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To change behaviour it helps to understand all behaviour as best we can. Several articles examine the reasons for us behaving as we do – the various forces and principles that determine our actions. The article on biological values describes the way that, unsurprisingly, our conscious and deliberate human behaviour is grounded in our unconscious and mindless biological history. The article on moral psychology extends this theme by looking at unconscious human motivation, the psychological origins of our human moral intuitions. The article on morality is an introduction to ethics as the study of the principles and rules that govern right action with a brief overview of the world’s major moral theories. Two articles, purpose & value and science and morality explore the relationship between the world of science and the world of values. All these articles are then drawn on to investigate the role of practical or applied environmental ethics  in our collective human management of sustainability and the world environment.

Purpose & value 


Life is better than death
Health is better than sickness
Abundance is better than want
Freedom is better than coercion
Happiness is better than suffering
Knowledge is better than ignorance[6]

Steven Pinker

This article explores the ethical consequences of bio-teleological realism (the claim that there are mind-independent purposes in nature) by asking if there can be mind-independent values.

The article on purpose explained why we feel uneasy when we assume that organisms just exist in the same way that rocks just exist . . . how we sense that something is being passed over when we regard statements like ‘Eyes are for seeing’ and ‘the moon is for orbiting the Earth’, as having an equivalent sense of ‘for’. The difference, it was argued, is that the former statement expresses biological agency and vitality through real purpose.

The bio-teleological realist maintains that purpose is endemic to living systems and, as expressed in both everyday and scientific discourse, this does not necessarily imply conscious intention. Humans, as reason-representers, can appreciate the reasons why organisms function as they do, even though the organisms themselves cannot. As pointed out by philosopher Dan Dennett, reasons exist immaterially in the world (they are real). Crucially, although reasons can be represented in minds, they are not always created by them. There is a reason why leaves are green, and that reason existed within nature before humans, as reason-representers, appeared on earth.

Biological purpose is not metaphor, a façon de parler, (though at times it can be presented that way), nor is it an heuristic device. The purpose in nature, which is evident to us all, is not inextricably harnessed to human consciousness or God, it was there, in nature, before humans arrived on the planet: it is part of the fabric of nature itself.

The mind is itself a product of purposeful nature, not its creator. Organisms and their parts can indeed be ‘for’ something, even though they have no foresight. They are, as philosopher Dan Dennett expresses it, ‘competent without comprehension’. Though we intuitively assume purpose in nature, for historical philosophical reasons there is still a tendency to avoid the words ‘purpose’ and ‘for’, which some scientists and philosophers contest should be reserved for conscious agents. Purposes in biology are therefore generally referred to as functions, ‘function’ being a neutral way of denoting what the bio-teleological realist would regard as real purposes that exist objectively in non-conscious nature.

Purpose & value

If nature exhibits rudimentary (but real) purpose, can it also express rudimentary (but real) value? We certainly assume that organisms may be placed in situations that, for them, are ‘better’ or ‘worse’: that life for all organisms can result in casualties and beneficiaries. Is this assumption just lazy and uncritical language and poor science, or does it have some foundation in the world?

Aristotle said that changes in nature were usually ‘for the better’. By this he meant that nature demonstrated what today we would call adaptations.

But when we say that an organism ‘benefits’ from something, we are making a value judgement – and values, it is often assumed and argued, are a cardinal case of judgements imposed on the world by human minds. Values do not reside out there in the world, they are mind dependent.

This article investigates the common assumption that values are mind dependent. If there can be reasons without a reasoner, purposes without conscious intention, and intricate design without a conscious designer, can there be mind-independent values . . .  can values exist without valuers?


Value denotes the degree of importance we attach to something, so it is values that drive our intentional behaviour and influence our beliefs and attitudes. The degree to which values are generated by our inherited biology is a matter of keen debate. When our values entail assessments of appropriate courses of action (what ‘ought’ to be done) they are referred to as normative ethics.

It is important to distinguish between personal values – like my preference for white wine and impressionist music – and shared cultural values like strong injunctions concerning right and wrong as in ‘thou shalt not kill’ or the weaker ‘waste paper is deposited in the recycle bin’ and to note that values can be classified in many ways, as religious, aesthetic, political, social, and so forth.

A distinction is also often drawn between instrumental and intrinsic values, the former values have extrinsic properties, and these are a means of achieving something else while the latter have intrinsic properties that make something of value in itself. Both may be possessed at once. The discussion here mostly concerns the origin and establishment of cultural values.

The nature of matter

We forget that, until recent times, our understanding of the material world and its history was very different from that of today. From the ancients to the Middle Ages the key ingredients of the universe were assumed to be Earth, Air, Fire, and Water with various interpretations of the way they related to the history of the universe, the Earth, the community of life, and human beings. Western medicine was dominated by the theory of four humours and four temperaments until at least the mid 16th century.

Before Darwin the world was regarded by most humans as a supernatural creation. Christians believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible and assumed that God created the Earth in seven days, each individual species created as discrete and immutable. Non-human life was created by God for human convenience. For most people the co-existence of matter and spirit was unproblematic.   And there was an obvious continuity between ancestors, the living, and those enjoying or suffering an after-life. In short, our understanding of the history of matter in the universe, both living and dead, was extremely different from that of today.

With Darwin’s account of natural selection a coherent account of the world that did not include the supernatural became possible.

Today, Darwin and physical science have provided us with compelling accounts of material and organic change over the full course of the history of the universe (see Big History). This revolutionary change in perception has all taken place over a brief 150 years or so, a mere 5 generations.

Continuity & connection

One extremely important and often unappreciated aspect of our modern scientific interpretation of history is that of the continuity of all matter as it has evolved from the Big Bang. One aspect of this has been the emergence of ever more complex aggregations of matter – from the inanimate to the animate, and from one organic form to another. In the organic world this has entailed diversification from a common ancestor by the mechanism of natural selection. Natural selection, science tells us, ‘created’ the entire community of life, the multiplicity of organic forms, some of which are self-aware, and all made from star dust. This process did not necessarily occur in small and equal steps but, of necessity, there was continuity.

Darwin’s theory of organic continuity preceded the theory of overall material continuity (everything in the universe emerging from the Big Bang) by many decades. It was about 70 years after Darwin’s On the origin . . . that the Steady State theory of the universe was finally put to rest by Hubble around 1930.  So, it is for only about 100 years that we have seriously considered that everything is materially connected from events that unfolded from a point source at the Big Bang – the differentiation into elements in supernovae, the aggregation of matter into self-replicating and evolving organic units, and the emergence of self-awareness . . . everything . . . including the evolution and accumulation of knowledge and ideas.

As the result of a Chronometric Revolution that has taken place in the last 100 years we now know that humans are not only made out of stardust but that the history of their emergence can be explained in a scientifically coherent historical process of material continuity that can be dated to a remarkable degree of accuracy from the time when the universe began.

Has the language we use to describe the material world captured, in an adequate way, this sense of continuity – or does it still retain the ghosts of old assumptions?

Language and metaphysics

The Creationist and scientific accounts of the history of the universe are very different – they give different accounts of reality, of metaphysics. Are these differing worldviews reflected in language? Has science developed an efficient post-Darwinian/Big Bang metaphysical vocabulary of naturalistic explanation that captures the physical continuity we now believe must be a necessary part of the scientific worldview?

As matter has gathered complexity, so new structures, relations, reasons, and functions have miraculously emerged. Do our current concepts adequately reflect this new evolutionary understanding of everything?

Four kinds of matter

From antiquity humans have found it useful to distinguish four categories or kinds of matter:

a) the set of all matter ordered by necessity (‘necessity’ = the laws of physics)

b) the subset of all matter that is living, which consists of semi-autonomous units, living organisms, that are the products of natural selection (genetic information accumulated under the influence of the sorting algorithm of natural selection).

c) the subset of living matter that is conscious (sentient) with the capacity to experience comfort and pain

d) the further subset of conscious living matter that has the capacity for foresight and hindsight, abstract reasoning, self-awareness, creation of complex technology, sociality, and language i.e. human beings.

This categorization is useful understanding apparent disjunctions in the continuity of the universe.

Where do values come from?

Values are here taken to be those intuitions, beliefs and attitudes that govern our behaviour – considerations about what is desirable or undesirable, good or bad, liked and disliked, and they include moral judgements about what ought to be (normative ethics).

Where did our values come from?

This is a question that can have a profound influence on our individual and collective worldviews.

