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Purpose & value


Four key ideas carry over from the previous article:


1. The physical and conceptual distinction between matter, living matter, and conscious living matter

2. Following Darwin‘s evolutionary theory, the characterization of the entire universe as evolving in time. Hubble’s 1929 red shift observations when combined with the 1964 elucidation of background radiation supported the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. This placed physical events in time (in contrasts to the prior Steady State Theory) and a process of cosmic evolution about 13.7 billion years old.  This was a 20th century unification of all matter into a historical continuity from a point source according to physical constants including the evolution of all life forms from a common ancestor according to the algorithm of natural selection

3. The confusing relationship between language, metaphysics, and the world

4. The presence of purpose and design in nature itself.


This article explores the consequences of the scientific claim that there are mind-independent reasons why inanimate objects are structured and behave in an orderly way, and how, when these mindless reasons advantage or disadvantage non-human living organisms they may be legitimately spoken of as purposes.

The conscious human intention, so often used to narrow the meaning of the word ‘purpose’, is itself a product of the purpose arising out of natural selection.

So, where there are beneficiaries and casualties it is appropriate to speak of purpose – to say, for example, that ‘eyes are for seeing’ and ‘ears are for hearing’ and to recognise that eyes and ears can attain their purpose with greater or lesser degrees of efficiency. Organisms are ‘competent without comprehension’. Humans, as reason-representers, can appreciate the reasons why organisms are as they are, even though the organisms themselves cannot. Reasons exist immaterially in the world (they are real) and   can be represented in minds. They are not created by minds.

If there can be reasons without a reasoner, purposes without conscious intention, and design without a designer, can there also be values without evaluers?

Values are here taken to be considerations about what is desirable or undesirable, good or bad. Values include moral judgements about what is best to do . . . the best way to live (normative ethics).

1. Three kinds of matter

Darwinism drew attention to Aristotle‘s distinction between three kinds of matter:

a) the set of all matter ordered by necessity (necessity being what is generally referred to as ‘the laws of physics’)

b) the subset of semi-autonomous units of matter that we refer to as ‘living’ and which we now assume are products of natural selection (the genetic information accumulated under the influence of the sorting algorithm of natural selection). That is,  living organisms

b) the  subset of living matter which has the capacity for foresight, hindsight, abstract reasoning, self-awareness, technology, sociality and language. That is, humans.

2. Graded matter

The universe before Darwin was presumed to consist of independent objects created by God. In other words there was no necessary material and temporal connection between the material constituents of the universe. Darwin launched a new way of placing objects in time by uniting continuity and change as the gradual transition from one form to another – from the inanimate to the animate, with the animate radiating and diversifying into the multiplicity of organic forms, some of which became self-aware. Darwin helped us to see a historical and material non-linear continuity between the point source of the universe at the Big Bang, its subsequent differentiation into elements in supernovae, the aggregation of matter into self-replicating and evolving organic units, and the emergence of self-awareness. We humans are not only made out of stardust, we are made out of stardust by means of a coherent historical process of material continuity.

3. Language and metaphysics

The creationist account of the universe differs dramatically from the modern-day scientific interpretation. Are these differing views reflected in language . . . has science developed a technical vocabulary that overcomes any tension between supernatural and naturalistic explanation?

Metaphysically, as matter gathers complexity, so new structures, relations, reasons, and functions emerge in the universe. It helps to be mindful that before Darwin people regarded these structures and relations as eternal in some way: Darwin raised the possibility of locating them in time.

Purpose as existing in the world, not human minds

The preceding articles on ‘purpose’ argued that purpose is present in nature, not inserted by the human mind. Natural selection is ‘for without foresight’ and its products, organisms, are ‘competent without comprehension’. That there is a reason why leaves are green and that reason would be within nature even if humans as reason-representers did not exist. The point here is that the mind does not create these reasons, it only represents them: the mind is itself a product of purposeful nature, not its creator.

Evolutionary theory replaced the notion of discretely created objects with the idea of gradual and intergrading physical change. Perhaps some of our concepts are yet to catch up. So, for example, we are inclined to treat the concept of consciousness as being discrete, either present or absent in an organism. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to consider degrees of consciousness. So, for example, instead of conceptualizing the conscious and the non-conscious we can imagine degrees of consciousness not only as we pass through the animal kingdom from, say, amoeba to worm, to fish, to cow, to human, but also in ourselves, whether during a lifetime or a day.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s start at the beginning. This article examines the case for value existing and extending beyond human minds into nature.

