Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE (www.oxfordhandbooks.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2015. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use.

date: 25 April 2018

Living Individuals: Biocentrism in Environmental Ethics

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter outlines key ideas associated with ethical biocentrism. It distinguishes between forms of ethical biocentrism in terms of whether they adopt an egalitarian or inegalitarian approach to value; whether they are value monistic or pluralistic; and whether they adopt virtue, consequentialist, or deontological approaches to ethical theory. Drawing in particular on the work of Robin Attfield and Paul Taylor, the chapter then explores how different forms of ethical biocentrism interpret and respond to anthropogenic climate change. Biocentric ethicists have moved beyond many people’s intuitive sense that “life matters” to construct complex, diverse ethical systems that focus on the value of living individuals. These ethical systems must develop still further to respond coherently to growing human environmental impacts.

Keywords: biocentrism, ethics, climate change, Robin Attfield, Paul Taylor, living individuals

Ethical positions on which all living individuals are valuable and worthy of respect or moral concern are normally called biocentric. Ethical biocentrism forms an important family of approaches to Western environmental ethics. An early kind of biocentrism, based on the idea of “reverence for life,” was proposed by Albert Schweitzer in Philosophy of Civilization (1923). More recently, a number of competing biocentric approaches have been systematically developed. While unified by accepting the value of living individuals, these approaches differ over what characterizes a living individual; why those characteristics might be morally relevant; whether some living individuals are more valuable than others; whether the value of life is just one among a broader, plural set of values or is the only such value; and in which ethical theory the value of life should be located. In this chapter, I briefly outline key elements of these debates, then consider how biocentric ethics might respond to emerging global environmental problems, in particular to anthropogenic climate change, about which little has so far been written from a biocentric perspective (though see Attfield, 2009, 2011).

1 The Value of Living Individuals

Biocentric ethics focuses on the value, or moral considerability, of individual living things. However, although most people can easily pick out examples of living things—an oak tree, a toad, a salmon—defining what makes something a “living thing” is more difficult. While there’s no dispute about whether some things are alive, borderline cases raise problematic definitional questions. For instance, could some kinds of complex machines, insect colonies, viruses, or bodily organs (such as livers) fall into the category of “living things”? For reasons of space, I won’t attempt to adjudicate this question here (but see Goodpaster, 1978; Varner, 1990; Agar, 1995; Sterba, 1998).

Despite this uncertainty about defining “living things,” one widely accepted idea is that living things are distinctively goal- or end-directed, and this goal is their own good, rather than the good of another. Paul Taylor, perhaps the best known biocentric ethicist, maintains in Respect for Nature (1986: 45): “Each living thing … [is] an entity pursuing its own good in (p. 102) its own way, according to its species specific nature.” That living individuals are distinguished by being goal-directed toward their own good has been a central idea in biocentric ethics. If one accepts this, it makes sense to say that living things are benefited by processes or actions that promote their good, and harmed by processes or practices that set back their good, where “benefit” and “harm” just mean that living things can be made better or worse off. So, an oak tree can be benefited by adequate rainfall and harmed by being struck by lightning.

Merely accepting the view that living individuals can be better or worse off, however, does not get us to biocentric ethics, which requires the further commitment that the good of living individuals matters ethically, not just that living things actually have a good. There’s no contradiction, for instance, in accepting that plants can be harmed or benefited while denying that harming or benefiting them matters ethically. Just because a living individual has a good does not necessarily mean that we should protect or promote that good. O’Neill (1993: 23) argues: “That Y is a good of X does not entail that Y should be realised unless we have a prior reason for believing that X is the sort of thing whose good ought to be promoted.”

Many ethicists argue that organisms lacking in subjective experiences—such as plants and insects—are not of direct moral concern even though they can be benefited or harmed. Since they can’t care about anything, then (in this view) we have no reason to care about them. As Singer (1989: 154) puts it: “If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account.”

