Humans, although we see ourselves as pioneers and brilliant explorers and imaginative geniuses are still quite new to the world. Despite our journey into the far reaches of technological advances and new frontiers we still have not recognized the beauty and ingenuity of the parts of the smaller parts of our world, the ones we rely on most, ecosystems. The idea of an ethic to preserve natural beauty and utility is not new, people like John Muir have looked upon the natural world as a kingdom of heaven and a whole new world of opportunities waiting to be explored. Yet the ethics that they held were all anthropocentric, or entirely involving the overall benefits that these areas would have to humans.
In contrast, thinkers such as Paul Taylor consider the value of plants and animals and all organisms that make up the ecosystem. Talyor enumerates four different components of the biocentric outlook on nature. One, humans are thought of as members of the Earth’s community of life, holding that membership on the same terms as apply to all the nonhuman members. Two, the Earth’s natural ecosystems are seen as a complex web of interconnected elements, with the sound biological functioning of the others. Three, each individual organism is conceived of as a teleological center of life pursuing good in its own way. Four, humans are not by their nature superior to other species and the idea must be wholly rejected in light of the previous statements.
In Taylor’s ethics, parts of nature have legal rights. He certainly does not claim that they have moral rights of any kind and he feels that these moral rights should be applied to nonhuman living things. In his thoughts though he does admit that we must have an entire moral reorientation in order to accommodate this way of thinking. He dictates some principles that humans should follow in order to become more oriented to the biocentric ethic.
Taylor says the principle of self-defense is one permissible action for moral agents to take part in: for example if a human is attacked by a bear or is in fear of the West Nile virus, then they are allowed to protect themselves even killing the organism. Another principle of his dictates that you must not treat animals as a means only and instead have an attitude that respects nature.
The principle of minimum wrong is discussed wherein it is ethically permissible to override basic nonhuman interests for human interests at times. The principle of Distributive Justice dictates that in conflicts between human and nonhuman interests the solution is to have a fair distribution of environmental goods for humans and non-humans. Finally there is the principle which states that we should bring reparations to environmentally blighted areas
Recent research has opened up the field of ideas to the possibility that there are more than just sensitive and pain-feeling creatures in animals and humans. Plants, as researched by plant “neurobiologists” have been shown to have genuine reactions to pain and can even sense certain smells and react to probings. This does not necessarily give them the same inherent intelligence as humans but it certainly makes us reconsider them as moral agents. They feel pain, which is one requisite of Regan’s animal rights ethic, however he rejects the idea that plants are on par with animals and humans in that sense and also elucidates the impracticality of giving plants that same status.
Clearly plants do not have the same intellectual or cognitive abilities of humans or nonhuman animals but they are not the living automatons that we once thought them to be. Conservative thinkers decry biocentrism as folly and just another opportunity for intellectual elites to hoist rights onto another group of beings, but perhaps there is something to be said for a gentler humanity, one with respect for the not-so-obvious beauty and natural creativity that surrounds us.
I think that there is little to no chance that individual plants and other beings will be treated as legal beings in my lifetime. Realistically there are far too many divided on the idea that they alone have use value. What is for sure is that ecosystems have a definite use value, and we cannot possibly live without it. If we were to extend rights to any non-humans I predict that it would be to entire ecosystems that need to be preserved and allowed to flourish without human interference. It is obvious that, although financially a strip mall would be much more valuable, there is unseen value in an open meadow or an un-dammed stream. I think that our human ingenuity will one day allow us to live side by side with nature without thrusting us back into the dark ages. The true movement must come from humanity first.