Life's Intrinsic Value: Science, Ethics, and Nature

Life's Intrinsic Value: Science, Ethics, and Nature

Life's Intrinsic Value: Science, Ethics, and Nature

Life's Intrinsic Value: Science, Ethics, and Nature

Synopsis

Are bacteriophage T4 and the long-nosed elephant fish valuable in their own right? Nicholas Agar defends an affirmative answer to this question by arguing that anything living is intrinsically valuable. This claim challenges received ethical wisdom according to which only human beings are valuable in themselves. The resulting biocentric or life-centered morality forms the platform for an ethic of the environment. Agar builds a bridge between the biological sciences and what he calls "folk" morality to arrive at a workable environmental ethic and a new spectrum -- a new hierarchy -- of living organisms. The book overturns common-sense moral belief as well as centuries of philosophical speculation on the exclusive moral significance of humans. Spanning several fields, including philosophy of psychology, philosophy of science, and other areas of contemporary analytic philosophy, Agar analyzes and speaks to a wide array of historic and contemporary views, from Aristotle and Kant, to E. O. Wilson, Holmes Rolston II, and Baird Callicot. The result is a challenge to prevailing definitions of value and a call for a scientifically-informed appreciation of nature.

Excerpt

In this book I aim to show that individual living things are intrinsically valuable and to found an environmental ethic on this value. the search for intrinsic value in nature will be familiar to readers already acquainted with the ethics of the environment. Demonstrating that environmental individuals or collections have intrinsic value seems the most straightforward way of showing that they matter morally. Yet in spite of the worthy efforts of such writers as J. Baird Callicott, Holmes Rolston iii, and Arne Naess, we are some distance from a workable account of such value. the reason is not hard to see. Received ethical wisdom uses the notion of intrinsic value to indicate the great moral importance of humans. Stories about such value frequently latch onto perceived contrasts between humans and natural things. Rational humans are held to be ends, while nonrational termite mounds can only ever be means. We think of humans as experiencers of pleasure and suffering, but of kauri trees as mere instruments to these morally important experiences in other beings. Defenders of the supposed exclusive moral significance of humans can rely not only upon the inertia of commonsense moral belief but also upon centuries of philosophical speculation about the nature of value.

The life-centered or biocentric ethic requires some agent of moral transformation. I cast the sciences of the environment in this role. I show that science enables us to define a concept fit to spread intrinsic value beyond humanity. Just as in past centuries science dislodged humans from the center of the physical universe, it now challenges our claim to exclusive occupancy of the center of the moral universe.

How is science to effect this transformation? According to received philosophical wisdom, scientific theories simply do not provide the right variety of information to bring about fundamental changes to moral views.

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