Five sources of values may be distinguished: theocentric (religious codes of behaviour passed to humanity by God); anthropocentric (the autonomous moral deliberation of conscious rational agents); sociocentric (values instilled by mothers and fathers, schoolteachers, our culture, ethnic and religious group, peer group, friends etc.); biocentric (our biologically inherited or ‘natural values’); and cosmogenetic (out of the history and nature of the stuff from which we are made).


The view still held by many people today is that our framework of ethical beliefs, our broad code of behaviour, was  given to humanity by God. This code of behaviour (for Christians, the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, the exhortation of the New Testament to love one-another, for Buddhism the Eight-fold path of etc.)

There are two major environmental consequences of theocentrism as exmplified by Christianity (discussed in more detail elsewhere). The first is ‘dominion theology’, whereby the natural world is provided by God for the benefit of humans, a seemingly strongly anthropocentric stance. But this is view is often associated with a responsibility of care; that such generosity requires responsible stewardship.

Origin of values 1 – Values are derived from a code of behaviour ordained by God


By far the most popular claim about values among Western intellectuals and philosophers is that values are mind dependent. That is, values do not exist independently in the world (or nature), they are imposed on it by our human minds . . . they are subjective. Their subjectivity renders them very different from the objective and descriptive facts of science. On this view normativity requires human agency. Values can only be found in conscious and rational agents – so they are strictly human business.

Our value-system is thus (in the absence of Theocentric divine command) a totally human affair: values arrived in the world with human rational consciousness.

As Shakespeare said . . . ‘Nothing is either right or wrong but thinking makes it so‘.

Origin of values 2 – Values are the subjective products of human minds; only human beings have moral worth or intrinsic value

Anthropocentrism does not mean that nature has no value; what it does mean is that the value we attach to nature is instrumental: nature has value because it touches human lives. We humans care for nature because, if we do not, then it will be to our own detriment.

One powerful human recognition of the instrumental value of nature is through the idea of ecosystem services as a measure of the myriad benefits – practical, economic, spiritual, educational – that we derive from nature. Just a glance at a list of ecosystem services is enough to convince most people that taking care of nature is in our human interest.

The weight of history, before the environmental turn that occurred at the start of Informatia, was firmly in favour of anthropocentrism. Aristotle (Politics, Bk. 1, Ch. 8) maintained that ‘nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man’. The value of the non-human in nature was therefore instrumental. This was a position often attributed to the Bible and a dictum repeated, almost verbatim, by Linnaeus in 1749 as ‘all things are made for the sake of man’. Francis Bacon wrote that ‘the world is made for man’ and Descartes declared that animals were inferior to humans who were ‘the lords and possessors of nature’. From the 18th into the 19th centuries it was insisted that nature, and people, were improved by plant cultivation.[12] Humans thus enhanced wild nature by making the world more inhabitable for themselves. Supporters of this view included the influential Comte de Buffon who favoured subduing the wilderness which was perceived as a victory of civilized man over uncivilized nature. It was ‘cultivated nature’ that was ‘beautiful’.[12]

Alexander von Humboldt added a voice of caution to this anthropocentrism, making an early stand for environmental ethics by stating that ‘Man can only act upon nature, and appropriate her forces to his use, by comprehending her laws’.[13]

For the environmental ethicist the restriction of intrinsic value to humans, and only instrumental value to nature, leads to a pale green environmental ethic.


It might be claimed that religious values, though a powerful influence on our behaviour and moral thought, do not provide a satisfactory overall account of our value systems. The values that we hold dear were not necessarily derived from God, but from our socio-cultural context. If we want to find the source of our values then we need to look at our social context of mothers and fathers, schoolteachers, and the cultural influences derived from our ethnic and religious background, our peer group, friends and so on.

The point here is that individuals exist within a community. Each of us has beliefs, values, and attitudes that may differ from those espoused by our society and culture. We cannot ignore the socio-cultural context of values.

Sociocentrism can be regarded as an aspect of anthropocentrism and for this reason the derivation of values from our socio-cultural environment can be easily passed over.

Origin of values 3 – Values are derived from the influences of our peers, community, and culture


Anthropocentrism places emphasis on our values as products of our unique human capacity for conscious reasoning. But a moment’s reflection reveals that morality is in large part about managing the biological instincts and intuitions (unconscious or natural values) that actually drive us.

Moral codes devised to dampen down our natural values, expressed crudely as our ‘animal nature’. Reason regulates natural values to produce outcomes more in keeping with human happiness, wellbeing and flourishing. Reason does not rise above our instincts, it simply recasts them in a more palatable form – it rationalizes our ‘will’. Clearly the use of reason can help us maximize our wellbeing. However, it is often harnessed to restrain the values inherent in our human nature. 

This does not mean that natural values are desireable (that is why reason is so important) but it does mean that they are the drivers of our ethical systems. The role of reason, though crucial to outcomes, is of secondary biological significance because it is a reaction to prior natural values. Reason is, as it were, the conscious manifestation of the organism-environment interaction of natural selection that acts as a form of self-correction: it is the natural selection found in all organisms but made rational and conscious in humans.

So, what do we know about these natural values that drive our lives?

The new discipline of moral psychology has found that they relate to helping and hurting, reciprocity, altruism, empathy, cooperation, cheating, in-groups & out-groups, strangers, tribes, physical and spiritual purity and its preoccupation with contamination and disgust – especially in relation to food, sex, & death – also issues associated with social status like rank, respect, dignity, and honour.

Aristotle defined human beings by their possession of reason. This may indeed uniquely define humans, but humans are not reason alone, they have an overall human nature that includes natural values.  Natural values like our own are most obvious in our sentient primate relatives but they go far deeper into our biological nature.

Biocentrism, then, is regarded as a Mid-Green environmental ethic because it sees values as being derived, not so much from the fact that we are conscious and rational (anthropocentrism), but from the fact that we are animals with biologically inherited instincts and intuitions that we recognize most closely as values shared by sentient animals (biocentrism).

Origin of values 4 – Values are derived from the instinctive emotions that drive the human will


It is hardly a giant step from biocentrism to the recognition that the pleasure and pain experienced by sentient organisms comes with a vast suite of responses to the environment that grade into a core set of ‘values’ shared by all life.

It helps to think of these values in the way we might think about consciousness. We know that the community of life, which evolved from a common ancestor, shares a continuity of existence and that, when considering increase in biological complexity (though different paths may have been followed, and the path include jumps) a gradation of change is likely. An amoeba is hardly conscious but it does respond to changes in its environment. A worm seems to have a crude kind of awareness, but it is not so evident as that which I observe in a fish, while my pets display many emotions and responses that I can relate to in my own conscious life. From simple beginnings we can see a diversification into complex outcomes. We can recognize precursors to consciousness, even though these do not lie on a direct evolutionary path.

Origin of values 5 – Values are ultimately derived from our biological natures


I feel confident that primates and sentient creatures like my pet dog and cat feel pleasure, pain, fear, and a range of emotions akin to my own. Today, a popular line of demarcation for a moral domain is drawn at sentience because we understand the need to minimize pain and suffering.

But pain is just one of many natural values. This may make sense to our human sensibilities, but it does not make biological sense. We must follow values into more distant evolutionary history, and simpler biological organization.

The universe is not chaotic, it is ordered, and because it is ordered it is amenable to the scientific investigation that attempts to explain its pattern, design, and order. Not just anything can happen. We attribute this order to the universal laws of physics, whose effect is to narrow down the field of possible outcomes. This is itself a process of cosmic selection.

Though natural selection is a different order of selection, cosmic selection is real and it is a necessary precursor to natural selection.

Our explanations are explanations, in general, are explanations of convenience. Explanation must stop somewhere. If the question posed appears answered then we are usually content. For matters of human interest this usually involves short periods of time in small areas of space. If we want a full explanation of normativity then we must recognise that, of necessity, its crudest origins must go back to the Big Bang. The cosmic laws of physics demonstrate the rudiments of reason, design, purpose, value . . . and indeed, everything. It deserves our respect.

Origin of values 6 – Values are ultimately derived from the filtering effect of the iniverse’s physical constants which constrain the field of possibility

The biological axiom

All living organisms have an innate disposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish (biological axiom) – this is both a biological fact and a biological value. It is something that resides within organisms themselves – it is both imminent and innate – value is a part of nature that just is.

The propensity for life over death, to survive and reproduce, is the single defining characteristic of all living organisms, including those that are unaware that they have this disposition. The world of value follows from here.

