Sunday, March 16, 2008

Technology Versus Nature: What is Natural?

  Holmes Rolston III

The question of technology versus nature must be set within the larger question of culture versus nature, as it is an intensified form of that more general issue. Technology involves artifacts, both in its etymology, from the Greek tekhne, 'art' or 'skill,' and in its central idea, the body of knowledge available to a culture for fashioning and using implements. Generally in anthropology all and only humans have a technology. More specifically, this dimension of culture has dramatically escalated in modern times, with the coupling of science and industry. That also presses the question whether such technology is natural, a question made more urgent, and puzzling, in cultures with high technology.

The parallel question is whether nature ends with technology, whether technology can and ought to bring nature to an end, and that question too has its urgency. Technology versus nature? That suggests a contest, and that technology might win, and nature be defeated. The question what is natural thus leads to conservation questions, asking whether and how far, in a technological society, the natural ought to remain. Willy-nilly, the technocrat is making decisions in environmental ethics. Those decisions are likely to be confused without a philosophical analysis of the technological and the natural.

1. Nature and everything

In one sense, 'nature' is quite a grand word, referring more or less to everything generated or produced. Natura or physis is the source from which all springs forth. So comprehensive a term becomes troublesome at once. One can get clear about the phrase 'nature and culture', which seems to indicate two domains, but if one is a metaphysical naturalist, then nature is all that there is. John Stuart Mill writes: 'Nature, then, in this its simplest acceptation, is a collective name for all facts, actual and possible, ... a collective name for everything which is'. (1)

Used in this universal or cosmological sense, claiming that 'everything is natural' is about as informative as insisting that 'everything that is, exists'. Metaphysical naturalists may need the word in this sense for their purposes, both to argue that the non-natural is an empty set, also to characterize the natural, so far as they can. Humans and all their activities will be included; humans are generated within nature and they break no natural laws. Everything technological will, on this meaning, be completely natural.

Such scope is also problematic, however, because it prevents discriminating analysis of the differences between spontaneous nature and deliberated culture. A predicate, 'natural,' that includes all actual and possible properties, excludes nothing; denoting everything is like denoting nothing, at least nothing in particular. The most forceful objection to this sense of nature, in our context, is that such definition allows no useful contrast with culture, but we need that contrast carefully analyzed if humans are going to relate their cultures, including their technologies, to nature, asking about sustainable development or about nature conservation as goals.

2. Culture distinguished from nature

A straightforward contrast class to nature is culture. John Stuart Mill continues, noting that the previous sense 'corresponds to only one of the senses of that ambiguous term'; in another sense 'Nature is opposed to Art, and natural to artificial': Nature 'means, not everything which happens, but only what takes place without the agency, or without the voluntary and intentional agency, of man. ... Nature ... is a term for everything which is of itself, without voluntary human intervention. ... All praise of Civilization, or Art, or Contrivance, is so much dispraise of Nature'. (2)

If I am hiking across wildlands, when I pass the rocks and trees, the birds and even their nests, these are natural, but if I come upon an abandoned boot, or a candy wrapper, these are artifacts, unnatural. Expanding such examples into a metaphor, the whole of civilization is producing artifacts in contrast to the products of wild spontaneous nature. Artifacts are the products of culture; they are nature cultured, and culture is something else from wild nature.

Wild animals do not form cultures, not at least cumulative transmissible cultures. Unlike coyotes or bats, humans are not just what they are by nature; humans come into the world by nature quite unfinished and become what they become by culture. Information in nature travels intergenerationally on genes; information in culture travels neurally as persons are educated into transmissible cultures. The determinants of animal and plant behavior are never anthropological, political, economic, technological, scientific, philosophical, ethical, or religious.

One sometimes encounters the term 'culture' used of animals. Opening an anthology on Chimpanzee Culture, the authors doubt, interestingly, whether there is any such thing: 'Cultural transmission among chimpanzees is, at best, inefficient, and possibly absent'. (3) There is scant and in some cases negative evidence for active imitation or teaching of the likeliest features to be transmitted, such as tool-using techniques. Chimpanzees clearly influence each other's behavior, and seem to intend to do that; they copy the behavior of others, including their tool-using. But there is no clear evidence that they attribute mental states to others, that they, for instance, attempt to change the mind (as opposed to the behavior) of another chimpanzee. They seem 'restricted to private conceptual worlds'.(4) Without some concept of teaching, of ideas moving from mind to mind, from parent to child, from teacher to pupil, a cumulative transmissible culture is impossible. That means also that a developing technology is impossible.

The view that high technology is more emergent from nature than were indigenous technologies ought not to overlook the fact that classical technologies were quite sufficient to separate humans from nature. The separation begins as soon as any culture begins to rebuild nature and becomes self-consciously reflective about this. The critical factor is the deliberated or intentional modification, coupled with espousing and critiquing world views, that separates humans in their cultures from wild nature. Plato and Socrates were as self-conscious about this as any high-tech computer expert.

Any transmissible culture, and especially modern high technology culture, does need to be discriminated from nature. The Boeing 777 jet plane is being built, seven a month, in the largest building in the world, assembling three million parts per plane. At the Everett, Washington, site, Boeing used in its design 2,200 workstations linked to eight of IBM's largest mainframes, linked with other computers and databases spread across 17 time zones around the world, bringing the total to 7,000 workstations. The information processed on this system was stored on 3.5 terabytes, which (to translate into terms meaningful to most of us) were it stored on ordinary 3.5 inch disks holding 1.44 megabytes, would require a stack of two and a half million disks nearly five miles high. Up to 248 teams, with up to 40 members, worked on the project. (5)

In addition to the technological side, there is the economic. Boeing kept an eye on competing with the A-330 Airbus, subsidized by British, French, German, and Spanish companies, with Boeing more on its own raising capital and encouraged by United's initial $ 22 billion order. That brings in politics alongside economics. The 777 is being built in a cumulative transmissible culture, using learning (such as how to make aluminum or use radar) and social processes (such as capitalism and political policies) that have a historical legacy accumulated over many centuries.

Boeings fly, like wild geese, using the laws of aerodynamics. The flight of wild geese is impressive; scientists can hardly yet be said to understand these 'bird brains' and how they migrate. Perhaps, in its own way, the evolution of wild geese in spontaneous nature is as mysterious as is the human capacity to develop Boeing jets. The information storage system in the goose genetics could, in its own way, be the equal of the Boeing system. But it is only philosophical confusion to remark that both processes are equally natural, and let it go at that. No interesting philosophical analysis is being done until there is insightful distinction into the differences between the ways humans fly in their engineered, financed jets and the ways geese fly with their genetically constructed, metabolically powered wings.

The Boeings are built within a hundred miles of old-growth forest that American environmentalists are concerned about saving; this controversy has been raging during the years of design and construction. One could even argue that saving the forests is more important than building the new Boeings; the money would be better spent saving nature than on new jets, since more of the current planes would serve us nearly as well. But one is unlikely to be guided in the rationale for conserving the forest until one recognizes that the processes that govern the forest are radically different from the processes by which the Boeing 777 is produced.

Well, beavers build dams. The naturalists may protest that beavers, if they could, would refer to their dams as artifacts and everything else as nature, including all the human artifacts, such as dams, that they might encounter. But this supposes powers of artifacting of which beavers are not capable; if beavers could blueprint their dams and make power projections of megawatts to be generated by the head of water so created (anticipating, for instance, the power demands of the enlarged factory that Boeing needs to make 777's), if they could research better dams made with synthetic materials, such as steel and fiberglass, if beaver officials would decline to give the needed building permits until the plan also included an adequate fish ladder to let the salmon go up, they would not be beavers any more.

Perhaps the beavers intend what they do when they build their dams. Animals do make some choices; not all animal behavior is stereotyped. Still, their intentionality does not greatly exceed their genetic instinct; humans have a higher order intentionality that rebuilds nature with steady intent, resulting in cumulative transmissive cultures. The Boeing plant in Everett Washington has enormously modified the nature that was displaced for its building.

Many are concerned these days, given our environmental crisis and the need for sustainable relationships with nature, to insist that culture too is natural, that humans are a part of and not apart from nature. Freya Mathews puts it this way: 'It is no longer controversial to state that a human individual is essentially a cultural being, and that culture is an emanation of Nature' (6). The Boeing 777 is not some sort of emanation from the old-growth forest. I argue that we need a stronger term; culture is an 'emergent' from nature. Nature evolved into culture; culture evolved out of nature, but it did evolve out of it. Emanation is too weak a word. Over the millennia in their cultures, humans make an increasing exodus from nature.