As in the previous article, principles have been added outlining the major theories about the source of our values as points to ponder and criticize. For the purposes of this article values are considered broadly and taken to include moral values.

The origin of values

Where did you get your values, those intuitions and beliefs that guide your behaviour? Did they come from Mum and Dad, the local church, the society you live in, your friends, the law, or are they based on your careful independent experience and consideration? Perhaps they are derived in some way from your human nature … or are they a blend of all these things?

The top-down view – values originate in the human mind

Of these five suggestions the last is by far the most popular claim. That is, systems of value are mind-dependent. Values do not exist in the world or nature, they are imposed on it by our human deliberating minds … they are subjective.

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

Principle 1 – Source of values – values arise as precepts devised by deliberating humans

On this view values are unashamedly anthropocentric – how could they possibly be otherwise? They derive from humans deliberating in a social context. morality is thus (in the absence of divine command) a totally human affair, arriving in the world with the human intellect. It is a consequence of applied human reason albeit sometimes with different conclusions.

Historical development

We might envisage a historical tradition of values arising out of religious codes of ethics and being combined with practical commercial issues of contract and so on, all enshrined in the written law of early civilizations. These values would be imposed hierarchically by the ruling elite and would no doubt privilege their interests – mostly those of wealthy males.

From this human core we might envisage moral progress as embracing ever wider circles of moral concern as female, and more diverse religious, ethnic and ‘tribal’ interests are subsumed under common rational concerns. This loose model of moral development has been reinforced as the umbrella of ethical criteria recognized under law has expanded to take account of not only conscious rational beings but those that can suffer or experience pain, that is, sentient animals now given greater practical application by recognition within the legal system.

This is a ‘top-down’ or ‘expanding circle’ view of morality (expressed loosely – that legal moral obligation began with wealthy aristocratic males, over time spreading to females, ethnic and religious minorities and those demanding ‘rights’ of various kinds. And, in recent times, encompassing sentient animals. This, in crude terms, is how we might understand the source and dispersal of values. Maybe we are on a trajectory of moral progress as moral ‘rights’ are extended to more people.

Does Darwin have any relevance to our characterization of morality?

Well, definitely, in the sense that much of our human morality derives not so much from reason but from our intuitions (see moral psychology). Values arise from our desires as well as our reasoned beliefs. And to find the source of our intuitions and desires we can now draw on science, on moral psychology and evolutionary psychology. But note, already the recognition of biological intuitions begins to erode the idea of morality as the unsullied outcome of dispassionate reason. Principle one clearly needs some modification.

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

But Darwin, and before him Aristotle, had much more to say about morality and its sources than this.

The top-down view of morality treats the human mind as in some way ‘over and above’ nature, not part of it.

The previous article on purpose discussed the way that purposes (reasons) are not the exclusive products of the mind, they are present in the world itself, although it is only the human mind, as a conscious reason-representer, that is aware of these purposes. The mind is itself a product of these purposes, not their creator. The idea of mind as the creator of reasons is undergoing a historical change.  Today’s science assumes that our miracle brains are a product of nature, arising out of the organic world in a broadly Darwinian way.

The bottom-up view – values originate in nature

Do values also exist in the world independently of the human mind and, if so, how could that possibly be?

This article suggests that – just as purpose arises out of the fabric of the material world and the special sorting process of natural selection, so too does value. This is decidedly counterintuitive and contrary to contemporary belief.

But perhaps values emerged out of our biological and human nature with conscious deliberation a subsequent refinement. If you agree with the conclusions of the previous article, that purpose did not arrive on earth with the human intellect, then you must consider the possibility that the same same applies to values.

Being ‘for’ something – purpose & value

Deterministic constraints reduce possible outcomes. For this reason there is in our universe a greater probability of some things happening rather than others. This is part of the order that we see around us. Using a crude anthropomorphic word, there is a ‘preference’ for one thing to happen over another, a weak ‘for’ one particular something rather than something else. This may be summarized in a neat epigram ‘Effects have causes as reasons’. This then is ‘selection’ in its barest form . . . not what we would normally understand by selection.

Principle 3 – Any constraint on activity is a form of selection since it results in outcomes of a limited kind. This simple form of selection occurs in the universe as the ordering of matter by physical constants

But there is a significant difference between the ‘for’ of the inanimate world and the ‘for’ of the living world. Both inanimate and animate matter are subject to the constraints of physical laws but living organisms are subject to the additional constraints of natural selection which confers benefits in terms of the functional adaptations that enhance survival and reproduction. This is why we feel more comfortable saying that ‘eyes are for seeing‘ than ‘the Earth is for orbiting the Sun‘. Having eyes assists organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish – and in so doing increases the sense of meaning and purpose. Further, the parts of organisms are not indifferent to other parts. They serve the ends of the whole in an interactive way that does not occur in inanimate systems.

Principle 4 – In addition to the constraints of physical laws the constraining influence of natural selection increases the probability for an organism’s survival, reproduction, and flourishing; and in this sense we understand the effects of natural selection as being both beneficial and purposeful

Like purposes, values derive from the ‘for‘ of natural selection. Being ‘for‘ is to prioritize (value) one thing rather than another. In this way, just as natural selection is ‘for without foresight‘ it is also, paradoxically, a ‘valuer without evaluation‘. This particular inversion of reasoning occurs because natural selection is unaware of its role as valuer, even though we humans as ‘value-representers’ can understand that this is the outcome.

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

Fact & value

How does this square with the view that things and processes being this or that way (which are scientific facts) cannot imply that this is the way that they ought to be (which are subjective values)? How can a moral judgment arise from something descriptive? Or, expressed even more philosophically: a deductive argument must have values in the premises if it is to have values in the conclusion. Kant expressed this by saying that … ‘to think of a product of nature that there is something which it ought to be … presupposes a principle which could not be drawn from experience (which teaches only what things are) (Critique of Judgment, First Introduction, X240).

Before confronting this dilemma let’s look at some examples.

What are organisms for – what is their purpose or value?


Many biologists and philosophers would argue that organisms are no more ‘for’ something than the moon is ‘for’ orbiting the Earth. To say that something is ‘for’ something else, is to be teleological, to look for ends, and that is not being scientific. Nature is not ‘for’ something, it just ‘is’. When we say ‘A chair is for sitting on’, the purpose of the chair, its ‘for sitting on‘, is something added by our minds, it does not reside in the chair itself. Nature, presumably, is like this: whatever purposes we attribute to nature are not purposes that exist in nature itself, they are purposes superimposed by our minds.

Natural purpose

This question has been fully addressed in the previous articles discussing the topic of purpose. But, to summarize, natural selection can be easily dismissed as a mindless mechanical process but it has given rise to the universe’s most intricate structures – including the human brain with its capacity for foresight and hindsight, abstract thought, language and reason.

The view that nature ‘just is‘ has been discussed in the article Darwin and after. To briefly summarize the argument: all organisms are products of natural selection; any process of selection is selection ‘for’ something (it selects one thing rather than another, in human terms it has ‘ends or aims’); selection ‘for’ in nature has winners and losers and where there are aims and beneficiaries we are justified in speaking of ‘purpose’ (when the Earth orbits the Sun we do not need to imply function or purpose, because there is no benefit, even though there are reasons why it does so).
Nature is not aware of reasons but we humans, as reason-representers, can understand the constraining reasons for planetary movement, and the beneficial reasons for organic structures like eyes. Purpose in nature is real, passed from generation to generation as information embedded in the genetic code, it is not imposed extrinsically as apparent purpose except on the occasions when we treat nature as having conscious intentions. Humans demonstrate non-conscious purposes, like shivering and digestion, as well as those purposes that are deliberate intentions.

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

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

Purpose & function

Purposes in biology are generally referred to as functions, ‘function’ being a neutral way of referring to purposes that exist objectively in non-conscious nature.

Biological axioms

We associate science with the establishment of general principles, biology being notoriously different from physics by having very few, not obvious ones anyway. Biologists do not have equivalents to Faraday’s law and many others. Physicists might argue that this is because physical laws are universal while biological regularities are, at best, of restricted application. Even so, perhaps this is an error.

Natural selection has been singled out as an ordering process largely confined to the realm of living organisms (even though a similar algorithm can be applied to non-living matter).

Mathematics is built on axioms – statements that are taken as self-evident, foundational, and uncontroversial. Axioms cannot be further analyzed or dissected but they can serve as premises or starting points for subsequent reasoning. A couple of examples from Euclid’s geometry would be that ‘Things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another’ and that ‘All right angles are equal to one-another’. To deny an axiom is to place the whole related enterprise or discipline in question. If we argue that Euclid’s axioms are mistaken then we are, in effect, undermining any confidence we might have in Euclidian geometry as a whole. We admire empirical generalizations in science (principles and laws) because of their predictive power. Physical constants, the laws of physics, have the properties of axioms because they resist contrary evidence and cannot be altered substantially without transforming our understanding of the theoretical foundations of physics. Physical laws are, as it were, the axioms of physics.

Could there be axioms in biology?

Well, if there are axioms in biology then, as a biology student, I was certainly never taught them. Perhaps the nearest we get to such foundations is a list of characteristics said to define what it is to be a living being – characteristics like metabolism, nutrition, growth, and reproduction. Though text books often present such a list, getting agreement from the biological community as a whole as to what should appear on this list, (and its order of priority), is no simple matter, especially as definitions of life are further complicated by artificial intelligence and synthetic life forms. This question is therefore generally avoided or not addressed in a coherent way.

Aristotle was a specialist in first principles. He wrote the world’s first systematic treatise on logic, Organon, much of which still stands today as the foundation for deductive logic. He noted that in order to continue existing, to perpetuate their kind, living beings must reproduce. He summarized this principle by saying that all living creatures ‘partake in the eternal and divine’ indicating that they can replicate their kind (species) indefinitely provided they can survive to reproduce. Today, in a similar way, we might refer, like Richard Dawkins, to the ‘immortality of our genes’. For Aristotle the intellectual search for the foundation of biology, what it means to be a living being, ended with ‘survival and reproduction’. Any cursory examination of general biology texts reveals this as a general assumption. It is a truism about life that cannot be expressed in simpler terms.

You might object to the idea of there being any biological axioms at all, let alone this one in particular. Such an axiom does not have the universality of a physical law, nor does it seem to have the same degree of necessity as physical laws. You might think of other properties that are uniquely biological. However many of the usual suggestions – like growth and metabolism do appear to be second-order. As humans we tacitly accept it as beyond question. Our health (our ability to continue to survive, reproduce and flourish (see later)) is taken for granted: we proceed through life as though it is both self-evident and true, a goal that we all pursue. We do not go to a doctor requesting ways to make us ill, even though this is logically possible – and on the conceivable occasions that this might occur our biological circumstances are unlikely to be as we would like. Requesting ways to stay healthy is not a misuse of language, nor is it regarded as a matter of philosophical or scientific speculation or contention – it is treated as a self-evident biological truth … an axiom … it is the point of departure for everything in biology. As Richard Dawkins says: ‘We are survival machines‘.[4] This then is as near to a biological axiom as we can get.

So, one defining characteristic of life is that it is a product of the ordering forces of natural selection. We do not ask ‘Why do organisms try to survive and reproduce?’ because we understand that to deny survival and reproduction is to cease to exist – and that does not make biological sense. Organisms that do not, or cannot, survive and reproduce die out – and in ceasing to exist they become biologically irrelevant if not incoherent.

If we question survival and reproduction further we are led to Aristotle’s conclusion that ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘ – that it is better to live than not live. Aristotle’s biographer, evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi, retorts to the question ‘Why do organisms need to survive and reproduce?‘ with ‘Because natural selection made them so‘.

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

If you accept the reasoning above then it has far-reaching consequences because such an axiom presents a compelling case for biological normativity. The purpose of living organisms is not something that we make up, something that our minds impose on them. The purpose of organisms derives from their origin and place in the material scheme of things, from their inner nature interaction with their outer environment. This is a mode of existence that expresses both mindful and mindless purpose, that purpose being survival and reproduction.

The axiom has far-reaching consequences because it expresses value that derives from within organisms themselves. Knowing what organisms are ‘for’, ‘why they exist‘ identifies ‘goods‘ (values) that are independent of human minds. Living organisms would still strive to survive and reproduce (albeit unconsciously) in the absence of humans. And the ways (means) of achieving this goal are (unconsciously) valued for their role in achieving these ends. Organisms exist (fact), and they exist to survive and reproduce (both fact and value).

Is this a metaphorical reading of human values into value-neutral nature? Is it imputing an extrinsic value to organisms that have no intrinsic value? The drive for life to survive and reproduce is so pervasive in nature that trying to remove value and value-talk from biology is as difficult as trying to remove purpose-talk. Organisms have ‘interests’, albeit unconscious ones.

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

Since the Early Modern period of the Scientific Revolution nature has been widely regarded as devoid of purpose, thus functional adaptation in nature becomes objective fact devoid of value. Value is therefore a product of the human mind, it cannot exist in nature itself. Nature just is, it is not for anything. From this perspective functional adaptations are an objective fact in the same way that ‘the moon orbits the Earth’ is an objective fact. The moon is not ‘for’ orbiting the Earth: orbiting the earth is not a function of the moon. We do not say that the moon orbiting the Earth is ‘good’ except insofar as it might benefit us as humans, so why should we say that functional adaptation in nature is ‘good’ – it too is just a fact of nature, and therefore devoid of value.

To convey this argument we can re-express our definitions in a manner that is not value-laden, or minimally so, by getting rid of words like ‘better’ or ‘best’ or ‘good’. So, for example, we can define an adaptive trait as a functional role that is maintained and evolved by natural selection. But, of course, ignoring pre-conscious goal-directedness in nature (which is in nature and not in our minds) becomes clumsy and unconvincing (see Darwin and after). It has been argued in Darwin and after that where there is an aim and a beneficiary there is both purpose and its associated value – it is OK to say that eyes are ‘for’ seeing, this being a key difference between inanimate and animate matter. But along with purpose comes value: purposes can be achieved or thwarted.

The key point here is that since the purpose of every organism is to survive and reproduce adaptive selection can also be (unconsciously) for better or worse, for good or bad in relation to the organism itself: it can be normative. Natural selection is a mindless sorting algorithm that can make things ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in relation to the existence of any living thing.

Science yields facts about human nature, part of this human nature being the reasoning faculty that examines these facts as part of the process of making normative judgements.

 What are humans for – what is their purpose?

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

At face value this is not convincing because these factors are not always uppermost in our minds. We do not seriously consider the persistence of our genes (unless we are at the head of some dynasty) as a justification for moral action, even if it is an implicit axiom of evolutionary biology.

So what is going on here?

It turns out that consciousness is playing some subtle tricks on us.

Unconscious purposes

We are inclined to assume that any purposes we humans have must be conscious purposes but much of what goes on in our lives proceeds in an unconscious way. We shiver, sweat, yawn, and metabolize our food without deliberating about these things, even though there are reasons for all of them.

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

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

Conscious purposes – happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing

Many ethicists, philosophers, and religious teachers would accept happiness, flourishing, and wellbeing as the basis for moral action without acknowledging their link to survival and reproduction. But striving to attain happiness, to flourish, is part of our human nature, it is embedded in all our behaviour and included in our social and political aspirations. Elsewhere it is argued that human flourishing, the kind of happiness that concerns us here, entails not only inner satisfaction as a pleasurable mental state but the mental security that comes from a stable and productive social environment.

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

Happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing are discussed in a separate article.

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

Aristotle provides an extremely simple and compelling analysis of the purpose of human life using the ideas of ergon (function) and arête (excellence).[1]

A carpenter’s saw is excellent when it fulfills its function by cutting well: an architect is excellent when s/he designs houses well. He then considers plants, animals, and humans in turn.

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

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

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

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

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

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle speaks of happiness as the highest human end or purpose (telos) and the supreme Good. As there is no telos beyond happiness then happiness is the ultimate purpose of human existence. Happiness was therefore, for Aristotle, not so much a matter of psychological states, but striving to achieve maximum human potential through the use of reason directed towards the performance of right actions, not by adopting a set of precepts but by thinking carefully case by case. To flourish we must make the best possible use of our reason and language which are the major characteristics defining us as human beings. Aristotle referred to humans as ‘rational animals’. To flourish as humans we must exercise not only our general biological capacities but also our human-specific ones because this is what gives us meaning: it is the uniquely human way of flourishing.

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

Principle 6 – Individual humans desire to achieve their maximum possible individual potentials by flourishing in a long-term harmony between their inner and outer lives – between themselves and their societies. This entails exercise to the full our unique human capacity for reason and language and, as both individuals and societies, to achieve our maximum possible individual potential (telos)

Biological Axiom 2 – For humans the biological requirement to survive and reproduce is expressed as the desire for happiness and wellbeing – the need to flourish

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

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

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

Value & proper function

When we infer that eyes are for seeing and ears for hearing we are implying that there is a standard of functioning from which actual traits can diverge. Eyes, ears, and hearts can function well or poorly. If someone is blind then the seeing function has failed, even though the person themself has not failed in any way. Since functions can be performed for better or worse, proper function then becomes normative (it implies the way things ought to be). Such statements about functional norms can then become objective means of making value judgements. As already suggested, an obvious example is when a doctor gives us advice on ways to ‘improve’ our health.

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

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

Inanimate world: X causes Y. A sifting or reduction in number of possible outcomes acting like a process of selection. The reason for Y.
Non-conscious living world: X is for Y. A process of natural selection by an algorithm that can result in benefits such that reasons acquire the semantics of purpose and value.
Conscious human world: X intends Y. A process of conscious intention.

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

Humans and other organisms

The argument developed here is that the community of life shares a common biological value – the drive to survive, reproduce, and flourish – and in this sense all are equals with identical interests. So on what grounds can humans make a moral distinctions that elevates their interests above those of other organisms?

No doubt consciousness plays a large part in this. The reasoning capacity, language, foresight and hindsight, which has enabled sociality and the production of advanced technologies, has given them to, at least temporarily, dominate all other life forms on planet. Some people might regard this as simply the rightful human position in the scheme of things, the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence. But as reasoning creatures we cannot accept the assumption that ‘might is right’. Consciousness is, as it were, just another adaptation, an additional layer to natural selection’s fine-tuning of organic complexity.

But it is hardly anthropocentric to note that consciousness brings with not only a broader comprehension of existence than occurs elsewhere in the living world, it also brings both pleasure and pain. Perhaps this is indeed enough – but that is not n excuse to run roughshod over the interests of those unlike ourselves.  

What are brains for?

Only human brains have the developed capacity for language, hindsight, foresight, and abstract reasoning. Our brains are anticipation tools: they help us to cope with the present by anticipating the future based on our experience of the past and our collectively accumulated knowledge.  


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

The moral argument is that issues of circumstance – of race, intelligence, even species – should not prejudice our moral judgments. English philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) argued that our moral concern be focused not so much on reasoning ability and the use of language (factors that pointed strictly to humans) but on the capacity for suffering. This suggested that our boundary of moral concern (deserving reasonable recognition in law) should be extended to all living creatures capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.

Relative moral treatment, say the assessment of pain in mouse and man, must then be decided by an arbitrary decision concerning degree.

This leaves us with a simple conclusion: only creatures with ‘interests’, that is, those that can think or suffer, namely ourselves (and possibly sentient animals) can be part of this moral world. This is a major reason why environmental ethics has such little academic appeal. If nature in general, and most of the world’s organisms, cannot think or suffer then how can they possibly have interests?  

The community of life

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

Instrumental value

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

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

Intrinsic flourishing

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

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

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

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

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

Teleology & ethics

Not just anything can happen. Everything has a reason.

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

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

Being ‘for’ something

Selection & value – biological normativity

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

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

The naturalistic fallacy

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

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

An objective human ethic based on normative biology?

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

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

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

Commentary & sustainability analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolutionary ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key points

The way we understand concepts reflects the way we understand the world – which we try to express, however inadequately, in the meanings of words. There is a sequence of related ideas that we associate with the words ‘cause’, ‘reason’, ‘purpose’ and ‘value’.

Though life or not-life has no consequence in the universe, to the living life is that without which nothing. Life is predicated on the assumption of survival and reproduction. If this is accepted then circumstances promoting survival and reproduction may be regarded as beneficial and those that threaten them as detrimental and this is starting place for value in the world. Rudimentary or primordial value arrived in the world with natural selection.

It has been argued that in the inanimate world we associate reasons with causes but that when, in the living world, we observe functional adaptations that are beneficial we are inclined to use the word ‘purpose’ rather than the word ‘reason’. However, beneficial reasons that are beneficial or detrimental to life we see

Just as there are reasons in the world that exist independently of human beings (there are reasons why the moon orbits the Earth), so there are purposes in the world that are not a consequence of conscious intention (the purpose of a spider’s web is to catch flies). That is, objects in nature can be ‘for without foresight’ and ‘competent without comprehension’ thus ‘exhibiting design without a conscious designer’. There is also valuing without a valuer.

Our concepts of the world are stronger when they reflect the historical gradations in complexity that we now believe exist I the universe. Gradations in causes, reasons, purposes and values.

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