Why we should give moral consideration to sentient beings, rather than living beings

Why we should give moral consideration to sentient beings, rather than living beings

There are a number of environmentalist positions that oppose granting equal respect to all sentient beings. The reasoning used to justify these views may vary widely because environmentalist perspectives disagree about which components of the natural world should be most morally considerable and thus worthy of respect. Some views claim that ecosystems, rather than sentient beings, should be respected; others claim that species, rather than individuals, should be considered.

Biocentrism, one of the most popular views among environmental ethicists, claims that we should respect all forms of life. Those who defend this view claim that being alive is the sole condition that must be met in order to be respected. If an entity is alive, then, irrespective of any other feature it may have, it has value in itself. This means respect not only for sentient beings, but for all living entities.1 Biocentrism may seem appealing at first, but the following arguments will demonstrate why it is highly questionable.

Why we should defend sentient beings

As the section on the argument from relevance explains, there are strong reasons to support the view that what matters morally is whether our actions can affect sentient beings.

Consider the following example. Suppose you have an accident and suffer brain injuries that cause you to lose consciousness irreversibly. There is absolutely no chance you will ever wake up again. You have no mind; however, your body is still alive. Is that form of life valuable to you? Do you think your relatives, for instance, should suffer a significant amount of effort and personal sacrifice to keep your body alive, just as they would if you were still conscious and needed special care to stay alive?

Most of us assume the answer to these questions is simply “No.” This is because we understand that what makes our life valuable is the fact that we have positive experiences (and this is why death is a harm).

This shows that what is valuable is being sentient, rather than just being alive. And this is one reason why biocentrism must be rejected. Instead, we should be concerned only about sentient beings.

Being sentient, and not merely being alive, is what matters

Biocentrists claim that there are reasons to reject the claims made by those who defend the moral relevance of sentience. They claim, for instance, that the intrinsic value of all living beings resides in the fact that being alive automatically gives them a “will to live” so they can be harmed by human action that opposes it.2 In this sense, respecting all forms of life would imply abstaining from interfering with this will.

A more sophisticated way of supporting the intrinsic value of all living things would be to say they are “entities that have a good of their own,” a biological good that all living beings pursue even though they cannot be aware of it. If things can go well for a living entity and human actions can make things go badly for it, then humans should respect living entities by not interfering with them.3

We need to see if these criteria in support of biocentrism stand up to scrutiny.

Certainly, if an entity has a will to live, then we should take its will into account when acting morally. However, when applied to some forms of life, it seems that this will can only be understood in purely metaphorical terms.

Consider a non-sentient living entity like a tree. In what way can a tree have a will to live? We can say it has certain biological needs for survival, and it tries to achieve them by getting water and nutrients from the soil. But can we say that its effort to achieve a vital biological need expresses a will to live? No, not literally. Only metaphorically. This is because a will, even in its weakest sense (i.e., an interest), requires a capacity to have conscious experiences. If an entity lacks consciousness, then that entity does not experience the things that happen to it.

An entity cannot have a will to have or do something that it cannot experience. Only sentient beings can satisfy this requirement. They have a will to live because staying alive grants them the possibility of experiencing the positive benefits that life can bring. In this sense, merely being alive is not sufficient for having a will to live. The capacity to have positive and negative experiences (i.e., sentience) is also a necessary condition.

But if conscious experiences are not available for non-sentient living entities, in what way, if any, can they have a “good of their own?” It seems that in order for an entity to have a good of its own, it needs a capacity that allows it to experience life in a positive or negative way. Non-sentient entities cannot have a good of their own because things cannot be good (or bad) for them at all.

It may still be argued that even if they are not aware of it, all entities have a good of their own. The good for a living entity would be to fully develop and flourish as a biological organism, even if the entity cannot experience it.

However, if an entity cannot experience its own good, how can this good be its own? It seems rather that its own good is being determined by something other than what is beneficial for that entity. For example, some people may consider that, because of its impact on the ecosystem or on the beauty of the landscape, the flourishing of a living entity (e.g., a tree) is instrumentally good, but this does not mean it is intrinsically good. Non-sentient beings can’t be benefited or harmed any more than non-living things can be. Just because it is good that I am fixing a table, it does not mean that the table is being benefited or having good done to it.

Likewise, though there may be a good in keeping a tree alive, it cannot be inferred that the tree has a good of its own in being alive. Therefore, because being alive does not give living things a will to live or a good of their own—only sentience can do this—respect for all forms of life based on simply being alive must be rejected.

Biocentrism is unacceptable given the conflicts of interest it generates

The criterion of being alive is satisfied not only by animals and plants, but also by bacteria and other microorganisms. Thus, conflicts of interests between all the different forms of life would be permanent. Washing your hands or putting alcohol on a wound would be highly problematic, since doing so would imply disregarding the lives of an enormous number of living microorganisms.