3. Nature environing culture

Still, we must be cautious. Nature is the milieu of culture. Using a metaphor, nature is the womb of culture, but a womb that humans never entirely leave. Nature can do much without culture-the several billion years of evolutionary history are proof of that. Culture, appearing late in natural history, can do nothing without nature as its ground. In this sense, nature is the given. No culture can ever be independent of nature, not unless some future society learns to produce matter ex nihilo. Culture will always have to be constructed out of, superposed on, nature.

No matter what kind of exodus humans make from nature, they are going to remain male or female, with hearts and livers, and blood in their veins, walking on two feet, and eating energies that were originally captured in photosynthesis by chlorophyll. Culture remains tethered to the biosystem and the options within built environments, however expanded, provide no release from nature, which remains as a life-support system. Humans depend on air flow, water cycles, sunshine, nitrogen-fixation, decomposition bacteria, fungi, the ozone layer, food chains, insect pollination, soils, earthworms, climates, oceans, and genetic materials. An ecology always lies in the background of culture, natural givens that underlie everything else. Some sort of inclusive environmental fitness is required of even the most advanced, high-tech culture.

Always, there is foundational nature. Landscapes are never completely cultural artifacts; they result from culture interacting with nature. But no sooner do humans begin to stir about in their cultures than do they modify their environing nature. Of course, animals and plants regularly reshape their environment. They dig dens, or build nests, which changes their immediately surrounding environment. They post territories and drive out competitors. Beavers build dams and alter riparian ecologies. Zebra and wildebeest graze the Serengeti plains and change the composition of the grasses that grow there; the grasses coevolve with the grazing ungulates. Insects kill trees; the dead forest is more readily ignited by lightning, and succession is reset. Trees send down roots that break up the rocks and help make soil. Leaves rot and make humus, which holds water that otherwise would run off. Photosynthesis changes the oxygen content of the atmosphere. The environment has been remade for present and latercoming trees.

But in all these cases there is no cumulative transmissible culture by which the rebuilding is done. Despite the changes they introduce, plants and animals are largely adapted to the environment in which they find themselves. These adaptations are genetic, behavioral, morphological, physiological - fur or horns or teeth, or thorns or deciduous leaves or camouflage. Culture makes possible the deliberate and cumulative, and therefore the extensive, rebuilding of nature. Humans reshape their environments, including new ones into which they expand, rather than being themselves morphologically and genetically reshaped to fit their changing environments.

Nature now widely bears the marks of human influence. There is, many claim, no unmodified nature. Culture both does and ought to modify nature. Indeed, culture is neither logically nor empirically possible without the alteration of nature. Any and all culturally-intended activity modifies spontaneous nature. But that does not gainsay the fact that there is always environing nature. No creature, humans included, can live without an environing nature. Even if we managed to end terrestrial nature, as we begin to fear in a discussion to follow, there would be the surrounding astronomical nature.

4. Natural and unnatural, artificial and artifactual

An analysis of closely interrelated terms can help, especially where these are partly descriptive and also partly normative. We have used the word 'artifact', descriptively to refer to any product of culture, and especially to its technological products, contrasted with spontaneous natural processes and their products. Made into an adjective, however, 'artificial' contains a judgmental factor, meaning not simply 'made by human craft (art)', descriptively; but also 'inferior because less good than natural', the idea being that the human manufacture fails of the quality of the natural original. When artifacts are intended to substitute for the natural, this can be so. An artificial leg is inferior to a natural leg, which has been lost in an accident, however much the artificial one is desired in those tragic circumstances. In certain contexts, we seldom want something artificial.

In other contexts, we may be quite happy with the artificial. Indeed we may praise the technological. Synthetic rubber is better for tires than real rubber. Even silk carnations may be preferred as decorations where the natural flowers, though they would be preferred in some respects, are ephemeral and trouble to keep. Although we 'naturally' incline to think that in earth-based contexts we will always prefer the natural (breathing air, eating potatoes, walking on two feet), the truth is we often make the natural more or less artificial (artifacted) to suit our pleasure (air-conditioning the air we breathe, using pesticide on the potatoes and cooking them, putting shoes on our feet and getting into an automobile).

'Artifact' becomes a non-normative adjective in 'artifacted', which, while an uncommon term, is useful as a merely descriptive one. This recalls the original meaning of 'manufactured', made by hand, although that term has now taken on an industrial sense, 'coming out of factories'. 'Synthetic' has an interesting history; once it too usually meant 'of less quality' but in recent decades that normative color has tended to vanish. There is nothing pejorative about 'synthetic oil'; like synthetic rubber, it is better than the original oil. Gore-tex, made of Teflon, has nine billion pores per square inch and passes water vapor but not liquid water, and makes fine rainwear, better than that made of rubber.

Similarly to the pejorative overtones of 'artificial', the word 'unnatural' typically carries negative connotations. On the cosmological meaning of 'natural,' if one is a metaphysical naturalist, as we have noticed, the non-natural is an empty set. Nothing is unnatural. But in axiological contexts, 'unnatural' carries the force of 'against nature', like 'un-American' means 'against America'. In that sense, one seldom wants to be 'unnatural,' since this often suggests violating natural goods. Those who dislike hair dyed purple will complain that the color is unnatural, although of course most blondes are equally unnatural, with the difference being that blonde is a color of human hair that is found in spontaneous nature on other heads, while purple is not. The complaint that homosexuality is unnatural carries considerable force, recognizing that males and females form the only biologically possible reproductive pairs. The human race would go extinct, if homosexuality were the norm and universally observed. At the same time a marriage ceremony, with the wedding party in gowns and tuxedos, bride and groom making an exchange of rings before a clergyman, is unnatural in the sense that no such service is found in spontaneous nature. Strictly speaking, the unnatural is not just the river that is undesirably polluted with chemicals from leaky factories. The unnatural includes all the good things, as well as the bad ones, brought to humans in culture by technology and craftsmanship. But the overtones of the word 'unnatural' are such that we will prefer to call these 'cultural' goods in contrast to 'natural' goods.

The rapid development of contemporary technology opens up the possibility that, in the next millennium, nature will be less and less constitutional, as it is more and more modified, in the increasingly technologically sophisticated world of the future. Nature will become not so much redundant as increasingly plastic. The technicians can get houses out of trees, also clothing out of crude oil, a turkey with more white meat by gene-splicing, and this molecule out of that molecule, even this atom out of that one, whatever x out of whatever y. Human life will depend less and less on working with natural kinds (feldspar, turkeys, cellulose, or carbon) and more and more on artifacted kinds (vinyl, transgenic turkeys, fiberglass, or Teflon).

How far might this go? Engineers are hard at work on artificial photosynthesis.(7)Might we prefer this, if it gives us a better food supply? Biochemists have already made artificial blood, where the hydrogen atoms are replaced by fluorine atoms.(8) Such blood is being tested in medical treatments because it is resistant to leukemia and to certain toxins. People might come to prefer it. What would be wrong with people with artificial blood eating artificial food? One way to answer is to set this question in a larger framework, to look at what might be the end of which this is the beginning. What would be wrong with people rebuilding the planet? This forces the question whether and how far we really do wish for nature to be replaced by technology.

5. The planetary managers

Editing a Scientific American issue on 'Managing Planet Earth', William Clark writes that humans are moving toward consciously managing the Earth. Here 'two central questions must be asked. What kind of planet do we want? What kind of planet can we get?'(9). Earth is now in a post-evolutionary phase. Culture is the principal determinant of Earth's future, more now than nature; we are passing into a century when this will be increasingly obvious. Indeed, some say, that will be the principal novelty of the new millennium; Earth will be a managed planet.

At the one extreme in range is microtechnology, already realized in computing and genetics, with nanotechnology in prospect.(10) We can design our children, or make transuranic elements. At the other extreme is planetary engineering, for example in weather manipulation. The U.S. Federal Weather Modification Advisory Board, established under the National Weather Modification Act of 1976, has reported that, with proper funding, the U.S. could, within twenty years, control rainfall in the Midwest, the amount of snow in the Rockies, the velocity of hurricanes on the Plains, and make the science and practice of weather modification a reality all over the nation.(11)

Henri Bergson, writing early in this century, was prophetic. With the coming of the industrial age, when science joined with technology, we crossed the threshold of a new epoch.

