Morality is the ultimate issue. To illustrate the point I am going to make, I will tell a story. Imagine you are a military commander during some war. You are stationed at a town surrounded by hills. It is night. Suddenly, your soldiers and the town are attacked. Explosions are ripping through the streets and buildings, killing your men and destroying your supplies. Frantically, you look around in a darkness lashed by fire, but you cannot see any foot soldiers or artillery. From somewhere, a loud screeching noise heralds the sound of jet planes. You conclude, all too innocently, that this is an air raid—that the enemy is in the sky. Visibility is poor and the sky is pitch black, but you nonetheless order your troops to fire upwards with anti-aircraft guns. Time goes by and, no matter how much you are firing, you do not stop your enemy, nor do you even damage it. Finally, you turn on spotlights and turn them upwards. The sky is empty, and speakers planted in the hillside are playing the recorded sounds of aircraft. Do you continue to fire at the sky? No. You have another thought. You run to one of the bomb craters, peer down … and discover enemy troops and gunnery swarming throughout the underground tunnel system, firing upwards through the ground. You spread this information by all means possible, and regroup for an assault on the underground.
This scenario describes the attack from environmentalism, and the counter-attack needed against it.
This essay appears in May’s Quadrant.
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Consider the bewildering spectacle of a movement which, despite all the failures of apocalyptic predictions, all the evasions, hysteria and irrational demands, from scares about DDT, overpopulation, global cooling and global warming, despite all the scientific proof offered against these scares, the movement goes on and on, seeming to gather momentum, devastating our societies and spreading the message of imminent global destruction at the hands of man. These people quote science and scientists. They insist it is all a matter of science. They insist we “listen to the scientists”. But the truth is that these issues have ceased to be (if they ever were) scientific issues. They are issues of morality.
It is the tragedy of capitalism that its alleged defenders have never understood the real issue at play between capitalism and socialism. Why is it that, though the economics of socialism have been consistently debunked and exposed for the genocidal irrationalism they are, people go on and on upholding their virtues? Why is it that the United States—a country built, for the most part, on capitalism—and Venezuela—a country built on socialism—offer such a glaring, unavoidable floodlit spectacle of the economic results of these alternative systems … and yet people go on attending socialist conferences and devoting their lives to the overthrow of capitalism? It is because the real issue between the two systems is not economics. Socialism “works” economically—if you don’t mind the fact that what you’re achieving is an ashen graveyard of hungry breadlines. Capitalism does not “work”—if you consider skyscrapers and human flourishing evil. Or, put it this way: if what you want to achieve is equality, socialism “works” (it does not matter that it works to make everyone equally poor). And this is the ultimate point, and was the ultimate point all along. A veneer of garbled economics is necessary to rationalise and avoid self-reflection. But this is much like the lies that artistic “elites” tell themselves when they look at modern trash. Their pseudo-intellectual rambling on an abstract artwork’s social message or kinetic sensuality are just covers for the real issue: liking this is right.
The real issue between environmentalism and the opposing side (which I shall name shortly) is the same as the issue between capitalism and socialism: morality. The moral issue involved in the battle between capitalism and socialism is the morality of rational egoism and individual rights versus the morality of altruism and collectivism.
The defenders of capitalism were all too often, and too staunchly, friends with the socialists deep, deep down. They agreed that man was a sacrificial animal to be used for the good of others, but they disagreed on the means to achieve this. One side, the socialists, were at least honest. They said this would be achieved by direct force, by theft from the state. The so-called capitalists were less honest, and slipped and evaded, insisting on the sufficiency of charity, yet compromising time and again to just a little more government planning, and just a little more, until the result is David Cameron proclaiming in 2015 that the UK Conservatives (Thatcher’s party) are now the party of equality, or Australia’s “Liberal” party agreeing with Labor-style programs like the NDIS, Medicare and the NBN (incidentally, consider also the fact that the moral issues involved have dragged the “Liberal” party to supporting “hate speech” legislation).
I do not mean to say that everyone who believes in, say, the current climate scare believes in it for moral reasons rather than scientific ones. I do mean to say that, for many of the most fervent environmentalists, it is morality that drives them primarily. Their causes then spread to less ideological (and less environmentally aware) people. Moreover, as the basic principles of morality are more fundamental to a person’s actions than the application of specific scientific knowledge, unless the moral issue is dealt with, the hysteria of environmentalism will not subside, whatever scientific proof is offered against it.
