The Twofold Role of Human Nature in Practical Rationality
The argument put forward in the previous section suggests two ways in which human nature is relevant in setting normative constraints to practical reasoning (i.e. in the actual deployment of practical reason). The role of human nature as a source of normative constraints is a debated topic in virtue ethics. For example, Julia Annas supported the thesis that
Action, Human Nature and Morality 109 human nature matters for normativity in the sense that “it is the material that our rationality has to work with” (Annas 2005, 22). She has contrasted her position with another sense in which a virtue ethicist can see human nature as relevant in normative theory, that is, the position supported by Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse. As Hursthouse sees it, for example, “the structure [of human nature] - the appeal to just [the] four ends [of human nature] - really does constrain, substantially, what I can reasonably maintain is a virtue in human beings” (Hursthouse 1999, 224; cf. also Foot 2001). Building on the account of practical reasoning in action that I have so far suggested, I would like to propose a third possibility. In my view, the two ways of bringing human nature to bear on normativity are not two different alternative accounts but express two different ways in which human nature is at work in human action and in practical reasoning. Before explaining my proposal, however, I shall say something about the concept of human nature.
The word “nature” - in general, not only human - has been used in many different senses which have often been differently related one with another. The most relevant sense in this connection is that according to which the nature of a thing is what that thing is. The nature in this sense was traditionally (i.e. following Aristotle) connected to the real essence of a thing, the principle that makes a thing be what it is and on the ground of which that thing has all the necessary properties which belong to it. “Nature,” however, is often also used in a related but different sense, in order to refer to a formal principle, that is, the cluster of properties which a real essence might give rise to (Scholastic philosophers used “quidditas” to express this concept). When a thing has a nature in the sense of real essence, it typically has also a nature in the sense of a cluster of necessary properties. However, the converse is not always true. A thing might have a cluster of properties which are necessary for that thing to be a thing of that sort, and hence to be the thing that it is, even if there is no further principle which makes that thing be and have those properties. As I suggested in Section 2.5, an object might have a formal principle even if no real essence corresponds to it. In what follows, when I write about nature I mean it in the second sense (a cluster of properties), not in the former sense (a principle of existence). This does not imply that I believe that humans share a nature only in the second sense: I do not commit myself in any direction, on that front. The point is that the first sense is stronger and I would need too much space to argue that humans share a nature in that sense too. The second sense is weaker, but it suffices for my purposes here and so I can work only with it.
I think that we can easily claim that there is such thing as human nature in the second, weaker sense of “nature:” if we can apply the word “human” at all (as a noun), there must be objects which meet the standards for its applications. The standards for the application of that word, on the other hand, concern also a (maybe fuzzy) cluster of propertiesthat something must have in order to be a human. On the other hand, there are things to which we apply that name: living organisms that belong to our species. What cluster of properties constitutes human nature, in this sense, will be specified by the natural-historical generalisations (in Thompson’s sense) that are typical of humans. The properties typical of the human form of life set normative criteria for the evaluation of humans, although they are sub-rational criteria, as Thompson put it and as we have seen in Section 3.3.1 call universal, this sense of “human nature.”
There is a further relevant sense of “nature,” however. We can grasp it if we consider that the sense we have so far discussed - leaving aside nature in the sense of real essence - has to do with what makes a thing be the thing it is, as we have seen in Chapter 2. Certainly, failing to have one of the properties which it is necessary to have in order to be human (e.g. vital functions) would cause a human to cease being a human and cause something else to come to existence, for example, a corpse. However, the explanation of what makes a thing be the thing that it is does not include only the properties that necessarily all things of the same sort must have. It includes also properties that are accidental (i.e. that individuals of that species might not have), but that de facto a certain individual has, being the particular individual it is. That I have black hair is not essential for me to be a human, but my particular instantiation of humanity includes this property. Such properties can theoretically be lost without the individual which bears them ceasing to exist. In reality, however, sometimes properties of this accidental kind are so closely tied to the identity of a thing, that practically that thing will never lose them, as long as it continues existing. That I have a dark complexion, for example, is not necessary for me to be what I am, that is, a human being or even this particular human being, but it defines me since it is a property that I can lose only with difficulty. I call individual the sense of human nature according to which we say that it is in the nature of a certain individual to have certain accidental properties that are characteristic of it.
An upshot of the account of normative constraints that I gave in the last section is that human nature, in both the two senses I just defined, plays two different roles in human agency.