But most importantly, if we accept the biocentric criteria, we are committed to deciding in ways that most people, considering different moral criteria, would find unacceptable. This is the case, for example, of those who think respect should be given to sentient beings, that is, those beings with the capacity to experience wellbeing.

Imagine an animal facing a bacterial infection. The bacteria reproduce quickly in the body and cause a serious illness. There is an effective treatment available with antibiotics; however, the ethical committee of the hospital has adopted the biocentric criteria, according to which the bacteria should be favored over the animal. This means the infection will not be treated, since it implies a massive killing, and the animal will be left to suffer until he dies from the infection.

If we think all forms of life should be respected just because they are alive, we should not object to the decision of the ethical committee. In fact, we should applaud it. If, on the contrary, we think the animal’s interests should weigh in the decision, such that his suffering and death should be avoided, then we are already moving away from biocentrism. We are acknowledging that life itself is not a sufficient criterion for moral consideration.

Biocentrism is subordinated to anthropocentrism

The inadequacy of the biocentric criteria can be clearly observed when we consider their bearing on human interests. Imagine that the infected animal in the biocentrist hospital is a human animal. If the biocentric criteria apply to nonhumans, they should also apply to human beings. After all, what should determine having respect towards a being is the fact that it is alive, regardless of the species to which it belongs. Therefore, according to biocentrism, we should favor the multitude of bacteria over the human being. And not just in this particular case, but every time there is a conflict of human interests with the interests of other living things and the latter numerically predominates over the former.

Most people would probably find this conclusion nonsensical. In fact, most supporters of biocentrism reject this.4 What they support, rather, is a combination of a biocentric criterion with an anthropocentric one. From this position would follow a complex prescription such that we should respect all forms of life except in those circumstances in which doing so implies the frustration of significant human interests.

Providing a sound justification for this prescription proves extremely difficult. It is not possible to consistently combine biocentrism with the exceptionality of human interests without appealing to other moral criteria. However, appealing to other morally relevant criteria (e.g., sentience) would suppose the consideration of other nonhuman beings that also satisfy the criteria. If human interests trump biocentric criteria, then nonhuman interests also trump it. Rejecting this implication is an unjustified subordination of biocentrism to anthropocentrism.

As the section on the arguments against speciesism shows, anthropocentrism is an unjustified form of discrimination that we must reject. This, in addition to the arguments for the relevance of sentience, shows why biocentrism must be rejected.

Why the combination of biocentrism with other criteria must be rejected

It may be argued that a possible biocentric position that would avoid these objections would consist of a view that considered all living entities but gave special consideration to sentient ones. However, this would not, strictly speaking, be a view we can accurately call “biocentrism.” There is no way in which biocentrism can prescribe special attention to the interests of sentient beings, since biocentrism is just about being alive. Rather, this view would be a combination of biocentrism and other criteria, such as sentience.

The relevance of being sentient does not make a view that considers both biocentrism and sentience acceptable. As we have seen above, the mere fact of being alive does not mean that one has interests. Our lives are valuable to us because they allow us to have positive experiences, but if that possibility were completely ruled out, our lives would cease to have any value for us. Biocentrism fails for this reason.

As shown, the combination of biocentrism with the consideration of sentience cannot be a sound position, since the combination of a view that is sound (the latter) with one that is not (the former) renders the entire equation unsound. Accordingly, we should reject the pairing, and taking into account the actual interests of all sentient individuals, accept the view that sentience is the morally relevant criterion.

Further readings

Agar, N. (1997) “Biocentrism and the concept of life”, Ethics, 108, pp. 147-168.

Agar, N. (2001) Life’s intrinsic value: Science, ethics, and nature, New York: Columbia University Press.

Attfield, R. (1981) “The good of trees”, Journal of Value Inquiry, 15, pp. 35-54.

DesJardins, J. R. (2013 [1993]) Environmental ethics: An introduction to environmental philosophy, 5th rev. ed., Boston: Wadsworth.

Goodpaster, K. E. (1978) “On being morally considerable”, Journal of Philosophy, 75, pp. 308-325.

Himma, K. E. (2004) “Moral biocentrism and the adaptive value of consciousness”, Southern Journal of Philosophy, 42, pp. 25-44.

Taylor, P. (1983) “In defense of biocentrism”, Environmental Ethics, 5, pp. 237-243.


1 See for instance: Taylor, P. (1986) Respect for nature, Princeton: Princeton University Press; Varner, G. (2002) “Biocentric individualism”, in Schmidtz, D. & Willot, E. (eds.) Environmental ethics: What really matters, what really works, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 108-120.

2 Schweitzer, A. (1946 [1923]) Civilization and ethics, 3d ed., London: A. & C. Black.

3 Attfield, R. (1987) “Biocentrism, moral standing and moral significance”, Philosophica, 39, pp. 47-58.

4 See for instance the works of Schweitzer, Attfield, or Varner cited above.