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David Schmidtz

Elizabeth Willott



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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Environmental ethics: what really matters, what really works j [edited by) David Schmidtz, Elizabeth Willott. – [2nd ed.).

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ISBN 978-0- 19-979351-8

1. Environmental ethics. I. Schmidtz, David. II. Willott, Elizabeth, 1955- III. Title.

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In this paper I show how the taking of a certain ulti­

mate moral attitude toward nature, which I call

“respect for nature,” has a central place in the founda­

tions of a life-centered system of environmental eth­

ics. I hold that a set of moral norms (both standards

of character and rules of conduct) governing human

treatment of the natural world is a rationally grounded

set if and only if, first, commitment to those norms

is a practical entailment of adopting the attitude of

respect for nature as an ultimate moral attitude, and

second, the adopting of that attitude on the part of all

rational agents can itself be justified. When the basic

characteristics of the attitude of respect for nature are

made clear, it will be seen that a life-centered system of

environmental ethics need not be holistic or organi­

cist in its conception of the kinds of entities that are

deemed the appropriate objects of moral concern and

consideration. Nor does such a system require that the

concepts of ecological homeostasis, equilibrium, and

integrity provide us with normative principles from

which could be derived (with the addition of factual

knowledge) our obligations with regard to natural

ecosystems. The “balance of nature” is not itself a

moral norm, however important may be the role it

plays in our general outlook on the natural world that

underlies the attitude of respect for nature. I argue that

finally it is the good (well-being, welfare) of individ­

ual organisms, considered as entities having inherent

worth, that determines our moral relations with the

Earth’s wild communities of life.

In designating the theory to be set forth as life­

centered, I intend to contrast it with all anthropo­

centric views. According to the latter, human actions

affecting the natural environment and its nonhuman

inhabitants are right (or wrong) by either of two cri­

teria: they have consequences which are favorable (or

unfavorable) to human well-being, or they are con­

sistent (or inconsistent) with the system of norms

that protect and implement human rights. From this

human-centered standpoint it is to humans and only

to humans that all duties are ultimately owed. We may

have responsibilities with regard to the natural ecosys­

tems and biotic communities of our planet, but these

responsibilities are in every case based on the contin­

gent fact that our treatment of those ecosystems and

communities of life can further the realization of

human values and/or human rights. We have no obli­

gation to promote or protect the good of nonhuman

living things, independently of this contingent fact.

A life-centered system of environmental ethics is

opposed to human-centered ones precisely on this

point. From the perspective of a life-centered theory,

we have prima facie moral obligations that are owed

to wild plants and animals themselves as members of

the Earth’s biotic community. We are morally bound

(other things being equal) to protect or promote their

good for their sake. Our duties to respect the integrity

of natural ecosystems, to preserve endangered species,

and to avoid environmental pollution stem from the

fact that these are ways in which we can help make it

possible for wild species populations to achieve and

maintain a healthy existence in a natural state. Such

Paul W. Taylor. “The Ethics of Respect for Nature,” Environmental Ethics 3 {1981): 197-218. Reprinted with permission of the author and the journal.


obligations are due those living things out of recogni­

tion of their inherent worth. They are entirely addi­

tional to and independent of the obligations we owe to

our fellow humans. Although many of the actions that

fulfill one set of obligations will also fulfill the other,

two different grounds of obligation are involved. Their

well-being, as well as human well-being, is something

to be realized as an end in itself

If we were to accept a life-centered theory of envi­

ronmental ethics, a profound reordering of our moral

universe would take place. We would begin to look at

the whole of the Earth’s biosphere in a new light. Our

duties with respect to the “world” of nature would be

seen as making prima facie claims upon us to be bal­

anced against our duties with respect to the “world” of

human civilization. We could no longer simply take

the human point of view and consider the effects of

our actions exclusively from the perspective of our

own good.



What would justify acceptance of a life-centered sys­

tem of ethical principles? In order to answer this it is

first necessary to make clear the fundamental moral

attitude that underlies and makes intelligible the com­

mitment to live by such a system. It is then necessary

to examine the considerations that would justify any

rational agent’s adopting that moral attitude.

Two concepts are essential to the taking of a moral

attitude of the sort in question. A being which does

not “have” these concepts, that is, which is unable to

grasp their meaning and conditions of applicability,

cannot be said to have the attitude as part of its moral

outlook. These concepts are, first, that of the good

(well-being, welfare) of a living thing, and second, the

idea of an entity possessing inherent worth. I examine

each concept in turn.

( 1) Every organism, species population, and com­

munity of life has a good of its own which moral agents

can intentionally further or damage by their actions.

To say that an entity has a good of its own is simply to

say that, without reference to any other entity, it can be

benefited or harmed. One can act in its overall interest

or contrary to its overall interest, and environmental

The Ethics of Respect for Nature 103

conditions can be good for it (advantageous to it) or

bad for it (disadvantageous to it). What is good for an

entity is what “does it good” in the sense of enhancing

or preserving its life and well-being. What is bad for an

entity is something that is detrimental to its life and


We can think of the good of an individual nonhu­

man organism as consisting in the full development of

its biological powers. Its good is realized to the extent

that it is strong and healthy. It possesses whatever

capacities it needs for successfully coping with its envi­

ronment and so preserving its existence throughout

the various stages of the normal life cycle of its spe­

cies. The good of a population or community of such

individuals consists in the population or community

maintaining itself from generation to generation as a

coherent system of genetically and ecologically related

organisms whose average good is at an optimum level for the given environment. (Here average good means

that the degree of realization of the good of individual organisms in the population or community is, on aver­age, greater than it would be under any other ecologi­

cally functioning order of interrelations among those

species populations in the given ecosystem.)

