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The This article draws on several others with some duplication. Underlying its developed argument is the article on purpose in nature (bioteleology) which then moves on to another article considering the relationship between purpose and value. This article here is, as it were, a consideration of the consequences of these arguments for environmental ethics. The ethical argumentation can rapidly become complex, but this article provides the introductory flavour of a way forward for biocentrism in environmental ethics of moral naturalism. The media gallery provides a good background to the argumentation around moral naturalism.

Environmental ethics


‘Nature is a community, not a commodity’



‘Nature provides for need, not greed’



‘Every organism in the community of life manifests a set of properties that distinguish it as a purposive organic agent distinct from inanimate matter. As products of natural selection, organisms demonstrate the propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish. They also express complex functional physical and behavioural adaptive design that include systems of metabolism and nutrition, advanced un-conscious reasoning, and sensory systems that determine un-conscious values.’

After a period of unprecedented global conflict during two world wars, that spanned three decades between 1914 and 1945, the need for international cooperation was eventually acknowledged by the formation of the United Nations in 1945. There followed a period of rapid economic growth across the Western world.

Through the ’60s globalization was drawing nations together as they shared radio and television programs, music, and the pop culture that emanated from a thriving America that landed men on the moon in 1969.  Young people rebelled against materialistic parental values, and, alongside the release of the contraceptive pill in 1961, there began a re-examination of sexual relations. The second wave (global) feminist movement was born. Capitalism, moral prudery, and conventional Western values were sometimes rejected outright as ‘hippies’ adopted alternative lifestyles by ‘dropping out’ of the new suburban society that was spreading outwards from the world’s growing cities.

Into this mix of Western moral introspection came a new awareness of the increasing impact of humans on the natural world. Growth in both economic activity and the human population had entered a phase that we now call the Great Acceleration as the negative environmental consequences of material prosperity were becoming increasingly conspicuous.

From the environmental movement that grew out of these concerns – about pollution, hazardous chemicals, deforestation, desertification, species extinction, waste disposal, over-fishing, and many other human impacts on the biosphere including climate change, there emerged new academic disciplines like environmental science and environmental history, environmental studies, conservation studies, and so on. Like all these new subjects the discipline of environmental ethics was based primarily in North America.

It was the desire for a new environmentally aware ethic that fired the environmental ethics movement of the 1970s. In 1962 American marine biologist Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring had attracted public attention to the insidious environmental impact of pesticides creating a groundswell of environmental concern. Environmental activism was promoted by the international organization Greenpeace, founded in 1971.

In environmental ethics two names stand out, that of American ecologist Aldo Leopold (1970) and his ‘land ethic’ dealing with ‘ . . . man’s relation to the land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it’, and that of the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1973) who distinguished between the ‘shallow ecology’ that wanted to preserve the instrumental values of the natural world, and ‘deep ecology’ that acknowledged the intrinsic value of the biosphere. Melbourne philosopher Peter Singer, in his landmark Animal Liberation (1975), developed a case for expanding the traditional ethical domain from humans to sentient animals.

The journal Environmental Ethics was first published in 1979. The International Society of Environmental Ethics was founded on December 28, 1990, and this was followed in 1992 by the British journal Environmental Values.

In the 1980s the broad agenda of environmental concern fell under the new banner of ‘sustainability’ which recognized that positive change must be integrated within the broad context of environment, economy, and society. The advent of the internet and smartphones seemed to complete a new globalized and instantaneous form of communication that, in amny ways, superseded the age of print.

In Europe environmental, or ‘green’, political parties emerged alongside an increased interest in environmental and ecological economics that has slowly gathered momentum across the world.[25]

As we enter the Anthropocene, it is evident that traditional anthropocentric Western environmental values serve neither humans nor the biosphere. We only begrudgingly acknowledge that our economic and societal growth are embedded in a nature that has a limited supply of resources, and how our current lifestyles impact on the socially deprived, the non-human living world, and future generations.

An ethic for our times must look for cross-cultural values that acknowledge human (total) dependence on, and place within (not over and above) the community of life while, at the same time, accepting an apparently contradictory human role as planetary steward. It is a role that must acknowledge the deprived, the non-human, and future generations: a recognition and respect for the entire community of life and the environment that sustains it.

Traditional Western anthropocentric ethics draws a moral boundary around human beings as rational moral agents with conscious interests. Recently this boundary was extended to include the interests of sentient animals which, though lacking human-like rationality, can experience comfort and suffering (pleasure and pain).  Anthropocentric ethics respects nature, but only for its instrumental value – that is, only insofar as it impacts human interests. Peter Singer expresses this anthropocentric view by asking: ‘ . . . in the absence of consciousness’, why ‘ . . . should we have greater reverence for a tree than for a stalactite, or for a single-celled organism than for a mountain’[24] Singer’s point being that none of these objects of the natural world has intrinsic value (value in themselves).

Environmental ethics considers the reasons for extending the range of moral agency (of intrinsic moral value) yet further. So, what else might we consider as having intrinsic value? What do you think is of value in the universe, and why,  . . . is it everything, the biosphere (global ecosystem), living organisms, sentient organisms, or rational conscious organisms (humans) . . . or what?

Historically ethics began by considering the interests of humans as rational and conscious agents, it then included conscious animals that could experience suffering and pain. It is suggested here that this moral domain be extended to all life. All organisms express functional and purposive design that includes processes of evaluation, and, in this way, they demonstrate intrinsic value.  Since organisms are only semi-independent from their environments, by extension, the physical environment must be included in the moral domain, but only for its instrumental value.

This article extends the arguments developed in earlier articles on purpose, and purpose and value, by asking the question ‘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 human valuers? It then builds the case for a biocentric ethic.[22]

Theoretical framework

The views expressed in this article are derived from a metaethic of ethical naturalism[20] and moral realism[21] with objective morality grounded in the material universe and, more specifically, the evolutionary history of the community of life.[30]

Morality, when understood in the absolute language of right and wrong, good and bad, is a ready source of uncompromising prejudice. This problematic characteristic of moral discourse can be countered with an ‘amoral’ discourse whose assumptions are grounded in the world – not in theology or metaphysics – but in scientific evidence. For a brief summary of ethical concepts see the article on morality, and for a more in-depth analysis of the ethical issues debated in this article see the videos in the Media Gallery below.

We can begin an investigation of biocentrism by considering the categories we use to distinguish the different kinds of matter that make up the universe.

The nature of matter

We can easily forget that our scientific understanding of the universe today, our everyday cosmology, is a very recent construction.

For most people, well into the 19th century, the co-existence of matter and spirit was unproblematic. Before Darwin the world was almost universally regarded as a supernatural creation. Christians believed in both a literal historical interpretation of the Bible and in God’s creation of living species as discrete, immutable, and for the benefit of humanity. The Earth seemed limitless. Only in the 16th century, with Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, did the finite character of planet Earth and its resources become apparent.

Darwin’s mid-19th century account of natural selection provided a coherent scientific account of the evolution of the entire community of life by descent, with modification, from a common ancestor and it did not require supernatural intervention.

About 70 years or so after Darwin’s On the Origin . . . came another major scientific transformation of our understanding of the universe when the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe was confirmed by Hubble around 1930. The Big Bang theory replaced the former Steady State theory which assumed that the universe was eternal.

We now know that everything in the universe arose from a point source. The Big Bang theory, when combined with Darwinian theory established the universe as a system of continuity and connection. The incidental emergence of ever more complex aggregations of matter has seen the non-linear transition from inanimate to animate, and from one organic form to another. Natural selection was the novel process of matter that created life. It was a material algorithm that mindlessly ‘created’ the entire community of life, and among the multiplicity of semi-independent organic forms that it created from star dust were those with different degrees of awareness. Some responded mindlessly to their environment, others possessed a conscious awareness, yet others were self-aware. All were connected in time, space, and material history.

So, it is only for about 100 years (3-4 generations) that we have entertained the scientific idea that everything is materially connected to 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 space, time, and the evolution and accumulation of human knowledge and ideas.

The Chronometric Revolution of the last 100 years has now dated, to a fine level of resolution, this entire process – from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, to the emergence of life about 3.5 billion years ago, and the dates of origin of the major branches in the evolution of the community of life.

In ignorance of this scientific account of the universe, humans in antiquity found it useful to distinguish four categories of matter that we still find useful today. It is these categories that frame our general attitude to the world that exists outside ourselves:

1. All matter – matter ordered by necessity (‘necessity’ = the laws of physics)

2. Living matter – the subset of all matter that is living. This consists of the semi-autonomous replicating units that are the products of necessity and the sorting algorithm of natural selection (genetic information)

3. Sentient matter – the subset of living matter that is conscious (sentient), having the capacity to experience pleasure and pain

4. Rational & self-aware sentient matter – 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 a useful way to understand apparent disjunctions in the continuity of the universe and the choices humans have made in their determination of ethical domains.


What are they?

The word ‘value’ has wide semantic scope that is usually restricted to the human sphere. It might refer to attitudes and impulses, customs, ideals or standards, including sacred and secular codes of behaviour. ‘Value’ therefore connotes many things distributed in time and space. Like so much in biology, values of moral agents, their acts, and the consequences of these acts range over scales ranging from individual to global.

Natural agents

Darwin’s theory of evolution with modification from a common ancestor demonstrated material continuity across the tree of life, in both structure and function. If we are to use the natural world to help guide our moral decision-making then its disjunctions can serve as a starting point: the transitions from the inanimate to the animate (the living and the dead or inorganic), between the conscious and non-conscious (sentient and non-sentient), and between the conscious, and rationally self-aware (humans) and everything else?

The most dramatic and abrupt material distinction occurs between the inanimate and animate. Impressive though consciousness and reason are, these qualities arose out of nature as modifications to existing qualities. It was nature that ‘created’ humans and their abilities, not the other way around. If we look to the natural world for guidance in the distinctions of matter it is natural selection that stands out as a defining process – it was this simple algorithm that established survival and reproduction as defining characteristics of life, setting matter on the path to self-awareness by sowing the first primal seeds of purpose, design, reason, and value.

We express the long-term evolutionary increase in organic complexity by using new words to indicate the emergence of seemingly novel (or usefully discernible) organic structures. So, ‘ocelli’, ‘claws’, and ‘leaves’ at one stage of evolution might become, at a later stage, ‘eyes’, ‘nails’, and ‘petals’. This principle also applies to functions (‘values’ and ‘purposes’) – as traits, predispositions, and propensities at one stage of organic evolution transition into needs, wants, desires, preferences, and beliefs at another.

Unsurprisingly, humans have a high regard for human (self) interests (which are said to have intrinsic value) this being an understandable, but morally unjustified presumption of moral privilege.

From a human perspective moral agents range from individuals to the global community. From individual values like my inconsequential preference for white wine and impressionist music, to the human desire to rein in climate change. But the moral dimension can be take on a wider and more abstract character. There are clashes of value (of interests) when my local council tries to extricate bats from ornamental plant collections, when bats are naturally attracted to water, greenery, and sustenance. There is the caterpillar’s need to eat my Brussels sprouts.

