Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom

Wednesday, 2 April, 2008

Today’s Words come from a recent article by Allen Buchanan in the journal Bioethics, titled “Human Nature and Enhancement” (subscription required). The article basically demolishes the idea that the concept of ‘human nature’ has any validity in the discussion of enhancement. Here is my favourite part, which comes from the conclusion:

“Reasonable worries about enhancement that are sometimes expressed in the language of human nature – such as the concern about unintended consequences due to unnoticed interdependencies between what we wish to change and what we wish to preserve – can be more clearly expressed without appealing to human nature. Because appeals to human nature in this context are not only unnecessary, but also run the risk of degenerating into the errors of normative essentialism, they are best avoided.”

Basically, ‘normative essentialism’ is a fancy word for the ‘is-ought fallacy‘ – where people confuse what is with what ought to be (i.e. that what is normal is also essential, hence ‘normative essentialism’). So, if humans reproduce sexually (as they do), then the normative essentialist would claim that humans should reproduce sexually, so cloning (being sort of a form of asexual reproduction) is wrong.

So, what Allen Buchanan is saying is that to say ‘we shouldn’t mess with nature’ is often used as a simplification of the idea that because nature is complicated and interconnected, any messing with nature is likely to do harm. But such a simplification is misleading, because it leads people to believe that all interventions into the natural world are bad. The truth is that we don’t always know whether a particular intervention will produce unintended bad results, but there needs to be some evidence or indication of bad results being likely before we can justify restricting that intervention.



  1. Hmmm, he would have an issue with this I believe; http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080401/od_uk_nm/oukoe_uk_pregnant_man_1

    You probably already know about it.

    People find it hard to accept change, especially here in the Dominionist States of Amurrica.

  2. I’m sure arguments could be raised against such things, but at least Allen Buchanan would not resort to saying that it is ‘unnatural’ for a man to be pregnant if he were arguing against it.

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