The idea of a being having a good of its own, as I

understand it, does not entail that the being must have

interests or take an interest in what affects its life for bet­

ter or for worse. We can act in a being’s interest or con­

trary to its interest without its being interested in what

we are doing to it in the sense of wanting or not want­

ing us to do it. It may, indeed, be wholly unaware that

favorable and unfavorable events are taking place in its

life. I take it that trees, for example, have no knowledge

or desires or feelings. Yet it is undoubtedly the case that

trees can be harmed or benefited by our actions. We

can crush their roots by running a bulldozer too close

to them. We can see to it that they get adequate nour­

ishment and moisture by fertilizing and watering the

soil around them. Thus we can help or hinder them

in the realization of their good. It is the good of trees

themselves that is thereby affected. We can similarly

act so as to further the good of an entire tree popula­

tion of a certain species (say, all the redwood trees in a

California valley) or the good of a whole community

of plant life in a given wilderness area, just as we can

do harm to such a population or community.


When construed in this way, the concept of a

being’s good is not coextensive with sentience or the

capacity for feeling pain. William Frankena has argued

for a general theory of environmental ethics in which

the ground of a creature’s being worthy of moral con­

sideration is its sentience. I have offered some criti­

cisms of this view elsewhere, but the full refutation of

such a position, it seems to me, finally depends on the

positive reasons for accepting a life-centered theory of

the kind I am defending in this essay. 1

It should be noted further that I am leaving open

the question of whether machines-in particular,

those which are not only goal directed, but also self­

regulating-can properly be said to have a good of

their own.2 Since I am concerned only with human

treatment of wild organisms, species populations, and

communities of life as they occur in our planet’s natu­

ral ecosystems, it is to those entities alone that the con­

cept “having a good of its own” will here be applied. I

am not denying that other living things, whose genetic

origin and environmental conditions have been pro­

duced, controlled, and manipulated by humans for

human ends, do have a good of their own in the same

sense as do wild plants and animals. It is not my pur­

pose in this essay, however, to set out or defend the

principles that should guide our conduct with regard

to their good. It is only insofar as their production and

use by humans have good or ill effects upon natural

ecosystems and their wild inhabitants that the ethics

of respect for nature comes into play.

( 2) The second concept essential to the moral

attitude of respect for nature is the idea of inherent

worth. We take that attitude toward wild living things

(individuals, species populations, or whole biotic

communities) when and only when we regard them

as entities possessing inherent worth. I ndeed, it is

only because they are conceived in this way that moral

agents can think of themselves as having validly bind­

ing duties, obligations, and responsibilities that are

owed to them as their due. I am not at this juncture

arguing why they should be so regarded; I consider it

at length below. But so regarding them is a presup­

position of our taking the attitude of respect toward

them and accordingly understanding ourselves as

bearing certain moral relations to them. This can be

shown as follows:

What does it mean to regard an entity that has a

good of its own as possessing inherent worth? Two

general principles are involved: the principle of moral

consideration and the principle of intrinsic value.

According to the principle of moral consider­

ation, wild living things are deserving of the concern

and consideration of all moral agents simply in virtue

of their being members of the Earth’s community of

life. From the moral point of view their good must be

taken into account whenever it is affected for better or

worse by the conduct of rational agents. This holds no

matter what species the creature belongs to. The good

of each is to be accorded some value and so acknowl­

edged as having some weight in the deliberations of

all rational agents. Of course, it may be necessary for

such agents to act in ways contrary to the good of this

or that particular organism or group of organisms in

order to further the good of others, including the good

of humans. But the principle of moral consideration

prescribes that, with respect to each being an entity

having its own good, every individual is deserving of


The principle of intrinsic value states that, regard­

less of what kind of entity it is in other respects, if it

is a member of the Earth’s community of life, the real­

ization of its good is something intrinsically valuable.

This means that its good is prima facie worthy of being

preserved or promoted as an end in itself and for the

sake of the entity whose good it is. Insofar as we regard

any organism, species population, or life community

as an entity having inherent worth, we believe that it

must never be treated as if it were a mere object or

thing whose entire value lies in being instrumental to

the good of some other entity. The well-being of each

is judged to have value in and of itself.

Combining these two principles, we can now define

what it means for a living thing or group of living

things to possess inherent worth. To say that it pos­

sesses inherent worth is to say that its good is deserving

of the concern and consideration of all moral agents,

and that the realization of its good has instrinsic value,

to be pursued as an end in itself and for the sake of the entity whose good it is.

The duties owed to wild organisms, species popu­

lations, and communities of life in the Earth’s natu­

ral ecosystems are grounded on their inherent worth.

When rational, autonomous agents regard such enti­

ties as possessing inherent worth, they place intrinsic

value on the realization of their good and so hold

themselves responsible for performing actions that

will have this effect and for refraining from actions

having the contrary effect . . . .