In the continuity of the community of life every living thing has ‘purposes’, ‘needs’, ‘desires’, ‘preferences’, and ‘interests’ in some stage of structural and functional evolutionary development.

Principle 1 – the most abrupt and significant disjunction in the constitution of the matter of the universe occurs between the living and non-living. Between the inanimate and matter that, by natural selection, can survive and reproduce by self-replicating with minor modification over numerous generations. It is this process of natural selection that has produced the entire community of life including humans, consciousness, and reason. 


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.

Moral domains

The community of life exists in graded complexity. Humans draw moral boundaries with their own interests in mind. If value and interests exist in nature then they do not have a voice. Does nature itself suggest value, and if so, what would be the human response?

Which of the following would you include in your world of moral concern? Which do you think have intrinsic value . . . and why?

Family, friends, and acquaintances
People of your religion or ethnic group
People of your country or those subject to the same civil laws
All humans
Humans & sentient animals
Humans, sentient animals, and ecosystems
The biosphere, including inanimate nature and future generations

History and science, which once placed humans at the very centre of the physical universe, now recognize our humble place in the scheme of things. This is not a denial of human interests, but an acknowledgement of the need for a more inclusive moral domain.

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 do our values come from? Our answers to this question can have a profound influence on our individual and collective worldviews.

The table below indicates seven major moral domains as sources of moral value (either individually or in combination) that have been proposed over the years. These sources of value correspond loosely to the divisions of matter outlined above and they circumscribe domains of value that have been studied and discussed by environmental ethicists.

Beyond theocentrism the table indicates the moral agent that is the source of value, and the criteria (justification for moral authority) on which that value is claimed. The table is arranged in a progressively more morally inclusive way.

God (supernatural)
Sentient animals
Living organisms
divine command
conscious rational interests (consciousness, reason, foresight and hindsight, language, can feel pleasure and pain)
communally shared values (sometimes in law)
wants and desires, pleasure and pain
evolved organic design demonstrating purpose and value
circumstances necessary for organisms to survive and reproduce
order and ‘direction’ as determined by the ‘laws’ of nature

3. Sociocentric – from social consensus and instilled by mothers and fathers, educators, culture, ethnic and religious groups, peer groups, friends etc. (social consensus)

4. Biocentric – from biologically inherited traits (natural values)

5. Ecocentric – from the history and nature of the stuff from which we are made (a cosmic or land ethic)


Moral Agent: God
Moral Domain: Cosmos
Moral Claim: Divine Command – a code of behaviour delivered to humans by God. This mostly addressed behaviour towards one-another, but included reference to the rest of the Creation

There are two major environmental consequences of theocentrism as exemplified by Christianity (discussed in more detail elsewhere). The first is ‘dominion theology’ as expressed in Genesis 1.

The dominion theology presented in the Christian Bible of Genesis 1 leaves little doubt about the place of humans in the scheme of things:

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so . . . “
Genesis 1: 26, 28-30

Genesis 2 moderates this view with a deistic exhortation for humans to accept a duty of care (‘ . . . to work it and care for it’). God’s generosity in providing for human need implies a stewardship of the natural world – humans acting as caretakers.


Moral Agent: Humans
Moral Domain: Mostly human affairs.
Moral Authority: Conscious rational deliberation

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. This subjectivity of values makes them categorically distinct from the objective and descriptive facts of science. Normativity requires human agency because values are found only in conscious and rational agents.

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‘.

These views prevailed at a time when nature seemed limitless. Humans, it was believed, were created in the image of God and were situated a little below God in the Great Chain of Being.

Aristotle echoes sentiments expressed in Genesis 1 of the Bible:

“Plants exist for the sake of animals . . . all other animals exist for the sake of man, tame animals for the use he can make of them as well as for the food they provide; and as for wild animals, most though not all of these can be used for food and are useful in other ways; clothing and tools can be made out of them. IF then we are right in believing that nature makes nothing without some end in view, nothing to no purpose, it must be that nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man”
Aristotle, Politics Book 1

An impressive gallery of philosophers endorses anthropocentrism – it includes deontologist Immanuel Kant, utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, and theologian Thomas Aquinas.

Immanual Kant expressed the views of his age when he stated:

“The fact that the human being can have an ‘I’ in his representation raises him infinitely above all living beings on earth. Because of this he is a person . . . i.e., through rank and dignity entirely different being from things, such as irrational animals, with which one can do as one likes” therefore “we have no immediate duties towards animals; our duties towards them are indirect duties towards humanity.”

None of these men were acquainted with the theory of evolution or the unlikely idea that humans would indeed come to dominate the earth in an era called the Anthropocene.

Problems for anthropocentrism

Moral privilege – there is no moral reason to privilege humans over others. Reason and consciousness are products of circumstance – like inherited wealth or the capacity to build devastating weapons. Their possession does not morally justify the practical advantages they offer.

Dependence on environmental resources – humans are totally dependent on other life forms and the environment – value resides in the whole, not just the human part

Indifference – creates an attitude to the environment that even resists its instrumental value

Speciesism – There is a long list of uniquely human characteristics: our human emotions, conscious self-awareness; reason; the foresight and hindsight needed for planning and choice; language and sociality. This cannot be said of animals, plants and inanimate matter. Our sphere of moral concern has expanded over time especially as the Neolithic Revolution forced people from diverse backgrounds (racial, religious, linguistic, geographic) to work together. Today modern cities contain people of all nationalities and races with a diversity of religious beliefs, in the main treating one-another with consideration, respect and tolerance. Though there are still many differences, there is a shared global ethic to the extent that social and economic life proceeds in a mostly peaceful way and violence across the world has never been lower (see Human nature). This is a moral achievement. Even so, just as organisms are in a functional relationship with their environments, so too humans and their social and ecological relationships.

Principle 1 – human self-interest addresses short- and long-term pleasures and pains, happiness and wellbeing expressed through the language of ethics constructed using our consciousness and reason. All these faculties have arisen from, and are grounded in, the value, purpose, and needs bequeathed to us party of our evolutionary legacy from the community of life. It is recognition of this connection to the rest of nature that needs emphasis in an environmental ethics that moves from anthropocentrism to biocentrism


Moral agent: Human societies
Moral domain: Mostly human affairs
Moral authority: Law and social convention

Though sociocentrism can be regarded as simply another way of describing anthropocentrism it is worth drawing attention to the way that much of our behaviour results from civil law coupled with cultural conventions as instilled by parents, teachers, social authorities, ethnic groups, peer groups and so on.

The point here is that individuals exist within a community. Though each of us has beliefs, values, and attitudes that may differ from those espoused by our society and culture, there will be norms that are recognized for their general acceptance within particular communities.

Since sociocentrism is generally regarded as simply a form of anthropocentrism it is has been largely ignored by environmental ethics.


Moral Agent: Sentient organisms
Moral domain: Sentient organisms
Moral criterion/authority: Capacity to feel pleasure and pain, comfort and suffering

Sentiocentrism arose out of concerns about animal cruelty and human indifference to the suffering that was clearly the consequence of animal neglect. The most influential philosophical work in this field is the work of Melbourne (now Princeton) philosopher Peter Singer, in his landmark Animal Liberation (1975) in which he developed a case for expanding the traditional ethical domain from humans to sentient animals. For Singer the important ethical consideration was not whether moral agents were rational, but whether they could suffer. The key moral criterion was therefore the capacity to experience pleasure and pain as an extension to his philosophical position of Preference Utilitarianism, although he now leans towards Hedonistic Utilitarianism. 

The extension of the moral sphere to include sentient animals has proved a popular move away from traditional anthropocentrism.


Moral agent: Living organisms
Moral domain: Living organisms and life-support systems
Moral criterion/authority: The capacity to survive, reproduce, and flourish while manifesting purpose, design, and value

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 desirable (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).

Problems for biocentrism

What are the problems for biocentrism, for extending the moral sphere from sentient organisms to all life?

Moral accounting – Just as I know what benefits me, I can also know what benefits a plant. But in the absence of conscious interests, how do we decide the relative interests of a moss, giant sequoia, or cabbage?

Animate & inanimate – Also, in the absence of considerations concerning sentience, how do we draw a distinction of value between the animate and inanimate – between an ancient stalactite and a garden weed?

Reverence for life – Theologian philosopher Albert Schweitzer promoted a ‘reverence for life’ based on its ‘will to live’, whether voiced or unvoiced, and similarly American philosopher Paul Taylor in his Respect for Nature argued that ‘every living thing is pursuing its own good in its own way’. (p. 249)

Teleology – Singer treats these arguments as metaphorical language and teleology, as when we say that the roots of a tree ‘seek’ water. We might as well say that a river strives to reach the sea. If root behaviour is encoded in genes, and computer behaviour is encoded in software, why is 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 living things than we have for those that govern non-living things.’(p. 250)


Moral agent: The universe
Moral domain: everything
Moral authority/criteria: universal intrinsic value

Ecocentrism steps away from the notion of humans as having intrinsic value and regards intrinsic value as residing in everything. It is an ethic that is biosphere-, planet-, or universe-centred. Those maintaining this position have become known as Deep Ecologists and within the environmental movement as being Deep Green.

(. . . 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 is semi-autonomous matter responding to its environment in complex ways. 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.

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 recognize 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.

Philosophical advocates of ecocentrism include American Aldo Leopold and his ‘Land Ethic’ and Norwegian Arne Naess as a pioneer of Deep Ecology.

In more recent times the 1979 book by English scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, was supported by philosopher Lynn Margulis, and caught public attention. The Gaia[26] theory regards the biosphere itself as an integrated self-regulating and self-sustaining biotic community.

Source of value

One disagreement in metaethics concerns the grounding of ethical opinions. How do we justify our moral judgements? Where do they come from? What gives them authority?

At one philosophical extreme is the view that there is no grounding for morality because our moral decisions are nothing more than arbitrary and subjective individual preferences or emotional inclinations.

Moral naturalism

A more popular view nowadays would be that moral systems emerge out of our biological nature (our evolved intuitions), but as tempered by our reason which, in this sense, transcends our biological nature.

The views developed here fall under the ethical headings of moral realism and moral naturalism. Moral realism asserts that there are objective, mind-independent, moral facts and properties. These are natural facts and properties that are understood, explained, and assessed using empirical methods so moral assertions are truth-apt in the same way that scientific facts are truth-apt (known as moral cognitivism). The moral naturalist further asserts that moral facts and properties are natural facts and properties – a metaphysical claim about moral ontology – and that they are justified in the same way as empirical beliefs – which is an epistemology that is continuous with the subject matter and methodology of science. Objective and universal moral laws exist independently of human beings; those that are verified are then objective and universal truths. Reductive moral naturalism (analytic naturalism) holds that moral language can be translated into non-moral language (e.g. goodness = happiness, right action = pleasure maximization). Non-reductionist moral naturalism (synthetic naturalism) holds that moral properties and natural properties are irreducible and that actions can be ‘morally right’ for many different reasons.

The claim here is that natural facts and properties occurs in the natural world and that ‘valuing’ is an essential component of the interaction between all living organisms and their environments. However, the valuing relationships between organisms are not of kind, but of degree. If this is accepted, then is nature a moral agent? And if nature is a moral agent, then does it have interests to be addressed within a hypothetical moral domain?

Clearly human valuing of, say, wellbeing is very different from a worm valuing moist soil, but this is a difference of degree, not of kind. Worms share with humans a ‘preference’ for some environments over others and in so doing they have ‘interests’ (also by degree).

The use of the word ‘preference’ here is not a simple case of anthropomorphism, it illustrates our intuitive sense of similarity between these two cases and our lack of suitable language to convey this similarity.

Just as our concept of seeing ‘improves’ with the increasing complexity of the visual apparatus, so ‘valuing improves’ with the increase in complexity of the organism.

This difficult idea will be put aside for a moment by confronting the problem more directly.

Philosopher Peter Singer draws attention directly to our intuitive anthropocentrism when he states:

‘. . . there is something odd about the idea of a valuer that is not sentient or conscious’[23]

The assumption that human conscious deliberation is the source of moral value (that valuing only occurs in human brains) is indeed powerful. So how can it be challenged?

Natural values?

From the initial plasma of the Big Bang there emerged new objects, properties, and relations. One aspect of this process of emergence was the formation of increasingly complex physical structures. We intuitively regard the present as a stage of completion and earlier times in the universe as a work in progress. Today there are stars: historically, there were the ‘incomplete’ processes that formed them. Today there are humans: historically, there were the ‘incomplete’ processes on the way to their formation.

It seems that some of our concepts, when applied to former states of the world, also gather clarity and meaning over time, and though they exist fully formed in the human mind they can be justifiably said to exist in the world in a preformed state.

This is relevant to the discussion of environmental ethics first, as an alternative to the view that purpose is a strictly human business and, second, because of an overlap in the fuzzy concepts of reason, purpose, design, and value.

For a more extended account of these matters, see the article on purpose.

From at least the time of ancient Greek philosophers, and also within the major religious traditions, the world was arranged conceptually into a hierarchy or ladder of moral value referred to as the Great Chain of Being. At first this was assumed to be a God-ordained natural order of things. At the bottom of the ladder were rocks and minerals as hard matter, followed by plants and animals as living matter, and at the top was humanity, the whole edifice surmounted by God as pure spirit. During the

Renaissance and Enlightenment scientific and secular ideas gained a greater hold over thinking that had previously been controlled by priests and clerics as God and biblical teachings were superceded. It did not make sense to give pride of place to some things over others because they were in some moral sense ‘higher’ in the Great Chain of Being. Modern biological classifications distinguished between organisms based on the similarities and differences of their structures (after Darwin these differences were related to evolutionary history). Some organisms were more organically complex than others – but this did not imply that they were ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ in some cosmic absolute, moral, or religious sense – there were simply different organisms with different traits.

Though value can be effectively eliminated from biological classifications this cannot be said for the human relationship to other forms of life. Today, animals and plants are valued largely in proportion to their utility, that is, their instrumental value.

There is, however, a modern carry-over of the old hierarchy that gives moral weight to humans over other creatures by emphasizing mental traits. This human self-interest is hardly surprising. Nor is it surprising that the emphasized trait, rational consciousness, is a trait associated with human dominance (dominion) over other creatures. It also comes as no surprise that the entire domain of moral obligation is restricted to human beings – other creatures have no ‘interests’ and therefore no moral value.

Moral agency

Major attributes we associate with the moral agency of human minds include ‘reason’, ‘purpose’, ‘value’, and ‘functional organic design’. We are inclined to think of these characteristics as unique and crucial manifestations of the human mind and its ‘intentionality’[29] when they are, in fact, properties of all living creatures. If pleasure and pain are believed to underpin our moral choices then we can add consciousness to this list.

These are fuzzy concepts that grade into one-another and they exist within all of nature to a greater or lesser degree. A reason can be a purpose that expresses value through its functional organic design. It is not humans that uniquely express these properties, but all of life. It is therefore worthwhile examining each of these characteristics in more detail.

Natural selection & its products

In attributing moral agency to nature a distinction must be made between the process of natural selection as genetic replication with modification over many generations resulting from differential reproduction, and the products of this process, that is, organisms.

Purpose & design

Nature is saturated with purpose. The functional efficiency of the design that is found in nature far exceeds anything ever created by human technology. It is difficult to find anything in any living organism that does not serve some purpose.

Though purpose is self-evident in all of nature, there is still a view prevalent in philosophy, science, and biology that only humans have reasons and purposes because only humans are capable of conscious deliberation. To assume otherwise is to fall into the trap of teleology, the assumption that nature can see into the future.

Bio-teleology is examined in detail elsewhere on this web site where it is argued that purpose in nature is real; that purpose-talk applied to nature is only occasionally used as metaphor and usually in a blatant way. The attribution of purpose to nature is neither a matter of semantics, or an attempt to re-introduce the idea of intelligent design, or metaphor, or an heuristic device.

The subtle philosophical error here is to assume that only foresight (which non-human nature does not possess) can invoke purpose. But reasons (causes) were present in the universe long before humans existed. There really is a reason why the spider builds its web, even though it has no conscious idea of what it is doing. Causes, reasons, and purposes, exist in nature: they are real. What is special about humans as conscious and rational agents is that they, unlike nature, can represent these reasons in their minds. Philosopher Dan Dennett has expressed this eloquently by pointing out that organisms are ‘competent without comprehension‘ and that ‘reasons do not require reason-representers‘ . . . ‘humans are the only reason-representers‘[14][15] and, I might add for good measure, that the products of natural selection can be ‘for without foresight’.

We assume, both by intellectual tradition and intuition, that purposes, reasons, and wondrous designs could only emanate from God or the human intellect. But the wonder of the entire community of life arose from a mindless process: ‘it bubbled up from the bottom, not trickled down from the top’. (Dan Dennett again)[14][15]

Principle –purpose and design in nature is real

Natural values

This discussion of the reality of purpose and design in nature has drawn attention to the way we humans have, by a strange inversion of reasoning (Dan Dennett), ascribed to the human mind things that actually exist in nature. But the question about value in nature has still not been addressed.

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 human valuers?

To see how values arose out of nature we need to go back to biological basics.


Life is substance in process: it is therefore recognized by its activities as much as its structures and chemical composition. Biological activities include:  the capacity for growth, metabolism, reproduction, homeostasis, and response to stimuli.

But none of these activities quite captures, in a succinct and uncontroversial way, what it is to be a living organism. We intuitively recognize that organisms are pieces of integrated matter that exhibit a degree of autonomy. Energetically, they can temporarily build physical organization against the natural forces of entropy. They are matter that demonstrates some self-sustaining independence from the other matter of the universe.

All the processes and structures in an organism are synergistic: that is, they are integrated and mutually supportive – they are directed towards ends or goals, both individually and collectively. Organisms are built this way because they are products of the algorithm of natural selection and, if they are to persist, then they must survive, reproduce and, if possible, flourish. Aristotle, long ago, noted the remarkable way that, in biology, like begets like in an endless process of self-replication.

What distinguishes a living organism from a dead one, then, is the presence of integrated goal-directed processes, whether these be minded or mindless.

When matter first replicated according to the algorithm of natural selection, something novel emerged in the universe. This was the beginning of organic evolution: what today we describe in more technical terms as descent with modification due to heritable variation and differential reproduction. It was the creation of semi-autonomous self-replicating pieces of matter of varying degrees of organic complexity which we call living organisms.

Importantly, this was not a separation of organic matter from its environment but a mechanical, material, and behavioural fine-tuning of physical structure and function in relation to surroundings (feedback) – what today we call adaptation. Our most parsimonious explanation of the outcome of all these processes is that they (mindlessly in non-sentient organisms) promote survival and reproduction.

What is ignored (because it is difficult to describe in hard scientific terms) is the ‘drive’ or ‘directedness’ of processes found in living matter: the way an organism is an integrated system of structures and functions that are directed towards ends.

This is what we understand by ‘life’. But the word ‘life’ somehow fails to capture the gulf of difference that exists between inanimate and animate matter. ‘Vitality’ is a more striking term. ‘Vitality’ is a property possessed by a special kind of matter that emerged around 3.5 billion years ago. This was a special kind of matter that was subject to the mechanical process of natural selection which instilled crude reason, evaluation, and purpose into semi-autonomous units of self-replicating matter.


A biological axiom

So, the advent of natural selection marked the emergence of a new kind of matter that was mindless and uncomprehending, persisting by a process of mechanical self-replication that incorporated physical modifications based on feedback from its environment in the form of differential reproduction.[16]  In modern terminology, this was matter that, over many generations, could ‘adapt’ to its surroundings. It was this mindless process that eventually created matter that was aware of itself, the human brain. This was not a passive process but one that was strongly ‘directed’ (though not toward one inevitable outcome) imbuing living organisms with the quality of vitality –  recognizable in degree: in mindless nature, sentient organisms, and conscious, rational human beings.

This characterization of natural selection, the process that created the community of life, is compelling evidence for the following biological axiom.[18]

Life is the propensity for survival and reproduction: it is not passive existence, but active process.

Just as human minds can represent reasons that exist in the universe independently of the minds themselves, so they can also recognize processes in nature that are independent of, but closely resemble, processes and properties of minds. So, we recognize, for example, the factual necessity of survival and reproduction for the persistence of life.

Life is the capacity for survival and reproduction. This is not an absolute or inexorable law like those of physics and mathematics, but it is a necessary biological law. If it were not so, there would be no life.

Principle – life is the capacity to survive, reproduce, and flourish

Natural selection: the source of value

Aristotle recognized the inherent necessity of all living organisms to survive and reproduce as constituting a foundational value for all life – even those organisms without minds. But this gave rise to what has been called ‘Aristotle’s dilemma’. Aristotle asked, ‘on what deductive grounds can we say that being alive is better than being dead?’ Here we reach an impasse from which Aristotle draws the only possible conclusion: ‘Life is better than death’.

Aristotle’s conclusion is not a logical necessity, but it is a biological necessity.  Biologically, things cannot meaningfully exist in any other way. We can imagine a planet without life, but we cannot imagine life that is not self-affirming, for then it would cease to exist.

Life is predicated on this biological axiom which Aristotle expressed in normative terms by stating ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘ and ‘it is better to live than not live’.[17] Evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi in his book The Lagoon (2014), which is a biography of Aristotle’s biology, asks ‘Why do organisms need to survive and reproduce?‘ and replies ‘Because natural selection made them so‘. It is perverse to insist on a justification of life as a precondition for an examination of the foundations of morality.

