Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics

Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics

Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics

Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics


What rational justification is there for conceiving of all living things as possessing inherent worth? In Respect for Nature, Paul Taylor draws on biology, moral philosophy, and environmental science to defend a biocentric environmental ethic in which all life has value. Without making claims for the moral rights of plants and animals, he offers a reasoned alternative to the prevailing anthropocentric view--that the natural environment and its wildlife are valued only as objects for human use or enjoyment. Respect for Nature provides both a full account of the biological conditions for life--human or otherwise--and a comprehensive view of the complex relationship between human beings and the whole of nature.

This classic book remains a valuable resource for philosophers, biologists, and environmentalists alike--along with all those who care about the future of life on Earth. A new foreword by Dale Jamieson looks at how the original 1986 edition of Respect for Nature has shaped the study of environmental ethics, and shows why the work remains relevant to debates today.


When Paul Taylor’s Respect for Nature was published in 1986, it was an intellectually liberating event. Environmental ethics was a young field very much in search of its identity. While animals were on the academic agenda thanks to Peter Singer and Tom Regan, it was far from clear how to think sensibly about our moral relations with nonsentient nature. Environmental ethics had an uncertain relationship both to the academic world and to the environmental movement, sometimes seeming to combine the obscurantism of the former with the dogmatism of the latter. It is revealing that what were probably the two best papers in this nascent field were skeptical and tentative. One suggested that a new environmental ethic probably was not needed, while the other seemed only to say that such an ethic was worth trying to develop. Into the breach came Paul Taylor with a carefully reasoned, highly sophisticated account that not only made environmental ethics a subject of serious academic inquiry, but also connected it to the values and lifestyles that were emerging in the environmental movement.

What first struck me about Taylor’s book was that it made no pretense of universal appeal. Taylor claimed that it was rational to accept what he called “the biocentric outlook,” that this “underlies and supports” the attitude of respect for nature, and that there is a particular system of standards and rules that would guide moral agents were they to accept the

Richard Routley, “Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?” Proceedings of the XVth World Congress of Philosophy 1 (1973): 205–210; and Tom Regan, “The Nature and Possibility of an Environmental Ethic,” Environmental Ethics, vol. 3 (1981): 19–34.

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