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Moral and Natural Orders: A Philosophical Anthropology
This book is an attempt to answer a question that can be simply posed: why do people, in many different cultures and epochs, pervasively and persistently, look to nature as a source of norms for human conduct?
In ancient India and in ancient Greece, in medieval France and Enlightenment America, in the latest controversy over homosexual marriage or genetically modified organisms, people have linked the natural and moral orders – and disorders. The stately rounds of the stars modeled the good life for Stoic sages; the rights of man were underwritten by the laws of nature in revolutionary France and the United States; recent avalanches in the Swiss Alps prompt headlines about "The Revenge of Nature." Nature has been invoked to emancipate, as the guarantor of human equality, and to enslave, as the foundation of racism. Nature's authority has been enlisted by reactionaries and by revolutionaries, by the devout and secular alike. In various and dispersed traditions, nature has been upheld as the pattern of all values: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Yet for centuries philosophers have insisted that there are no values in nature. Nature simply is; it takes a human act of imposition or projection to transmute that "is" into an "ought." On this view, there is no legitimate inference that can be drawn from how things happen to be to how things should be, from the facts of the natural to the values of the moral order. To try to draw such inferences is to commit what has come to be called the "naturalistic fallacy" – a kind of covert smuggling operation in which cultural values are transferred to nature and nature's authority is then called upon to buttress those very same values. This sort of value-trafficking can be politically consequential, as when medieval rulers defended the subordination of bulk of the population to the aristocracy and clergy on the grounds that it was as natural as for the hands and feet to serve the head and heart of the "body politic", or when early twentieth-century opponents of higher education for women argued that the natural vocation of all women was to be wives and mothers. Subordination and domesticity were thereby "naturalized": contingent (and controversial) social arrangements were shored up by the necessity and/or desirability of allegedly natural arrangements. With examples like these in mind, some critics of the naturalistic fallacy, such as the nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, have condemned the naturalistic fallacy as not just logically false but morally pernicious to boot: "Either it is right that we should kill because nature kills; torture because nature tortures; ruin and devastate because nature does the like; or we ought not to consider at all what nature does, but do what it is good to do."
So why, then, does the conflation of the natural and moral orders persist so stubbornly? This is the question this book sets out to answer. Oceans of ink have been spilt by critical thinkers of all stripes – scientists and scholars, philosophers and novelists, activists and moralists – in attempts to pry "is" and "ought" apart. Despite their best efforts, however, the temptation to extract norms from nature seems to be enduring and irresistible. The very word "norm" epitomizes the mingling of the descriptive and prescriptive: it means both what usually happens and what should happen. I am under no illusion that yet another attempt to put "is" and "ought" asunder will succeed where the likes of Hume, Kant, Mill, and many other luminaries have failed. Rather, I want to understand why they have failed: why, in the teeth of such sterling counsel to the contrary, do we continue to seek values in nature?
I do not think the answer to this question lies in an account of popular error, vestigeal religious beliefs, or sloppy habits of thought. These factors may indeed be in play in one or another case, but they do not suffice to explain either the ubiquity or tenacity of the naturalistic fallacy, if fallacy it be. This is not a simple case of mass irrationality. My line of inquiry will instead be to excavate the sources of the intuitions that propel the search for values in nature. In different times and places, these intuitions have expressed themselves in the most luxuriantly diverse forms – as diverse as the efflorescence of nature and culture themselves. Cultural anthropology and natural history vie with one another in displaying the wondrous plenitude of forms of life and life forms. But the core intuitions underlying all this diversity of norms grounded in natures are, I will argue, few and widespread, if not uniform and universal. At their heart is the perception of order – as fact and as ideal.
Of all the nightmares that bedevil the collective human imagination, that of chaos is the most terrifying. Human history is stained with orders that have been bloody, tyrannical, and ruthless, orders that suffocate like an iron vise. And many philosophers and scientists have judged the order of nature to be heartless, inexorable in its workings and indifferent to human joys and sorrows. Order itself can become a nightmare. But the horrors of excessive order pale beside those aroused by no order at all. Civil war is a greater calamity than the most oppressive dictatorship; a universe formless and lawless is the ground zero of all cosmogonies, whether it is a deity or natural law that is called upon to create a cosmos worthy of the name. A land in which no promise is kept, in which the sun may or may not rise on the morrow, in which the past is no guide to the future, is a no man's land. Nothing human, indeed nothing living, can long survive in an environment wholly at the mercy of chance.
