Respect for Life Principle

According to the Respect for Life Principle all living things have a moral status and on account of that should not be killed or harmed without good reason. Moral agents, then, can have moral responsibilities towards other living things, for instance, responsibilities derived from the VCP to protect them from harm. But, of course, human moral agents kill and harm other living beings all the time. Should we feel guilty about this? What constitutes a "good reason" for killing, or harming, or otherwise failing to protect something that is alive?

For Warren, the Respect for Life Principle, "imputes no wrongdoing to those who harm living things when there are morally sound reasons for doing so," but the principle alone "does not explain what counts as a sufficiently good reason for harming a living thing" (149). But what counts as "good reason" is a function, at least in part, of that thing's moral status. It is also a function of the moral status of the things that are doing the harming, and their reasons for acting as they do.

In the natural world, biological organisms kill and otherwise harm other biological organisms all the time. The other day I came upon a black snake in my backyard whose slender body was engorged by what I surmised to be some small mice. The snake did nothing morally wrong in eating these mice because snakes are not moral agents and cannot be ascribed moral obligations.

And so it is with respect to all creatures great and small who prey upon one another for their survival. It is a matter of Darwinian survival of the fittest out there in the biosphere. Human moral categories just do not apply, except, of course, to us.

In her book, The Pine Island Paradox: Making Connections in a Disconnected World. (Minneapolis MN: Milkweed Editions, 2004), Kathleen Dean Moore recounts a story that illustrates this point beautifully.

In a wilderness Alaska research camp where Jon works summers, a baby pine marten turned up tangled in a fishnet in a storage shed. A pine marten is a large silky weasel, not a rodent, but close enough for this essay, I hope. And it's fierce -- the hiss, the flashing teeth, the predator's slashing speed. Hearing the baby squeal, the two young aquatic biologists struggled to disentangle it. (110)
Moore says that "what seems important to me about this story is that neither of the men wondered whether they should release the baby marten, whether they should risk the nasty bites to set it free. The only issue was how." The two men obviously felt that it was their moral responsibility to free the baby marten. They were not the cause of its plight, but they understood that without their help this creature was doomed, so they undertook to free it. She continues:
Philosophers say that you can't deduce an ought from an is. It's the old "is-ought" problem that has bedeviled Western philosophy since the eighteenth century, when David Hume explained that from a mere description -- this is the way the world is -- you can't infer a prescription -- this is the way the world ought to be. In one sense he's right: You can stare at the world as long as you want, examine it every which way in all its detail, and it will not reveal to you what ought to be. But that doesn't mean you can't infer what you ought to do, from a description of the way the world is. We do it all the time. Jon made that leap in a flash, the space of a synapse, so fast he was probably never aware of the jump: The marten is caught in the net; therefore, I ought to free it. (111)
Logically speaking the inference is invalid, unless one adds a missing premise, a premise that is a description "not about the world, but about the moral convictions of the person acting in the world" (112). What is this missing premise? Perhaps it is something like the VCP; it is the premise that says moral agents have moral responsibilities to protect vulnerable moral patients when some aspect of their good is dependent on their choices and actions. As Moore writes, "the moral impulse, the silent premise affirming one's own standing as a moral agent, the sharp knife against the tough strands of a net: this may be humanity's unique gift to the universe" (112).

But let's vary this case. Suppose that rather than a baby marten, one finds a Siberian tiger caught in the net. Here most of us would be more inclined to make a different judgment about what we ought to do. Let's assume that the marten and the tiger have the same moral status, they occupy a moral plateau on which we find wild sentient life forms who are not members of mixed moral communities. Based on their moral status alone it seems we should treat them equally. But the difference is that we place ourselves at much greater risk by attempting to free the tiger than we do when we attempt to free the marten. For this reason, most of us would not blame someone who does not try to free the tiger. Why not?

The answer is, I think, that we are also vulnerable living creatures and so we have moral responsibilities to protect ourselves from being killed or harmed. Our reluctance to place ourselves at risk of serious injury or death by means of a tiger mauling us is not just "speciesism" -- an irrational preference for our own kind. It is due to our having a higher moral standing than tigers. We humans occupy the highest moral plateau and thus it would be wrong for us to risk our lives in order to protect a tiger from losing its life.

We can vary the case again. Suppose that you are a hunter-gatherer in the Amazon rain forest and you have trapped a bird in your net. Is it morally permissible to take that animal, kill it, and feed it to your children?

