Moving the golden rule: from anthropocentrism to allocentrism

The view that we consider every living organism by virtue of its having what Paul Taylor called ‘a good of its own’ raises so many questions of practical implication, it is argued, that the view has largely been rejected altogether. Instead, the alternative – anthropocentrism – holds sway. We are self-interested and we can only consider interests that support or, at the very least, don’t undermine our own. This is the basis of the rule, “do as you would be done by,” the so-called Golden Rule that I discussed in yesterday’s post. Today I want to show how we can shift the focus, and shift the golden rule so that it really shines.

If biocentrism is the idea that we consider ourselves and others from the point of view of being living organisms, ecocentrism is the view that we consider the interests of communities of organisms. This is based on the idea that every community of living organisms and even the non living backdrop upon which that community is established and depends, systematically avoids annihilation as a central character of its identity. If human avoidance of annihilation is no different in character from the activity of any and all other systems and processes, then what basis have we to conclude that we take an interest only in our own avoidance strategies?

The crucial question here is, just how connected, and more, just how dependent, is the human process on the larger systems within which it is nested. More, if evolutionary biology has found that the modus of information transfer is exclusively DNA replication, then there is no inherent justification for considering interests beyond the human. Only if we can show that evolution proceeds using other processes than simple DNA transfer can we acknowledge that our evolutionary survival is dependent upon wider consideration of interests, and we need, therefore, to take them into account as a matter of self-interest.

Biocentrism, as I am sure you will recall, proposes that considering the interests of other entities (or, as I have suggested, clusters of, or closely correlated, entities – including information exchange between them) is supervenient upon a recognition that all entities are teleologically driven “ends in themselves”, to use Kant’s famous phrase. From cillia-driven microbes to climate-dependent rainforests, and including forward-planning humans, the common element among all these systems and processes is that they avert annihilation – not all knowingly, of course, but not mechanically, either – by responding and reacting to hold ground, to hold a space through which information can be exchanged. Information, in simple physical terms, is exchanged and energy is dissipated in the process. More complex, human informational exchange also dissipates energy (talk is cheap, but never free). Living systems are dynamic systems of energy that temporarily holds itself in patterns that dissipate and distribute more complex layers, wavelengths, combinations, than would be the case were they not there. Yet this does not imply that there was some grand plan to create life in order that this dissipation came about. Instead, we can imagine the beginning of this process as a chance event. Nothing designed life, yet life, especially as it occupies increasing numbers of niches, as organisms differ and relate in more and more complicated ways, becomes a distribution system for energy. Matter, a form of energy, cycles through processes of replication and reproduction and at every interaction, energy is redistributed from the solar flow, outwards.

If living things can be understood in this way, it is helpful to reconsider the character of avoidance of annihilation, of holding ground. DNA (and RNA) are the ultimate holding grounds, patterns of information that alter only slightly each generation. This stability fluctuates, however. It is dynamic and many factors interact to ensure that there is not only one way that a gene can be expressed. The relationships between organisms are an extremely important stratum of the process of information exchange of which DNA and RNA are elements. So which Dawkins et al are right, to the degree that they argue for the supremacy of the gene in transferring information along a time continuum, to play down other factors (virally derived RNA and its interaction with DNA in its phenotypic expression, for instance) is to lose sight of the complexity of the process.

Arguing for ecocentrism is difficult: there are no features of information exchange that correlate between entire communities of varied species. However, because communities of diverse species have evolved in parallel, and through exchanging information, influencing one another in the process, there are good reasons to believe that whole communities of interacting organisms are at least somewhat inter-reliant. And that, therefore, they need to be considered as wholes, and not just as single species.

James Lovelock famously suggested that communities, including the entire ecosphere, have processes that maintain its integrity. Evidence for this is controversial: reconciling this with evolutionary theory is not easy. However, it makes sense to consider both entities and relationships when deciding what interests are to be weighed in to a picture of how the human agent is to respond. Biocentrism, therefore, is somewhat incorporated within ecocentrism, on this view. We could call this bio-ecocentrism, but the word is ugly. More pleasing, and more accurate, is Ronnie Hawkins’ word: allocentrism. This is the idea that we view interests impartially, using our (humanly exclusive) empathetic imaginations to extend our rational understanding of what ecosystems and the species within them need for their functioning, and nesting human interests within the wider sphere.

