Moral Status and Personhood

In order to understand the VCP on must grasp the concept of moral status. Moral status is what determines whether something can function as the A and B terms in the Vulnerability Relation, which is, as you will recall,

The Vulnerability Relation: A is vulnerable to B with respect to C because of D.

The B term specifies the bearer or subject of the sorts of moral responsibilities that I content derive from the Vulnerability Relations, while the A term specifies the addressees, beneficiaries, or objects of these kinds of moral responsibilities. The VCP says that moral agents can have moral responsibilities to protect those who are specially vulnerable or in some way depending on them for their care. But the questions which we must now address are:

Who (or what) can function as the bearers of moral responsibilities in this sense? and,

Who (or what) can function as the objects of moral responsibilities in this sense?

I will begin my discussion of the concept of moral status with the work on this topic by several contemporary philosophers.

Mary Anne Warren has characterized the concept of moral status as follows:

To have moral status is to be morally considerable, or to have moral standing. It is to be an entity towards which moral agents have, or can have, moral obligations. If an entity has moral status, then we may not treat it in just any way we please; we are morally obliged to give weight in our deliberations to its needs, interests, or well-being. Furthermore, we are morally obliged to do this not merely because protecting it may benefit ourselves or other persons, but because its needs have moral importance in their own right. [Warren (1997) Moral Status: obligations to persons and other living things. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 3]

Personhood is an example of moral status in this sense. To have the status of a person is understood as the basis of having human rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, freedom of expression, religious freedom, and the others. The moral status of persons is typically conferred upon types of individuals who meet certain general criteria, for instance, sentience, rational agency, intentionality, and the like. Normally adult human beings are regarded as persons. I have already noted that moral agency is a precondition for attributions of liability responsibility. So it is reasonable to suggest here that moral agency is likewise a precondition for something functioning as the bearer of moral responsibilities in the substantive normative sense. So, the short answer to the first question is that only individuals who possess moral agency can function as the bearers of moral responsibilities in the vulnerability relation. Since persons possess moral agency, persons can be the bearers of moral responsibilities.

Adult human beings are, for the most part, persons. Philosophers sometimes call human moral agents 'undoubted persons' because there is no doubt that they satisfy the conditions for moral agency. However, not all human beings are also persons in this sense. Individuals in deep comas are not, nor are infants and young children, nor are embryos and fetuses. In none of these kinds of cases does it make sense to ascribe moral responsibilities to these kinds of human beings. There are also some borderline cases in which one might legitimately doubt whether someone is a person, for instance, when dealing with severely psychotic or schizophrenic individuals. People who are deranged in these ways are not normally held to be morally responsible for their actions, even though they look just like undoubted persons.

But there are also certain kinds of things which are persons but are not human beings. The prime example of this category are corporations and other sorts of collective entities. I will return to this topic at a later point, but for the time being, I want to note that corporations and other kinds of collective entities can be ascribed moral responsibilities even though they are not human beings, and in fact, are not even alive. Corporations do not bleed and they do not die. Nevertheless it is important to understand that corporations can satisfy the necessary conditions for moral agency, and hence be regarded as moral as well as legal persons.

If there are extra-terrestrial intelligent races out there somewhere in space, then it is quite possible that we would classify them as persons who are not also human beings. Think, for instance, about the alien in Steven Spielberg's movie E.T. -- not human to be sure, but capable of moral agency and hence moral responsibility nonetheless. It is certainly imaginatively possible to conceive of other kinds of beings which are 'persons' in the sense of possessing moral agency, but which are not human beings. Think about hobbits.

Science fiction provides other examples of possible non-human persons. Issac Asimov's story "The Centennial Man" (later made into a movie called the Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams) contemplates the possibility that some day we will have robots that claim their civil rights as persons under the law. For the time being, this is just a fictional possibility, but some authors, such as Ray Kurzweil, have predicted that the day in which we have such forms of artificially intelligent robots is not as far off as many people think. If and when these robots do come into being we will need to think of them as nonhuman persons.

Some people also think that some of our biological relatives, higher primates such as chimpanzees, or cetaceans such as bottle-nosed dolphins, might quality as nonhuman persons. Other people doubt this is true, which is why it might be possible to call these members of other species "doubted persons". Since I think of personhood as closely connected with those capacities necessary for moral agency, I am comfortable with this designation. Philosophers, by and large, have tended to over-emphasize the evolutionary discontinuities between human beings and other intelligent species. I, on the other hand, am more persuaded by the arguments of the biologists and evolutionary psychologists that there are significant continuities between humans and other members of the animal kingdom in the underlying psychological capacities that make moral agency possible.

Philosophers have spent a good deal of time and lots of ink trying to figure out exactly where to draw the boundaries of moral personhood. While interesting, I am not going to say much more about this topic here other than to note that I believe this is a matter for decision rather than discovery. That is, we will ultimately need to decide to draw the boundary somewhere or another, and where ever we draw it is going to be politically contested, as it is, for example, in the debate over the morality of abortion. We can fix on various kind of natural or psychological features of individuals as the basis for drawing the boundary, but this does not alter the fact that we construct and create it.

Definitional boundaries are rather like political borders in this sense; we can use the presence of a river or a coastline as the marker for a political boundary, say between the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but it is still our decision to use this natural feature as a boundary. The ability of the river to function in this way depends upon our collective intentionality to treat it as a political boundary. The same thing is true of the definitions of terms like "person" or "moral agent". We construct the meanings of our symbols.

Moral Patients

We need to understand that while only moral agents, or persons, can function as the bearers of moral responsibilities, it is not the case that only moral agents can function as their objects. As I shall use the term, a moral patient is something that can function as the object of the moral responsibilities of moral agents, that is, something to which moral attitudes such as moral concern, respect, or care can be directed.

Moral patients are things towards which moral agents can have moral responsibilities. On this definition, all moral agents are also moral patients, but moral patients need not be moral agents. Only moral agents can function as the bearers of moral obligations towards others, while moral patients can be the objects of the moral obligations of others, but need not themselves be capable of moral agency.

We generally think of other adult human beings as moral agents, even though some adult human beings lack the effective capacity for moral agency, for instance, persons in comas. To qualify as a moral agent, one must satisfy the criteria generally accepted for mental competence as required for ascriptions of moral responsibility in the sense of liability for moral blame or praise. The actions of moral agents can be evaluated morally as to their blame or praiseworthiness, but not, for instance, the actions of infants and most animals. Nonhuman animals because they lack an effective capacity for moral agency can be readily classified as moral patients.