In thousands of years, when, seen from the distance, only the broad outlines of the present age will still be visible, our wars and our revolutions will count for little, even supposing they are remembered at all; but the steam-engine, and the procession of inventions of every kind that accompanied it, will perhaps be spoken of as we speak of the bronze or of the chipped stone of prehistoric time: it will serve to define an age.(12)

The transition from muscle and blood, whether of humans or of horses, to engines and gears shifts by many orders of magnitude the capacity of humans to transform their world. Even more recently, the capacity to produce has been augmented by the capacity for information transfer. Consider the transition from handwriting to printing, from communication by written mail to electronic communication, from information processing in books to information processing by computers. All this has occurred in a few hundred years, much of it in decades we ourselves recall.

In the course of human history, there have been epochal changes of state, such as the transition from hunter/gatherer cultures to agriculture, from oral to written cultures, the discovery of fire, the discovery of iron. In our epoch, we have seen the coupling of science and technology. The next century will indeed launch a new millennium. The industrial age. The technological age. The postmodern world? The postnatural world?

Nature will be increasingly humanized. Activities on the planet will center on humans. 'Dominate' remains a somewhat disliked word, since it has echoes of the abuse of power. But 'manage' is still quite a positive term. Humans have, now and increasingly, the power to impose their will on nature, re-making it to their preferences. With so much human power already on hand, with planetary managers already at work, one does need to ask whether nature is already at an end.

6. Nature at an end?

All culturally-intended activity modifies spontaneous wild nature. The essence of culture is the deliberate rebuilding of nature. 'Man is by nature a political animal,' said Aristotle.(13) The human genus may be animal, but the human differentia or essence is to build a polis, a town. The human habitat is village, town, city, which is another way of saying that human life is political, social, or, as we have been saying, cultural and technological. In agriculture, the plowed field is symbolic-an artifact remade from nature, using a technology, the plow. Ancient cultures, not less than modern ones, re-made the landscapes they used for their villages, fields, and flocks.

The question whether technology has ended nature is one of degree. Certainly, nature now bears the marks of human influence more widely than ever before. In one survey, using three categories, researchers find the proportions of Earth's terrestrial surface altered as follows: 1. Little disturbed by humans, 51.9%. 2. Partially disturbed, 24.2%. 3. Human dominated, 23.9%. Factoring out the ice, rock, and barren land, which supports little human or other life, the percentages become: 1. Little disturbed, 27.0%. 2. Partially disturbed 36.7%. 3. Human dominated 36.3%.(14) Most terrestrial nature is dominated or partially disturbed (73.0%). Still, nature that is little or only partially disturbed remains 63.7% of the habitable Earth. Also, of course, there is the sea, less affected than the land; and the oceans cover most of the Earth.

In another study, researchers found that humans now control 40% of the planet's land-based primary net productivity, that is, the basic plant growth which captures the energy on which everything else depends.(15) That is worrisome, but it does leave 60% still in the spontaneously wild. Possibly, with ever-increasing transformation of nature, whatever residual nature remains may cease to be of interest or significance for what it is in itself, with value attached more and more to the artifacted characteristics now superimposed on what was once wild nature. There will typically be degrees of modification, of artifact, intermixed with degrees of the natural: the relatively natural, the relatively cultured-or agri-cultured, or manufactured.

Nature is mixed with human 'labor' or 'industry'. A revealing word here is 'resource'. Where there is a natural 'source' that has been or can be 're-directed' by deliberated technology into channels of human interest and preference, nature is redone, 're-sourced,' made over into an artifact that we can use. To use a more philosophical word, nature is 'transformed', its form is transmuted into a more desirable humanized form. To use a scientific-engineering word, human values are 'synthetic'. Of course, some second-order technological effects on nature are not intended. No one intended for DDT to thin the eggshells of the peregrine falcons. But the first order effects are intended. If nature means absolutely pristine nature, totally unaffected by human activities, past or present, there is relatively little remaining on Earth-if our detection instruments are keen enough. There is DDT in penguins in Antarctica.

Still, nature on Earth can be relatively pristine, as it is in Antarctica, despite the DDT in the penguins. Sometimes one encounters the objection that the slightest human intervention has a sort of totalizing effect, and brings straightway the end of nature. This is like saying that the whole moon is pristine no more because the astronauts took a few steps on it, or that the sky is not natural because some jet planes have flown through it. It is true that certain human technological actions do have unintended consequences that spread everywhere; there are contagious effects that seep into the nooks and crannies of all nature. This might be true of global warming, or perhaps of toxic chemicals that are non-biodegradable and have cumulative effects, or maybe even of exotic weeds, their seeds carried afar on ships and trains.

Most human activities, however, do not have such far-reaching effects. The world is too pluralist for that. Not everything is that tightly bound up to everything else. Is it the case, for instance, that, owing to human disturbances in the Yellowstone Park ecosystem, we have lost any possibility of letting the park be natural? In an absolute sense this is true, since there is no square foot of the park in which humans have not disturbed the predation pressures. There is no square foot of the park on which rain falls without detectable pollutants. But it does not follow that nature has absolutely ended, because it is not absolutely present. Answers come in degrees. Events in Yellowstone can remain 99.44% natural on many a square foot, indeed on hundreds of square miles, in the sense (recalling the language of the United States Wilderness Act) that they are substantially 'untrammeled by man'. Humans can put the wolves back and clean up the air, and humans have recently done both. Where the system was once disturbed by humans and subsequently restored or left to recover on its own, wildness can return.

Nature has not been brought to an end, not yet at least. But we do have to face that possibility in the future. Daniel Botkin agrees: 'Nature in the twenty-first century will be a nature that we make'. 'We have the power to mold nature into what we want it to be.' Of course he, like everybody else, urges us 'to manage nature wisely and prudently,' and, to that end, ecology can 'instrument the cockpit of the biosphere'. That sounds like high-tech engineering which brings wild nature under our control, remolding it into an airplane that we fly where we please. So it first seems, although Botkin-the ecologist in him returning-does go on to warn that it is important to recognize that 'the guide to action is our knowledge of living systems and our willingness to observe them for what they are' and 'to recognize the limits of our actions'. (16)

'We can outdo evolution.' So claims David Biltmore, a microbiologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a 1975 Nobel laureate, speaking of biotech genetics.(17) Edward Yoxen agrees: 'This is not just a change of technique, it is a new way of seeing. ... The limitations of species can be transcended by splicing organisms, combining functions, dovetailing abilities and linking together chains of properties. The living world can now be viewed as a vast organic Lego kit inviting combination, hybridisation, and continual rebuilding. Life is manipulability. ... Thus our image of nature is coming more and more to emphasise human intervention through a process of design'.(18) The technicians can transfer genetic material between plants and animals, or between diverse animal lines, or between animals and humans. Or make clones of species that naturally reproduce only sexually, or send genetic information on fiberoptic transmission lines, or make new amino acids, beyond the twenty naturally occurring ones, and incorporate them into proteins.

Perhaps evolution has been overtaken by human engineering, but is it not true that humans will always need an ecology? We have not gotten past the need for a life support system, the environing nature of which we earlier spoke. Nevertheless, humans do not any longer have anything like an ecological relationship to any local ecosystem in which they have an evolved niche. We eat bananas from Central America; the average bite of food eaten in the United States has travelled 1,200 miles. Even the food we eat from closer to home has been grown in radically transformed ecosystems. We can re-engineer our ecosystems. Michael Soulé faces this prospect:

In 2100, entire biotas will have been assembled from (1) remnant and reintroduced natives, (2) partly or completely engineered species, and (3) introduced (exotic) species. The term natural will disappear from our working vocabulary. The term is already meaningless in most parts of the world because anthropogenic [activities] have been changing the physical and biological environment for centuries, if not millennia.(19)

Humans have always had to rest their cultures upon a natural life support system. Their technosphere was constructed inside the biosphere. But in the future that could change; the technosphere could supercede the biosphere. The focus of science would no longer be the laws of nature and how we can use them. Classical science has been grouped into the natural and the social sciences, depending on the object of study, nature or culture. Interestingly, today we have a new domain of science: the sciences of the artificial. Computer science, for example, is a science of artifacts. Other scientists study Teflon, or the transuranic, superheavy elements (like plutonium), or the engineered biotas that Soulé envisions. These sciences do not, of course, violate any laws of nature, neither those of physics or chemistry; thermodynamics and gravity still reign. But they do bring into play forces hitherto unknown in nature; their constructions are not natural kinds, but artifacts. The processes that govern such artifacts are not those of wild nature, but those that scientists have elected to create. Scientists will sometimes need new laws which did not operate and were only potentially there in old nature. Or, if you prefer, they were always there, but there were no empirical instantiations of such laws; they were empty sets.

