“Biocentric Egalitarianism” or "Respect for Nature" (i.e., Living Beings)
1. POSITION DEFENDED: RESPECT FOR LIVING ORGANISMS
2. Key elements are:
a. Biocentric (life-centered) environmental ethics:
i. Neither anthropocentric (Baxter), nor sentiocentric, that is, sentience-centered (Singer/Regan)
b. Individualistic (not holistic--as is Leopold's land ethic):
i. Individual organisms (not species or ecosystems or natural processes) are what has moral standing/worth
ii. Taylor thinks his individualism follows from his biocentrism, as only individuals are alive.
c. Egalitarian: All organisms (including human organisms) have equal inherent worth
3. Argument for respect for nature (that is, for wild living organisms):
a. Accepting the biocentric outlook on nature (below) justifies the attitude of respect for nature
b. This attitude is a moral commitment to treat all living organisms--including humans--as having equal inherent worth
i. This is a non-consequential, non-utilitarian position like Regan’s but extended to all life (not just sentient creatures)
4. BIOCENTRIC OUTLOOK ON NATURE
a. A biologically-informed, philosophical worldview about humans, nature, and the place of human civilization in the natural world
b. 4 components:
5. One: Humans are nonprivileged members of the earth's community of life. Acknowledge differences, but focus on similarities.
a. Humans as contingent, biological beings. Humans share with other organisms biological requirements for life that are not totally under our control. We, as they, are vulnerable. We share with them an inability to guarantee the fundamental conditions of our existence. Humans are incontrovertibly creatures of forces we do not totally control.
b. Kinship: We share the same origin as other creatures and so have ties of kinship with them. The earth's life processes (evolution) brought all of us into existence. Knowing how they came to be is knowing how we came to exist as well.
c. Newcomers. One difference is that we are recent arrivals. The earth was "teeming with life" long before we arrived and when we did, we entered a place others had resided for hundreds of millions of years.
d. Humans are not the ultimate purpose: The idea that humans are the final goal of the evolutionary process is absurd–A if the rest of nature was waiting on our arrival and applauded when we finally appeared.
e. We depend on them. Humans are absolutely dependent on other forms of life; without them we would cease to exist. We are needy dependents on the fabric of life around us.
i. Famous Harvard Entomologist E.O. Wilson argues that without invertebrates, humans--and other vertebrates--have a couple of months to live
f. They don't depend on us Life on this planet is not dependent on us; in fact, it would do much better without us.
i. See Taylor’s words
6. Two: The natural world is an interdependent system
a. The basic insight of the science of ecology
b. Barry Commoner's first "law" of ecology: "everything is connected to everything else"
c. Story: Parachuting cats into Borneo
7. Three: All organisms (and only organisms) are teleological (=goal-directed) centers of life (think of plants seeking light) that have goods of their own (=welfare interests) that we can morally consider for their own sake.
a. Organisms have a "point of view" we can adopt by judging events as good or bad depending on whether the organisms are benefitted or harmed.
i. E.g., crushing the roots of trees with bulldozers or carving drive-through sequoias harms--not hurts--these organisms.
b. Having preference interests (conscious desires or wants) is not necessary for being morally considerable, as sentiocentrists believe
i. Thus insentient organisms (plants, fungi, microbes, and many invertebrate animals) aren't ruled out of the moral arena.
ii. In opposition, sentiocentrist philosophers argue that if organisms don't care about what happens to them, why should we? They ask: If nothing matters to a plant, how can we harm it?
iii. The biocentrist's reply is: We can harm its welfare interests, whether or not it has preference interests.
c. Having welfare interests is a necessary condition (a prerequisite) for being morally considerable.
i. If a being doesn't have a good of its own, then there is nothing to morally consider; no "point of view" to adopt. It can't be benefitted or harmed; it has no welfare we could protect.
