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Environmental Ethics

Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 1979

Holmes Rolston, III
Pages 7-30
DOI: 10.5840/enviroethics1979114

Can and Ought We to Follow Nature?

“Nature knows best” is reconsidered from an ecological perspective which suggests that we ought to follow nature. The phrase “follow nature” has many meanings. In an absolute law-of-nature sense, persons invariably and necessarily act in accordance with natural laws, and thus cannot but follow nature. In an artifactual sense, all deliberate human conduct is viewed as unnatural, and thus it is impossible to follow nature. As a result, the answer to the question, whether we can and ought to follow nature, must be sought in a relative sense according to which human conduct is sometimes more and sometimes less natural. Four specific relative senses are examined: a homeostatic sense, an imitative ethical sense, an axiological sense, and a tutorial sense. Nature can be followed in a homeostatic sense in which human conduct utilizes naturallaws for our well-being in a stable environment, but this following is nonmoral since the moral elements can be separated from it. Nature cannot be followed in an imitative ethical sense because nature itself is either amoral or, by some accounts, immoral. Guidance for inter-human ethical conduct, therefore, must be sought not in nature, but in human culture. Nevertheless, in an axiological sense, persons can and ought to follow nature by viewing it as an object of orienting interest and value. In this connection, three environments are distinguished for human well-being in which we can and ought to participate-the urban, the rural, and the wild. Finally, in a tutorial sense, persons can and ought to follow nature by letting it teach us son1ething of our human role, our place, and our appropriate character in the natural system as a whole. In this last sense, "following nature" is commended to anyone who seeks in his human conduct to maintain a good fit with the natural environment-a sense of following nature involving both efficiency and wisdom.