The morality of biocentrism
The morality of environmentalism has not been named openly yet. There have been whispers in intellectual circles, but it has not been brought into the full daylight of public attention. The name of this morality is biocentrism, and the name of the opposing morality is anthropocentrism.
(I do not claim that the following is a comprehensive account of my stance on these ethical issues. It is an introduction.)
Biocentrism is, in its essence, a philosophy of ethics which preaches that all life has inherent worth. I quote Paul W. Taylor, whose book Respect for Nature is seen as being a foundational text for this morality:
The natural world is not there simply as an object to be exploited by us, nor are its living creatures to be regarded as nothing more than resources for our use and consumption. On the contrary, wild communities of life are understood to be deserving of our moral concern and consideration because they have a kind of value that belongs to them inherently.
Importantly, Taylor notes: “To fulfil the duties of environmental ethics does involve at times a sacrifice of at least some human interests.” He also makes the following clear:
… to view the place of humans in the natural world from the perspective of the biocentric outlook is to reject the idea of human superiority over other living things. Humans are not thought of as carrying on a higher grade of existence when compared with the so-called “lower” orders of life. The biocentric outlook precludes a hierarchical view of nature.
There are many different strands of biocentric theory. But at its core is the belief in the notion of the inherent worth of all life.
This theory is not the mere plaything of philosophers. It is widespread, if largely unnamed. David Attenborough ends his documentary Planet Earth II with the statement: “It’s surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home, not just for us, but for all life on earth.” If this statement were reshaped to be addressed to an individual, telling them they have a responsibility to do everything possible to make a home for all people on earth, it would possibly be seen for the nightmare it is. Unfortunately, our society has not yet woken up to the evil of biocentrism.
There is another aspect of biocentrism which you may have noticed. It is not an explicit doctrine, but is a necessary implication of the premises above: a view of man as evil. Consider this paragraph from David M. Graber, a research biologist for the US National Park Service, reviewing Bill McKibben’s influential book The End of Nature:
McKibben is a biocentrist, and so am I. We are not interested in the utility of a particular species or free-flowing river, or ecosystem, to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value—to me—than another human body, or a billion of them. Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet. I know social scientists that remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the line—at about a billion [sic] years ago, maybe half that—we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth [sic] … Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin [sic] nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.
If McKibben does share Graber’s philosophy, that should worry anybody who values this world and this life. McKibben has been touted by Current Affairs magazine as a possible Secretary of the Interior or Secretary of Energy should Bernie Sanders be elected President. Imagine someone entrusted to care for the lives of human beings who holds a philosophy that preaches death and hatred for human beings.
That the biocentrists’ hatred of man is so uniform among them is not a coincidence. It is a necessary implication of the basic premises of biocentrism.
The doctrine of inherent worth
Reason is man’s primary tool of survival (by “primary” I mean that the successful use of all other means of survival is caused by and dependent upon the use of reason). By logic, any code of conduct which conflicts with reason must therefore conflict with man’s survival—must be in opposition to man’s life. Biocentrism conflicts with reason because it preaches the doctrine of inherent worth.
The doctrine of inherent worth preaches that things can be good in and of themselves, regardless of any use or value to be obtained from them. To whom are they good? No answer. Why are they good? No answer. Why should anyone care for the good? No answer. It is almost impossible to analyse this idea seriously, yet its presence in philosophy is widespread.
The doctrine of inherent worth denies the role of values in human life (by “value” I mean something which one seeks in order to sustain one’s life, having rationally assessed it as being capable of doing so). It means that there is no such thing as something good for you, bad for you, or good or bad for anyone. Things simply are good in and of themselves, and things simply are bad in and of themselves.
For living beings, there is not room for both values and any inherent worth. The two theories are incompatible. The notion of inherent worth conflicts with the very logic that gives values their nature as values. To see this, imagine what would happen if you were to follow both policies in life. If ever an inherent good conflicted with a value, then presumably it would not be moral to acquire the value. Thus, if one were to comply with this morality consistently, the value would be an unattainable impossibility, and no longer capable of being valued. And if it were argued that inherent goods don’t always trump values, but are simply to be balanced against them on merit, the question would be: by what standard do you balance them against one another? The two are incommensurable.