So it does seem possible to end nature by transforming it into something humanized. This has already been taking place, and the future promises more, at an escalating pace. Over great stretches of Earth, wild nature has been already or likely will be diminished in favor of civilization. In some sense, that ought to be so. This ending may be always, in its own way, a sad thing; but it is an inevitable thing, and the culture that replaces nature can have compensating values. It would be sadder still, if culture had never appeared to grace the Earth, or if cultures had remained so modest that they had never substantially modified the landscape. Humans too belong on the planet; and the epoch of evolutionary nature, and even of ecological nature, is over. That is what is right about the view that with the arrival of humans, their cultures, and their technologies, pristine nature vanishes. Nature does not vanish equally and everywhere, but there has been loosed on the planet such a power that wild nature will never again be the dominant determinant of what takes place on the inhabited landscapes.

7. Once and future nature

But this is not the whole truth. Nature neither is, nor ought to be, completely ended. Or everywhere ended. Rather, humans can and ought at times and places to make nature an end in itself, complementary to their own human ends. We do not want entirely to transform the natural into the cultural, nor do we want entirely to blend the cultural into the natural. Neither realm ought to be reduced to, or homogenized with, the other. We do not want a humanized, technologically controlled nature, shore to shore, ocean to ocean, pole to pole. Humanizing it all does not make us a part of it; rather, the dominant species becomes still more dominant by managing all. That, ipso facto, sets us apart; the one species that manages the place. Rather, we humans, dominant though we are, want to be a part of something bigger, and this we can only do by sometimes drawing back to let others be. This we do precisely by recognizing the otherness of wildness, by setting aside places as wildlands, as wilderness where we will not remain, which we will not trammel.

Humans need to see their lives in a larger context, as embedded in, surrounded by, evolved out of a sphere of natural creativity that is bigger than we are. Humans who cannot do this never know who they are and where they are; they live under some other and inadequate mythology. In that sense, it is important that this nature is independent of humans.

Management does require humanizing the landscapes on which we reside. The future will be, over most of the landscape, inescapably, a synthetic world. We might as well be philosophical about this. The Hegelian dialectic may be useful. Nature is the thesis, culture the antithesis, and cultures harmonized with nature the synthesis. But, as usually formulated, the Hegelian dialectic suggests too strongly that original nature, the thesis, is entirely transformed in the synthesis, and passes over into something else. The word 'dialectic', used in the Greek sense, is better illustrated with the twin foci of a geometrical ellipse, also with the double arrows of a state of chemical equilibrium. We are after a complementarity; a Taoist would appeal to his yang-yin bipolarity.

Some events are generated under the control of a focus that we label culture; such events are in the urban zone, where 'urban' marks those arts and achievements where the contributions of spontaneous nature are no longer evident in the criteria of evaluation, though they remain among the precursor events. This is the political zone, recalling how 'political' is derived from the Greek polis, town. This is the artifactual, the technological domain.

At the other extreme, a wild region of events is generated by spontaneous nature. These events take place in the absence of humans; they are what they are in themselves-wildflowers, loons calling, or a storm at sea. Although humans come to understand such events through the mediation of their cultures, they are evaluating events generated under the natural focus of the ellipse. The constraint of nature is maximal, the contribution of culture is minimal.

A domain of hybrid or synthetic events is generated under the simultaneous control of both foci, a resultant of integrated influences from nature and culture, under the sway variously of more or less nature and culture. Nature is re-directed into cultural channels, pulled into the cultural orbit. This happens when human labor and craft put natural properties to use in culture, mixing the two to good effect in agricultural, industrial, scientific, medical, and technological applications, or to adverse effect by mistake and spillover. But always culture has to answer to what is objectively out there in nature.

The ellipse with its twin foci is first an ontological and epistemological metaphor portraying events in both nature and culture, and their synthesis; it is also an axiological and ethical metaphor. Humans construct or constitute the knowledge that arises within culture, at that focus. That is the cumulative transmissible culture, without which we know little or nothing. Such culture is real; it is an ontological entity that comes into being where, in wild nature over the millennia of evolutionary history, no such thing before existed. In this sense culture is something apart from nature. Such culture has epistemological powers; humans who enjoy these epistemic powers become cognitively informed in ways that were without precedent in wild nature. They know how to read, and write, and make tools, and books, scientific instruments, automobiles, telephones. These powers operate to expand culture; they also operate to study nature.

But another focus is nature as generator of events, objective to culture, constraining what can be constructed, whether in culture (what kinds of computers can be built) or in nature (what theories of global warming are true). Each of the foci critiques the other; the realities of nature test the wisdom of any culture; differing cultures take differing perspectives on the natural world within which they are situated and which they rebuild.

'Symbiosis' is a parallel biological word, more positive than 'synthetic' or 'hybrid'. René Dubos claimed:
The symbiotic interplay between man and nature can generate ecosystems more diversified and more interesting than those occurring in the state of wilderness. ... By using scientific knowledge and ecological wisdom we can manage the earth so as to create environments which are ecologically stable, economically profitable, and favorable to the continued growth of civilization.(20)

The result is a humanized nature. In the symbiosis zone, we have both and neither (synthesis), but we do not forget there remain event-zones in which the principal determinant is culture (antithesis), and other zones in which the principal determinant remains spontaneous nature (thesis). We do not want the ellipse to collapse into a circle, especially not one that is anthropocentric.

Nature as it once was, nature as an end in itself, is no longer the whole story. Nature as contrasted with culture is not the whole story either. One can dwell on the extremes in either direction. Much of life does take place in the symbiotic zone, and there we need an adequate theory lest our practices go astray. Wendell Berry raises this fear:

The moral landscape of the conservation movement has tended to be a landscape of extremes. ... On the one hand we have the unspoiled wilderness, and on the other hand we have scenes of utter devastation-strip mines, clearcuts, industrially polluted wastelands, and so on. We wish, say the conservationists, to have more of the one, and less of the other. To which, of course, one must say amen. But it must be a qualified amen, for the conservationists' program has been embarrassingly incomplete. Its picture of the world as either deserted landscape or desertified landscape has misrepresented both the world and humanity. If we are to have an accurate picture of the world, even in its present diseased condition, we must interpose between the unused landscape and the misused landscape a landscape that humans have used well.(21)

The more perceptive environmentalists have always seen that it is a mistake, in their zeal for nature, to think of all culturally occupied lands as being 'disturbed' or 'trammelled'. Managed they must be, and only semi-natural, but over much of the landscape, the goal is humans in a sustainable relationship (a dialogue, an equilibrium, a synthesis, a symbiosis) with nature. Here culture gardens nature. Nature is no longer wild.

There is truth in the Hegelian model, but only a half-truth, if the result is nature passing away, or culture passing away, the both passing over into something that is neither. Certainly over much of the domesticated landscape, this will be the case. An environmental ethic is not just about wildlands, but about humans at home on their landscapes, humans in their culture residing also in nature. This will involve resource use, sustainable development, managed landscapes, the urban and rural environments. This will produce a policy for the British countryside, the American West, the Australian outback. It will produce legislation protecting wildlife, rivers, mountains, clean air, soil, water by regulating levels of pollutants and toxic substances. But the half-truth of the Hegelian model itself needs to be complemented by the elliptical model, where, even on a planet dominated by human technology, much of what goes on does so under the natural focus. The moral technologist does not wish the end of nature everywhere; we sometimes wish nature as an end in itself.

In conclusion, we should end with a sense in which nature has not ended and never will. This is the truth in the adage that nature bats last. Humans stave off natural forces, but the natural forces can and will return, if one takes away the humans. In that sense, nature is forever lingering around. Given a chance, which will come sooner or later, natural forces will flush out human effects, similarly to the way in which natural effects themselves also are often washed out. Even if the original wildness does not return, nature having been irreversibly knocked into some alternative condition, wildness will return to take what course it may.

