The Moral Significance of our Biological Nature

Ethical Perspectives 1 (2):71-78 (1994)
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In the previous article the hermeneutical approach to ethics was outlined. In my presentation, I would like to illustrate further the methodological consequences of this approach by using two points in contemporary applied ethics. The question is: to what extent is the hermeneutical approach casuistically applicable. We start with the presupposition that the hermeneutical approach does not offer answers to the question of current applied ethics — namely, to the question of what is or is not acceptable in a particular problem situation — but rather, intends to clarify our moral, i.e. normative, response to problem situations. It tries to offer a precise articulation of the normative components of a successful moral decision, without presuming its detailed result. Hermeneutical ethics harks back to conceptual possibilities from the philosophical tradition to clarify the fundamental problem posed by current moral casuistry, and this for two reasons. The first is the idea that these traditional concepts are still at work in our experience and speech, such that, in taking up the tradition, the structure of our present experience is highlighted. The second is the idea that our present experience has moved away from this tradition on certain important points, such that a confrontation with these other possibilities can reveal the recent and relative character of what seems self-evident. To start with, I would like to examine the recent discussions in the media on postmenopausal pregnancy, in particular the argument that a pregnancy resulting from a medical treatment of these ‘older mothers’ is unnatural. Appealing to nature has come into discredit in ethics and in public discussions. Yet, I will defend the position that the notion of naturalness is still part of our moral experience. In other words, when we abandon any appeal to the moral significance of our biological nature, we are no longer able to express essential aspects of our moral experience. This, however, does not deny that the moral meaning of nature needs to be rethought and more accurately articulated; the appeal to nature is not obvious. At the end of my presentation, I will show that an appeal to nature also has a role to play in the recent discussions on cloning human embryos

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Hub Zwart
Erasmus University Rotterdam

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