Some might argue that inherent goods are “moral” goods whereas values are simply good in some earthly or “ulterior” sense. But this approach excludes morality from the scope of value identification; one must ask whether moral goods are values themselves, whether they promote man’s life. If moral goods have no significance for the life of man, then they have no definable “good” to offer, no definable origin and no definable nature as a human good. On the other hand, if moral goods are values, then the notion of their good being “inherent” is false.
The notion of inherent worth is contrary to reason and, as such, is contrary to the basic means man possesses for his survival: rationality. Is there any wonder that biocentrists bear such hatred for the beings they see around them, living in this world of logic and fixed, definable entities, discarding meaningless babble of “inherent worth” to build homes, skyscrapers and oil rigs? Man’s very existence depends on his use of reason, and reason leads man to change his environment to achieve values. According to the biocentrists, the essence of man is evil. And is it any wonder then, considering man is evil to them, why they have such a ready belief in the destructive capacity of human beings? In their view, how could any evil be beyond man? How could any lack of evil be possible for man, since man is incapable of being good?
The disastrous consequence of the notion of inherent worth is that it detaches the concept of good from the standard of life (I must stress that I mean specifically the standard). It preaches that the worth of living beings is not to be measured by the benefits they confer upon the lives of others. Life is an irrelevant consideration for measuring what is inherently good.
Confusingly, however, the inherent good that the biocentrists claim to recognise is life itself. But being inherent, this good is not measured by its worth to any particular life. All lives have worth, claim the biocentrists, but not for the life-sustaining benefits they give anyone or anything. They have worth “just because” they are life.
What this means is as follows: if building a hospital will save the lives of one thousand humans, but will kill one thousand and one trees, it is immoral to build that hospital. This is a logical consequence of the concept of inherent worth. Taylor’s words on the equality of species are not a quirk of his own philosophy; the concept of inherent worth automatically leads to species equality. If we start with the inherent worth of all life as an absolute, and remove the role of values, then by what other means could we judge any animal as being lesser or greater than another? If an animal’s intelligence, reason, productiveness and physical strength are not considerations for what is good or better than anything, then there is nothing else to measure this. Some biocentrists who fixate on suffering would claim that the relative amounts of pain suffered by trees and humans would mean that killing humans would be worse. Leaving aside a scenario where all can be killed painlessly, I respond with two questions: Would the avoidance of pain be important, if we have removed the role of values? And would there nonetheless be a number of trees so high that their suffering would be more important than the number of human lives lost?
It is important to stress that biocentrists differ (incoherently) in the way they argue conflicts of interest between living beings should be adjudicated. A particularly brazen biocentrist might argue that even if the hospital kills just one tree, it is immoral to build it, since we would not allow any hospital to be built at the cost of the murder of a human being. (This would be a rights-centred biocentric approach, but based on a phoney idea of “rights”.)
Taylor himself outlined a variety of “priority principles” to adjudicate between the varying claims and interests of living beings according to a biocentric ethic. One such priority principle was the principle of proportionality. He argued that this principle can be adopted when the “basic” interests of animals are threatened by the “non-basic” interests of humans. What is a “non-basic” human interest? His examples include: “Damming a free-flowing river for a hydroelectric power project.” Notwithstanding that the concept of inherent worth obliterates the possibility of values, Taylor still attempts to discuss them, and discuss them in the same context-free and “inherent” fashion with which he spoke of so-called inherent worth. Imagine the reaction of someone lying on a hospital bed, dependent upon the lights of the operating room and the complex machinery measuring his heart rate, when you reach for the switchboard and tell him that functioning electricity in the emergency ward is a “non-basic” interest.
This philosophy is impossible to practise consistently, for the reason that it eliminates any guide to human action (I shall elaborate on this more fully soon). But impossibility has not stopped destructive ideologies from emerging throughout mankind’s history and wreaking havoc on the innocent trying to live their lives.
A philosophy can only be defeated consciously. It can be evaded or remain unseen for some time, but eventually its questions must be faced. The Western world needs to openly embrace an opposing philosophy, that of anthropocentrism.
