Tag: Gould

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 Goulden Rule (arousing compassion for self, respect for natural others)


Natural biodiversity has, to date, been valued only to the extent that it provides a ‘resource service’ to humans, in other words, entirely instrumentally. However, a reflection on this view quickly allows us to understand that clusters of organisms act to achieve their own flourishing within naturally biodiverse systems and that this is entirely independent of whether or not humans value them. What, then, has valuing got to do with biodiversity?

We need to begin to develop a sense of intense curiosity about how the complex interplay of interests within naturally biodiverse systems plays out. In doing this we may, even if through the artifice of culture, come to a point where it becomes natural for our cultural understanding of nature to include an appreciation that it has its own rules of engagement that are not reliant upon human intervention in any sense. In face, deeper reflection still will show, on the contrary, that the whole edifice of human consciousness and human understanding is dependent on the functioning of biodiverse clusters of other organisms, and not the other way around.

Ronnie Hawkins commented that there is an unhealthy dependency within current predominant cultural forces in the centres of power, mainly in the global ‘North’, on ‘our left-hemispheric specialization in the abstract and the linguistic, and the signs of right-hemisphere disease (or atrophy?): neglect of a large part of perceptual space (we can plainly see our human takeover of the planet, but we look away from it), anosognosia (we deny that there’s a problem at all), and confabulation (let’s talk about the stock market!)”.

Every living organism lives as though the world centred, if not on itself, at least on its species. One fundamental difference between the human condition and that of other clusters of organisms, then, is that human are extravagant, in the original Latin sense of having wandered from the path of a pursuit of our own needs, to pursuing potential needs, or experimenting with what could become needs, with what are, essentially, ‘wants’ (again, I’m reminded of Larkin: this extravagance is not, in itself, either good or bad. It is simply a matter of fact. Larkin wrote a poem called, Wants which contains the line, ‘Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.’ Quite apart from the wonderful rhythm of the line, the essence of what it expresses is the tension that is brought about by being in one situation, and having the urge to occupy another space (solitude, in this case). This tension is itself a kind of dualism, an awareness of there being other possibilities, and a natural curiosity, developing into a yearning, to be elsewhere.

Paradoxically, it is this very ability to occupy two spaces at once – the present and the conditional, the potential, that gives us the opportunity to practice just those activities that have allowed us to come to exploit or dominate other species. Wendell Berry gives the example of the restraint required when waiting for crops to ripen. This, in turn, gave us myths and legends to explain our place in the world (think, for instance, of the story of Persephone and Ceres as an explanation of winter, and also of the necessity of restraint: what if she had eaten twelve pomegranate pips?) It is the tension between being, as John O’Donohue describes it, and longing to be, or, be-longing, the longing to be a part of a bigger whole. We cannot join this larger unity because we ate the fruit of knowledge, we tell ourselves. The gap between this existence and the tension pulling us towards some unknown future that we can, nevertheless imagine (dream about, or dread) is the emergency: the stem of our ecological crisis. Emergent consciousness has created a distance from which to view the place we occupy in space but that very distance gives us a sense of alienation. We are strangers trapped forever in the possibility that there is something ‘other’ about ourselves. We have called this something a soul to give it an identity, or a mind because we cannot really understand how consciousness could occupy the same space as the physical realm we can quite clearly grasp, and this has allowed us the space to segregate our set of responsibilities, elevating the spirit and denigrating the flesh.

Now, however, it is time to deal with the emergency for what it is, a chimera, a ghost that is not alien at all, but simply the projected emergence of electrico-chemical activity brought about as a result of the kind of response to the web of conditions and relations we have evolved into. The closest practices that this practice parallels is the observational techniques used by Zen practitioners, specifically those described by Dogen Zenji when writing about the practice-enlightenment that comes about in sitting meditation.