Let us consider the first way in which human nature is relevant for agency. Human nature, both universal and individual, sets the modes of acting and the responsiveness of an agent to the facts that are entrenched in the situations in which she acts. As we have seen, the responsiveness of an agent depends on her capacity to recognise certain facts as relevant, to recognise potentialities that are grounded on those facts, and to see certain ways of actualising potentialities as ways of perfecting the situation. The cognitive and appetitive capacities, which are at work in these processes of reasoning, depend on human nature, both in the universal and
Action, Human Nature and Morality 111 rhe individual sense.8 They are capacities that humans typically have, but they are also instantiated in forms, which belong to each individual in proper and particular ways. Hence, human nature - both universal an individual - shapes the processes of reasoning which lead an agent to see some subsisting facts as reasons for action. It plays that role not as a content of those processes of reasoning, but as the source of rhe cognitive and appetitive capacities that underpin those reasoning processes.
In rhe last section, I discussed how the existence of normative constraints is experienced and what conditions it presupposes from the point of view of an agent. We saw that, from the point of view of rhe agent, there are correct and incorrect ways in which a subject might respond to a practical situation. Indeed, when a failure cannot be reduced to cognitive misgivings, it must depend on a fault in rhe subject herself, that is, in rhe particular ways in which her capacities are structured. The concept of human nature can help us express this point: human nature determines which ways of responding are correct and which are incorrect since human nature sets standards of natural, sub-rational normativity (Hacker-Wright 2012). If we want to make sense of rhe idea of “wrong ways of responding” which is implied by the experience of normative constraints from the point of view of rhe agent, we have to grant that an agent sees a reason as justifying an action if she sees it as a reason to which a well-functioning human agent would respond. Hence, we have to accept that there are right and wrong ways of being for humans. A well-functioning agent is one who responds to rhe right reasons, that is, who is sensitive to features of a situation, by responding to which she acts in ways that perfect that situation. Hence, a transcendental presupposition of our normative experience is that human nature sets what the correct structure (or the set of alternative correct structures) of appetitive and cognitive capacities is (or are). I call inclination rhe directedness of human nature towards a certain set of possible structures of appetitive and cognitive capacities.
There is a sort of circularity here, which is not vicious, though. Rather, this circularity offers an explanation of rhe origin of normativity. There are ways in which human beings should be (in rhe sub-rational sense of normativity) and ways in which other things should be (in the sub-rational sense of normativity) since rhe two fit together, in the sense that rhe well-functioning of humans includes their capacities to recognise and respond to rhe well-functioning of things around them.9 Normative constraints emerge from this fit between human nature and the natures of things which inhabit rhe environment of humans. If what I have been arguing is correct, this fit is a condition of the possibility of the first-person perspective of agency and of rhe acknowledgement of normative constraints, which are part of our experience.
Two important remarks must be considered in order to avoid misunderstandings at this point.
The first remark is that “human nature,” in this last paragraph, refers to both universal and individual nature: the right structure of one’s capacities depends both on universal features of one’s species and on one’s individual features (Hacker-Wright 2015). For example, someone who does not handle alcohol should - on the basis of this individual feature - refrain from drinking much more than other humans who handle alcohol well. This individual difference in features and the ensuing difference of behaviour that is called for serve the protection of a common human feature, that is, rationality. Given the difference between individuals, the same goal, that is, the protection of rationality, might have to be achieved through quite different means in unique cases.
The second remark is that I claimed that a fit explains normative constraints, but that does not mean that it explains the normativity of action as well. Indeed, the role played by human nature in action in this case is pre-rational. By this, I mean that, in this case, human nature operates behind the shoulders of the agent, so to speak. Human nature does not operate - in this case - as a content of the consciousness of the agent about which the agent can exercise an attitude, but it sets the operations of the agent without being a content of the conscious processes of choice and deliberation of the agent. The point here is not that nature operates with processes and capacities that run on a sub-personal level. Indeed, some of its process are conscious and some are not. Some of the operations surface in one’s consciousness, like when one desires food and is aware of that. Other operations, by contrast, work at the sub-personal level: one sees the suffering of a starving person as a reason to give her money since one is moved by a feature of the situation without knowing how and why. The point is rather that the processes and capacities of human nature sustain choice and deliberation but do not contribute to fill in the contents that are considered in reasoning. In playing this role, one’s nature is given: it offers the set of capacities that one employs in all one does. One sees things in a certain way - for example, one sees a certain situation as good - and that seeing springs from one’s (individual and universal) nature, but one’s nature is not necessarily what one thinks of in bringing that result about. In this way, when nature plays this role, nature is just a matter of fact: it contributes to constitute reasons for action but it is not a reason giving fact for us. This is why I called pre-rational this role played by human nature, that is, it is a condition of the possibility of exercising rational capacities.