Anthropocentrism is the egoistic action of man towards the environment and non-human life. Anthropocentrism holds that the rightness or wrongfulness of our interactions with the environment and non-human life are to be determined from the standpoint of humans: from what do we benefit?
Anthropocentrism holds that, from the standpoint of humans, other human beings are typically of immeasurably more value than non-human life. (I say typically because no values can be measured outside the full context of a person’s knowledge, means and life. To a hermit living in the Andes, the livestock around him is likely far more crucial to his life than any distant civilisation. To a person living in a free and peaceful society, the minds of the human beings around him are likely of infinitely more value than any animal.)
Anthropocentrism rejects any notion of animal rights. Rights are principles, arising in a social context, which uphold moral interactions between human beings. There can be no rights for beings incapable of reason. The faculty of reason is the source of rights because it is reason that demands the being possessing it act on their independent judgment. If man is to live as his nature demands—as a rational being—then freedom to act is a moral necessity in society. Animals incapable of possessing reason are incapable of possessing any judgment, let alone an independent one. Upholding the concept of “animal rights” will only destroy the concept of man’s rights.
Anthropocentrism holds that man’s interactions with the environment must be measured by the standard of human life. To try and minimise our “impact” on the environment when such minimisation produces no benefit to human flourishing is not merely wasted human activity—it is evil.
Anthropocentrism holds that man does not live “equally” with nature, he rules it. He rules it for a simple reason: because he can. It is man’s moral obligation to produce his own flourishing, and if he can control the natural world for his own benefit, then he should. I will say it if no one else will. The natural world should indeed, in the language of the biocentrists, be “exploited” for the sake of human life.
Anthropocentrism holds that conservation of the environment is a moral obligation provided it is tied to human flourishing. Experimentation on animals for the sake of human life is a moral good. However, anthropocentrism also holds that the protection and tolerance of animals is moral when this aids human life. For this reason, the mindless torturing of animals is immoral—it is psychologically damaging, and without any benefit for human life.
Anthropocentrism is not, however, a complete ethical philosophy in and of itself. Just as a moral philosophy must be based on a system of metaphysics and epistemology, so a sub-branch of moral philosophy (environmental ethics) must be based on a complete system of morality as such. The only moral philosophy upon which anthropocentrism can be based is rational ethical egoism (I say “ethical” merely to distinguish this theory from “psychological egoism”, a psychological theory which states that all actions are at least subconsciously self-interested). I shall refer to this simply as “egoism”.
It is only egoism which can justify anthropocentrism, because egoism is the only philosophy which is pro-human, and specifically, pro-human life. All other moralities demand that man sacrifice himself or bring about his own self-destruction; only egoism gears man’s actions towards that end in itself which is his own life.
Life as a process of self-sustaining action
Life is a process of self-sustaining action. Without this action, life ceases to exist. The self-sustaining action required by life is constant in that every moment not dedicated to self-preservation is a moment where death is brought closer. This last point does not mean to say that relaxation, as an essential means of restoring energy, is always self-destructive. It means simply that any moment not in some way used for the task of self-preservation is a wasted moment which reduces the possible scope (duration, resources or versatility) of an organism’s life.
Every function of an organism’s body plays a role in preserving that organism’s life. The fundamental goal of an organism’s life is the preservation of that organism’s life. Animals without the cognitive capacity of man act on this premise instinctively, without thought. But man’s consciousness is volitional, and requires a choice to act on this premise. In human terms: the purpose of a person’s life must be self-preservation if one is to continue to exist. As for the purpose of continued existence, one must grasp that life is an end in itself.
For man, no lesser and no greater purpose than the preservation of his own life can be justified. There can be no lesser goal because the very question of purpose and goal presupposes continued existence. There can be no greater goal for the same reason: any process of action not geared exclusively towards self-preservation will detract from the task of self-preservation, and will thus be geared towards self-destruction. For a living being, life and death are a constant and fundamental alternative. If one does not choose life exclusively, one is choosing death. If one does not choose life constantly, one is choosing death. And the choice to exist neither requires further justification, and nor is it capable of any further justification. For a living being, it is absurd to ask why it should wish to remain a living being—it can be nothing else. Hence the appropriateness of the description of life as being an end in itself.
