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Deer walking through a forest

Why we should give moral consideration to sentient beings rather than ecosystems

One view that is often defended by environmentalists is that we should care primarily about ecosystems or biocenoses, and that we should be ready to sacrifice individuals for the sake of them. A biocenosis is the sum of all the living entities in a certain area or ecosystem. Ecosystems are systems which consist of biocenoses and the non-living entities present in the areas where they live and with which they interact. Groups of individuals and ecosystems are different from sentient individuals in many respects, the most significant difference being that only the latter are sentient. The view that ecosystems are what matter parallels others that claim that it is species or living entities, rather than sentient individuals, that matter. This view is generally known as ecocentrism.

The philosophical basis of this position is ethical holism. According to this position the “good” of the whole takes moral precedence over the interests of the parts. But how can the “good” be identified here? Aldo Leopold famously claimed that: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”.1 This would mean that what makes something bad is not, ultimately, the harm caused to individuals, but whether or not it alters the ecosystems that they are part of.


What ecocentrism means

We may think that ecocentrism means respecting ecosystems because that amounts to protecting the interests of its inhabitants. But this is not the case. According to ecocentrism, we should respect ecosystems independently of any instrumental value they may have for the lives of the individuals living in them. The “integrity, stability and beauty” of ecosystems is not defended by those who support this view because it benefits sentient beings, but rather because the ecosystems are considered to be valuable in themselves. This means we should preserve the integrity of ecosystems independently of whether doing so benefits or harms its inhabitants. Moreover, this view prescribes that we should be willing to disregard the interests of humans and nonhumans whenever there is a risk to the preservation of ecosystems in their current or preferred form.


Why being an ecosystem isn’t relevant but being sentient is

As can be seen in Argument from relevance, when determining whether someone or something is worthy of respect and protection, what matters is whether that individual can be affected positively or negatively by our actions, which can only happen if that individual has a capacity for positive or negative experiences. Individuals can have experiences, whereas ecosystems and biocenoses cannot.

Lawrence E. Johnson has argued that ecosystems are living entities with morally significant interests, because just like other living entities, including human beings, they have a “general interest in the integrated functioning of [their] life processes as a whole”.2 However, this is misleading, for even though it is true that sentient beings do have such an interest, they only have it indirectly, insofar as the integrated functioning of their life makes it possible for them to have positive experiences. If we were to be deprived of the capacity to have positive experiences (for example, by going into an irreversible vegetative state of coma) then even if the functioning of our life processes were to remain unchanged, the interest in continuing with our life would vanish. A life without experiences would be an insensible, unconscious void where all valuable things are absent. Therefore, an entity that cannot have positive or negative experiences cannot have morally relevant interests and thus cannot be a morally considerable entity.


Harming sentient individuals

Another problem with this holistic or ecocentric view is also shared by the views that claim that it is not sentient beings, but living entities or species, that must be taken into account. Taken seriously, this position would commit us to participating in unacceptable moral scenarios that involve harming individuals for the sake of the whole. According to this view, every time the good of an ecosystem is at stake, we should prioritize the “integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community”, even if by doing so we may have to harm its individual constituents, be they human or nonhuman.

However, these consequences are unacceptable to a moral point of view that accounts for positive and negative experiences, and thus the consideration of sentient individuals. Examples of unacceptable consequences can be observed in ecological interventions into natural processes that bring about ecological balance by causing great harm to many nonhuman animals. Such interventions occur frequently. Some examples may be found in ecosystem restoration programs3 and environmental management of so-called “invasive species”, among others.

Considering the “stability of the biotic community”, imagine that the existence of a certain plant in a certain ecosystem is currently threatened by so-called “overgrazing” by deers. From an ecocentrist perspective, we should reduce the population of deers in order to promote the preservation of that plant as a way to maintain or create stability in the ecosystem.4 That is, we should intervene in natural processes and kill sentient individual animals in favor of ecosystemic stability.

According to this view we should carry out such interventions that are harmful to individuals not because ecosystemic stability may be instrumentally good for the lives of other sentient beings, but because ecosystemic stability is regarded as being good in itself.


Ecocentrism’s inconsistency and subordination to anthropocentrism

We have just seen that this view entails intervening in nature to harm sentient animals for the sake of ecosystems. However, when the good of an ecosystem is threatened by humans, defenders of these forms of intervention do not prescribe the eradication of human beings. This means that most supporters of ecocentrism are willing to accept the consequences it has for nonhuman individuals, but with an anthropocentric exceptionalism. This is paradoxical, since, as a matter of fact, the human species is the one with the greatest adverse impact on ecosystems. Defenders of this view simply believe that human interests should take precedence over protection of the stability of ecosystems. This helps us to see the fourth problem of holist views, which is twofold. On the one hand, there is an inconsistency between holistic principles and ecocentrist common practices. If the good of the whole trumps the interests of its individual constituents, then it follows that, in case of conflict, human interests should be disregarded for the sake of ecosystems. However, whenever the good of ecosystems clashes with human interests, almost all ecocentrists favor human interests.5

There is a clear contradiction here. If we give priority to human interests we are no longer maintaining an ecocentric view.

