Are animals and non-living nature moral beings?

In the course of history, strangers, women, slaves and children have been included in the moral circle. In this chapter, several answers will be written to the question, if and when, animals, plants, communities, landscapes and non-living nature are moral beings. This question is the same as: who or what are moral patients, which means, beings that belong to the moral circle, but cannot claim or exercise moral rights. In short, are animals, plants etcetera morally equal to newborn, very demented or comatose people, who share the same moral rights as other people?

Treating the dirt: environmental ethics and moral theory

Edward Johnson in: Earthbound, new introductory essays in environmental ethics, 1984. Resume by [SL]. Susanne is employee of the Agricultural University of Wageningen (Landbouw Universiteit Wageningen).

1. Human chauvinism

According to this concept, humans are morally superior to other beings, because only humans have moral worth, or because the moral worth of humans is bigger than that of other beings. This concept is sometimes also called speciesism, because it grants a (greater) moral value to humans, on the score of the fact that one belongs to the human species. The arguments that have been given for this concept are numerous, for example only humans are rational, or can define their own goals. Here looms the question of all humans share the same moral value. Strictly argued, one could say that only humans with moral relevant capacities, as mentioned before, have (greater) moral value. As far as known, nobody defends this. Because they are moral patients (as mentioned before), the same moral value is assigned to newborn, heavy demented or comatose people as to other people.

2. Peter Singer and respect for interests

Singer is supporter of the ethic utilism, that states that this action is morally right when it brings the most luck for all concerned. Some animals belong to these concerned as well, according to Singer. He lends this argument to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who stated that the capacity to suffering the only moral relevant attribute is. All beings capable of suffering, can be happy and unhappy, or -in terms of Singer- have interest in the absence of suffering. This doesn't mean that all animals are moral beings, only the animals that are capable of suffering. Singer puts the limit somewhere with crustaceans. Singers concept is also called sentientism, because he only assigns moral relevance to on the basis of capability of feeling. [SL- a striking detail is that some years ago, Singer came across heavy protests of German patient organizations, because he said that when for example a drug test on people with heavy mental disabilities resulted in more happiness than on chimpanzees, it was morally more just to do this experiment on these people.]

3. Tom Regan and respect for inherent value

Regan rejects utilism, because this leads to contra-intuitive conclusions (like the example mentioned above). Regan is a deontologist, according to whom the moral justness of actions is based on moral laws of the concerned (and not the consequences of these actions, like utilists state). That's why we think medical experiments with heavy mental impaired humans is unjust. Singer's criticism is that our intuitions are no good touchstones for what is moral just, because they can stop moral progress. According to Regan all beings with inherent or intrinsic value have moral rights. The question, then, raises: which beings, and based on what, have an inherent or intrinsic value? The answer of Regan says: all beings that are 'subject of a life'. His description of what these are, agrees mostly with Singer's moral circle: all beings with desires, goals, feelings, preferences, well-being etc., in short all sentient beings. Specifically this means: all humans and all mammals older than one year.
Subsequently, the author reacts to another basis of an inherent or intrinsic value, which is having a 'good of itself' (see Taylor hereafter). All beings that have a good of itself, which means, independent of human goals, have an inherent or intrinsic value, according to this argumentation. Then animals, plants, communities, or non-living nature, that has no consciousness, can also belong to the moral circle. The question raises, on what is this 'good of itself' based, and will the unfairly transition from 'be' to 'belong' not be made? The problem of this transition, is that the fact that someone or something has a certain attribute, is an insufficient argument to deduce, how this or that should be treated. [SL- Singer and Regan have worked together for several years in their defense of these animals as moral beings. The controversy utilism/deontology terminated this co-operation.]
Singer and Regan are called zoocentrists, because they only want to expand the moral circle with (some) animals. The undermentioned ethicists are biocentrists, who state that all living beings are part of the moral circle.

4. Albert Schweitzer and awe for life

According to Schweitzer, all living beings are morally valuable. He bases this on a mystical and irrational feeling of sympathy. The consequence of this would be that we cannot harm nor kill any animal or plant. Schweitzer doesn't want to draw this consequence. He opposes the thoughtless or unnecessary harming or killing of animals and plants. Johnson's criticism on Schweizer is that his vision is useless and incoherent, and it passes some difficult questions within the ethicism, like the descriptive and moral concept about 'good of itself', mentioned above.