I mentioned Stephen Jay Gould’s article on The Golden Rule yesterday. He made the point that we protect and preserve other species on the grounds that we are dependent on their continuing survival for our own, and that therefore we do to others as we would have done to ourselves. This, it seems to me, is inaccurate as a portrayal of the rule in question, because the minute we consider doing unto others what, in their situation, we would have done to ourselves, we require of ourselves that we step out of the values and benefits of being human, to a consideration of the values and benefits that accrue to other species, from their point of view, when particular conditions prevail.

Therefore I have challenged the contention that the golden rule is anthropocentric since it seems allocentric in every regard.

The golden rule has often been cited as the common ground on which is founded every religious system humans have ever invented. Recognising and putting the Other in one’s place is fundamental to acting with due consideration for Other interests. The reciprocal element (‘as you would be done by, if someone or something else was acting on you’) is at the heart of the debate about whether or not we evolved a ‘moral sense’. Yet this is nothing to do with morality, if we look more closely. The reciprocal relationship this rule characterises is entirely self-interested. It is the fundamental element of Game Theory: I act considerately; the Other acts considerately back.

That Other has, for most of human history, been confined to the consideration of members of our own species (a tiger doesn’t act considerately back, does it?) But this is based on the mistaken idea that restricting our thinking to other humans (or, more traditionally still, to humans within our clan or family) will ensure our survival. If we review the golden rule we can see that it must have evolved from conditional thinking: what if? What if the tiger is hungry? I will avoid the tiger, I will find a way of escaping it. Not, do as you would be done by, then, but do what you can to think like a tiger, in order that you maintain your integrity as a human being. There is a pragmatic imperative in shifting perspective. Our recognition that we are not the centre of the universe, that we are not alone in the struggle to avoid annihilation, and that therefore, supervenient upon that fact, we are not alone in meriting consideration when it comes to that avoidance, adds an extra dimension to the onus to view the world allocentrically. When we think like a tiger, we appreciate non-judgmentally the tiger’s motivations. We do not kill unless we have to kill. We appreciate the space that each of us needs to hunt, to maintain life. Where this becomes intolerably close (as in some Indian villages, or the Life of Pi), we think like a tiger in order to destroy it, or reduce it to manageable submission. When this is achieved without judgement, without invoking hatred or fear to justify the action, then we are thinking allocentrically, creating grounds for our own survival while working to minimise the unnecessary cost in energy dissipation to ourselves or the other.

The second reason anthropocentrists sometimes give for protecting the environment is that they see themselves as its custodians, or stewards. We can call this position, Stewardship, and amongst moral reasons for protecting the environment, it is undoubtedly the most accepted position at present. The problem with stewardship is that it assumes a) that we are in a unique position with regard to the environment, in the sense that we alone of all species have the capabilities to shape, manage and protect the rest of the living world. Certainly we have the capabilities, long proven, to shape and manage large tracts of the rest of the living world. However, we have yet to show ourselves adequate custodians – most of our management of the living world has taken the shape of reducing natural biodiversity, destroying natural ecosystems, introducing alien ecosystems, degrading the environment with pollutants and, arguably, changing the entire climate pattern with consequences for the survival of vast numbers and populations of species whose evolutionarily adaptive mechanisms simply are not capable of adjusting to the current rate of change. And b) that we are in a position to ‘know’ what is good for the rest of the living world when we are a mere blip on the surface of life and have very little idea of what, if anything, the meaning of existence, human or otherwise, actually is. To consider ourselves stewards, then, is to give ourselves credit both for a capability we have so far failed to show, and for a knowledge we simply don’t have. This undermines any attempt to shore our position up as something that deserves the label, Ethics. Instead, it is the advocation of humility in the face of our condition, that we are indeed natural clusters of organisms, and that we have, do and will destroy other clusters of organisms and relationships, sometimes consciously, sometimes without awareness. Reflecting on this is the only means we have of stirring different possible reactions to light: we can become conscious of some of the occasions when, before, we were unaware. We can examine the possibility of compassionate activity, of reducing the suffering that is created.

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