What this practice allows is a space in which we can observe the relationship between perceptions and actions. We could call this, with Wendell Berry, “the middle ground” (after all, Buddhism is often called, “the middle way”). Berry outlines six elements that are realised when we take this reflective attitude:

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

Zen, paradoxically, by the process of observing the nature of the boundaries between entities and considering them until they dissolve into relationships, concludes that we are not tiny at all: or rather, we are so tiny, that we do not have any meaningful identity at all, except as points of perception that shift and fluctuate in an ocean of arising and dissolving connections. So we are neither tiny, nor huge. We are simply froth on the surface, soon to be reabsorbed;

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

Yet this wilderness does not exist as a separate realm from us, as points of perception. We are involved in it completely and it is inside us as well as around us (the biomass of microorganisms that coexist within us make up more mass than the DNA of our nuclei which we consider to be the blueprint for our separate selves). It is true that we have a continuum of identity in this regard. I can only pass on my own DNA, or some of it, to another generation: yet the virally derived ancestral RNA that also occupies my genes shapes the primate-derived expression, and so even in this sense, I am not fully separable as a primate, and nor are my offspring, physical or, more complicatedly, the words or art that might postdate me. Can it kill me, then? Undoubtedly, this point of perception, mobile as it is during the course of my biological life, will disappear at the point of death (or as near as makes no difference, I hope). In that sense, I will die. What will kill me is the necessity for energy to disappate, a process that I am a part of as much as any other element in existence. So, yes, this point of view will disappear and the clusters of organisms that located, albeit in shimmering dynamism, never all the same cluster, and never in one place for more than a few microseconds, will fall apart. This point of perception will never exist as a continuum again. This is death, no doubt, and it is brought about by the unfolding of the universe, and so yes, the wilderness will kill me. But I hope that this rather more complex explanation shows that this is not a simple, “them and us” statement. There is more interchange than that. And Zen reflection gives us images and ideas through which we can conceive of the interchange centred on emptiness. The wilderness will also die, in the sense that all energy will eventually dissapate. Nothing about the universe is permanent. This does not create immortality for ourselves but it creates a more integrated sense of the unfolding as being a more intimate affair than if it were just about a struggle to accept death.

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

The acceptance of death is an enormous task. We are inclined to resist it as a matter of biological fact. Everything about it repels us. Zen practice is entirely engaged in reflecting on this repulsion, the urge to move away from its consideration. By gently pulling ourselves back to the centre of its awareness, we change the quality of our relationship with it: it becomes suitable matter for reflection. The whole illusion that we are permanent has become so pervasive that we have suppressed an engagement with acknowledgment of mortality. It is the most vital and vitalising force we can harness: the fear that threatens to overwhelm us is the very impetus that will drive us towards a more integrated relationship with ourselves and all around us while we have a point of perception.

  • 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.

This follows, too, from Zen practice: there is no nihilism in the contemplation of death. Rather, it is the motivating factor that shows where and how the realm of action is defined. There is only this uncertain moment. No security for any kind of future. Only this space and place in which we can engage with whatever we can do to make the best of what there is. Reflecting on the kind of activity that is available to us within this space, we may come across the insight that there is little we could have done about the point that took us to where we are now. If we consider the image of emergence again, we can imagine ourselves as sleeping creatures, waking to consciousness, but not freed, by consciousness, from the chains of activity, the electro-chemical, the organic, reactions that are bound to operate according to natural laws and the chance encounters that send us on various tangents from the central aim: to keep away death as long as possible. We are not free in any traditional sense, then. That, fortunately or unfortunately, was an illusion (and this is another reason why an ethical approach demands too much of us: we simply don’t have that much freedom). Yet, as Zen itself has illustrated and as countless practitioners have experienced, the very act of reflection itself creates another layer of emergent possibility. The emergency holds within itself the potential for another layer of reflective emergence: the emergence of observation of the very processes that are acknowledged to be inevitable are loosened when we realise that the very act of observation itself creates space for possible responses to open in alternative ways. This process requires huge effort. It is fragile: there are more processes threatening to pull us back into strongly conditioned reactions than there are processes that support our experimenting with alternative responses. Yet these possibilities open with the realisation that reflection sheds light on our reactions to date, showing us how the chains of cause and effect have interacted. It is a fragile tool. Push observational effort too hard and it collapses back into frustration, envy, fear or any other conditioned realm. Fail to practice and the very possibilities are never given space for generation. But find that “middle ground”, and create a consistent effort, and the glimmerings of potential begin to appear.

  • 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

Berry seems in perfect accord with the Zen approach this time. Except that in Zen, it is not “good” that is intended. Compassion arises as a response to the realisation of the conditions we find ourselves in. Meditation on our condition develops the awareness that we are an element of biodiversity, just as biodiversity itself is an element of the energetic unfolding of the universe. Its unfolding is our unfolding. Recognising that we are a subsidiary of it is the agent’s step we must take in order to fulfil our own understanding, and in order to develop the impetus to act with enough richness of intent for the larger wholes: biodiversity, the ecology, Nature, community.