Biocentrists, however, reject the view that only experienced goods matter; life is what is of primary significance. Goodpaster (1978: 316) for instance, argues that “sentience is an adaptive characteristic of living organisms that provides them with a better capacity to anticipate, and so avoid, threats to life. This at least suggests, though of course it does not prove, that the capacities to suffer and to enjoy are ancillary to something more important …” The idea that being alive is either a necessary or sufficient condition to matter ethically is widely held, both within and outside environmental ethics. However, this biocentric ethic generates worries, even among those who are sympathetic to it. Is it overdemanding in practice? Does it require us never to kill any living individuals? If so, how could we live? Biocentrists have several ways of responding to these concerns.

2 Biocentric Egalitarianism and Inegalitarianism

Suppose we accept that being alive is either necessary or sufficient for moral considerability. This tells us nothing about comparative value. Here, it is helpful to distinguish between “moral considerability”—whether something is of direct moral relevance at all—and “moral significance,” which Goodpaster (1978: 311) describes as “comparative judgments of moral weight.” That all living beings count for something does not necessarily mean that all living things are equally morally significant. There may be other properties that “provide bases for different kinds or degrees of moral standing” (Schmidtz, 1998: 59).

Some biocentric ethicists—most prominently, Paul Taylor (1983, 1986) and James P. Sterba (1998)—maintain that, in principle, all living things are equally morally significant, a view called biocentric egalitarianism. (Egalitarianism can be interpreted in different ways; see (p. 103) Attfield, 2005.) Other biocentric views, in contrast, are inegalitarian; the possession or expression of certain capacities, such as sentience or rationality, increases individuals’ moral significance (see Lombardi, 1983; Varner, 1998; Attfield, 2003a; and Schmidtz, 2011). Attfield (2003a), for instance, argues that expressions of more complex or psychologically sophisticated capacities have higher moral significance than expressions of less complex capacities. In focusing on living individuals, these inegalitarian views remain biocentric, but they endorse a kind of value pluralism in which capacities other than just being alive are morally significant.

Biocentric egalitarianism raises strong practical concerns, if understood to imply that killing or harming other organisms is always wrong. But its advocates deny this implication. Many biocentric egalitarians develop a distinction between “basic,” “non-basic,” and sometimes “luxury” needs. Humans are normally permitted to defend themselves against aggressors and to harm and kill others where required for their basic needs, but not for their non-basic and certainly not luxury needs. Of course, what “non-basic needs” means is highly contested. But the fundamental claim is that when we recognize organisms’ interests as having different degrees of importance and urgency, this helps us to make decisions about actions, policies, or practices that impact on other living things. And as Schmidtz (2011) and others point out, killing to ensure one’s own survival does not imply that you regard the one you kill as inferior.

Some biocentric egalitarians also argue that while different organisms are equally alive, and so have equal moral significance, additional morally relevant considerations may also apply. So biocentric egalitarianism seems to imply that there is no reason to choose to eat plants over animals. However, even leaving aside complications (such as the relative size and nutritional value of plants versus animals, and the number of plant lives needed to sustain an animal reared for food), some biocentric egalitarians argue that animal suffering is a relevant additional consideration. Taylor (1986: 295) maintains that “when there is a choice between killing plants or killing sentient animals, it will be less wrong to kill plants if animals are made to suffer when they are taken for food.” So if two lives are equally at stake, but killing one will involve suffering, this is a reason for choosing to kill the other (though this also suggests that if killing is painless, there’s nothing to choose between killing plants and animals).

However, these interpretations and modifications of biocentric egalitarianism do not satisfy its many critics, who argue that some lives really are more morally significant than others—for instance, that the complex psychological states experienced by humans and other mammals are of higher moral significance than just being alive. Schmidtz (2011: 129), while sympathetic to the idea that being alive counts for something, maintains that biocentric egalitarianism—contrary to Taylor’s view—actually reflects a failure of respect for nature. It does not recognize the morally significant differences between members of different species—such as carrots and cows, mice and chimpanzees. Most recent biocentric accounts have been inegalitarian, maintaining that the possession of capacities such as sentience or having “ground projects”, that is, a nexus of meaningful desires that make life worth living, (Varner, 1998) makes some organisms more morally significant than others.

3 Life and Other Values

Biocentric inegalitarianism endorses a kind of value pluralism. Being alive brings moral considerability, but other capacities, such as being sentient, add to moral significance. This (p. 104) kind of value pluralism is, strictly speaking, still biocentric as I am using the term, because the values at stake are all carried or manifested by individual living things. However, biocentrists also adopt other kinds of value pluralism. Taylor, for instance, focuses his account on wild living things, not living things “in bioculture.” Organisms in bioculture are not worth less; after all, they too are alive: “The living organisms being used in any society’s bioculture are organisms that have a good of their own. They can be benefited or harmed. In this matter they are exactly like wild animals and plants in natural ecosystems” (Taylor, 1986: 55). Yet some of the duties he claims we have to wild organisms—such as noninterference—can’t apply to biocultural organisms, since many require our support to survive. So perhaps Taylor means “wildness” to be an additional value that we should protect wherever it is found. However, wildness is not an organismic capacity (unlike, for instance, sentience), and he doesn’t understand it as intensifying moral significance. The idea instead seems to be that we have different duties toward wild and biocultural organisms.

Another kind of value pluralism takes “being alive” as a sufficient condition for having value, but not a necessary one. On this view, ecological communities, or species, as well as individuals, are independently morally considerable in their own right. This is usually because they are thought to be “individual-like” in as much as they have a good of their own. A number of environmental ethicists have defended this broader position, including Johnson (1991), Sterba (2001), and possibly even Taylor, although in his published work Taylor (1986: 69) maintains that the good of an ecosystem just means “the median distribution point of the good of its individual members.” (Evans [2005: 123] draws on unpublished correspondence with Taylor that seems to support this more holistic view.)

The view that ecological communities and/or species are goal directed toward their own good, and therefore morally considerable in their own right, raises a number of difficulties too substantial to unpack here (but see Cahen, 1988; Sandler, 2007: 76–80). For the purposes of this chapter, I’ll maintain that accepting the moral considerability of species or ecosystems as well as living individuals departs from strict biocentrism; such views have biocentric elements but are not themselves biocentric.

4 Biocentrism and Ethical Theory

To be action-guiding, biocentric values must be located within an ethical theory. Three ethical theories are particularly relevant here: virtue biocentrism, consequentialist biocentrism, and deontological biocentrism (though each is really a family of related positions).

4.1 Virtue Biocentrism

No thoroughgoing biocentric virtue ethic has yet been developed, although both biocentric accounts in which virtues have a place and virtue ethics that contain biocentric values have been proposed. While not primarily a virtue theorist, Taylor (1986) has been most influential here; he takes the importance of virtues to be in enabling people to comply with rules. Taylor identifies general virtues of moral strength (such as perseverance) and moral concern (p. 105) (benevolence, compassion, care and sympathy) alongside specific biocentric virtues of considerateness, regard, impartiality, trustworthiness, fairness, and equality.

More recently, Kawall (2003) and Sandler (2007) have proposed accounts of virtue ethics in which having reverence or respect for life is understood as a virtue, and grounds other, more specific, virtues concerning living individuals. Both are, however, pluralists, maintaining that reverence or respect for life should be seen as one virtue among others; Sandler (2007: 73) also argues that respect for individual living things needs to “be informed by our form of life.” So our “care towards other living organisms” cannot extend to “bacteria and viruses” because we “literally cannot live” if we take this view; and we may appropriate living things for our own use without disrespect, though this doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to have a “consumptive disposition.” Sandler identifies a range of virtues relevant to respect for nature: care, compassion, restitutive justice, nonmaleficence, and ecological sensitivity.

In contrast with virtue ethics, much more systematic accounts of broadly consequentialist and broadly deontological forms of biocentric ethics have been developed, most prominently by Robin Attfield and Paul Taylor, respectively.

