Natural Law

I have rediscovered by fascination for the old natural law theorists, especially Grotius and Pufendorf. In some of my previous books I mentioned them shortly, but never got around to really invest much time in writing more extensively about them. That can hopefully be corrected in the near future, because I think I finally have an idea why I find these mostly forgotten authors and their theories so interesting.

I wonder whether the so called ‘old-natural law theory’ i.e. the early semi-secular natural law to be found in Grotius, Locke and Pufendorf might not be one of the most influential ethical theories, although it has nearly no official followers anymore and is widely declared dead.

I wonder not just because natural rights are alluded to in so many national constitutions. I wonder because the core idea, namely that nature contains standards of right and wrong comes up again and again in new guises. And there is one simple and fairly convincing reason for this thought to reoccur: If one assumes that standards of right and wrong do not arise out of nature, where else are they supposed to come from? That seems to me one of the reasons why many authors return to some version of natural law, be it by alluding to evolutionary advantages or to alleged neuroscientific claims about the reliability of cognitive processes realised by a particular network of neurons.

An overly simplified description of the development of natural law theory claims that the old natural law, which thinks rights (Grotius) or the law (Pufendorf) to be a part of nature has been replaced by a new natural law theory, which is influenced by the idea that the origin of law can only be found in freedom or in the concept of a law itself. This theoretical perspective, which has been influenced amongst others by Kant is often called rational law. The ratio, or better reason, behind rational law is however not considered to be a natural phenomenon explainable by the natural sciences. The contemporary re-inventions of natural law theory under different named seem to put exactly this latter claim into doubt. Even if there were something like a rational law, this rationality itself – so it is thought – is a part of nature and as such open to explanation within the natural sciences.

Obviously, nobody pursuing a naturalist account of law or ethics nowadays refers back to Grotius or Pufendorf. Still I’m curious, whether there is a sufficient similarity in the theoretical approaches of then and now, in order to learn something from old natural law for modern naturalist theories of ethics.

Enhancement and the virtues

Human enhancement – roughly: the use of biotechnological means to improve specific human functions beyond the normal healthy level – has in many publications been considered a danger to the character of its users. On the opposite, some authors claim, that human enhancement can support character development. I’m currently reading up on contributions to the literature, which go beyond general references to character or character traits by providing details, which traits exactly are in danger or might be improved.

As of now I have found much less literature than I would have hoped for. There is a detailed article by B. Fröding in Neuroethics and a complementing little book of hers. There are articles focusing on epistemic virtues in particular by Walsh. And then there is an extremely interesting book by Shannon Vallor, which however turns the question upside down: not: which character traits exactly can or should be targeted by enhancement, but which character traits should we develop in order to reasonably engage in enhancement.

Most other authors either concentrate on alleged general means functions such as increased memory or faster information processing if they want to show the valid goals of enhancement (e.g. Bostrom, Harris). Or they refer to such fairly unspecific traits as effort, discipline, refinement, which people might not be motivated to develop once they have the opportunity to enhance (e.g. Kass). Both might be valid points, but I would love to read more on the specific traits to be developed.

One reason, why this bothers me, is the discrepancy between the local ontologies – the ways to individuate traits – used by the different disciplines involved in the whole debate. In particular, many ethical arguments seem to work best, if one talks about potential support or obstacles to normatively relevant character traits, i.e. virtues. It is prima facie plausible that an increase in courage or kindness is a good thing, an obstacle to developing them a bad thing. On the other hand, it has advantages to describe possible targets of enhancement in the terminology of psychology or neurosciences. Not just, because this is the language, people who will (possibly) generate real options for enhancement speak. Also, because it avoids the normative load of the thicker terms, such as ‘virtue’. Nevertheless, this mismatch makes it hard to really put arguments into perspective, which warn against the dangers and those which highlight the potential of human enhancement.