Earlier this article designated natural selection as a rudimentary origin of normativity. This was because natural selection resulted in a kind of matter that behaved significantly differently from the matter that preceded it in cosmic evolutionary time. The products of natural selection were goal-directed.

Origin of values 5 – Values are derived from the purposive drive of biological agents to survive and reproduce

Conscious purpose

We now know that what exists today arose out of what existed before. Also, that Darwin’s theory of organic evolution by modification of a common ancestor (under natural selection) replaced the religious notion of discretely God-created organisms. Historically there was a continuity of matter, albeit matter divisible into the four categories listed above.

It is a quirk of both old assumptions and our use of language that it tends to discount change and continuity by favouring ideas (categories) and their referents as discrete: we desire classical categories that might not be there in reality. So, for example, we are inclined to treat consciousness as either present or absent in an organism. Scientifically, it is more accurate to consider degrees of consciousness. So, for example, instead of conceptualizing the conscious and non-conscious as simple opposing states we can imagine degrees of consciousness not only as we pass through the animal kingdom from, say, amoeba to worm, to fish, to cow, to human, but also in ourselves, over the course of a lifetime, and even during the passage of day and night.

Consciousness is just one of many concepts lacking the fluidity and gradation needed to more adequately represent these attributes that exist in the world? Included here might be our concepts agency, function, purpose, reason, design and value, which all lack this sense of gradation and continuity that is now part of the scientific worldview. Do they need to be brought metaphysically up-to-date and, if so, how could this be done?

This needs further explanation and to do this I shall first consider the case of value.

As always the various ideas about the origin of values – major steps in the argument – are stated as principles or points to ponder and criticize.

The expanding circle of moral concern

In the past there was the simple understanding that it was religious belief that gave everyone a code of behaviour. In in the Christian church this was the Ten Commandments. Major social values were then endorsed by religious institutions and the law, then down the social hierarchy with less importand values such as matters of fashion and taste set by royalty, nobility, the wealthy, and socially influential.

On this top-down characterization of the origin and development of morality, societal values have followed a historical path of increasing democratization and egalitarianism, addressing social exclusion based on race, religion, gender, property ownership, and education. This is a widening sphere of moral influence that might be considered as heading towards a global consensus on what might be regarded as a step towards behaviour that is universally rational, and socially just.[7] In recent times there has been an extension of the law accounting for not only the interests of conscious rational beings but also those of sentient creatures that can experience pleasure or pain.

Our naturally ‘sinful’ nature is to be conquered by the commandments of God, the law, and our better nature. Ideally, we observe nature and the universe in a dispassionate and objective way to arrive at dispassionate and objective moral decisions.

Does Darwin have any relevance to this characterization of morality?

Well, definitely, in the sense that Darwin and many others have pointed out that much of our morality derives not so much from God, the state, assorted authority figures, all finely honed by reason . . . but from our intuitions (see moral psychology). Values arise from our desires as well as our reasoned beliefs. Our desire for justice and punishment/retribution for those who break the moral code is just one example. And to investigate our intuitions and desires we can now draw on sciences that developed de novo in the last few decades: moral psychology and evolutionary psychology.

The acknowledgement of biological intuitions as contributing to our values erodes the idea of morality as the unsullied outcome of dispassionate conscious reason. Principle 1 is not mistaken, but incomplete. It is improved by modification along the following lines (ignoring divine command):

Origin of values 2 – values arise out of our reasoning, beliefs, desires, and intuitions

But Darwin, and before him Aristotle, had much more to contribute to our thoughts about values and morality than this.

Bottom-up – from nature

We might hope that as autonomous rational agents we can work towards a rational and objective moral code. But such a code, if socially accepted, will undoubtedly be predicated on human wellbeing, happiness, and flourishing as normative drivers. These derive from biological needs at least as much as objective moral facts.

Morality targets our behaviour. Unfortunately, history has proved that striving towards a moral ideal, however praiseworthy, and however objective, does not ensure success. Far from transcending our biology, ethics is an attempt to keep it under control.

Darwin forced us to address the fact that the mind is itself a product of nature – of evolution – of nature’s ‘purposes’ and ‘reasons’. Our miracle brains emerged from the organic world in a Darwinian way.

Could values, then, have emerged in parallel with organic evolution – existing, at first, in a crude form that had nothing to do with the human mind and then progressively more evident as sentient response, then conscious preference. Could normativity, like purpose, be an inherent or immanent characteristic of living systems: it evolves, changing in character as it passes through the four phases of matter outlined above.

This article suggests that – just as purpose emerges out of the sorting fabric of the material world (the universal laws of physics that reduce possibility) supplemented by the further sorting algorithm of natural selection, so too does value. This is both counterintuitive and contrary to contemporary belief.

If you agree with the conclusions of the previous article, that purpose did not arrive on earth with human self-awareness, then you must consider the possibility that the same applies to values.

Let’s re-visit the argument.

Being ‘for’ something – purpose & value

Deterministic constraints in the universe (physical laws and constants) reduce possible outcomes. Not just anything can happen. The world is not chaotic but has order that we investigate with science. The nature of the constraints determine that there is a greater probability of some things happening, rather than others. To use an anthropomorphic word, there is a ‘preference’ for one thing to happen over another, a hint of being ‘for’ one particular outcome rather than another. This may be summarized in a neat epigram ‘Effects have causes as reasons’. This then is ‘selection’ in its crudest and most rudimentary form . . . and not what we would normally understand by ‘selection’.

Origin of values 3 – Any constraint on activity is a form, however crude, of selection since it restricts possible outcomes. This simple form of selection occurs in the universe as the ordering of matter according to physical constants

But there is a significant difference between the ‘for’ of the inanimate world, and the ‘for’ of semi-autonomous living organisms. Both inanimate and animate matter is subject to the constraints of physical laws, but living organisms are further constrained by natural selection which results in functional adaptations that promote survival, reproduction, and sometimes flourishing. As already argued, the promotion of survival, reproduction, and flourishing are purposive: they are also beneficial as acknowledged by human values in a way that does not occur in inanimate matter.

Further, the parts of organisms are not indifferent to other parts as bits of inanimate matter are. The parts of organisms serve the ends of the semi-autonomous whole in an interactive way that does not occur in inanimate systems.

Origin of values 4 – In addition to the constraints of physical laws, natural selection increases the capacity of organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish and, in this sense, natural selection is both beneficial and purposeful

Like purposes, values derive from the ‘for‘ of natural selection. Being ‘for‘ is to prioritize (value) one thing rather than another. In this way, just as natural selection is ‘for without foresight‘ it is also, paradoxically, a ‘valuer without evaluation‘ since it gives rise to ‘benefits’ as functional adaptations that promote survival and reproduction.

This particular inversion of reasoning occurs because natural selection is unaware of its role as valuer, even though we humans as ‘value-representers’ can understand that this is the outcome.

The previous article argued that it is OK to speak of organisms, structures, and processes in nature (products of natural selection) as having ends, needs, purposes, interests, and design – that it is OK for the products of natural selection to be ‘for‘ something.

‘Causing’, ‘filtering’, ‘selecting’, ‘choosing’, ‘prioritizing’, ‘valuing’. These are a cluster of concepts or ideas that we use to suggest degrees of probability of events occurring in nature, sometimes involving humans. At one extreme this is the ordering of the natural world according to physical constants, at the other the ordering of events by human conscious intention.

It is the significance we place on processes within this spectrum of processes that needs closer scrutiny.

Fact & value

Normativity is about evaluations of right and wrong, good and bad, better or worse. How does the discussion so far square with the view that we cannot infer the way things ought to be (a subjective value) from things and processes that are this or that way (objective scientific facts)? How can a moral judgment, a prescription, be derived from something descriptive?

Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) expressed this conundrum by stating that a deductive argument must have values in the premises if it is to have values in the conclusion . . . that no normative conclusion can be validly derived from factual premises (we cannot move deductively from the way the world is to the way it ought to be)? Hume’s claim gave rise to a famous dictum in philosophy known as ‘Hume’s guillotine’, which expresses all this more succinctly as ‘You cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.’

Immanuel Kant (1724– 1804) seemingly agreed with Hume by saying in his Critique of Judgment (First Introduction, X240) that ‘. . . to think of a product of nature that there is something which it ought to be . . . presupposes a principle which could not be drawn from experience (which teaches only what things are).

Much later, Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore (1873-1958) claimed that any connection between a normative property (like goodness) and a natural property (like pleasure) is open to doubt (his ‘naturalistic fallacy’).

Both Kant and Hume preceded Darwin by about a century. With the decline of religion, we now realize that it is to biology that we must look for the foundations of morality, and that our reasoning faculty is just one part of this moral bedrock. Just like purpose and design in nature, values ‘bubble up from the bottom, rather than trickle down from the top’ (Dennett, in reference to design in nature).

The feeble filtering valuation of physical constants that applies to inanimate nature, that reduces possible outcomes, takes a giant stride with the emergence of matter that can reproduce itself. Conscious valuation is superimposed on this foundation. The functionality of the mind is simply an extension of the functionality of nature, albeit a more elaborate one.

Like the purpose so evident in biological agents, value proceeds from within living organisms as an imminent faculty: life and value are intimately and inexorably intertwined.

What does all this mean?

An heuristic taxonomy of value

Values are a fuzzy and complex concept. So, for example, values range from the personal and individual (my preference for white wines and impressionist music) to communally held beliefs as set out in written civic and religious contracts and declarations.

For the sake of this discussion several nuances of meaning can be distinguished:[5]

Evaluative (axiology) – evaluating as good or bad, better or worse (ice cream tastes better than sulphuric acid)

Prescriptive (deontic theory) – what ‘ought’ to happen (as in divine command, ‘thou shalt not steal’)

Descriptive – a departure from the norm but without evaluation (the heart beat is slow)

Constitutive – rules supporting persistence but not themselves evaluative (the rules of chess)

Performative – assesses how well an activity is proceeding

Etiological proper functions (later) are generally assumed to demonstrate descriptive normativity while biological functioning seems more evaluative – an organ functioning well or poorly and an organism being healthy and sick.

Like Aristotle we can recognize a difference between what might be called functional normativity as inherent in the organization or form of living systems – part of what it is to be a living system – rather than treating it as an explanation of the function of organismic components (the etiological theory of normative function).

Normative function

There is a vast gulf between what is being proposed here (that values arise in a graduated way out of nature) and prevailing beliefs (that values are creations of the human conscious and intentional brain). Even if it is accepted, as an axiom, that all life is predicated on survival, reproduction, and flourishing why should value judgements logically follow?

In philosophy, structure or function that serves the wellbeing and flourishing of an organism is referred to as ‘proper function’ (defined in evolutionary (teleological) terms as ‘the function it is adapted to perform’). This then gives rise to a naturalistic normativity that is founded on evolutionary adaptation.

The fact vs value dichotomy soon appears. So, for example, assuming that hearts are adapted to pump blood (their proper function) does this permit us to claim that they ought to pump blood. (And doesn’t ‘proper function’ have an evaluative ring to it ?)

This confronts what we might call Aristotle’s dilemma. Aristotle’s dilemma is to ask ‘on what deductive grounds can we say that being alive is better than being dead?’ We seem to reach a full stop, from which he draws the only possible conclusion: ‘Life is better than death’. Death is, as it were, the negation of life so it does not make sense for living things to be ‘neutral’ about death since they all (until their final moments) demonstrate adherence to Biological Maxim 1.

Once again, organisms do not have to be valuers in order to demonstrate values. Factors that support survival, reproduction and flourishing are ‘good’ and factors that do not are ‘bad’. This is not a subjective judgement of the human mind, it is something demonstrated in the real world (albeit unknowingly) by the activity of living organisms. Further, some factors are ‘better’ and some are ‘worse’. A heart with a faulty valves, insofar as it threatens life, is worse than a fully functional heart.

This is a tricky point so let’s look at some examples:

What are organisms for?

Can we meaningfully ask ‘What is the purpose or value of organisms?’

Maybe, just like inanimate matter, organisms in general, and even human beings, are not ‘for’ anything – they just are.


Many biologists and philosophers would argue that organisms are no more ‘for’ something than the moon is ‘for’ orbiting the Earth. To say that something is ‘for’ something else, is to be teleological, to look for ends, and that is not being scientific. Nature is not ‘for’ something, it just ‘is’.

When we say ‘A chair is for sitting on’ the purpose of the chair, its ‘for sitting on‘, does not reside in the chair itself, it is something added by our minds. Nature, we might assume, is just like this. Whatever purposes and values we think nature has, these do not exist in nature itself – they are added by our minds. Nature just is.

Natural purpose

The view that nature ‘just is‘ has been discussed fully in the article Darwin and after. But, to summarize:

Natural selection can be easily dismissed as a mindless mechanical process . . . but it has given rise to the universe’s most intricate structures – including the human brain with its capacity for foresight and hindsight, abstract thought, language, and reason.

All organisms are products of natural selection. Any process of selection (filtration, channelling) is selection ‘for’ or towards something (it selects one thing rather than another, increases the probability of certain outcomes, in human terms it has ‘ends or aims’). Selection ‘for’ in nature has winners and losers and where there are aims and beneficiaries we are justified in speaking of ‘purpose’ (when the Earth orbits the Sun we do not need to imply function or purpose, because there is no benefit to these objects, even though there are reasons why they do so).

Nature is not aware of reasons but we humans, as reason-representers, can understand the constraining reasons for planetary movement, and the beneficial reasons for organic structures like eyes.

Purpose in nature is real, passed from generation to generation as information embedded in the genetic code; it is not imposed extrinsically as apparent purpose, except on the occasions when we mistakenly treat nature as having conscious intentions. Humans show a unity with nature in demonstrating non-conscious purposes, like shivering and digestion, as well as those purposes that are deliberate or conscious intentions.

In short, mindless purpose is not a contradiction, it is a fact of nature.

If all organisms are saturated with sophisticated reasons of which they are beneficiaries then can we express, in the most general terms, how they benefit? Can we humans, as reason-representers, discern, in the most general (universal and law-like) terms, what mindless natural selection is selecting for?

Biological axioms

We associate science with the establishment of universal laws and general principles about the natural world. Characterized like this we tend to think of the universal laws of physics. Biology is then the subset of complex (living) matter that exists within all-embracing physics.

It is the universal law-like statements of physics that are so impressive as they approximate the absolute certainties of mathematics, and the dictates of Gods.

Maths is built on axioms – statements that are taken as self-evident, foundational, and uncontroversial. A couple of examples from Euclid’s geometry would be that ‘Things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another’ and that ‘All right angles are equal to one-another’. To deny an axiom is to place the whole related enterprise or discipline in question. If we argue that Euclid’s axioms are mistaken then we are, in effect, undermining confidence in the entire enterprise of Euclidian geometry.

We respect the empirical generalizations of science (its principles and laws) for their predictive power. Physical constants, the laws of physics, have the properties of axioms because they resist contrary evidence and cannot be altered substantially without transforming our understanding of theoretical foundations. Physical laws are, as it were, the axioms or foundational principles of physics.

Can there be axioms in biology?

Well, if there are axioms in biology then, as a biology student, I was certainly never taught them. Since biology is restricted to the study of life, then its axioms would, presumably, set out life’s universal conditions.

Perhaps the nearest we get to such foundations today is a list of contentious characteristics said to define what it is to be a living being – characteristics like metabolism, nutrition, growth, and reproduction. Though text books often present such a list, getting agreement from the biological community as a whole as to what should appear on this list, (and its order of priority), is no simple matter, especially as definitions of life are further complicated by artificial intelligence and synthetic life forms. This question is therefore generally avoided or not addressed in a coherent way. The idea of biological axioms is therefore reckoned an unproductive avenue of research.

Aristotle was a specialist in first principles. He wrote the world’s first systematic treatise on logic, Organon, much of which still stands today as the foundation for deductive logic. As stated, the strength of axioms is that thay provide a starting point or foundation – they are a backstop to the tendency for scientific questions to pass into an infinite regress.

Aristotle noted that in order to continue existing, to perpetuate their kind, living beings must reproduce. He summarized this principle by saying that all living creatures ‘partake in the eternal and divine’ indicating that they can replicate their kind (species) indefinitely provided they can survive to reproduce. Today, using different words, we might refer, like Richard Dawkins, to the ‘immortality of our genes’. For Aristotle the intellectual search for the foundation of biology, what it means to be a living being, ended with ‘survival and reproduction’. Any cursory examination of general biology texts reveals this as a general (though often not explicit) assumption. It is a truism about life that cannot be expressed in simpler terms.

