery, “all humans by nature desire to know.” Well, maybe not all, or all the time. But if there is any meaning to the otherwise slippery phrase “human nature,” that is it. I myself prefer the less essentialist phrase “human conditions.” How we find ourselves as mortals in a rich and overlapping environment is the beginning, not the end, of the evolving human story. Our never-ending and often confused quest is to confront and then perhaps expand, modify and improve our own condition. Non-humans, like it or not, are along for the same ride. ❚

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. His new book, Singular Creatures: Robots, Rights, and the Politics of Posthumanism, will appear this fall.