Organisms, then, express value through the way they are, not the way they ought to be. We humans, as value-representers, superimpose conscious reason on our moral intuitions but the ‘will’ that drives reason still has its origin in our biological nature.

This, then, is the birth of normativity as it arose in a crude form about 3.5 billion years ago – it is the biological way we are. Since that distant and simple beginning, valuing has undergone evolutionary elaboration into its sentient and rational forms.

Darwin’s theory did not explain away the purpose, value, and design that we see in nature: it grounded them firmly in the scientific theory of natural selection. Darwin demonstrated how it is that the products of natural selection have beneficial functional adaptations – and that the purpose, design, and value demonstrated by these adaptations can exist without consciousness, foresight, intelligence, reason, deliberation, or God.[1] Darwin, inadvertently, made this possibility compelling through the physical continuity of all life – a possibility barely considered by his predecessors.

Organisms, as products of natural selection, are semi-autonomous, self-replicating, and evolving matter. This semi-autonomy entails many properties that are not found in inanimate matter including a process of environmental feedback (integral to natural selection) a primitive ratiocination – as a mechanical process of ‘self-correction’  while, at the same time, there is the mindless assessment of ‘compatibility’ between organism and environment that engages a crude process of evaluation.

Human values

Aristotle recognized the similarity between the valuing that occurs in nature (the inherent/immanent tendency toward survival and reproduction found, even in plants and non-sentient animals), and the minded valuing of rational and conscious humans. We now know that this primordial valuing is not just a similarity, but part of the historical physical continuity of all life; it is the pre-conscious precursor to the minded valuing of humans.

But how does the biological maxim influence my everyday moral decision-making? Am I motivated by survival and reproduction when decide to become vegetarian? 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 we accept this as an implicit maxim of evolutionary biology.

The body processes that help us survive proceed in an unconscious way. We shiver, sweat, yawn, and metabolize our food without conscious deliberation or awareness, even though there are survival reasons for all these things. Natural selection is so powerful that it achieves its (unconscious) ends of survival and reproduction by (unbeknown to us) mindlessly manipulating our conscious experience, rewarding us with pleasurable mental states when we do things that promote our survival and reproduction. 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; 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. There is broad agreement across humanity about our proximate goals, they are happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing. These pleasurable proximate goals are firmly aligned with our ultimate biological goal of survival and reproduction.

These general ideas provide the underpinning for utilitarian ethics as the maximization of pleasure and happiness, and minimization of pain and unhappiness. Moral decision-making based on such grounds can be universalized and based largely on empirical evidence – but this does not make moral decisions any easier. Nature has given us reason to discern those biological intuitions and everyday consequences that could be problematic.

How do we translate the biological axiom into human conscious experience? the drive to survive and reproduce translates into our desire for happiness and wellbeing – our need to flourish. And as social animals this also requires us to live in harmonious and functional societies. There is a thread connecting the first semi-autonomous matter replicating under natural selection, and ourselves.

A rearticulation of the biological axiom after 4 billion years of its physical evolution, is expressed by a conscious and rational agent and product of natural selection, Steven Pinker. At the head of this article, he expresses the mindless biological axiom in the form of minded human normativity.

Things could be no other way. One objective truth about morality that flows from the theory of natural selection is that values ignoring the biological axiom are destined for extinction. The denial of the biological axiom makes logical sense, but it does not make biological sense.

Natural selection is the mindless capacity of semi-autonomous replicating matter for ‘self-correction’ in relation to surroundings – and self-correction in its most highly evolved form as, Aristotle told us, is human reason. Reason has allowed us to superimpose cultural organization on biological organization.

The power of the biological axiom, then, is that it expresses both fact and value. The presence of value is not there as a logical necessity (how can we validly deduce that life is more important than non-life?) – but it is a necessity nonetheless – a biological necessity.

Intrinsic value

Something is of intrinsic value if it is of value in itself. We desire happiness for its own sake, while we desire money for what it can buy, for its instrumental value. But, as we have seen, happiness, which seems a very human trait, is a component of the general desire for well-being and flourishing which is grounded in biological norms, the propensity of all living things to survive and reproduce. Happiness, then – as with purpose, value, consciousness, and organic design – is a question of degree. Can your dog be happy . . . your goldfish . . . the worms in your garden . . . or your daffodils?

One impulse is, of course, to privilege our own interests, and claim that only human beings are of intrinsic value. But how can we claim that our interests should dominate others simply because we are humans? Our reason, consciousness, foresight and hindsight, are indeed impressive, but so is the sight of an eagle or the echolocation of a bat. That reason and consciousness allow us to dominate other creatures is, as it were, a privilege of circumstance – shouldn’t that be taken into moral account?

Another impulse, then, is to regard every living thing (or even every thing) as of equal value. But practical concerns soon present challenges to this position.

So, on what grounds do (and should) we draw our value boundaries?

The prevailing view today is that only humans have intrinsic value, although this boundary has been extended to include all sentient creatures because they have wants and desires, feel pleasure and pain, and therefore have interests. Everything else in the universe is therefore of instrumental value only: it is of value only insofar as it affects sentient creatures for better or worse. Further, human self-interest is sufficient reason for us to develop a thorough environmental ethic.

This is the anthropocentric view.

But what other views are there?

Principle – Natural selection manifests primordial reason and evaluation

Why does nature have value?

In spite of our total dependence on nature, we still regard it as We diminish nature, in part, because it cannot answer back; it cannot offer a defense for its position at the moral table and it is therefore ignored in spite of its overwhelming qualifications. So, in what possible sense can nature deserve our respect?

The human brain

The human brain is nature’s greatest creation. We are not only ‘rational animals’ (as Aristotle told us), our brains are also capable of abstract thought, foresight and hindsight, language, sociality, and the ability to create highly sophisticated technology. To this staggering mix of abilities can be added consciousness – the most miraculous phenomenon we can imagine. The human brain is matter that has become aware of itself. Science tells us that none of this was created by either God or human ingenuity – it arose out of mindless matter itself. Mindless and unconscious matter has produced a material sophistication (the human brain) that human technology cannot begin to match, all achieved with the simple feedback algorithm of natural selection. We humans should not forget that we were forged in the crucible of nature. Nature is far cleverer than we are – it is nature that created us . . . our bodies, minds, reason, and consciousness. We are quickly overwhelmed by the mindless half-living but replicating and mutating CoViD-19 virus that has taken over the world economy.

Principle – mindless nature created us: our bodies, minds, reason, and consciousness


Nature may have ‘created’ us, but how could it possibly direct our morality? Morality is superimposed on our biology by reason.

In discussing the origins of morality, Peter Singer (p. 5) points out that human morals have some commonality with the ‘morals’ of other social mammals. Studies of animal behaviour show that we share with other primates, certain moral intuitions that we humans have developed through language. Nevertheless, he cautions, ‘evolved intuitions do not necessarily give us the right answers to moral questions’ and, since the claim that ‘anything natural is good’ can be easily dismissed (including evolved moral intuitions that are inappropriate for today’s world) then morality is ‘freed from nature as a putative master’. p. 5

Our true moral master, it seems, is reason.

Moral master?

The point being made by Singer appears to be that reason transcends our crude evolutionary intuitions. Reason is not like untrustworthy moral intuition, because it can tell us what is right, and in so doing it transcends nature.

But there are several objections to this claim.

First, reason does not rise above or negate our biology, it extends it. Reason is an emergent biological property superimposed on its evolutionary predecessor intuition, much as the cortex of the brain is superimposed on the amygdala. The function of morality is not so much the setting of transcendent and universal ideals, more a matter of regulating our intuitive impulses (consider the Ten Commandments). Reason is itself a product of evolution – it does not exist in a higher ineffable realm – it does not transcend our biology, it is one of many mental faculties that are necessarily products of evolution. For many people this is not obvious; it requires some justification.

Second, reason can subject intuition to critical inspection, but alone it goes nowhere. It is only when it is supplied with intuition (expressed blandly as ‘will’ or, more colourfully, as ‘passions and desires’) that it can proceed. Reason never fully overrides intuitions, it simply examines their consequences.

If nature made our bodies and our minds, then it also made our values. But how could this possibly be?

The ‘values’ demonstrated by nature have clearly ‘worked’ for those organisms that survive, although many casualties have fallen by the wayside. Humans, as organisms capable of self-reflection, know that mechanical natural selection can be flawed, that behaviour inherited from the past is not always appropriate for the present, and that the need to adapt to our planetary environment is more urgent now than ever before. We are capable of cruel, irrational, and self-destructive behaviour. Reason, for all its benefits, has given us the culture and technology that could bring about our own destruction. The flaws in our biology equate to Christianity’s ‘original sin’ and the ancient Greek philosophers knew all too well that we are easily swayed by our appetites and desires: that there is constant need for moderation and reason in the ‘habituation of virtue’. Evolution has not prepared us for life in the 21st century so we must manage our inherited human nature with care, and reason is the double-edged biological tool that we have at our disposal.

Aristotle tells us that the highest good for humanity is to fulfil that which is in its very nature, its telos, and that is the desire to flourish and be happy, not just as individuals, but as individuals within communities of whatever size (eudaimonia or well-being). Biology and the ancient Greek philosophers appear to be in agreement here. Modern utilitarians endorse the idea of common happiness.

The ‘values’ demonstrated by nature have clearly ‘worked’ for those organisms that survive, although many casualties have fallen by the wayside. Humans, as organisms capable of self-reflection, know that mechanical natural selection can be flawed, that behaviour inherited from the past is not always appropriate for the present, and that the need to adapt to our planetary environment is more urgent now than ever before. We are capable of cruel, irrational, and self-destructive behaviour. Reason, for all its benefits, has given us the culture and technology that could bring about our own destruction. The flaws in our biology equate to Christianity’s ‘original sin’ and the ancient Greek philosophers knew all too well that we are easily swayed by our appetites and desires: that there is constant need for moderation and reason in the ‘habituation of virtue’. Evolution has not prepared us for life in the 21st century so we must manage our inherited human nature with care, and reason is the double-edged biological tool that we have at our disposal.

Aristotle tells us that the highest good for humanity is to fulfil that which is in its very nature, its telos, and that is the desire to flourish and be happy, not just as individuals, but as individuals within communities of whatever size (eudaimonia or well-being). Biology and the ancient Greek philosophers appear to be in agreement here. Modern utilitarians endorse the idea of common happiness.

This fundamental distinction between the living and the dead was recognized by Aristotle on the basis of ‘principle of life itself’ which he called the ‘psyche’ which had three ‘powers’ : the nutrition found in plants, the sensation or appetites possessed in addition by animals, thinking (with other attributes) possessed by humans. Plants fulfil their telos by growing and reproducing, animals by growing reproducing and satisfying their appetites, humans by doing all of these things as well as thinking and leading a deliberative life.

