Biocentrism in Environmental Ethics

Instructor: Bob Bruner

Bob is a software professional with 24 years in the industry. He has a bachelor's degree in Geology, and also has extensive experience in the Oil and Gas industry.

Biocentrism is a philosophical and ethical premise that all living organisms should be considered as equals. In this lesson we compare this to the anthropocentric viewpoint that places humans at the center of moral and ethical decision making.

Ethics, Morals, and Biocentrism

Ethics and morals are concerned with concepts of right and wrong. We often weigh ethical and moral questions in relation to what we consider to be right and wrong from a human perspective. For example, many humans consider it acceptable to take the life of another animal to provide for their own sustenance, but would consider it wrong to take the life of another human being for the same reason. We use the term anthropocentric to refer to ethics that are centered on a human viewpoint.

When taking a biocentric view of the world, answering these types of questions from a human perspective is considered to be too limiting, given our place on a planet with many diverse forms of life. Rather than giving priority to human concerns, biocentrism is a philosophy that asks us to give equal priority to all other living organisms when making moral and ethical choices.

Biocentrism in Historical Context

There are many examples of biocentric principles that can be found throughout history. This is particularly true when looking at those societies where humans live in close connection to the natural world. For example, Native American traditions emphasize the deep connection that binds all of nature together, with the view that all living beings and natural objects have some essential sacred value.

Many mainstream religions also provide examples of moral and ethical thought that can be seen to align with biocentric philosophy. In the Christian tradition, Saint Francis of Assisi preached what can be considered a biocentric theology of respect for nature, and has been proclaimed as the patron saint of ecology based on those teachings. Similarly, the first fundamental Buddhist ethic is the dictate that we as humans should avoid killing or harming any living thing.

Reactions to the effects of the industrialized world have fostered additional concerns about how man has come to interact with nature. In the early 20th century, Albert Schweitzer was instrumental in popularizing and promoting what he referred to as a 'reverence for life', which he had come to view as a complex interrelationship of plant and animal life forms. While he did not use the term biocentrism, Schweitzer proposed that the entirety of life, not just human life, could be used to determine moral value.

In 1986, Paul Taylor published Respect for Nature, a treatise that is considered to be the first rigorous, philosophical defense of biocentric ethics. This book provided four basic tenets that outline what Taylor termed a 'biocentric outlook' on life:

1. Humans are equal members of the earth's community of life

2. Humans and members of other species are interdependent

3. All organisms are centers of life in the sense that each is a unique individual pursuing its own good in its own way

4. Humans are not inherently superior to other living things

Taylor argued that humans are not privileged amongst other life forms, emphasizing instead the complex relationships that exist between humans and the whole of nature. Part of this argument points out that humans have inhabited the earth for a very short period of time compared to many other organisms. And, while many organisms do not depend on humans for survival, humans would likely become extinct very quickly without the support of many life forms.

In making these arguments, Taylor proposed that all other things being equal, we should give the same moral consideration to the welfare of all other organisms as we do to our own human concerns. It is interesting to note that Taylor did not argue for the moral interests of the environment as a whole, or for non-living entities, but placed the good of individual living organisms at the center of this philosophical outlook.

Ethical Debates Around Biocentrism

Perhaps the most fundamental debate that arises from this philosophy questions whether it is even possible to adopt a purely biocentric viewpoint of the world. Can we, as human beings, actually place ourselves outside an anthropocentric viewpoint? In response, a biocentrist would argue that while we are intrinsically driven by human needs and desires, the welfare interests of all living organisms need to be considered when making conscious choices, and that those interests need to be given equal weight to human interests.

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