To put this thermodynamically: Nature contains entropic forces that tear down high negentropic structures, unless these are constantly maintained by an informed energy input. Generally, the struggle for life is in countercurrent to entropy; metabolism directs the synthesis and repair of the highly ordered protein structures that compose the organs of the body. At death, the forces of entropy take over and the body decays. If the organism that dies happens to be a human, who also has made extrasomatic artifacts, not only does the body decay but the artifacts too begin to decay, once they are longer maintained extrasomatically by the care of the embodied person. In time, entropy wipes out the remnants of culture, as it does the corpse of the body. Nature is indifferent to whether these high negentropic structures were constructed by genetic information or by cultural information, even that of high technology. This also means that if we humans, while yet alive, withdraw from the maintenance of our cultural artifacts, the entropic forces will take over to flush out the ephemeral effects of cultural intervention.

Nor is it just the entropic forces of nature that return. The self-organizing (autopoietic) forces reappear as well. If you wonder whether nature has ended, watch what happens on a vacant lot when its former owners move away. One might first think that there is no nature left, since the lot is filled with the rubble of artifacts from a technological culture-pop cans and broken concrete blocks. But nature comes back, and soon there are weeds sprouting up, a lush growth of them, if there is rain and the soil is not too contaminated. We could almost say, in a more philosophical mood, that nature still knows how to value the place, or knows, as it flushes out the human disruptions, what values to put in place that can still be sustained there. In that sense, a vacant city lot, which might seem to be a place where nature has quite ended, is, if watched a little longer, a place that testifies eloquently to how nature, managed and mismanaged by humans though it may be, does not and cannot end. In, with, and under culture, there is always this once and future nature.


1 John Stuart Mill, 'Nature', in Three Essays on Religion, 1874, in Collected Works, vol. 10 (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), pages 372-402, citation on p. 374, p. 377.
2 Ibid., pp. 374-375, p. 377, p. 381.
3 Richard W. Wrangham, W. C. McGrew, Frans B. M. De Waal, and Paul G. Heltne, eds., Chimpanzee Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 2.
4 Ibid.
5 Henry Petroski, 'The Boeing 777', American Scientist 83 (1995):519-522.
6 Freya Mathews, The Ecological Self (Savage, Maryland: Barnes and Noble Books, 1991), p. 138.
7 Nathan S. Lewis, 'Artificial Photosynthesis', American Scientist 83 (1995):534-541.
8 Harold Hart, Organic Chemistry, 8th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1991), pp. 189-190.
9 William C. Clark, 'Managing Planet Earth', Scientific American 261 (no. 3, September 1989): 46-54.
10 K. Eric Drexler, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1992).
11 Weather Modification Advisory Board, The Management of Weather Resources, vol. 1, Proposals for a National Policy and Program, Report to the Secretary of Commerce (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1978).
12 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (London: Macmillan and Co., 1911), p. 146.
13 Politics I,2. 1253a.
14 Lee Hannah, David Lohse, Charles Hutchinson, John L. Carr and Ali Lankerani, 'A Preliminary Inventory of Human Disturbance of World Ecosystems', Ambio 23(1994):246-50.
15 Peter M. Vitousek, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Pamela A. Matson, 'Human Appropriation of the Products of Biosynthesis', BioScience 36(1986):368-373.
16 Daniel B. Botkin, Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 192-193, pp. 200-201.
17 Quoted in Michael Rogers, Biohazard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), p. 52.
18 Edward Yoxen, The Gene Business: Who Should Control Biotechnology? (New York: Harper and Row, 1983) p. 2, p. 15.
19 Michael E. Soulé, 'Conservation Biology in the Twenty-first Century: Summary and Outlook', in David Western and Mary Pearl, eds., Conservation for the Twenty-first Century (Oxford, Oxford UP, 1989), p. 301.
20 René J. Dubos, 'Humanizing the Earth', Science 179(23 February 1973):769-772); also 'Symbiosis Between the Earth and Humankind', Science 193 (6 August 1976):459-462.
21 Wendell Berry, 'The Obligation of Care', Sierra 80(no. 5, September/October 1995):62-67, 101, citation on p. 64.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Citizenship, Practical Reason and Narrative Ethics

By: Dr. Sheila Mason, Concordia University

We will achieve no lasting moral progress unless and until the daily unremarkable lives of people distant from us become real in the fabric of our own daily lives, until our everyday eudaimonistic judgments about our important ends include them as ends…” (Nussbaum, 2003, p.249)

High standards need strong sources. (Taylor, 1989, p. 516).


By what process does a value such as that of compassion, or generosity, ‘become real’ for us? How do we make the transition from indifference to verbal consent to wholehearted commitment to a value so that it becomes part of the ‘fabric of our lives’? What ‘sources’ are there to support our values? Do we just decide, by an act of will, to include these concerns once we conclude that they are reasonable? How do we expand our ‘standing desires’, the ones which do motivate us on a daily basis, to include something as large as the well-being of distant people or factory farmed animals?

There are two very general opposing approaches to this set of questions taken by philosophers and social scientists. Those who aspire to a scientific description of the world want to claim that there are no values in nature. Others find the reduction of thinking to scientific thinking to be a mistake and seeking to escape the deleterious effects of such ‘scientism’ have reintroduced a broader concept of thinking which includes moral understanding (Polanyi, 1962; Murdoch, 1970; Nussbaum,1990; Taylor, 1989; Taylor, 2000; Taylor, 2002; Wiggins, 2002; MacIntyre, 1984; McDowell,2002; Bruner, 1990). “To insist upon explanation in terms of ‘causes’ simply bars us from trying to understand how human beings interpret their worlds and how we interpret their acts of interpretation” (Bruner, 1990, p. xiii). According to the views I wish to describe in this paper interpretations are not merely arbitrary productions of the human mind, explicable, if at all, in terms of a causal history. “It is a terrible thing to try to live a life without believing in anything . But surely that doesn’t mean that just any old set of concerns and beliefs will do….Surely if any old set would do, that is the same as life’s being meaningless (Wiggins, 2002, p. 89).

The aim of this paper is to draw attention to some valuable recent writings on moral understanding and moral motivation. There are interesting parallels to be found in discussions of practical reason, narrative and the use of metaphor in poetry. My hope is that attention to these insights will enhance our appreciation of the kind of reflection and conversation that contributes to moral understanding as well as to insights about the difficult problem of extending moral motivation to include the concerns of distant sufferers within the ‘fabric of our lives’.

The Theory of Practical Reason

“Generally practical reason is any reasoning aiming at a conclusion concerning what to do” (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1996). For contemporary Virtue Theorists it is the ability to reason well about things that are of importance in life; such reasoning issues in good judgment in practice. This form of reasoning includes reasoning about the ‘ends’ worth pursuing and the best means to these ends.

Once we manage to discern which values call for realization in a particular situation, that is to say which ends are both worth pursuing and feasible in specific situations, we come to see that some of the means to these ends are themselves ‘constitutive’ of the ends in question. This line of thinking is a useful corrective to any orientation that is too focused on the final product. A good deal of meaning and satisfaction is to be derived from the activities which constitute our practices. So when we are reflecting upon what to do, that is trying to determine what the important thing is in any specific situation, we discover that certain responses count in themselves as the partial or total realization of the end (Wiggins, 2002, p. 220). The goal of many of our activities is realized in the doing. For example, an act of courage such as speaking up in public on behalf of corporate justice as Ray Anderson has done (Bakan, 2004) can be assessed both for its success, ‘did this act accomplish the persuasion intended?’ as well as for its ‘intrinsic’ value. Acts of courage are valuable as such because courage is a good and worthy trait, it is part of a life well lived, independently of its usefulness on particular occasions. A person makes use of this kind of thinking when he or she deliberates about what kind of life he wants to lead, or deliberates in a determinate context about which of several possible course of action would conform most closely to some ideal he holds before himself, or deliberates about what would constitute eudaimonia [human flourishing or happiness] here and now, or (less solemnly) deliberates about what would count as the achievement of the not yet completely specific goal which he has already set himself in the given situation (Wiggins, 2002, p. 220).

