Natural Law and Moral Realism

Reading up on the tradition of natural law in early enlightenment, I wondered, whether the proponents of natural law theories have been moral realists throughout as I naively assumed at the outset. Initially it seemed save to me so assume that someone who claims that there are norms to be found in nature, be it human nature or the nature of the world in general, will have to conceive that these norms exist and have stable content independent of the epistemic access to these norms by human beings (or anybody else). Having read a bit about the tradition, especially about the transitions between Grotius, Pufendorf and Thomasius, I’m not so sure about that anymore.

Two reasons awakened my skepticism: one the one hand, Pufendorf is at least by one author (Hochstrasser) described as turning against the moral realism of his predecessors. Second, there seems to be a role of human history in determining the content of natural law. If that role is merely epistemic, this would not speak against moral realism, but if human history had an influence on the content of natural law, this would cast doubt on realism.

In addition, it seems that another original intuition I had about the realism of natural law theory was overly simple: The model I had in mind was that at least the continental authors more or less assigned nature the theoretical position formerly held by a deity. If that simple model were adequate, it would speak for a simple version of moral realism. However, there are a number of contemporary and modern authors, who suggest that there is no simple switch deity-or-nature, but a more complex re-arrangement in the theory, which includes a significant role for fictive or real human covenant into the genesis of morality and its content. Other authors on the other hand (Hartung) stress the continuity, at least in the conception of obligation, between moral theology and natural right theory.

It turns out that natural law theory is much more nuanced and much more complex than some forms of modern moral naturalism. Thus possible comparisons as hinted at last September need to be much more local, not comparisons to natural law, but comparisons to one theorem of one author.

Enhancement – Has the focus moved from biotechnology to external devices?

I recently checked the publications section in the future of humanity institute, which has been knwon as a hotbed of the human enhancement debate. To my utter surprise there were extremely few articles on the topic listed for the last, say, five years. The activity of the institute seems to have been directed at AI-topics nearly exclusively. And this is just one example in the shift of attention.

Some authors have built a bridge between the topics of human enhancement and AI. The building material is the extended mind hypothesis, the thesis that extra-bodily hardware, our diverse gadgets and devices for example, can co-constitute our cognition or even our mind. This thesis has been discussed in some detail by José Hernández-Orallo and Karina Vold in an aaai paper called ‘AI Extenders: The Ethical and Societal Implications of Humans Cognitivley Extended by AI‘. Given that some of our gadgets can co-constitute our cognition and some of them run AI-based services, AI can co-constitute a part of our cognition, to put the core thesis in a nutshell. I have discussed the very same thesis in the beginning of this year in a conference in Berlin, which will be published early next year: Technology, Anthropology, and Dimensions of Responsibility.

However, I took the possibility of weirdly nested forms of cognition to be a significantly counterintuitive result of the extended mind thesis and its application to AI-based gadgets. Here is an example: You start a citizen-science project about the development of biodiversity in urban environments. The task of citizens will be to collect sample of local flora and fauna. In order to manage the project you use a project management AI and leave the selection of citizens and a major part of the communication to the system. The other day you find an invitation to take part in a cizizen science project about the development of biodiversity in urban environments in your mailbox. If you apply the extended mind hypothesis, you have engaged in an extended mind with you project management AI and the project management AI has then engaged in an extended mind with you (as a sample collecting citizen). That seems to imply that you are a part of the extended mind which extends your mind. To me this looks like a theoretical result one might want to avoid.

At the same time, the more successful cases of human performance enhancement seem to cluster around body-external technologies, be it computational tools or body support-systems like exosceletons, prosthetics, wearables etc. The current products in the biomedical route to human performance enhancement on the other hand seem to be either of limited efficiency (there are a number of studies of the effects by Repantis, Lieb, Ilieva and others), fraud with adverse effects, or (and this is an inclusive ‘or’) illegal. This might be one reason for a less enthusiastic debate about these types of enhancement (possibly with the exception of research into lifespan extension).

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.