Social and Political Philosophy: Contemporary Perspectives

By James P. Sterba | Go to book overview

19

THE MORAL STATUS OF NONHUMAN LIFE

Mary Anne Warren

One of the most important debates in environmental ethics is that between proponents of anthropocentric (human-centered) and biocentric (life-centered) approaches. At one extreme, radically anthropocentric ethicists, such as John Passmore, 1 hold that we have moral obligations only toward human beings, and never toward nonhuman organisms. This view is sometimes expressed by saying that nonhuman life has no intrinsic value. On this view it cannot be morally wrong for human beings to harm organisms of other species unless doing this adversely affects other human beings. At the opposite extreme, radically biocentric ethicists, such as Albert Schweitzer 2 and Paul Taylor, 3 extend equal moral status to all living organisms, refusing to distinguish between the respect due to human beings and that due to animals, plants and microbes. This view is sometimes expressed by saying that all living organisms have the same intrinsic value.

In Justice for Here and Now, James P. Sterba seeks to bridge the gap between anthropocentric and biocentric forms of environmental ethics. His project is to outline an ethic for the adjudication of conflicts between human and nonhuman needs that is neither radically anthropocentric, nor so demanding of self-sacrifice that human beings could not reasonably be expected to adopt it. His compromise is to accord moral status to all living organisms, as well as to species and ecosystems, but to retain a limited preference for human over nonhuman interests. I agree with this strategy, but disagree with the way in which his principles treat all nonhuman organisms as having essentially the same moral status. I argue that organisms of different species often differ in moral status, both because of differences in their intrinsic value, and because of their different relationships to human beings and terrestrial ecosystems. I will begin with an explication of Sterba’s view, and then explore some of the sources and implications of this disagreement. Finally, I will comment briefly on a common objection to the view that we have moral obligations to nonhuman life, namely the claim that human beings are psychologically incapable of accepting such obligations.

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