Biocentrism has a simple message: all life forms are equally valuable and must be treated with the same fairness and moral justice. Looking at all angles, let's answer the question: Is Biocentrism debunked?
For many people, biocentrism is the not-so-new but very much improved perspective for viewing the universe. Some other people find it hard to grasp. Over the years, people have come up with arguments for and against biocentrism ethics. Yes, philosophical and scientific scrutiny has found the theory has loopholes and lacks empirical evidence, but is biocentrism debunked?
In this article, we try to understand biocentrism and explore its background, strengths, and criticisms. Most importantly, we draw out its value for you as an eco-conscious citizen of the world.
Related Read: What Does it Mean to Go Green?
What is Biocentrism Theory?
To put it simply, biocentrism asserts that all living things in the universe are equal. Therefore, we must give all an equal consideration. The term biocentrism has its etymological origin in two Greek words, ‘bio’ meaning life, and ‘kentron’ which means center.
Biocentrism addresses concerns such as the right of self-preservation of all life forms and the moral responsibility of all living organisms.
To better understand biocentrism, let's take a quick look at the following terms.
This philosophical discipline examines the relationship between humans and the environment from a moral and ethical perspective. It attempts to determine the right way to interact with the environment.
There are many schools of thought under environmental ethics, and biocentrism is one of them.
Moral standing is the status of an entity that entitles it to moral consideration from other entities. In other words, when an entity has moral standing, its well-being should be taken into account by others.
Additionally, having moral standing implies that an entity has inherent worth. That is, it is valuable by itself and not because of its uses.
In environmental ethics, there have been several attempts to set a standard for determining what entities have moral standing and what does not.
Biocentrism posits that life itself is the only non-arbitrary criterion for determining inherent worth and assigning moral standing to an entity. Therefore, all living things, even non-sentient life forms, deserve ethical consideration.
Biocentrism defends its ethical view with several ideas. One is the teleological stance that every living thing exists with its own goals, and having such purpose indicates inherent moral worth.
Another ethic of biocentrism is that life and consciousness create the world we see. It relies heavily on the observer-effect theory of quantum mechanics to establish this idea. So, according to biocentrism, our perspective of space and time are just tools of animal understanding and do not exist outside of the mind.
Biocentrism suggests that human life is no more or less valuable than any other living organism. An earthworm or a roadside weed has the same rights as you when one decides on their well-being.
Biocentric ethics proposes four basic rules that humans follow when interacting with other living beings.
Human beings must not harm other living beings directly or indirectly.
Humans should not interfere with an organism’s pursuit of its goals, whether interrupting, restricting, redirecting, or accelerating it.
No one should manipulate, exploit, or deceitfully use other living beings as a means to satisfy human interests.
When living things are unintentionally harmed by human activity, an action of restitutive justice should be followed to restore ethical and moral balance.
Biocentrism vs. Anthropocentrism
Biocentrism positions itself as the extreme opposite of anthropocentrism, a human-centered ethic. Anthropocentrism views humans as separate and inherently superior to plant and animal life. This viewpoint allows for nature to be exploited for the benefit of humankind.
One of the faults people have laid on anthropocentrism is that it tends to focus solely on humans living presently with little or no thought for future generations. An example is the wasteful consumption of finite resources like petroleum.
The school of thought of enlightened anthropocentrism agrees that humans have an obligation toward the environment. But it's not for any intrinsic value, but for the adverse impact pollution can have on other humans.
Biocentrism vs Ecocentrism
Ecocentrism advocates moral value to living organisms and non-living natural entities such as mountains, soil, water bodies, etc. It focuses on the well-being of ecological wholes such as ecosystems, species, and habitats. It is also called environmental holism.
Extending moral consideration to non-living things is one of the fundamental aspects of ecocentrism that differentiates it from biocentrism.
Biocentrism focuses on individualism. As a mental construct, it never places more value on one individual over another. On the other hand, ecocentrism places the survival of ecosystems and species over individual living beings.
From an ecocentric perspective, it is acceptable to destroy one individual if its existence threatens the survival of its whole species. Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is one of the most significant ethics of ecocentric philosophy.
History of Biocentrism
In the late 20th century, Western philosophies systematically addressed the biocentric ethical theory. We can trace that development to expanding moral standing in an attempt to address pressing environmental issues.
Environmental philosophers argued for expanding traditionally human-centered moral standing to include animal species, plants, later ecosystems, and so on. Consequently, biocentrism emerged as one of the stances of environmental ethics.
However, biocentric thought has existed for a long time in several religious traditions. In many Native American traditions, there is a deep respect for nature. They have a worldview that considers natural objects and living beings sacred.
Also, Buddhism's first fundamental ethic is to avoid killing or harming any living thing. Saint Francis of Assisi upheld a biocentric theology, preaching to animals and showing great care to plants. His biocentric theology has made many see him as the patron saint of ecology.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Romantic movement promoted the idea that the natural world had intrinsic value. That respect for nature was in contrast to the prevailing instrumentalist perception of nature in that era.
Notable Proponents of Biocentrism
Schweitzer was an early 20th-century philosopher credited for coining the phrase ‘reverence for life.’ The phrase was from his work Philosophy of Civilization2, which he wrote in 1923.
It expressed what he believed was the best way to view all living beings. He argued life itself is the decisive factor in determining moral value.
Although he did not exactly use the term ‘biocentrism,’ he proposed that all life, not just human life, should have moral value. He believed that that was essential for sustaining civilization.
