Category: literature review

Fifth three: a more detailed examination of respect and self respect

The relationship between self respect and the environment looks a lot like a psychological question. After all, self -respect looks like something to do with self-esteem, with an idea of how we value ourselves. It looks like it will relate in some way to how we’ve been brought up, and this is a sociological, rather than a philosophical question.

The philosophical aspect of the question is this: what if self-respect is reduced to one part of its meaning: what if we understand self-respect as the ability that consciousness has to observe itself and out of that impartial self reflection, the potential for developing self regard in the positive sense? How might that help us understand self-respect as more than a sociological or a psychological idea? And what if this idea could be linked to the idea that the respect we have for things that we look out at, as it were, also arises as a result of reflective, impartial (or reasoned) understanding?

David Middleton’s idea is that there are three types of self-respect (as opposed to Stephen Darwall’s two kinds). Darwall, and Robin Dillon, wrote extensively about the importance of understanding different kinds of self respect and I want to use their ideas as a foundation so that I can explore what it might mean to take away the moral aspect of respect (the idea that it gives us or anyone else a sense of moral value) and replace this with the idea, from Dogen, that recognising how we interrelate with other species, and, from Sampson and others, how we interrelate as energetic systems, gives us a different sense of recognition respect which is more open ended. There is still the idea of self-respect based on our actions, and this (appraisal, or self-appraisal respect) is hugely important in the context of being motivated and inclined to take one’s activities and involvement in the world seriously. After all, without any sense of having qualities that allow one to contribute positively, one quickly becomes depressed or apathetic. Nevertheless, I want to focus on appraisal respect from a slightly different angle to Middleton and I want to suggest that if we appraise ourselves in the broader context of how freely we are allowing energy to flow through the relationships and systems within which we are enmeshed, then I think we can take our understanding of self-respect to a level that encompasses a much wider range of possibilities, and which incorporates the idea of meditation, or zazen, as a means of allowing both the appraisal, and the loosening of existing matrices, to emerge. We respect ourselves by the act of meditation and we also open up the possibility of being able to respect our activities through meditation, because meditation creates an arena within which we can allow the possibility of different ways of relating to emerge.

I want to compare this with Arne Naess’ idea of self-realisation. I need to do more research into this idea, but I think that the basic concept is quite similar to that which I’m attempting to describe as self-respect. What’s important for Naess, and for me, is that self-respect gives the impetus for activity that expresses respect for the environment. If we don’t have this kind of self-respect, we can’t hope to show authentic respect for nature (I’d argue that we also can’t hope to show authentic respect for one another or the world around us).

What I have to say about Naess too, however, is that I think the self-realisation he talks about is rather restricted by what Maslow called, the heirarchy of needs. It’s far more difficult to develop self-respect when basic needs are not met, and this is an enormous problem in the context of the environmental crisis because when people feel as though they have no control over where to get their next meal, then their ability to reflect on the broader context of their existence dissolves. I don’t think this an insurmountable problem: the whole nature of this thesis is basically concerned with creating a critical mass, and Dogen’s idea that everything becomes enlightened when just one individual gets it, sees the whole picture, sees the interrelationships and has that ‘ah-hah’ moment, is quite positive. Of course we have to work for social justice. And each context demands a particular response (which is why this thesis isn’t concerned with morality. Morality depends on inflexible principles and can actually create the very kinds of disempowering attitudes – despair, guilt, apathy, depression, and so on – that develop when people think that they can’t do enough. Every little act is important. That’s the key. That means that all of us who start thinking about this have to develop a compassion towards ourselves and what is going on, so the fear, and the sense of hopelessness that might threaten to overwhelm us are allowed to flow through as part of the free flow of experience, but that we know that whenever, and however, we can make an effort to step back and encompass our experience using the perspective of respect, we are creating, or practicing, enlightenment.

Fourth three: the organisation of knowledge

How is knowledge organised in this topic?


In Dualism, knowledge is ordered chronologically in the literature on the development of attitudes, from the time of the Greeks, onwards. You can do a chronological search for knowledge on dualism and you’ll find that the literature traces attitudes developing in the global North through first the Greeks, then the Judeo-Christian tradition, then Descartes and, since we’re looking at this from the point of view of the ecological emergency, finally through the ecophilosophers who have worked on the subject.


In a parallel vein, we can trace the history and chronology of the development of ideas in Soto Zen, first from India and the development of Buddhism, then through Tibet, SouthEast Asia and China and finally to Japan. However, it’s also useful to take a perspective on this and look in particular at the development of thought as it relates to dualism, and in particular to the understanding of the self, and of nature, and finally to the development of various aspects of non-dualism since I want to point out that Soto Zen focuses on dissolving boundaries at all kinds of levels, including between theory and practice, and there’s no journey, no road, just practice, which is enlightenment. I think this traces back to the tradition of buddhism, which was radically revolutionary (in the most peaceful sense) and I think there are parallels with Yoga that I want to point out.


Within Zen too, the knowledge that I am particularly interested in looking at is that which describes and outlines the practices that relate to respecting the process that is unfolding around the perceiver. I want to show how this idea has a strong resonance with the scientifically-based theories that posit, first, that all activities, including all human activities, are patterned processes and systems that accord perfectly with natural laws. This naturalistic approach means that there is no room for thinking that we exercise agency in the traditional sense of exercising free choice. Instead, we have to think of ourselves as being utterly enmeshed in relationships and responses that we can bring into awareness but not direct, escape or avoid. We are purely conditional on the laws that govern everything. These universal laws are not God, of course: we cannot posit a God that is as indifferent as that. It would be absurd. Yet we can develop a strange relationship with this information that is key in Zen: the ability to reflect back upon this understanding of ourselves. It is this reflection that creates additional layers to the process. We have, within the informational exchange that is a core feature of being alive, the emergent quality of perception. This might feel like a solid point of view but it is, of course, shifting and unsteady.


Next we can look at how knowledge is organised in evolutionary biology and in a sense we are looking at the development of ideas again, since there was an attempt to fit the findings to the current ideology and Darwin didn’t want to create too much of a stir so he may have underplayed some of the interdependencies and failed to point out or even recognise how interlinked and even how symbiotic some of the evolutionary developments were. Knowledge of evolutiaonry biology is organised differently from pure chronology though because it’s a recent (relatively) field so it’s probably important to organise it into the different branches and fields, from microbiology to paleoentology, to geology and the study of fossils to medicine, to plant physionomy, to genetics. I could probably organise those more carefully. Let’s try a historical perspective first, both in terms of subject matter (fossils, geology, and so on) and in terms of the history of the ideas (I’m only going to be sketching these in because the reality is that I want to give a background and an overview and then direct my attention to the areas that are relevant). On the origin of species, The Descent of Man, work by Wallace, Huxley’s defence (what else was written?) 1859, organic evolution, that was ok as long as we don’t have to give up god entirely. Darwinian evolution was incomplete. Mendel’s genetics needed to be synthesised with evolution. Discovery of DNA in the 1950s meant there had to be a synthesis between molecular biology and evolutionary theory. At the other end of the scale, E. O. Wilson in the United States and Konrad Lorentz and Niko Tinbergen in Europe were both working on the implications of evolutionary theory on the understanding of the behaviour of animals (for Wilson, groups, for Lorenz and Tinbergen, individual-to-individual and group activity, in the field they formed: Ethology). Both Lorenz, in his book, On Aggression, and Wilson in Sociobiology, took the next logical step, which was to apply their research to the behaviour of humans. The idea that human behaviour might be understood in purely naturalistic terms was hugely controversial, and still is. Yet the resistance is as much about a sense of reductionism as it is about confronting the potential loss of human separability that this final step implies.


Is it reductionist to talk of human activity in terms that are basically naturalistic? This takes us back into the realms of philosophy and since the 1960s, has formed a huge proportion of the work of major philosophers and areas of philosophy, from studies on Consciousness, and Agency, in the work of such philosophers as Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore, to considerations of whether or not animals are themselves moral (Scott James, Frans de Waal, Richard Joyce), or whether our relationships with other animals depend upon the kinds of creatures we, ourselves, are (Mary Midgley). What matters, then, is that there has been an inherent conservatism in reaction to this idea that human activity is naturalistic. Some of the resistance has been well articulated but at heart, I want to suggest, this has as much to do with a very human, or even a very natural, inertia towards the introduction of change or novelty. Personally, I think a good argument can be made for emergentism, which is the position that describes the characteristics of being conscious as arising out of the conditions that evolutionary pressures have brought about, purely by chance. We are not souls and bodies. We are evolved creatures who happen to have a self-awareness (that is shared, to a lesser degree, by other creatures, although because our brains have evolved along one trajectory and theirs along another, we cannot know how much of our kind of awareness they share, and nor can we know how much of existence, let alone living existence, shares any kind of awareness at all.


So we have to take a stab at guessing. And, at a guess, since consciousness seems to be a somewhat accidental function of being able to mirror the world back to ourselves in various potential states, there is an argument to be made that some sort of awareness (nothing remotely like human awareness, but awareness nonetheless) could exist at any level, certainly of the stuff we call ‘living’. So we can move from the literature on evolutionary biology, and of the philosophical reaction to it, to the literature of physics.


The Schrodinger Paradox


There are a few people who have thought about the next potential step to this process, which is to think about the awareness as an informational exchange, in the same way that energy, at the physical level, is an informational exchange. I’ve written about this elsewhere and don’t want to repeat myself, but this is like weaving a pattern into a tapestry and I just want to show how the pattern echoes. Scott Sampson was the first writer I came across who had articulated this idea (in What is your dangerous idea? 2006). He said that he had traced the idea as far back as the Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger, one of the first to articulate the hypothesis, as part of his famous “What is Life?” lectures in Dublin in 1943. More recently, Jeffrey Wicken, Harold Morowitz, Eric Schneider and others took the idea further, supported by results from a range of studies in both physics and biology. The most comprehensive description of the idea is laid out in Schneider and Dorian Sagan’s book, “Into the Cool”. John Tooby also talks about this idea in his 2012 answer to the question, what is your most beautiful/elegant explanation.


The basic answer to the paradox has to do with context and hierarchy. Material and energy are transferred from one hierarchical level to another. To understand the growth of natural complex systems such as life, we have to look at what they are part of—the energy and environment around them. In the case of ecosystems and the biosphere, increasing organization and evolution on Earth requires disorganization and degradation elsewhere. You don’t get something from nothing.

The spectacular rise of one side of Schrödinger’s program—the genetic and informational—has been made at the expense of the other—the energetic and thermodynamic. So, if we look at the dual information and energetic capacities of living clusters and ecosystems, we find that they maintain organisation as a result of the complexities that they offer for dissipating energy in increasingly complex patterns. More energy is used in the complex unfolding of life than is used in systems that do not have the replicative processes that they offer in place.

This applies beyond life too. Life processes information, in the form of DNA and RNA protein building and replication, but it functions, too, as a transformer of energy. It is an open, recycling system of energy transfer and dissipation, organised by the laws of thermodynamics, even though it came about purely by chance.


What are the implications of this idea for the current study? Firstly, I want to be clear that I’m not appealing to the authority of the people who have talked about this idea as proof of its veracity. There are good reasons why appeals to authority need to be rejected on principle since they prove nothing but that authorities have spoken. Nor can I defend the idea on the grounds that I have sufficient understanding of the scientific findings that have made connections between energy and biological complexity. Instead, from a philosophical point of view, I want to look at the idea and see what it involves and how falsifiable it is at each stage. Then, in terms of more elementary understanding of science, I want to lay out how at each stage the rationality of the argument, and its servicability as an explanation, works, given the best explanation we have of how we came about, which is evolution.


(I don’t know if this is the right place for this explanation but very briefly, it will have to proceed with an elementary explanation of the second law of thermodynamics, and proceed with an explanation of energy in terms of information exchange. There is another theory that I wrote about in my Oct 2012 presentation that I want to bring in at this stage, since it talks about the relativity of relationships. Then I will bring in an explanation of how we might understand the evolution of life in the context of the exchange of information, the flow of energy and the cycling of matter. In order to explain why the evolution of complex organisation and replication does not violate the second law, I will show that Schneider and Sagan’s explanation neatly fits what we know so far, that is, that it shows how life obeys the laws of physics itself. Then I want to add that the implications of this explanation include an acknowledgment that more complex relationship, informational exchanges, energy flows and matter cycles, all increase the dissipation of energy and therefore accord with these findings. In other words, biodiversity, and complex, naturally evolved clusters of organisms and ecosystems, generate more dissipation than less complex, less diverse systems. Therefore more complex systems create more stability, more flexibility, and are anti-fragile (can tolerate more extremes, since there is more recourse to alternatives). Simpler, less diverse systems are less tolerant of alterations in conditional changes, like temperature increases or decreases, acidification, and so on.


Eggs in Baskets


Does this give us an obligation to respond? No. An is cannot imply an ought. Yet if we acknowledge that this is how information is conducted through systems, then we can see that there are reasons why living in a more complex system, particularly given our own complexity (and therefore our vulnerability to the breakdown of complex systems) is to our benefit, if by benefit we mean, survival.



Definition of emergent: to be emergent, a thing must have a characteristic or a feature that did not exist and could not have been predicted, given its constituent parts. For the purposes of this paper, agency is emergent but agency in a special sense, in the sense of being able to create conditions (a meditative, background awareness) that allow one to bring into play a biofeedback mechanism that in turn influences the neural activity and allows psychological and physiological room to develop so that the neural pathways can explore alternative potential patterns. In other words, we can chose how to react to our entrapment within cause-and-effect chains. Secondly, consciousness is emergent: large numbers of neurons, evolved as responsive systems, combine to produce mind. Someone could argue that the initial impetus to create a space is a part of a causal chain and I would agree. This is the impetus to practice enlightenment and provoke curiosity in others, to write books, to take part in discussions, so that, without force, the response elicited will be to seek out more information, and that may lead to creating conditions, making room, as it were, for meditation.


Finally, in describing how knowledge is organised in the field of environmental ethics, we can take the view that it is organised around the principle of the centre of value, that there is a chronology to the development of the field, and that there is the organising principle of relativism versus monism.


The main questions in the four fields are as follows: firstly, in dualism, the main question has been, how many kinds of entities are there? Do we all belong to the same ontology? The second field, that of Zen, asks questions around how to live and how to relate to the world primarily from a sacred point of view. The third field, that of evolutionary biology, asks what life is, whether or not we can madke sense of it in scientific terms, and the questions I allso want to ask here are how can life be related to other levels of scientific understanding, like energy, matter, the distribution of heat, and the flow of information. The final field asks what we need to do to deal with the problems that have arisen as a result of negative human impacts on local environmentals and global environemntal systems.


The key players in the field of dualism are Descartes and crossing the boundary between environmental ethics and dualism, warwick fox and lynn white jr. Then crossing the boundary between dualism and Zen is Roger T Ames and Graham Parkes and J Baird Callicott. The key players in Zen are the Buddha and his sutras, and then Francis Cook, and Dogen with the Shobogenzo. The key players and texts in evolutionary biology are richard joyce on evolutionary morality, Darwin, Lynn Margulis, and then all the writers on energy, including Scott Sampson and so on. The key players in the field of environmental ethics – the list is huge. Holmes Rolston, Keller, Scott James (that might be ev mor) Sterba, and many, many otehrs, Rachel Carson, etc. Wendell Berry.


What links all the ideas that I’ve talked about, the intersection, is respect/self-respect, two sides of the same coin.





Second three. Covering ground: literature review and methodology (part of a narrative outline)

The history of the topic depends upon the history of four (in fact five) fields: dualism, Zen, evolutionary science and environmental ethics. The fifth area, the study of self respect, permeates each of these fields.


There are many contested definitions within this thesis that will need to be looked at and discussed, from basic ideas like environment, ecology, human and nature, to more novel ideas like naturally biodiverse clusters. Respect as opposed to reverence or even self realisation, and the idea of realisation as enlightenment, what it means to talk of the practice of philosophy, and the particular meaning of Zen (as well as things like memes) all need to be discussed as ideas. But meaning depends on context so much of the way that I use the different words will emerge as a result of describing how I see the context.


There have been lots of major debates in the different fields that I will have to touch on. Dualism is an entire debate in itself, from Plato’s forms and ideals versus impermanent matter, through the soul/body of JudeoChristianity to Descartes’ ghostly consciousness/mechanical flesh. Then there are the debates in Zen: instant realisation in Dogen contrasts with the idea of incremental stages of enlightenment in other traditions, whether Zen requires the complete dedication of monastic life or can be incorporated into lay existence, whether rituals and chanting bring one closer to enlightenment or whether pure realisation is possible through simply sitting, and finally, whether or not a guru is a necessary part of the process. Within evolutionary science there are debates around how species and individuals evolve, particularly characterised by Dawkins versus EO Wilson and the schools that have developed. Also between those who believe that evolution develops as a competitive or a cooperative process (my own view is that some mixture of the two drives the process, and I think the phrase used in the title of Frank Ryan’s book, Aggressive Symbiosis, sums this up. Environmental ethics has included debates about centres of value that are important to describe (anthropocentrism/zoocentrism(sentientism)/biocentrism/ecocentrism/allocentrism) but that lose their significance in this thesis because I want to focus on the non-moral approach. However, that in itself is a debate: can you have a theory of how to live based on pragmatism not morality? I’m going to argue yes and this brings in literature from evolutionary ethics and the work of Hans-Georg Moeller. The other debate between monism/pluralism in environmental ethics needs to be mentioned.


Self respect and respect and how they are understood have their own literature and I’ll mention this in more detail later.


The key theories, ideas and concepts are:

Within Dualism: non-dualism as an emergent state of consciousness

respect and self-respect as self-identical, given the collapse of the idea of the self (this is like the dropping away of mind and body that is central to Soto Zen)

the paradoxical requirement, nevertheless, that some sense of self-other boundary is maintained (this is also the recognition of the core element of survival as the individual’s DNA structure, even if this is cooperatively coevolved through the realisation attributable to RNA, etc) and therefore a key element of the thesis will be an attempt to find some approach that honours both this core division and at the same time acknowledges the non-dualism. Zen is the key to this: respect but not without losing self-respect. Pragmatism at the core. You do what you can. As long as a compassionate non attachment is developed, the potential conflict of interests can be avoided. There is no ideal. Only an opening of possibilities according to an assessment of current conditions.


Within Zen:

zazen (sitting meditation)

practice is enlightenment

respect as practice

buddha nature as emptiness

compassionate non-attachment

the motivation to act based on the self-reflective awareness of the conditional response


Within Evolutionary biology: interdependency and co-evolution

aggressive symbiosis

symbiogenisis (lynn margulis)

systems theory

evolutionary morality

energetic flows and matter cycles

self-reflective awareness creating a biofeedback system that allows an openness in the response to the current moment

Environmental Ethics: that we need to respond to the ecological crisis (but that the response needs to be an ethical one: this is not the case).

Within environmental ethics: the idea that there has to be either a stewardship approach or an allocentric approach. This idea can be shown to depend upon a dualistic perspective and therefore a different perspective, a non-dualistic one, will create the possibility of encompassing individual and human interests and personal interests of being of parallel consideration (does this work? This is a kind of win win idea, the idea that there don’t need to be losers, only participants)

The idea that there has to be either a monistic approach or a pluralistic approach. There doesn’t. There has to be an approach that works on a case by case basis. This is central to Zen and its central to the idea of the Tao. It’s also central to the idea of this approach.

The idea that there has to be an ethical approach. This is not the case. From evolutionary morality and the ideas that have been discussed there we get the idea that ethics is idiosyncratic and it’s better to understand things simply as responses to conditions and circumstances. That also involves the idea of looking at how patterns get stuck, or held, and the energy flow/matter cycle part of the approach shows that releasing these patterns allow a more fluid response. This is the work: it brings together Zen (how to live), environmental ethics (responding to the crisis), dualism (the point from which we’re perceiving what is going on, the paradigm), and evolutionary theory (scientific findings that support the possibility that we can shift our understanding of ourselves and of how we interrelate both as living creatures but also all the way down to the energy level).

Defining terms will take place during the description of the background. Some definitions will emerge from the context but I’ll make it clear what I mean by dualism, the particular aspect of Zen that I’m interested in, what I mean by evolutionary biology and what by environmental ethics. But I’ll have to go a bit further than that because all these definitions depend on others, and there are other terms that I need to define to draw lines, as it were, around what I’m talking about. Some of the main ones, again, chronologically, are respect and self-respect (I’ll probably have to have a subsection under dualism to show how these definitions have come about). For Zen, too, dualism is important and means something slightly different so I’ll have to compare the two meanings, and the meaning of respect in Zen with what we usually mean by respect, and self-respect, in the global North: I’ll have to show how these compare. There’s a huge mountain of literature on the nature/culture or human/nature divide. I’ll have to be careful (partly because I’ve read and written a lot about this already) to select what’s relevant. The same thing with agency.  Actually, that brings us quite neatly on to evolutionary biology and agency, and I’ll show how definitions of agency change in a scientific context compared, for instance, with the idea in Zen, or even in Descartes (again, I have to be careful to be selective with this).

This brings us to words like environment, and ecology, and I dealt with that a bit in an earlier post, and they’re subsections of thinking about nature so maybe I need to put them in under that section, only because I’m dealing with things chronologically, and Environmental Ethics is the last section, I want to look at what the problem is with an environmental ethics approach. So I want to define both environment and ecology, on the one hand, and ethics and morality, on the other, and I want to show why what I’m doing is ecological pragmatism, not environmental ethics.

I don’t want to list the major debates and conflicts in each area, but I do want to show how the four areas intersect. From dualism we get the debate between Parmenides and other monists or relativists and Platonic Ideals or Forms contrasted with impermanent, imperfect matter. Then we can jump forward to the Judeo-Christian division, again hierarchical, between (pure) soul and (impure) matter, and also, of course, between humanity, that group that God is interested in, and everything else, that group that is there to serve humanity, or is not worth considering. This then gives us a background for Descartes’ ghostly consciousness/ mechanical flesh division, and we can pause there and begin to review Zen.

Zen debates have involved whether or not instant realisation or slow practice led to enlightenment, and since I’m focussing on Dogen, I’ll be putting in a plug for the practice-is-enlightenment end of the debate. Next, I’ll outline the debate between whether or not Zen had to be practiced by monks and others who made that their whole purpose, or whether or not it was possible to attain enlightenment as a layperson. I will put in a bit about Dogen’s view which does seem to highlight the benefits of a pure monastic existence over a lay existence but Dogen’s was also called Farmer Zen, so in a sense, he popularised the practice and made it available to everyone. Then there’s the debate about how to achieve enlightenment and the different practices and rituals from chanting and reading sutras to understand them, reading koans, meditating on koans, ascetic practices, and finally there’s zazen, sitting Zen, or sitting meditation, which is Dogen’s method but which I want to critique a bit since I think that we can adapt the practice so we’re not sitting all day long, and so it becomes part of a wider practice of self awareness. I don’t know whether to put the critique in here. I also think that I can link this with the last bit on dualism by pointing out that these debates showed that there was dualism in some of the practices. And another thing I want to point out, for both Zen and dualism, is the idea that we can’t help and indeed we need to be dualists in a sense, so it’s not that we are demanding of ourselves that we become entirely without identity (and I’ll have to see if I can explain this carefully because in a sense that’s exactly what’s happening), nor can we get out of the skinbag. And we don’t have to. We just have to see the skin bag as an illusion. I think that’s what Dogen’s saying so I think this might be the right place to put this.

The third set of debates is that of evolutionary biology. Since Darwin, the question of how natural selection takes place has had a number of responses. The most recent is the DNA idea that gives Dawkins his raging individualism with the selfish gene argument. This is in contrast with the ideas put forward by Hamilton and EO Wilson, for instance, about the possibility that we evolve both as individuals and as groups. This has been a huge debate recently about this:

The selfish gene view is the view that if you lose in the Darwinian race, it doesn’t matter, because the traits that made you altruistic will survive in the closely genetic connected lines of your close kin who you’ve acted altruistic towards. The other theory is that kin selection isn’t overarchingly important since the competition among groups of individuals combined with classical Darwinian selection gives a much better picture. All the members of the group help one another succeed. Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruists. But within groups, groups of altruists beat selfish groups. That means you have a conflicted individual. Individual welfare or selfishness cannot be expunged neither can altruism be expunged without the breakdown of the group and the breakdown of the individual.

(this is transcribed or paraphrased from E O Wilson himself in an interview at:

The kin theorists reacted with extreme antagonism to this proposition and appealed, for instance, to polls, or to authority, or to other arguments that might show that the idea was untenable. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to believe that EO Wilson’s theory does provide a profound challenge to the individual genes thesis. Apart from anything else, if a theory fits the facts, then it is doing its job. And Wilson’s theory fits the facts. Humanity, like any species, has a long and solid history of contravention, of one form of pressure pushing in one direction while another pushes in another. Altruistic group selection is not some panacaea that will create a utopia of human society if properly understood because it embodies the human characteristic of pitting group against group, one of the most dangerous and destructive forms of transaction and interaction that exists within any species. another. (One aspect of this is the Attitude Polarisation effect that we’ve become familiar with recently, when views of groups gel towards the more extreme end of the spectrum as part of the process of identifying with as far distant a set of values from the counter-group as possible). However, as Wilson points out, the best solution to finding answers to our problems lies in educating ourselves, and that means obtaining as much objectively (scientifically) falsifiable data on a situation as possible, and understanding more clearly what we are, again, through a method that allows disproof as well as proof, and that is, science.

Is it possible to know who we are? EO Wilson says yes. Where we come from and what are we are the two central questions of religion and philosophy. Different myths and different struggles have given us lots of possible answers but science has really pushed our understanding into a much more verifiable (or, as I said above, falsifiable) realm. We became the kinds of creatures we are precisely because of the sorts of pressures that played a dominant role during our evolution. What we know about evolution is that individualist selection took place first: we are individualists before we are cooperators. But one final step was taken by the groups that evolved as social species (for instance, humans and ants). That step involved group selection as a kind of meme overtaking or at least compromising individual selection. Human nature is described precisely by this mix of genes: the individualistic urge compromised by the urge to be a part of the group. And it is this latter urge that has turned us into altruists.

There is always pressure not to be an altruist. This is something that we must learn to live with. We cope with this by telling stories, dwelling on our group history, and learning to live with the often uncomfortable picture this gives us. A part of the evolution of our genes is towards altruism. Every decision therefore entails a competition between reflecting individual and group interests. The two forces play out agains one another. In the midst of this conflict, we have to find a decision that reflects some interaction of both. This, again, is an image at the heart of our dualistic understanding.

As globalisation becomes more important to our understanding of the world and ourselves (and the paradigms of the global North, including historical scientific understandings), it might be envisaged that the group would naturally expand to include the species. This does not happen without considerable reflection, however. It is not the biological imperative. If we want to succeed as a species, and success, in species terms, is survival, then we have to act altruistically, even if this requires a recognition that altruism is aggressive symbiosis, meeting other ideas about how to live head on and challenging them on this, the most global North of paradigms: scientific method. But one element of the global South has to meet and influence the blind neutrality of science, and that is an acknowledgment that, for humans as a species, survival is necessarily a good and important thing: from molecular genetics to the social sciences, we have to bring in wisdom, that most qualitative of elements. We have to decide not just to live, but how to live.

Berries and Partridges: the nature of the culture of egoism

Wendell Berry characterises two opposing perspectives on Nature: that of the group which sees no inherent conflict between the good of Nature and the good of humanity, on the one hand, and that of the group which sees the good of Nature as being in direct conflict with the good of humanity. His detailed response to this is one I laid out earlier (I’ll repeat his points in brief below, because they bear repetition:

1. We are tiny in relation to the wilderness in which we live.

2. This wilderness is the universe. We depend on it, yet it will kill us at some point.

3. We cannot solve the ‘problem’ of our endangered state. It does not have a solution.

4. But we can live in harmony, more or less, with our native wilderness. We cannot achieve this harmony simply or easily but it can become, indeed it is, our life’s work

5. It is not possible for humans to intend their own good specifically or exclusively: we cannot intend our own good, in the long run, without intending the good of the place

6. ‘To use or not to use nature is not a choice that is available to us; we can live only at the expense of other lives. Our choice has rather to do with how and how much to use. This is not a choice that can be decided satisfactorily in principle or in theory; it is a choice intransigently practical. That is, it must be worked out in local practice because, by necessity, the practice will vary somewhat from one locality to another. There is, thus, no practical way that we can intend the good of the world. Practice can only be local’.

7. ‘If there is no escape from the human use of nature, then human good cannot be simply synonymous with natural good.’ )

We cannot help but use nature. But if the reflective biofeedback mechanisms, the reflections on the energetic flows within which we exist, alter our perspective and even create a realm for possibilities to open, we can help but exploit it. We can use our natural extravagance to imagine ways of living that allow us to protect natural biodiversity by investigating the impact of our activities and the culminative impact of the activities of our communities, businesses institutions and even cultural paradigms. This can determine how we can best effect a balanced consideration of interests.

What I am attempting to articulate here is a position which is beyond both ‘humans as natural’ and ‘humans as artificers’, a position which recognises that our understanding of Nature, and more broadly, of ‘the environment’, is culturally-shaped (but that many interpretations of cultural imperatives exist within every society). This means that, to the degree that we can reflect on culture, we can also reflect on Nature and our relationship to it. Humans are artificial to the extent that they are acculturated, and they are free to question that acculturation to the extent that the culture allows for self-critical reflection. The act of reflective questioning is itself an act of freedom that requires exploration if it is to take full advantage of the extravagance that is our species’ key characteristic.

Ernest Partridge, on the other hand, along with any other philosopher who has considered the point carefully, justifies Paul Taylor’s division. While in one sense it is perfectly legitimate to make the logical claim that humans come within the sphere of the natural, from the point of view of examining our relationship with the rest of the natural world, it makes perfect rational sense to talk of natural in opposition to, ‘of human origin’. In the same way that it is possible to talk of psychological egoism, says Partridge, as a theory which claims that all human action is selfishly motivated, and yet to question the impoverishment that such a theory imposes upon any understanding of how humans act (since it reduces Gandhi’s response to the human situation to the same status as Attilla the Hun). A discussion of the human as a subset which is nevertheless separable from the natural is a perfectly legitimate way of enriching any understanding of how the two spheres interact, or fit together. (I will talk about the reductionism of egotism in a later post).

Consciousness, intelligence and decision-making

‘we must decide how to live’ (Taylor: 48)

It is not indisputable either that humans ‘decide’ how to live in a way that is distinctive from other species, or even that humans ‘decide’ how to live in any meaningful way at all. In the first case, strong arguments have been made to show that a broad range of organisms make clear choices, and thus ‘decide’ in a way commensurate with our understanding of human ‘decision-making’.

Of course, it is clearer to us that humans decide than, say, that grass ‘decides’ which way to put out roots or shoots, but that may well be because we are human, and therefore human decisions (conscious as they are) have a particular resonance for us. Matthew Hall, Daniel Fouke and Charles Cockell, in a number of separately published and otherwise unrelated papers, all put forward strong arguments to suggest that organisms as apparently ‘simple’ as microbes (bacteria, fungi, and the like) or as structurally bounded as plants, nevertheless show clear signs of choosing through directional growth and other evidence ‘how to live’. There is evidence to suggest, for example, according to Hall, that a variety of species of plants clearly avoid directional growth which would lead the plant to encounter toxins, for instance, or other obstacles to growth. Hall goes so far as to label this level of agency “intelligence”, given that intelligent behaviour is, by his definition, behaviour which leads an organism to act to avoid certain harms (the definition of a stupid action, so they say, is one that is conducted in the same way repeatedly, with the expectation of different results each time).

In the second case, while it is claimed that human agents are the only entities we know about which have the capacity to rationalise, and to recognise and reflect on their own good, this claim is also open to dispute. All we can legitimately say is that some, perhaps most, humans, reflect on their own actions, while the vast majority, but not all, other natural biological entities, do not. It seems likely that it is difference in degree, and not in kind, which separates our agency from that of other biological entities.

