Reader query, on “nature”

UPDATE:  Whoops!  I failed to include the writer’s comment that he is teaching an environmental ethics class!  I wondered why so many of the suggestions were about sex, heh.  Okay, back to the request–  Help an instructor out if you can, and if you would, consider offering articles regarding how to engage in conceptual discussion of nature that would specifically help out environmental ethics students:

I’d like to assign a paper (or set of papers) that explicitly engage the
concept of “nature” or “the natural”.  Authors in the literature as
well as my students often claim that something is unnatural (and
therefore bad or wrong).  I’d like to help my students interrogate
what such claims mean by trying to figure out what it means to say
that something is natural in the first place.  Off the top of your
head, can you recommend any papers or book chapters that would help do

I already floated a reading possibility, which is the first chapter of Peter Wenz’s Nature’s Keeper.  But I’m certain the reader would appreciate suggestions of articles, feminist works, online sources… Feel free!

16 thoughts on “Reader query, on “nature”

  1. The admirable Aaron Smuts has a chapter in my Feminist Interpretations of Hume in which he analyzes Hume on “nature”. It gives one a sense of the pliability of the term and the way in which it can get tied up with gender.

    It’s an impressive piece which he wrote as an undergraduate.

    The vol. is in the ReReading the Canon series.

  2. Corvino, J. (1997). Homosexuality: The Nature and Harm Arguments. The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings. A. Soble. Lanham, Rowman & Littleffield Publishers, Inc.: 137-150. (A Shortened version of Corvino, John. 1997. Why Shouldn’t Tommy and Jim Have Sex? A Defense of Homsexuality. In Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science and Culture of Homosexuality, edited by J. Corvino. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.)

    Kimmel, M. S. (2003). An Unnatural History of Rape. Evolution, Gender, and Rape. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.

    Coates, P. (1997). “Wreaking Hobbes on Mankind.” Independent Review 2(1): 109-117.

    Sponsel, L. E. (1996). The Natural History of Peace: A Positive View of Human Nature and its Potential. A Natural History of Peace. T. Gregor. Nashville, TN, Vanderbilt University Press: 95-125.

  3. This might be earlier than the instructor wants, but the first three sermons from Joseph Butler’s Fifteen Sermons are a philosophical defense of a version of the Stoic notion of morality as following nature, and I think are probably historically the major philosophical account of such views. They are easily found online (usually as the “Sermons on Human Nature”) and in book form. And as one might expect from Butler, the quality of philosophical argument is quite high; the major possible drawback that I can see is that since it’s eighteenth century, it might be necessary to go more slowly with it for the students’ sake than you might have to if you were using more contemporary sources. So the usefulness of it might depend a lot on how the rest of the course is structured.

  4. What I’ve used in my Concepts of Nature Course:

    Sagoff, M. (2003). Genetic engineering and the concept of the natural. (In V. V. Gehring (Ed.), Genetic prospects: essays on biotechnology, ethics, and public policy (pp. 11-25). New York: Rowman and Littlefield.)

    P. B. Thompson, “Unnatural Farming and the Debate over Genetic Manipulation,” in Genetic Prospects: Essays on Biotechnology, Ethics and Public Policy. V. V. Gehring, Ed. Lanham, MD: 2003, Rowman and Littlefied, pp. 27-40.

    and my own: “Latina Feminist Metaphysics and Genetically Engineered Foods”JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS
    Volume 22, Number 3, 257-271

  5. Hmm; seeing the update, I don’t think my original suggestion of Butler would be very helpful for environmental ethics. But something that might be useful along these lines would be Paul W. Taylor’s “The Ethics of Respect for Nature”:

    It’s not on precisely this subject, but obviously has some relevance.

  6. Burton Leiser, “Is Homosexuality Unnatural?” (reprinted in a lot of anthologies) His breakdown of the many meanings of “unnatural” is very helpful, even though the article is off-topic (for an environmental ethics class).

  7. Elliot Sober’s “Philosophical Problems for Environmentalism” has some general comments on this. Holland, O’Neil, and Light’s book “Environmental Values” offers an interesting historical account of the natural, though I think it needs to be further developed.

  8. Philippa Foot is included in the Oxford U Press sourcebooks on ethics. She’s a pretty good place to start students thinking about the difference between natural goodness and moral goodness.

    Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac is a classic if you want to start to talk about environmental ethics.

  9. ian hacking’s book, “the social construction of what?”, has two excellent chapters on such questions (chapter 3, entitled “what about the ‘natural’ sciences?”, and chapter 4, entitled “madness: biological or constructed”).

    my second suggestion, which talks about ‘natural-ness’ in a social constructionist and feminist framework, is sally haslanger’s entry in the cambridge companion to feminism in philosophy entitled, “feminism and metaphysics: negotiating the natural” – this entry is particularly concise and is excellent in terms of being accessible to those beginning in philosophy, metaphysics, and feminism.

  10. Christine Pierce wrote an article in which she looks at seven different meanings for the term natural. It may be in the Alison Jagger early edition of Feminist Frameworks.

  11. I found Antony’s article about the relationship between nature and values very useful and interesting.
    Louise Antony (2000), “Natures and Norms”, Ethics 111 (1): 8-36.

  12. I’ve been thinking about J.S. Mill’s “On Nature” since reading it on Sam Clark’s recommendation here, and it does have me wondering when English-speakers shifted from {using ‘nature’ to refer to the essence of something}, to {using ‘nature’ to refer to the nonhuman world}. Clearly the shift in primary connotation occurs after Mill’s essay, but perhaps not long after?

    My husband pointed out, when we discussed this from our excellent armchairs, that previously the Christian-dominated Anglophone world referred to the environment as “creation.” (Or should I say, “Creation.”) And at the time Mill is writing, it is still common to see persons as having natures, sine qua nons. Perhaps the more recently common connotation becomes dominant as we turned away from dicussing persons as having Natures.

    Oh, and to the original query: In an effort to learn the answer to my own question, I read the intro and chapter one of _What is nature?: culture, politics and the non-human_, by Kate Soper — great stuff! She goes into distinctions between common uses.

  13. I think chapter 4 (“Nature and Culture”) of Terry Eagleton’s book “The Idea of Culture” is worth looking at.

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