  • ‘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’.

The point that Berry makes here is that it is impossible to live without using energy. We are ourselves energetic processes and the requirement for our continuance is that we take in energy. However, the Zen practice of reflecting on cause and effect, of seeing the karmic chains of activity within which we are bound loosening as we watch them open into potentials, possibilities, shows that there are alternatives in how we act on this knowledge. We must eat, but even when the push towards utility is strong, reflection on our intricately bound relationships with what we eat can move us to consider the process of killing and eating as a practice of respect. Dogen writes of respecting even the tools used for eating. The food itself is not sacred in any religious sense, in the sense that it is imbued with any magical ‘otherworldly’ spirit. But it is as caught in the karmic web as we are ourselves, and this enlightened view arouses compassion. We can create the potential for compassion in how we grow and source and kill and prepare the food we eat, and we can extend this to how we relate to all our relationships.

Something else needs mentioning here: as I said above, the push to reduce potentials towards a single option is strong. One of the most severe constraints is judgment. However, there are many serious conditional constraints, for very many people, including hunger and extreme poverty. When these conditions constrain, judgments harden the options into narrower and narrower possibilities. As Caroline Lucas said, we have to find solutions individually and locally, and on a “case by case basis”. Again, without the prejudgments of ethical dictates, this is a more flexible, more fluid attitude. The effort required is all the effort we can give, no more or less. While this is not clear, in the sense that a rule is clear, nevertheless, it is very particular to our own conditions. The Golden Rule does not apply since your condition and mine are never parallel. Nevertheless the impetus remains to do as much as possible to create an enlarged frame of reference, as often as possible, and with a commitment to continue to practice the reflective, meditative state that creates the space for potential to open. We can adjust our activities as the balance shifts. Practice-enlightenment puts us in a position to realise our activities within the interconnections that contain and create us, using the lodestone of respect.

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

Neither human good nor natural good are ideals we can strive towards. Instead, practice-enlightenment extravagantly enlarges the space within which we can imagine ways of living that allow us to encompass the human within the natural world, as both unfold.

We may need to work to repair relationships. In particular, there are biodiverse ecosystems that require our respect and active reparation even if our reliance as a species on their continuance is not clear. Biodiversity itself is part of the condition of our existence and any instance of it, particularly where it has evolved independently of human interference, indicates that we are ignorant of our connections and relationships, and so ought to pay particular attention to respecting it.

We and it – wilderness, nature, the other, the community – are not separate, nor are we entirely separable. Our systems depend upon and nuture other systems. An appreciation of our naturalness is a necessary part of any cultivation of the necessary attitude towards the environment which will allow us to emerge from this emergency mature enough to take responsibility for our role in the demise of natural biodiversity.

Fundamentally, as Stephen Jay Gould recognises, what we need to arouse in ourselves is a sense of compassion, but for our own state, and also for the relational state we are in with other species, and finally, for the fragile state in which the biodiverse systems are that have been affected by our impact:

Yet I also appreciate that we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love (but only appreciate in some abstract sense). So let them all continue—the films, the books, the television programs, the zoos, the little half acre of ecological preserve in any community, the primary school lessons, the museum demonstrations, even […] the 6:00 A.M. bird walks. Let them continue and expand because we must have visceral contact in order to love. We really must make room for nature in our hearts.

(S. J. Gould, Unenchanted Evening: 40).

I disagree with Gould about the Golden Rule, and I disagree that all depictions of nature, sentimentalised, anthropomorphised, treated with pornographic intimacy, on television programmes and in films, is either beneficial or justifiable or serves to create room for nature in human hearts that experience nature so vicariously. Yet the general point still stands: some sense of close connection of what we live within – the extraordinary abilities of plant roots to source nutrition in the soil, the lives of cells, the migratory patterns of birds – is the only impetus strong enough to motivate a change of heart. To hope that this could develop among human beings who are struggling for justice, against poverty, in slum conditions, where escapism through addiction or violence is the norm, may seem to be extraordinarily unrealistic. Yet, as I will propose below, the human animal is strongly predisposed to develop the capacity for love, of self or other, human and non-human. It is on this predisposition that the emergence from the ecological emergency can gain a foothold, given half a chance.