Values are naturalized when they become a species of fact in relation to the biological axiom.

Evolution of reason

Biologists frequently describe organisms as rational agents pursuing goals that maximize fitness and promote their survival and wellbeing. Treating an organism as an agent in this way (sometimes called agential thinking or reverse engineering) helps  explain how evolved traits and behaviors achieve goals. Sometimes the process of evolution, of natural selection itself, is treated as an agent with goals. [27][28]

How did rationality evolve?

In answering this question are we strictly confined to the psychological states of conscious organisms or are there forms of graded or proto-rationality? The demand for survival by environmental adaptation is universal across all life forms so, in broad terms, we might assume that just as physical structures became more complex and clearly differentiated over time then so too will phenomena like ‘reason’. An ant colony can mindlessly solve complex mathematical problems by constant trial and error but it cannot be assumed that behaviour will be predictable.


But, isn’t ‘vitality’ simply the sum of processes that are occurring in a living thing?

The matter of a dead body can be described in detail as we would describe the matter of a rock: but a satisfactory account of a living organism must also include reference to its vitality. Vitality is not a mystical and mysterious life force, it is simply a necessary property of the integrated goal-directed processes of the semi-autonomous pieces of matter we know as living organisms. Vitality is immaterial (like temperature and many other scientific properties) . . .  but it is ‘real’, and amenable to scientific investigation.

Just as we recognize in the ocelli of invertebrates an array of attributes that we associate with ‘seeing’,[19] so we recognize in the vitality of life processes of other organisms the rudiments of the vitality we recognize in ourselves. Included here would be our intentional or purposive behaviour, our capacity for evaluation, our use of reason, and our ability to organize and design.

One major difficulty is that we can access ancient physical structures that are external to ourselves, drawing conclusions about their evolution and speculating about their function. But, since we cannot experience what it is like to be another organism, the only way we can access notions like ‘drive’ and ‘directedness’ is via our own human experience and this, for good reason, has generated both scientific reticense and suspicion. But this is no reason to give up.

The attributes of vitality selected here are all fuzzy concepts that overlap one-another so, for example, valuation and purpose can often have the same meaning. But just as the evolutionary precursors to physical human body parts and their functions bear little resemblance to today’s body parts, so the early attributes of vitality must have been very different from today’s  human vitality. Even so, we know there must have been continuity, even if this underwent stepped change. The attributes of vitality could be plotted in a cladogram in the same way that we plot physical attributes.

So, for example, it is conventional to refer to purpose in nature as functional adaptation; to evaluation as responses to stimuli that have degrees of attraction, repulsion that can be expressed as probabilities; to reason as the ‘self-correction’ that is part and parcel of the organism-environment interaction of natural selection; while the products of functional design in nature are everywhere, its most miraculous creation of mindlessly directed process being the human brain – as matter that is aware of itself.

The evolutionarily distant structures that gave rise to our contemporary body structures bear little resemblance to those of today – this does not make them ‘metaphorical’ structures. In the same way the character of the early attributes of vitality were very different from human attributes of vitality. We can only use ourselves as the sounding board for such properties as we do not know what the ‘experience’ of vitality is like for other organisms. This does not make vitality and its attributes a metaphorical invention of our minds: nor are they simple predecessors on a direct path to our own.

Life is not passive matter like a rock or a corpse: it is active and directed semi-autonomous structure and function that exhibits vitality.

Top-down, bottom-up, or what?

Our intuitive tendency to think hierarchically means that we regard values as coming ‘down’ to us from positions of moral authority or ‘up’ to us from our physical constitution.

The view expressed here is that values engage all of these five sources.

The moral landscape

Dealing with the moral responsibilities relating to an oil spill off the coast of California is very different from deciding on our moral responsibility to future generations. Thinking about moral issues can be simplified by locating the moral agent and moral issue in space and time. A moral agent, the morally responsible party, will lie on the scale of individual to global – whether it be, say, an individual person, a committee, household, local council, country, or the entire global community. Likewise, the moral issue may range from local to global in its scope. The time scale being considered may rextend from the immediate to one that concerns itself with the history of the planet.

With the post-World War II and the Great Acceleration in resource consumption resulting from an increase in population from 2.5 billion to the present-day figure of nearly 8 billion, human impact on the planet was sufficient to mark the arrival of a new era, Informatia, and a new geological age, the Anthropocene. The world has entered new moral territory with the recognition that intensive globalization and industrialization has created existential environmental problems that are global in scale, and which require a response from the global community as a whole. It is this global-scale moral issue that will mostly be addressed in this article.

Our global interconnectedness and interdependency is now broadly accepted, along with the recognition that many environmental problems are global in reach and therefore require a global response. Whether we approve or not, across the world there is a trend towards uniformity of lifestyle in similar city environments and with globally shared cultural experiences as (despite Brexit and other counterforces) the world edges slowly from national identity and sovereignty towards global citizenship. Climate change has brought home the wider human environmental responsibilities that humanity must address at all scales of society.

Human impact can now be detected in the global biogeochemical cycling of chemicals crucial to life: oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, water, and carbon dioxide. This has become what has been termed an ‘existential’ problem. Quite simply, the future of humanity and the community of life now depends on human stewardship of planet earth.

Ethics, by tradition, has been a realm of human interest, concerned almost exclusively with human relationships and human possessions. The realization that human influence on the biosphere could pose an existential threat has only emerged during Informatia and it has moved ethics out of its human domain and into the environment.

What is our moral relationship to the consumption of natural resources, species extinction, biological life and its habitats, the killing of animals for food, and our responsibility to future generations? And how do we address our own survival given the dilemma that the greatest negative impact humans have on nature is agriculture, our need for food?

Today we include the environment in our politics and law because we recognize our dependency on ‘environmental services’ – the many economic, educational, spiritual and practical ways that we need nature. But this does not necessarily value nature itself, only its ‘instrumental’ value, the way it benefits us humans.

The ethical domain

It would be a straightforward matter to argue that moral systems are subjective human creations designed to protect human interests. A traditional view of the moral domain would be that it is restricted to rational and conscious agents that have ‘interests’ (human beings) with some concession to sentient creatures that can suffer discomfort and pain. This moral domain, by definition, circumscribes those objects in the world that have intrinsic value.

All this does not mean that we do not care for non-sentient creatures, or that it is of no moral consequence that we degrade our planetary environment, but it does mean that we only care about these things for instrumental reasons – for the role they play in human life. This instrumental view of nature is held, for example, by Australian hedonist utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer.

Since rivers, mountains, forests, and many of the organisms they contain, are neither conscious or rational in any substantial sense, then they have neither interests or intrinsic moral value. This circumscription of morality reflects, unsurprisingly, human interest and the extent to which human interests can be defended under law; it is an anthropocentric interpretation. And, you will be asking, how could things be any other way? What arguments can be forwarded to persuade us that the natural world also has intrinsic value?

The argument developed here is that morality and reason have emerged out of nature. Value (as vitality) is a part of what it means to be alive, with reason, not so much an independent arbiter of everything, more an evolutionary extension to vitality – one, albeit special, of many mental adaptations.  

Here are a few reasons to extend the boundaries of the anthropocentric moral domain:


The human interests on which morality is based rest on three major attributes: reason, consciousness, pleasure and pain.

There is an irony in the distinction that is often drawn between fact and value, description and prescription. The point being made is that we cannot move from a descriptive premise to a conclusion that includes value, without introducing considerations of value as intermediaries.

Of course, as humans we have human interests, but the fact that we are human does not bring with it any special moral consideration.

Aristotle was one of many philosophers who have singled out reason as a faculty that rises above all others in the natural world. This includes the rolethat it plays in morality. Remember Sidgwick’s injunction that ‘morality is any rational procedure for determining what we ought to do?’

And yet in biological terms, reason is a faculty like any other. The ancients placed images of animals, birds, and fish on their coins in recognition of faculties that these creatures possessed which we humans do not. Consider the deadly combination of flight, keen eyesight, and coordinated precision used by an eagle to catch its prey or the way bats find their way through trees in the dark. Of course, our human capacity for reason, abstract thought, language, and sociality are truly miraculous – but reason, of itself, does not warrant special moral consideration.

Suppose science discovered that dolphins possess a reasoning capacity greater than that of humans, would we include them in our moral world?

Morality targets our behaviour. Unfortunately, history has shown that striving towards a moral ideal, whether objective or not, does not overcome human nature. Far from transcending our biology, ethics is an attempt to keep it under control.

Only in recent times has humanity realized how closely its future is tied to that of the natural world.

The question to address here is not about autonomous moral reflection and reasoning (itself a product of our biology) but about the evolution of morality. And not just the emergence of human moral behavior, but its biological precedents. This has nothing to do with explaining how evolutionary facts can have normative authority for rational agents, or the nature of objective moral truth – it is about the origin of a founding or rudimentary morality in nature.

As more and more of us move into cities nature, once treated as a passive backdrop, to our lives is now being included as a necessary part of community well-being, a recognition of the interconnectedness and therefore interdependence of all things. We see, for example, that legislation of local councils is sensitive to the protection of wild animals and plants, careful disposal of waste, preservation of the beautiful natural surroundings, ‘natural land’, and green space. Communities care about urban nature and have a respect for ecological relationships that is reflected in social policies.

We make distinctions in law about those things that should have rights and therefore to which we must have duties, obligations, and commitments. In recent times there has been a growing list of these rights seemingly spinning out of the human rights movement of the Enlightenment: we have seen women’s rights, gay rights, childrens’ rights, and animal rights. We all make moral decisions but it seems that we make these moral decisions within certain boundaries.

Nature as a moral subject

It is not altogether clear as to what, in nature, we ght have a moral responsibility towards. Is it individual rivers, mountains, and forests or would it be better to express our concern more abstractly in terms of broad categories like biodiversity or ecosystems? The Society for Conservation Biology (2017) adoptsthe broad consideration of biodiversity and its preservation as extending from genes to populations, to species (and higher taxa), to ecosystems, landscapes, and biomes.

Our moral responsibility to the environment

 might also be the result ofThese all also seem to be mixed up together.

How do we make sense of all this?

Well it probably helps to regard ethics (what we ought to do) as a sum of all these things: they are all factors to be taken into consideration. When we make decisions about future action it is as well to look back at the history of our values, attitudes and beliefs because this is what is driving our behaviour today.

Environmental ethics investigates the place of the natural environment in human ethical theories and behaviour. This is a fairly new study, only becoming a formal academic discipline in the 1970s although it is now well established with its own international society, the Association for Environmental Philosophy, and its own journal.

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?

Environmental concern

For all of us in general, but biologists and environmental scientists especially, questions concerning environmental ethics are becoming progressively more pressing and urgent. What is the relationship between the academic discipline of ethics and the real world of practical ethics, the arena for those of us who are convinced that think things need to change?

