By Michael Beecher
Nov 15, 2014
Biocentrism states that nature does not exist simply to be used or consumed by humans, but that humans are simply one species amongst many, and that because we are part of an ecosystem, any actions which negatively affect the living systems of which we are a part, adversely affect us as well. Biocentrism, in a political and ecological sense, is an ethical point of view which extends inherent value to non-human species, ecosystems, and processes in nature – regardless of their sentience. It stands in contrast to anthropocentrism which centers on the value of humans.
Advocates of biocentrism are likely to promote preservation of biodiversity , animal rights , and environmental protection. Although they are similar in many ways, biocentrism and ecocentrism are two distinct ethical viewpoints. Biocentrism is “a kind of ethics of individualism” in that it emphasizes the value, rights, and survival of individual organic beings. Ecocentrism, on the other hand, takes a more holistic approach, giving moral priority to species and ecosystems rather than the individuals that compose them.
History & Development…
Biocentric ethics differs from classical and traditional ethical thinking. Rather than focusing on strict moral rules, as in Classical ethics, it focuses on attitudes and character. In contrast with traditional ethics, it is nonhierarchical and gives priority to the natural world rather than to humankind exclusively.
Biocentric ethics can be found in Albert Schweitzer’s – “Reverence for Life“, Peter Singer’s – “Animal Liberation” and Paul Taylor’s book “Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics”.
Albert Schweitzer’s “reverence for life” principle was a precursor of modern biocentric ethics. In contrast with traditional ethics, the ethics of “reverence for life” denies any distinction between “high and low” or “valuable and less valuable” life forms, dismissing such categorization as arbitrary and subjective.
Conventional ethics concerned itself exclusively with human beings – that is to say, morality applied only to interpersonal relationships – whereas Schweitzer’s ethical philosophy introduced a “depth, energy, and function that differs from the ethics that merely involved humans.” “Reverence for life” was a “new ethics, because it is not only an extension of ethics, but also a transformation of the nature of ethics.”
Similarly, Peter Singer argues that non-human animals deserve the same equality of consideration that we extend to human beings. His argument is roughly as follows:
- Membership in the species Homo sapiens is the only criterion of moral importance that includes all humans and excludes all non-humans.
- Using membership in the species Homo sapiens as a criterion of moral importance is completely arbitrary
- Of the remaining criteria we might consider, only sentience is a plausible criterion of moral importance.
- Using sentience as a criterion of moral importance entails that we extend the same basic moral consideration (i.e. “basic principle of equality”) to other sentient creatures that we do to human beings.
- Therefore, we ought to extend to animals the same equality of consideration that we extend to human beings.
Paul Taylor, one of the major early proponents of biocentrism, maintains that biocentrism is an “attitude of respect for nature”, whereby one attempts to make an effort to live one’s life in a way that respects the welfare and inherent worth of all living creatures. Taylor states that:
- Humans are members of a community of life along with all other species, and on equal terms.
- This community consists of a system of interdependence between all members, both physically, and in terms of relationships with other species
- Every organism is a ” teleological centre of life”, that is, each organism has a purpose and a reason for being, which is inherently “good” or “valuable”
- Humans are not inherently superior to other species
In 1859, Charles Darwin published his book “On the Origin of Species”. This publication sparked the beginning of biocentrist views by introducing evolution and “its removal of humans from their supernatural origins and placement into the framework of natural laws”
The work of Aldo Leopold has also been associated with biocentrism. The essay The Land Ethic in Leopold’s book Sand County Almanac (1949) points out that although throughout history women and slaves have been considered property, all people have now been granted rights and freedoms. Leopold notes that today land is still considered property as people once were. He asserts that ethics should be extended to the land as “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity”. He argues that while people’s instincts encourage them to compete with others, their ethics encourage them to co-operate with others. He suggests that “the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land”.
Biocentrism in Law…
The paradigm of biocentrism and the values that it promotes are beginning to be used in law.
In recent years, cities in Maine, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Virginia have adopted laws that protect the rights of nature. The purpose of these laws is to prevent the degradation of nature; especially by corporations who may want to exploit natural resources and land space, and to also use the environment as a dumping ground for toxic waste.
The first country to include rights of nature in its constitution is Ecuador (See 2008 Constitution of Ecuador). Article 71 states that nature “has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes”