Living against Nature

    New scientific findings in the field of nature vs. nurture, particularly in the gender domain, often lead to heated debates concerning their ethical significance -- is this or that human behavior biologically “natural” or “unnatural”? The issue of human nature vs. nurture thus seems to have two rather different aspects:

  • the scientific question per se, involving sciences like biology, genetics, etiology, sociology, psychology, etc.
  • the ethical question, i.e. the discussion of possible social and moral implications of the scientific findings.

Science-independent ethics

    A case can be made for the proposition that the ethical question may actually be independent of most scientific findings concerning human nature vs. nurture. The argument depends on the existence of a universal human characteristic which is obvious even without scientific inquiry.

          A digression (the term ethics): The term ethics as used here doesn’t refer to any philosophy, any system of thought or any given set of rules. It is rather used for pointing out that here we are dealing with revisable value judgments, accessible to democratic debate and/or political action.

The key characteristic: superior adaptability

    The key characteristic of the human species, setting it apart from all others, seems to be its superior behavioral adaptability. We take our marvelous adaptability so much for granted, that we tend to forget it. But it is a truly fabulous trait, when seen against the background of other vertebrates. The phenomenon that the very same animal is able to adapt itself to living in radically different environments and cultures -- in the Tropics, in the Arctic, in desert regions, in marshes -- is without parallel in the natural history of the Earth.

    Isn’t it almost unbelievable that a weak animal without body hair, initially evolved for living among nutritious plants in warm climates, can adapt itself to living comfortably in the botanically sterile, subfreezing Arctic? Is this not a case of “living against Nature”? Of course it is.

    Living against Nature seems indeed to be human nature, so Nature needn’t bother us unduly in social affairs. Human society can safely make its own decisions and rules about how to create its preferred way of life, without consulting Nature very often.

Gender equity -- simply a question of ethics

    The fact that humans are by nature living against Nature makes scientific findings regarding nurture vs. nature somewhat irrelevant in the general debate. Consider for example a legitimate scientific question like "Observed group differences, e.g. between genders, are they due to cultural factors, or are they innate?"

    A legitimate and possibly interesting scientific question, no doubt. But what are its social, political and moral consequences?

    Well, outside the laboratory, who cares? If we we are so good at adapting society, even for living in the for humans completely counter-natural and hostile environment of polar bears, then we can surely adapt society to the relatively minute differences encountered among ourselves.

    It thus turns out to be a matter of ethics, not of whether this or that difference (real or imagined) is innate or acquired. The ethical question is simply: "What are the just and equitable ways of handling gender differences (real or imagined) in a just society?"

Fire the engineer!

    It will then no longer be a question of whether women or men are “by Nature” suited for a particular task. Rather, it becomes a question of MAKING almost all tasks suitable to both men and women.

    For example, would I employ an average-sized woman to operate equipment that was too heavy for her to operate? Well, that would be outright silly, wouldn’t it? But then it would be equally silly to employ a super-sized man to operate equipment that was too heavy for him to operate, wouldn’t it?

    Is that because there is something wrong with the average-sized woman or the super-sized man? No, that’s because there is something terribly wrong with the design of the equipment. I would simply fire the engineer who was stupid enough to design a piece of equipment that could not be operated by all prospective employees.

Immoral tasks

    Instead, I’d employ an engineer who can design a piece of equipment suitable to be operated and serviced by most humans. And then I would perhaps employ an average-sized woman -- or maybe a super-sized man -- to operate it. Work-tasks and equipment that require the specific abilities of only one of the genders are simply immoral tasks, involving unethical pieces of equipment.

          A digression (the concept of efficiency): It may be held that engineering and design are not driven by ethics, but by efficiency. Unquestionably, but efficiency for whom -- for just one half of society, or for everybody? Quite recently -- a century or so ago -- it was taken for granted that technological efficiency was for just one half of mankind. But secularization, democratization and the consequent humanization of society made most of us believe -- on ethical grounds, as it happened -- that technology should indeed work as efficiently as possible, and that its fruits should indeed benefit us all.

Equity is for everybody

    In a just society the only obvious biological difference between men and women -- childbearing -- can likewise be taken care of justly, in a manner that enables women to live as full personal and professional lives as men. Equity and justice must apply to all humans equally, irrespective of their individual or group differences.

      (The precursor of this writeup was originally a daylog.)

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