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report, published in 2000, claimed that humans have been consuming and degrading natural resources at a faster rate than they can naturally replenished; that the rate of biological extinction is higher than ever before in history; and that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere produced largely by human activity are likely to have drastic consequences in future, especially for the less fortunate members of the human community. This all has major implications for humanity and yet these are just a few of the report’s major conclusions and concerns.

Intuitively we can see many reasons for respecting and protecting nature and for conserving its values: we place great value on it as a source of healthy outdoor recreation, relaxation and aesthetic enjoyment, a place for education and science where we can learn about the natural world, as a source of food, materials, medicines, and the overall ‘Ecosystem Services’ that keep our planet ticking over.

So how does a study of morality relate to nature and the way it should be treated?

Appeals for environmental concern generally entail notions like ‘well-being’, ‘human flourishing’, ‘the common good’ and ‘sustainability’ as a branch of ‘social ethics’.

The common good includes human and non-human goods. We certainly need to take care of the environment for our own well-being: it is our life-support system. But are we entitled to look after the natural world for its own sake, because nature needs respecting for itself.

Intrinsic & instrumental value

Is nature of value only insofar as it is useful to sentient organisms, or does it have value over and above this? To regard the wonder of the living world as simply a means to human ends seems unjust and human-centred. Regardless of any religious beliefs many people respect nature for its beauty, mystery, and marvel. What does ethics say about this quality of nature – this apparent intrinsic worth?

For clarity we must begin with some definitions.

Something has ‘instrumental value’ when it is a means to some other end or purpose. It is not difficult or controversial to point out that protecting nature is of instrumental value to humans. The findings of The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report above should put any doubt out of your mind.

But does nature have ‘intrinsic value’, something we value for its own sake? To help make a decision let’s note that money is of instrumental value (its value lies in what it can do for us). Happiness is an ‘intrinsic value’ and therefore an end in itself: we are not happy in order to achieve some other goal, we are just happy because we like being happy.

Australian philosopher Peter Singer draws the boundary for moral decisions around all those things which can have interests and desires, or which can feel happiness or pain – the world of sentient beings. Environmental degradation of any kind at all can therefore only be taken into account insofar as it ‘adversely affects sentient creatures’.[p. 247]

But why isn’t the flourishing of all living things in general a good in itself, independently of its usefulness to sentient creatures in particular? Can’t we have a reverence for life that respects other living things and their pursuit of life in their own way? One difficulty is that we have no obvious way of assessing the relative value of rocks, ecosystems, trees and mosquitos. Another is that we use metaphorical anthropomorphic language for nature and then want to make it real. We say nature or plants ‘pursue’, ‘strive’, and ‘feel’ when we know that in actual they do nothing of the sort: ‘Once we stop to reflect on the fact that plants are not conscious and cannot engage in any intentional behaviour, however, it is clear that all this language is metaphorical; one might as well say that a river is pursuing its own good and striving to reach the sea’.[p. 249]

Can natural selection ‘value’? Well, as argued in the article Purpose, natural selection does not ‘consciously’ value but it does exhibit a kind of proto-value. Biological scientists have no qualms in proclaiming that the goal (value) of all living things as ‘to survive, reproduce and flourish’. This is not because all living organisms are conscious, and it is not because humans are projecting their own intentions onto the living world: it is because natural selection really does ‘select’ but in a non-conscious way as a result of the interaction between organism and environment. As Darwin and Aristotle claimed, it ‘selects’ naturally … it may be mindless but it is goal-directed. Whether we call this purposive or purpose-like need not be critical.

Various attempts to describe nature as having intrinsic value have been made and referred to under the general banner of Deep Ecology. Notable proponents are American ecologist Aldo Leopold and his ‘land ethic’, and the ‘biospheric egalitarianism’ of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, modified in the 1980s to the weaker claim that the flourishing of both human and non-human life have value in themselves. If all living things have value in their own right then they deserve our respect regardless of any uses they might have.

However, all-in-all it is difficult to know where value can come from other than humans or god(s). Beauty, mystery and marvel are human evaluations, and instrumental ones at that, albeit abstrusely so. If morality is about rights and interests then how can this apply to rivers, mountains and forests? Even the fact that nature includes integrated wholes, like ecosystems and even the entire biosphere, Gaia, as a vast self-maintaining holistic system nevertheless must confront the question as to whether it has interests or desires.

So, with this in mind, we must address the question. ‘On what grounds, if any, can the natural environment and its individual animals and plants be a matter of moral concern?’

Regardless of the debate about intrinsic worth we can, as we have already mentioned, respect nature for its instrumental values.

Our behaviour, and the moral codes that attempt to control it, must pass through a biological filter whose origins go back deep into our biological history – to the dawn of life itself.

Problems with anthropocentrism

Anthropocentrism, as the name suggests, places humans at the very centre of the moral universe. But we cannot just because we are humans assume that we have some special and intrinsic value over and above anything else in the universe. On what grounds, beyond self-interest, can humans claim a privileged moral status?

The golden rule

Environmental ethics has tended to ignore the differences mentioned above and to focus on humans as a distinct ethical unit. There seem to be several major reasons for this. Firstly the human community shares so many features that this makes the privileging of any one person or group over another a matter of logical concern – even though there may be many practical reasons for doing so. Both moral philosophers and religions throughout history have espoused some form of the doctrine ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

We can imagine how over much of history human the day-to-day business of survival would have been so all-consuming that concerns about animals and plants would have seemed ridiculous. It is not surprising that humans, being able to communicate in some way and knowing that as a species they shared pleasures and pains, would see themselves as a moral beings with moral obligations to one-another and nothing else.

Various historical statements supporting the idea of human solidarity have been widely quoted in the literature of environmental ethics. Aristotle, who structured the world as a Great Chain of Being with humans second only to god(s) and the supernatural maintained that ‘nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man’ adding that the value of non-human creatures and nature was merely instrumental (Politics, Bk. 1, Ch. 8). The Christian Holy Bible states that ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over fish of the sea, and over fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1: 27-8) a view taken up by influential Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk. 3, Pt 2, Ch 112).


Naess’s view draws attention to the way that individuals and communities can be seen as structurally independent but functionally interdependent. Scientific evidence points indisputably to the precarious nature of Earth’s planetary ecology. If the purpose of morality reaches beyond survival to some form of ‘human flourishing’ then caring for our fragile biosphere is right at the heart of our morality.

Making moral judgments about animals & nature
Even regarding nature in instrumental terms there seem excellent grounds for taking it into consideration within our general behaviour, our value-systems, and even legislation. If we cannot survive or flourish without the careful management of the various organic and inorganic elements of the biosphere (ecosystem services) then our refusal to look beyond ourselves will have had disastrous consequences.


It does not seem a major move to extend our moral concerns to sentient animals. Where there are sentient beings with interests similar to ours then we should not discriminate between us and them: sentient beings that feel pleasure and pain therefore deserve moral consideration. This is sufficient reason to protect them both legally and in other ways from mistreatment. Animal rights activists point out that this is an artificial moral divide between humans and animals referred to as ‘speciesism’ akin to sexism and racism which segregates beings on morally irrelevant characteristics.

There have always been people concerned about animal mistreatment and cruelty: the issue here seems more one of overcoming indifference than providing a cogent philosophical argument in favour of animal protection (although this helps of course). Is this an argument for working on our moral intuitions rather than our reason in using the appeal of cuddly balls of fur rather than the arguments of hard-nosed ethics and science (see Moral psychology)?

The natural world

Can an argument be mounted for extending moral responsibility beyond all humans and animals: to plants, ecosystems, rivers, mountains, the planet and beyond? If the answer to this question is ‘no’ then environmental ethics may help clarify the boundaries of our moral world. And if the answer is ‘yes’ then we need to know why, and how attitudes have changed from those of the past.
(Value-laden discourse)

In Plato’s day it was thought that the world, which centred on Athens and probably Mt Olympus, the home of the Gods, floated as a disc on a giant sea, okeanos. Our knowledge of the external world now extends to explanations of space, time, matter, and life that would have had Plato dumbstruck. One of the things that we now know, that Plato didn’t, is that if humans are to ‘ flourish and reproduce’ on planet Earth they must take care of the community of life and environment that allows them to flourish and reproduce. Both for its intrinsic and instrumental value (as human resource) must, of necessity, be a part of the moral sphere.

Since the ancients the moral sphere has been said to encompass the idea of human flourishing (happiness or well-being), this is, as it were, the underlying reason for having moral systems. It therefore follows that the moral sphere entails those factors that can significantly impact on human flourishing. Until recent times, as recently as the 1960s, the environment was a ‘given’: it was the background against which human life and moral activity played out. With the advent of an increasing number of global threats to the environment, and therefore threats to human existence, it has become clear that not only particular aspects of the environment (like the atmosphere affected by climate change) but the environment in general can impact critically on human flourishing. For this reason it not only can but, for the sake of not only flourishing, but survival, must therefore be included within the moral sphere.

Moral circle (Darwin and Singer) over history our moral circle (which may be one of circumstance or choice), the people or objects we care about and feel moral obligation towards has expanded (noting that this will depend both on the particular group or moral under consideration). In general people will expect some privileging of oneself, total altruism is regarded as unnatural (donating all your organs). Privileging your own kin over others has a clear evolutionary basis but is not completely clear in practice. Proximity seems to be important as we feel little moral obligation to aid people we cannot see or those in other countries while we will generally respond to the needs of those around us.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

This article has taken a long journey towards a simple explanatory conclusion. It has been barely three generations, less than 100 years, since science in the 1930s concluded that everything in the universe arose from the Big Bang. The full intellectual consequences of this physical continuity leave much to be explored: absolutely everything – all the physical matter of the universe and every thought and idea that has ever occurred – emerged from this point source . . . space, time, design, life, purpose, value, reason, meaning . . . everything.

We have no evidence for supernatural presence in the universe. We are therefore driven to two important conclusions about our human existence. First, that humans (including their brains) were ‘created’ by mindless universal processes and, second, that everything following the first moment of the Big Bang is connected to everything else. Our bodies are, indeed, made of star dust.

To ask whether this God-like Creator has, for example, intrinsic or instrumental value is a nonsense: it is like asking the same question about a God. As our distant ancestors recognized, the universe is like our mother since its natural processes – its physical laws and natural selection – gave birth to all humanity. What value should we place on this mother?

As mere humans we are unlikely to give the natural world the reverence that it deserves, but we can try.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

Today we live in a highly integrated and globalised world of interdependencies where science and technology dominate most of 7 billion human lives in a way that the Greek philosophers could not possibly have imagined. But their question ‘How are we to live harmonious and flourishing lives?‘ is more pressing and relevant than it ever was in the past: it is still the fundamental question of morality and human existence. Does it make sense to speak of an ultimate end or final human purpose (telos) – that to which all humans aim: the attempt to achieve our maximum potential as human beings?