Thus, a moral patient does not have to be a moral agent or person, but could, for instance, also be nonhuman animals or an entire species, plants, microorganisms, an ecosystem, or even perhaps an inanimate object such as a work of art or a prized possession. The category of moral patients might be quite large and quite differentiated. It will need to be defined further.

Some kinds of moral patients are also agents, just not moral agents. In using the terms 'agent' and 'patient' I do not mean to imply that moral patients lack agency in their own right, or that moral agents cannot also be acted upon by moral patients. A shark, which is a moral patient can kill a man. A human infant, which is another kind of moral patient, can evoke in most human adults a caring impulse. Moral agents act upon moral patients and vice versa. In order to be considered a moral patient, that is, as the object of a moral responsibility, an entity must have some kind and degree of moral status.

As Francis Kamm has noted, there is a broad sense of moral status in which the concept can be defined as "what it is permissible or impermissible to do to some entity. In this sense, rocks may have the moral status of entities to which, just considering them, it is morally permissible to do anything" (F. M. Kamm. Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 227). But we normally use the term in a narrower sense as a contrast between "entities that in some important sense 'count' morally in their own right, and so are said to have moral status, and others that do not count morally in their own right." I will employ the term "moral standing" to denote things which count morally in their own rights either because of their intrinsic properties or relational properties. Having moral standing is a kind of moral status; other things like ordinary rocks do not have moral standing because they have the moral status of things to which we can do anything we please. Some other things which we cannot affect at all by means of human action have a different kind of moral status. The planet Jupiter or the Carina Nebula would fall into this category and would also lack moral standing.

Kamm endorses a suggestion by Christine Korsgaard that entities do not have to be considered to have an intrinsic value in order to have moral status in this sense; they only need to be considered as ends in the sense that some aspect of their good can "provide a reason (even if an overrideable one) for attitudes and actions independent of other considerations" (228). For instance, Kamm says, "A work of art or a tree may count in its own right in the sense that it gives us reason to constrain our behavior toward it (for example, not destroy it) just because that would preserve this entity" (228).

But Kamm further distinguishes doing something to an entity "for its own sake and not just in its own right." For Kamm only entities that have the capacity for sentience or consciousness can qualify as objects for whose sakes we can have moral obligations. I agree that entities which have the psychological capacities necessary for sentience have moral standing and are therefore moral patients. But I disagree with Kamm and also believe that there are organisms which are not sentient towards which we can act morally in their own rights even though they do not have interests in the psychological sense. All of those living things whose well-being can be affected for better or worse by the actions of moral agents can, on this view, be considered to have some kind or degree of moral standing and can therefore function as moral patients within the vulnerability relation.

To clarify the notion of moral status further, Kamm argues that, "there is a difference between one's having a duty to do something and having a duty to a specific entity to do it" (230). When we have a duty to someone, it typically creates a "correlative right or claim had by the entity to which the duty is owed against the person who owes it." We say that we act wrongly when we fail to fulfill a duty or responsibility to do something, but we say that we have wronged someone when we fail to fulfill our duty towards them as a right-holder. The party to whom a moral obligation is owed (its addressee) is not necessarily the party who is benefited or affected by that obligation (its object). This can be made clear by means of an example or two.

Suppose that Sam has mother, Judith, who has had a stroke which left her severely incapacitated and in need of care. But Sam has a job and a young family to care for as well, so he hires Gwen, a professional nurse, who promises Sam to take care of Sam's mother Judith while he is at work. In this example, Sam has a moral responsibility to care for his mother when she is vulnerable and depending upon him for her care, but he can delegate this responsibility to another caregiver who then enters in as a party to this moral relationship.

In this triangular moral relationship Gwen is a duty-bearer; she has a duty to Sam to take care of his mother Judith. Sam is the right-holder and the addressee of Gwen's duty since it is Sam who would be wronged by Gwen if she failed to properly discharge her duties. Judith is an object and beneficiary of Gwen's duty. Judith is in this case is a moral patient who is also a moral agent but who functions as the indirect object of Gwen's moral obligations. Sam functions as the direct object of Gwen's responsibility because she owes her duty to Sam. While Gwen owes her duty to Sam, because of her promise was addressed to him, Judith is the object of Gwen's duty because Gwen now has a responsibility to care for Judith that was delegated to her by Sam. On this account, Sam has a right against Gwen, and Gwen has a duty she owes to Sam, but Gwen also has a moral responsibility towards Judith who is the object and the beneficiary of her care. Judith is the object of Gwen's duties, but Sam is the right-holder who is in a position to demand that Gwen fulfill her responsibilities.

This is an example of how moral patients can function as the objects of a moral agent's obligations although they are not themselves are not right-holders in the relevant sense. Thus, a moral patient can be the object of the moral responsibilities of others without having rights against them.

One can drive this point home more forcefully by substituting something that is not a human being for Judith. Suppose we vary the case and stipulate that Sam asked Gwen to water his plants while he was away on vacation. Sam's plants are not moral agents, nor are they sentient, and are not the kind of things that can have rights. But Gwen still has a duty towards the plants because of the promise she has given to Sam. Sam has rights against Gwen, but Sam's plants don't.

Or consider the case in which Sam asks Gwen to take care of his 1200cc Harley Davidson motorcycle for him, say to change its oil and polish its chrome. In this case we would say that Gwen has a responsibility concerning Sam's Harley, but many people would be disinclined to say that the motorcycle is the object her responsibilities. Sam is still the addressee of Gwen's duties and he would be wronged if she does not do as she has promised. But motorcycles, and most other inanimate, non-living material artifacts, are not normally considered to be things that we can have obligations towards. In such cases, I will say that the object in question has a derived, or observer-relative kind of moral status. Its status is derived from the interests of moral patients who have "goods of their own" or can be regarded as "ends in themselves," but the object of the obligation, its beneficiary, itself cannot.

There can also be cases where a single entity, for example, another person, functions both as the object or beneficiary and the right-older with respect to someone else's duties. When rights ground moral responsibilities, for example, a duty, to refrain from torturing another person by subjecting them to electrical shocks, my duty corresponds to a right on her part not to be tortured. Here the object of my responsibilities and their beneficiary are the same individual. Rights ground moral duties that are in the interest of the right-holders. If I commit torture I both harm the person I torture and I wrong him because I have violated a right which he has against me.

However, when we have moral responsibilities concerning moral patients who are not also moral agents, no such rights are involved. So, for example, I may have a duty not to destroy a tree without good reason because the tree has a moral status, which (other things being equal), gives me reason not to destroy it. But this moral duty does not correlate with right on the part of the tree, and I will not have wronged the tree if I destroy it, although I may still have done something wrong. Trees and other kinds of living things can be moral patients that function as the objects of the moral responsibilities of moral agents without their also qualifying as right-holders.