4.2 Consequentialist Biocentrism

Consequentialists generally value states of affairs rather than things in themselves. Robin Attfield argues that the flourishing of living individuals is what matters ethically (while recognizing that “flourishing” has different components, and that different beings flourish in different ways). Attfield’s form of biocentrism is also, in certain ways, inegalitarian: although all living beings can flourish, not all flourishing is of equal value; there “is much more of value in the flourishing of a sentient creature as such than in the flourishing of an individual tree as such” (Attfield 1994: 139). He also accepts a distinction between basic, non-basic, and trivial needs. “Impacts on basic needs outweigh lesser impacts, and … impacts on creatures with complex and sophisticated capacities such as autonomy and self-consciousness (in cases where these capacities are themselves at stake) outweigh impacts on creatures lacking them” (Attfield, 2003a: 52). So while the basic needs of beings with complex and sophisticated capacities take priority over the basic needs of beings that lack these capacities, this doesn’t mean that the trivial needs of more sophisticated beings should trump the basic needs of less sophisticated beings.

Attfield’s consequentialism is also totalizing, maximizing, and indirect. He argues that the total sum of organismic flourishing should be maximized over time (Attfield, 1991). Rather than focusing directly on particular acts, he maintains that we should normally aim to bring about best consequences indirectly by following optimal policies and practices: “there are practices that general recognition of which makes for, or would make for, a much better world than would be possible either in their absence or through alternative practices” (Attfield, 1987: 107).

Clearly this is only one possible form of biocentric consequentialism; consequentialist biocentrism could be egalitarian, direct, or satisficing, for instance. There are still many unoccupied or undeveloped possible positions here. However, Attfield’s position provides a useful starting point for thinking about biocentric consequentialism and climate change.

(p. 106) 4.3 Deontological Biocentrism

Deontological biocentrism focuses on human duties toward, or the rights of, living things. In environmental ethics, this approach emerged within the Deep Ecology movement, most famously in Arne Naess’s claim that “the equal right to live and blossom [for all living things] is an intuitively clear and obvious value axiom” (Naess, 1973: 96). Taylor (1986) developed deontological biocentrism in a more systematic way, focusing on four rules that those who adopt the “attitude of respect for nature” should accept: nonmaleficence, noninterference, fidelity, and restitution. These rules, Taylor argues, should govern human interactions with wild organisms, requiring us not intentionally to harm or interfere with them; not to develop their trust in us deceptively; and where harm has been inevitable, to make appropriate restitution. Of course, in practice, following these rules is complex. Taylor suggests ways of applying them and principles for prioritization in cases of conflict. He distinguishes between actions “intrinsically incompatible with the attitude of respect for nature” and actions that, while not incompatible with this attitude, nonetheless have impacts on wild living organisms (such as building art museums on wild land). In a concession that leads many critics to claim inconsistency, Taylor accepts that there may be times when we harm or interfere with wild organisms in order to promote serious human interests—though we should always attempt to minimize wrongs and carry out restitution.

Attfield’s and Taylor’s forms of biocentric ethics, then, are very different. Attfield’s consequentialist biocentrism focuses on maximizing total organismic flourishing; the more psychologically sophisticated, the better. Taylor’s deontological biocentrism, in contrast, emphasizes rules not to harm or interfere with equally valuable wild living organisms. But both approaches—and those that concern biocentric virtues—claim to have a connection to practice and to how we should behave so as to protect, promote, and prioritize living organisms or their states. Given this, we should expect biocentric approaches to ethics to have action-guiding responses to current global environmental problems, including anthropogenic climate change. As noted earlier, though, little such work yet exists. In the rest of this chapter, I will take some first steps in thinking through possible biocentric responses to climate change, focusing on consequentialist and deontological approaches. These responses may also be relevant to other aspects of anthropogenic global environmental change, but I will not discuss these broader issues here.

