Day 27 Blog Post
Moving on from a look at interspecific justice and interactions between species, we now look at a more stringent approach to an environmental ethic: Paul Taylor’s biocentric ethic, in his The Ethics of Respect for Nature. In this he makes the “biocentric egalitarian” claim that all living things have equal inherent worth in that each living being is a goal-directed system pursuing its own good. He develops a sort of Kantian approach by giving two concepts, one being that “every organism, species population, and community of life has a good of its own which moral agents can intentionally further or damage by their actions,” and that we consider all living beings to have inherent worth. From this, Taylor develops the principles of moral consideration and intrinsic value. The principle of moral consideration holds that “wild living things are deserving of the concern and consideration of all moral agents simply in virtue of their being members of the Earth’s community of life.” The principle of intrinsic value states that, regardless of what kind of entity it is in other respects, if it is a member of the Earth’s community of life, the realization of its good is something intrinsically valuable. Basically, Taylor is expanding the moral community to all things that are alive; and as good as this sounds on paper, it might be one of the most drastic, or hard to actualize, theories that we’ve looked at.
His biocentric outlook has four main components: 1) humans are thought of as members of the Earth’s community of life, holding that membership on the same terms as apply to all the nonhuman members; 2) the Earth’s natural ecosystems as a totality are seen as a complex web of interconnected elements, with the sound biological functioning of each being dependent on the sound biological functioning of the others; 3) each individual organism is conceived of as a teleological center of life, pursuing its own good in its own way; 4) whether we are concerned with standards of merit or with the concept of inherent worth the claim that humans by their very nature are superior to other species is a groundless claim and, in the light of elements 1 and 2 and 3 above, must be rejected as nothing more than an irrational bias in our own favor.
Callicott comes under fire for his “environmental fascism” that places the benefit of the ecological whole over the ecological individual – sacrificing a couple of deer for the benefit of the community that is avoiding overpopulation. But Taylor is almost the opposite. He differs form Callicott in that his more individualistic rather than holistic approaches total ecosystems as only mattering because individuals find their good within them, but since the entire ecosystem is not driven toward a goal-directed end, it’s consideration is beneath that of the individuals that make it up. This seems somewhat silly to me. I can appreciate what he means in saying that as our understanding of living things increases with the studies of biology and ecology, then so does our interactions with other organisms and empathy for their lives and ends in themselves. But the entire construct of life itself on the planet is based on the symbiotic relationships between living and non-living things. This means that some species use others in mutual ways to the benefit of both. Sometimes it’s more one-sided, as with any animal that eats another, but ecologically sustains the energy system of life.
I do agree with his denial of human superiority. No where in the natural world are we given privilege over anything else. The privilege we think we have is completely self-constructed, so in theory it doesn’t really count in relation to the way we treat other living things. But I see what Taylor is ultimately saying here. Rather than lower ourselves or lower insects in a hierarchy of ecological importance, we must consider (sounds like Singer’s language) the lives of all living things as equally important. This obviously comes under attack when we think that the picking of a flower is as harmful as killing a person, and ecologically it might be a little too purist to follow through and put into any kind of law. I mean, it’s not like we can photosynthesize for food…
I personally believe that people like Leopold, Callicott, and Taylor are all etching closer and closer a picture of an environmental ethic that ultimately needs to be a more ecologically-based. An approach that develops a proper ethic of human treatment toward nonhumans is necessary. After all, we are animals, we do not live apart from the planet’s ecosystems. Our own ecological niche must be examined to determine our role on the planet so that we can make ours as smooth a fit as the others.