Review Philosophy

Is It Human Nature to Be Good?

About: Vanessa Nurock, Sommes-nous naturellement moraux ? [Are we naturally moral beings?], PUF.

by Solange Chavel , 30 May 2012
translated by Victoria Lazar Graham
with the support of Institut français

Where does ones moral compass come from, nature or nurture? Successfully avoiding all reductionism, Vanessa Nurock reflects on the natural origins of ethics, using both the history of philosophy and empirical research on psychology and cognitive science to present her argument.

Reviewed: Vanessa Nurock, Sommes-nous naturellement moraux ? [Are we naturally moral beings?], PUF, collection Fondements de la politique, 2011, 304 p., 26 €.

In her book, Vanessa Nurock artfully describes the possible intersection between moral philosophy and certain branches of empirical science (biology, psychology and cognitive science.) According to Nurock, the advantage of combining moral philosophy with science is intrinsically ethical: “without (or against) biology, ethics are inhumane and […] risk even being immoral.” (p.62) The text goes on to explain in more detail the various ways in which we, as natural beings, develop our moral code to varying degrees.

The text is divided into two sections, beginning with an epistemological and methodological commentary on the correct way of “naturalising’ morality. Nurock argues in favour of a union between moral philosophy and empirical science which does not merely render one the subordinate of the other, but which seeks to establish the correct degree of autonomy amongst each of these various theoretical approaches. This method is then enacted in the second section of the text, where the author presents a model of human moral cognition based significantly on empirical data collected on various “moral pathologies,” in particular autism and psychopathy. The philosophical tradition associated with the study of morality lends an interpretive and newly refined quality to the more recent empirical data, which can be felt in both sections of the text.

Should Morality Be Naturalised?

Seeking to present the middle ground between two extremes, Nurock describes her approach to ethics as one of “moderate naturalisation.” On the one hand, she rejects a reductionist form of naturalisation, since the idea that moral philosophy will “one day” be absorbed in its entirety by empirical science is false, and such a statement stems from a false understanding both of the capabilities of science and of the aims of ethics. The second extreme from which Nurock distances herself maintains that moral philosophy, on the contrary, is entirely autonomous from empirical science, and that the moral philosopher has no need whatsoever of incorporating human psychology into his work. It is above all morality which Nurock uses to defend her notion of “moderate naturalisation;” moral philosophy is only partially autonomous from empirical science, since there are moral justifications for the search to identify the origins and natural basis of our moral capacities.

Nurock’s main argument centres around reinterpreting the idea of “ought implies can,” suggesting that it would be inhumane to make demands which were impossible to satisfy, or to define morality and moral duty (the “ought”) without taking into account human beings’ actual personal capacities. Our notion of moral duty should be informed by our understanding of the development of human beings’ moral faculties and natural capabilities. Nurock thus states: “The question of whether resorting to scientific data is in any way useful to moral philosophy is, in my opinion, rendered a contrario by the suggestion that the natural sciences (in particular biology and psychology) most likely teach us more about impossible moral behaviour than about possible moral behaviour (although they also do the latter). Such a method would thus act as an insufficient but necessary safeguard for the moral theories which, to a certain degree, constitute the target of such an approach.” (p. 60) We turn to cognitive science, biology and psychology because they allow us to construct an image of human capacity, which in turn offers moral justification for the “principle of minimal psychological realism,” which other writers such as Flanagan refer to.

This notion of “moderate naturalization” is explained throughout the first part of the text. Without entering into the finer details of the argument, I would like to draw attention to three questions which remain unanswered. The first stems from the fact that, as Nurock notes, the “ought implies can” principle cannot be interpreted at the individual level. Even if we knew that an individual was unable to avoid causing another person harm, this would not in itself render his behaviour morally acceptable. The “ought implies can” principle takes on meaning only at the more general level, when it entails defining what “normal” human beings are able to do and determining their “normal” physical and psychological capabilities, which in turn raises the fundamental question of how one should determine what “normal” is, and which authority is in a position to legitimately determine the supposed behaviour of normal human beings. This initial question leads directly onto the second, which concerns the relationship between the empirical and the conceptual or grammatical, since defining what “normal” human beings are supposed to do is neither entirely empirical nor can it be defined once and for all, assuming that there is sufficient data available. It is also conceptual, and depends on our collective understanding of the notion of what it means to be human. In other words, the relationship between moral philosophy and empirical science automatically asks the question of which type of moral dilemma can be divided “empirically” into morality. This in turn leads on to the final question; to what degree might one be able to use this principle of “moderate naturalization” to undermine certain ethics considered to be impossible? Nurock notes that it is in fact not a question of using empirical analysis to determine the correct moral code, but rather of eliminating certain ethics which are impossible because they violate the “ought implies can” rule. However, even this moderate theory is open to argument; should we really conclude that the ethics of virtue are undermined by research demonstrating the fluid and ever-changing nature of the human character? The problem at hand is thus one of proportionality between two types of discourse; psychological discourse on the notion of human nature on the one hand, and philosophical discourse on the ethics of virtue on the other. The one is indeed dependent on the other, but this does not mean that it will be directly undermined.

