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My question - how do we reconcile - "living according to nature" and the the stoic idea that our first reaction (say in anger episode) is often wrong and we need to pause and produce proper reaction according to virtues? Isn't it the first reaction - based in nature? If one is good, why is the second is not good?

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Jan 12, 2023·edited Jan 12, 2023

"Rather, natural law simply means that there are certain behaviors that are unacceptable if the goal is to build a society of flourishing human beings and other behaviors that are, by contrast, highly conducive to it."

I think this is an important idea that was not clear to me: Natural law depends on accepting an "if" clause.

I am wondering whether this sheds light on why libertarianism often (not always) seems insincere. Often, libertarians come across as using natural rights as an excuse for their selfish interests, as an excuse to externalise harm to others. Maybe that happens when they are actually not committed to the "if" clause that is needed to establish these natural rights in the first place.

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Pinker does make a valid point by mentioning the case of Social Darwinism as a problematic ethical stance, regardless of the type of fallacy it is based on. The way I see it, there have been attempts in the last two centuries to use the Theory of Evolution as a paradigm to base a moral system on. This has led to disaster, both in the case of Social Darwinism and Eugenics. Certain advocates of Religious Naturalism use Evolution as a central story ("The Epic of Evolution") then try to derive ethics from this starting point. I have warned against it.

Part of the problem is this: if a fundamental reason for having an ethical system is to strive for eudaimonia, then this goal as it relates to the individual is at odds with natural evolution. Evolution deals with changes in biological populations. Therefore it is the welfare of the group that is supreme - the individual is secondary to that. Put another way, eudaimonia for a society as a whole is not necessaily the same as eudaimonia for its individual citizens. An obvious example of this is seen every Memorial Day, when we honor our soldiers for making the Ultimate Sacrifice for their Country.

That makes it difficult to use the concept of Evolution - a fundamental concept in our understanding of Nature - as part of our building blocks of morality. I doubt that you can derive the Golden Rule or Cosmopolitanism from an evolutionary viewpoint alone. We need more than that.

Deriving an ethics from first principles is damn hard. We have been seeing this recently in some of the discussions around Effective Altruism, where people set up an almost mechanistic concept of ethics using consequentialism: define a metric for what you consider eudaimonia to be, average it over the population under consideration, and turn the crank.

Ethics definitely does have to be stated in terms of conditional imperatives. But the pre-conditions are more than just the statement of a particular situation. They must also define the desired outcome: the characteristics that underlie what you consider eudaimonia to be in this case. And, to bring Deontology into the mix, you need to do it the right way.

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Jan 11, 2023Liked by Massimo Pigliucci

A formulation I like is that good and bad are not opposites. Bad/evil is absolute (pain, sickness, perhaps death), but good relative -- what you like, what makes you 'happy'.

Of course, this fails as it doesn't deal with those who 'like' to do evil or who like the convenience of plastic plates. Perhaps Kant's 'rule of thumb' (the categorical imperative) would help.

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There's a similar concept in literary criticism known as naturalism. It can be found in the work of Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane. Modern practitioners are Russell Banks and, from a sci-fi standpoint, probably Kim Stanley Robinson and Octavia Butler. The theory is this: that a character's hereditary upbringing directly conflicts with the external world. This maps to the dichotomy of control. Usually, due to the character's upbringing (like in the Red Badge of Courage) on a farm and the external world (the American Civil War), and it usually ends badly for the main character. What occurs to me when reading, say, Robinson’s New York 2140 or Parable of the Sower is the main character is still making Stoic choices but “nature” has other plans and things like climate change, global warming, etc and the character suffers from depression as a result of it.

Now in terms of global warming and climate change, I think not enough people are living in accordance with nature. Theirs or the external world’s nature. And that’s why we’re having so many climate events like the blizzard bomb here in the Midwest to Eastern US and the flooding in California. And a lot more events detailed at COP and the Biodiversity Conference that happened in NYC recently. One could say that the COVID-19 pandemic is also a “nature” event. From a scientific standpoint: I think it is quite clear that we’re not living in accordance with nature.

What does that mean philosophically? When I think about living in nature, I think about the outdoorsman's motto, “Leave no trace.” I'm from the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. I currently live in a college town in Indiana, and Gary is obviously infamous from an environmentalist pov. So when I look at this state I see a state that really doesn't care about nature. So when the blizzard came for the state, everything was paralyzed. No one went to work, and the Gary power plant failed. I don't think nature could be more precise: humans cannot overcome nature. So what to do? Leave no trace. Help each other. Do the hard thing like riding a bike and only having one car. Learn how to grow food. Renaturalize your property.

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And here was me thinking it meant to be naked.

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