Moral agents can have moral responsibilities that are other-regarding towards (or concerning) both other moral agents and towards various categories of moral patients having intrinsic and derived moral status. Moral agents can also have self-regarding moral responsibilities, that is, persons have can have moral responsibilities to themselves. Moral patients are, in general, things which are valuable and vulnerable to human action in a variety of different ways. Things which cannot be affected for good or for ill by human actions cannot be considered to be moral patients at all. The planet Jupiter, for instance, which is only a great gaseous sphere in space, is something which cannot be a moral patient because we cannot affect it in any way that might be considered as mattering to its "good" or "well-being." The limits of human action also mark the outer limits of possible human responsibilities.

We cannot have moral responsibilities concerning those things whose well-being we cannot affect through our action or inaction. We can't really do anything to Jupiter even though we have now shot satellites into it to try to learn more about it. But this action did not harm Jupiter in any way. Jupiter is, in fact, not even the sort of thing which can be harmed. We can only harm those things which can be thought of as having a well-being or a good of their own. The planet Jupiter has no good of its own, and even if it did, its good could not be affected in any way by human action, which is just another way of saying that things like the planet Jupiter cannot be moral patients.

However, I think that we can have moral responsibilities concerning the Earth, since we can affect the earth for good or ill by our actions. Unlike Jupiter, the Earth has a moral status of its own which derives from its being a living planet – a place in the cosmos where the phenomenon of life has emerged. Perhaps there are other planets in the universe where life has arisen. Personally, I believe that Earth cannot be the only site of life in the cosmos, but at this stage in humanity's scientific understanding of the universe we don't know this. However, we do know that life exists on Earth and that this fact makes Earth rather special. On the bio-centric view of moral value I will develop shortly, life is the basis of intrinsic value.

Intrinsic vs. Relational Moral Value

We consider moral patients to have moral status in that they count, morally speaking, in their own rights. Counting morally means that something that is a moral patient can function as the object of moral responsibilities of moral agents.

But what does it mean to count morally? One idea is that in order to count morally a thing must be valuable in some way. The VCP directs us to protect those moral patients which are vulnerable, and valuable, and whose well-being, their 'good' is in some way dependent on our choices and actions. But what kind of value are we talking about? What gives certain things this kind of value, the kind that enables them to count morally?

It is important to remember that we have been talking only about moral value, that kind of value that makes a thing a possible object of a moral responsibility in its own right. There are many other kinds of value: aesthetic, functional, instrumental, nutritional, medicinal, commercial or economic value, and so forth. While we are mainly concerned with understanding the concept of moral value, it is important to bear in mind that the same thing that has moral value can also have some of these other kinds of value.

The main conceptual distinction that is conventionally drawn is between the notion of intrinsic value and that of relational, derived, or instrumental value. Something has a relational or derived value when its value depends on the existence of a valuer who places or confers a value upon that thing. So, for instance, commercial value is determined by markets, and markets consist of buyers and sellers who jointly determine the commerical values of various kinds of commerical goods and services. A used car has a commercial value, but this value is wholly derived or relational, since it depends on the acts of buyers and sellers who jointly determine its value. Many other things that we say are valuable have only derived or relational values. There is an old debate, however, about whether or not it is possible for all sorts of values to be derived.

Some philosophers have thought that all values are derived. David Hume, for instance, the towering intellect of the Scottish Enlightenment, seems to have held the view that even moral values, for instance the values that we attach to certain kinds of actions, are derived from our sentiments:

Take any action allow'd to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You can never find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, toward this action. Here is a matter of fact; but this the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from contemplation of it. (David Hume. A Treatise of Human Nature. Courier Dover Editions, 2004, pp. 333-34).

In Hume's view, the willful killing of another person is not morally wrong because this act destroys the life of another person, a vulnerable living being whose life has an intrinsic value; it is wrong because a moral observer places a value on that person's life and the violation of this derived value produces in this observer feelings of disapprobation at the loss of something in which he has placed a value. On this view, things have moral value only if someone, a valuer, attaches a moral value to them. Philosophers call this theory in metaethics non-cognitivism or emotivism. On this view, even moral values are relational, they are derived wholly from the sentiments of human valuers. On this view things only have value to the extent that human valuers place values on them.

Like Kant, I do not think that noncognitivism with respect to moral value can be correct. A view that holds that all values are relational or derived leads to a regress which can only be ended by circular reasoning, or by nihilism (the view that nothing in the universe has value), or by taking some things as having an intrinsic value.

The regress arises if one asks the question, "If a human being's life is valuable only because a moral observer, in this case, another human being, places a value on it, then what is it that makes the moral observer valuable?" If the value of a thing is derived from an act of valuing it by another thing, then in order for the second thing to have value, the valuer must itself have value. If the valuer has no value in itself, then how can it confer value upon something else? What is it that gives moral valuers their value?

If it is other moral valuers, then we have a circular argument in which moral valuers have value because moral valuers confer it upon themselves. But this begs the question of how moral value arises in the cosmos, for one can still ask where did the moral valuer get the value that it confers upon itself? If some other moral valuer conferred the value upon the valuer, then one can ask where that being got its value from, and if the answer is another moral valuer, then we can reiterate the question, and so on ad infinitum.

If valuers have no value in themselves, then nothing can have any value, since, by our hypothesis, things only acquire value in relationship to valuers who place values on them. This is nihilism, the view that nothing in the universe has any value. Nihilism violates our ordinary moral intuitions in a quite radical way since it entails that nothing is either morally right or morally wrong. Since human lives have no value, for the nihilist, genocide is just as morally acceptable as baking apple pie. Most moral philosophers want to avoid nihilism since it makes everything meaningless and valueless. If nihilism is correct, then everything really is permitted.

In order to escape circularity and avoid nihilism one must take some things as possessing intrinsic rather than derived value. Those things which Kant called "ends in themselves", or which we can say have intrinsic moral value, are the source and the origin of the value that exists in the cosmos. In order for chains in which the value of one thing is derived from acts of valuing by valuable beings, there must be something in the universe that has an intrinsic moral value, something that is valuable in itself.

One traditional way that people have thought they could stop the regress is by invoking a deity or supernatural being, who functions as the valuer of last resort. On this kind of religious theory, human beings have a value because God loves us above all of his other creatures, because we are created in "God's image."
If this is our view, then the value of human lives is still a derived value; human beings are believed to be valuable to God, not intrinsically valuable, or valuable in ourselves. Only God is assumed to be "valuable in Himself"; everything else's value derives from acts of valuing by a divine moral valuer who places a value on human beings because he loves us. This is the theocentric perspective that humans have used for many centuries to help them understand the moral order and which still holds sway over many people's minds. Without the belief in a personal deity who functions as the valuer of last resort, there would be no escape from nihilism and human existence would seem meaningless to many people. This is one powerful reason why the religious belief in a personal creator God remains so popular.