Let us now turn to the second way in which human nature is relevant in agency, according to the account offered in the last section. Human nature - both in the universal and in the individual sense - can also contribute to constitute the contents of the reasoning processes which lead an agent to see some subsisting facts as reasons to act in certain ways, in the sense that it can be one of the objects of those reasoning processes.10 One, for example, can wonder whether her particular way
Action, Human Nature and Morality 113 of responding to situations is correct, on the basis of criteria set by what humans should do. Indeed, considerations about what humans are and what potentialities they have suggest different ways in which they can develop. The deliberating agent can see as good some ways of developing the situation, and see as bad or neutral others. Also in this case, then, human nature is a source of correctness for human action, but in the sense that it can become a criterion for an agent who has to decide how to act and to which reasons she should respond.
Human nature can play this role in agency to different degrees. Its contribution is weakest when it is only implicit. As we have seen, the condition of the possibility of one’s doubting that the reasons for action that one perceives are genuine transcendentally implicates one’s comparison of one’s response to the practical situation with the possible responses of an ideal agent, that is, an agent whose nature is fully realised. In this way, one’s conception of human nature shapes one’s practical judgement of the situation without appearing explicitly in the reasoning process. (Indeed, as we have seen above, one’s conception of human nature defines the range of one’s counterfactual thinking.) However, the cognitive role of human nature in determining the contents of reasons can become explicit as well. In such cases, its contribution is stronger. This is the case when, in the process of deliberation, for example, or in the process of judging the action of another, one asks oneself what the right way of responding in that situation is and does that by asking oneself what a perfect agent (or anyway an excellent agent) would do. Actual considerations concerning what the right structures of cognitive and appetitive capacities are then become relevant: one’s metaphysical conviction about human nature might then come to have an explicit bearing on one’s agency.11
It must be emphasised that when human nature plays this role as a content of processes of deliberation of agents, what counts is the way in which different forms of the development of human nature are seen by the deliberating agent. Let us recall that I am talking about the point of view of the agent and it is from that point of view that different ways of realising human nature are evaluated and compared in deliberative processes. For this reason, this role played by human nature as a normative constraint is mediated by the cognitive states of the agent (e.g. her beliefs or perceptions concerning human nature), which can be wrong (e.g. her beliefs can be false).
Both ways in which human nature bears on agency acknowledge that it plays a role in practical reason that depends on the perspective of the first person. The first role played by human nature constructs the first-person perspective. The second role depends on the first-person perspective since that perspective defines what has to count as a perfection of human nature and what has to count as spoiling it. On the basis of this entanglement with the perspective of the first person, considerationsabout human nature do not risk committing the naturalistic fallacy, as supposedly many traditional Aristotelian accounts of normativity did. To see this point, let us focus for a moment on the relations between the two roles played by human nature in action.
On the one side, in playing its first role, the human nature of an agent is influenced by the way in which it plays the second role in that particular agent. Indeed, the ways in which one’s cognitive and appetitive faculties react and are structured depend also on the contents of the judgements about human nature that one believes to be true. This may happen in two ways. First, our ways of seeing things lead us to act in ways which establish habits in us and thereby shape our individual nature and the ways of responding to situations that are typical of each of us.12 Second, even without the interference of a habit, our appetitive faculties can be influenced by the fact that we intellectually entertain certain contents. An example of the latter sort of influence can be the following. Let us imagine that empirical investigation finds out that humans acting in certain situations - situations in which we previously thought them to be in control of their choices - are actually incapable of making free decisions. Even one who thought rightly punishing people acting in that way would revise one’s judgement concerning the feasibility of punishment in that situation.
On the other side, what and how a subject is (i.e. her individual instantiation of human nature, with the structuring of cognitive and appetitive capacities which goes with it) shapes how that subject thinks of human nature, of its good and of its fulfilment. As we have seen, any judgement concerning reasons for action transcendentally presupposes a judgement concerning how a human being should or should not be, that is, a judgement concerning how human nature can or cannot be perfected. Such judgements, however, depend on the response of the agent: she must compare different ways of being human and choose which realisations are good, which bad, which are better or worse than others, which are on a par. As we have seen, though, in responding to possible ways of perfecting facts, an agent brings to bear her nature, individual and universal: her appetitive and cognitive faculties operate in an integrated way in bringing out the response. That means that in contributing to the content of practical judgements, that is, in playing its second role in agency, human nature is defined by human nature itself playing the first role in agency.
