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Their now being an issue demands, in brief, a new concept of duties and rights, for which previous ethics and metaphysics provide not even the principles, let alone a ready doctrine.


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And what if the new kind of human action would mean that more than the interest of man alone is to be considered— that our duty extends farther and the anthropocentric confinement of former ethics no longer holds? It is at least not senseless anymore to ask whether the condition of extra-human nature, the biosphere as a whole and in its parts, now subject to our power, has become a human trust and has something of a moral claim on us not only for our ulterior sake but for its own and in its own right.

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If this were the case it would require quite some rethinking in basic principles of ethics. It would mean to seek not only the human good, but also the good of things extra-human, that is, to extend the recognition of "ends in themselves" beyond the sphere of man and make the human good include the care for them.

Far such a role of stewardship no previous ethics has prepared us— and the dominant, scientific view of Nature even less. Indeed, the latter emphatically denies us all conceptual means to think of Nature as something to be honored, having reduced it to the indifference of necessity and accident, and divested it of any dignity of ends. But still, a silent plea for sparing its integrity seems to issue from the threatened plenitude of the living world.

Should we heed this plea, should we grant its claim as sanctioned by the nature of things, or dismiss it as a mere sentiment on our part, which we may indulge as far as we wish and can afford to do? If the former, it would if taken seriously in its theoretical implications push the necessary rethinking beyond the doctrine of action, i. On this speculative subject I will here say no more than that we should keep ourselves open to the thought that natural science may not tell the whole story about Nature.

Returning to strictly intra-human considerations, there is another ethical aspect to the growth of techne as a pursuit beyond the pragmatically limited terms of former times. Then, so we found, techne was a measured tribute to necessity, not the road to mankind's chosen goal — a means with a finite measure of adequacy to well-defined proximate ends.

Now, techne in the form of modern technology has turned into an infinite forward-thrust of the race, its most significant enterprise, in whose permanent, self-transcending advance to ever greater things the vocation of man tends to be seen, and whose success of maximal control aver things and himself appears as the consummation of his destiny.

Thus the triumph of homo faber over his external object means also his triumph in the internal constitution of homo sapiens, of whom he used to be a subsidiary part. In other words, technology, apart from its objective works, assumes ethical significance by the central place it now occupies in human purpose. Its cumulative creation, the expanding artificial environment, continuously reinforces the particular powers in man that created it, by compelling their unceasing inventive employment in its management and further advance, and by rewarding them with additional success — which only adds to the relentless claim.

This positive feedback of functional necessity and reward — in whose dynamics pride of achievement must not be forgotten — assures the growing ascendancy of one side of man's nature over all the others, and inevitably at their expense. If nothing succeeds like success, nothing also entraps like success. Outshining in prestige and starving in resources whatever else belongs to the fullness of man, the expansion of his power is accompanied by a contraction of his self-conception and being. In the image he entertains of himself — the potent self-formula which determines his actual being as much as it reflects it — man now is evermore the maker of what he has made and the doer of what he can do, and most of all the preparer of what he will be able to do next.

But not you or I: it is the aggregate, not the individual doer or deed that matters here; and the indefinite future, rather than the contemporary context of the action, constitutes the relevant horizon of responsibility. This requires imperatives of a new sort. If the realm of making has invaded the space of essential action, then morality must invade the realm of making, from which it had formerly stayed aloof, and must do so in the form of public policy.

With issues of such inclusiveness and such lengths of anticipation public policy has never had to deal before. In fact, the changed nature of human action changes the very nature of politics. For the boundary between "city" and "nature" has been obliterated: the city of men, once an enclave in the non-human world, spreads over the whole of terrestrial nature and usurps its place. The difference between the artificial and the natural has vanished, the natural is swallowed up in the sphere of the artificial, and at the same time the total artifact, the works of man working on and through himself, generates a "nature" of its own, i.

Once it could be said Fiat justitia, pereat mundus, "Let justice be done, and may the world perish"— where "world," of course, meant the renewable enclave in the imperishable whole. Issues never legislated on come into the purview of the laws which the total city must give itself so that there will be a world for the generations of man to come. That there ought to be through all future time such a world fit for human habitation, and that it ought in all future time to be inhabited by a mankind worthy of the human name, will be readily affirmed as a general axiom or a persuasive desirability of speculative imagination as persuasive and undemonstrable as the proposition that there being a world at all is "better" than there being none : but as a moral proposition, namely, a practical obligation toward the posterity of a distant future, and a principle of decision in present action, it is quite different from the imperatives of the previous ethics of contemporaneity; and it has entered the moral scene only with our novel powers and range of prescience.

The presence of man in the world had been a first and unquestionable given, from which all idea of obligation in human conduct started out. Now it has itself become an object of obligation— the obligation namely to ensure the very premise of all obligation, i.

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The difference this makes for ethics may be illustrated in one example. Kant's categorical imperative said: "Act so that you can will that the maxim of your action be made the principle of a universal law. Mark that the basic reflection of morals here is not itself a moral but a logical one: The "I can will" or "I cannot will" expresses logical compatibility or incompatibility, not moral approbation or revulsion.

The sacrifice of the future for the present is logically no more open to attack than the sacrifice of the present for the future. The difference is only that in the one case the series goes on, and in the other it does not. But that it ought to go an, regardless of the distribution of happiness or unhappiness, even with a persistent preponderance of unhappiness over happiness, nay, even of immorality over morality — this cannot be derived from the rule of self-consistency within the series, long or short as it happens to be: it is a commandment of a very different kind, lying outside and "prior" to the series as a whole, and its ultimate grounding can only be metaphysical.