The attitude we take toward living things in the natural

world depends on the way we look at them, on what

kind of beings we conceive them to be, and on how we

understand the relations we bear to them. Underlying

and supporting our attitude is a certain belief system

that constitutes a particular world view or outlook

on nature and the place of human life in it. To give

good reasons for adopting the attitude of respect for

nature, then, we must first articulate the belief sys­

tem which underlies and supports that attitude. If it

appears that the belief system is internally coherent

and well-ordered, and if, as far as we can now tell, it

is consistent with all known scientific truths relevant

to our knowledge of the object of the attitude (which

in this case includes the whole set of the Earth’s natu­

ral ecosystems and their communities of life), then

there remains the task of indicating why scientifi­

cally informed and rational thinkers with a developed

capacity of reality awareness can find it acceptable as a

way of conceiving of the natural world and our place

in it. To the extent we can do this we provide at least

a reasonable argument for accepting the belief system

and the ultimate moral attitude it supports.

I do not hold that such a belief system can be

proven to be true, either inductively or deductively. As

we shall see, not all of its components can be stated in

the form of empirically verifiable propositions. Nor is

its internal order governed by purely logical relation­

ships. But the system as a whole, I contend, constitutes

a coherent, unified, and rationally acceptable “picture”

or “map” of a total world. By examining each of its

main components and seeing how they fit together, we

obtain a scientifically informed and well-ordered con­

ception of nature and the place of humans in it.

This belief system underlying the attitude of respect

for nature I call (for want of a better name) “the bio­

centric outlook on nature. ” Since it is not wholly

The Ethics of Respect for Nature 1 05

analyzable into empirically confirmable assertions, it

should not be thought of as simply a compendium of

the biological sciences concerning our planet’s eco­

systems. It might best be described as a philosophical

world view, to distinguish it from a scientific theory or

explanatory system. However, one of its major tenets

is the great lesson we have learned from the science

of ecology: the interdependence of all living things in

an organically unified order whose balance and stabil­

ity are necessary conditions for the realization of the

good of its constituent biotic communities . . . .


The biocentric outlook on nature has four main com­

ponents. ( 1) Humans are thought of as members of

the Earth’s community of life, holding that member­

ship on the same terms as apply to all the nonhu­

man members. (2) The Earth’s natural ecosystems as

a totality are seen as a complex web of interconnected

elements, with the sound biological functioning of

each being dependent on the sound biological func­

tioning of the others. (This is the component referred

to earlier as the great lesson that the science of ecology

has taught us.) (3) Each individual organism is con­

ceived of as a teleological center of life, pursuing its

own good in its own way. ( 4) Whether we are con­

cerned with standards of merit or with the concept of

inherent worth, the claim that humans by their very

nature are superior to other species is a groundless

claim and, in the light of elements (I), (2), and (3),

must be rejected a s nothing more than an irrational

bias in our own favor.

The conjunction of these four ideas constitutes

the biocentric outlook on nature. In the remainder of

this paper I give a brief account of the first three com­

ponents, followed by a more detailed analysis of the

fourth. I then conclude by indicating how this outlook

provides a way of justifying the attitude of respect for




We share with other species a common relationship

to the Earth. In accepting the biocentric outlook we

take the fact of our being an animal species to be a


fundamental feature of our existence. We consider it

an essential aspect of “the human condition.” We do

not deny the differences between ourselves and other

species, but we keep in the forefront of our conscious­

ness the fact that in relation to our planet’s natural

ecosystems we are but one species population among

many. Thus we acknowledge our origin in the very

same evolutionary process that gave rise to all other

species and we recognize ourselves to be confronted

with similar environmental challenges to those that

confront them. The laws of genetics, of natural selec­

tion, and of adaptation apply equally to all of us as

biological creatures. In this light we consider ourselves

as one with them, not set apart from them. We, as well

as they, must face certain basic conditions of existence

that impose requirements on us for our survival and

well-being. Each animal and plant is like us in having

a good of its own. Although our human good (what

is of true value in human life, including the exercise

of individual autonomy in choosing our own particu­

lar value systems) is not like the good of a nonhuman

animal or plant, it can no more be realized than their

good can without the biological necessities for survival

and physical health.

When we look at ourselves from the evolutionary

point of view we see that not only are we very recent

arrivals on Earth, but that our emergence as a new spe­

cies on the planet was originally an event of no par­

ticular importance to the entire scheme of things. The

Earth was teeming with life long before we appeared.

Putting the point metaphorically, we are relative new­

comers, entering a home that has been the residence

of others for hundreds of millions of years, a home

that must now be shared by all of us together.

The comparative brevity of human life on Earth

may be vividly depicted by imagining the geologi­

cal time scale in spatial terms. Suppose we start with

algae, which have been around for at least 600 million

years. (The earliest protozoa actually predated this by

several billion years.) If the time that algae have been

here were represented by the length of a football field

(300 feet) , then the period during which sharks have

been swimming in the world’s oceans and spiders have

been spinning their webs would occupy three quarters

of the length of the field; reptiles would show up at

about the center of the field; mammals would cover

the last third of the field; hominids (mammals of the

family Hominidae) the last two feet; and the species

Homo sapiens the last six inches.

Whether this newcomer is able to survive as long

as other species remains to be seen. But there is surely

something presumptuous about the way humans look

down on the “lower” animals, especially those that

have become extinct. We consider the dinosaurs, for

example, to be biological failures, though they existed

on our planet for 65 million years. One writer has

made the point with beautiful simplicity:

We sometimes speak of the dinosaurs as failures; there will be time enough for that judgment when we have lasted even for one tenth as long . . . . 3

The possibility of the extinction of the human

species, a possibility which starkly confronts us in

the contemporary world, makes us aware of another

respect in which we should not consider ourselves

privileged beings in relation to other species. This is

the fact that the well-being of humans is dependent

upon the ecological soundness and health of many

plant and animal communities, while their soundness

and health does not in the least depend upon human

well-being. Indeed, from their standpoint the very

existence of humans is quite unnecessary. Every last

man, woman, and child could disappear from the face

of the Earth without any significant detrimental con­

sequence for the good of wild animals and plants. On

the contrary, many of them would be greatly benefited.

