September 18, 2014

Towards a Biospheric Ethic

Modern moral philosophers have tended to study ethics in a void, ignoring the insights of the natural and human sciences. Although several of our most noted and thoughtful biologists and sociologists have sought to correct this, they have based their ethical principles on a grossly distorted view of nature and human society.

The result has been a ‘technospheric’ ethic that seeks to equate progress and the moral good with economic expansion and the dominance of man over nature. A new ‘biospheric’ ethic is required: one that places ethical values in their appropriate context: that of mediating human behaviour in its relationship with society, the ecosystem, the biosphere and the Cosmos itself.

Written for the Institute of Science and Society, 26 January 2003. See also a slightly different version published on their website.


One of the first questions to answer in a serious discussion of ethics is whether there exists an acceptable criterion for determining whether or not an action is ethically right or wrong. Dobzhansky thinks that there cannot be, because it would limit “the essential human faculty for the exercise of freedom”. [1] Waddington, on the other hand, thinks that there can be.

“I wish to maintain that it is possible to discuss, and perhaps to discover a criterion which is not of an ethical nature, but is, if you wish, of a supra-ethical character; a criterion, that is to say, which would make it possible to decide whether a certain ethical system of values is in some definite and important sense preferable to another.” [2]

The criterion which he suggests is “wisdom”. Indeed the wise man rather than the educated man, let alone the scientific expert, is above all, he who can best distinguish what is right from what is wrong.

What are ethics?

I think one can consider all natural systems, including humans, to be endowed with a set of instructions whose implementation, in the light of the model of their relationship with their total spatio-temporal environment, has enabled them to achieve their goal of helping to maintain overall Gaian stability or homeostasis, and thereby their own stability or homeostasis.

These instructions are organized hierarchically, the more general – and hence those that determine the basic features of a system’s behaviour and which reflect the longest experience – being differentiated into more particular instructions which determine the system’s less basic features, those that it has acquired in the more recent past.

One of the most important, and indeed indispensable, features of the general instructions is that they should be non-plastic, and hence immutable in the short-term at least. This is the only way in which continuity, and thus stability, can be maintained. That is why genetic information is non-plastic. If it were not, then there would be nothing to prevent zebras from engendering baby wildebeeste and vice versa.

This is also why cultural information, that which mediates the behaviour of social groups, must be non-plastic. If it were not, then such social groups could display neither continuity nor stability. nor could their behaviour be homeotelic and thereby serve to maintain the order of the Cosmos. Such non-plastic instructions, at the cultural level, I regard as moral values.

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The acceptance of authority

Waddington points out very explicitly that instructions are useless unless they are accepted and acted upon. For this to be possible, they must be regarded as authoritative. He considers that “the sociogenetic continuum” cannot be maintained “without the existence of the role of an authority acceptor”. For him,

“ethicizing is for man an integral part of the role of the taught or the authority acceptor – without the existence of which his cultural socio-genetic evolutionary system could not operate.” [3]

Piaget saw ethics in the same way:

“It seems to us an undeniable fact that in the course of the child’s mental development, unilateral respect or the respect felt by the small for the great, plays an essential part; it is what makes the child accept all the commands transmitted to him by his parents and is thus the great factor of continuity between different generations.” [4]

As the child grows up, this eventually generates co-operation and mutual respect. It could be argued that the acceptance of knowledge transmitted in this way is epistemologically unacceptable. But as Waddington noted:

“. . . a great deal of social transmission takes place at a time when the recipient is much too young to apply any verification procedures, which must be regarded as relatively sophisticated mechanisms for adjustment and rectification rather than as basic elements in the fundamental mechanism of transmitted information which is accepted, rather than on information which has been tested and verified.” [5]

One can go further than this. Propositions are clearly not accepted in the real world – no more by scientists than by children – because they have been verified, or because they are falsifiable (Popper’s proposed criterion), but because they fit in with a particular paradigm or worldview, which, in the case of children may be embryonic and hence in its formative stage. Indeed, ‘empirical’ verification, as Popper showed decades ago, is not a realistic concept.

The process by which we build up information has, in any case been validated by the evolutionary process itself – of which it is the product. As Waddington wrote:

“like all other products of evolution, information has been moulded by the necessity to fit in with – or rather, to put it more actively, to cope – with the rest of the natural world. The intellect is an instrument forged for the specific purpose of coming to terms with things.” [6]

This is an essential point that is rarely made and whose acceptance is alone sufficient to validate knowledge acquired subjectively by intuition by members of societies that have learned “to cope with the rest of the natural world”.

What, we might ask, makes the “authority acceptor” accept the instructions and adopt them as the ethical principles underlying his code of conduct? The answer is that they must be sanctioned, authenticated, validated, indeed sanctified, by something more important than himself which he regarded as embodying wisdom, authority and sanctity. Matthew Arnold referred to this as “something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness”. [7]

It makes sense to suppose that that “something not ourselves” should be the natural world of which we are an integral part -and whose laws we must clearly observe if we are to survive Significantly, it seems probable that we are cognitively adjusted’ by our geneto-cultural inheritance to regarding nature as the ultimate authority. As Worster writes: “Few ideas have been recycled as often as the belief that the ‘is’ of nature must become the ‘ought’ of man”. [8]

Even in the nineteenth century – a period which saw the development of technospheric euphoria and the revolt against nature which helped to rationalize this euphoria – sociologists still lookedto nature as the ultimate sanction for our ethical system. As Greta Jones writes,

“The search for a social theory was, for the vast majority of nineteenth century sociologists, a search for a ‘natural’ underpinning to social order and, in addition, for atheory of the individual’s obligation to respect that order.” [9]

Even those who explicitly rejected thenotion that our ethics cannot be derived from nature could not, in spite of themselves, avoid doing just that. Thus Lester Ward, who saw nature as evil and preached state-controlled economic development as a means of creating a paradise on earth, stated that his programme (“collective telesis”) could alone “place society once more in the free current of natural law”. [10]

Even Edward O. Wilson, the father of twentieth century sociobiology, who strenuously denies that our ethics can be derived from nature, cannot avoid telling us, in an unguarded moment, that our ethical values are the product of the evolutionary process:

“The biologist, who is concerned with questions of physiology and evolutionary history, realizes that self-knowledge is constrained and shaped by the emotional control centres in the hypothalamusand limbic system of the brain. . . What, we are then compelled to ask, made the hypothalamus and limbic system? They evolved by natural selection. That simple biological statement must be pursued to explain ethics and ethical philosophers,if not epistemology and epistemologists, at all depths.” [11]

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