5 Anthropogenic Climate Change and Biocentric Ethics

5.1 Biocentric Perspectives on Climate Change

Biocentrism provides a very particular lens through which to look at the world: one that focuses on each living thing as a morally relevant individual. Suppose we look through this individual-focused lens into a future world—a world, let’s first imagine, uninfluenced by anthropogenic climate change. This future world would be packed with trillions of living things, though if we look far enough into the future, barely any of them would be the (p. 107) same living individuals that currently exist. Suppose we now look through this individual-focused lens at a future world with climate change. This world is still filled with trillions of living things, distinct from those currently alive. But many, or most, of the individuals in this future world with climate change are different individuals from those that would have existed in the alternative future world without climate change. Where the same species exists in both future worlds, particular genetic individuals almost certainly differ (as a changing climate, for instance, affects which individuals mate and produce offspring). And in the climate-changed world, there are likely to be fewer—or perhaps no—individuals of some species. But individuals of other species are predicted to be more numerous, flourishing, and found in new locations; evidence of this process already exists (e.g., Walther et al., 2002). Some places in the climate-changed world may have fewer individuals of any species than would otherwise exist; other places, which would be sparsely populated in a climate like today’s, may be saturated with living things. Some living individuals will be struggling to survive against heat, drought, flooding, or thaws; others will flourish in the warm, the dry, or the ice-free environment.

Climate change, then, pushes the world along a particular, human-influenced trajectory. On many ethical views, this human influence matters. Nolt (2011), for instance, argues that anthropogenic climate change meets four key conditions of moral responsibility: we can cause or prevent it; we can recognize it as morally significant; we can anticipate it with some reliability; and we can act in different ways with respect to it. From this perspective, a human-influenced, climate-changed world of living things is morally charged, in a way that a “wild” future world would not have been; and for biocentric ethicists, this means that climate impacts on living things will therefore matter morally. Exactly what these impacts will be is empirically uncertain, but they may include changing the number of individuals, the existence of different individuals, harm or death to some individuals, and the bringing into being or benefiting of other individuals. Different biocentric views will evaluate these changes differently. I’ll briefly outline two possible, contrasting responses here: a consequentialist biocentric view, like Attfield’s; and a deontological biocentric view, like Taylor’s.

5.2 Consequentialist Biocentrism and Climate Change

The major ethical concern here for consequentialist biocentrists is that climate change will create a worse future world, in terms of the flourishing of living things, than would otherwise have existed.

This worry might focus on numbers: if a climate-changed world over time contained fewer living individuals than a world without climate change, this world would, for most biocentric consequentialists, be worse (leaving aside the quality and psychological sophistication of the lives concerned). But this outcome does not seem particularly likely—even if we restrict “over time” to a timespan meaningful to people; Nolt (2011) suggests a couple of million years. While climate change will reduce or eliminate some species populations, “an increase in weedy and opportunistic species is … expected” (Williams et al., 2008) Some ecosystems (for instance, marine ecosystems affected by ocean acidification) may contain fewer organisms over time. But others will likely contain more—studies suggest, for example, that warming soils in subarctic areas have increased density of bacteria, fungi, and nematodes (Ruess et al., 1999). While the species mix will change, there’s no (p. 108) compelling reason yet, at least, to be seriously concerned about reducing total future numbers of organisms.

A second concern might be about complexity. Climate change will cause different individuals to live, and one possible outcome would be that fewer complex organisms would live. This would not be a particular concern for egalitarian consequentialist biocentrists, since on an egalitarian view, if there were roughly equal numbers of roughly equally flourishing organisms, the differing complexity of their capacities would not matter. But it would matter to inegalitarian consequentialists if fewer psychologically complex individuals existed. And climate change might have this effect. There’s some current evidence of a decline in populations of large apex consumers (Estes et al., 2011) though it is unclear whether this is attributable to climate change. Plausibly, there may be fewer individuals of some psychologically sophisticated species, such as mountain gorillas, partly on account of climate change. However, in other cases, diminishing complex species populations will be superseded by populations of equally complex individuals of other species—for instance, while the Arctic fox population declines, the red fox population expands. Substitutions between different species of equal complexity don’t seem to be of direct ethical concern to consequentialist biocentrism, which is, in this sense, “species-blind.” But even if a climate-changed world did have fewer psychologically sophisticated organisms, humans could breed some (including domesticates). After all, it is not required that consequentialist biocentrists regard the flourishing of an organism as less valuable because humans bred it.