The destruction of their habitats by human “develop­

ments” would cease. The poisoning and polluting of

their environment would come to an end. The Earth’s

land, air, and water would no longer be subject to the

degradation they are now undergoing as the result of

large-scale technology and uncontrolled population

growth. Life communities in natural ecosystems would

gradually return to their former healthy state. Tropical

forests for example, would again be able to make

their full contribution to a life-sustaining atmosphere

for the whole planet. The rivers, lakes, and oceans of

the world would (perhaps) eventually become clean

again. Spilled oil, plastic trash, and even radioactive

waste might finally, after many centuries, cease doing

their terrible work. Ecosystems would return to their

proper balance, suffering only the disruptions of natu­

ral events such as volcanic eruptions and glaciation.

From these the community of life could recover, as it

has so often done in the past. But the ecological disas­

ters now perpetrated on it by humans-disasters from

which it might never recover-these it would no lon­

ger have to endure.

If, then, the total, final, absolute extermination

of our species (by our own hands?) should take place

and if we should not carry all the others with us into

oblivion, not only would the Earth’s community of

life continue to exist, but in all probability its well­

being would be enhanced. Our presence, in short, is

not needed. If we were to take the standpoint of the

community and give voice to its true interest, the end­

ing of our six-inch epoch would most likely be greeted

with a hearty “Good riddance!”



To accept the biocentric outlook and regard ourselves

and our place in the world from its perspective is to

see the whole natural order of the Earth’s biosphere as

a complex but unified web of interconnected organ­

isms, objects, and events. The ecological relationships

between any community of living things and their

environment form an organic whole of function­

ally interdependent parts. Each ecosystem is a small

universe itself in which the interactions of its various

species populations comprise an intricately woven net­

work of cause-effect relations. Such dynamic but at the

same time relatively stable structures as food chains,

predator-prey relations, and plant succession in a for­

est are self-regulating, energy-recycling mechanisms

that preserve the equilibrium of the whole.

As far as the well-being of wild animals and plants

is concerned, this ecological equilibrium must not be

destroyed. The same holds true of the well-being of

humans. When one views the realm of nature from the

perspective of the biocentric outlook, one never for­

gets that in the long run the integrity of the entire bio­

sphere of our planet is essential to the realization of

the good of its constituent communities of life, both

human and nonhuman.

Although the importance of this idea cannot be

overemphasized, it is by now so familiar and so widely

acknowledged that I shall not further elaborate on it

here. However, I do wish to point out that this “holis­

tic” view of the Earth’s ecological systems does not

The Ethics of Respect for Nature 1 07

itself constitute a moral norm. It is a factual aspect of

biological reality, to be understood as a set of causal

connections in ordinary empirical terms. Its signifi­

cance for humans is the same as its significance for

nonhumans, namely, in setting basic conditions for

the realization of the good of living things. Its ethical

implications for our treatment of the natural environ­

ment lie entirely in the fact that our knowledge of these

causal connections is an essential means to fulfilling

the aims we set for ourselves in adopting the attitude

of respect for nature. In addition, its theoretical impli­

cations for the ethics of respect for nature lie in the fact

that it (along with the other elements of the biocentric

outlook) makes the adopting of that attitude a ratio­

nal and intelligible thing to do.



As our knowledge of living things increases, as we

come to a deeper understanding of their life cycles,

their interactions with other organisms, and the mani­

fold ways in which they adjust to the environment,

we become more fully aware of how each of them is

carrying out its biological functions according to the

laws of its species-specific nature. But besides this, our

increasing knowledge and understanding also develop

in us a sharpened awareness of the uniqueness of each

individual organism. Scientists who have made care­

ful studies of particular plants and animals, whether

in the field or in laboratories, have often acquired a

knowledge of their subjects as identifiable individu­

als. Close observation over extended periods of time

has led them to an appreciation of the unique “per­

sonalities” of their subjects. Sometimes a scientist may

come to take a special interest in a particular animal or

plant, all the while remaining strictly objective in the

gathering and recording of data. Nonscientists may

likewise experience this development of interest when,

as amateur naturalists, they make accurate observa­

tions over sustained periods of close acquaintance

with an individual organism. As one becomes more

and more familiar with the organism and its behav­

ior, one becomes fully sensitive to the particular way it

is living out its life cycle. One may become fascinated

by it and even experience some involvement with its

good and bad fortunes (that is, with the occurrence


of environmental conditions favorable or unfavorable

to the realization of its good). The organism comes

to mean something to one as a unique, irreplaceable

individual. The final culmination of this process is the

achievement of a genuine understanding of its point

of view and, with that understanding, an ability to

“take” that point of view. Conceiving of it as a center of

life, one is able to look at the world from its perspective.

This development from objective knowledge to

the recognition of individuality, and from the recogni­

tion of individuality to full awareness of an organism’s

standpoint, is a process of heightening our conscious­

ness of what it means to be an individual living thing.

We grasp the particularity of the organism as a teleo­

logical center of life, striving to preserve itself and to

realize its own good in its own unique way.

