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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

Biological normativity

The article on life as agency proposed that the most meaningful way to understand and explain life is through its ultimate agency – the propensity of all organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish – the biological axiom. This is a statement of the biological ‘purpose’ of life and the rudimentary ‘values’ that are inherent in living systems, where ‘purpose’ and ‘values’ here refer to shared biological characteristics, not uniquely human cognitive faculties.

Life is not passive as a rock or chemical is passive. The biological axiom is a statement of biological value because it gives all life an orientation or direction. Expressed in human-talk, life has a ‘point of view’, a set of ‘values’ as ends towards which its existence is drawn. These values are not the uniquely human mindful or conscious objects of desire or intention but, as it were, the evolutionary precursor to human valuing. They are the universal biological values of which human values are just one manifestation. 

For all organisms, there will be circumstances that may help or hinder the attainment of these life values or goals (the biological axiom). In biological terms, functional adaptations (as structures, processes, and behaviour) may be more or less efficient or effective in their operation.

Organisms are, of their very nature, manifestations of value. For an organism to exist without value is to deny its existence. Values are part of what it is to be a living creature; values are a biological necessity.

The predisposition of organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish (the biological axiom) is simultaneously a statement of fact, value, and purpose. Of these three factors it is values that are the engine of activity, the driver of agency.

The behavioural flexibility inherent in all organisms has a particular direction or orientation. This end-directedness, or striving towards the goals of the biological axiom is an unconscious process or capacity that finds its extreme expression in  conscious human values that we describe using the intentional language of ‘choices’, ‘preferences’, and ‘interests’.

Human values arose out of universal biological values and this is why the idea of an oak tree, for example, having values, is not absurd. Both oak trees and humans share the (mindless) values expressed in the biological axiom. It is not as if oak trees have values, just that oaks do not share those uniquely human intentional (minded) ones.

In adopting this perspective on values we come to realize that it is biological values that are ultimate values while human values are a proximate means to their ultimate ends. Humans pursue the ultimate ends of the biological axiom through the proximate ends of happiness and wellbeing while human morality is superimposed on this universal life value, acting as a brake on the natural instincts and intuitions inherited from are evolutionary past.

The prevailing view today is that moral discourse is, of necessity, restricted to those organisms capable of conscious and rational interests and choices, namely humans –  although some concession is sometimes made for sentient animals that can experience comfort and pain. Whether organisms other than humans can have ‘interests’ will be discussed elsewhere in the article on environmental ethics which explores the possibility of extending the ethical domain beyond its current anthropocentric domain to include the entire community of life.

There are many reasons why we ignore the universal biological values: the human arrogance of the inversion of reason and metaphor fallacy and the fact (only appreciated since Darwin) that we ignore the physical (genetic) continuity and connection, the graded organic complexity, of the community of life. The sheer complexity of a value-graded world is enough to make us turn away.

We can, however, acknowledge the anthropocentrism of our human value system in several ways: by noting that our much-vaunted reason is ultimately driven by our evolutionarily grounded passions or will – our universal biological values.

Biological normativity is the playing out of both unconscious (mindless) and conscious (mindful) goals in the face of circumstance. Though underlying biological values are universal, they will ‘play out’ differently according to the biological agent. The physical structures and behaviours (‘strategies’) adopted by a spider to obtain its food and produce offspring are very different from those of a sea urchin, eucalyptus tree, or human.

Humans, though they adhere to the biological axiom, are not consciously motivated by its (ultimate) precepts. We are not mentally preoccupied with perpetuating our genes or surviving from one moment to the next, instead we pursue the more immediate (proximate) goals of happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing.

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?

Values

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.

Fact & value

The claim that all life is an expression of value has far-reaching intellectual implications whose importance needs to be appreciated.

There is a long tradition in philosophy, most clearly articulated by Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, maintaining that it is not logically possible, in ethical terms, to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In other words it is not possible to make judgements about what should occur in the world based on any factual circumstance. This claim, if compelling, creates a firm demarcation between fact and value and, by extrapolation, between science and ethics and, indeed, humans from nature. David Hume was not a trained biologist and his thinking preceded Darwin’s theory.

In the 21st century it is evident that human values, however refined by reason, are grounded in, and ultimately derived from, the universal natural values expressed in the biological axiom. As Hume also perceptively observed, reason must accommodate the demands of the biological axiom (‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them‘  – Treatise on Human Nature 2.3.3 p. 415).

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?

Interests

The biological axiom is a statement of biological value because it gives all life an orientation, direction or, as expressed in human-talk, a ‘point of view’. Life is not passive. For organisms there will be circumstances that may help or hinder the attainment of goals. Functional adaptations may be more or less efficient or effective.

We associate a point of view with human conscious deliberation, freedom of choice, and the reasoned development of moralities as codes of behaviour.  But the mindful morality of human agency is driven by the intuitions, instincts, and passions derived from mindless biological agency – even though these may be constrained by reason.

When we say ‘The eye is for seeing’ we are acknowledging that the existence of the eye is a consequence of a selection process. Once we thought the selector was God, today we are more inclined to think it is nature itself – natural selection. Where there is selection, there is selection ‘for’.  And, in nature, where there is an aim, a ‘for’, the for may be helped or hindered by circumstance and organismic flexibility. An amoeba, an oak tree, and a human can all be thwarted in attaining the goals of the biological axiom. All organisms therefore have ‘interests’.

Humans have drawn a line of moral demarcation (the formal recognition of philosophical and legal ‘interests’) between those organisms capable of conscious deliberation and those that are not – essentially between the minded and the mindless, although this has recently been extended to include sentient organisms that can experience pleasure and pain.

But, as we have seen, all organisms have interests and the moral demarcations become problematic when we acknowledge moral responsibility by degree as guided by evolutionary gradation (see environmental ethics).

Organisms do not value in the same way that humans value, but this does not mean that they do not value at all. Human minded values emerged out of the natural values of mindless organisms. Mindless values are different from the minded values of humans but they are not the unreal ‘as if’ values implied by cognitive metaphor – they are the graded values that have emerged out of the process of evolution.

Page Menu

INTRODUCTION

Origin of conscious purpose

Origin of values

... top-down

... bottom-up

Being 'for' something

Fact & value

Normative function

What are organisms for?

... purposelessness

... natural purpose

Biological axioms

What are humans for?

... unconscious purposes

... conscious purposes

... happiness,wellbe'g,flourishing

... proper function

COMMENTARY

KEY POINTS

REFERENCES

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