But for atheists and religious skeptics, like Hume, and even for philosophers such as Kant, who was a theist, this theocratic answer is not satisfactory. If the belief that some things are right and wrong depends ultimately on the belief in God's functioning as valuer of last resort, then the entire moral world collapses when belief in a personal creator god wanes and is replaced by a scientific worldview in which there are no personal deities who create and manage the universe, who lay down moral laws, answer our prayers, and judge us morally after we die.

Kant and modern day secular humanists choose a different place to stop the regress. They insist that human lives have intrinsic moral value because they exhibit rational moral agency. This is, of course, also circular, but it is no more so than insisting that God is valuable just because he is God. Explanations must come to an end somewhere, Wittgenstein famously said. So why is it worse to stop the explanation of the origin of moral value by insisting that human beings, as rational agents, are intrinsically valuable than by insisting that there must be a deity who is intrinsically valuable and whose valuing human beings confers value upon us? At least we know that human beings actually exist, while the God that people talk about seems to many of us quite imaginary.

Despite claims from religious people of how much God loves us, he seems in fact to be indifferent to human suffering, while at least some human beings do care about human suffering at least to some extent, at least some of the time. From a theocratic point of view, of course, the alternative secular humanist answer to the question of the origin of moral value is seen as a major threat to their belief system. They deride it as "moral relativism." Despite such protestations, however, people are still losing their religion in increasing numbers. While many people see this as a symptom of moral decline, others, like me, understand that it is really an opportunity for spiritual renewal.

From the human-centered (homocentric) point of view, the concept of dignity, or inherent worth, is used to describe the kind of moral value which underpins the moral status which belongs to human persons. Possessing dignity is not the same thing as having self-respect or acting in a dignified manner, as is appropriate to one's class, rank or position. Dignity is that moral property of human persons by which we acknowledge them as beings who are intrinsically worthy of moral concern and as having inherent rights which specify how they may and may not be treated. If one strips a person of his or her human dignity, then one removes the ground of his or her moral status and with it his or her human rights. For this reason, dignity is deemed to be an inherent and inalienable moral property of all human persons. The term 'dignity' refers to the intrinsic moral value of human persons. Many homocentric ethical theories of moral status, such as Kant's, divide the moral universe into persons and things. Persons possess dignity or instrinsic value, because, for Kant, they have rational wills, and hence they are moral agents, while mere things do not. For Kant, everything that is not a person is a thing. Possessing a rational will is the necessary and sufficient condition for moral personhood on Kant's view. On this view, one either has moral status or one does not; there are no kinds, degrees, or levels of moral status. Only things with intrinsic moral value have moral status, and only persons with their rational wills have intrinsic moral value.

But this Kantian theory of intrinsic moral value is inadequate for several reasons. First it denies moral status to sentient animals, other living beings, ecosystems, and endangered species. Secondly, by reducing the grounds of moral status to a single criterion, rational agency, the Kantian view denies full moral status to human beings who may lack this capability at various times during their lives. Third, a single criterion view like Kant's fails to capture the multi-faceted nature of our moral intuitions about what makes some objects more morally valuable than others. In Kant's moral ontology there are only two sorts of things: moral agents, whose intrinsic value gives them the moral status of persons, and 'things' which have no moral status because they have no instrinsic value, but only instrumental or derived value. But this is clearly an inadequate description of the moral world. We need to have a richer vocabulary if we are going to understand the nature of our moral community.

But there is also another possibility -- we can adopt a biocentric perspective according to which Life is what has intrinsic value and is the source of all forms of derived value. This view is reflected in the various forms of nature mysticism that one encounters, for instance, in the work of poets like Walt Whitman, or naturalists like John Muir. It is also the basis of some religious beliefs, such as the Buddhist doctrine of ahimsa, or Jainism, which teaches that it is wrong to harm any living thing without reason. It is also present in many pre-Christian religious traditions in which the Earth is understood to be a goddess, Gaia, who gives birth (life) to all that moves, and swims, and flies. One encounters a similar idea in the writings of New Age spiritual teachers such as Ken Wilber and Eckhardt Tolle. From the biocentric perspective all living things have intrinsic moral value, and are ends in themselves, and can therefore be the objects of human moral responsibilities. The kind of value that living things have is an objective value that exists independently of the acts of moral observers who may or may not value them for their own sakes and who often attach other kinds of derived value to them.

If explanations must come to an end somewhere, it makes much more sense to end the explanation of the origin of moral value in the phenomenon of Life on Earth than it does to place it in an imaginary deity or in human beings alone among all the life forms that have made their home on this planet. This bio-centric theory of moral value is perfectly consistent with a scientific world view that understands the Earth itself as a speck of stardust revolving around a rather ordinary star, on the spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, which is only one among the billions of galaxies in the cosmos. Because of a series of cosmic accidents, like the asteroid collision that created the Earth's moon and in the process reconstituted its atmosphere, Earth became suitable for life as we know it to arise. It is also consistent with some traditional religious views in which the hand of God directed the Earth to bring forth life. Bio-centrism is also consistent with various forms of New Age spirituality in which life on Earth is just an outward manifestation of a cosmic intelligence, an infinite and eternal Presence, which is the formless source of all manifest forms of being.

Whichever of these metaphysical world views suits you it still makes sense to regard Life as having intrinsic moral value. This metaphysical adaptability makes the bio-centric perspective the leading candidate for providing the basis for a global ethics.

Intrinsic and Observer Relative Properties

The New York Times has reported that Peru and Chile have been embroiled in a dispute over which country can lay claim to have given the potato to the world.
Chileans gain comfort from studies showing that more than 90 percent of modern potato varieties outside the Andes have a common origin in potatoes once found in the area around Chiloé Island, in southern Chile. Potatoes from Chiloé found their way to Europe, where they were well suited to latitudes with relatively long days.

But potato experts here, and there are many, point to genetic studies showing that all potatoes currently eaten in the world originated more than 10,000 years ago from a single ancestor, Solanum brevicaule, found on Lake Titicaca's north shore. That would be on the Peruvian side, not in Bolivia.
"The silly part is that the story of the potato began millennia before the concept of nation states existed," said Charles Crissman, a researcher at the International Potato Center. "But, yes, the first potatoes came from what is today Peru." ["Chile and Peru Vie in Spat Over Spud", June 1, 2008, A6].