According to this theory of practical reasoning there are several factors whose juxtaposition and interaction make up practical thinking. In the first case we have a general standing desire, aim or goal, say to be help people, which we want to include it in the fabric of our daily lives. This value, so formulated has a certain vagueness to it. We might imagine paradigm cases or basic-level categorizations (Lakoff, 1987) of ‘helping people’ or ‘contributing to society’, or ‘giving back’ some of what we have received from others, or some such idea. The important move takes place when we are in a particular situation that calls for such a response. Now we have an opportunity to enact this general orientation or value by determining what to do, discerning what is to count as an expression of the general value. John McDowell illustrates this way of thinking with the following example: I might be looking forward to going to a party on Friday night. Just before leaving a friend comes by with a serious problem and obviously needs attention. I see the situation as one calling for a response to this person, as an occasion to put the general value into practice. If I am sufficiently committed to the general value I will respond to the need and forget about the party. In such a case other courses of action which are incompatible with the response that is called for in that situation are not weighed against the preferred course but are ‘silenced’ (McDowell, 2002).

This example illustrates two interesting things about practical reasoning. The first is that in order to discern the ‘salient’ features of the situation described in the example, I already have to be committed to the value of generosity, I have to care about being generous. If I were indifferent to this value I might not even perceive my friend’s need as important and I would certainly not perceive it as having any bearing on me. The presence of the general value in my life and the emotions associated with it enable me to read the situation and to ‘read myself into’ the situation (Nussbaum, 1990). Secondly, if I never encountered specific situations like the one in the example I would remain with a very general value that played only a minor role in my daily life, or no role at all. I might, for example, think of generosity as calling for monetary contributions to good causes and write out cheques to these causes once a year (Braybrooke, 2003). But this would be an impoverished understanding of the value. We need the practical specific occasions in order to crystallize our general concerns in a practical way. The virtue of practical reason consists in the ability to connect the general with the specific in such a way as to gain insight into both: what the value really means and what is salient in particular situations. The virtue of practical reason consists in the cognitive ability to discern what is important in general and to recognize what is important in a given situation, and to be properly affected by that recognition. Aristotle characterizes the virtuous person as one who feels the emotions and performs actions “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way” (Aristotle, 1941, 1106b20-23). This kind of understanding can be represented in the form of a syllogism:

The first or major premise mentions something that can be the subject of desire, orexis , transmissible to some practical conclusion (i.e,, a desire convertible via some available minor premise into action). The second premise details a circumstance pertaining to the feasibility, in the particular situation to which the syllogism is applied, of what must be done if the claim of the major premises is to be heeded (Wiggins, 2002, p. 227).

According to this theory moral understanding is a dialectical process which involves a dynamic interaction between the general and the particular. Each part of the process is modified in our reading of practical situations, so that what I see depends on what I value and what I value is clarified by what I see.

The person of real practical wisdom is the one who brings to bear upon a situation the greatest number of genuinely pertinent concerns and genuinely relevant considerations commensurate with the importance of the deliberative context. The best practical syllogism is that whose minor premise arises out of such a one’s perceptions, concerns and appreciations. It records what strikes the person as the in the situation most salient feature of the context in which he has to act. This activates a corresponding major premise that spells out the general import of the concern that makes this feature the salient feature of the situation (Wiggins, p. 233).

This analysis of the components of evaluative thinking enables us to ask some interesting questions. First, “how do we identify the general values that we should include in our major premise?”. Secondly, “Why should a person care about generosity, or kindness, or courage or truthfulness? And what if they do not care about these values?” A third question might be “How should we characterize a person who sometimes feels like being kind, or courageous and does not feel like it at other times?”. Contemporary virtue theorists hold that these are issues concerning the acquisition of deep and rich understanding and admit that it is impossible to convince a thoroughgoing sceptic of the value of something if that person has not already incorporated it into his or her life. A thoroughgoing sceptic holds a very stark view [and] sees no meaning in anything. But it is evidently absurd to try to reduce the sharpness of the viewpoint by saying that meaning can be introduced into the world thus seen by the addition of human commitment. Commitment to what? [Such a] conceptual scheme articulates nothing that it is humanly possible to care about (Wiggins, 2002, p. 121).

One can only grasp the significance of right conduct “via the notion of a virtuous person. … from the inside out” (McDowell, 1998, p. 50). The whole process of reasoning about our highest ideals must take place from within ‘moral space’. “My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done..” (Taylor, 1989, p. 27). If we have no clue about the value of generosity we will need some powerful experience to give us the clue. Similarly when we waffle and act inconsistently it is because we lack a rich and vivid experiential understanding of the value. The cultivation of virtue is precisely the cultivation of this vivid sense of commitment.

This way of characterizing moral understanding has an almost trivial air to it. It sounds like basic common sense. Yet we live in a culture, both social and intellectual, which repeatedly tells us to maximize pleasure and minimize pain at any cost, and we are continuously exposed to the idea that a life well lived is a life in pursuit of the satisfaction of as many desires as possible. The point that virtue theorists want to emphasize is that not all desires and not all pleasures are part of a worthy life (Nussbaum, 1990; MacIntyre, 2001). Take, for example, the desire for knowledge. From the perspective of Aristotle’s theory, knowledge is a good thing, not because we sometimes desire knowledge, which we do, but on the contrary, we desire knowledge because it is a good thing independently of the state of our desires (Taylor, 1989; Finnis, 1980). This reverses the current culturally embedded idea that things are only good if they are the objects of desire. But putting desire at the head of the list, so to speak, prevents us from finding criteria for choosing among desires, and from knowing which desires to cultivate and which to minimize.

How do we cultivate the right desires and how do we sharpen our appreciation of values so that we are capable of creative solutions to practical problems? We need experience coupled with reflection so as to cultivate a moral understanding that increases in breadth and depth (Kekes, 1984) returning us constantly to the richness of the world. Narrative is the vehicle which takes us directly into that world because narrative understanding involves a pulling together of elements into a gestalt, much the way practical reasoning involves a pulling together of the major premise with the minor premise to engender a new gestalt.

Narrative Knowing

The phrase ‘narrative knowing’ is redundant because the root of ‘narrative’ is ‘gnarare, gnarus’: ‘knowing’, ‘to give an account of ‘ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1968). Yet in a world heavily influenced by scientific paradigms of knowledge and rational decision making, it is worth emphasizing the cognitive component of narrative and, showing, as I hope to do here, that narrative provides the occasion for us to enrich and renew our knowledge of what is important in human life. Further, I want to show that narrative can provide emotional contact with the deepest “sources” of our standards and ideals.

In this section I begin with a story which illustrates an ‘epiphany’ which for Charles Taylor is the means of breaking through from ordinary thinking to contact with our moral sources. I will analyze the story making use of Ricoeur’s notion of ‘plot’ and ‘making present’.

The Language Lesson

You walk the halls of this place, and what do you see from room to room? Most people peer in and see this retarded child or that one. They focus on this particular mannerism or that deformity. I do it too. It’s very compelling, that picture.

But one kid flipped me around on that. We were doing language exercises. And for some godforsaken reason I’d chose the exchange “How are you?” …”I’m doing fine.”We’d go back and forth. Well, he was having quite a hard time of it, slurring out, “Iy dluee fie” or some such. “Let’s try again, really slowly,” I said. “How … are…you?” And he slurred “Iy dluee fie”. Then suddenly he burst into this wonderful crazy laugh. It was the nuttiest sound we’d ever heard, either of us. He wasn’t doing fine at all. Neither was I. We were doing terribly. It was absurd. We just be fan to howl.

In the midst of that he suddenly gave me this very clear look-the eyes behind the expression. And I had a sudden thought: “My God, he knows more that I’ll ever know about all this. He sees the whole situation.” At which point he just scrunched up his face like a clown and gave me this wonderful wink.

I was just stunned. All I could see was this incredible sense of the humor of things. It was so deep in him. He just had it all in perspective. And he gave that perspective to me.

When I left him, my head was spinning. I walked down the hall and looked into the other rooms, at kids I’d known, or so I’d thought, for months. It was totally new. I don’t quite know how to describe it. In this room I saw courage. In that room I saw joy. Across the hall, patience. In yet another room , such sweetness: a little boy who was so continuously filled with love.. (cited in Dass & Gorman, 1985, pp. 140-141).

Three elements of this story stand out as examples of the kind of narrative knowing that enhances our grasp of value: surprise, humor and awe. The story begins with ordinary categories of thought: ‘retarded’ children, and the ‘logical’ approach to problem solving which states that if there is a deficiency, repeated practice will remedy it. The surprise comes with the sudden flash of recognition of the incongruity of that approach, repeating this particular sentence whose meaning was absurdly false in the context. This opens a dimension that was previously hidden from view: the emotional recognition of deep human values.

Following Charles Taylor we can characterize this experience as an ‘epiphany’. The term ‘epiphany’ has its roots in the Greek word ‘phainos’, that which appears or is manifest. Taylor has made use of this notion to support his view that the strong sources which we need to support our high standards are to be found in the experience of epiphanies. When a technical and instrumental society like our own promotes the view of disengaged reason and entrenches this outlook in its institutions it offers images of life which “occlude deeper meanings making them hard to discern” (Taylor, 1989, p. 500). Any retrieval of the lived experience or creative activity underlying our awareness of the world can work toward establishing contact with the sources of value and combating the hold of mechanistic thinking (Taylor, 1989, p. 460-461). Narratives such as the one above can contribute to a sense of resonance, depth or richness of experience and move us away from the intellectual repudiations and denials which stultify us by cutting us off from the empowerment available in the acknowledgement of goodness (Taylor, 1989, p.504)

But what elements of narrative enable us to break through to the underlying values? Ricoeur has identified the plot as the organizing function of the story. The plot is a gathering together of the events of the story into a meaningful whole which expresses some human concern or value. The events of the story consist of actions and experiences whose sense is given by means of the plot (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 170). These actions, and the thoughts and feelings surrounding them, move in a certain direction, toward a conclusion. The conclusion of a story is not something that follows deductively from the events and the plot. Rather, the conclusion is something unpredictable which must be acceptable to the audience. “The conclusion is the ‘pole of attraction’ of the entire development” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 170). The conclusion works if the audience is open to the idea that these sorts of events can happen and can have the meaning implied in the story. In the story of the Language Lesson the events of the lesson and the sudden sense of the absurd become meaningful as vehicles for creating a shift of perspective from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The shift of perspective records an epiphany: a sense of awe at the recognition of the presence of courage, joy, and love. The conclusion offers the hearer the occasion to experience an epiphany.

Ricoeur places this analysis of narrative within a discussion of Heidegger’s notion of the “publicness of Being-in-the-world with one another” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 172). When a story is told it gathers together an audience of those who collude in the interpretation of events as described in the story and this gathering involves a sense of being-in-time which is different than the ordinary notion of clock-time as a series of equal moments moving toward infinity. The being-in-time of a narration is first of all the shared time of the characters of the story, and secondly that sense of the present which the listeners experience when the plot of the story is ‘made present’. Narrative combines the chronological and the non-chronological: the chronological consists of the episodes or events of the story, while the non-chronological consists in “the configurational dimension, according to which the plot construes significant wholes out of scattered events” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 174). It is the latter element, the ‘grasping together’ into a whole of a set of events that is similar to the exercise of practical reason, which, as we have seen, is also a bringing together, or a making present in one moment, the salient features of a particular situation with our general values.

Both practical reason and narrative knowing are forms of thinking that require linking together two dimensions of experience, our sense of what is important, of value, and the particular events which, seen through the lens of value, are appreciated for the value they have . Both practical reason and narrative activity make present the value dimension in the world. Values appear clothed in the specifics of the situation in the case of practical reason and in the specifics of the events in the story. Grasping the enacted values is a kind of thinking that does not fit the model of scientific thinking nor the model of rational decision making, which involves arbitrarily deciding that something is going to count as a value, to be projected out on a value neutral world. Valuing is better described as a form of discovery of what is there to be valued. This is illustrated particularly well by the story The Language Lesson because it is a story about the experience of discovery.

But discoveries are useless if they remain as isolated events in our consciousness. To be genuine sources of knowledge and value discoveries need to be linked. In other words, the epiphanies that break through the ordinary experience of life would simply fade away from consciousness if we could not connect them with other events and experiences. The process of connecting experiences of value or meaning is illustrated by a story told to me by a friend from India, which I never tire of hearing.


I was a young man at the time and I went to visit a friend. I was surprised to find a famous guru at his house. The guru spoke to me for a while and then asked me what I had to give him. I was young and sceptical and generally confused about life and thought ‘Oh these gurus they always want something’. I was also poor at the time, I was a student. I replied that I had only what he saw, my old sandals repaired so many times they were beyond repair, the clothes on my back and one more set of clothes at home and an old bicycle given to my father. He said “I’ll take the sandal”. So I said “okay, here they are” and handed him my sandals. He said “you can go now”. So I left not even having visited my friend. Out in the street it was forty five degrees, very hot and my feet were burning and I couldn’t even ride my bike as I had bare feet. I was wondering what foolishness I had committed when, having walked about a hundred yards I saw a good friend approaching. He said Matther “what are you doing walking without sandals? Where are your sandals?” I said “Never mind, it’s a long story”. He was carrying a parcel wrapped in paper. He said here I have just had a pair of sandals made for me and there was some confusion and they made a pair that was too small and then they made a pair the right size and they gave me the extra pair at no cost. Take them”. I took the sandals, and put them on my feet. They fit perfectly and were the finest chappals I’ve ever seen before or since. Then I remembered the guru has said “your karma is to give”. So I give and I don’t worry about it. I never worrry about material things. (Veejay Matther, personal communication).

We could characterize this as the story of an epiphany because it represents a breakthrough of an experience of value into ordinary consciousness of the intrinsic value of giving. Once one has made contact with this ideal one can develop what McDowell has called a ‘reliable sensitivity’ to situations which call for that virtue. In fact the virtue is the sensitivity (McDowell, 2002, p. 51). My friend Veejay finds no shortage of occasions for him to exercise his ‘karma’ of giving.

So here we have an example of the kind of reflection and conversation which is conducive to moral understanding and an answer to the question about how to include high ideals, into the fabric of our daily life. Not one epiphany but a sensitivity to the possibility of epiphany in any human situation is what is required. An openness to possibilities of transcendence. This involves a “slippage from our normal sense of measured time [which] is the essential condition for a deeper experience which opens another dimension of life” (Taylor, 1989, p. 464). We need to be able to discern a coherence among epiphanies which cuts across time, the ‘non-chronological configurational dimension’ and the ‘making present’ described by Ricoeur as the essence of narrative. This is like seeing a pattern on the ground from high up which cannot be seen at ground level. It requires that we be capable of standing back and shifting perspectives.

But once we include an ideal into the fabric of our life, if the ideal is a very high one, such as that evoked by Martha Nussbaum, compassion for citizens of a globalizing community, we risk overextending ourselves. What is the difference between a person who has full virtuous understanding of a value and the readiness to enact it willingly, and the person who agrees that the value is worth pursuing, who says “I ought to be more generous”, “I ought to pay heed to those who are in need” but who doesn’t? Such a person, the famous akratos, the weak-willed person of Aristotle’s ethics, has knowledge of the good but the knowledge lacks resonance and depth. “We need new languages of personal resonance to make crucial human goods alive for us again” (Taylor, 1989, p.513). A “great epiphanic work actually can put us into contact with the sources it taps. It can realize the contact” (Taylor, 1989, p. 512). To say that narrative knowledge is a source of moral understanding is to distinguish this from behavior modification which is induced chemically or through some direct alteration of brain states.

I have described narrative knowing as the kind of knowing [that] puts us in contact with, important human values. I turn now to another sort of knowing, poetic knowing which, through the use of metaphor, performs many of the functions of narrative knowing described in this paper.


“What the human mind must do in order to comprehend a metaphor is a version of what it must do in order to be wise” (Zwicky, 2003, Foreword).