Naive Morality and Moral Sense

The second section of the text subtly puts in motion the epistemological approach promoted in the previous section, and consists in particular of moral philosophy’s conceptual reclaiming of data from various branches of empirical science within various types of discourse. This second section also provides a good example of the possible relationship between the history of philosophy and this new idea, and there are two points which Nurock references in order to create a model for human moral cognition. On the one hand, she highlights the moral philosophy of “moral sense” in all it’s various forms as seen in Shaftesbury, Smith and Hume, and on the other, she bases her argument on a body of data collected from research on different types of moral pathology, particularly autism and psychopathy. Nurock thus aims to create coherence, by constructing a theoretical framework which takes into account empirical data while simultaneously expressing the philosophers’ different notions of “moral sense,” in an approach which strives to “intersect, even hybridise, if we can say so, the secular view of the tradition of moral sense with those of philosophy and contemporary cognitive psychology.” (p. 177.)

The general hypothesis is that our moral cognition is not a solid block but is made up of different elements and levels which intersect to inform our moral judgements. Nurock makes a particular distinction between two main principles, which she names “naive morality” and “moral sense.” However, each of these levels in turn consists of different “modules.” The advantage of using this method of modules is that it allows us to take into consideration the various types of moral dysfunction that exist, and Nurock includes some very interesting comments on how autism and psychopathy differ in terms of morality, by pointing out the different types of dysfunction and thus the different strategies for possible rectification.

At the centre of this multi-layered model is a particularly detailed and fascinating analysis of the very concept of empathy. Nurock suggests distinguishing between three main constituents as part of a wider notion of empathy—agentive, emotional and situational empathy. These categories are inspired primarily by the works of Shaftesbury, Hume and Smith, and the distinction made between them is one of the most exciting aspects of Nurock’s text, as well as being one of the sections where the purely conceptual and philosophical work has no meaning other than when it is taken in close conjunction with empirical science. Agentive empathy consists of “physical contagion” (p. 169); to use Smith’s example, it is what makes us react instinctively when we watch a tightrope walker. Emotional empathy is the “hot” empathy of emotional contagion which makes us cry out of sympathy for the wounded hero. Finally, situational empathy, rather than stemming from emotional contagion, is “cold” empathy, based on the ability to comprehend the situations of others and to be able to imagine the circumstances in which they find themselves.

The advantage of distinguishing between these three forms of empathy is that it highlights the subtle nature of the relationship between the individual and others around him, which is a necessary part of forming any moral judgement, as well as emphasising the various limitations which can affect our moral judgement. In Nurock’s argument, naive morality and moral sense have an equal share of these different forms of empathy: “Each of these levels deals with, amongst others, the output of these three empathetic mechanisms taken from Smith’s analysis of empathy in his Theories of moral sentiments.” (p. 193-194)

Having entered new territory, the theory put forward in the second section of the text raises many questions, primarily due to the fact that it is innovative in nature and is almost entirely open to debate. Even the mere concept of “naive morality,” a copy of “naive biology” or “naive physics,” is disputable; what exactly is the role of its conception and aims? Is it really a question of morality in the strongest sense of the word, or is it more about instinctive reaction, difficult to qualify as either good or bad? Similarly, when discussing the “moral crux” which lies at the heart of “naive morality,” Nurock mentions only sense of justice and sense of care, despite acknowledging the possible existence of other factors. The issue at hand is that of the classic debate which has been around since Gilligan, concerning the relationship between justice and care, and discussing various aspects of the role of empathy and moral reasoning. Why describe “sense of justice” and “sense of care” as moral centres and yet not attribute greater importance to them within the proposed model? A further question relates to the use of input/output vocabulary, and the extent to which it is metaphorical or literal. With phrases such as “As for one’s moral sense, it is activated by appraisals from naive morality” (p. 95) and “[moral sense is] the capacity by which we are able to reflect the intuitions outputted by naive morality whilst integrating information from other cognitive systems” (p.210), we might question whether this language of input and output does not excessively mechanise moral judgement.

However, the fact that we are compelled to ask such questions is proof of the richness and relevance of the text in question. It is not supposed to be taken as the sum total of a supposedly definitive theory, but rather as the remarkable effort of a theory in the process of developing itself, whilst taking into consideration with the greatest possible degree of precision, the most recent data which we have available. Nurock gives an epistemological account of the relationship between moral philosophy and empirical science, putting into practice this relationship between the two. Her example of how moral philosophy can be founded on a collaboration between disciplines and methods stands out as one of the main merits of the text.

First published in Translated from French by Victoria Lazare-Graham with the support of the Institut français.

by Solange Chavel, 30 May 2012

To quote this article :

Solange Chavel, « Is It Human Nature to Be Good? », Books and Ideas , 30 May 2012. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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