Biocentrism

At first, theories of environmental ethics that morally enfranchise both individual living beings and natural wholes, such as species and ecosystems, were called "biocentric." Then, Paul W. Taylor (1986) commandeered the term to characterize his militantly individualistic theory of environmental ethics. Not only in deference to Taylor's influence and authority, but in deference to the literal sense of the term ("life-centered"), "biocentrism" in this discussion refers to theories of environmental ethics that morally enfranchise living beings only. Since species and ecosystems are not, per se, living beings, a biocentric theory would not accord them any moral standing.

Although animal welfare ethics and environmental ethics are by no means the same, biocentrism is launched from a platform provided by animal welfare ethics. Both attempt to extend our basic anthropocentric ethics—which, generally speaking, prohibit harming human "others" or violating their rights—to a more inclusive class of individuals: animal welfare ethics to various kinds of animals, biocentric environmental ethics to all living beings.

Peter Singer and Tom Regan, the principal architects of contemporary animal welfare ethics, exposed anthropocentric ethics to a dilemma. If the criterion for moral standing is pitched high enough to exclude all nonhuman beings, it will also exclude some human beings; but if it is pitched low enough to include all human beings, it will also include a large and diverse group of nonhuman animals.

An anthropocentrist may follow such philosophers as René Descartes and Immanuel Kant and proffer some highly esteemed and peculiarly human capacity—such as the capacity to reason, to speak, or to be a moral agent—as the qualification a being must possess to deserve ethical consideration. However, if practice is to be consistent with theory, anthropocentrism, so justified, should permit people who cannot reason or speak or who are not morally accountable for their behavior—human infants, the severely retarded, and the abjectly senile, for example—to be treated in the same ways that it permits animals to be treated: used as experimental subjects in painful biomedical research, hunted for sport, slaughtered and processed into dog food, and so on. To obviate these repugnant implications, Singer (1975) suggests that we follow Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarian ethics, and settle upon sentience, the capacity to experience pleasure and pain, as a less hypocritical—and arguably a more relevant—qualification for moral consideration. That standard would secure the ethical standing of the so-called marginal cases, since irrational, unintelligent, or irresponsible people are all capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. But it would open membership in the moral community to all other sentient beings as well. If, as Bentham asserted, pleasure is good and pain is evil, and if, as Bentham also asserted, we should try to maximize the one and minimize the other irrespective of who experiences them, then animal pleasure and pain should count equally with human pleasure and pain in all our moral deliberations.

Singer vigorously advocates vegetarianism. Ironically, however, Singer's Benthamic animal welfare ethic is powerless to censure raising animals in comfort and slaughtering them painlessly to satisfy human dietary preferences. Indeed, one might even deduce from Singer's premises that people have a positive moral obligation to eat meat, provided that the animals bred for human consumption experience a greater balance of pleasure over pain during their short lives. For if everyone became a vegetarian, many fewer cows, pigs, chickens, and other domestic animals would be kept and thus many fewer animals would have the opportunity, for a brief time, to pursue happiness.

Recognizing these (and other) inadequacies of Singer's theory in relation to the moral problems of the treatment of animals, Tom Regan (1983) advocates a "rights approach." He argues that some individual animals have "inherent value" because they are, like ourselves, not only sentient but "subjects of a life"—beings that are self-conscious, experience desire and frustration, and that anticipate future states of consciousness—that from their point of view can be better or worse. Inherent value, in turn, may be the grounds for basic moral rights.

Neither Singer's nor Regan's prototype of animal welfare ethics will also serve as environmental ethics. For one thing, neither provides moral standing for plants and all the many animals that may be neither sentient nor, more restrictively still, subjects of a life—let alone for the atmosphere and oceans, species and ecosystems. Moreover, concern for animal welfare, on the one hand, and concern for the larger environment, on the other, often lead to contradictory indications in practice and policy. Examples follow: Advocates of animal liberation and rights frequently oppose the extermination of feral animals competing with native wildlife and degrading plant communities on the public ranges; they characteristically demand an end to hunting and trapping, whether environmentally benign or necessary; and they may prefer to let endangered plant species become extinct, rather than save them by killing sentient or subject-of-a-life animal pests.

