Duties and Priority Principles of Taylor's Biocentric Egalitarian Individualism
Questions: How should we treat nonhuman organisms? And most poignantly, if nonhuman organisms have
inherent worth equal to humans, how are we to resolve conflicts between them and us?
Taylor's Biocentrism involves the following prima facie (i.e., overridable) duties and moral rules:
(The first two were not discussed in the class reading, nor was distributive justice.)
- Non-maleficence: Don't harm organisms--a negative duty to refrain from harming; not a positive duty
to assist. (Positive assistance would undermine their wild integrity.)
- Non-interference: Leave them alone; a hands-off policy toward nature--opposed to management of
wild nature; accepts that, in a sense, nothing goes wrong in wild nature.
- Can Taylor's individualistic biocentrism justify such a claim? Is respect for natural systems (ecoholism) necessary to
ground this obligation?
Taylor is well aware that humans must harm other organisms and interfere with their lives in order to live and
thrive. Thus Taylor proposes the following principles to help guide us when interacting in harmful ways with
- Self-defense: One can defend oneself against harmful or dangerous organisms that threaten one's life
and basic health. Since they don't have more inherent worth than we do, we aren't required to sacrifice
our lives for theirs. Self-defense is compatible with species neutrality (we can defend ourselves
against other humans as well, including human innocents). The justifiability of self-defense depends on trying to avoid situations
of conflict and using the least harmful method to defend ourselves.
- Minimum Wrong: We must achieve our goals in the least costly manner possible by pursuing our
interests in a way that minimizes the number of wrongs done to other organisms. For example, one should
build a library or highway in a way that minimizes the number of trees that must be removed (killed).
In cases where the principle of minimum wrong applies, restitution is required. To make up for the
wrong done to the trees one could, for example, plant trees of the same species or permanently
preserve habitat in which such trees flourish.
- Restitutive Justice: Make amends for wrongs done to other organisms by, for example, permanently
setting aside wildlands. To restore the balance of justice between humans and other living things after
we have harmed them to benefit ourselves, we must make amends by proportionally compensating
them: the greater the harm done, the greater the compensation required. For example, lumber
companies (perhaps) have greater duties of restitutive justice than do computer software companies and an
individual who clears land to build a house has greater duties of compensation than does a person who
kills a dozen insects while driving to work. Generally, those with less consumptive lifestyles owe
less in restitution to nature than do those who consume more and thus are harder on the earth. Since all in
modern society have benefited (at least indirectly) from the wholesale destruction of other organisms,
we all have a duty--as a matter of justice--to support preserving and restoring wildlands. (Giving to
the Nature Conservancy, for example, is not charity but a moral duty of restitutive justice.)
- Is this restitution to individuals or to a species? Can individualism justify restitution?
- Distributive Justice: Seek to achieve a fair (=equal?) sharing (distribution) of the planet's resources
between humans and nonhumans; when not fully achievable, pay restitution. For example, preserve a
significant amount of the earth's surface as wildlife habitat or when using water from a river, leave
some of it in the river for the animals, plants, and other organisms that use that habitat.
Taylor's environmentalist argument for vegetarianism: (If plants are as important as animals, which
should we eat?) Taylor sees the morality of eating as a question of distributive justice (fair sharing of the
planet's resources with other creatures). Since nourishing ourselves by eating vegetables directly requires
much less surface of the earth than does growing the vegetables, feeding them to animals, and then eating the
animals (a highly inefficient way to get our protein), respect for nature requires a vegetarian diet (despite the
equal inherent worth of plants and animals). The reduction in cultivated land that would be achieved by
moving from a meat-eating to a vegetarian culture would help achieve a more equal sharing of the planet with
- Avoid behavior that is intrinsically incompatible with respect for nature: One may never act in a
purely exploitative way that treats other organisms as having merely instrumental value. An example
of behavior which is purely exploitative and thus intrinsically incompatible with respect for nature is
slaughtering elephants in order to use the ivory in their tusks as piano keys (see Taylor's list for more examples)
Note: Taylor allows us to sacrifice the basic interests (life, health) of nonhuman organisms for the less basic (but
significant) interests of humans (education, transportation, energy) as long as those interests are "intrinsically
compatible with respect for nature" (and if we also satisfy the principles of minimum wrong, distributive
justice, and restitutive justice). For example, he would allow destroying habitat in order to build a library.
(For other examples, see his list.)
- Is such a tradeoff compatible with the view that nonhuman and human
organisms have equal inherent worth?