Creation Waits

Speculative Realism, Existential Theology, and Apocalyptic Pedagogy

Category: Biocentrism

What grounds our duties to our fellow human beings?

I am currently teaching a course that is, on the face of it, about zombie films, but which is really about the philosophy of personal identity, gender theory, and social-political philosophy. We recently discussed the “persistence question” concerning personal identity, which is basically the question, “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a person at one time to be identical to a person at a different time?” Partly as a consequence of thinking about the various accounts that have been developed, I hit on an idea, which I want to try to briefly articulate.

The basic idea is this: individual human beings are clearly not always persons: they begin life as non-persons and some of them die before becoming persons; moreover, some of those who become persons then go on to once again become non-persons. Conservative who like to say that science has proven that a unique person comes into being at the moment of conception are partially right but importantly wrong. What does, presumably, come into being at the moment of conception is a new member of our species, which may undergo various processes of growth, development and ultimately decay, ending in death (the disintegration of that being). But it is wrong to say that a new person comes into being at that moment. “Person” is a success term that can be legitimately used to describe some of the beings that come into being at the moment of conception, once they have certain cognitive and volitional capacities. But some of them will not achieve personhood, and some that do will then become non-persons even prior to their death. In other words, we are not essentially persons; we are essentially independent beings that can be made better or worse off, but not persons.

Now, let’s suppose that this is correct. Let’s also take it for granted that human persons (that is, human beings that are persons) have moral obligations with respect to the beings that come into existence at the moment of conception. Assuming all of this, we would have to deny that our obligations to those beings stem from their being persons. They might stem from those creatures being “potential persons,” but I am skeptical of this claim, mostly because a merely potential person is, in fact and by definition, a non-person, but also because I think that this term is applied on the basis of an epistemological and not a metaphysical insight. It seems to me that a being is called a potential person not principally in virtue of some metaphysical facts about them but because we are in a limited epistemic state: we have reasons to believe they may become persons. Ultimately, these judgments may be mistaken; some such creatures simply cannot become persons, owing to biological or chemical factors of which we are unaware. I prefer to say that we have moral obligations concerning them regardless of whether they ever become persons.

The question becomes, “How can we account for these moral obligations?” I’m still sketchy on the details, but I’m kicking around the idea that we can appeal to biocentrism. As I conceive of it and use the term, biocentrism is the view that all living beings have inherent value. I assume that to say a being has inherent value is to say that its value is a function of its being; that is, it is owing to what that particular creature is, that it is, and that it can be made better or worse off. As such, biocentrism rejects that living beings have only instrumental value, and the recognition of a being’s inherent value gives rise to prima facie duties of beneficence and non-maleficence. (I don’t think it gives rise to a duty sans phrase, or an “all-things-considered” duty.)

I believe that human beings at various stages of development and decay (including fetuses and other human beings that lack the cognitive and volitional capacities required for personhood) are properly the subject of our moral concern. But this is a function of their inherent value, as beings which can be made better or worse off as the things they are, not owing to allegedly being proto-persons or deficient persons. To truly respect life would be to respect and care for beings even when they do not and cannot achieve personhood.

If I’m on the right track, I think I could make the case that widely held Christian ethical beliefs actually require that we be biocentrists in the sense that I have defined the view. That is, if we want to maintain our conclusions about the respect of life, we ought to recognize that they stem from moral duties that themselves attach to creatures simply in virtue of being. The other, more common option, which turns on the act/potency distinction strikes me as metaphysically suspect.

Is Francis’s Integral Ecology Incompatible with Biocentrism?

As I’ve already explained, in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis (2015) rejects anthropocentric ideologies of rupture, which allow us to think of ourselves as radically other-than the creatures of the world and of our social systems as disconnected from other “natural” systems. What I failed to mention is that he also rejects biocentrism:

There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes.” A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism,” for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued. (Sec. 118)

The gist of this passage is clear: human beings are uniquely moral creatures, and his integral ecology shouldn’t be understood as denying this. Nevertheless, the way that biocentrism figures into the discussion seems puzzling to me, since I had assumed, prior to getting to this section, that Francis was presenting a kind of biocentricism.

Biocentrism is the thesis that all life has inherent value. Francis seems to assume that if we accept this, we must accept that we do not have “unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility.” This strikes me as a non sequitur. I conceive of biocentricism as expanding our sphere of moral concern rather than diminishing our understanding of our own value or being. I would certainly agree that if biocentrism entailed the denial of our own unique moral capacities and responsibilities, then it would be a faulty view. But it isn’t clear to me that it does.