There is something particular to this inconsistency that actually explains it, that is, its anthropocentric basis. (Note that even though anthropocentrism explains the inconsistency it does not justify it.) The reason we are led to an inconsistency following this view is that at some point of conflict, environmentalists who hold this view just assume that human interests should take priority in moral deliberation. This means that they refuse to take holism seriously. Otherwise, we would have to accept the sacrifice of human individuals for the sake of the whole, just like we accept it in the case of nonhuman animals.6

The main problem with this position7 is that it fails to justify a morally relevant line between humans and nonhumans and thus begs the question against the centrality of human interests. This shows how the ecocentric view, even as defended by its leading champions, ends up being subordinated to human interests.

Under scrutiny, ecocentrism becomes indistinguishable from anthopocentrism, and is actually a form of it.


Ecosystems are varying all the time: another form of intervention is needed

Finally, we must note that ecosystems are actually varying all the time due to ecological reasons. This has happened constantly throughout natural history. The consequence that follows from this is that the stability of ecosystems is not going to occur unless we intervene significantly in its workings. As we have seen, many ecocentrist policies actually do intervene. But then, if we are going to intervene, it seems that a different goal than ecosystem preservation should be pursued.

That is, rather than intervening in nature in ways that harm animals to conserve ecosystems as they are right now and to stop changes from occurring to them, what we should do is to intervene in order to benefit the sentient beings who are living in nature. Given the many hardships that nonhuman animals commonly suffer in nature, intervention in nature for the sake of sentient beings is something that would prove really beneficial, in contrast to the harms caused by intervention that is motivated by ecocentrist conservationist aims that do not take sentient beings into account


Further readings:

Baxter, B. H. (1996) “Ecocentrism and persons”, Environmental Values, 5, 205-219.

Callicott, J. B. (1989) In defense of the land ethic: Essays in environmental philosophy, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Callicott, J. B. (1999) Beyond the land ethic: More essays in environmental philosophy, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Crisp, R. (1998) “Animal liberation is not an environmental ethic: A response to Dale Jamieson”, Environmental Values, 7, pp. 476-478.

Eckersley, R. (1992) Environmentalism and political theory: Toward an ecocentric approach, Albany: State University of New York.

Fieser, J. (1993) “Callicott and the metaphysical basis of ecocentric morality”, Environmental Ethics, 15, pp. 171-180.

Fox, W. (1995) Toward a transpersonal ecology: Developing new foundations for environmentalism, Albany: State University of New York.

Hargrove, E. C. (ed.) (1992) The animal rights/environmental ethics debate: The environmental perspective, Albany: State University of New York.

Hettinger, N. & Throop, B. (1999) “Refocusing ecocentrism”, Environmental Ethics, 21, pp. 3-21.

Horta, O. (2010) “The ethics of the ecology of fear against the nonspeciesist paradigm: A shift in the aims of intervention in nature”, Between the Species, 13 (10), pp. 163-187 [accessed on 3 March 2013].

Johnson, E. (1981) “Animal liberation versus the Land Ethic”, Environmental Ethics, 3, pp. 265-273.

Schmidtz, D. & Willott, E. (2002) Environmental ethics: What really matters, what really works, New York: Oxford University Press.

Wade, M. L. (1990) “Animal liberation, ecocentrism, and the morality of sport hunting”, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 17, pp. 15-27.

Warren, M. A. (2000) Moral status: Obligations to persons and other livings things, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1 Leopold, A. (1987 [1949]) A Sand County almanac, and sketches here and there, New York: Oxford University Press.

2 Johnson, L. E. (1993) A morally deep world: An essay on moral significance and environmental ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 142.

3 Shelton, J.-A. (2004) “Killing animals that don’t fit in: Moral dimensions of habitat restoration”, Between the Species, 13 (4) [accessed on 30 January 2013].

4 Rolston III, H. (1999) “Respect for life: Counting what Singer finds of no account”, in Jamieson, D. (ed.) Singer and his critics, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 247-268.

5 Two exceptions are: Linkola, P. (2009) Can life prevail?: A radical approach to the environmental crisis, London: Integral Tradition; Pianka, E. R. The vanishing book of life on Earth [accessed on 11 January 2013].

6 Varner, G. (1991) “No holism without pluralism”, Environmental Ethics, 13, pp. 175-179.

7 Leopold, A. (1989 [1949]), op. cit., p. 135. Callicott, J. B. (1990) “The case against moral pluralism”, Environmental Ethics, 12, pp. 99-124; (2000) “The land ethic”, in Jamieson, D. (ed.) A companion to environmental philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 204-217.

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