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Nature's Blank Slate

Reading this article on transhumanism, I began to wonder whether the role of the "natural" in moral reasoning may be in for a major shift. The "natural" is opposed to the "social" or "artificial." In pre-modern thought, the natural provided a basis for morality. What inescapably is was taken as a blueprint for what humans ought to do, modeling contingent human choice after the necessities laid down by God. Modern thought established a boundary between ought and is, so that to describe the world no longer dictated human choices within it. Yet it still established constraints, captured in the maxim that ought implies can -- moral rules that go against what nature allows are invalid. On the other hand, to declare something to be social is to imply it can be changed. These ideas have been frequently used to make the case for ethical or policy choices -- gender roles are just social constructions, homosexuals can't help being that way, etc.

There's reason to doubt how much social factors are open to (deliberate) change. Viewed as a technological project parallel to the natural sciences, the social sciences have largely failed. There are reasons to continue to doubt the malleability of natural conditions as well, as the environmental movement has made clear. Yet in many respects, such as the medical advances touted by the transhumanists, natural technology has left social technology in the dust. It may not be too long before we'll say of some aspect of the world "oh, that's just natural, so we can fix it in a jiffy if you want."


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