Unit Overview

In this unit we take a look at some of the biggest challenges we face looking ahead in building a more just world. These are dealing with the staggering levels of extreme poverty around the globe. Facing the challenge of reducing or eliminating war. And develop an ethic and political system that protects the environment that we all depend on for our survival. The essays we look at on each topic only take up one small aspect of these very large and complex issues. In the first essay Peter Singer argues that those of us in affluent countries have a moral obligation to donate to charity. Douglass Lackey looks at the traditional arguments that have been used to justify when it is morally appropriate to go to war. And Paul Taylor outlines a Kantian argument for why we ought to protect the environment.



Peter Singer “The Solution to World Poverty”

Singer’s main argument:

  1. Lack of food & shelter & medicine is bad.
  2. If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.

[Later, he says “without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant,” which weakens the requirement placed on us.]

For example, getting wet in order to save a drowning child.

  1. It is in our power to prevent this bad thing.
  2. We can prevent it without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance.

Conclusion: Therefore, we ought to prevent lack of food & shelter.

  1. The only way to prevent lack of food & shelter without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance is to give maximally (or at least very much more than we currently do).

CONCLUSION: Therefore, we ought to give maximally (or at least very much more than we currently do).


Objection: Singer’s analysis conflicts with our prevailing standards of charity. (Charity is supererogatory, i.e., beyond duty & beyond what is obligatory.)

Reply: People need to rethink their views about “charity.”

Objection: Singer’s analysis requires us to do a great deal for others.

Reply: Yes, that’s what morality requires. In fact, it’s a very traditional view; it was advocated by Thomas Aquinas!

Objection: Direct relief just a short-term solution. It simply delays additional problems.

Reply: In that case, we need to give direct relief now and, in addition, promote population control.

Objection: Singer’s ideas will hurt the economy.

Reply: But how much MORE can we do until that happens? This does not support the status quo (a mere 1% going to famine relief). Instead, it opens the door to our discussion of how far to increase relief. We should give to the level that does not reduce spending in a consumption-based society (like ours) below the point that would start to decrease what we have available to give. So expecting people to give 1% is far too little, but expecting 25% from everyone would be too much


Kant “Toward Perpetual Peace”

“Kant sees the preservation and promotion of our own freedom as our most fundamental moral obligation.”


“Kant argues that such widespread freedom of action can exist only in a republic, by which he means a system of government that respects the rights of private property and contract, that divides legislative, executive, and judicial power, and that prohibits proprietary and hereditary rulers, that is, rulers who regard their dominion and their office as private property, to be passed on to heirs of their own rather than the people’s choice and augmented or diminished as they see fit.”

“In Toward Perpetual Peace, Kant argues that stable peace can come only when all the nations of the earth are such republics, governed by citizens who see the security of their property obtaining only under the universal rule of law rather than by proprietary rulers who can always see a neighboring state as a potential addition to their own personal property. But in Kant’s view even a worldwide federation of republics cannot guarantee world peace: such a federation provides the necessary conditions for peace, but peace can only be realized and maintained by the free choice of all those politicians governing the republics—the “moral politicians”—to do so.”


Step 1: Preliminary Articles

“Kant presents his scheme for the necessary conditions of perpetual peace as if it were a treaty. Its first part comprises “preliminary articles for perpetual peace among states” which would reduce the probability of warfare even among states that are not yet true republics. These preliminary articles preclude peace treaties with secret reservations, acquisition of states as if they were private property, standing armies, the incurrence of national debt for purposes of foreign adventures, interference with the constitution or politics of other states, and in general all acts of hostility that would “make mutual trust impossible.”

Step 2: An Actual Federation of Republican Governments

“The “definitive articles” for perpetual peace, however, require not just the avoidance of provocations but the permanent institution of a federation of republican governments, whose citizens always have the right to hospitality from foreign governments but not the right to colonize or dominate other states.”

Federation vs. One World Government

Kant’s insistence upon republican governments throughout the world may be an expression of his idealism, but his insistence upon a federation of such governments rather than a single world-government is a sign of his realism: he thinks a single world-government would just be too big to govern by republican means and would inevitably degenerate into a tyranny. He argues that we may think of differences of language and religion as providential provisions of nature to make a single-world government impossible, while the spread of trade and its need for respect for rights of property and exchange across national borders should inevitably encourage internationalism.


The Importance of Moral Politicians

“But, Kant insists, even a “race of devils” could figure out the necessity of both the preliminary and definitive articles for world peace, and then feign compliance with them while secretly attempting to subvert them when they think that is in their own interest. Only moral politicians will decide always to observe these articles, not merely when seeming to do so is in their own short-term interest but when really doing so is in the long-term interest of everyone throughout the world.”


Assessing Kant in view of Current Events:

“Political scientists sometimes argue that Kant’s scheme for perpetual peace has been undermined by the subsequent course of history, which apparently offers numerous examples of republics making war upon one another. But to this objection, two replies should be made. First, it is far from clear whether even in modem times there has ever been a war between two polities that do not merely call themselves republics but really do satisfy Kant’s own highly stringent definition of a republic. Certainly the existence of a legislature did not make the Germany of 1914 a true republic (while the continued existence of a monarchy might not have prevented the Britain of the same period from more fully approximating the ideal of a true republic). Second, it must always be remembered that Kant never argues that even a worldwide federation of republics makes permanent peace necessary; his view is rather that only such a federation makes permanent peace even possible. Kant’s final word, after all, is that human beings have free will, and no matter what remain free to choose to do what is right, but equally free, alas, to choose evil over good.”


Kant’s List of Preliminary articles

1. ‘No conclusion of peace shall be considered valid as such if it was made with a secret reservation of the material for a future war.’

2. ‘No independently existing state, whether it be large or small, may be acquired by another state by inheritance, exchange, purchase or gift.’

3. ‘Standing armies (miles perpetuus) will gradually be abolished altogether.’

4. “No national debt shall be contracted in connection with the external affairs of the state.’

5. ‘No state shall forcibly interfere in the constitution and government of another state.’

6. ‘No state at war with another shall permit such acts of hostility as would make mutual confidence impossible during a future time of peace. Such acts would include the employment of assassins (percussores) or poisoners (venefici), breach of aggreements, the instigation of treason (perduellio) within the enemy state, etc.’


Kant’s “Definitive Articles for Perpetual Peace”

“A state of peace among men living together is not the same as the state of nature, which is rather a state of war. For even if it does not involve active hostilities, it involves a constant threat of their breaking out. Thus the state of peace must be formally instituted, for a suspension of hostilities is not in itself a guarantee of peace. And unless one neighbour gives a guarantee to the other at his request (which can happen only in a lawful state), the latter may treat him as an enemy.”

The path to achieving perpetual peace is analogous to how we go from a state of nature to a social contract. Right now we are in a state of nature regarding international relations because there is no international social contract.


First Definitive Article of a Perpetual Peace: The Civil Constitution of Every State shall be Republican

“A republican constitution is founded upon three principles: firstly, the principle of freedom for all members of a society (as men); secondly, the principle of the dependence of everyone upon a single common legislation (as subjects); and thirdly, the principle of legal equality for everyone (as citizens). It is the only constitution which can be derived from the idea of an original contract, upon which all rightful legislation of a people must be founded. Thus as far as right is concerned, republicanism is in itself the original basis of every kind of civil constitution”


Why a Republican Government will lead to peace

The republican constitution . . . offers a prospect of attaining the desired result, i.e. a perpetual peace, and the reason for this is as follows. —If, as is inevitably the case under this constitution, the consent of the citizens is required to decide whether or not war is to be declared, it is very natural that they will have great hesitation in embarking on so dangerous an enterprise. For this would mean calling down on themselves all the miseries of war, such as doing the fighting themselves, supplying the costs of the war from their own resources, painfully making good the ensuing devastation, and, as the crowning evil, having to take upon themselves a burden of debt which will embitter peace itself and which can never be paid off on account of the constant threat of new wars. But under a constitution where the subject is not a citizen, and which is therefore not republican, it is the simplest thing in the world to go to war. For the head of state is not a fellow citizen, but the owner of the state, and a war will not force him to make the slightest sacrifice so far as his banquets, hunts, pleasure palaces and court festivals are concerned. He can thus decide on war, without any significant reason, as a kind of amusement, and unconcernedly leave it to the diplomatic corps (who are always ready for such purposes) to justify the war for the sake of propriety.


Repubican vs. Democratic

Democracy is a kind of despotic form of government because one single entity has all the power. IN a republican system of government there is a separation of legislative, judicial, and executive powers.

“We can therefore say that the smaller the number of ruling persons in a state and the greater their powers of representation, the more the constitution will approximate to its republican potentiality, which it may hope to realise eventually by gradual reforms. . . if the mode of government is to accord with the concept of right, it must be based on the representative system. This system alone makes possible a republican state, and without it, despotism and violence will result no matter what kind of constitution is in force.”

Second Definitive Article of a Perpetual Peace: The Right of Nations shall be based on a Federation of Free States

“Peoples who have grouped themselves into nation states may be judged in the same way as individual men living in a state of nature, independent of external laws; for they are a standing offence to one another by the very fact that they are neighbours. Each nation, for the sake of its own security, can and ought to demand of the others that they should enter along with it into a constitution, similar to the civil one, within which the rights of each could be secured. This would mean establishing a federation of peoples.”

“We look with profound contempt upon the way in which savages cling to their lawless freedom. They would rather engage in incessant strife than submit to a legal constraint which they might impose upon themselves, for they prefer the freedom of folly to the freedom of reason. We regard this as barbarism, coarseness, and brutish debasement of humanity. We might thus expect that civilised peoples, each united within itself as a state, would hasten to abandon so degrading a condition as soon as possible. But instead of doing so, each state sees its own majesty (for it would be absurd to speak of the majesty of a people) precisely in not having to submit to any external legal constraint, and the glory of its ruler consists in his power to order thousands of people to immolate themselves for a cause which does not truly concern them, while he need not himself incur any danger whatsoever.”


“Although it is largely concealed by governmental constraints in law-governed civil society, the depravity of human nature is displayed without disguise in the unrestricted relations which obtain between the various nations.”

“The way in which states seek their rights can only be by war, since there is no external tribunal to put their claims to trial. But rights cannot be decided by military victory, and a peace treaty may put an end to the current war, but not to that general warlike condition within which pretexts can always be found for a new war. And indeed, such a state of affairs cannot be pronounced completely unjust, since it allows each party to act as judge in its own cause.”

“Yet while natural right allows us to say of men living in a lawless condition that they ought to abandon it, the right of nations does not allow us to say the same of states. For as states, they already have a lawful internal constitution, and have thus outgrown the coercive right of others to subject them to a wider legal constitution in accordance with their conception of right. On the other hand, reason, as the highest legislative moral power, absolutely condemns war as a test of rights and sets up peace as an immediate duty. But peace can neither be inaugurated nor secured without a general agreement between the nations; thus a particular kind of league, which we might call pacific federation (foedus pacificum), is required. It would differ from a peace treaty (pactum pacis) in that the latter terminates one war, whereas the former would seek to end all wars for good. This federation does not aim to acquire any power like that of a state, but merely to preserve and secure the freedom of each state in itself, along with that of the other confederated states, although this does not mean that they need to submit to public laws and to a coercive power which enforces them, as do men in a state of nature. It can be shown that this idea of federalism, extending gradually to encompass all states and thus leading to perpetual peace, is practicable and has objective reality. For if by good fortune one powerful and enlightened nation can form a republic (which is by its nature inclined to seek perpetual peace), this will provide a focal point for federal association among other states. These will join up with the first one, thus securing the freedom of each state in accordance with the idea of international right, and the whole will gradually spread further and further by a series of alliances of this kind.”

Taylor “The Ethics of Respect for Nature”

“In this paper I show how the taking of a certain ultimate moral attitude toward nature, which I call “respect for nature,” has a central place in the foundations of a life-centered system of environmental ethics. . . I argue that finally it is the good (well-being, welfare) of individual organisms, considered as entities having inherent worth, that determines our moral relations with the Earth’s wild communities of life.”



3 Parts to His Project

  1. Adopting the attitude of respect for nature
  2. A belief system that constitutes a way of conceiving the natural world and our place in it.
  3. A system of moral rules and standards for guiding our treatment of those ecosystems and life communities i.e. a set of normative principles which give concrete embodiment or expression to the attitude of respect for nature.


Very similar to Kant’s basic principle not treating other rational persons as merely a means to an end, and Tom Regan’s principles of not treating people and animals that are subject of a life as a means to an end. Kant argues humans have inherent value or dignity, Regan argues some animals also have inherent value. Here Taylor is arguing all living things have inherent value.


Life centered vs. Human centered ethical systems

“In designating the theory to be set forth as life-centered, I intend to contrast it with all anthropocentric views. According to the latter, human actions affecting the natural environment and its nonhuman inhabitants are right (or wrong) by either of two criteria: they have consequences which are favorable (or unfavorable) to human well-being, or they are consistent (or inconsistent) with the system of norms that protect and implement human rights. From this human-centered standpoint it is to humans and only to humans that all duties are ultimately owed. We may have responsibilities with regard to the natural ecosystems and biotic communities of our planet, but these responsibilities are in every case based on the contingent fact that our treatment of those ecosys- tems and communities of life can further the realization of human values and/or human rights. We have no obligation to promote or protect the good of nonhuman living things, independently of this contingent fact.”


“From the perspective of a life-centered theory, we have prima facie moral obligations that are owed to wild plants and animals themselves as members of the Earth’s biotic community. We are morally bound (other things being equal) to protect or promote their good for their sake. Our duties to respect the integrity of natural ecosystems, to preserve endangered species, and to avoid environmental pollution stem from the fact that these are ways in which we can help make it possible for wild species populations to achieve and maintain a healthy existence in a natural state.”


“Such obligations are due those living things out of recognition of their inherent worth. They are entirely additional to and independent of the obligations we owe to our fellow humans. . .Their well-being, as well as human well-being, is something to be realized as an end in itself.”


What would justify acceptance of a life-centered system of ethical principles?”

“(1) Every organism, species population, and community of life has a good of its own which moral agents can intentionally further or damage by their actions. To say that an entity has a good of its own is simply to say that, without reference to any other entity, it can be benefited or harmed. One can act in its overall interest or contrary to its overall interest, and environmental conditions can be good for it (advantageous to it) or bad for it (disadvantageous to it). What is good for an entity is what “does it good” in the sense of enhancing or preserving its life and well-being. What is bad for an entity is something that is detrimental to its life and well-being.”

Important point which is different from Kant’s original conception of which beings have value as ends in themselves:

“The idea of a being having a good of its own, as I understand it, does not entail that the being must have interests or take an interest in what affects its life for better or for worse. We can act in a being’s interest or contrary to its interest without its being interested in what we are doing to it in the sense of wanting or not wanting us to do it. It may, indeed, be wholly unaware that favorable and unfavorable events are taking place in its life. I take it that trees, for example, have no knowledge or desires or feelings. Yet it is undoubtedly the case that trees can be harmed or benefited by our actions”


“When construed in this way, the concept of a being’s good is not coextensive with sentience or the capacity for feeling pain. ”


“(2) The second concept essential to the moral attitude of respect for nature is the idea of inherent worth. We take that attitude toward wild living things (individuals, species populations, or whole biotic communities) when and only when we regard them as entities possessing inherent worth. Indeed, it is only because they are conceived in this way that moral agents can think of them- selves as having validly binding duties, obligations, and responsibilities that are owed to them as their due. I am not at this juncture arguing why they should be so regarded; I consider it at length below. But so regarding them is a presupposition of our taking the attitude of respect toward them and accordingly understanding ourselves as bearing certain moral relations to them. This can be shown as follows:

“What does it mean to regard an entity that has a good of its own as possessing inherent worth? Two general principles are involved: the principle of moral consideration and the principle of intrinsic value.”


“According to the principle of moral consideration, wild living things are deserving of the concern and consideration of all moral agents simply in virtue of their being members of the Earth’s community of life. From the moral point of view their good must be taken into account whenever it is affected for better or worse by the conduct of rational agents. This holds no matter what species the creature belongs to. The good of each is to be accorded some value and so acknowledged as having some weight in the deliberations of all rational agents. Of course, it may be necessary for such agents to act in ways contrary to the good of this or that particular organism or group of organisms in order to further the good of others, including the good of humans. But the principle of moral consideration prescribes that, with respect to each being an entity having its own good, every individual is deserving of consideration.

The principle of intrinsic value states that, regardless of what kind of entity it is in other respects, if it is a member of the Earth’s community of life, the realization of its good is something intrinsically valuable. This means that its good is prima facie worthy of being preserved or promoted as an end in itself and for the sake of the entity whose good it is. Insofar as we regard any organism, species population, or life community as an entity having inherent worth, we believe that it must never be treated as if it were a mere object or thing whose entire value lies in being instrumental to the good of some other entity. The well-being of each is judged to have value in and of itself.

Combining these two principles, we can now define what it means for a living thing or group of living things to possess inherent worth. To say that it possesses inherent worth is to say that its good is deserving of the concern and consideration of all moral agents, and that the realization of its good has intrinsic value, to be pursued as an end in itself and for the sake of the entity whose good it is.”


Taylor doesn’t attempt to prove, like Kant did with his forumula of humanity, that we ought to adopt this particular attitude of respect. He simply says it is an “ultimate moral attitude” that we can choose to adopt:


“When we adopt the attitude of respect for persons as the proper (fitting, appropriate) attitude to take toward all persons as persons, we consider the fulfillment of the basic interests of each individual to have intrinsic value. We thereby make a moral commitment to live a certain kind of life in rela- tion to other persons. We place ourselves under the direction of a system of standards and rules that we consider validly binding on all moral agents as such.4

Similarly, when we adopt the attitude of respect for nature as an ultimate moral attitude we make a commitment to live by certain normative principles. These principles constitute the rules of conduct and standards of character that are to govern our treatment of the natural world. This is, first, an ultimate commitment because it is not derived from any higher norm. The attitude of respect for nature is not grounded on some other, more general, or more fundamental attitude.”


Respect for Nature involves three components:

We may accordingly analyze the attitude of respect for nature into the following components. (a) The disposition to aim at, and to take steps to bring about, as final and disinterested ends, the promoting and protecting of the good of organisms, species populations, and life communities in natural ecosystems. (These ends are “final” in not being pursued as means to further ends. They are “disinterested” in being independent of the self-interest of the agent.) (b) The disposition to consider actions that tend to realize those ends to be prima facie obligatory because they have that tendency. (c) The disposition to experience positive and negative feelings toward states of affairs in the world because they are favorable or unfavorable to the good of organisms, species populations, and life communities in natural ecosystems.



“why should moral agents regard wild living things as possessing inherent worth?”

“We must keep in mind that inherent worth is not some mysterious sort of objective property belonging to living things that can be discovered by empirical observation or scientific investigation. To ascribe inherent worth to an entity is not to describe it by citing some feature discernible by sense perception or inferable by inductive reasoning. Nor is there a logically necessary connection between the concept of a being having a good of its own and the concept of inherent worth. We do not contradict ourselves by asserting that an entity that has a good of its own lacks inherent worth. In order to show that such an entity “has” inherent worth we must give good reasons for ascribing that kind of value to it (placing that kind of value upon it, conceiving of it to be valuable in that way).”


“The attitude we take toward living things in the natural world depends on the way we look at them, on what kind of beings we conceive them to be, and on how we understand the relations we bear to them. Underlying and support- ing our attitude is a certain belief system that constitutes a particular world view or outlook on nature and the place of human life in it. To give good reasons for adopting the attitude of respect for nature, then, we must first articulate the belief system which underlies and supports that attitude. If it appears that the belief system is internally coherent and well-ordered, and if, as far as we can now tell, it is consistent with all known scientific truths relevant to our knowledge of the object of the attitude (which in this case includes the whole set of the Earth’s natural ecosystems and their communities of life), then there remains the task of indicating why scientifically informed and rational thinkers with a developed capacity of reality awareness can find it acceptable as a way of conceiving of the natural world and our place in it. To the extent we can do this we provide at least a reasonable argument for accepting the belief system and the ultimate moral attitude it supports.”


“This belief system underlying the attitude of respect for nature I call (for want of a better name) “the biocentric outlook on nature.” Since it is not wholly analyzable into empirically confirmable assertions, it should not be thought of as simply a compendium of the biological sciences concerning our planet’s ecosystems. It might best be described as a philosophical world view, to distinguish it from a scientific theory or explanatory system. However, one of its major tenets is the great lesson we have learned from the science of ecology: the interdependence of all living things in an organically unified order whose balance and stability are necessary conditions for the realization of the good of its constituent biotic communities.”


“The belief system provides a certain outlook on nature which supports and makes intelligible an autono mous agent’s adopting, as an ultimate moral attitude, the attitude of respect for nature. It supports and makes intelligible the attitude in the sense that, when an autonomous agent understands its moral relations to the natural world in terms of this outlook, it recognizes the attitude of respect to be the only suitable or fitting attitude to take toward all wild forms of life in the Earth’s biosphere. Living things are now viewed as the appropriate objects of the attitude of respect and are accordingly regarded as entities possessing inherent worth. One then places intrinsic value on the promotion and protection of their good. As a consequence of this, one makes a moral commitment to abide by a set of rules of duty and to fulfill (as far as one can by one’s own efforts) certain standards of good character. Given one’s adoption of the attitude of respect, one makes that moral commitment because one considers those rules and standards to be validly binding on all moral agents. They are seen as embodying forms of conduct and character structures in which the attitude of respect for nature is manifested.”


“The biocentric outlook on nature has four main components. (1) Humans are thought of as members of the Earth’s community of life, holding that membership on the same terms as apply to all the nonhuman members. (2) The Earth’s natural ecosystems as a totality are seen as a complex web of intercon- nected elements, with the sound biological functioning of each being depen- dent on the sound biological functioning of the others. (This is the component referred to above as the great lesson that the science of ecology has taught us). (3) Each individual organism is conceived of as a teleological center of life, pursuing its own good in its own way. (4) Whether we are concerned with standards of merit or with the concept of inherent worth, the claim that humans by their very nature are superior to other species is a groundless claim and, in the light of elements (1), (2), and (3) above, must be rejected as nothing more than an irrational bias in our own favor.

The conjunction of these four ideas constitutes the biocentric outlook on nature.

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