Biocentrism as opposed to the nature of life
Now observe that, however much the biocentrists and environmentalists claim that they are the defenders of life, the deadly truth is that they are opposed to the nature of life itself. By demanding man sacrifice his own interests for the sake of other animals, they are demanding that man act against the purpose of self-preservation. By seeking an ecosystem of equality where all things are kept in balance, where no organism may step out of line and disrupt this balance, they are demanding that all life act against the purpose of self-preservation.
There is thus a deeper reason why the notion of inherent worth is incompatible with the existence of values. No values are possible until life is established as the ultimate goal of our actions. Unless we know our ultimate goal, there is no way of knowing whether anything is good or bad for us, whether anything will advance or hinder that goal. And life is the only coherent ultimate goal for a living organism. When we are forced to tear ourselves away from the ultimate goal which is our life for the sake of some unjustifiable “inherent” good, there is no longer anything that is good or bad for us. This is double damnation of life. Biocentrists destroy the very things which preserve life (values) and destroy the ultimate goal of life (self-preservation).
There is no middle ground in this question. There is no room for biocentric goals (based on the notion of “inherent” worth) and for earthly goals (objective values based on human life). An organism can only ever have one ultimate purpose, if it is to have any purpose at all. By taking away the ultimate purpose of life, that organism’s ability to recognise values (which must hold life as the fixed, immutable standard) will be destroyed. The organism will flounder, will self-destruct psychologically, and eventually physically. Examples of this might be our reckless gambling on green energy policies, or the drug-induced squalor of hippies.
Note that anthropocentrism explicitly forbids human beings the rampant destruction of the environment to the point that life is impossible. But biocentrism demands that if an individual human’s life stands in the way of the lives of ten animals, then that human must wipe himself out of existence. Whatever the biocentrists are, they are no defenders of life as it exists in this universe: the ceaseless striving of over eight million different species for self-preservation. This is why my fictional story at the beginning of this essay is true another time over: we think that we are fighting an air force, but the enemy is an underground force. We think, by an outward aspect, that biocentrists and environmentalists are on the side of life, but they are a dark evil that dwells in the depths which hold our graves. Biocentrism and environmentalism are not just anti-human; they are anti-life.
Once, anthropocentrism was preached and was practised. Nowadays, anthropocentrism is barely preached, and is practised less and less. From recognition of the “rights” of animals, to more recent recognition of the “rights” of forests and even rivers, to the current calls for ending our vital energy source and reducing our carbon footprint, the biocentrists are demanding humanity wipe itself out of existence, and they are gaining ground. Any time any “moralist” anywhere demands that humanity take action to protect the environment not for its own sake, but for the sake of the environment itself, that is the suicidal drumbeat of the anti-life: the repulsive notion that a living being remove self-preservation as its purpose.
Anthropocentrism and the recognition of nature’s beauty
I would like to end with an observation on the beauty of the environment, which helps to combat an environmentalist claim that anthropocentrists lack concern for nature. A biocentric philosophy ruins the ability to see nature as beautiful. As one’s own life is the root of all one’s values, it is also the root of all of one’s aesthetic values (“aesthetic” in this sense means pertaining to beauty). It is only by valuing one’s own life that the beauty of a healthy, pristine environment can be seen. Incidentally, note the particularly human ways we have of expressing nature’s beauty, through the timeless practice of anthropomorphism. From descriptions of “whispering” forests to the talking animals in children’s stories, when used for the purpose of beauty anthropomorphism involves forms of nature appreciation operating on the premise of man’s existence as beautiful, of man’s life as a value. It does this by imbuing nature with man’s distinct faculty: rational consciousness. And nature becomes a reservoir for ways of describing man’s beauty: a person’s anger being like the fire of the sun, a person’s love being as deep as the ocean, a person being as free as a bird. A human-focused ethic does not destroy the appreciation of nature. It is the source of it.
I will not say that it is time for us to fight the debate of environmental ethics differently, because what I really mean is that it is time for us to begin to fight it openly and with full consciousness. It is time for us to prepare for an assault on the underground. We must go down to the root of environmentalism, to the biocentric morality from which it springs. And we can fight with the full certainty that we anthropocentrists are on the side of morality, on the side of life, and on the side of nature and its beauty.
Magnus O’Mallon is a Melbourne composer and writer.