This nightmarish thought experiment conflates natural and human orders in a way that will raise eyebrows: isn't this just another instance of the naturalistic fallacy? Though few may doubt that both natural and social chaos are, each in its own way, horrific, many thoughtful readers will query the equation of the two – and still more the identification of the two orders chaos annihilates. It is an axiom of modern thought that nature and society are distinct realms. The argument runs something like this. Both nature and society may be ruled by an order, but the kinds of order to which each is subject differ categorically from one another. The natural order is universal, immutable, and wholly determined. The only violations of natural law are miracles, and even those who would hold out this possibility must invoke another realm, the supernatural (literally "above nature") to do so. In contrast, human laws are broken all the time without any divine intervention; human societies are famously variable, both anthropologically and historically.
Analogies may be drawn between the two realms –"natural law" is one such – but these are, so the argument continues, merely metaphors. Moreover, such analogies often harbor dangerous assumptions and inferences. To describe the natural order in terms of the social order commits the intellectual error of anthropomorphism, i.e. of projecting human categories onto the non-human world. This is at best childish and at worst arrogant: man is emphatically not the measure of all things. To describe the social order in terms of natural order is still more risky, on this account. Even if human beings and all their works are subject to the natural order insofar as they are material objects, nature alone has no power to convert an "is" into an "ought". All social orders are, however, built upon the normative foundations of "ought": they are moral orders of what should be, not just what happens to be, and therefore (concludes the argument) nature is irrelevant. As the British zoologist Thomas Henry Huxley put it in his 1893 Romanes Lecture: "Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it."
Despite the force and familiarity of these objections, I would like to reopen the question of norms from nature. My argument is both historical and philosophical. Historically, I shall try to show how various conceptions of natural order have sustained not only specific norms, both moral and aesthetic, but have moreover served as the model for what a norm, any norm, can be. Philosophically, I shall argue that the appeals to nature, though often and (in my opinion) rightly criticized, nonetheless do capture something profound about values in general, regardless of their specific content.
My 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" : roughly, the justification that gives any and all norms their force. It is a notorious fact that specific norms vary dramatically across cultures and over time. This also holds for norms that invoke nature, which run the political gamut from apartheid-style racism to Sierra Club environmentalism. But normativity is a far more uniform and durable phenomenon: there is no known human culture, past or present, without any norms at all. The cross-cultural diversity of norms that is often cited as evidence for the relativity of all norms might equally well serve as evidence for the universality of normativity. A culture without norms is as much an oxymoron as nature without regularities. Pockets of anarchy and randomness are a far cry from total chaos. Moreover, even the most cosmopolitan observers, well versed in the mutability of norms across time or space, find it difficult to brush aside the norms of the society in which they were raised.
"Normativity" sounds like a word badly translated from the German, one of those bloated abstractions that make the mind go blank and eyes glaze over. But the meaning of normativity is quite simple: it is the quality of telling us what should be, as opposed to describing how things actually are. There are many houses in the mansion of "should", including the "should's" of how we should act, how we should know, and what we should admire – otherwise known as the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. What all these "should's" have in common is a certain wistful, counterfactual mood, a kind of subjunctive yearning: "If only things were the way they should be!" Normativity is the roof over the mansion of "should", the quality that allows us to recognize intellectually that there is a gap between what actually is and what should be the state of affairs -- and moreover to experience regret at this mismatch.
The intensity of that regret can range from mild to intense, from an inward sigh over boorish conduct to a flash of anger at injustice. Exactly what triggers such responses is as varied as human culture and history. In some cultures, slavery was taken for granted but the sight of a woman's exposed ankle was shocking; in others, equality before the law was hallowed but extreme economic inequality accepted without protest. These divergences in specific norms can notoriously flare up into mutual outrage when cultures collide. But human beings who never experience indignation or outrage at anything are barely imaginable. To plumb the sources of normativity – what gives any and all norms their claim to authority over our judgment, if not always over our conduct – is a very deep, perhaps bottomless philosophical problem. For my purposes, it is sufficient simply to register the empirical fact that part of what it means to be human is to acknowledge some norm or another, to understand the force of "should," and to feel a stab of regret at the distance between what is and what should be.