In 1986, Taylor published Respect for Nature, a book that perhaps provides the most critical defense of the biocentrism theory1. In the arguments he presented, he claimed that the quality of being alive was enough to assign moral standing because all living things aim to pursue their own good.
Taylor came up with four basic premises to justify biocentrism:
- Humans are members of the earth's community of life in the same way other species are
- Earth's community consists of a complex web of interdependent members.
- Every living organism is the center of life because it has a reason for being alive, which is inherently valuable.
- The idea that a human is superior or more valuable compared to other species is an anthropocentric bias.
Lanza, a respected stem cell researcher, is one of the modern voices of biocentrism. He takes credit for developing the theory of a biocentric universe in 2007. He has authored two books on the theory so far.
In his biocentrism theory, he expounds on the biocentric assumption of life and consciousness. He puts biocentrism forward as the theory of understanding the universe and all that exists.
He claimed that life and consciousness create the universe rather than vice versa, as is popularly accepted. The observation of time by a conscious observer establishes the flow of time perceived by the observer.
The criticisms of biocentric ethics
No ethics is without criticism. These criticisms can refine ideas and eventually merge to become universally acceptable.
Below are some thoughts critics have offered to debunk biocentrism.
The practicality of biocentric rules
A major criticism of biocentrism is that its rules are unreasonably demanding. For example, critics argue that following the rule of non-maleficence strictly means that a human can't eat, which would mandate killing animals and vegetables.
From a biocentric view, this presents a moral dilemma. Because humans have a basic goal of survival for which consuming food is necessary, a biocentrist must avoid killing any other living thing.
Defining all goals as good
According to teleology, all living beings aim toward end goals through unique means. Biocentrism believes that pursuing those goals is the essence of life and what constitutes every living organism's good and moral worth.
Critics have expressed disagreement with the assumption that every goal is inherently good. If a deadly virus pursues the goal of flourishing and consequently kills off an entire species, what is the "good" in that?
Also, the assumption that a living thing exists for its own good rather than the good of another has yet to be proven beton reasonable doubt.
Non-interference can cause harm too
One of the rules of biocentrism is for humans not to interfere with other living things. In some cases, that could be a recipe for disaster where the health of the ecosystem is concerned.
For instance, an invasive species thriving in its own native habitat endangers native plant life that wouldn't survive anywhere else. Would that be an adequate reason to interfere and protect the native plants?
The complexity of life and consciousness
Biocentrism claims that time and space only exist because a conscious mind observes it. But that idea is highly controversial as consciousness itself, although a critical component of life, is still largely a mystery.
According to the Big Bang theory, the universe existed for billions of years before conscious life emerged. Also, verifiable data from cosmology and theoretical physics show that the universe’s existence is independent of observation.
What can we learn from biocentric ethics?
Biocentrism is debunked, and it may be impossible to adhere to this ethics strictly. However, there are excellent that we can learn about our environment just by adopting a flexible biocentric perspective.
All life has inherent value.
The interdependency of life forms clearly points to their individual value. How you perceive that value reflects how you interact with nature. The most sustainable attitude towards valuing nature is one of respect and appreciation.
Placing value on all life forms allows us to become advocates of nature. Caring for the life around us simply because they exist and not because of how useful they are is quite noble. Causes for animal welfare, habitat conservation, and circular economy will make more sense to people who have an egalitarian reverence for life.
Human beings are stewards and not superiors.
Naturally, many humans think of themselves as the center of the universe. They come first, and all other life forms follow. An oversized sense of superiority has led to viewing nature as nothing more than raw material to meet human needs. An overconsumption of resources is the result.
Biocentrism suggests that human beings try to see themselves on equal terms with life forms that exist interdependently. Just like we rely on nature to survive, nature relies on us to care for it.
We must protect the natural world.
Biocentrism teaches us that a human interest should not supersede an environmental concern. However, many human activities are directly or indirectly responsible for harm to billions of organisms daily.
Being aware that your actions can cause harm to other living organisms helps you make better decisions. You can reduce pollution and waste and avoid being associated with animal cruelty.
Is Biocentrism Science?
The response from the scientific community to biocentrism is one of both fascination and skepticism. Although it introduces an intriguing reimagining of our worldview, there's an argument that it deviates substantially from traditional scientific principles.
Classic scientific theories generally emerge from robust physical evidence and yield anticipated, testable predictions. Based on these criteria, biocentrism appears to falter, as it offers limited empirical evidence and few testable hypotheses.
An important stumbling block is biocentrism's rebellion against traditional physical theories. These established theories have been built on the bedrock of a universe that exists independently of humans or any biological observation.
The biocentric viewpoint - suggesting that the universe's existence is contingent on life - significantly deviates from this accepted narrative.
The scientific community requires definite predictions that can be independently and repeatedly tested under scientific protocols to validate biocentrism.
The lack of such concrete scientific evidence leaves biocentrism dangling in the realm of conjecture. Therefore, while biocentrism presents an intriguing conceptual shift and more of a philosophical theory. As such, it cannot meet the rigorous demands of science.
Conclusion: Is Biocentrism Debunked?
Biocentrism extends moral consideration to all living organisms, sentient or not. It champions animal rights as well as plants. However, like all philosophical theories, it has loopholes. So, should you debunk biocentrism? We'd instead learn from it.
Whether or not you subscribe to biocentric ethics, you must acknowledge that it encourages humans to re-evaluate their relationship with nature. Seeing oneself as a part of the natural world rather than a superior is a virtue that can correct exploitative mindsets.
Taylor, P. W. (1986). Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton University Press.
Attfield, R. (2016). Biocentrism. International Encyclopedia of Ethics, 1–10.