Some biocentrists may resist this suggestion by defending additional values—such as wildness—not tied to life or individual capacities; or by arguing that even if the lost organisms’ own flourishing could be substituted for by domesticates, the lost organisms’ ecosystemic role is so critical that other wild organisms in the ecosystem will flourish less well (see Carter, 2001, Attfield, 2003b). Some evidence for the latter argument exists; for instance, Estes et al. (2011) maintain that where large apex consumers decline, there is “trophic downgrading” in ecosystems. But while from other ethical perspectives trophic downgrading is problematic, it isn’t obviously so for biocentric ethicists; it does not necessarily imply fewer organisms flourishing, but rather different types of flourishing organisms (grasses instead of trees, for instance).

Biocentric consequentialists may also worry that climate change will reduce the flourishing of individual organisms; biocentrists, primarily inegalitarian biocentrists, might additionally worry about increased animal suffering (as would other kinds of consequentialists for whom animal suffering matters). It’s very difficult to predict how, over time, climate change will affect flourishing and suffering. Humans are physiologically rather similar; so we can judge whether particular climatic conditions will cause human suffering and whether such suffering can be averted or alleviated. But biocentrists are concerned with millions of species, with different climate sensitivities and different adaptive capacities. Climate change will certainly cause some suffering and some loss of individual flourishing in the short term. But over time, species composition will change; successful species are likely to be those that are highly adaptive. As adaptive species increase, climate-originating suffering and lack of flourishing should decrease; it may be that that climate change, over time, does not cause a significant uptick in total wild suffering or lack of flourishing.

So: from the perspective of many forms of biocentric consequentialism, climate change is fairly unproblematic: numbers of living things are unlikely to decline; members of struggling species will be replaced by members of more adaptive species, and humans can breed complex (p. 109) animals. However, some forms of biocentric consequentialism may come to different conclusions. An inegalitarian consequentialism in which human beings are highly significant—for instance Varner’s (1998) account—would be likely to find climate change more troubling. Humans are relatively physiologically similar, won’t be replaced by “better adapted” people, and are relatively long lived; in addition their freedom to migrate is politically restricted; some of their adaptive measures (such as air conditioning) contribute to the problem; and they are dependent on a small variety of crops. The effects on humans may be more problematic in terms of total suffering, or loss of flourishing, than the effects on nonhumans over time; while this may seem a strange view for biocentrism to adopt, it’s conceivable that this could be the strongest biocentric consequentialist objection to anthropogenic climate change.

5.3 Deontological Biocentrism and Climate Change

The primary ethical concern for deontological forms of biocentrism is harm to, and killing of, individual living things. Will climate change have this effect? In the short term, the answer is “yes.” Take an animal example: polar bears. Recent evidence suggests that in parts of the Arctic, where sea ice is declining, adult polar bears weigh less than a decade ago and survival is more difficult (Derocher et al., 2004) The climate is changing around the bears; without climate change, these bears’ lives would have gone better. It’s plausible, then, to say that polar bears have been harmed by climate change and (given human moral responsibility) that they have therefore been wronged. For biocentrists, of course, the scope of potential morally relevant harms is much wider than sentient animals; any organism that lives long enough for climate to change around it could be harmed by the change. It’s currently difficult to identify many cases like this, not least because it’s difficult to pick out how far climate change is a causal factor in climate-related harms to living individuals. Nonetheless, according to a deontological view, where such wrongs can be identified, they matter; and (unlike a consequentialist view) they can’t be compensated for by greater benefits to other organisms. In Taylor’s view, we would need to consider what would count as appropriate restitution.