This second direction of influence between the two roles played by human nature in agency is particularly important. It purports that metaphysical reflection on human nature can play a role in agency but also can offer no absolute point of view, from which all practical issues can be solved at once and for all subjects. Indeed, the second role played by human nature consists in considerations concerning how an ideal human being would react in a situation similar to that in which the agent has to act. As we have seen, those considerations require that the agent imagine the ways of responding to that situation that would be typical of someone who is fully realised as a human being. However, the judgements concerning which individual humans are good exemplars of fully realised, happy and flourishing humans are carried out by the agent by deploying her ways of responding to different exemplars of humanity. Hence, those judgements depend on the actual structure of her appetitive and cognitive capacities, that is, on her nature, which in this case plays the first role in agency.
The particular realisation of human nature which takes place in each human is influenced by various processes. Education, social influences, cultural background, random events like unforeseeable encounters, affective relations and friendships. A human can take a self-reflective attitude towards what one is and partially reshape one’s particular way of realising human nature. We can work on our habits and partially also on our way of looking at things and responding to reasons. Of course, our capacity to do that is not unlimited. To a certain degree, we can work on our nature: we can actualise potentialities that we have in virtue of having a certain universal nature and we can guide the development of the potentialities grounded on our individual features in different directions. Hence, our nature, both universal and individual, is given to us: we find ourselves having it, but at the same time we can cultivate it and guide its development in different possible directions.
On the one hand, in doing that, one will always evaluate and judge one’s standing and choose new ways of being on the basis of what one already is, that is, on the basis of the structure of the appetitive and cognitive faculties that one already has. On the other hand, some of our habits might be deeply entrenched in us and some ways of being, which are generally viable for humans, might be incompatible with traits which we could hardly lose. In such cases, there are limits to the possibility of reshaping one’s ways of responding to situations.13 Within the boundaries of these limitations, however, we can conclude that considerations on human nature, where this contributes to constitute the content of thoughts of the agent, can have a role in our processes of deliberation and in our power of reshaping our habits and our ways of responding to situations.
Above I mentioned that Julia Annas objected to the view that human nature sets normative criteria. The objection has been recently sharpened by other philosophers (Lott 2014; Woodcock 2018). I believe that by acknowledging the twofold role of human nature in action, I can overcome that objection. Here, I can only briefly summarise my reasons that I spelled out somewhere else (De Anna 2018a). The objection builds on McDowell’s interpretation of Aristotle’s distinction between first and second nature: according to that interpretation, first nature would be our biological set-up and second nature would be the result of the shaping of our first nature effected by education and culture (McDowell 1996). Since our self-knowledge is knowledge of our second nature, considerations about ourselves that we carry out in our deliberations and in our evaluations concern second nature. However, our second nature is the product of culture and education. Hence, our first nature cannot play the role of a normative constraint for practical reason. Constraints on action come from culture and education.
My complaint against this line of thinking is that it makes Aristotle’s distinction between the two natures too sharp, by treating first nature as a reality which can be complete in itself independently from second nature. For example, desires could be defined completely on the level of first nature and then second nature imposes reason upon them and remoulds them. McDowell’s example of wolves which become rational makes this point very vivid. By contrast, I take it that Aristotle’s distinction has to do with potentialities of our nature that get activated automatically and others that can only be activated through habituation and thereby presuppose the existence of social norms and the guidance of education. An example of the former would be vision; one of the latter would be language. Human desires seem to belong to the latter group as well since they are responsive to reason and reason is activated by culture and education. Hence, when we reflect on ourselves we do not know a second nature which covers and hides our first nature, but rather we become acquainted with a complex combination of powers - all typical of our nature - some that get activated independently form culture and others that are the expression of our cultures and social norms. Hence, in the deliberative processes of practical reason, we need to think of our first and second nature at once.
I believe that the Wittgensteinian methodology mentioned at the end of Section 4.1 allows us to do precisely that. When we investigate our form of life by reflection on our possible uses of words, we think counterfac-tually of ourselves and we do that by projecting possibilities allowed by our capacities of all sorts, including both those which develop automatically and those which result from habituation and presuppose culture. Hence, deciding the best arrangement of our cognitive and appetitive capacities requires that we consider constraints coming from our entire nature, including our biological features. As Hacker-Wright has put it, we can find out “what counts as a virtue by reference to [a] systematic moral psychology with its intricate map of the appetites and passions in relation to reason” (Hacker-Wright, 2020).
In sum, human nature sets normative constraints on agency that operate only from the first-person perspective, from the point of view of the agent. Hence, claiming that these constraints hold does not commit the naturalistic fallacy. What counts as a potentiality of human nature depends on the responsiveness of an agent who makes a consideration about human nature in her practical reasoning. On the other hand, the
Action, Human Nature and Morality 117 thesis proposed accounts for normative constraints on practical reason: an agent cannot do anything she desires. Indeed, also a virtuous agent is subject to the doubt that expresses our normative intuition: “fact/seems to me a reason to