It is to be noted that we need not be falsely anthro­

pomorphizing when we conceive of individual plants

and animals in this manner. Understanding them as

teleological centers of life does not necessitate “read­

ing into” them human characteristics. We need not,

for example, consider them to have consciousness.

Some of them may be aware of the world around

them and others may not. Nor need we deny that dif­

ferent kinds and levels of awareness are exemplified

when consciousness in some form is present. But con­

scious or not, all are equally teleological centers of life

in the sense that each is a unified system of goal-ori­

ented activities directed toward their preservation and


When considered from an ethical point of view, a

teleological center of life is an entity whose “world”

can be viewed from the perspective of its life. In look­

ing at the world from that perspective we recognize

objects and events occurring in its life as being benefi­

cent, maleficent, or indifferent. The first are occurrences

which increase its powers to preserve its existence and

realize its good. The second decrease or destroy those

powers. The third have neither of these effects on the

entity. With regard to our human role as moral agents,

we can conceive of a teleological center of life as a

being whose standpoint we can take in making judg­

ments about what events in the world are good or evil,

desirable or undesirable. In making those judgments

it is what promotes or protects the being’s own good,

not what benefits moral agents themselves, that sets

the standard of evaluation. Such judgments can be

made about anything that happens to the entity which

is favorable or unfavorable in relation to its good. As

was pointed out earlier, the entity itself need not have

any (conscious) interest in what is happening to it for

such judgments to be meaningful and true.

It is precisely judgments of this sort that we are

disposed to make when we take the attitude of respect

for nature. In adopting that attitude those judgments

are given weight as reasons for action in our practical

deliberation. They become morally relevant facts in

the guidance of our conduct.


This fourth component of the biocentric outlook on

nature is the single most important idea in estab­

lishing the justifiability of the attitude of respect for

nature. Its central role is due to the special relationship

it bears to the first three components of the outlook.

This relationship will be brought out after the concept

of human superiority is examined and analyzed.4

In what sense are humans alleged to be superior to

other animals? We are different from them in having

certain capacities that they lack. But why should these

capacities be a mark of superiority? From what point

of view are they judged to be signs of superiority and

what sense of superiority is meant? After all, various

nonhuman species have capacities that humans lack.

There is the speed of a cheetah, the vision of an eagle,

the agility of a monkey. Why should not these be taken

as signs of their superiority over humans?

One answer that comes immediately to mind is

that these capacities are not as valuable as the human

capacities that are claimed to make us superior. Such

uniquely human characteristics as rational thought,

aesthetic creativity, autonomy and self-determination,

and moral freedom, it might be held, have a higher

value than the capacities found in other species. Yet we

must ask: valuable to whom, and on what grounds?

The human characteristics mentioned are all valu­

able to humans. They are essential to the preservation

and enrichment of our civilization and culture. Clearly

it is from the human standpoint that they are being

judged to be desirable and good. It is not difficult here

to recognize a begging of the question. Humans are

claiming human superiority from a strictly human

point of view, that is, from a point of view in which the

good of humans is taken as the standard of judgment.

All we need to do is to look at the capacities of non­

human animals (or plants, for that matter) from the

standpoint of their good to find a contrary judgment

of superiority. The speed of the cheetah, for example,

is a sign of its superiority to humans when considered

from the standpoint of the good of its species. If it

were as slow a runner as a human, it would not be able

to survive. And so for all the other abilities of nonhu­

mans which further their good but which are lacking

in humans. In each case the claim to human superior­

ity would be rejected from a nonhuman standpoint.

When superiority assertions are interpreted in this

way, they are based on judgments of merit. To judge

the merits of a person or an organism one must apply

grading or ranking standards to it. (As I show later,

this distinguishes judgments of merit from judgments

of inherent worth.) Empirical investigation then deter­

mines whether it has the “good-making properties”

(merits) in virtue of which it fulfills the standards

being applied. In the case of humans, merits may be

either moral or nonmoral. We can judge one person

to be better than (superior to) another from the moral

point of view by applying certain standards to their

character and conduct. Similarly, we can appeal to

nonmoral criteria in judging someone to be an excel­

lent piano player, a fair cook, a poor tennis player, and

so on. Different social purposes and roles are implicit

in the making of such judgments, providing the frame

of reference for the choice of standards by which the

nonmoral merits of people are determined. Ultimately

such purposes and roles stem from a society’s way of

life as a whole. Now a society’s way of life may be

thought of as the cultural form given to the realiza­

tion of human values. Whether moral or nonmoral

standards are being applied, then, all judgments of

people’s merits finally depend on human values. All

are made from an exclusively human standpoint.

The question that naturally arises at this juncture

is: why should standards that are based on human val­

ues be assumed to be the only valid criteria of merit

and hence the only true signs of superiority? This

question is especially pressing when humans are being

judged superior in merit to nonhumans. It is true that

a human being may be a better mathematician than a

The Ethics of Respect for Nature 109

monkey, but the monkey may be a better tree climber

than a human being. If we humans value mathematics

more than tree climbing, that is because our concep­

tion of civilized life makes the development of mathe­

matical ability more desirable than the ability to climb

trees. But is it not unreasonable to judge nonhumans

by the values of human civilization, rather than by

values connected with what it is for a member of that

species to live a good life? If all living things have a

good of their own, it at least makes sense to judge the

merits of nonhumans by standards derived from their

good. To use only standards based on human values

is already to commit oneself to holding that humans

are superior to nonhumans, which is the point in


A further logical flaw arises in connection with the

widely held conviction that humans are morally supe­

rior beings because they possess, while others lack,

the capacities of a moral agent (free will, account­

ability, deliberation, judgment, practical reason) . This

view rests on a conceptual confusion. As far as moral

standards are concerned, only beings that have the

capacities of a moral agent can properly be judged to

be either moral (morally good) or immoral (morally

deficient) . Moral standards are simply not applicable

to beings that lack such capacities. Animals and plants

cannot therefore be said to be morally inferior in merit

to humans. Since the only beings that can have moral

merits or be deficient in such merits are moral agents, it

is conceptually incoherent to judge humans as supe­

rior to nonhumans on the ground that humans have

moral capacities while nonhumans don’t.