However, while climate will continue to change around organisms, as already noted, it will also change which organisms actually come into existence. This may mean that as species of more adaptive organisms expand, and less adaptive species contract, there will be fewer harms and deaths from climate change. In addition, over time, climate change will become a necessary condition of existence for an increasing number of organisms. Yet these same organisms might also subsequently be killed by some manifestation of climate change. This raises the question of whether an organism can be made worse-off in a morally relevant way by a process that’s necessary for its very existence. Suppose a conifer species moves its range north as temperatures warm, but then particular individual conifers—which would not have existed had this northward expansion not occurred—are killed by a climate change–influenced drought. It might be argued that these particular conifers have not, after all, been harmed—in the sense of “made worse off”—by climate change. If the climate had not changed, those particular conifers would not be better off—they would not have existed at all. This is a case of Parfit’s (1984) “non-identity problem.” If the non-identity problem is taken seriously here, as time goes by, the harms of climate change appear to diminish, since climate change would become a necessary condition of existence for more and more living individuals. Yet this conclusion seems counterintuitive. Many ways of dealing with the (p. 110) non-identity problem have been proposed, some of which reinterpret how harm is understood; unfortunately there isn’t space to discuss them here (but see Harman, 2009; Hartzell-Nichols, 2012). A deontological biocentric ethic, however (like non-biocentric deontological ethical perspectives) will need at least to consider the non-identity problem when developing a thorough-going response to climate change.

6 In Conclusion

Biocentric ethicists have moved beyond many people’s intuitive sense that “life matters” to construct complex, diverse ethical systems that focus on the value of living individuals. These ethical systems must develop still further to respond coherently to growing human environmental impacts. Here I’ve focused on climate change (although what I’ve said may also apply more broadly to other human environmental impacts); but important questions are also raised for biocentrists by other anthropogenic changes, and practices such as synthetic biology.

As this brief consideration of biocentric ethics and climate change suggests, some biocentrists may find responding to these issues challenging. Biocentric ethics can’t, for instance, directly register homogenization of environments or biodiversity loss as ethical problems; however, the values that biocentric ethics can directly register—fewer living organisms, lower levels of individual flourishing, or less overall psychological complexity—may not be especially threatened by climate change or global ecological change more broadly. Of course, biocentric ethicists may just accept that human global environmental impacts are not as straightforwardly morally significant as might have been expected; or biocentric views that add additional values—such as wildness or diversity—could be more systematically developed (the debate between Attfield [2003b, 2005] and Carter [2001, 2005] gives a sense of these possibilities). Biocentrism is, and will remain, a central theoretical position in environmental ethics—but it is likely to change and develop significantly in the next several decades.

References

Agar, N. (1995). “Valuing Species and Valuing Individuals.” Environmental Ethics 17(4): 397–415.Find this resource:

Attfield, R. (1987). A Theory of Value and Obligation. Beckenham: Croom Helm.Find this resource:

Attfield, R. (1991). The Ethics of Environmental Concern (2nd ed.). Athens: University of Georgia Press.Find this resource:

Attfield, R. (1994). “Reasoning about the Environment.” In Environmental Philosophy: Principles and Prospects, edited by R. Attfield, 135–149. Aldershot: Avebury.Find this resource:

Attfield, R. (2003a). Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Polity Press.Find this resource:

Attfield, R. (2003b). “Biocentric Consequentialism, Pluralism, and ‘The Minimax Implication’: A Reply to Alan Carter.” Utilitas 15(1): 76.Find this resource:

Attfield, R. (2005). “Biocentric Consequentialism and Value-Pluralism: A Response to Alan Carter.” Utilitas 17(1): 85–92.Find this resource:

Attfield, R. (2009). “Ecological Issues of Justice.” Journal of Global Ethics 5(2): 147–154.Find this resource:

(p. 111) Attfield, R. (2011). “Climate Change, Environmental Ethics and Biocentrism.” In Climate Change and Environmental Ethics, edited by Ved Nandra, 31–42. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.Find this resource:

Cahen, H. (1988). “Against the Moral Considerability of Ecosystems.” Environmental Ethics 10(3): 195–216.Find this resource:

Carter, Alan (2001). “Review of Robin Attfield’s Ethics of the Global Environment.” Mind 110(437): 149–152.Find this resource:

