Human Nature without Theory

Gregory E. Kaebnick, Ph.D.

The feeling is by no means universal, but a decent-sized swath of the public thinks that what people might someday be able to do to modify human bodies using biotechnologies is at odds with some of their attitudes about the moral significance of human nature. Exactly how to describe these attitudes and exactly what “at odds” means lead into murky waters, however. We do not know our way around when it comes to articulating our views about the moral significance of human nature. Thoughtful people sympathetic to these attitudes describe them only gropingly.

Critics have no trouble. Not infrequently, one can hear a moral concern about human nature outlined in the form of a quick and crude objection: “X is against nature, and therefore wrong.”1 In this rendering, the moral concern is simple, confident, forceful—and ridiculous. One of its more preposterous aspects is that “against nature” implies that we know what human nature is, when surely human nature is amorphous and slippery at best. The difficulty of pinning down human nature is one reason that attitudes about nature cannot be plausible unless they are limited and complicated.

In this chapter, I argue that we may not need to know much about human nature to have moral concerns about changing it by means of biotechnology. More precisely, I maintain that we do not need to have a full theory of human nature to have moral concerns about changing it. The concept “human nature” must refer to something in the real world if we are to attach moral significance to it, but we need not (so I argue) be able to say exactly what it means to be human.

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