Philosophers and scientists find it advantageous to view the world as objectively as possible because we know that our human subjectivity can interfere with the way we interpret the way the world is. So, we try to see things from, as it were, ‘the point of view of the universe’. From this perspective, with subjectivity removed, the universe just ‘is’. The universe does not have values because values are added by human minds. No ‘ought’ (no values) can derive from the existence of a chair because a chair just ‘is’. Viewed from this detached vantage point humans too just ‘are’ because they, like chairs, are just objects of the universe. Any purpose or value, in such a world, is a consequence of human subjectivity.

But humans, and indeed all living organisms, clearly have ‘interests’ in a way that a chair does not. All life is founded on the assumption of survival and reproduction as an ultimate end. For self-aware deliberating humans this translates into the consciousness categories of happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing. Normative consequences flow from the fact of our living existence unless, of course, we wish to deny our humanity and to become an object in the universe with the same metaphysical quality as a chair. To claim that the fact of life has no implications of value is a philosophical indulgence.

This view of ethics founded on our biological nature is referred to as biological normativity. Since consequentialism in its most popular form as utilitarianism is based on the premise of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ then consequentialism (unlike deontology or divine command theory) rests on an assumption of biological normativity.

The introduction to this article posed the possibility of a universal and objective moral code that would apply to the community of life, future generations, and the planet. For ethicists the prospect of moral concern for non-sentient objects, like the planet, is bordering on the absurd for a subject that has been confined almost exclusively to humans. We do not include rocks and rivers within our moral sphere because they cannot have interests and concerns and they do not feel pleasure and pain. And yet if we do not care about these things then human flourishing is threatened. Climate change is a good example. Should we care about the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the extent that we feel morally obliged to do something about it? The answer must be ‘yes’.

From the ancient Greeks to the utilitarians of today philosophers have suggested that from the many, often trivial, reasons for our many moral decisions and behaviour we can discerned a broad overall or ultimate goal. Though such an all-embracing goal may be ill-defined it can be uncontroversial and therefore acceptable. The ancient Greeks called this overall goal eudaimonia, for Plato this was a kind of harmony within individuals as they cooperated together within a harmonious society. Aristotle saw the goal for individuals as achieving their maximum human potential given their own particular circumstances. Today we use a wide range of loosely equivalent words like ‘happiness’, ‘pleasure’, ‘the common good’, ‘well-being’, ‘human flourishing’, ‘life satisfaction’, and ‘quality of life’ which have been taken up by ethicists and social scientists as general goals for human activity. Utilitarianism, founded on the Epicurean-like ideas of pleasure and happiness and taken up by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick and influential today through the work of Australian philosopher and practical ethicist Peter Singer. Just as ‘health’ is the acknowledged goal of medicine so ‘well-being’ or ‘human flourishing’ is an acceptable ultimate goal for ethics. With human flourishing as a universal goal for humanity it becomes possible, in principle, to develop an objective ethics directed towards this end. There will be those who do not desire such a goal, just as there are those that do not desire health, but these will be few and their existence does not negate the enterprise.

The article on happiness examines in closer detail what it means to be happy in terms of an ethical system and utilitarian ethics in particular. However, the use of a mental state as an ethical goal lacks clarity. The stated formal ethical goal of the international movement for sustainable development initiated by the United Nations is ‘human well-being’ similar to the traditional goals of utilitarian ethics such as ‘human flourishing’, ‘human happiness’. However, the program of international action based around this goal emphasises less the ‘internal’ mental state and more the ‘external’ economic, social and environmental management goals and conditions that are needed to guide humanity in the direction of universal well-being. The philosophy of human well-being does not conflict with existing religions and belief-systems.

What may be termed ‘sustainability utilitarianism’ recognises the congruence between the ancient Greek philosophical state of eudaimonia, the abstract utilitarian mental state of ‘happiness’, and the practical international program instigated by the United Nations to protect and improve human well-being. Sustainability utilitarianism translates the idea of happiness or well-being into a universal objective ethic whose practical program includes the well-being and integrity of the planet, the community of life, and future generations. In ethics, as in science, the inner must adapt to the outer if humans are to survive, reproduce and flourish.

Much of the study of morality has moved out of the realm of theology and philosophy (its traditional domain) into the realm of the psychological and behavioural sciences where some of the most exciting contemporary research is active in new disciplines like evolutionary psychology and moral psychology, not to mention the flood of general knowledge about the structure and function of the brain coming to us from neuroscience in general. Philosophers like Australian utilitarian Peter Singer are concerned with the moral foundations of decisions relevant to contemporary life in the relatively new discipline of practical ethics: issues like abortion, euthanasia, poverty, and genetic engineering. The traditional ancient Greek goal of ‘A Good Life’ can be made relevant to today’s world by providing a program for the well-being of the community of life through the protection of the planet and concern for future generations.

The discussion of ‘nature & nurture’ showed how organism and environment are inextricably intertwined both physically and psychologically as an organism-environment continuum. Though morality is clearly a matter of intentional mental activity we can ignore the integration and dependence of our mental activity on envirnmental factors. Debate about the source of our morality is generally framed in terms of the interaction of the two ‘inner’ (genetic) factors of moral intuition (passion, will) and reason. But this omits or significantly ignores the vital and inevitable role that must be played by the ‘external’ environment. This has a bearing on assessments of the overall purpose of morality.

If we accept the congruence of life-goals and moral goals then we can consider a number of the candidates for this most esteemed role. Plato’s ultimate goal was the ‘Good Life’ which meant harmony and happiness in both society and ourselves and requiring a just person living in a just state. The Greek word ‘eudaimonia’ was used to indicate this state of harmony or ‘human flourishing’. Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, albeit in a different context, but still seeking an ultimate goal for our behaviour, produced a new set of moral objectives: ‘pleasure’ (perhaps following the precepts of Epicurus), ‘happiness’ and the ‘common good’. Today the word ‘well-being’ has become a popular portmanteau term meaning the same thing.

If we accept the applicability of the functional organism-environment continuum then it must be acknowledged that mental states like happiness and pleasure do not adequately convey the necessary and essential environmental component. The ‘common good’ does this job better. Concepts like human flourishing and well-being, though adequate, need fleshing out. What is it in the ‘environment’ that helps to produce a sense of well-being and flourishing? Biologically we can acknowledge that the goal of all life is to survive and reproduce and ‘flourishing’ is an integral part of this. Perhaps the ancient Greeks were nearest by expressing the desire for humans to be in harmony with their environment. But their emphasis was on the human environment and especially the political one.

Assuming that reason has evolved, like our bodies and minds, by natural selection then we can reasonably postulate that it will be orientated towards a single adaptive end – the survival, reproduction and flourishing of the species. We can also specify some requirements to achieve this: firstly, as complete an understanding as possible of the world that is external to our minds (a process that we have called science), and secondly, the making of decisions about our behaviour in relation to that understanding of the external world such that we are will flourish in the future (which we can call morality).

Today we know that our broader environment, the planet (not just people), is necessary for our survival and that the future of the planet’s biodiversity is in our hands. Modern science now shows that future human well-being, the common good, or eudaimonia, will depend on the condition of the planet. The purpose of morality then is the harmonious integration of humans with their environment. The word of today most closely approximating this idea is ‘sustainability’ and for this reason planet earth is now included within our moral sphere. This kind of morality is not the result of introspection and inner states like pleasurable happiness, it is based more on ‘outrospection’ or integration with the external world … not emotional empathy but cognitive empathy.

Human happiness as an ultimate value must take account the organism-environment dependency. Well-being involves more than a mental state it entails the integration of subject and object, humanity and the world. Social progress is a difficult idea since it calls into question the embedded and questionable values like those of nineteenth century colonialism a associated with moral ‘improvement’. Some common agreement may be reached by adopting a point of generality that will find near-universal acceptance. On this web site and elsewhere such a starting point can be found through the general moral notion of human flourishing or well-being. Such an idea is congruent with both the moral principles of utilitarian ethics and practical United Nations programs dealing with developing nations. The Social Progress Index (and similar indices) flesh out what is meant by human flourishing and happiness (see Morality & sustainability) using social rather than economic metrics by calculating the well-being of a society in terms of social and environmental outcomes. The social and environmental parameters include personal safety, ecosystem sustainability, health, shelter, sanitation, equity, social inclusion, personal freedom, and choice. These factors are uncontroversial and clearly take economic circumstances into account.

Human happiness or well-being as described here is therefore taken to entail a relationship between humans and their environment: that a state of harmony between the community of life and the environment cannot exist when this inter-relation is dysfunctional. That the changing human condition both directly and indirectly drives change in ecosystems and with changes in ecosystems comes change in human well-being. While also recognising that many other factors independent of the environment change the human condition,and many natural forces influence ecosystems.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2000) [8] provided a clear outline of the relationship between humanity and the planetary environment, pointing out how human well-being depends on natural resources or ‘ecosystem services’ and how demand on ecosystem services is rapidly increasing and sometimes outstripping capacity.

ritical to our well-being are the links between environmental management, poverty alleviation, and sustainable development. This points to the importance of consideration of biodiversity and ecosystems and the elaboration of an environmental ethic.

Scientifically we must consider organisms and their behaviour, including mental states, as a result of organism-envitronment interaction, an organism-environment continuum. This can inform the important discussion about subjective and objective ethics.Reason and evidence are the only way we’ll ever cut through the mess of conflicting gut feelings and moral intuitions. One way of viewing our behaviour is as a complex mixture of feelings, values, emotions, prejudices, desires and so on. This may be the source of our passions and will but, as Plato would probably claim, morality is the application of the moderating and taming power of reason. Indeed, we may define morality as the application of reason to appetite.)

Biocentrism is no longer a radical ethical theory. As a universal theory it is based on an intrinsic value, the biological necessity of all life to survive, reproduce, and flourish. For humans this value is expressed as happiness and wellbeing. For those questioning the intrinsic value of nature it is a necessary default instrumental ethical position required to maximize benefits for future generations.

Biocentrism as argued here is a metaethic of ethical naturalism (scientific morality) as promoted by, for example, F.H. Bradley, Philippa Foot and, in recent times, Sam Harris. This is a cognitivist ethical theory claiming ethical facts that are true or false as determined by empirical evidence. It may be true that in an absolute logical sense we cannot pass from a descriptive scientific statement to a prescriptive moral statement; that we cannot logically derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, but this is a philosophical mischief. As a matter of biological necessity we desire to survive and reproduce while living in flourishing functional societies. To argue that this is not a sound foundation for morality is both devious and misleading. As thus formulated, bioethics contrasts with universalist ethical positions, but shares with utilitarianism the potential complexity of decision-making in particular cases.

Value denotes the degree of importance we attach to something, to what we think matters. It is values that drive our intentional behaviour and influence our beliefs and attitudes.  When our values entail the assessment 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. The discussion in this article concerns mostly the origin and establishment of cultural values. The degree to which values are generated by our inherited biology or our reasoning faculty is a matter of keen debate.