On the other hand, animal welfare ethics and environmental ethics lead to convergent indications on other points of practice and policy. Both should resolutely oppose "factory farming": animal welfare ethics because of the enormous amount of animal suffering and killing involved; environmental ethics because of the enormous amount of water used and soil eroded in meat production. Both should staunchly support the preservation of wildlife habitat: animal welfare ethics because nature reserves provide habitat for sentient subjects; environmental ethics because many other forms of life, rare and endangered species, and the health and integrity of ecosystems are accommodated as well.

Despite the differences, animal welfare ethics may be regarded as "on the way to becoming" full-fledged environmental ethics, according to Regan (1983, p. 187). Animal welfare ethicists went the first leg of the philosophical journey by plausibly lowering the qualifying attribute for moral consideration. Albert Schweitzer (1989), Kenneth Goodpaster (1978), Robin Attfield (1983), and Paul Taylor (1986) variously suggest pitching it lower still—from being sentient to being alive.

Schweitzer, writing long before the efflorescence of contemporary animal welfare and environmental ethics literature, appears to ground his "reverence for life" ethic in the voluntarism of Arthur Schopenhauer:

Just as in my own will-to-live there is a yearning for more life ... so the same obtains in all the will-to-live around me, equally whether it can express itself to my comprehension or whether it remains unvoiced.

Ethics consists in this, that I experience the necessity of practising the same reverence for life toward all will-to-live, as toward my own. (Schweitzer,

Contemporary biocentrism appears to have been inspired by Joel Feinberg's observations about the moral importance of interests and the range of entities to which interests may be attributed. The foundational role of the concept of "conation" (an often unconscious striving, reified by Schopenhauer as the "will-to-live") in Feinberg's characterization of interests unifies contemporary Anglo-American biocentric environmental ethics with Schweitzer's version. According to Feinberg:

A mere thing, however valuable to others, has no good of its own ... [because] mere things have no conative life: no conscious wishes, desires, and hopes; or urges or impulses; or unconscious drives, aims, and goals; or latent tendencies, directions of growth, and natural fulfillments. Interests must be compounded somehow out of conations; hence mere things have no interests, A fortiori, they have no interests to be protected by legal or moral rules. Without interests a creature can have no "good" of its own the achievement of which can be its due. Mere things are not loci of value in their own right, but rather their value consists entirely in their being objects of other beings' interests. (Feinberg, pp. 49-50)

The clear implication of this passage is that the "insuperable line," as Bentham called the boundary separating beings who qualify for moral consideration from those who do not, falls between living beings and nonliving things, not between sentient animals and insentient animals and plants. Why? Because even plants have "unconscious drives, aims, and goals; or latent tendencies, directions of growth, and natural fulfillments." Feinberg, nevertheless, goes on to deny that plants have interests of their own. His reasons for doing so, however, appear to be less clear and decisive than his derivation of interests from conations and his argument that beings who have interests deserve moral consideration.

Kenneth Goodpaster (1978) argues that all living beings, plants as well as animals, have interests. And he argues, appealing to Feinberg as an authority, that beings who have interests deserve "moral considerability"—a term that Goodpaster uses to indicate precisely the ethical status of moral patients (those on the receiving end of an action), as distinct from moral agents (those who commit an act). Goodpaster agrees with Singer that their sentience is a sufficient condition for extending moral considerability to animals, but he disagrees that it is a necessary one, because sentience evolved to serve something more fundamental— life: "Biologically, it appears that sentience is an adaptive characteristic of living organisms that provides them with a better capacity to anticipate, and so avoid, threats to life____

[T]he capacities to suffer and enjoy are ancillary to something more important, rather than tickets to considerability in their own right" (p. 316).

Goodpaster's life-principle ethic is modest. All living beings are morally considerable, but all may not be of equal moral "significance." He leaves open the question of how much weight we should give to a plant's interests when they conflict with a sentient creature's or with our own. Paul Taylor (1986) has struck a much stronger and bolder stance and argued that all living beings are of equal "inherent worth."