We have seen in the previous discussion of practical reason and narrative knowing that understanding value involves connecting two elements of knowledge. In the case of practical reason we connect the present facts of the situation (so-and-so is crying) with an espoused value known in a vague and general way (kindness is good). The moment of insight occurs when the two forms of knowledge come together and the situation is seen as an occasion calling for that particular value. When we see a situation in the light of a value we give the value a new precision: discerning an appropriate response renews and redefines the value. In addition, we have seen in the case of narrative a similar bringing together of events into a pattern of meaning which infuses value into the events, what Ricoeur calls a ‘making present. “The experience of understanding something is always the experience of a gestalt – the dawning of an aspect that is simultaneously a perception or a reperception of the whole” (Zwicky 2003, p. L2). I have argued that both practical reason and narrative knowing can be viewed as occasions for contact with the sources of value, epiphanies. Now I want to go a little further and show that metaphor is the mode, par excellence, of connected knowing. “Metaphor is a species of understanding, a form of seeing-as: it has, we might say, flex. We see, simultaneously, similarities and dissimilarities” (Zwicky, 2003, p. L4). And if metaphor is the vehicle, par excellence, of this form of understanding, poetry is the vehicle, par excellence, of metaphor. I begin, then, with a poem.

Summer Solstice
Dandelions are gathering

More arriving everyday

A huge demonstration

They are standing still

Against all threats

Willing to suffer for their conviction

Waving their yellow flags


Even the elders

With their white heads

Are joining in

Power of courage


They chant silently

Celebrating life

Summer Solstice

Victory of light

Victory of joy

Victory of renewal

Against all odds…
(Christiane Graham)

The epiphany so beautifully expressed by this poem can be compared with conclusions of the two stories discussed above. All three works are vehicles for contact with moral sources. The poem engenders a resonance in the soul through the cadence of the language and the images. But to link poetry with ethics is to run the risk of severe criticism from philosophers committed to the rational paradigm of reason. Can we include poetry as a source of moral understanding without at the same time degrading moral understanding to a category of irrational thinking? Is this a ‘dangerous’ thing to do as one of my colleagues remarked when hearing about the project of this paper? Common sense suggests that there are two dangers in this issue: on the one hand there is the danger, which I have attempted to redress in this paper, of attempting a non-metaphorical representation of moral life; the danger of the disenchantment of the world. On the other hand, there is danger, of concern to most philosophers and scientists, of giving up critical thinking altogether, allowing thought to be governed wholly by images and emotion.

This is a problem from which there is no escape. There is no moral sedge way which will do the balancing for us. We get it right, we get it wrong and with luck we get it right again. The balance is sought in ‘lyric philosophy’ which tips the balance back again from a world viewed mechanistically, disenchantedly to a world viewed as a whole. “Lyric philosophy: thought in love with clarity, informed by the intuition of coherence, by a desire to respond to the preciousness of the world” (Zwicky, 1992, p.103).

In the poem Summer Solstice the metaphor of the dandelions gathering to celebrate renewal works through the tension created in our minds of knowing that dandelions do not do this but humans can and do. Each side of the metaphor is viewed in a new light: dandelions as beautiful, not mere weeds, and humans as capable of celebration against terrible odds. The insight, the reminder of this possibility, works dynamically in a way that a maxim cannot. The tension in the metaphor calls for an energetic kind of understanding, a response which evokes the very celebration it calls for.

Zwicky contrasts this integrative kind of understanding with philosophical analysis. “In an analysis integration does not occur. The aims of analysis are explicitly disintegrative” (Zwicky, 1992, p. 4). Yet once we have dissected a sentence or an argument we cannot return to wholeness by simply adding the parts together. . “Old-style synthesis, as the complementary technique to analysis, is additive rather than integrative. Its elements remain insular..” (Zwicky, 1992, p. 4). Wholeness or integrity, on the other hand, is always a dynamic production, the result of insight which connects the parts in such a way as to change our understanding of them. What we make of the parts will depend upon the vision we bring to the situation. In practical reasoning the major and the minor premises combined in a particular moment of perception are each changed in the light of one another. And in narrative the plot organizes the elements of the story so that they are seen as contributing to the conclusion. In both forms of understanding aspects are selected form the complex situation and from vaguely defined values, and fitted together, at a particular moment in time, to make a whole. Metaphor works in this same dynamic and selective way.

We need reminders to acknowledge processes that are dimly understood and rich in ambiguity. For minds in love with clarity, ambiguity threatens until it is recognized as inescapable, until we make peace with this fact of moral life. But the presence of inescapable ambiguity is no reason to abandon the enterprise or to redefine it so that ambiguity is banished from the scene. This thought is well expressed by Mark Platts who includes ethics within a realist semantic theory.

We detect moral aspects in the same way we detect (nearly all) other aspects: by looking and seeing. …. Second, …certainty plays no role in this form of [thought]. This is a consequence of taking realism seriously. By the process of careful attention to the world, we can improve our moral beliefs about the world, make them more approximately true; by the same process we can improve our practical understanding, our sensitivity to the presence of instances of moral concepts that figure in these beliefs. But this process of attention to improve beliefs and understanding goes on without end; there is no reason to believe …that we shall ever be justified in being certain that we have now completely understood any of the moral concepts occurring in these beliefs. Our moral language, like all the realistic part of that language, transcends our present practical comprehensions in trying to grapple with an independent, indefinitely complex reality; only ignorance of that realism could prompt the hope for certainty (Platts, 1979, p. 247, italics added).

We have no guarantee of being right. We are notoriously creatures who become enchanted, blinded with our own images. But it helps to know this because we can then have our cake and eat it too. We can learn to deliteralize our images, to see them as mere means with which to grasp aspects of reality; means to gain a glimpse of something. With this understanding we can seek out and enjoy metaphors for their power to give us flashes of meaning and value. This idea is developed further by Edwards who, relying on Heidegger, interprets Wittgenstein’s moral philosophy as making just that point.

One of Wittgenstein’s favorite techniques for liberation is to deliteralize a particular picture by putting into contact with other, and incompatible images also found in the grammar (one sort of “perspicuous presentation”). This … is to give all images their due as images; it is also to allow mind to play freely among a multitude of images, using those that are appropriate at a given time, literalizing none of them into pictures [representations of reality] (Edwards, 1985, p. 211).

What Edwards advocates is that we remain aware of images as lenses, modes of organizing experience, so that we never forget that the image is only a way of seeing and not the final literal representation of its object. This is clear in poetry because we know that the poet has devised images for a particular point. Similarly in narrative we know that the narrator organizes the events of the story to make a certain point, the expression of certain values. It is less clear, however, in ethical thought, especially when that thought is rendered as a series of rules to be followed, or ‘ought’ statements and other exhortatory devices. “The temporary appropriation of the poetic image deliteralizes all our seeing, at least for a time” (Edwards, 1985, p. 213).
To compare moral understanding with poetry and metaphor helps to deliteralize it. We become more aware of the possibility of remaining open to aspects of the world that are there but hidden from view, accessible in glimpses, gestalt shifts, and epiphanies, “where the mind itself is recognized in every act of seeing” (Edwards, 1985, p. 216).


In this paper I have attempted to throw some light on the question “what sort of reflection leads to moral understanding?”, with a view to the possibility of deepening our moral responses to the global community. I have suggested that the approach to moral life taken by virtue theory offers insights about the development of moral motivation and about the kind of reflection that is involved in practical reasoning. The focal point of the discussion was Taylor’s concern with the moral bankruptcy we risk from holding ideals in the absence of the motivation necessary to include these ideals in our daily lives. I made use of his notion of ‘epiphany’, which, like all of the organizing concepts of this paper, cannot be captured in any definition stating necessary and sufficient conditions. I suggested that having such an experience is no guarantee of being able to sustain high ideals, in other words, it is neither logically sufficient nor, logically necessary. Within this vaguely described terrain, however, there are truths that can be recognized from experience. Those lacking the experience will find this of little use, and those who have had such experiences might, at best, be reminded to pay more attention to the possibilities that arise in situations which we construe with the dynamic methods of practical reason, narrative or poetry.

I became interested in the notion of epiphanies as a moral source during my own experience of illness when the rigorous ordeals of treatment for breast cancer left me vulnerable but open to the many sources of support, kindness and beauty that are there, beneath the surface of things, waiting to be tapped. The two friends whose story and poem appear in this paper exercised their magic, repeatedly, during the most difficult moments of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and mastectomy. My thought is that these small epiphanies, which so enhanced my life, might be of the same order as the larger epiphanies necessary to respond well to the demands of a globalizing world. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the desperate plight of the majority of people of the world, and of the animals and the environment as well, is something which is becoming increasingly salient to many more of us who have surpluses in our lives. Since these are large issues they call for large epiphanies.

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