Human Nature between Science and Ethics


Caroline Harnacke and Joeri Witteveen


1 & 2


The aim of this tutorial would be to examine a handful of themes in the theoretical and normative discourse about human nature.

  • With regard to the “science of human nature” there are a number of possible topics to address: Is talk of “human nature” a pernicious notion that should be purged from our scientific vocabulary, or can it play a useful role in theory formation? Related to this are philosophical debates about ‘biological essentialism’, ‘innateness’, ‘gene-environment interaction,’ and others.
  • With regard to the “ethics of human nature”, there are notorious entanglements between the descriptive and the normative, in particular regarding debates over notions of ‘normality’, ‘disease’, and ‘enhancement’ as well as ‘natural vs. social inequalities’. These philosophical debates are currently being played out against the background of the resurgence of essentialism in ethics (Thompson, Foot, Nussbaum): After a long decline, normative ethical theories that incorporate a comprehensive notion of human nature are again on the rise. What kind of notion of human nature do they use and how do they justify it? Can we do ethics without such a controversial notion of what it means to be human?

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