This essay is an exploration of the idea of worth and value, referring to ‘species,’ as it has been asked. I will compare ideas across a spectrum of ethical approaches, as the question comes to the heart of environmental ethics. I will begin with some definitions, inferences of key elements, not least what ‘species’ may or may not be, and will look at range of ethical/axiological approaches by way of a few key environmental philosophers, and then observe more closely the subject of ‘will’ in relation to all of life’s ‘green fuse.’ (1)
This I perceive as a ‘will to flourish’ and, therefore, inherently valuable in every individual being, necessitating a respect for life, save for the need to flourish (but not in excess). I’ll thread a few biological examples through the text, in relation to having their own moral standing, though I’ll not set any strict hierarchical or egalitarian ordering.
A species is frequently characterised as a group of individual living beings that actually (or potentially), interbreed. In a biological, materialist sense, a species is the largest genetic pool of DNA possible in nature. Things are not straightforward, however. Many bacteria reproduce asexually, for example. Plants and some animals are able to produce hybrids. The word ‘species’ is an anthropocentric construct, created for our own purposes in trying to identify different living beings on Earth. We taxonomize, we quantify.
As we push against contextual boundaries in science, we also need to be open to shifts in meaning. That’s not to say that reductionism rules, but that a bridge between philosophical inquiry and scientific empiricism should remain in tact. A clear example of this ‘blurry line’ is in water bears. These micro-animals, incredibly hardy tardigrades, are able to accumulate extra DNA from their environment during their periods of desiccation. Once rehydrated, the material becomes existential to them in their continuing to flourish. A remarkable process, perhaps, but an example of where the idea of singular ‘species’ begins to fracture. As science reveals more about genetic ‘swaps’, we may think alternatively about evolutionary relationships. Evolution itself is, amongst other things, a process of genetic swapping.
“Instead of a tree of life where organisms split and never really reconnect, it’s a web of life with frequent exchange of genetic information.” (2)
When we refer to species, it must therefore be a loose term. Key, none-the-less, is that each living being has a will to flourish, regardless of genetic make-up, though this may or not manifest as consciousness.
Good of their own, moral standing
“An independent object or subject has moral status if and only if it or its interests morally matter to some degree for the entity’s own sake, such that it can be wronged.” (3)
What is good? Here, I take ‘good’ to be a noun ~ do species have a benefit or advantage to themselves? We all may understand that the web of life, in our one biosphere on planet Earth, is interconnected. Food webs with cascades of trophic levels push and pull on one another, inducing waves of population highs/lows and evolutionary processes too. There is an absolute extrinsic value for each life, as useful to every other life, no matter how indirect (we share one biosphere, lest we forget), whether it be through reproduction, predator prey relationships and/or community interchange. In terms of the human species, there are socio-political factors. Who knows, this may well be so in other species, to varying degrees.
Another way of looking at species is by the diversity of them, and whether this is a good thing. How broad is the spectrum of life at present? Biodiversity, short for biological diversity, is the degree of variability within species, between species, and between ecosystems. Generally, the greater the biodiversity, the more functioning and resilient the biome. Earth’s life systems amount to larger biomes, are they intrinsically valuable also? As Lovelock implies in the Gaia Hypothesis (4), if the whole Earth a self-regulating system, the whole Earth must be intrinsically valuable, in a Universe where life is possibly either non-existent or rare on a planet by planet basis. But the whole Earth must also be extrinsically valuable to each and every life form associated with it. The problem then, so it follows, individual life forms are expendable if ‘deemed’ (by whomever may decide), for the good of the whole. In theory, humans included.
A worthy, but not an entire argument, is to look for sentience (5) (Singer), in that if a living being may perceive suffering because of the intent of others, then it would be in order for this to be judged morally bad or an unjustifiable act against the interests of the living being. But what of suffering? How do we know for sure that a living being suffers pain or not? Science is only just beginning to reveal truths on the existence of sentience in trees, for example. Before this, many modern humans might have (and still do, because they do not yet know), consider trees completely incapable of sentient life and caused undue suffering because of it.
Attfield (after Goodpaster (6)), asserts that if there is a dying man and a dying plant, it would be wrong to apportion water equally to both. (7) That’s not to say that all the water be given to the man or all the water given to the plant. After all, both beings are on the verge of death. Refreshment would be deserving in a more balanced way, so Attfield is legitimate in suggesting absolute biocentric egalitarianism (Taylor) (8) is problematical.
