Forms of life are dying out at an unprecedented rate. But what is life, what does it mean to be living and why does it matter? Does it matter if species die out? Does it matter if human domination of the planet creates an impoverished world that becomes less and less habitable? Does it matter that we behave ‘responsibly‘?
By going back to Aristotle and his idea of the motive force immanent in living things, we can begin to develop new approaches to these questions. By looking at the natural world through an Aristotelian lens it becomes clear that individual living organisms are the locus of value; that each organism has a unique value; and that individual living things are the prime objects of moral consideration.
In this book, published in October, the author describes an ethic with a unique Aristotelian flavour that applies to all living things, including humans. It mounts an argument that value enters the world with the emergence of living things and that individual living things are both the locus of value and the prime objects of moral consideration. It further argues that moral agents are under an obligation of responsibility toward each living thing and that adopting an attitude of responsibility to living things is an essential part of what it means to be human.
It begins by tracking Aristotle‘s idea of the motive force immanent in living things (dūnamis) through some of the significant figures in European philosophy and into some of the key theories of contemporary environmental philosophy. It shows that the presence of an immanent motive force makes each living thing inherently and uniquely valuable and that each member of each species is a repository of a unique value, something that puts extinction of species into a clear value framework: it matters every time a species becomes extinct because a unique kind of value and a unique store of value is gone forever.
In the latter chapters the book develops an ethic of responsibility and explores the twin notions of bio-phenomenology and bio-semiotics, beginning with the work of Jakob von Uexküll and his concept of Umwelt, which describes a sort of perceptual bubble surrounding each organism as, in phenomenological terms, it creates its own world. Von Uexküll was a significant influence on some of the key phenomenologists of early last century.
By working from this bio-phenomenological view we can identify for each organism three related niche values which, when identified, have the practical value of assisting moral agents to differentiate in value terms between organisms. Assessments of these niche values (ontological niche value, semiotic niche value and the widely known ecological niche value) can be used in a sort of environmental triage to make judgments as to the practical worth of this or that organism in this or that situation.
In the ethic argued for in this book, humans are part of the natural world and are subject to evaluation in terms of the ontological, semiotic and ecological niches they occupy, in the same way as any organism. They are part of, not apart from, nature (a concept that the book seeks to clarify). However, humans are more complex organisms than most, if not all, others and complexity is important in this environmental triage because more complex organism occupy a greater ontological niche and have greater capacity for generating and interpreting signs (a greater semiotic niche) and have a greater capacity for interacting in an ecological sense with the living world around them. Triage is, however, situation dependent and one human life does not, for example, necessarily trump the loss of the last of a species.
This book is based on careful scholarship and contains a detailed subject index and a separate name index.
However, despite the apparently difficult subject matter, the book is written in a style that will make it accessible to undergraduates and informed lay readers. It is available online.
Stephan Millett is a former journalist and school teacher who received his PhD in Philosophy from Murdoch University. He is an ethics specialist at Curtin University in Perth.
Millett, Stephan (2011). Aristotle’s Powers and Responsibility for Nature.Bern: Peter Lang. 303pp. Vol. 44 of the Berner Reihe philosophischer Studien. Series editor: Dr Andreas Graeser, Bern University.