That potatoes originated in what is today Peru is an "observer-relative" fact about them. Other facts about potatoes, for instance, their genetic composition, their mass, their caloric value, and so forth, are not observer-relative; they are properties that are intrinsic to the potato itself.

The philosopher John Searle explains that, "...there is a distinction between those features of the world that we might call intrinsic to nature and those features that exist relative to the intentionality of observers, users, etc." [The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press, 1995, p. 9]. He uses the example of a screwdriver whose intrinsic features include that it is partly made of wood and partly made of metal, but whose observer-relative properties include that it is a "screwdriver". Being a screwdriver is the intended use or function of this particular artifact, as observed from the point of view of "makers, designers, owners, buyers, sellers, and anyone else whose intentionality toward the object is such that he or she regards it as a screwdriver" [10]. It is important to be quite clear about this distinction, since it will figure importantly in our account of moral status. Searle's account is admirably clear in part because he is clear about his ontology and his epistemology. Ontology is that branch of philosophical inquiry that deals with the questions "What exists?" or "What is real?" Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that addresses questions like "How do we know anything?" and "How do we know what exists?" Searle has wants to answer the specific ontological question about things like "money, property, governments, and marriages," or what he calls institutional or social facts, namely in what sense, if any, things like these can be said to exist. Social facts contrast with what he calls "brute facts" or natural facts, such as the fact that hydrogen atoms have one electron, in that natural facts do not depend on human institutions for their existence, while social facts do:

In order that this piece of paper should be a five dollar bill, for example, there has to be the human institution of money. Brute facts require no human institutions for their existence. Of course, in order to state a brute fact we require the institution of language, but the fact stated needs to be distinguished from the statement of it (p. 2).

In drawing this distinction Searle takes exception with those post-modernist thinkers who have argued that all of reality is somehow a human creation-- that there are no brute facts, but only social facts created by human language. Searle (and I) reject this view and defend the distinction that claims that some properties of things or features of the world are intrinsic to them or "observer-independent", while others are not intrinsic to them, or are "observer-relative".

I also agree with Searle when he claims that our contemporary scientific ontology based upon atomic theory in physics and evolutionary biology, commits us to the view that "The world consists entirely of entities that we find it convenient, though not entirely accurate, to describe as particles." (6)

These particles exist in fields of force, and are organized into systems. The boundaries of systems are set by causal relations. Examples of systems are mountains, planets, H2O, molecules, rivers, crystals, and babies. Some of these systems are living systems;...and some of them have evolved certain sorts of cellular structures, specifically, nervous systems capable of causing and sustaining consciousness. Consciousness is a biological, and therefore physical, though of course also mental, feature of certain higher-level nervous systems, such as human brains and a large number of different types of animal brains.

For Searle, the existence of conscious or sentient life forms is a natural fact about the universe, and "with consciousness comes intentionality, the capacity of the organism to represent objects and states of affairs in the world to itself" (7). Intentionality is a technical terms employed in philosophy to describe the feature of representations, signs, and symbols by which they are about something or refer to something other than themselves, for instance, the word "bread" refers to a type of baked food made out of ground up wheat, corn, rye, or other grains. The slice of multigrain bread I had for breakfast had a certain caloric value, one of its intrinsic properties, but the facts that it was understood by me as "food" and that I called it "bread" rather than say, "pane" or "brod" or "Ψωμί" are observer-relative.

Philosophers who mistakenly believe that all features of the world are observer-relative are confused, according to Searle, about two different meanings of the terms "objective" and "subjective," their ontological and their epistemological senses. In the epistemological sense, the subjective/objective distinction is used to express the idea that the truth or falsity of certain kinds of judgments we make about things cannot be settled independently of the attitudes, feelings, and points of view of the makers and hearers of those judgments. So, in his example, the statement "Rembrandt is a better painter than Rubens." expresses an epistemically subjective judgment. The statement, "Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam during the year 1632," expresses a judgment that is epistemically speaking objectively true in that "the facts in the world that make them true or false are independent of anybody's attitudes or feelings about them" (8). When we state true facts about the world in the epistemically objective sense we can also say that we have described objective facts.

However, we also use the terms subjective/objective in an ontological sense in which they are predicates not of judgments but of entities and they ascribe to these entities a certain mode of existence. In this ontological sense, pains and other sensations, are subjective entities, "because their mode of existence depends on their being felt by [conscious] subjects." Mountains, such as Mt. Everest, on the other hand, are ontologically objective "because their mode of existence is independent of any perceiver or mental state" (8).

These two senses of the objective/subjective distinction yield four categories of judgments that we can make about entities or features of the world:

(1) Epistemologically objective judgments about ontologically objective things;

(2) Epistemologically objective judgments about ontologically subjective things;

(3) Epistemologically subjective judgements about ontologically objective things; and

(4) Epistemologically subjective judgments about ontologically subjective things.

Judgments of type (1) concern features of things that are objectively real in that their existence is observer-independent. For instance, the Delaware river is objectively real and it would exist had there been no human beings or other sentient creatures around to observe it. Judgment of type (2) concern what can be called institutional or social facts, for instance, the judgment that a certain piece of paper is a five dollar bill, is a judgment of this type. The piece of paper has an ontologically objective existence, but that it has the status of "money" with a value of "five dollars" are observer-relative or ontologically subjective features it has. Yet, it is objectively true that this piece of paper is a five dollar bill, since it is true independently of my own attitudes, feelings, and point of view; its status as money having a certain value is fixed by social institutions in which I participate but which I do not control.

The moral status of entities or features of the world, that is, whether or not it can function as a "holder of rights" or as an "object of moral obligations" is due to certain social or institutional facts and are thus observer-relative features. However, that there are certain things in the world that are "alive" and "sentient" is ontologically objective fact about the world. Of course, the linguistic conventions we use to state facts about these kinds of things in the world depend upon human institutions and social facts, but again, it is a mistake to confuse the fact stated from our statement of it. So to state that "I am a living, sentient creature." is to state an ontologically objective fact in an epistemologically objective way. While, to say that "I am the holder of a right to life." is to state an ontologically subjective fact in an epistemologically objective way. The latter statement is ontologically subjective because "rights" are things, like money, that exist because of social institutions, which in turn, presuppose the existence of sentient social animals like us. We assign the moral status "holder of a right to life" to creatures like ourselves and in doing so we impose (or assign) a status function to creatures like ourselves. Similarly, if we call something a "moral patient" meaning that it is the sort of things towards which moral agents like ourselves can have moral obligations, duties, and responsibilities, we also assign to those things a certain "status function". Status-function assignments are subject to revision; but revising them requires changing our social institutions, not just changing our attitudes and feelings. Moral status functions, then, are observer-relative features of the world, but statements we make about them can be objectively true in the epistemic sense.