You might object to the idea of there being any biological axioms, let alone this particular one. Such an axiom does not have the universality of a physical law, nor does it seem to have the same degree of necessity as physical laws. You might think of other properties that are uniquely biological. However, other suggestions – like, say, growth and metabolism -do appear to be second-order.

Logical & biological necessity

Our health as humans (and, by extension, all organisms) is regarded as self-evident: it is not a matter of philosophical or scientific speculation or contention – it is a biological truth . . . an axiom . . . it is the point of departure for everything in biology. As Richard Dawkins expresses it: ‘We are survival machines‘.[4] Though axiomatic, it may still be insisted that there is no logical necessity in the transition from statements of fact to statements of value. Because I feel ill, there is no logical necessity for me to visit a doctor. But with survival a ‘biological necessity’ there is little choice. There may be no logical necessity for values to flow from biological facts but organisms, of their very nature, have no choice: for an organism to exist without value is to deny life. For values to flow from biological facts is a biological necessity. And when our very existence is at stake, biological necessity trumps logical necessity.

We do not ask ‘Why do organisms try to survive and reproduce?’ because we understand that to deny survival and reproduction is to cease to exist – and that does not make biological sense. Organisms that do not, or cannot, survive and reproduce die out – and in ceasing to exist they become biologically irrelevant. Denying the biological axiom thus becomes incoherent.

Without logical grounds for value we must simply agree with Aristotle that, as living organisms, there can be only one conclusion – that ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘ – that ‘it is better to live than not live’. Aristotle’s biographer, evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi, retorts to the question ‘Why do organisms need to survive and reproduce?‘ with ‘Because natural selection made them so‘. A more adventurous outlook for humans is given by Steven Pinker at the head of this article.

The significance of this is that once the biological axiom is accepted as a normative statement then we have an answer to the question ‘What are organisms for?’ and much follows.

Biological Maxim  1 – the goal of living organisms is to survive, reproduce, and flourish

If you accept the reasoning above then you have accepted a substantive case for biological normativity. The purpose of living organisms is not something that we make up, something that our minds impose on them. The purpose of organisms derives from their own origin and place in the scheme of things, from their inner nature interacting with their outer environment. This is a mode of existence that expresses both mindful purpose and value (as human conscious intention) and mindless purpose (as the goal-directed activity of all other organisms), all united under the purpose of survival and reproduction.

If value derives from within organisms themselves then we now know what organisms are ‘for’, ‘why they exist‘. We can identify ‘goods‘ (values) that are independent of human minds. Living organisms would still strive to survive and reproduce (albeit unconsciously) in the absence of humans. And the ways (means) of achieving this goal are (unconsciously) valued (selectively filtered) for their role in achieving these ends. This selective filtering (as a process that increases the probabilities of particular outcomes) is a capacity that arises within organisms and finds its extreme expression in the choices that express human values. Organisms exist (fact), and they exist to survive, reproduce, and flourish (fact, value, purpose).

But isn’t this a metaphorical reading of human values into a value-neutral nature? Isn’t it imputing human values to creatures that cannot possibly express value? How can we possibly claim that an oak tree has values!

The drive for life to survive and reproduce is so pervasive in nature that trying to remove value and value-talk from biology is as difficult as trying to remove purpose-talk. We are not being intellectually slovenly when we treat organisms are ‘agents’ with ‘interests’, albeit unconscious ones. Whether we give them ‘rights’ in return is another matter.

Principle 5 – Source of values – biological normativity – the biological drive to survive, reproduce, and flourish underpins all biological activity and provides the foundation for all value

Design, purpose, value, & history

Since the Early Modern period and the Scientific Revolution nature has been widely regarded by scientists as devoid of purpose. The desire for detached observation, and description of the natural world that is untainted by human bias, has meant that we have severed the physical and genetic ties that we share with our biological relatives in the community of life. We put in the same class as the inanimate world the functional adaptations that occur in organisms. We have ignored the difference that exists between the motion of planets and the striving of organisms to survive and reproduce. We do not say that the moon orbiting the Earth is ‘good’, so why should the scientist (but not the layperson) say that the survival of a tree or animal is ‘good’? The difference is that organisms express value, no matter how rudimentary (mindless) that might be. Part of this detachment has been the insistence that values reside only in the human mind – which ignores the evolutionary origins of both value and mind.

It is still conventional for scientists to expurgate all purpose and value from nature. So, for example, we can define an adaptive trait as a functional role that is maintained and evolved by natural selection. But, of course, ignoring pre-conscious goal-directedness in nature (which is in nature and not in our minds) becomes clumsy and unconvincing. It has been argued in Darwin and after that where there is an aim and a beneficiary there is both purpose and its associated value – it is OK to say that eyes are ‘for’ seeing, this being a key difference between inanimate and animate matter. But along with purpose comes value: purposes can be achieved or thwarted.

Once normativity is permissable in biology we can move closer to our biological cousins and, indeed, get closer to ‘reality’.

Adaptive selection can be (unconsciously) for better or worse in relation to an organism: it can be normative. Natural selection is a mindless sorting algorithm that can make things ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in relation to the existence of any living thing.

What are humans for?

Can we also ask the question. ‘What is the purpose and value of humans?’

Humans, being living organisms, fall under Biological Maxim 1, their reason for existence – their telos – being to survive, reproduce, and flourish.

In the specific case of conscious human behaviour this is not altogether convincing. Though we might acknowledge this biological necessity, it is rarely something that in daily life is uppermost in our minds. We do not seriously consider the persistence of our genes (unless we are at the head of some dynasty) as a justification for moral action, even if it is an implicit maxim of evolutionary biology.

So, what is going on here?

It turns out that humans, like the rest of the community of life, has unconsciousness (‘mindless’) goals.

Unconscious purposes

We assume that human purposes are overwhelmingly conscious – that we are well and truly in control. But much of what goes on in our lives proceeds in an unconscious way. We shiver, sweat, yawn, and metabolize our food without conscious deliberation or awareness, even though there are reasons for all of them.

Natural selection, it turns out, is so powerful that it achieves its (unconscious) ends of survival and reproduction by mindlessly manipulating our conscious experience, rewarding us with pleasurable mental states when we do things that promote our survival and reproduction. We are unaware of this mindless manipulation – but consider the following: we usually engage in sex for the pleasure of erotic stimulation and orgasm, not to reproduce; we do not eat to survive but to feel the satisfaction of a full stomach; we do not eat sugar because it is a concentrated source of vital energy but because it tastes pleasantly sweet; we feel a warm emotional glow at the sight of a baby or small child; why do we enjoy kissing and laughing? . . . The list goes on. Pleasurable mental states are proximate not ultimate ends. Values are not always a consequence of conscious deliberation.

But even these factors pale into insignificance in the general hubbub of our daily lives. What has survival and reproduction got to do with all your daily routines and concerns as they drift from one seemingly unrelated moment to the next, all with very little to do with survival and reproduction? Again, natural selection has looked after this. We do have, to all intents and purposes, a single mental proximate goal which is happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing. These pleasurable proximate goals are firmly aligned with our ultimate biological goal of survival and reproduction.

Conscious purposes

Many ethicists, philosophers, and religious teachers would accept happiness, flourishing, and wellbeing as the basis for moral action without acknowledging their link to survival and reproduction. But striving to attain happiness, to flourish, is part of our human nature, it is embedded in all our behaviour and included in our social and political aspirations.

Elsewhere on this web site it is argued that human flourishing, the kind of happiness that concerns us here, entails not only inner satisfaction as a pleasurable mental state but the mental security that comes from a stable and productive social environment.

Plato and Aristotle regarded the harmonization of our inner and outer lives as the key to our flourishing. We can now understand this as natural selection in action, the adaptation of organism to environment.

Happiness, wellbeing, flourishing

So, for the ancient Greeks happiness and flourishing was eudaimonia, the harmonizing of our inner and outer lives – as much a political as personal matter. Eudaimonia encompassed the totality of life . . . it was the path to achieving your full potential as a human being. So, achieving happiness involves action, not just thought and feeling: it is an activity, not a mental state – a particular way of life, not a set of psychological dispositions. In our individual lives much is to be gained by moderation in all things (the ‘golden mean’ akin to Buddha’s Middle Path), by avoiding excess and deficiency, and by pursuing good character (arete or excellence) until virtue becomes a matter of habit just as, after a while, a musician plays an instrument without thinking about the notes.

Aristotle provides an extremely simple and compelling analysis of the purpose of human life using the ideas of ergon (function) and arête (excellence).[1] A carpenter’s saw is excellent when it fulfills its function by cutting well: an architect is excellent when s/he designs houses well. He then considers plants, animals, and humans in turn.

Plants have the capacity for growth, nutrition, and reproduction and when they are fulfilling these potentials we say they are thriving or ‘flourishing’. A gardener can observe plants and assess their condition. Whether they are thriving or not is a matter of scientific fact, not the gardener’s opinion . . . bearing in mind that different plants may have different needs and capacities if they are to flourish.

Animals have the same basic capacities as plants but they are also capable of movement. If they are confined in that movement by being caged or restricted to a very small area then we are unlikely to think that they are flourishing. In addition, many animals are sentient – they can see, taste, smell, feel pleasure or pain, they clearly have mental states akin to desire and aversion. Though an animal may fulfill its plant-like capacities, if it is restricted in its sensations then we do not consider it as doing well or flourishing as it might.

We humans have the capacities of both plants and animals as just described but we also have the capacity to reason, to use language, and to develop complex social systems. We therefore need to develop these uniquely human capacities as best we can.

So what is the ergon (function or purpose) of the human being?

Though we have and need many of the important capacities of plants it would indeed be strange if our greatest goal was to flourish like a plant. In a very general Aristotelian sense our aim must be to achieve our maximum possible individual and collective potential. It would not seem right if we simply maximised our sensation, pleasure, bodily appetites and all our other animal-like capacities. Though these capacities (as well as the plant capacities of growth, nutrition, and reproduction) must be an integral aspect of our lives – we are animals after all – they cannot be the way for us to flourish.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle speaks of happiness as the highest human end or purpose (telos) and the supreme Good. As there is no telos beyond happiness then happiness is the ultimate purpose of human existence. Happiness was therefore, for Aristotle, not so much a matter of psychological states, but striving to achieve maximum human potential through the use of reason directed towards the performance of right actions . . . not by adopting a set of precepts (a moral code of behaviour) but by thinking carefully case by case. To flourish we must make the best possible use of our reason and language which are the major characteristics defining us as human beings.

Aristotle referred to humans as ‘rational animals’. To flourish as humans we must exercise not only our general biological capacities but also our human-specific ones, because this is what gives us meaning: it is the uniquely human way of flourishing.

Our uniquely human abilities allow us to develop relationships and political structures, to plan for the future, to assess and rationally modify our natural desires and emotions, to educate with special human disciplines like music and mathematics . . . even to wonder at the universe and the purpose of human life. If we lack these capacities – if we are restricted to our plant-like or animal-like natures, or confined unnecessarily in our intellectual ambitions – then we may well ‘manage’, but we are not flourishing, we are not actualizing our potential. For the most part those activities that further the exercise of our natural capacities are clearly ‘good’ and those that restrict or hamper them are ‘bad’. Unsurprisingly we need our reasoning intellect to differentiate the two and universal agreement is highly improbable.

Principle 6 – Humans maximize individual potential by establishing harmony between their inner and outer lives – between themselves and their societies. This is achieved using the unique human capacity for reason and language as both individuals and societies

Biological Maxim 2 – The human biological drive to survive and reproduce is expressed as the desire for happiness and wellbeing – the need to flourish

In summary, just as it is possible to determine objectively how a plant or animal may flourish, so it is possible to determine objectively the kind of environment in which a human can flourish. By reading and thinking about this article you are engaging in such a human capacity – so congratulations. And next time someone asks you the meaning and purpose of life, rather than saying that there is no meaning and purpose to life think about what Aristotle’s had to say on the matter. This can at least serve as a starting point for conversation. The implication of this for human ethics is discussed in the article ‘morality and sustainability’.

Aristotelian teleology points out that every organism has a unique nature that is expressed by its end as a mature individual, its aim being to achieve its maximum potential. As such it is its own beneficiary with its own goods which are objective facts in the world. Though organisms are unaware of their goals, we as reason-representers possessing foresight and hindsight can assess what they are. This provides us with a set of objective values for each organism – what is of value is largely a matter of objective fact rather than subjective opinion. Organisms have intrinsic ends that do not depend on their instrumental value to humans.

Flourishing requires a harmonious integration of organism, other organisms, and the wider environment (see environmental ethics).

Proper function

When we infer that eyes are for seeing and ears for hearing we are implying that there is a standard of functioning from which actual traits can diverge. Eyes, ears, and hearts can function well or poorly. If someone is blind then the seeing function has failed, even though the person themself has not failed in any way, and it is conceivable (though unlikely) that the person might prefer their current state.

Since functions can be performed for better or worse, proper function then becomes normative, it implies the way things ought to be. Functions, as the products of natural selection, are what biological entities were adapted to perform. Such statements about functional norms can then become objective means of making value judgements. As already suggested, an obvious example is when a doctor gives us advice on ways to ‘improve’ our health.

In view of biological axioms 1 and 2 it does not make sense to quibble at the teleological language being used here by pointing out that ‘improvement’ is a subjective value judgment (i.e. just your opinion) when all that exists in nature are facts. Should we ask the doctor for ways to make us ill? We rightly place a value on our health and most of us would like our hearts to function ‘properly’ or ‘well’ (see also ‘normative biology’ and deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, in reason & morality).

There is a seemingly graded normativity that runs semantically across the natural world as follows:

Inanimate world: X causes Y. A sifting or reduction in number of possible outcomes acting like a filtering or sifting selection. The reason that Y.

Non-conscious living world: X is for Y. A process of natural selection by an algorithm that can result in benefits (support for Biological Maxim 1) such that reasons acquire the semantics of purpose and value.

Conscious human world: X intends Y. A process of conscious intention.


So, functional statements like ‘X is for Y‘ are very close to being normative statements (like, ‘it is good that X is Y‘) and this is especially so when we approach the foundations of our biological being – the need to survive, reproduce, and flourish. Functions and adaptations contribute to survival, reproduction and flourishing . . . to well-being, which is both a normative goal and an objective good.

Humans and other organisms

The argument developed here is that the community of life shares a common biological value as expressed in Biological Maxim 1 – the drive to survive, reproduce, and flourish. This axiom is both a biological fact and a value: it expresses the core of biological reality – what organisms do, and what they are for.

Intrinsic value of life

This, then, is the intrinsic value of all life – the value that life possesses independently of any valuer. From this perspective all living things are equals with identical ‘interests’. So, on what grounds do humans make moral distinctions in relation to the community of life? What are the moral grounds for elevating human interests above those of other organisms?

Speciesism & human exceptionalism

No doubt consciousness plays a large part in this. The reasoning capacity, language, foresight and hindsight that have facilitated sociality and the production of advanced technologies has allowed us humans to temporarily dominate all other life forms on planet Earth. Some people might regard this as simply the rightful human position in the scheme of things, the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence.

But as reasoning creatures we cannot accept the assumption that ‘might is right’. Consciousness is, as it were, just another adaptation, an additional layer to natural selection’s fine-tuning of organic complexity.

But it is hardly anthropocentric to note that consciousness brings with not only a broader comprehension of existence than occurs elsewhere in the living world, it also brings both pleasure and pain. If an organism does not experience pleasure or pain then is it of lesser moral significance?

How could we justify, under law, protecting the ‘interests’ of something that lacks consciousness and does not experience pleasure or pain? Perhaps this is where we draw a line – but that is not an excuse to run roughshod over the interests of beings that are unlike ourselves.

The moral sphere

Only human brains have a capacity for language and the communication of abstract thought and reasoned argument. Brains are anticipation tools with hindsight and foresight (so we can cope with the present by anticipating the future based on our experience of the past).

Historically, morality has been strictly a human affair. So far as the law was concerned, morality only addressed those that had ‘interests’ and that meant, quite simply, humans.


In the 1970s discrimination against women and ethnic minorities made moral concerns about animal welfare seem trivial and eccentric. However, with the activities of animal rights groups, and promotion by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, moral concern for animals has become more mainstream. This development is like a fine-tuning of our moral world, an ongoing refinement of our moral code.

The moral argument is that issues of circumstance – of race, gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, wealth, even species – should not prejudice our moral judgments. English philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) argued that our moral concern be focused not so much on reasoning ability and the use of language (factors that pointed directly to humans) but on the capacity for suffering – for pleasure and pain. This suggested that our boundary of moral concern (as recognized under law) should be extended to all living creatures capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. Relative moral treatment, say the assessment of relative pain experienced by mouse and man, must then be a matter of subjective degree.