All well and good, you may say, but what does the bare existence of some kind of norms have to do with order, much less with nature? Not all cultural norms can be expressed as a coherent system, on the model of an idealized textbook version of Roman law. On the contrary: most norms evolve slowly, in specific historical circumstances, and accrete like the layers of buried objects on an archaeological site rather than coalescing into some organic whole. Some norms may derive from ancient customs; others may have been introduced with new religions; still others result from concerted deliberation and debate. Over generations and centuries, even the most traditional societies refine old norms and adopt new ones. Although blatant contradictions may be weeded out, it seems highly unlikely that the outcome of such processes would be a tidy order. And when order among norms does exceptionally emerge, it is through the systematizing efforts of legislators, theologians, jurists, and philosophers, not through any intervention on nature's part. So why invoke order, much less natural order?
This is a plausible account of the development of specific norms, but it neglects the preconditions for norms in general. Without a background of order, no norm can take hold. The very idea of a norm implies some consistency and generality – though not necessarily complete uniformity and universality, a point to which I shall return. Norms are not ad hoc rules, improvised for the occasion, although it may take considerable reflection and ingenuity to apply them to the myriad of particular circumstances that might arise, as judges who must interpret past law and precedents in light of present cases know all too well. For much the same reasons that there cannot exist a purely private language, there cannot exist purely private norms: norms imply a community, which may be defined as narrowly as the inhabitants of a single village or as widely as all rational beings, but never contracted to a single individual. Moreover, norms imply a temporal horizon that stretches at least some way into the past and, still more important, into the future. Just how far in past and future directions depends on the reach of communal memory and expectations, both of which can be extended by technologies, ranging from writing to life insurance. But no norm can be confined to the pinpoint present and remain a genuine norm. There must exist enough order to guarantee that norms that hold for my peers (however defined) will also hold for me and that today's norm will also hold tomorrow.
If these minimal conditions of order are not met, the idea of normativity crumbles: not just this or that specific norm, but any conceivable norm. Let us return for a moment to the nightmare of chaos. A situation that is so volatile and uncertain that what happened yesterday is no guide for today and today is no guide for tomorrow can support neither promises nor predictions. Where I walked yesterday with complete insouciance has today become a gauntlet to run; the neighbor who is now my friend may at any moment turn foe and then back again; the seasonal rains that sustain crops may or may not come; the usual route to work or school may vanish overnight. No one and nothing can be relied upon. Note that this is an anarchy more extreme than a Hobbesian state of nature: even in the war of all against all, self-interest makes one's rivals calculable. Strategic games assume a rationality of self-preservation even among implacable enemies. But even this barebones order based on egotistical reckoning disappears in genuine chaos. Under such circumstances of complete uncertainty, even the crudest norms of recipocity and revenge erode: I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine and tit-for-tat assume some kind of temporal reach, a future into which it makes sense to extrapolate intentions. The minatory "should" assumes that the future tense "shall" has meaning. Normativity itself has no traction without some kind of order.
She was educated at Harvard (A.B. 1973) and Cambridge (Dipl. 1974) Universities, and received a Ph.D. in the History of Science from Harvard (1979). She has taught at Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Brandeis, the University of Göttingen, and the University of Chicago and held visiting positions at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, the University of Vienna, and Oxford University (Isaiah Berlin Lectures in the History of Ideas).
Since 1995 she has been Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and Honorary Professor at the Humboldt University, both in Berlin. At the Max Planck Institute she has organized research projects on the history of demonstration and proof, the varieties of scientific experience, the moral authority of nature, and the common languages of art and science.
She has published widely in the history of statistics and probability theory, early modern natural knowledge, scientific objectivity, and the cognitive passions. Her books include Classical Probability in the Enlightenment (1988) and (with Katharine Park), Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (1998), both of which were awarded the Pfizer Prize of the History of Science Society, as well as Eine kurze Geschichte der wissenschaftlichen Aufmerksamkeit (2000), Wunder, Beweis, Tatsache: Zur einer Geschichte der Rationalität (2001) and Objectivity (2007, with Peter Galison).
She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and of the Leopoldina Academy of Sciences.