Up to this point I have been interpreting the claim

that humans are superior to other living things as a

grading or ranking judgment regarding their compara­

tive merits. There is, however, another way of under­

standing the idea of human superiority. According to

this interpretation, humans are superior to nonhu­

mans not as regards their merits but as regards their

inherent worth. Thus the claim of human superiority

is to be understood as asserting that all humans, sim­

ply in virtue of their humanity, have a greater inherent

worth than other living things.

The inherent worth of an entity does not depend

on its merits. 5 To consider something as possessing

inherent worth, we have seen, is to place intrinsic value


on the realization of its good. This is done regardless

of whatever particular merits it might have or might

lack, as judged by a set of grading or ranking stan­

dards. In human affairs, we are all familiar with the

principle that one’s worth as a person does not vary

with one’s merits or lack of merits. The same can hold

true of animals and plants. To regard such entities as

possessing inherent worth entails disregarding their

merits and deficiencies, whether they are being judged

from a human standpoint or from the standpoint of

their own species.

The idea of one entity having more merit than

another, and so being superior to it in merit, makes

perfectly good sense. Merit is a grading or ranking con­

cept, and judgments of comparative merit are based

on the different degrees to which things satisfy a given

standard. But what can it mean to talk about one thing

being superior to another in inherent worth? In order

to get at what is being asserted in such a claim it is

helpful first to look at the social origin of the concept

of degrees of inherent worth.

The idea that humans can possess different degrees

of inherent worth originated in societies having rigid

class structures. Before the rise of modem democracies

with their egalitarian outlook, one’s membership in a

hereditary class determined one’s social status. People

in the upper classes were looked up to, while those in

the lower classes were looked down upon. In such a

society one’s social superiors and social inferiors were

clearly defined and easily recognized.

Two aspects of these class-structured societies are

especially relevant to the idea of degrees of inherent

worth. First, those born into the upper classes were

deemed more worthy of respect than those born into

the lower orders. Second, the superior worth of upper

class people had nothing to do with their merits nor

did the inferior worth of those in the lower classes rest

on their lack of merits. One’s superiority or inferiority

entirely derived from a social position one was born

into. The modem concept of a meritocracy simply did

not apply. One could not advance into a higher class by

any sort of moral or nonmoral achievement. Similarly,

an aristocrat held his title and all the privileges that

went with it just because he was the eldest son of a

titled nobleman. Unlike the bestowing of knighthood

in contemporary Great Britain, one did not earn mem­

bership in the nobility by meritorious conduct.

We who live in modem democracies no longer

believe in such hereditary social distinctions. Indeed,

we would wholeheartedly condemn them on moral

grounds as being fundamentally unjust. We have

come to think of class systems as a paradigm of social

injustice, it being a central principle of the democratic

way of life that among humans there are no superi­

ors and no inferiors. Thus we have rejected the whole

conceptual framework in which people are judged to

have different degrees of inherent worth. That idea

is incompatible with our notion of human equality

based on the doctrine that all humans, simply in vir­

tue of their humanity, have the same inherent worth.

(The belief in universal human rights is one form that

this egalitarianism takes.)

The vast majority of people in modem democra­

cies, however, do not maintain an egalitarian outlook

when it comes to comparing human beings with other

living things. Most people consider our own species

to be superior to all other species and this superior­

ity is understood to be a matter of inherent worth,

not merit. There may exist thoroughly vicious and

depraved humans who lack all merit. Yet because they

are human they are thought to belong to a higher class

of entities than any plant or animal. That one is born

into the species Homo sapiens entitles one to have lord­

ship over those who are one’s inferiors, namely, those

born into other species. The parallel with hereditary

social classes is very close. Implicit in this view is a

hierarchical conception of nature according to which

an organism has a position of superiority of inferiority

in the Earth’s community of life simply on the basis

of its genetic background. The “lower” orders of life

are looked down upon and it is considered perfectly

proper that they serve the interests of those belong­

ing to the highest order, namely humans. The intrinsic

value we place on the well-being of our fellow humans

reflects our recognition of their rightful position as our

equals. No such intrinsic value is to be placed on the

good of other animals, unless we choose to do so out

of fondness or affection for them. But their well-being

imposes no moral requirement on us. In this respect

there is an absolute difference in moral status between

ourselves and them.

This is the structure of concepts and beliefs that

people are committed to insofar as they regard humans

to be superior in inherent worth to all other species. I

now wish to argue that this structure of concepts and

beliefs is completely groundless. If we accept the first

three components of the biocentric outlook and from

that perspective look at the major philosophical tradi­

tions which have supported that structure, we find it to

be at bottom nothing more than the expression of an

irrational bias in our own favor. The philosophical tra­

ditions themselves rest on very questionable assump­

tions or else simply beg the question. I briefly consider

three of the main traditions to substantiate the point.

These are classical Greek humanism, Cartesian dual­

ism, and the Judea-Christian concept of the Great

Chain of Being.

The inherent superiority of humans over other spe­

cies was implicit in the Greek definition of man as a

rational animal. Our animal nature was identified with

“brute” desires that need the order and restraint of rea­

son to rule them (just as reason is the special virtue of

those who rule in the ideal state) . Rationality was then

seen to be the key to our superiority over animals. It

enables us to live on a higher plane and endows us

with a nobility and worth that other creatures lack.

This familiar way of comparing humans with other

species is deeply ingrained in our Western philosophi­

cal outlook. The point to consider here is that this

view does not actually provide an argument for human

superiority but rather makes explicit the framework

of thought that is implicitly used by those who think

of humans as inherently superior to nonhumans. The

Greeks who held that humans, in virtue of their ratio­

nal capacities, have a kind of worth greater than that of

any nonrational being, never looked at rationality as

but one capacity of living things among many others.

But when we consider rationality from the standpoint

of the first three elements of the ecological outlook,

we see that its value lies in its importance for human

life. Other creatures achieve their species-specific good

without the need of rationality, although they often

make use of capacities that human lack. So the human­

istic outlook of classical Greek thought does not give

us a neutral ( nonquestion-begging) ground on which

to construct a scale of degrees of inherent worth pos­

sessed by different species of living things.

The second tradition, centering on the Cartesian

dualism of soul and body, also fails to justify the claim

to human superiority. That superiority is supposed to

derive from the fact that we have souls while animals

The Ethics of Respect for Nature 1 1 1

do not. Animals are mere automata and lack the divine

element that makes us spiritual beings. I won’t go into

the now familiar criticisms of this two-substance view. I

only add the point that, even if humans are composed

of an immaterial, unextended soul and a material,

extended body, this in itself is not a reason to deem

them of greater worth than entities that are only bod­

ies. Why is a soul substance a thing that adds value

to its possessor? Unless some theological reasoning

is offered here (which many, including myself, would

find unacceptable on epistemological grounds), no

logical connection is evident. An immaterial some­

thing which thinks is better than a material something

which does not think only if thinking itself has value,

either intrinsically or instrumentally. Now it is intrin­

sically valuable to humans alone, who value it as an

end in itself, and it is instrumentally valuable to those

who benefit from it, namely humans.

For animals that neither enjoy thinking for its own

sake nor need it for living the kind of life for which they

are best adapted, it has no value. Even if “thinking” is

broadened to include all forms of consciousness, there

are still many living things that can do without it and

yet live what is for their species a good life. The anthro­

pocentricity underlying the claim to human superior­

ity runs throughout Cartesian dualism.

A third major source of the idea of human supe­

riority is the Judea-Christian concept of the Great

Chain of Being. Humans are superior to animals and

plants because their Creator has given them a higher

place on the chain. It begins with God at the top, and

then moves to the angels, who are lower than God

but higher than humans, then to humans, positioned

between the angels and the beasts (partaking of the

nature of both) , and then on down to the lower lev­

els occupied by nonhuman animals, plants, and

finally inanimate objects. Humans, being “made in God’s image,” are inherently superior to animals and

plants by virtue of their being closer (in their essential

nature) to God.

The metaphysical and epistemological difficul­

ties with this conception of a hierarchy of entities are,

in my mind, insuperable. Without entering into this

matter here, I only point out that if we are unwilling

to accept the metaphysics of traditional Judaism and

Christianity, we are again left without good reasons for

holding to the claim of inherent human superiority.


The foregoing considerations (and others like

them) leave us with but one ground for the assertion

that a human being, regardless of merit, is a higher

kind of entity than any other living thing. This is the

mere fact of the genetic makeup of the species Homo

sapiens. But this is surely irrational and arbitrary. Why

should the arrangement of genes of a certain type be a

mark of superior value, especially when this fact about

an organism is taken by itself, unrelated to any other

aspect of its life? We might just as well refer to any

other genetic makeup as a ground of superior value.

Clearly we are confronted here with a wholly arbitrary

claim that can only be explained as an irrational bias

in our own favor.

That the claim is nothing more than a deep-seated

prejudice is brought home to us when we look at our

relation to other species in the light of the first three

elements of the biocentric outlook. Those elements

taken conjointly give us a certain overall view of the

natural world and of the place of humans in it. When

we take this view we come to understand other liv­

ing things, their environmental conditions, and their

ecological relationships in such a way as to awake in

us a deep sense of our kinship with them as fellow

members of the Earth’s community of life. Humans

and nonhumans alike are viewed together as integral

parts of one unified whole in which all living things

are functionally interrelated. Finally, when our aware­

ness focuses on the individual lives of plants and ani­

mals, each is seen to share with us the characteristic of

being a teleological center of life striving to realize its

own good in its own unique way.

As this entire belief system becomes part of the

conceptual framework through which we understand

and perceive the world, we come to see ourselves as

bearing a certain moral relation to nonhuman forms

of life. Our ethical role in nature takes on a new sig­

nificance. We begin to look at other species as we

look at ourselves, seeing them as beings which have

a good they are striving to realize just as we have a

good we are striving to realize. We accordingly develop

the disposition to view the world from the standpoint

of their good as well as from the standpoint of our

own good. Now if the groundlessness of the claim

that humans are inherently superior to other species

were brought clearly before our minds, we would not

remain intellectually neutral toward that claim but

would reject it as being fundamentally at variance with

our total world outlook. In the absence of any good

reasons for holding it, the assertion of human supe­

riority would then appear simply as the expression of

an irrational and self-serving prejudice that favors one

particular species over several million others.