Routley’s Last Man thought experiment is also relevant here. (9) If the last man on Earth, for whatever reason, decides to go out with a ‘bang’ and take all other life with him, is this ethically wrong? The heart of the answer would rest on whether non-human life has moral standing regardless of human interest/existence. Most, hope springs, may think destroying all non-human life would be a wrong thing to do, because each life is precious, and has potential or ‘will’ to flourish, regardless of human existence. There would be an ‘injustice.’ Hence, there is further reason, perhaps, that intrinsic value is less prone to futile human debates on various extrinsic and anthropocentric/utility pretence.
J. Baird Callicott concluded that all value and obligations should be focused on the ‘integrity, stability and beauty of the biosphere’ (after Leopold) (10). The purpose of individual life, including that of humans, is only of instrumental value to the whole. When the overall collective good becomes paramount, the problem remains that individual life becomes expendable if the integrity of the whole is to be preserved. In extreme, humans also would be expendable, our current (leave alone future), population is directly a problem to the planet as a whole. So in this sense, Rolston and Callicott represent a view that the integrity of ecosystems transcend the value of human life.
As Robin Attfield states, this becomes an unacceptable ethic, in that the suffering of humans, as a ‘species,’ must be accounted for and avoided. So we begin to see a hierarchy of moral standing emerge. How are we to order such a hierarchy? There are problems, as we do not fully know the intricacies of the importance of certain species to the overall ecosystems (although, ironically, we know significant negative impacts of the human species upon the biosphere, well enough, at least, to discern a real, tangible threat to all life on Planet Earth in the form of rapid climate change and biodiversity loss). I am with Attfield when he states:
“So we need to combine biocentric understanding of moral standing with a form of consequentialism that recognises the full range of capacities whose development or fulfilment comprises the good of various creatures including human beings, and which also recognises the greater value interests that relate to complex and sophisticated capacities such as autonomy.” (11)
Selfless not selfish
Anthropocentrism is human-centredness, an ethical framework that grants moral standing solely to human beings.
Bryan Norton argues:
“Policies serving the interests of the human species as a whole, and in the long run, will serve also the “interests” of nature, and vice versa.” (12)
But what of the mosquito that carries malaria? Our interest are clearly not directly shared. If we wipe out the carrier, the mosquito, one could speak of it as human ‘self defence’. But what of the other species that are inextricably associated with those same mosquitos? Do their needs not count? If we erode these particular food webs, what impacts are there upon the whole? Indeed, the biodiversity and evolution of viruses themselves may be viewed as a vast new area of thought, in terms of environmental ethics.
What of the life that we, as yet, do not even classify at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean? Although the argument still stands, that all life is connected, it would be too easy to drive policies, say, on the anthropocentric economic pursuit of oil over the needs of the life forms beneath the arctic.
Anthropocentric biases creep into decision making processes at every level. Sadly, we are seeing Norton’s ethic, not least, within the UN (13) and other conservation organisations in the misguided normative ethic of commodifying nature as a way of making it visible to governments and economic facilitators. Such anthropocentric calls for natural capital accounting clearly bring nature more deeply into the volatilities of the human realm via economic markets and other financial deviations. A second point is that it seeks to mentally separate ourselves from the rest of nature by commodifying in monetary terms, rather than considering we are part of nature and might seek instead to count non-human life as kin to be cared for, respected and loved.
Should there be hierarchical order to moral status, with the highest degree of status given to humans? As part of nature, humans are interdependent on nature, not separate. So how can we have a framework for living our lives based simply on human need, or human dominance over nature singularly for our own sake? It seems to me this type of thinking, actions and policies resulting, is what is causing climatic and ecological upheaval in the first place. A species selfishness.
New scientific knowledge may change our attitude towards trees, as indigenous and more ancient cultures may have acknowledged trees as sentient, with folklore, as cultural remnant, turning up signals that this was so. (14)
Ethical considerations must be extended beyond the human community. But what of moral standing, that we must be mindful, compassionate and considerate of the needs of entities other than our own kind? Selflessness? Ecocentrism and Deep Ecology of Arne Næss (15) and in similar respects Snyder (16) and more recently, Albrecht et al (17) inspired by the work of Leopold, argue a degree of moral standing to the whole. Our moral community ought, therefore, to be extended to systems such as rivers, mountains, flood plains, landscapes and ecosystems. But interestingly, in terms of moral standing, it is still intrinsic value which is proposed as least contentious.
“We argue it has been the failure to fully appreciate the objective intrinsic value of biological diversity (species and habitat) and the overwhelming dominance of human-defined instrumental values that are the main reasons why we are facing the prospect of dangerous climate change and other manifestations of ecosystem distress in the first place.” (18)
Determining whether our environmental obligations are based on anthropocentric or non- anthropocentric reasoning, leads to different accounts of what our responsibilities and obligations are. Despite inevitable pluralistic approaches (we humans are a diverse ‘species’), we need to be more mindful, deliberate. We owe this to nature, for all that we take from it.
A Will to Flourish.
Consider the self determination of trees, a biological genus, though each species of tree may be inherently valuable. Self determination in humans is looked upon generally as a good thing. Food, warmth, nourishment, medicines; just some of the most basic of our needs but for the sake of this exploration, I’ll assume we in the West are guaranteed them. Perhaps, a wishful assumption.We are also at liberty to legally reward ourselves for our endeavours, mostly in material things (often at the expense of trees).
Do trees have wants and a will to succeed beyond simple needs? Given adequate life support, a lone tree can be grown from a fertilized seed in a laboratory under synthetic conditions. We can offer the tree what it needs to exist, as we can offer a brain dead patient. Whether it flourishes to a natural end is another matter. Trees reproducing and existing in nature, in landscape and sunlight, rely on symbiosis; partnerships with microorganisms to supply the nutrients for growth using different bacteria and yeast to succeed, moreover, to flourish.
Do trees want for more, beyond survival? They may need to create community, collectives of many life forms and species, not just to survive but to thrive, reproduce and live a long and enduring life. Incentives may not be relevant, no city breaks, but ‘good’ soils, carbon dioxide, oxygen to roots in varying degrees, unpolluted water and the unrestricted ability to photosynthesize, respire and transpire. Of course trees need ‘place’ in Leopold’s deep sense of the word. The size of woodland may once have been limited by climate, hydrology, altitude, coast and so on. High rates of human intervention have accelerated these factors (even altitude if you consider mountaintop mining), and imposed the development of farmland, utility forestry, transport infrastructure and urbanity. Resulting fragmentation, island bio-geography and edge effects change the very nature of living woodland community, and consequently what it is to be a tree. Mono-cultured plantation stands are more vulnerable to pest and disease, without further human interventions like spraying pesticides and herbicides, although not exclusively.
Indigenous trees in collectives may also offer some protection from windfall, fire and climatic change, and in the past with pre-industrial mammalian destruction. We see many lone trees around cities, fields and hedgerows of course, planted or selected for our utilitarian needs, at least with access to some of the most basic essential life support, whether or not they flourish. They may be less likely to reproduce naturally, however. A sociable tree may be the healthiest tree. Everyday, scientists solve more puzzles. For instance, trees may not feel pain as we do, using a central nervous system like ours, but are able to sense vibration, oncoming rain and gravitational orientation. We didn’t know these things a hundred years ago. Many questions remain unanswered, the mysteries. A fertilized seed will sprout given basic prerequisites and seek to root. There are signs that trees have a will to self-heal, recover, regenerate and adapt to a changing environment. Research into hormones, i.e. jasmonates, are key to signalling morphological changes in plant cells, such as dwarfism, and through natural selection, similarly to spinescence evolving in response to environmental conditions or ‘stressors.’ A tree can generate new limbs, should others fail. New life can even spring from a fallen tree crown ~ phoenix generation could be the ultimate evidence of ‘will.’
So, to me, trees do have a will to survive, reproduce, moreover to flourish. It is this very point that makes them inherently valuable and of moral standing, beyond the human realm (theoretically, if for instance an alien species should ever visit planet Earth). Grub out a forest, stop burning heathland, knock down a building and watch the regeneration in action. To me, primary and secondary succession are all pointers to a will for life. Aren’t there recognizable similarities here between the will of a pioneer tree and the will of a person?
To lead a full life, to flourish and reproduce, are just a few of the basic things we humans value about life. They are intrinsic to us. Homo Sapiens are species, in that loose sense of the term (mixed Neanderthal DNA accepted). You could say we are genetically coded and socially primed to do so. One could say the same of trees.
Schopenhauer examined the unconscious driver of body and mind as ‘Will’. This ‘kernel of existence’ generates and underpins phenomena, and manifests in the impacts around us. ‘Force’ and ‘energy’ were also considered but he decided on ‘Will” because of personal self reflection, as an individual living being with needs. Someone who has considered things similarly…
“… will recognise that same will of which we are speaking not only in those phenomena which exactly resemble his own, in men and animals, as their innermost nature, but the course of reflection will lead him to recognise the force which shoots and vegetates in the plant, indeed the force by which the crystal is formed, the force which turns the magnet to the north pole, the force whose shock he experiences from the contact of two different kinds of metals, the force which appears in the elective affinities of matter as repulsion and attraction, decomposition and combination, and, lastly, even gravitation, which acts so powerfully throughout matter, draws the stone to the Earth and the Earth to the Sun.” (19)
In this case, according to Schopenhauer, all phenomena have a will, but how could we disseminate what has moral standing as a result? Panpsychism (20) explores spirit-Gaia, on similar grounds. That all things are conscious, from subatomics to the cosmological vastness. But, still, if there is no moral order, and all things have an egalitarian right to exist, there would be no end, no death, no food chains. So there must be some hierarchy for old to give way to new.