Yes, of course it is, assuming that you and your human family have no other means of survival. Humans are also vulnerable living beings who must nourish themselves in order to survive. Since human beings occupy a higher moral plateau than birds, who are also vulnerable living things that must nourish themselves to survive, there is no wrongdoing in your capturing the bird and killing it for your dinner. But this does not imply that human beings may wantonly kill other living things.

Suppose that rather than a hungry hunter-gatherer, you are a weekend hiker in a national park whose ruck sack is stuffed with granola bars and other edible goodies. May you still trap birds in nets and kill them, say, for your amusement?

I think you may not, even though you can. You may not because trapping and killing birds for your amusement is not a good enough reason to do it. In this case, your standing moral responsibility to protect vulnerable living things becomes the overriding moral principle of action and it outweighs your desire to have some fun. Risking injury or need for nourishment provide good reasons for excusing moral agents from their standing responsibilities to protect vulnerable living things, but wanting to see what it is like to kill a bird for fun does not.

On this view, then, moral agents owe other vulnerable living beings certain responsibilities of care that require them, morally speaking, to avoid harming them, and to protect them from harm, unless there are good reasons for excusing them from such responsibilities. If one is excused from one's moral responsibility, then one does not wrong the bird in killing it. But if one is not excused, then what one does is wrong, not because it adversely affects some human interest, but for the sake of the bird itself, who is a moral patient whose status as a living, sentient creature gives it some claim on our moral concern.

This way of thinking of the matter may strike some people as strange. As Warren remarks, "the adoption of the Respect for Life principle seems to require something more akin to spiritual conversion than to a logical deduction" (151). Some people seem to have made this conversion. Albert Schweitzer, for instance, thought that we have a moral responsibility "without limit towards all that lives" (Quoted in Warren, p. 31). Someone who subscribes to this ethics of reverence for life, "tears no leaf from a tree, plucks no flower, takes care to crush no insect." Warren claims that Schweitzer's ethics, "permits no principled distinction between the moral status of plants and that of animals -- or humans." (33) It treats all living creatures as equally valuable, and as equally deserving of our concern and respect.

But Warren (and I) reject this form of radical biological egalitarianism. The reason, she says, is clear:
Any human society which treated ordinary acts of food preparation, personal hygiene, and medical care as the moral equivalents of mass homicide would jeopardize its own survival. For if, on the one hand, members of society adopted the view that the destruction of micro-organisms is as serious a crime as we consider homicide to be, and consistently sought to prevent such destruction, then the health of the human population would suffer severely. And if, on the other hand, they came to see homicide as no more serious a wrong than we consider the destruction of micro-organisms to be, then the society's survival would be threatened by uncontrolled intra-human violence. (37)
All men may be created equal, but all living things aren't. Or at least, all organisms do not have the same moral standing and stature as human moral agents do. Micro-organisms, plants, insects, birds, mammals, and human beings occupy different moral plateaus. Other things being equal, we should treat entities on each plateau impartially with due regard for their particular kind of moral standing. But we do not have to feel guilt or remorse about sacrificing living things with lesser moral stature for those with greater moral stature when there is a good reason for doing so.

But, if so, then doesn't this view boil down to the traditional homocentric theory of moral status where human interests always prevail over those of non-human animals? Neither Warren nor I think so. According to the traditional homocentric view, the value of other living things is only a derived value; their value depends upon their relationship to our interests. But, on the Respect for Life principle, other living things have intrinsic moral value "in themselves". That is, it is wrong to wantonly harm them for their sakes, not just for ours. As Warren writes,
It makes more than verbal difference whether we believe, on the one hand, that all living things have a claim to our consideration, however, modest; or, on the other hand, that plants and other non-sentient life forms should be protected only when they have demonstrable value to human beings. If we believe that the needless destruction of living things is a wrong against them, not just a possible wrong against other human beings, then we will be more likely to search for ways to reduce the needless killing that we do, individually and collectively. We will not be permanently content with methods of agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing, manufacturing, mining, transportation, energy production, forestry, recreation, flood control, and waste disposal that cause the needless destruction of harmless plants and animals. Respect for life may, therefore, substantially improve humanity's chances of surviving and flourishing into the deep future.(150)
This is a homocentric argument for a biocentric ethics. There is nothing wrong with it since it is, after all, for human moral agents that we fashion, critique, and re-create, our ethical philosophies, since we are the only things in the universe that we know of to which they apply. The reason why we should embrace a biocentric ethics now is that doing so will help our global civilization make a transition to a sustainable form of development. Sustainability means different things to different people, but in this context, it means a future in which life on earth, including human life, will continue to flourish. It is difficult to think of anything that could constitute a higher moral purpose than this.

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