Our moral world, then, encompasses only creatures with ‘interests’, beings that can think or suffer . . . namely ourselves and, to a lesser degree, sentient animals.

This observation draws attention to another way in which we have divorced ourselves from the community of life. It is a major reason why environmental ethics has such little academic appeal.

If nature in general, plants and most of the world’s organisms, cannot think or suffer then how can they possibly have interests and therefore any legal representation?


The following discussion merges into the topic ‘environmental ethics’ which includes this material and more.

The community of life

If sentience, the ability to feel pleasure and pain (and therefore to have needs, desires, and interests) is the crucial factor defining the moral sphere, then what about the rest of the living world – what about extinctions, ecosytems, our forests, and seas – does that mean that these have no socially acknowledged moral value? This cannot be entirely true because we do value nature in general, trees, mountains, and landscapes. But on what grounds can we appeal their value: how can we persuade people that they matter?

Instrumental value

Where there is self-evident benefit to humanity then the instrumental value of nature comes to the fore. We would become deeply concerned if new and uncontrollable diseases of wheat and rise suddenly appeared. Without the benefits provided by nature we could not survive. Our total human dependence on nature has been emphasized through the idea of Ecosystem Services which draws attention to its practical implications by using an economic metaphor.

Unfortunately a broad obligation to nature, like this one, can be quickly acknowledged but passed over: it does not carry much moral clout. Our actual responses seem to be enacted case by case.

Intrinsic flourishing

We know that some conditions promote life while others can threaten it. Isn’t flourishing a good in itself independently of any instrumental value? All living things express a kind of will to live and each does so in its own unique way, so why can we not have a respect, even reverence, for this life-force present in all living things? Why not value them as we value ourselves?

One difficulty here arises again in relation to the broadness of the approach. How do we decide on the relative weights to be given to a tree, mosquito, tuft of grass, rock formation, or worm?

A further difficulty is our general intuitive high ranking of consciousness in the scheme of moral concern. How can people possibly give equal moral weighting to a family member and a tuft of grass? And how can a species or ecosystem have a ‘self’ or ‘interests’ at all, let alone those that matter? What would it be like for a tree or mountain to have its purported interests frustrated or unrealized? We are inclined to make a scientific distinction between different kinds of material processes. There is a subset of material processes that, in addition to the constraints of physical laws, are subject to the constraints of natural selection, that is, those relating to living organisms. Then there is a further subset of these latter processes that we refer to as conscious processes. All these are material processes.

As products of a selection process (natural selection) all organisms are valuers (drawn to one thing rather than another) in a rudimentary sense even though many are non-conscious and non-sentient. Singer points out that there is something odd in the idea of a valuer that is unaware and asks how a plant root moving towards water is different from a solar panel moving towards the sun: how are the roots valuing and the solar panel not?(p. 253) If the plant behavior is encoded in its genes and the solar panels in its software then how does this make one a valuer and the other not? ‘ … in the absence of consciousness, there is no good reason why we should have greater respect for the physical processes that govern the growth and decay of things than we have for those that govern non-living things … why we should have greater reverence for a tree than for a stalactite, or for a single-celled organism than for a mountain’(p. 253) … in such respects ‘… trees, ecosystems and species are more like rocks than they are like sentient beings; so the divide between sentient and nonsentient creatures is to that extent a firmer basis for a morally important boundary than the divide between living and non-living things, or between holistic entities and any other entities that we might not regard as holistic’.

Certainly we use of the word ‘value’ mostly in relation to deliberating beings.

Teleology & ethics

Not just anything can happen. Everything has a reason.

We tend, without justification, to assume that there are two kinds of reason. There are the conscious reasons of human beings, their purposeful intentions. Then there are the unconscious mindless and purposeless reasons of nature. Both kinds of reasons we investigate using the tools of science. In our early evolutionary history we assumed that the world’s order must have been imposed by some intelligent agent, so if it hadn’t been imposed by humans then it must have been imposed by some supernatural agency. How else would you account for order in the universe?

In the Western tradition pre-Socratic philosophers and many classical philosophers, notably Aristotle, looked for the source of universal order in nature itself. Aristotle perceived all order as in some sense purposeful since all order arranges things in one way rather than another. Our human way of looking at this would be to say that one state of affairs is ‘preferred’ over another. But then there are, as it were, degrees of purpose. There is this kind of purpose in the Earth orbiting the Sun or water filling a bowl. But then in living organisms we see that not only does matter of a certain kind replicate to give matter of a similar kind (like begets like) bit the structures and functions of every kind of organisms have not only very obvious aims or goals (the eyes to see, the legs to walk, and so on) but that these functions are beneficial, they are for the better or for the good even though the organisms are unaware of their benefits. Then there are the intentional activities of conscious beings who are aware of their structures and functions in time: they have not only abstract reason but can apply this to hindsight and foresight, communicating their findings to one-another in language.

Being ‘for’ something

Selection & value – biological normativity

Selection ‘for’ increases the probability of certain things happening rather than others. Non-conscious ‘selection’ or ‘preference’ is also a crude non-conscious process of valuation. This is the crude non-conscious selective normativity we see present in the the laws of physics which is enhanced through its association with benefit in the community of life. Organisms are the beneficiaries of selection, developing functional adaptations without conscious reasons for doing so.

If this is accepted (you will have to read the earlier articles on purpose to make up your own mind) then we must ask ‘What goal or goals are living organisms directed towards, and is there one goal that is more important than any others?

The naturalistic fallacy

There are various criticisms of this idea. Our inference to a particular function may be incorrect; the same organ or process may have many functions operating in a complex way that we do not and maybe cannot fully understand; our interpretation and negative value-judgements can become problematic as when we imply that blind people are in some sense defective; and, most obviously, being adapted in certain ways does not make those adaptations intrinsically desirable. Our love of sugar is not good simply because it is a part of our biology and therefore natural and proper. There are many similar examples and normative biology is, for this reason, often said to fall prey to the naturalistic fallacy, the idea that just because it exists in nature it must be good. Is homosexuality wrong or undesirable because it contravenes axioms 1 nd 2?

Whatever the philosophical status of such views we value living and that is the normative underpinning of our existence and the implicit assumption of biological science. Clearly human morality must look beyond this. As humans we have the capacity for the deliberation that can overcome moral irregularities as it does our other intuitive inclinations like eating sugar and fats and hitting people.

An objective human ethic based on normative biology?

One of the better-known philosophical supporters of such an analysis was Oxford (later American) ethicist Philippa Foot (1920-2010) who insisted that ‘the grounding of a moral argument is ultimately in facts about human life‘ and in what it is rational for humans to want. Moral constraints, she came to believe, were indispensably a rational part of flourishing as a human being. She was also the originator of the famous ‘trolley problem’.[3]

“[I]t is obvious that there are objective, factual evaluations of such things as human sight, hearing, memory, and concentration, based on the life form of our own species (our intrinsic nature). Why, then, does it seem so monstrous a suggestion that the evaluation of the human will should be determined by facts about the nature of human beings and the life of our own species?” (Foot, p. 24) ‘For all the diversities of human life, it is possible to give some quite general account of human necessities, that is, of what is quite generally needed for human good, if only by starting from the negative idea of human deprivation.’ (p. 43)

Foot argues that while the logical jump from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ is famously rife with peril, there is no such peril when we infer from ‘is’ to ‘needs’ via the concept of ‘flourishing’. ‘… to say that it needs that environment is not to say, e.g., that you want it to have that environment, but that it won’t flourish unless it has it . . . in the case of a plant, let us say, the inference from ‘is’ to ‘needs’ is certainly not in the least dubious.’

Commentary & sustainability analysis

I have identified eight critical developments in the history of ideas and which occurred after the middle of the 19th century:

1. A reconstruction of the physical and conceptual distinction between matter, living matter, and conscious living matter

2. The 1859 publication of On the Origin . . . in which Charles Darwin gave a compelling scientific explanation of the entire community of life as evolving from a common ancestor by a gradation or continuum of life-forms arising by the algorithm of natural selection as evolutionary branches representing adaptation to particular environments and humans one of many such branches. This contrasted with the former assumption of discrete organisms, each created by God, and humanity as the culmination of all life

3. A post-WWI Chronometric Revolution has given us a more secure foothold in historical time: astronomically allowing us to date the age of the universe, geologically to date rocks and fossils, archaeologically to date artefacts, and biologically to date the divergence of lineages in biological evolution.