As Searle notes, "whether a feature is intrinsic or observer relative is not always obvious" (11). He suggests that a good "rough and ready" way to distinguish between something's intrinsic and its observer relative features is to ask yourself "could the feature exist if there had never been any human beings or other sentient beings?" (11). So for instance, the body of water known as the "Delaware River" must have existed for many millennia before European settlers (and perhaps even Native Americans) came to occupy North America, just as the potato existed before humans discovered they could eat them and before the nation states of Peru and Chile were created. The Delaware river is an intrinsic feature of the North American landscape. However, that the Delaware River is the political boundary between the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is an institutional, social, or observer-relative fact about it. We could, if we chose to, revise this fact, and change the boundary. But we haven't, so it is objectively true to say that "The Delaware River is the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey." I am not making this fact up and it does not depend on my personal feelings or opinions. It is an institutional or social fact that depends upon the existence of sentient social animals like us. If we subtract all of the human observers, then the body of water would still exist in itself; it just wouldn't have the status function "border".

There is an important caveat to this simple test for "intrinsic" vs "observer-relative" features of the world, namely, "Because mental states, both conscious and unconscious, are themselves intrinsic features of the world, it is not strictly speaking correct to say that the way to discover the intrinsic features of the world is to subtract all the mental states from it" (11). If mental states are themselves intrinsic ontologically objective features of certain kinds of organisms that really exist in the world, sentient organisms, it follows that mental states constitute intrinsic features of the world which do not exist independently of sentient organisms and their mental states.

With these concepts and distinctions in mind, we can now proceed to consider theoretical questions concerning the notions of intrinsic moral value and moral status. As I have suggested, moral status will always be observer and observer relative feature of things, one which we, moral agents, assign or ascribe to them. However, at least in some cases, we can choose to base our social institutions about moral status on natural facts or intrinsic features of various kinds of things to which we assign moral status. I am going to be arguing for revising our social institutions about moral status to make them more inclusive than they are normally understood to be.

A Bio-Centric Axiology

Axiology is the name of the field of philosophical inquiry that concerns the nature of values and value judgments. As noted earlier, there are many kinds of values, aesthetic, medicial, commercial, and functional or instrumental values of various kinds. The basic distinction is between intrinsic and derived values. A bio-centric axiology is a theory of value that takes Life as the basis of intrinsic moral value, and assumes that all of the various kinds of derived value acquire their values in relation to living beings. One can understand the bio-centric axiological perspective from ecological, evolutionary, and ontogenetic perspectives.

The Ecological View of Intrinsic Moral Value

When Aldo Leopold's classic work "A Sand County Almanac" appeared in 1949, the ecological crisis that human activities were producing on Earth had only become apparent to a few people. Because of his love for the land, and his work with the U.S. Forest Service, Leopold had a better view than most people of the ways in which humans were destroying the land because of their indifference to its moral status. He hoped for an enlargement of the human sense of moral community to include a "land ethic" that would include a regard for preserving the "integrity, stability, and beauty" of the land for its own sake, and not only for the economic value that certain portions of land, or certain species of plants and animals might have for human beings. He wrote that, "All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate….The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land" (Leopold, 1948, 203-4).

It is important to appreciate that for Leopold, the land is not merely soil; is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct the energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by absorption for the air, some is stored in soils, peats, and long-lived forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life. (216)

Land is used here as a collective noun, like "furniture" which encompasses a number of distinct types of things. But unlike furniture which is just a collection of different kinds of man-made inanimate objects, the land supports a biotic community, a place of life. Without its living members there would be no energy circuit and the soil would be as dry and lifeless as dust on the Moon, the Earth's barren twin. The energy of the Sun reaches the Moon just as it reaches the Earth, but there it is only reflected back out into space. While on Earth some of this solar energy is captured and converted into living forms.

In order to understand the land in this sense, one needs to understand ecology, but this turns out to be very difficult to do. We humans are only beginning to comprehend the exquisite balance that sustains biotic communities in different regions and locales of the Earth and under its seas. Like the evolution of our scientific understanding of ecological systems, Leopold thought that a land ethic would evolve once we humans "quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem," and began to examine the land "in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient" (224). He offered as a guide to what "right" means in this context when he wrote: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise" (224-5).

Since Leopold's time significantly more human beings have come to appreciate the wisdom of this perspective and have come to regard biotic communities, the land in this sense, as something worth preserving for its own sake. By adopting this moral response to the land, we humans create and extend the boundaries of our moral community. We do so in part because we have come to understand that we ourselves are part of the land and draw our energy from the same fountains of energy that support other living beings, so that when we harm the land, we harm ourselves as well. School children now learn this, but few fully understand it.

But we do no need to think that the elements of a biotic community have equal moral status. Soil and air, water and sunlight, for instance, which are necessary for life, are not themselves things which are intrinsically valuable. Some people think that the microbes and bacteria are intrinsically valuable because they are living things, and more people may admit that the plants and animals which nourish themselves on these microscopic creatures have some kind of moral standing. But these remain controversial views.

On the other hand, most people will readily agree that they themselves have intrinsic value. Each of us, from an egocentric point of view, regards our own life as intrinsically valuable, and we have come around to understanding that we must, to be consistent, universalize this idea and regard all other human being as "ends in themselves," as things which have their own good and to whom moral obligations can be owed for their own sakes. This understanding is what shapes the idea of global human moral community based on the ethics of human rights

However, under the conventional ethical theory most humans accept, human beings are the only creatures that are ends in themselves. The value that all other living things on the land in the sea and in the air have is only an instrumental value, a value for us, not an intrinsic value. This homocentric (human-centered) perspective is what most humans use to understand the moral domain. From this perspective we need inquire only about the usefulness or utility of other members of the biotic community for us, their ability to satisfy our appetites and desires. When we see the moral world in this way, other living beings have no intrinsic value at all; their value is only instrumental and is derived from their utility to us. Since most other living things have little or no use for us, we tend not to care about them.

But this homocentric (or anthropocentric) view is cock-eyed from the ecological perspective. Human beings, standing as we do at the top of the food chain, may represent the apex of the biotic pyramid on Earth, but we are not its base, nor its intermediate levels. We have the moral stature that we do because we stand upon the backs of all of the other creatures of the land and sea, and along with them upon the Earth itself rotating on its axis and revolving around the sun. Moral stature is built from the bottom up, not bestowed from the top down. We humans have the moral stature we do because we stand upon a pyramid of value which sustains our existence as a species. That pyramid of value is what Leopold called the Land, the living Earth, which encompasses the land and sea and air and all of the biological forms that inhabit them. As living forms human beings have intrinsic value, but we only have the moral stature we do because we stand upon a high plateau on the great pyramid of life.