5. Paul Taylor and respect for nature

According to Taylor, all living beings have moral relevance, intrinsic value, because all living beings are teleological (purpose aimed) of nature. Every living being (not only humans and sentient animals, as Regan states), develops, and moves to goals from itself. For example, seeds become plants from themselves. That's why all living beings have a 'good from itself'. The inability to realize their own goals, harms them. All living beings, from humans to micro-organisms, have, according to Taylor, the same inherent value and, thus, are morally equal. In the practice of our acting this vision raises the same problems as that of Schweitzer's. For example, is the malaria mosquito morally equal to humans? Taylor didn't speak of this.

6. Kenneth Goodpaster and respect for self maintaining organizations

As well as Schweitzer and Taylor, Goodpaster is a biocentrist. According to Goodpaster, all living beings have moral value. The basis of this, is their capability to maintain themselves, to cure, and it matters to them when this self organization gets harmed. The latter is the difference with self (re)organizing machines.
Both the zoocentrism as the biocentrism are forms of morally individualism, because moral value is granted only to individual organisms. The following ethicists are moral holists, because they emphasize the moral value of living units like landscapes, and earth. This is also called 'ecocentrism'. [SL-cf.the criticism on the anthropocentric character of the usual filling in of sustainability, whereby it wouldn't go about the preservation of nature because of itself.]

7. Aldo Leopold and respect for land

Leopold basic his ethics on at the time (beginning of the 20st century) new, ecological, insights. Land (soil, water and air) is no meaningless, lifeless substance, but exists of mutual dependant organisms. Land is a biotic community. Leopold's ethics means that we should protect the integrity, stability, health and beauty of biotic communities. Leopold hasn't always been clear about why we should do this. Sometimes, his reply deposed of 'deep environmentalism', which means that we should do this in the interest of these communities themselves.
Johnson also takes up the why-question. Why should we have moral obligations to communities, instead of only to individuals? In other words, how can moral norms be derived from ecological knowledge (cf. the transition from 'be' to 'should' above)? Leopold's answer was: because our psychological bond to communities. For two reasons, Johnson is not satisfied with this answer. Firstly, feelings are a weak basis for morale. When the feelings change, the morale also weakens. And, secondly, according to him, a biotic community is a different type of community than a human community. Human communities are precisely based on moral rights and obligations to one another; biotic communities lack this.

8. John Rodman and respect for wilderness

Rodman especially criticizes the sentientism, which considers the ability to subjective experiences the basis of moral value. It is chauvinistic of humans to only assign moral value to beings that resemble them. Instead of the well-being of animals, domestication is the problem according to Rodman, because this threatens the existence or at least the experience of wilderness and wildlife. Like Leopold, Rodman states that our feelings, and not those of the affected other, are the basis of morale. Moral respect for wilderness and wildlife is based on our experience and observation of it, unregarded if the animals, plants, rivers and mountains can feel for themselves. The essence of the wilderness, according to Rodman, consists of its independence and being different, which is important of itself.
Johnson stated three footnotes against the ethics of Leopold and Rodman.
  1. What is wrong with the interruption of natural processes? It is inevitable that humans disturb natural processes. And, if one takes humans as part of the land or the wilderness, then disturbances by humans are natural as well.
  2. People like Leopold and Rodman consider the land, the nature or the wilderness as land or nature from a certain period of time, which are the result of human actions as well
  3. Nature always adapts, and changes. Why would nature from a certain period of time be more natural than nature in the present day?
Johnson's conclusion is that Leopold and Rodman do not give convincing conclusions, to proceed in bio-ethics, more than sentientism and individualism.


In this text, Johnson, again, repeats his criticism on moral holism. This is, according to him, substantiated badly theoretically. What should we protect? Certain ecosystems, that are also part of bigger ecosystems, and, thus, earth? And, what if man considers himself as part of ecosystems as well? Then, human actions are also natural and worth protecting. Besides, moral holism alarms him politically. Firstly, moral holism inclines towards totalitarianism. And, secondly, respect, as alternative to the traditional concepts from the morale philosophy, like rights and duties, are insufficiently elaborated. All old problems, like who or what in a certain case has higher priority, keep existing.

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