To begin to see why, let me note that I assume that to say a being has inherent value is to say that its value is a function of its being; that is, it is owing to what that creature is and that it is. Such a claim denies that the value of a being is bestowed upon it by some other creature. There is no real tension between the biocentrist affirmation of the inherent value of all living beings and the recognition of our uniquely human moral capacities and responsibilities, for inherent value is superadded, so to speak, to whatever a being is. Within a Christian framework, this superaddition is a function of the fact that all beings, in virtue of being what they are, participate in a creation that is a communion, which has as its head, Christ. And for those of us who possesses moral capacities and responsibilities, those capacities and responsibilities are aspects of our being, which determine how we participate in this vast, universal communion. But the present point is that other beings very different from us also possesses inherent value, though owing to appropriately different bases. I interpret biocentrism as the view that a particular human being is valuable qua particular human being, a pelican is valuable qua pelican, a bee or bee colony qua bee or bee colony, and so forth. (Could it be that only certain animals are valuable qua individuals, while others are valuable qua the collectives of which they are a part? That is a provocative question worth further exploration.)

We might wonder, what is the practical consequence of claiming that all things are inherently valuable? Does it entail or require that no creature can be used by another? That seems like an absurd and life-denying conclusion. Perhaps something like that intuition drives Francis’s rejection of biocentricism. If that were the case, this would constitute only a rejection of biocentricism in a nominal sense. I say this because it seems to me that biocentrism requires an adjustment first and foremost to our ontological assumptions, with adjustments to practical reasoning following in a secondary sense. While it surely follows that we cannot use other beings in all the ways we are accustomed to, it seems perfectly in keeping with an acknowledgement of other beings’ inherent value that we, like them, must use some of them as food, and that our interests will come into conflict with theirs.

The sort of ontological adjustment that biocentrism requires is a recognition and appreciation of the ways in which the beings of the world dwell in communion with one another, as well as a recognition of the inescapable limits imposed upon our understanding of creation; although we can recognize that we live in communion, as creatures within it we cannot impose detailed, totalizing narratives upon it. Like everything else, we can only attend to the “local.” In other words, we can recognize and acknowledge that we uniquely dwell alongside other beings who themselves uniquely dwell within a beautifully diverse creation, even if we cannot fully understand or comprehend the whole in its totality.

…all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect. Here I would reiterate that “God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.” (Sec. 89, quoting his own Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.)

Levi Bryant (2014) offers an analogous, albeit a secular, account of this reorientation. He argues that human subjects are themselves objects, ontologically on par with all other things. Far from leading us to abandon ourselves within the “democracy of objects,” this serves to refocus our attention on our unique mode of dwelling and reawaken us to the reality of which we are a part in such a way that we recognize that this “world” evades our attempts to impose upon it a totalizing unity. We may speculate about being, but we are not outside, we do not stand over and above the “world,” such that we can ever legitimately say that we now understand “it” and can, therefore, rightly assume the position of masters over it.

And yet, this “it” that we recognize is beyond our comprehension is nevertheless our home (our “common home,” to use Francis’s phrase). How can we at once reaffirm our place within the world or creation while simultaneously heeding the lesson that we cannot legitimately impose a totalizing narrative upon it?

In her book, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene, Joanna Zylinska writes,

“The world” does not really name any kind of objective external reality. Rather […] this term should be understood as first and foremost referring to a temporary mental organization, undertaken by a spatially embedded and embodied human, of the various processes of which she is part. (p. 77)

I think this is largely correct. The critical intellectual move is to attend to the embodiedness of our thought, recognizing that we each find ourselves in a locality while also recognizing that other beings dwell within various other localities and that these localities are interconnected in ways that will always surprise us and disrupt our conceptions of the whole. This allows us to suspend our desire to dominate and understand the whole without leading us to reject its reality.

Of course, I suppose this is a sort of totalizing narrative of its own, but it leads us into a reflexive aporia which is totally unlike the false confidence encouraged by the technocratic ideology.

Works Cited

Bryant, Levi (2011). The Democracy of Objects. Open Humanities Press.

Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.

Zylinska, Joanna (2014). Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene. Open Humanities Press.