To discern living beings of key moral standing seems the obvious course, because they are not inert, or at least, not for eternity. Life is an assemblage of the inert, but it is the will ‘to flourish’, which distinguishes organic from the inorganic. In this sense, I’d call for a new kind of biocentric deontologicalism, responsibility for ensuring all life continues to flourish, (and consequently a care for ecological processes and the inert as a support mechanism) but for the need to assimilate some order in the moral standing of other beings, according to our needs not ‘wants.’
Goodpaster was right when he wrote about the difference between asserting moral rights (and subsequent claims), and moral standing (respect and interests taken into account). (21) But the question here is simply ‘do species have a good of their own, a moral standing.?’ Subject to a loose definition of the word ‘species’, the answer is a clear yes, though I would not yet call for the rights of all as persons.
We too are nature, and have needs to survive and reproduce, moreover to flourish and this may involve killing other species, for example, trees, before they live a long and productive life. However, just because various tree species cannot run away from a wielded axe, we shouldn’t treat them simply as disposable assets for excessive luxury, or woodlands as dispensable in the face of economic downturn. Genus of trees of course are beneficial to humans as they are to many other species, and some benefits will be reciprocal. As intrinsically valuable individual beings, they are self determining living species (Attfield)22 with a will to flourish (Schopenhauer). We need to remember this in our individual and collective relationship with them and in our decision making or utility of them.
1 Richard Burton reads Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug3m8FHHheo> via YouTube
2 T.C. Boothby et al. “Evidence for extensive horizontal gene transfer from the draft genome of a tardigrade.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online November 23 (2015) <https:// www.sciencenews.org/article/water-bears-are-genetic-mash-ups> via Science News
3 Jaworska, Agnieszka and Tannenbaum, Julie, “The Grounds of Moral Status”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/ sum2013/entries/grounds-moral-status/>.
4 James E. Lovelock, Bowerchalke, Nr. Salisbury, Wilts. England and Lynn Margulis, Department of Biology, Boston University, 2, Cummington Street, Boston, Mass., USA.
Published in Tellus XXVI (1974), 1-2. Manuscript received May 8 1973; revised version August 20 (1973)
5 Singer, P “All Animals are Equal” Philosophical Exchange, Vol 1. No 5 (Summer 1974), pp243-257
6 Goodpaster, K “On Being Morally Considerable” The Journal of Philosophy, LXXV, 6 (June 1978), 308-25 7 Attfield, R “Environmental Ethics” Polity Press, Cambridge (2011) p 44
7 Attfield, R “Environmental Ethics” Polity Press, Cambridge (2011) p 44
8 Taylor, P “The Ethics of Respect for Nature” Environmental Ethics, Vol 3 (Fall 1981), pp 197-218
9 Sylvan/Routley R “Is There a Need for a New Environmental Ethic?” Proceedings of the XV World Congress of Philosophy, No 1 Varna, Bulgaria, (1973) pp. 205-210
10 Leopold, A “A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There” Oxford University Press (1989) pp 224-225
11 Attfield, R “Environmental Ethics” Polity Press, Cambridge (2011) p 45
12 Norton, B “Toward Unity” Oxford University Press, 1 Sep (1994) p 240
13 <http://www.naturalcapitaldeclaration.org> via UNEP
14 For example, “He who takes an axe to the home of wood sprite will have no peace, nor much life, a traditional Hookland saying according to C.L. Nolan. <https://hookland.wordpress.com> Similarly in Japan there are the Kodama spirits, Dryads of Greek mythology, and in Ireland, the Fairy Trees.
15 Næss, A “The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects” Philosophical Inquiry 8, (1986) 1-2
16 Snyder, G “The Place, The Region and The Commons” The Practise of the Wild, North Point Press, San Francisco (1990)
17 Albrecht, G. A. ; Brooke, C. ; Bennett, D. H. & Garnett, S. T. “The Ethics of Assisted Colonization in the Age of Anthropogenic Climate Change.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (2013) 26 (4) pp 827-845
19 Schopenhauer, A “The World as Will and Representation” Christopher Janaway Cambridge University Press, 28 Oct (2010) bk.1, chap. 21
20 Skrbina, D “Panpsychism in the West” MIT Press January (2007)
21 Goodpaster, K “On Being Morally Considerable” The Journal of Philosophy, LXXV, 6 (June 1978) 22 Attfield, R “The Good of Trees” Journal of Value Inquiry 15 (1):35-54 (1981)