Transcending our biology: A virtue ethics interpretation of the appeal to nature in technological and environmental ethics

Zygon 48 (4):875-889 (2013)
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“Arguments from nature” are used, and have historically been used, in popular responses to advances in technology and to environmental issues—there is a widely shared body of ethical intuitions that nature, or perhaps human nature, sets some limits on the kinds of ends that we should seek, the kinds of things that we should do, or the kinds of lives that we should lead. Virtue ethics can provide the context for a defensible form of the argument from nature, and one that makes proper sense of its enduring role in debates concerning our relationship to technology and the environment. However, the notion of an ethics founded upon an account of the essential features of human nature is controversial. On the one hand, contemporary biological science no longer defines species by their essential characteristics, so from a biological point of view there just are no essential characteristics of human beings. On the other hand, it might be argued that humans have, in some sense, “transcended our biology,” so an understanding of humans as a biological species is extraneous to ethical questions. In this article, I examine and defend the argument from nature, as a way to ground an ethic of virtue, from some of the more common criticisms that are made against it. I argue that, properly interpreted as an appeal to an evaluative account of human nature, the argument from nature is defensible with the context of virtue ethics and, in this light, I show how arguments from nature made in popular responses to technological and environmental issues are best understood



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Nin Kirkham
University of Western Australia

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