4. The mid-20th century characterization of the entire universe as evolving in time. Hubble’s 1929 red shift observations when combined with the 1964 elucidation of background radiation supported the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. This placed physical events in time (in contrasts to the prior Steady State Theory) and a process of cosmic evolution about 13.7 billion years old. This was a unification of all matter into a historical continuity from a point source according to physical constants.

5. An increasing awareness of the complex relationship that pertains between language, metaphysics, and the world

6. The realization that conscious human intention often used to define the meaning of the word ‘purpose’, is itself a product of the gradation of purpose that arises out of natural selection and which is therefore part of all nature and its design.

7. Recognition of human influence on the biogeochemical cycles of planet Earth by the designation of a new epoch, the Anthropocene

8. The development of computers and their integration into a World Wide Web through smartphones, the internet, and artificial intelligence

Axiological systems (those concerned with value and aesthetics) are thought to come to us from four main sources: God (this is known as ‘divine command theory)’, from the world in general (moral realism), from our biological nature (normative biology), or in interaction with fellow humans as social traditions and customs.

This article has argued for an evolutionary approach to the concept of value. That, like purpose, value gradually emerged from the world it did not arrive suddenly with the conscious human intellect. In its crudest form it is present in the constraining laws of physical science that limit possible outcomes, but present much more strongly in the beneficial functional adaptations produced by mindless natural selection, which is selection ‘for’ in a process of feedback that tends to increase the probability of survival and reproduction (viz. ‘self-correction’).

There is an underlying assumption to all life – that it is better to live than not live, that the mindless (except for humans and possibly some sentient animals) goal of all life is to survive and reproduce. This is a basic, necessary, and essentially universal characteristic of all living organisms that can be treated as a biological axiom, a foundational proposition on which further structures can be built. All living creatures have ‘interests’ but it is only humans that can represent these interests. Among those further structures are the study of systems of value, of those structures, functions, and processes that facilitate survival and reproduction and which, from the mindless perspective of an organism (but obvious to humans as value-representers) are ‘for better or worse’ and therefore to be valued or avoided. It has been established as a biological axiom that all life is grounded in survival and reproduction, humans included. The ‘values’ that support survival and reproduction across the community of life derive from the interaction between their particular biological nature and their conditions of existence (environment). These conditions of existence will be very different for a worm, a fish, a bird, and a human but, for each, some conditions will be beneficial and others less so. Organisms are not consciously aware of this but humans as reason-representers can judge what might be of greater or lesser value for their survival and reproduction. A worm would value (thrive) in a richly organic and well aerated soil, a fish would value an ecosystem with few predators and a plentiful food supply, and so on.

Human intention is, as it were, just a subset of the wide range of processes that exhibit telos as purpose, design, and value in nature: it arose out of nature. But it is a very special kind of valuing because it is conscious and part of the toolbox of language, reasoning, foresight and hindsight that we associate with human consciousness. In humans, though survival and reproduction are still axiomatic, they remain unconscious, their conscious manifestations being supported by pleasurable mental states the most general being desired happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing that tends to be strongest when circumstances are most conducive to survival and reproduction.

Returning to the question in the opening paragraph – ‘Where do our values come from?‘ we have arrived at a counterintuitive answer. Values arise primarily out of the facts of our biological existence. Values evolved out of the universe to reach their most complex and sophisticated form as they are modified by our conscious sensation, and honed by the reason of human brains. As rational animals we are able to use reasoning skills, also for better or worse, in serving both ourselves and the community of life from which our values were derived.

Our intuitive restriction of value to organisms with ‘interests’ (defined by pleasure and pain) is morally short-sighted though practical.

If values exist ‘in the world’ as well as in human minds, then what would a system of ‘universal’ values be like, given the human mind as part of nature without the privileged status it has today? How could this possibly be, and if it is so then how did they arise? Did values evolve along with living organisms?

In a strong sense a rock, a chair, a tree, and a human are objects that just ‘are’, they are complete and sufficient in themselves. But we cannot contain our human curiosity, our desire to know more. We need explanations. Aristotle expressed this point well in Book 1 of his metaphysics by saying ’All men (humans) by nature desire to know’.

Evolutionary ethics

We might define a value judgement simply and straightforwardly as a conscious preferences for one thing over another.

But is this a unique and isolated phenomenon strictly confined to us consciously aware human beings or did it, like other mental phenomena, evolve out of earlier and simpler modes of decision-making?

One way of thinking about this is to recognize that valuing one thing over another is a form of filtering out, restricting, constraining, or narrowing down possible choices or outcomes. In its simplest form this occurs in the inanimate world as a consequence of familiar physical constants: given situation A, the range of possible outcomes is limited by the physical possibilities because ‘not just anything can happen’.

This constraining of outcomes takes on a wholly new character when the algorithm of natural selection comes into effect with semi-autonomous replicating units of matter (organisms). Natural selection is selection for as a pre-conscious process whereby living organisms stand to benefit from functional adaptations as they are subjected to the ordering process of ‘self-correction’ that is natural selection. Though this is a pre-conscious process the products of natural selection have all the hallmarks of conscious purpose, conscious design, and conscious valuing. When an amoeba moves away from a threatening chemical it is demonstrating pre-conscious value and purpose.

We assume that there is a world of difference between this crude pre-conscious valuing and the clarity of human deliberation, the reasoning process that occurs when we make conscious choices. But even humans, we now know, are influenced by many pre-conscious factors. A new discipline, moral psychology, includes among its areas of interest the many ways in which our intuitions and desires influence our behaviour. ‘Humans are rational animals’ is a true statement – but it is not the whole truth – more an aspiration than a reality. We combine the rational and irrational, both conscious deliberation and unconscious inclination.

The point is that values did not arrive in the world suddenly and completely with the reasoning human intellect, they evolved along with matter in the historical process of increasing material complexity.

The early modern period rightly attacked anthropomorphism but over-reacted by denying the pre-conscious design, purpose, reason, and value that is present in a rudimentary form in nature itself.

As living organisms we value survival and reproduction – it is in our nature: to be otherwise is to deny ourselves. The philosophically precious may quibble about ‘oughts’ derived from our biological and psychological nature but that is the way we are, with rationality the check on out intuitions.

Purpose and value are intimately linked: it is simply not possible to be ‘for’ something without the ‘for’ becoming a value. Just as it is possible to have ‘competence without comprehension’ it is also possible to have ‘values without evaluation’.

Moral deserving is apportioned according to ‘interests’. Organisms that have no or minimum consciousness or capacity for pleasure and pain, like trees or bacteria, cannot be part of this system of morality.

Key points

  • This article argues that normativity is a real and objective property that is co-extensive with all living systems – that ‘agency’ and ‘interests’ are not restricted to rational beings and personhood.
  • The way we understand concepts reflects the way we understand the world – which we try to express, however inadequately, in the meanings of words. There is a sequence of related ideas that we associate with the words ‘cause’, ‘purpose’, ‘value’, ‘flourishing’ and, arguably, ‘reason’.
    • Though life or not-life has no consequence in the universe, to the living, life is that without which nothing. Life is predicated on the assumption of survival and reproduction. Value is expressed in the world in its most rudimentary or primordial form as the filtering of possibilities, as occurs with cause and effect, and the constraints necessitated by physical constants. However, it attains a more recognizable form with the activation of the supplementary filtering effect of natural selection. Life, being predicated on survival and reproduction, circumstances promoting survival and reproduction become life-affirming (beneficial, for the good) and those threatening them become life-negating (detrimental or for the worse). This is the origin and point of departure for value in the world.
      • It has been argued that in the inanimate world we associate reasons with causes but that when, in the living world, we observe functional adaptations that are beneficial we prefer to use the word ‘purpose’ rather than the word ‘reason’. However, beneficial reasons that are beneficial or detrimental to life we see
        • Just as there are reasons in the world that exist independently of human beings (there are reasons why the moon orbits the Earth), so there are purposes in the world that are not a consequence of conscious intention (the purpose of a spider’s web is to catch flies). That is, objects in nature can be ‘for without foresight’ and ‘competent without comprehension’ thus ‘exhibiting design without a conscious designer’. There is also valuing without a valuer.
          • Our concepts of the world are stronger when they reflect the historical gradations in complexity that we now believe exist I the universe. Gradations in causes, reasons, purposes and values.

          First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
          . . . substantive revision – 27 July 2020
          . . . substantial edit – 7 June 2021


          Venus Bay, Victoria, Australia
          21 February 2021
          Image – Roger Spencer

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