The Evolutionary View of Intrinsic Value

The biological basis of intrinsic moral value can also be understood from the evolutionary perspective. The human beings who are now living are the growing end of an evolutionary process that began billions of years ago when life first appeared on the planet Earth. Our present understanding of the evolutionary epic which led to our existence while limited and incomplete enables us to understand that through a coincidence of fortuitous circumstances life was somehow able to spring forth from the Earth. The conditions of the primordial planet, its atmospheric composition, the abundance of heavy atoms born from exploding stars in its soil, the presence of water, and the continuous influx of energy from the sun, somehow enabled living forms to arise. The first of these life forms, primitive microbes, such as cyanobacteria, discovered how to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into life sustaining energy, producing oxygen as a byproduct, and so began an evolutionary process that over billions of years produced the manifold living forms that now inhabit the planet.

Each living link in this great evolutionary chain of being possessed intrinsic value because it contained the spark of life, the sacred fire. This value was passed onto its progeny and from them onto theirs by means of biological inheritance encoded in the DNA molecules that all life forms have. As life became more complex and multi-cellular animals and plants can into existence these living things increased in moral stature. The emergence of sensation and intelligence in some creatures further enhanced their stature. And finally, at the end of one branch of the great tree of life, homo sapiens came forth into the world with the power of language and thought. But the capacity for language and thought is not the basis of our value; rather it is the product of a process of cosmic evolution through which living value grew slowly over billions of years. We are only the inheritors of this intrinsic value, not its creators.

The Ontogenetic View of Intrinsic Value

One can grasp this conception of intrinsic value in another way. From the ontogenetic perspective each of us now living grew from living seeds, ova and sperm, which when joined together somehow "knew" how to divide and multiply in order to form a new human individual. Those living seeds carried the spark of life inherited from the evolutionary history of the species and, by combining, began a new cycle of life. The fertilized embryo, then, has some intrinsic value, it was valuable in itself, because like other living things, it inherited its value from its ancestors, and perhaps will one day pass that living value onto its progeny.

But the embryo's moral stature is relatively low at this stage in its development compared to other moral patients. It lacks sentience and intelligence, it cannot think or speak, and is not yet a member of human society. Yet, unless it's growth is interrupted, the process of gestation enables the embryo to continue its ontogenetic development by drawing energy and nutrients from its mother's body. As a fetus develops in utero it grows in moral stature as well as in size and functioning. While birth marks the entry of a new member into the human moral community, the growth process continues through infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. The process is itself gradual and seamless and as the individual human being takes shape and grows into an adult its moral stature increases. As adult human beings we have come to have full moral status as moral agents, a moral stature that puts us on a high moral plateau. But we have attained this stature only because we have inherited the value inherent in each of the earlier stages of our individual existences, our earlier living incarnations each of which had its own moral status based, at least in part, on its intrinsic moral value.

One of the great achievements of modern ethics has been to recognize that the equal intrinsic moral value of all human persons. The ethics of human rights creates a single status moral community in which all persons occupy a single moral plateau in which we are all "equal in dignity and rights." This achievement has been the result of a long historical struggle, one which is yet not completed, to secure universal recognition of the inherent dignity, the intrinsic moral value, of all human beings.

But this great egalitarian achievement still depends upon a homocentric axiology. A homocentric axiology which take human beings or rational moral agents as the only things in the universe that have intrinsic moral value stands the living pyramid of intrinsic value upside-down. By assuming that only human beings possess inherent worth it reduces all other living beings to mere things which exist for our sakes, whose value is wholly derived from their utility in relationship to human interests.

But when we invert the value pyramid and place it back on its proper base we see that the moral plateau we humans occupy stands on top of a mountain of life, and at the growing end of a chain of living things each link of which has (or had) its own intrinsic moral value. When we understand the existence of human beings on Earth from the ecological, evolutionary, and ontogenetic perspectives, or, for short, from a biocentric point of view, the intrinsic value that human beings have is seen to be a function of our position within the broader biotic community that has evolved on Earth. From this bio-centric perspective we do not give other living things their value; Life gives intrinsic value to us.

The Cosmic Trolley

But someone might object to my account by saying that I have not sufficiently justified adopting a biocentric axiology instead of a homocentric one. Human rational agency, the objection goes, is really the only thing that has intrinsic moral value in the universe since only rational human agents can be the bearers of moral obligations. While it may to true that there must be something in the universe that has intrinsic moral value, it is better to halt the regress with human rational agency than with life since the former grounds the concepts of duties and rights. While other living beings may have other kinds of intrinsic values, for instance, aesthetic or instrumental ones, they lack intrinsic moral value because they cannot be duty-bearers.

One way of answering this kind of challenge is to ask oneself to consider a philosophical thought experiment in which one is given a forced choice between sacrificing two things of value. Such problem are known a "trolley problems" in the philosophical literature. Usually one put a person on one track and, say, five persons on the other track, and one is instructed that one cannot prevent the trolley from running over and killing either the one or the five. Most people readily choose the lesser evil and save five while sacrificing the one.

But lets alter this example as follows: let's assume that we put the human species on one track, and all other living species on the other. I call this the Cosmic Trolley. Suppose that one is now asked to choose between saving humanity and saving all other living species on Earth. What morally should one choose?

Defenders of the homocentric ethics, like Kant, would have to choose to save humanity, even if that meant sacrificing all other living species, because they believe that only rational human moral agents possess intrinsic moral value, and therefore that the value of other life forms derive from their relationship to our interests. But this could not be a universal law using Kant's categorical imperative since making such a choice would end up in self-contradiction. Choosing to save humanity while sacrificing all other species would be self-defeating because other species of living things can survive perfectly well if there were no human beings at all. But humans cannot possibly survive without other living things. What would we eat once the Tang ran out?

Humans are dependent on the rest of the biological world for own survival, but the converse is not the case. Thus, willing the destruction of all other species of living things in order to preserve humanity would be self-defeating. Therefore, it follows that nonhuman life has a greater moral value that human life. This, of course, does not prove that human life has no intrinsic value, but only that it cannot be the only thing in existence that has such value. The intrinsic value of human beings is entailed by the biocentric view, because we are also alive, but not conversely. The biocentric axiological perspective thus subsumes and encompasses the traditional homocentric axiology that has been the basis of most systems of human morality up until now.