Carter, Alan (2005). “Inegalitarian Biocentric Consequentialism, the Minimax Implication and Multidimensional Value Theory: A Brief Proposal for a New Direction in Environmental Ethics.” Utilitas 17(1): 62–84.Find this resource:

Derocher A., Lunn, N., and Stirling, I. (2004). “Polar Bears in a Warming Climate.” Integrative and Comparative Biology 44(2): 163–176.Find this resource:

Estes, J. A., Terborgh, J., Brashares, J. S., Power, M. E., Berger, J., Bond, W. J., … Wardle, D. A. (2011). “Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth.” Science 333(6040): 301–306.Find this resource:

Evans, C. (2005). With Respect for Nature: Living as Part of the Natural World. New York: SUNY Press.Find this resource:

Goodpaster, K. (1978). “On Being Morally Considerable.” Journal of Philosophy 75(6): 308–325.Find this resource:

Harman, E. (2009). “Harming as Causing Harm.” In Harming Future Persons: Ethics, Genetics and the Nonidentity Problem, edited by M. A. Roberts and D. T. Wasserman, 137–154. New York: Springer.Find this resource:

Hartzell-Nichols, L. (2012). “How Is Climate Change Harmful?” Ethics and the Environment 17(2): 97–112.Find this resource:

Johnson, L. (1991). A Morally Deep World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Lombardi, L. G. (1983). “Inherent Worth, Respect, and Rights.” Environmental Ethics 5: 257–270.Find this resource:

Kawall, J. (2003). “Reverence for Life as a Viable Environmental Virtue.” Environmental Ethics 25(4): 339–358.Find this resource:

Naess, A. (1973). “The Shallow and the Deep Long-Range Ecology Movement.” Inquiry 16(1): 95–100.Find this resource:

Nolt, J. (2011). “Nonanthropocentric Climate Ethics.” WIRES Climate Change 2: 701–711.Find this resource:

O’Neill, John (1993). Ecology, Policy and Politics: Human Well-being and the Natural World. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Ruess, L., Michelsen, A., Schmidt, I. K., and Jonasson S. (1999). “Simulated Climate Change Affecting Microorganisms, Nematode Density and Biodiversity in Subarctic Soils.” Plant and Soil 212: 63–73.Find this resource:

Sandler, R. (2007). Character and Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Schweitzer, A. (1987/1923). The Philosophy of Civilization. New York: Prometheus Books.Find this resource:

Schmidtz, D. (1998). “Are All Species Equal?” Journal of Applied Philosophy 15: 57–67.Find this resource:

Schmidtz, D. (2011). “Respect for Everything.” Ethics, Policy and Environment 14(2): 127–138.Find this resource:

Singer, P. (1989). “All Animals Are Equal.” In Animal Rights and Human Obligations, edited by T. Regan and P. Singer, 148–162. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.Find this resource:

Sterba, J. P. (1998). “A Biocentrist Strikes Back.” Environmental Ethics 20: 361–376.Find this resource:

Sterba, J. P. (2001). Three Challenges to Ethics: Environmentalism, Feminism and Multiculturalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Taylor, P. (1983). “In Defense of Biocentrism.” Environmental Ethics 5(3): 237–243.Find this resource:

Taylor, P. (1986). Respect for Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

(p. 112) Walther, G., Post, E., Convey, P., Menzel, A., Parmesan, C., Beebee, T. J. C., … Bairlein, F. (2002). “Ecological Responses to Recent Climate Change.” Nature 416: 389–395.Find this resource:

Williams, S. E., Shoo, L. P., Isaac, J. L., Hoffmann, A. A., Langham, G. (2008). “Towards an Integrated Framework for Assessing the Vulnerability of Species to Climate Change.” PLoS Biology 6(12): e325.Find this resource:

Varner, G. (1990). “Biological Functions and Biological Interests.” Southern Journal of Philosophy 28(2): 251–270.Find this resource:

Varner, G. (1998). In Nature’s Interests? Interests, Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource: