Tag: Attfield

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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The dangers of Dualism


That our beliefs echo pre-Darwinian beliefs and values, or even Cartesian dualistic values, is evidenced by the amount of times we think of ourselves as being at the top of a hierarchy of living creatures, and how easily we slip into the language of ‘body’ and ‘mind’. So embedded is this hierarchical notion that challenging it elicits a violent response1: how can we even conceive of promoting a bacteria or a virus to an equal consideration with a Mozart or a Bach? The thinking that rejects this radical reshuffling of values is also the thinking that automatically assumes cognitive processing to be the prime example of intelligence, and homo sapiens to be the prime example of cognitive processing, (which is the ultimate in ‘ad hominem’ logic, if you’ll excuse the pun). Our success in altering the face of the Earth gives us ample confirmation that our species has had a qualitatively different impact from any other. Yet the accompanying assumption that this impact is somehow more positive than, say, the impact of a plague of locusts, does not stand up to scrutiny.

There is one other conceptual area in this context, to which we are often blind: the (Cartesian) fallacy of imagining the ‘self’ as a disembodied wraith located somewhere behind the eyes. Conceiving of an alternative – say, a series of electro-chemical reactions cumulatively extending until the self-conscious illusion of an ‘I’ is formed – is less familiar, and therefore less comfortable, as a means to describe our place in the world. This disembodied conception of ourselves allows all kinds of fracturing between any effort we might make to take material responsibility for the impact we have, as a species, on the rest of the biosphere, and our collective surrender to the myths and fantasies offered by religious faith – transubstantiation, the rewards of Heaven and the Rapture2.

1Those who call into question the wisdom of policies and practices which call for a rebalancing of human with non-human interests are sometimes called ‘human-hating’ (on the other hand, those who call for such a rebalancing are just as often themselves called ‘anti-human’) (see, for instance, Patrick Moore’s website online); Attfield finds it incomprehensible that we could view the complex cognitive capacities as anything but ‘higher’ processes, which are intrinsically more valuable than ‘lower’ processes like photosynthesis; and J. Baird Callicott recanted his own outspoken position on a rethinking of prioritising human over other interests for land use or animal husbandry in his Pallinode. To venture to question that human capacities are indeed at the apex of the evolutionary (Christmas) tree is seen as little less than heresy.

2The Rapture is widely accepted by a large proportion of the American population as a viable explanation of the state of the world as it is, and as a rationale for doing nothing to alter the destructiveness of our current behaviour, since the end of the world is more or less nigh. See…(website ref to ‘The Rapture’)

The problems with taking an ethical approach to the ecological crisis


The field of environmental ethics is focused at the moment on an attempt to decipher whether or not pragmatic or conceptual approaches can most usefully develop, engage with or explore the issues surrounding environmental issues. Thus it is concerned both with practical and metaethical frameworks. For instance, de Groot et al in a recent paper in the journal, Environmental Ethics, concerned themselves with the pragmatic issue of actual attitudes to the environment, discoverable through empirical research. These findings, they argued, demonstrated that ‘partnership’ was a common self perception amongst the individuals they interviewed. The traditional anthropocentric (Hegelian) “slave-master” arguments that are put forward by environmental ethicists are straw men, they claim, and don’t represent real positions taken by real people on the ground. So there’s a move in the field towards a more empirically-based approach to finding out about actual attitudes, in order to better come to an understanding of the normative concerns and values behind such descriptions. The arguments suggest that theoretical practice has lost sight of actual attitudinal change, which, in turn, comes about because of current environmental concerns. This itself, in turn, influences which metaethical questions are most relevant. Since the field of environmental ethics is so influenced by contemporaneous events, this three way interchange between description of attitudes, analysis of normative values, and engagement with metaethical concerns is fluid, to say the least.

The second major current concern for environmental ethics is the metaethical reassessment of non-anthropocentric theories. While these theories flourished for a while, up until as recently as two or three years ago, more recent work suggests that there is a return, certainly amongst some of the more established environmental ethicists of the age, to a reinvestigation of the prospects for anthropocentrism. In a sense, this is no more than a reflection of the findings of the likes of de Groot: that a guardianship approach to the environment includes and involves a perception of the combination of human and non-human interests into a common cause. Thus the work of Gary Varner appears to be returning to anthropocentrism. In fact, it has been hard for anyone working in the field to ignore the persuasive arguments for anthropocentrism put forward above all by Stephen J. Gould. And those philosophers whose ethical approaches are coloured by their own belief systems – Robin Attfield and Holmes Rolston III, for instance (both Christians, although Attfield, in a personal communication, claimed, interestingly, that his philosophical stance is not influenced by his Christian beliefs) – are more inclined to see the relationship between the human and the non-human in guardianship terms. Only James Sterba and, to a degree, J. Baird Callicott, amongst the ‘heavies’, remain committed to a form of non-anthropocentrism which opens itself up the the possibility of egalitarian valuing of all life.