Rejecting the notion of human superiority entails

its positive counterpart: the doctrine of species impar­

tiality. One who accepts that doctrine regards all living

things as possessing inherent worth-the same inher­

ent worth, since no one species has been shown to

be either “higher” or “lower” than any other. Now we

saw earlier that, insofar as one thinks of a living thing

as possessing inherent worth, one considers it to be

the appropriate object of the attitude of respect and

believes that attitude to be the only fitting or suitable

one for all moral agents to take toward it.

Here, then, is the key to understanding how the

attitude of respect is rooted in the biocentric outlook

of nature. The basic connection is made through the

denial of human superiority. Once we reject the claim

that humans are superior either in merit or in worth to

other living things, we are ready to adopt the attitude

of respect. The denial of human superiority is itself the

result of taking the perspective on nature built into the

first three elements of the biocentric outlook.

Now the first three elements of the biocentric out­

look, it seems clear, would be found acceptable to any

rational and scientifically informed thinker who is

fully “open” to the reality of the lives of nonhuman

organisms. Without denying our distinctively human

characteristics, such a thinker can acknowledge the

fundamental respects in which we are members of the

Earth’s community of life and in which the biological

conditions necessary for the realization of our human

values are inextricably linked with the whole system of

nature. In addition, the conception of individual living

things as teleological centers of life simply articulates

how a scientifically informed thinker comes to under­

stand them as the result of increasingly careful and

detailed observations. Thus, the biocentric outlook

recommends itself as an acceptable system of concepts

and beliefs to anyone who is dear-minded, unbiased,

and factually enlightened, and who has a developed

capacity of reality awareness with regard to the lives

of individual organisms. This, I submit, is as good a

reason for making the moral commitment involved

in adopting the attitude of respect for nature as any

theory of environmental ethics could possibly have.



I have not asserted anywhere in the foregoing account

that animals or plants have moral rights. This omis­

sion was deliberate. I do not think that the reference

class of the concept, bearer of moral rights, should

be extended to include nonhuman living things. My

reasons for taking this position, however, go beyond

the scope of this paper. 6 I believe I have been able to

accomplish many of the same ends which those who

ascribe rights to animals or plants wish to accomplish.

There is no reason, moreover, why plants and animals,

including whole species populations and life commu­

nities, cannot be accorded legal rights under my theory.

To grant them legal protection could be interpreted as

giving them legal entitlement to be protected, and this,

in fact, would be a means by which a society that sub­

scribed to the ethics of respect for nature could give

public recognition to their inherent worth.

There remains the problem of competing claims,

even when wild plants and animals are not thought of

as bearers of moral rights. If we accept the biocentric

outlook and accordingly adopt the attitude of respect

for nature as our ultimate moral attitude, how do we

resolve conflicts that arise from our respect for persons

in the domain of human ethics and our respect for

nature in the domain of environmental ethics? This

is a question that cannot adequately be dealt with

here. My main purpose in this paper has been to try to

establish a base point from which we can start work­

ing toward a solution to the problem. I have shown

why we cannot just begin with an initial presumption

in favor of the interests of our own species. I t is after

all within our power as moral beings to place limits on

human population and technology with the deliberate

The Ethics of Respect for Nature 1 1 3

intention of sharing the Earth’s bounty with other spe­

cies. That such sharing is an ideal difficult to realize

even in an approximate way does not take away its

claim to our deepest moral commitment.


1 . W . K . Frankena, “Ethics and the Environment, ”

in Ethics and Problems of the 21 st CentUT}’, ed. K. E.

Goodpaster and K. M. Sayre (South Bend, Ind.:

University of Notre Dame Press, 1 9 79), pp. 3-20.

I critically examine Frankena’s views i n “Frankena

on Environmental Ethics, ” Monist 64 (July 1 9 81 ) :

31 3-24.

2 . In the light of considerations set forth in Daniel

Dennett’s Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind

and Psychology (Montgomery, Vt.: Bradford Books,

1 9 78), it is advisable to leave this question unset­

tled at this time. When machines are developed

that function in the way our brains do, we may

well come to deem them proper subjects of moral


3. Stephen R. L. Clark, The Moral Status of Animals

(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1 9 77), p. 1 1 2 .

4. M y criticisms o f the dogma o f human superiority

gain independent support from a carefully reasoned

essay by R. and V. Routley showing the many logi­

cal weaknesses in arguments for human-centered

theories of environmental ethics. R. and V. Routley,

“Against the Inevitability of Human Chauvinism, ”

in Ethics and Problems of the 21 st CentuT}’, ed. K. E.

Goodpaster and K. M. Sayre (South Bend, Ind.:

University of Notre Dame Press, 1 9 79), pp. 36-59 .

5. For this way of distinguishing between merit

and inherent worth, I am indebted to Gregory

Vlastos, “Justice and Equality, ” in Social Justice, ed.

R. Brandt (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall,

1 9 62), 3 1 – 7 2 .

6 . Editor’s Note: For further discussion, see Paul

Taylor, Respect for Nature (Princeton, N . J. : Princeton

University Press, 1 9 86), 245ff.

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