Home / Ronald de Sousa, Nature’s Purposes and Mine


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The idea of natural law, which still dominates conceptions of morality in some quarters, rests on the premise that insight into nature’s purposes can inform our choices, in ways most likely to be both satisfying and morally good. However, the very idea of seeking guidance from nature about values would appear to commit the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. That doctrine forbids us to look to facts; but looking to non-facts seems hardly more promising. Besides, evolution has no purposes. That, however, does not free us from the conviction that the biological world is shot through with teleology. We now understand natural teleology in terms of the aetiological conception. That marks one of the few genuine advances in philosophy of the last century. But it leaves open the question of how objective natural functions and capacities relate to the purposes of individual humans. For nature is not providence, and cares little, even metaphorically, for individuals. In coming to terms with our nature and choosing what to value, we have to begin with what we actually want; but it seems to be a biological fact, deriving from our capacity to talk, reason and debate, that values can proliferate in all kinds of unpredictable ways. In turn, that suggests (without requiring) that we might explore possibilities afforded by our nature that contradict not only what we assume are ‘biological imperatives’ but also some of our cherished ideologies, such as, for example, our supposed commitment to monogamous love and marriage. Biology’s most important lesson for philosophy, I conclude, is that we should be existentialists.

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