Thirdly, the field of environmental ethics has become far more multidisciplinary in recent times. While, in a sense, this has always been true of environmental ethics, and in a sense the field only began to be ploughed, if you’ll excuse the pun, by philosophers, long after there was an established interest amongst biologists and geographers, political scientists and psychologists, more recently there has been a particular focus on the cultural ramifications and indices which give an idea of how the nature/culture boundary is seen, and which is included in which. This focus is evident, to a degree, in the work of Slavoj Žižek (although when he says things like, ‘All my socks are from business-class flights. Here I totally neglect myself,’ – what? You neglect yourself by flying business class? Then it becomes difficult to take him seriously). More obviously, the nature-culture boundary is explored in the work of Timothy Morton, who edits the site, Thinking Nature. In that publication Ross Wolfe wrote a seminal paper on the interplay between nature and culture which I think demonstrates the massive disconnect that exists between those who relate to the non-human world with respect or compassion and those who see it as ‘monstrous’ or ‘alien’ (both of which are also true, but this is a topic I will return to, in particular, when talking of Zen).

Fourthly, recent work by Dale Jamieson indicates the politicisation of the issues with which environmental ethics concerns itself, most prominently in the work he has undertaken to understand climate change, and attitudes and resistance found there. Although Jamieson himself is seen very much as a philosopher, many of those working in association with him on these issues are political thinkers, or specialists from other areas and the findings take as an underlying assumption the selfishness of both states and individuals, a finding that is itself open to question in the field of philosophy, and even more so if this is explored from a non-dualistic perspective.

And finally, Paul Taylor, who is the author of the book, Respect for Nature, which led to my own research into shifting perspectives, has opened the way for the development of an intersecting of biological research with philosophical implications. So many of the papers to do with the ethical implications of an increasing understanding of the microbial world, combined with a re-analysis of the work of Lynn Margulis, working in the 1970s and 1980s on symbiogenesis and microbial contributions to evolution, have opened up the possibility of a closer reinvestigation into how we perceive entities and systems, and so to the kind and extent (if any) of human responsibility. This means including a consideration of the meaning of evolutionary theory and the debates around cooperation and competition, evolution through DNA mutations or evolution through multi-level selection, and other complications that have come about as a result of ongoing research into the process of evolution.

The work I rely on to develop my own ideas comes from a number of sources. I’m interested in pragmatism as an alternative to ethics, for the simple reason that ethics relies on ideologies and ideologies create dualism between ‘there’ and ‘here’. Pragmatism, on the other hand, merely reflects on what is at hand. In this respect, amongst many others, Ernest Partridge’s http://gadfly.igc.org/ work stands out. As far as the Nature/Culture interstice is concerned, I’ve been informed by Morton’s notion of matrices, and by Wolfe’s notion of the acculturation of nature. In terms of multidisciplinarianism, I’ve been informed by recent findings in microbiology and in the recent work taking place on evolutionary theory, particularly as this pertains to relationships between organisms. The notion that issues in environmental ethics have a pragmatic focus which links with political theory has led me to a reexamination of John Rawls, and to looking into the work of Robin Dillon and many others on respect as a concept. Finally, on Paul Taylor’s own recommendation, I’ve been drawn to the literature which relates concepts of respect for nature with an increasing understanding of microbial/ macrobial interrelations. It is this, then, that is the particular area I’ve chosen to use as the prism through which to investigate the prospects of a viable ‘respect for nature’ that correlates with respect for the self and respect for the human other. 

Amongst much other work, incidental but connected to the above, which also informs mine, is the work of Wendell Berry, Ronnie Hawkins and Graham Parkes (who also generously agreed to supervise my work after the untimely death of Dr Thomas Duddy, my previous supervisor). Each of these thinkers has published profound insights into an imaginative or transcendent understanding of the relationship of the (human) individual to the (natural, but also often enculturated) environment. This has led me to a deeper investigation of the varying cultural responses to this problem of ‘seeing’ nature, first through Callicott and Ames’ work, Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, and finally, most significantly, to the work of Master Dōgen Zenji’s Shōbōgenzō. This is where I am at the moment, then: attempting to compare in ways that have been unexplored so far, the potential for Zen, and in particular, the practice-enlightenment that Dōgen talks about, to inform how we understand our place and relationship to self, other and the non-human, in the light of more recent evolutionary research into our origins and the systematic processes of which we are a part. The aim of this research is, therefore, a reiteration of the idea that we have an ability to respond to the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in, and that spelling this out is urgent and important. I hope that what I add to the existing calls for action will be wide-ranging, pragmatic and achievable. None of the ideas are, in themselves, new. I am simply combining ideas in a way that has not yet, I think, been envisaged. This parallels the process of evolution itself, which is simply recombination, but out of recombination emerges new forms, and so what arises from my own research is a new perspective on both a very ancient problem – how to live – in the current context – an ecological crisis.