Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities Public Lecture

Moral and Natural Orders: Why are they so hard to keep apart?

Alexander and AristotleWhy do human beings, in many different cultures and epochs, pervasively and persistently, look to nature as a source of norms for human conduct? In ancient India and in ancient Greece, in medieval France and Enlightenment America, in the latest controversy over homosexual marriage or genetically modified organisms, people have linked the natural and moral orders – and disorders. The stately rounds of the stars modelled the good life for Stoic sages; the rights of man were underwritten by the laws of nature in revolutionary France and in the newborn United States; recent avalanches in the Swiss Alps prompt headlines about “The Revenge of Nature.” Yet for centuries philosophers have insisted that there are no values in nature. Nature simply is; it takes a human act of imposition or projection to transmute that “is” into an “ought.” On this view, there is no legitimate inference that can be drawn from how things happen to be to how things should be, from the facts of the natural to the values of the moral order. If such inferences are erroneous—the "naturalistic fallacy"—why do we keep making them? The answer lies in the deep affinities between orders of any kind, and of some kind of order as the precondition not for specific norms but for the very possibility of any norms whatsoever. This lecture explores how three conceptions of nature—species nature, local nature, and natural law—generate different visions of order, of violations of order, and of analogous moral orders (and disorders).

Lorraine Daston is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Permanent Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and Visiting Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her recent publications include (co-edited with Elizabeth Lunbeck), Histories of Scientific Observation (2011), and (with Paul Erikson et al.) How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality (2014) as well as essays on the history of scientific facts, objectivity, curiosity, probability, attention, and the moral authority of nature which have appeared in various journals and collections. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, Corresponding Member of the British Academy, and Member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences.

5.30pm, Thursday September 14
Terrace Room, Sir Llew Edwards Building (#14)
University of Queensland

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The Terrace Room, Sir Llew Edwards Building (#14), St Lucia Campus