An imperative responding to the new type of human action and addressed to the new type of agency that operates it might run thus: "Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life"; or expressed negatively: "Act so that the effects of your action are not destructive of the future possibility of such life"; or simply: "Do not compromise the conditions for an indefinite continuation of humanity on earth"; or most generally: "In your present choices, include the future wholeness of Man among the objects of your will.

I can will the present good with sacrifice of the future good. It is also evident that the new imperative addresses itself to public policy rather than private conduct, which is not in the causal dimension to which that imperative applies. Kant's categorical imperative was addressed to the individual, and its criterion was instantaneous. It enjoined each of us to consider what would happen if the maxim of my present action were made, or at this moment already were, the principle of a universal legislation; the self-consistency or inconsistency of such a hypothetical universalization is made the test for my private choice.

But it was no part of the reasoning that there is any probability of my private choice in fact becoming universal law, or that it might contribute to its becoming that. The universalization is a thought-experiment by the private agent to test the immanent morality of his action. Indeed, real consequences are not considered at all, and the principle is one not of objective responsibility but of the subjective quality of my self-determination.

The new imperative invokes a different consistency: not that of the act with itself, but that of its eventual effects with the continuance of human agency in times to come.


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  8. And the "universalization" it contemplates is by no means hypothetical— i. This adds a time horizon to the moral calculus which is entirely absent from the instantaneous logical operation of the Kantian imperative: whereas the latter extrapolates into an ever-present order of abstract compatibility, our imperative extrapolates into a predictable real future as the open-ended dimension of our responsibility. Similar comparisons could be made with all the other historical forms of the ethics of contemporaneity and immediacy. The new order of human action requires a commensurate ethics of foresight and responsibility, which is as new as are the issues with which it has to deal.


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    We have seen that these are the issues posed by the works of homo faber in the age of technology. But among those novel works we haven't mentioned yet the potentially most ominous class. We have considered techne only as applied to the non-human realm. But man himself has been added to the objects of technology. Homo faber is turning upon himself and gets ready to make over the maker of all the rest.

    This consummation of his power, which may well portend the overpowering of man, this final imposition of art on nature, calls upon the utter resources of ethical thought, which never before has been faced with elective alternatives to what were considered the definite terms of the human condition.

    Take, for instance, the most basic of these "givens," man's mortality. Who ever before had to make up his mind on its desirable and eligible measure?

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    There was nothing to choose about the upper limit, the "threescore years and ten, or by reason of strength fourscore. The intellectual imagination of a George Bernard Shaw and a Jonathan Swift speculated on the privilege of not having to die, or the curse of not being able to die. Swift with the latter was the more perspicacious of the two. Myth and legend toyed with such themes against the acknowledged background of the unalterable, which made the earnest man rather pray "teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom" Psalm Nothing of this was in the realm of doing and effective decision.

    The question was only how to relate to the stubborn fact. But lately, the dark cloud of inevitability seems to lift.

    Nature, Reason, and the Good Life: Ethics for Human Beings

    A practical hope is held out by certain advances in cell biology to prolong, perhaps indefinitely extend the span of life by counteracting biochemical processes of aging. Death no longer appears as a necessity belonging to the nature of life, but as an avoidable, at least in principle tractable and long-delayable, organic malfunction.

    A perennial yearning of mortal man seems to come nearer fulfillment. And for the first time we have in earnest to ask the question "How desirable is this? How desirable for the individual, and how for the species? Even prior to such ultimate questions are the more pragmatic ones of who should be eligible for the boon: persons of particular quality and merit? The last would seem the only just course. But it would have to be paid for at the opposite end, at the source. For clearly, on a population-wide scale, the price of extended age must be a proportional slowing of replacement, i.

    The result would be a decreasing proportion of youth in an increasingly aged population. How good or bad would that be for the general condition of man? Would the species gain or lose? And how right would it be to preempt the place of youth?

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    Having to die is bound up with having been born: mortality is but the other side of the perennial spring of "natality" to use Hannah Arendt's term. This had always been ordained; now its meaning has to be pondered in the sphere of decision. To take the extreme not that it will ever be obtained : if we abolish death, we must abolish procreation as well, for the latter is life's answer to the former, and so we would have a world of old age with no youth, and of known individuals with no surprises of such that had never been before.

    But this perhaps is precisely the wisdom in the harsh dispensation of our mortality: that it grants us the eternally renewed promise of the freshness, immediacy and eagerness of youth, together with the supply of otherness as such. There is no substitute for this in the greater accumulation of prolonged experience: it can never recapture the unique privilege of seeing the world for the first time and with new eyes, never relive the wonder which, according to Plato, is the beginning of philosophy, never the curiosity of the child, which rarely enough lives on as thirst for knowledge in the adult, until it wanes there too.

    This ever renewed beginning, which is only to be had at the price of ever repeated ending, may well be mankind's hope, its safeguard against lapsing into boredom and routine, its chance of retaining the spontaneity of life. Also, the role of the memento mori in the individual's life must be considered, and what its attenuation to indefiniteness may do to it.

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    So it could be that what by intent is a philanthropic gift of science to man, the partial granting of his oldest wish— to escape the curse of mortality— turns out to be to the detriment of man. I am not indulging in prediction and, in spite of my noticeable bias, not even in valuation. My point is that already the promised gift raises questions that had never to be asked before in terms of practical choice, and that no principle of former ethics, which took the human constants for granted, is competent to deal with them.

    And yet they must be dealt with ethically and by principle and not merely by the pressure of interest. It is similar with all the other, quasi-utopian powers about to be made available by the advances of biomedical science as they are translated into technology.