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The nature of nature:

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Tanner Lectures to address “The Moral Authority of Nature”

Lorraine Daston: ‘The key question is, who speaks for nature? Once you allow nature to have a voice, the debate over natural law begins.’ (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln)

Is nature good or evil?

Most modern thinkers who have seriously considered the question have come to the conclusion that it is neither. Nature simply is, and attempts to derive ethical laws based on nature are doomed to confusion. As John Stuart Mill pointed out: “In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are nature’s every day performances.”

And yet to this day people routinely praise or condemn human behavior because it is either in accordance with or in opposition to nature. What is going on here?

Lorraine Daston hopes to shed some light on that question in her upcoming Tanner Lectures, “The Moral Authority of Nature,” which will be delivered Nov. 6-8.

Daston, an American scholar who is the director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, is a visiting faculty member at Harvard’s History of Science Department for the 2002-03 academic year. Her work has focused, not so much on a particular scientific discipline, but on the development of those concepts on which science is based – probability, objectivity, evidence.

When it comes to nature as a moral authority, many people seem to be suffering from a conceptual disconnect, Daston contends. Despite persuasive arguments by Mill, David Hume, and G.E. Moore (who coined the phrase “the naturalistic fallacy”), nature is still “ceaselessly invoked” in arguments against cloning, genetic manipulation, reproductive technology, and other biological interventions. Over the course of the past century, the term “unnatural” has been used to condemn everything from racial equality to female suffrage to homosexuality.

Daston said that she does not plan to “rehearse the arguments against the moral authority of nature, but to explore the intuitions that still fuel such appeals.”

Her lectures will be “an exercise in the archaeology of ideas,” an attempt to “make available the buried or lost conceptual categories that lie behind contemporary discourse on moral issues.”

Daston finds that while the use of nature as a moral authority has a very long history, the way it has been invoked has changed over the centuries. Prior to the modern era, nature was generally appealed to by way of analogy. Nature represented a God-given order whose relationships could be used to bolster arguments concerning other divinely sanctioned hierarchies.

But this view changed with the rise of science, giving way to a concept of “a natural order based on overarching laws that are valid everywhere and always.”

This concept of natural law had its zenith during the Enlightenment, when it was invoked in every context from aesthetics to the metric system. America’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle the fledgling nation to assume sovereign status, is one outstanding example of such a concept.

The popularity of natural law as an ultimate sanction at a time when European thought was turning in a secular direction was “in part because nature seemed to be the only candidate for absolute authority when the theological candidates had been excluded,” said Daston.

But going even further back into the past, Daston finds other concepts of natural order, concepts that lie behind many of our common assumptions and instinctive responses.

One is the view of a natural order based on natural kinds. Think of Aesop’s Fables, in which animals are used to make moral points, a genre of literature present in almost every culture. The animals represent moral stereotypes, and behave according to their basic nature. Such tales have maintained their popularity, mostly in the form of children’s stories, in an age when the depiction of human stereotypes has become less acceptable.

Another view of the natural order, and one that has gained great authority in today’s environmental movement, involves the concept of local nature, the idea of particular places having a particular makeup and balance.

“This is the idea that every locale has a kind of gestalt, a dovetailing of lots of different organisms which form a complicated and fragile whole. If you take out one thread, the whole thing collapses.”

According to Daston, understanding the archaeology of natural law is indispensable to an informed view of today’s most insistent moral dilemmas.

“For example, why is it right for the international community to protest apartheid? It’s because the concept of universal human rights is underpinned by the concept of universal nature, and this justifies the promotion of human rights in defiance of local sovereignty.”

The same concept, Daston points out, has also been elicited in favor of conservative causes, such as “scientific” arguments justifying racism or the second-class status of women.

“The key question is, who speaks for nature? Once you allow nature to have a voice, the debate over natural law begins.”

Daston’s first lecture, to be delivered on Wednesday, Nov. 6, is titled “The Morality of Natural Orders.” Her second lecture, “Nature’s Customs versus Nature’s Laws,” is scheduled for Nov. 7. Both lectures will take place in Lowell Lecture Hall at 5 p.m. On Friday from 10 a.m. to noon, Daston will participate in a seminar at the Center for European studies to discuss the issues raised in her lectures. All lectures are free and open to the public.

Daston earned her A.B. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard in 1973 and 1979, respectively. She has taught at Harvard, Princeton, Brandeis, the University of Chicago, and at the Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Georg-August Universität, Göttingen, Germany. She is the author, co-author, or editor of numerous books and articles, including “Classical Probability in the Enlightenment” (1988); “The Empire of Chance” (1989, with G. Gigerenzer et al.); “Wonders and the Order of Nature” (1998, with Katharine Park); and “Biographies of Scientific Objects” (editor, 2000).

The Tanner Lectures on Human Values is a nonprofit corporation administered at the University of Utah. It is funded by an endowment and other gifts received by the University of Utah from Obert Clark Tanner and Grace Adams Tanner.

At the request of a founding trustee of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, these lectures are dedicated to the memory of Clarence Irving Lewis ’06, Ph.D. ’10, who served on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1920 to 1953.

Co-sponsored by the Office of the President and the University Center for Ethics and the Professions, the series is designed to advance scholarly and scientific learning in the field of human values, and the purpose embraces the entire range of moral, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual values, both individual and social.