‘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.