A distinction is also often drawn between instrumental and intrinsic values. Instrumental values provide value in terms of something else. Intrinsic values are values that make something of value in itself. Both may be possessed at once.


There are no universally agreed definitions for the many of the categories listed below: the following are offered as a guide only. In the light of wide variation in the understanding of these terms I have made my own slight adjustments to sharpen the distinctions. Definitions are in two parts, the first referring to an evaluative approach to nature, and the second relating to the origin or values:

Anthropocentrism - only humans have intrinsic value; values are the subjective products of human minds.
- enlightened (prudential) - moral duty to the environment derives from our responsibility to humanity regardless of any claims to intrinsic value (it derives from the instrumental value of nature)
- strong - value attaches only to human beings
- weak – the greater intrinsic value attaches to human beings

Biocentrism - all living things have intrinsic value and moral worth. This is not necessarily possessed in equal measure (cf. anthropocentrism, ecocentrism). These were inherited through evolutionary connection to our biological ancestors. At its most basic, they derive from the purposive drive of natural selection as the need to survive and reproduce

Biological axiom - the single major defining trait of life is survival and reproduction. Translated into human experience this most closely aligns with wellbeing, happiness, and flourishing

Cognitivism - is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences express propositions that can be true or false. A broad position that includes (among other views) moral realism (ethical sentences express propositions about mind-independent facts of the world), ethical subjectivism (ethical sentences express propositions about peoples' attitudes or opinions), and error theory (ethical sentences express propositions, but that they are all false, whatever their nature).

Cosmogenesis - - human values are ultimately derived from the constraint of physical constants reducing possible outcomes

Deep ecology - the promotion of radical personal and political change to protect wild nature

Ecocentrism - the entire community of life has equal intrinsic value

Ethical naturalism - (scientific morality) the view that moral terms, concepts, or properties are ultimately defined in terms of facts about the natural world, most notably facts about life, human beings, human nature, and human societies

Environmental ethics - the philosophical discipline that examines the human relationship to the natural world

Ethics - 'any rational procedure for determining what we ought to do' (Henry Sidgwick)

Instrumental value - the value of something relative to human interests or desires

Intrinsic value - the value of something independent of its value to people

Moral naturalism - one version of moral realism. Moral realism claims that moral beliefs are truth-apt (cognitivism) and that moral truth is objective: that is, moral truths are discovered, not invented. The moral naturalist then asserts that moral facts and properties are just natural facts and properties, a metaphysical claim about moral ontology. Further, moral beliefs are justified in the same way as empirical beliefs, an epistemology that is continuous with the subject matter and methodology of science. Objective and universal moral laws exist independently of human beings;  those that are verified are then objective and universal truths. Reductive moral naturalism (analytic naturalism) holds that moral language can be translated into non-moral language (e.g. goodness = happiness, right action = pleasure maximization). Non-reductionist moral naturalism (synthetic naturalism) holds that moral properties and natural properties are irreducible and that actions can be ‘morally right’ for many different reasons.

Moral realism - there are objective, mind-independent moral facts and properties. These are natural facts and properties that are understood, explained, and assessed using empirical methods. They are moral assertions that are truth-apt in the same way that scientific facts are truth-apt (known as moral cognitivism). 

Morality - the subjugation of our natural inclinations and impulses to reason. On this point philosophers and scientists are undecided. Whether rationality is the primary source of our moral decision-making remains one of the most challenging current questions in ethics and cognitive science. Morality is part of the adaptive interaction between organism and environment

Sociocentrism - values are socially derived from our culture and local communities

Technocentrism – technology can control and protect the environment by managing and providing solutions to environmental problems: it has special application in developing countries

Theocentrism – God is the source of all creation, including values that have been transmitted to humanity through codes of behaviour. Our values are obtained from codes of behaviour ordained by God

Vitality - an abstract but real property of living organisms manifested as the goal-directedness of material processes that promote survival and reproduction. In humans vitality is manifest (in reduced terms) as a sense of purpose (intention), evaluation, reason, and the capacity to generate order and design. These properties are present in all organisms but in simpler forms

Environmental history timeline

Billion years BP

3.8– Emergence of life
2.5 – Oxygen starts accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere – probably a consequence of the photosynthesis of the cyanobacteria of stromatolites
2.2 – Great oxidation event, oxygen levels reach a fortieth of present-day levels
0.5 – Plant-produced oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere reaches present levels and animal-plant co-evolution gathers momentum

Million years BP

140 – Origin of flowering plants (Angiosperms) enticing insects and animals to pollinate colourful flowers and distribute seed with sweet energy-rich food sources of pollen and nectar and sweet fruits
6-7 – Emergence of grassy plains across the world

Thousand yrs BP

42,700 World’s earliest rock art at Carpenter’s Gap in the Kimberley pre-dating the 32,000 year old palaeolithic cave paintings of Western Europe by at least 10,000 years
It depicts animals, humans and yams, the first known pictorial representation of plants by Homo sapiens
12,000Emergence and domestication of einchorn fused-head wheat in Turkey
9,500 – Farming emerges in Near East
9,000 – Farming emerges in Central Mexico
8,500 – Farming emerges in South China (Yangtze)
7,900 – Farming emerges in North China (Yellow River)
7,000 – Farming emerges in Southern and Central Andes
4,500 – Farming emerges in E USA
4,000 – Farming emerges in sub-saharan Africa

Thousand yrs BP – Australia

c.55,000 ±10,000 – AD 1788 Aboriginal occupation with trade through a network of Dreaming trails; influence of hunting on the megafauna and the impact of this through the food chain; impact of firestick farming on vegetation patterns.
c. 50,000 Flightless giant emu-like Genyornis becomes extinct, possibly from human hunting
25,000-15,000 Increasing aridity, drought, vegetational stress and hunting pressure
4,000 Dingo brought to Australia
1686 Englishman John Ray provides the first biological definition of the species in his 1686 Historia Plantarum (History of plants) “… no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed.”
1704, 1705 Engravings of Australian plants collected in Australia by William Dampier published in his travelogues
1753 • Publication of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum which is now internationally accepted as the starting point for the modern binomial system used for plant names.
British Museum founded as the first national museum in the world.
1768 First two Australian plants described by Dutchman Nicolas Burmann under the system of binomial nomenclature and currently named Acacia truncata and Synaphea spinulosa
1770 Sydney Parkinson completes 674 drawings on Cook’s voyage of the Endeavour including the first illustrations of Australian plants in situ.
1793-1795 Publication of Englishman James Smith’s A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland illustrated by James Sowerby: the first book devoted to New Holland flora
1801-1803 Botanist Robert Brown and botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer accompany Matthew Flinders on HMS Investigator. Flinders the first man to circumnavigate both Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) and New Holland (Australia)
1804 – 1807 Labillardière’s Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen, effectively New Holland’s first Flora
1839 Tasmanian Society, Hobart
1855 Department of Crown Lands and Survey established in Victoria
1861 Crown Lands Alienation Act
1869 Suez Canal opened
1880 Formation of the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria
1883 Inauguration on 22 June in Sydney of the Geographical Society of Australasia (becoming the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia in 1886) with branches in Victoria and Queensland formed later in
1886 Aboriginal Protection Law Act amended forcing people of mixed descent off missions.
1898 Wilson’s Promontory gazetted as a National Park but does not become a permanent park until 1908
1908 National Parks Association of Victoria (like the National Trust and in 1952 becoming Victorian National Parks Association). Wilson’s Promontory permanently gazetted
1912 West Australian Native Flora Protection Act (amended 1939)
1950 West Australian Wildlife Conservation Act (amended 1976, 1979)
1952 Formation of the Victorian National Parks Association
1965 Formation of the Archaeological Society of Victoria
1967 American Roderick Nash publishes Wilderness and the American Mind, a stimulus to both the study of environmental history and the environmental movement
1968 Little Desert National Park established in Victoria

Key points


  • Our behaviour is governed by moral rules and values (norms) that impact the way we manage environmental, social and economic issues: they are therefore a vital component of sustainability management
    • Metaethics deals with the foundations of the study of ethics while ethics examines the moral act, the source of our morality, and its purpose or role within society
      • Two theories dominate moral philosophy today: deontology (rule-following) and consequentialism (the morality of an act depends on its consequences) although mixed views are often held
        • Our attitude to morality is strongly influenced by whether we believe it to be subjective or objective
          • Adoption of subjective and objective ethical positions is especially evident in cross-cultural situations
            • Objective ethics makes the notion of ‘moral progress’ meaningful (possibly as a ‘norm cascade’ based on the ‘excalator of reason’) and it allows for an expanding sphere of moral commonality that can encompass other species and, some might argue, the broader environment
              • The relative roles of reason and will (emotion) in moral decision-making is contentious but an appeal to reason is evident in the cross-cultural and religious idea of the Golden Rule
                • Utilitarians regard the ultimate purpose of morality (its ultimate value) as universal happiness or human flourishing then this can only occur when humans exist in a harmonious relationship with the environment and this is why animals, plants, rivers and mountains are an integral part of the moral sphere
                  • Ancient Greek philosophers referred to human harmony or flourishing, the ultimate value of life, as eudaimonia
                    • The modern word for the harmonious integration of human consciousness with the external world (planet Earth) is ‘sustainability’

                    Media Gallery

                    These videos provide background to the moral issues being presented in this article. The first video, a TED talk by neuroscientist and public intellectual Sam Harris, argues that science can provide answers to moral questions once we make the simple assumption that we desire human flourishing. This argument was developed in his controversial book The Moral Landscape which, many ethicists claimed, crossed the scientifically uncrossable moral boundaries that exist for normativity.

                    The second video is a critique of Sam Harris’s views by professor of philosophy at Macau, Hans-Georg Moeller, who offers an interesting perspective on moral naturalism.

                    The third video by philosopher Kane Baker will give you some of the philosophical background to Harris’s view, which is a form of ethical naturalism.

                    The fourth video is an example of an economic movement away from GDP towards an economy that respects human equity and the environment. The first comment on the video was:

                    “Communism by any other name is still Communism. You can dress it up and perfume it, but it’s still evil Communism. All the bright and pretty graphics don’t make Communism better. All the smiling faces can’t hide the fact that Communism ALWAYS ends in dark tyranny and oceans of spilled blood.”

                    Sam Harris – Science can answer moral questions

                    Science can answer moral questions
                    TED – 2010 – 23:24

                    What is a wellbeing economy v2Wh

                    WEAll – 2020 – 2:46

                    Why Sam Harris is Wrong – A Critique of Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” (in 2020)

                    Carefree Wandering – 2020 – 54:48

                    Metaethics – Moral Naturalism 1

                    KaneB – 2020 – 53:41



                    First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
                    . . . substantial revision 35 June 2021


                    Image – Melbourne Sky
                    Martin Spencer – 25 June 2021


                    The Community of Life
                    Showing biological divisions, geological ages and major evolutionary events
                    Courtesy Evogeneao

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