d. Thus, according to the biocentrist, only living things are morally considerable, as only they have welfare interests
i. Stones or piles of sand aren't morally considerable, have no good of their own and so their value is purely instrumental to organisms
ii. Nonliving natural entities including species, ecosystems, and biological/geological entities and processes are also not morally considerable, since they too have no good of their own (no genetic program that specifies what that good is)
(1) "Their good" is reducible to the average or total good of the individual organisms that comprise them
e. Sentiocentrist objection: If plants have welfare interests, so do machines and so if plants are morally considerable, so are machines–but that is absurd
i. Plants need water, but cars need oil
ii. Plants are teleological (goal directed), but so are heat-seeking missiles
f. Biocentrists reply:
i. "My car's need" for oil is not it's own, but rather my need; a well-oiled car is not good for the car but for me
ii. Artifacts’ “welfare” are parasitic on the welfare of their makers/users, whereas a tree’s welfare is its own
iii. Note: Jamieson has a reply to this
g. See sentiocentric/biocentric video debate: Rollins vs Rolston (see minutes after 21:40)
8. Four: The belief in human superiority is an unjustified bias; we should be species impartial and egalitarian.
a. To argue that humans are superior because we have capacities nonhumans lack (e.g., we are moral agents, can philosophize), ignores that they have capacities we lack:
i. E.g., the ability to photosynthesize, to live 10,000 years (trees/grass) , to produce millions of offspring (some fish, oysters), or regenerate oneself after being put in a blender (sponges).
b. To argue that humans are superior because our capacities are more valuable (e.g., that the human ability to do mathematics is of greater value than the monkey's ability to climb a tree) is to illegitimately judge the value of capacities from the perspective of what is good for human life.
i. From the perspective of what is good in a monkey's life, tree climbing ability is of greater value.
c. To judge that humans are superior not because of some quality or capacity we have (merit), but simply because we were born human (a more noble species with greater inherent worth) is an arbitrary prejudice analogous to noblemen (in the Middle Ages) thinking they are more valuable than peasants simply in virtue of their birthright
Study Questions on Taylor’s Biocentric Egalitarian Individualism
1. Explain what it means to say Paul Taylor's environmental ethic is an "egalitarian biocentric individualism." Define each term.
2. Given Taylor's biocentrism, why does he think it follows that he must accept individualism rather than holism?
3. What is the difference between Taylor's biocentrism and ecocentrism? What is the difference between Taylor's biocentrism and a sentience-centered environmental ethic?
4. What are the four components of Taylor's "biocentric outlook on nature?" What function does this outlook serve for Taylor?
5. Describe some of the ways that Taylor suggests human and nonhuman organisms are similar.
6. Is Taylor correct in claiming that life on earth would do much better without us? Why or why not?
7. Does it make sense to think of evolution as a process heading toward and culminating in the production of the human species? Why or why not? What is Taylor's view about this idea?
8. Explain and evaluate: "Only if your are a sentient being can anything matter to you. Therefore, only sentient beings can have morally considerable interests. Since it doesn't matter to a tree what happens to it, if we consider only the tree, nothing we do to it matters morally."
9. What is the difference between welfare interests and preference interests? Give an example of one that is not the other.
10. What does Taylor mean when he tells us to judge events from the point of view of a plant? Do plants have points of view? Does Taylor think stones have points of view? Does he think plants are conscious?
11. What would Taylor say about the following argument? "Tractors need oil. Plants need water. So if plants have a good of their own, then so do tractors." What do you think about this argument and Taylor's response to it? Does arguing that we should respect the good of all living things mean that we must also respect the good of machines? Don't beg the question by simply assuming that only living organisms count morally.
12. Does Taylor think that species, ecosystems, and abiotic biological/geological entities and processes are morally considerable? Why or why not? What do you think about the moral considerability of each of these?
13. Paul Taylor presents an argument denying that humans are superior to other living things. Present this argument as fully and persuasively as you can. Is this argument a good one? Do you think humans are superior to other creatures (be careful to explain what you mean by "superior")?
14. What does Taylor think about the idea that humans--simply in virtue of their birthright--are superior to nonhumans?