Taylor points out that our ability to deliberate consciously on what kind of life to lead sets us apart as a species. Consciousness might well be considered a part of Nature (see Philos-L 15 March 2010) but, as Berry argues, consciousness is effectively enculturated, and it is within the artifice of culture that consciousness gives us our responsive domain. Conscious humans, more or less alone amongst living agents, “give direction to their lives on the basis of their own values” (Taylor:33). But surely these values are derived from our cultural understandings of ourselves and how these, in the crucible of our individual moments of self-reflection, allow us to locate ourselves in the physical, biological domain? A culture, for instance, that embraces a recognition both of the cultural and of the natural human would consider that in acting harmfully towards natural biodiversity we are acting harmfully towards ourselves. This holistic attitude might be misinterpreted as implying that “harm” is avoidable. But harm is no more avoidable than pain, or suffering, when these are understood as experiences within our self-awareness. Simply to be aware, let alone to move, eat, grow, reproduce or sense, are all replete with opportunities for suffering, even as they are all processes of our own survival which depend, more or less, on limiting or arresting the survival or survivability of other living individual organisms. It is meaningless, surely, to suggest creating a culture that promotes the avoidance of harming Nature, since our own survival depends upon such harm. What is important is to recognise that the self-reflective feature of our own consciousness gives us the potential space to create biofeedback loops that anticipate and extend possible responses to include those which minimise this harm, even as they acknowledge that the excision of such harm, like the excision of pain from life, is impossible.

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.


There are various obvious limitations to this discussion, some of which I am aware of. Firstly, while I discuss some of the reasons why it is preferable to move the centre of consideration from humans to an ‘allocentric’ or non-anthropocentric perspective, I do not defend this from the point of view of an ethical position. This is because I have moved, recently, from considering the problem as one of environmental ethics – a position that I seek to show creates more problems than it resolves – to a position of pragmatism. I do, of course, give space to a discussion on the move from an ethical to a pragmatic position. In the same vein, there is extensive material relating to the relationship between inherent worth, inherent value, intrinsic worth, intrinsic value or any combination of the above, and moral considerability. when I began this work, I relied largely on the work undertaken in the 1970s by Richard Routely, amongst others. Their position was that the relationship between a locus of value and its moral considerability is, if not a logical, at least a rational one. This has been the focus of the thinking of several writers and I have little to add, except to say that the pragmatic position I take also posits a rational relationship between the act of responding to understanding and information, and the act of understanding from a non-dualistic position.

I don’t defend in any detail the idea that there is an environmental crisis being played out on the planet, nor that human impact is largely responsible for this impact. While these are contested issues for a considerable proportion of the population, I think that empirical evidence can either be accepted or rejected and I am not interested in continuing that particular discussion. The one area I do investigate in detail is the relationship between agents, on the one hand, and what Paul Taylor called “patients”, on the other.

The significance of my own argument is that it continues the attempt, made by several writers (notably Graham Parkes, but going as far back as Arne Naess, and including Callicott and Ames, among others) to consider philosophical foundations for proposing an alteration in the attitude of the human species to its relationship with the non-human world. The first attempt was to reverse some of the standard thinking on locus of value, and to address some of the conceptual and practical issues surrounding the human response to the environmental crisis through approaching the problem as an ethical one. I argued that if the current programme of attempting to resolve the crisis of biodiversity and habitat loss, pollution, and so on, is centred on what is of value to humans alone, then there is no strong reason for considering organisms which are not directly of value to humans and their plans. This means that while an environmental ethic can be developed which will attempt to save the pandas, because they’re pretty, or allow for the reintroduction of sea eagles, because they’re noble, there will be no attempt to analyse the soil and learn about how systems work for their own sakes. More strongly there will be no reason to allow parts of the world to remain completely free of human intervention. There will be no reason to attempt to restore biotic systems because they are rare, or unique (unless scientific curiosity gives a reason). There will be no reason to respect or treat with care biological entities which one comes across. It will not matter, unless it is seen to matter to human interests (in other words there may still be arguments made for not treating some sentient creatures like machines, since the ill-treatment of fellow sentients may have an effect on the moral development and behaviour of human to human interactions, as Jeremy Bentham memorably argued). The approach that centres its justification for how humanity relates to the non-human world on the grounds of what is of interest to the human species will, in the end, backfire as an attitudinal stance, since not enough will be required of the species to mitigate the impact of activities that have been damaging to biosystems to date, and not enough is required, from this point of view, to solve the difficulties that this attitude will continue to create. The difficulty is how to create a strong enough impetus untangle the level at which we treat one another and other species as ends in themselves from the level at which we see ourselves as moral agents, with all the privileges and demands that such a perspective gives us.