Taylor bases a living being's inherent worth on the fact that it has a good of its own, quite independent of our anthropocentric instrumental valuation of it and quite independent of whether the organism is sentient or cares. Light, warmth, water, and rich soil are good for a sprig of poison ivy, though poison ivy may not be good for us. Unlike machines and other purposeful artifacts that we design to serve our own ends, organisms are ends-in-themselves. Most generally, they strive to reach a state of maturity and to reproduce. Therefore, just as we insist that others not interfere with our own striving and thriving, so, Taylor urges, expressly patterning his reasoning on Kant's, we should respect the striving and thriving of all other "teleo-logical centers of life." Kant argued that we should respect, as individuals-in-themselves, all rational, autonomous beings equally. And Taylor argues that we should respect equally all living beings because they too are ends-in-themselves.

Because biocentrism is concerned exclusively with biological individuals, not biological wholes, it is an approach to environmental ethics that seems at once so restrictive that it would be impossible to practice, and an approach that has scant relevance to the set of problems constituting the environmental crisis. How can we do anything at all, if, before we act, we are obliged to consider the interests of each and every living being that we might affect? Why should we feel compelled to do so for the sake of the environment? Environmental concern focuses primarily on the spasm of abrupt massive species extinction and the loss of biodiversity generally, on rapid global warming and the erosion of stratospheric ozone, on soil erosion, water pollution, and the like; not on the welfare of individual grubs, bugs, and shrubs.

Schweitzer and Goodpaster frankly acknowledge the difficulty in practicing biocentrism. Schweitzer writes, "It remains a painful enigma how I am to live by the rule of reverence for life in a world ruled by creative will which is at the same time destructive will" (1989, p. 35). And Goodpaster writes:

The clearest and most decisive refutation of the principle of respect for life is that one cannot live according to it, nor is there any indication in nature that we were intended to. We must eat, experiment to gain knowledge, protect ourselves from predation____To take seriously the criterion being defended, all these things must be seen as somehow morally wrong. (p. 310)

Both reasonably suggest that we can at least respect the interests of other living beings when they do not conflict with our own. According to Goodpaster, biocentrism is not suicidal. It requires only that we use living beings considerately and sensitively. Schweitzer thinks that biocentrism permits us to injure or destroy other forms of life, but only when doing so is necessary and unavoidable.

Taylor's egalitarianism renders the practicability problem of biocentrism virtually insurmountable (Wenz). Starting with any individual's right to self-defense, he rationalizes our annihilating disease organisms with medicines and goes on from there to defend our killing and eating other living beings to feed ourselves. But the satisfaction of any "nonbasic" human interest, according to Taylor, must be forgone if it violates the basic interests of another teleological center of life. So it would seem that strict adherence to biocentric egalitarianism would require one to live a life of sacrifice that would make a monk's life appear opulent.

Writing before the advent of the environmental crisis, Schweitzer was not intending to address its problems. He seems genuinely concerned, rather, with the welfare of individual living beings. Thus, it would be unfair and anachronistic to criticize his reverence-for-life ethic for being largely irrelevant to the set of problems constituting the environmental crisis. Taylor, on the other hand, represents his biocentric ethic as an environmental ethic. And he is clearly aware that contemporary environmental concerns focus on such things as species loss and ecosystem deterioration. But he remains antagonistic to the holistic environmental ethics crafted in response to such concerns. He prefers to think of the extinction of species and destruction of ecosystems in anthropocentric, rather than in biocentric or ecocentric terms. Goodpaster, on the other hand, invokes "concern felt by most person about 'the environment'" as a reason for trying to extend moral considerability to all living beings (p. 309). He seems, moreover, to be aware that to actually reach the concern felt by most persons about the environment, biocentrism would have to "admit of application to ... systems of entities heretofore unimagined as claimants on our moral attention (such as the biosystem itself)" (p. 310). Having once mentioned systems of entities, however, Goodpaster lavishes all his attention on individual living beings and has nothing at all to say about how biocentrism might actually admit of application to species, ecosystems, and the biosphere as a whole.

Biocentrism may be not only irrelevant to actual environmental concerns, it could aggravate them. Biocentrism can lead its proponents to a revulsion toward nature—giving an ironic twist to Taylor's title, Respect for Nature—because nature seems as indifferent to the welfare of individual living beings as it is fecund. Schweitzer, for example, comments that the great struggle for survival by which nature is maintained is a strange contradiction within itself. Creatures live at the expense of other creatures.

Nature permits the most horrible cruelties____Nature looks beautiful and marvelous when you view it from the outside. But when you read its pages like a book, it is horrible. (1969, p. 120)

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