The Biological Origin of Agency

The scientist, Stuart Kauffman, has an interesting perspective on the topic of agency. In Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion (New York: Perseus Books 2008) he argues that the centuries old schism between science and religion is due to the reductionist worldview of modern science which sees all of nature as ultimately reducible to sub-atomic particles and energy, mere happenings, lacking meaning and purpose. But, "where all that exist(s) are the fundamental entitites and their interactions, and there are only happenings, only facts, [there is] no place for values" (11).

Hume recognized this gap by claiming that values cannot be derived from facts. The existentialist philosophers of the twentieth century tried to bridge this gap by insisting that agents themselves create values. But if scientific reductionism is correct, and human moral agents are no more than particles colliding in space, then "how can values and doings arise from particle interactions....?" The derivation of value from human agency does not resolve the problem; it only postpones it so long as agency itself is reducible to mere facts and happenings.

According to Kaufmann, the way to overome the schism, and to provide a satisfactory answer to Hume, is to deny reductionism and to understand that "agency is both real and emergent and cannot be reduced to the mere happenings of physics." This is so, he argues, "because biology is not reducible to physics. The biosphere," he writes, "is laden with agency, value, and meaning. Human life, which is certainly laden with agency, value, and meaning, inherits these qualities from the biosphere of which it is a part" (12).

Intrinsic moral value along with agency emerges in the course of cosmic evolution as an attribute of living forms. As lifeforms we humans do indeed have a kind of intrinsic value. But we are not the only living things have agency or should be regarded as having intrinsic value. Human beings have intrinsic value because we occupy a high plateau on the great pyramid of life.

Earlier in discussing moral agency I suggested that nonhuman animals exhibit agency, though perhaps not moral agency as is found in humans. We easily acknowledge agency in other mammals, for instance, our dogs and cats and most other domestic species, as well as in primates, cetaceans, felines, canines, bovines, etc. Probably most people are comfortable thinking of birds and reptiles as manifesting some kind of agency, and perhaps even insects, like the locusts I discussed earlier. But what about plants? Can we extend the concept of agency down towards the base of the tree of life that far? Can we perhaps extend it even further towards simple multicellular organisms, bacteria, viruses?

Kauffman argues that in the phenomenon of agency "we can find the origin of action, meaning, doing, and value as emergent realities in the universe" (72). The full-fledged, complex kind of conscious agency we find in ourselves is derived by evolution from more basic agentive characteristics found in all living things. Agency, then is a natural phenomenon, for Kauffman (and for me), and is the basis of meaning and value. It is the link that connects the physical world of happenings with the moral world of doings and action, the world in which we employ the teleological concepts of meaning, purpose, and value.

Kauffman asks, "What is the simplest system to which we might be willing to apply teleological language?" (78). He proposes that we can use it meaningfully and literally in describing the behavior "of a bacterium swimming up a glucose stream 'to get' sugar." The bacterium is acting autonomously, that is, it is acting on its own behalf and according to its own internal telos which directs it towards the goal of getting sugar. Kauffman proposes that a bacterium can be considered "a minimal molecular autonomous agent": which he defines as a system that (a) self-reproducing, (b) can carry out at least one thermodynamic work cycle, (c) is enclosed in a bounding membrane, and (d) has at least one receptor that enables it to detect properties of things in its environment (78-9).

I leave the technical details of his theory aside here. Interested readers should consult his book, which despite its being "high science" is quite readable. The important point for my purposes here is that if Kauffman's theory of agency is close to correct, then it also provides "a minimal definition of life," and a naturalized account of how "meaning, values, doing, and purposes emerge in the universe" (85), an account which does not require the postulation of a divine creator and is fully consistent with a scientific worldview. This is a very big deal. It is worth quoting his account at length so you can get a sense of what he is talking about.

Consider then a bacterium swimming up the glucose gradient. The biological function that is being fulfilled is obtaining food. The capacity to do so by detecting the local glucose gradient and swimming up it was assembled into a working organization of structures and processes by natural selection. This requires at least one receptor for glucose to discriminate between the presence and and absence of glucose, or better, two receptors spaced some distance apart to detect the presence of absence of a steep enough local glucose gradient. Without attributing consciousness to the bacterium, we can see in this capacity the evolutionary onset of choice and thus of meaning, value, doing and purpose. The technical word for meaning is semiosis, where a sign means something. Here, the bacterium detects a local glucose gradient, which is a sign of more glucose in some direction. By altering its behavior and swimming up the gradient, the bacterium is interpreting the sign. The bacterium may, of course, be mistaken. Perhaps there is not much glucose to be found in that direction. Neither "signs," "interpretation," nor "mistakes" are logically possible in physics, where only happenings occur. Thus, meaning has entered the universe: the local glucose gradient is a sign that means glucose is -- probably -- nearby. Because natural selection has assembled the propagating organization of structures and processes that lead to swimming up the glucose gradient for good selective reasons, glucose has value to the bacterium. And because getting food is the function of this organized behavior, as assembled by natural selection acting on fitter variants, getting food is the purpose of the activity, and is the doing or action of the bacterium. (86-7)
Agency, for Kauffman, is not reducible to the law of chemistry and physics, it is an emergent natural phenomenon that arises at a certain level of organizational complexity. Perhaps his theory of where to draw the boundary between agency (or life) and non-agentive causality will need to be modified by future research: his way of drawing the boundary leaves viruses and our current kinds of robots on the 'non-living' non-agentive side of the line. What is important is that if he is close to being right, then "values, meanings, doing, action, and 'ought' are real parts of the furniture of the universe" and this includes human values, meanings, doings, actions, and oughts. The moral realm is thus seen as natural and real, but not reducible to physics, and value, meaning, and purpose are seen as inherent in living forms as simple as bacteria.

Kauffman thinks that this insight is one of the keys to what he calls "reinventing the sacred." I agree, but prefer to talk about the less controversial notion of intrinsic value. In Kauffman's example, glucose has a value to the bacterium. This is a relational value, not an intrinsic one. But what about the bacterium itself? My view is that the bacterium, because it exhibits agency, and meaning, purpose, and action, should be considered as possessing an intrinsic value in its own being, that is, it exists autonomously as an"end in itself" and so can be regarded as having a basic kind of moral status.

On my bio-centric axiology all living beings have intrinsic value and hence basic moral status, which means that their survival and well-being can be the objects of the responsibilities of moral agents like us. Saying that bacteria can be the objects of our responsibilities, is not yet the same thing as saying that we have any serious moral responsibilities towards bacteria, only that they are the kinds of things toward which we could have them.