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)  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.