Ecology Between Natural Science and Environmental Ethics

First published 2008

In his works Whitehead never directly addresses the topic of ecology, so we must first explain the fundamental relevance of this term for process thought as well as the essential contribution of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism for an ecological approach. It is no overstatement to assert that Whitehead’s metaphysic can provide a coherent and adequate theoretical support for a hard-core ecological worldview. Whitehead offers a challenging framework for ecology as both a science and an ethical and spiritual vision. In the following article, I will first discuss this twofold nature of ecology, before turning to the relevant elements of Whitehead’s philosophy and sketching the main developments offered by process scholarship.

1. Ecology

In the face of the urgent challenge posed by the environmental crisis in the last decades, ecology has come to be seen as inseparable from fundamental ethical issues. However, ecology is not synonymous with environmental ethics or environmental politics tout court. Since its emergence, ecology has increasingly developed as a science of nature, and in the second half of the last century it eventually became a discipline clearly situated within the framework of modern sciences and their methodology.[1] Yet, due to its own multilayered history, ecology cannot avoid facing up to the expectation that it represents a counter-tendency to the line of natural sciences. Ecology is suspended in a difficult balance between its newly achieved role as a biological “hard” science and the mission of being a sort of “leading science” that offers an overarching perspective intimately connected with normative and metaphysical claims (Trepl 1994, 17).[2]

1.1. Between Predictability and Complexity

Contemporary ecology has to maintain a balancing act between the exactness and predictability demanded by scientific methodology, and the need to resist narrow reductionism, which cannot grasp the high complexity achieved by the interactions between living organisms. For many contemporary scientists, ecology’s scientific status remains questionable since it cannot count on a stable ground of certainty for its own claims. The complexity it has to deal with does not allow for precise predictions and strictly verifiable assertions. Within a strict neo-positivistic framework there is little place for a science confined to cautious assumptions and less willing to run risks about nature and its experimental modeling (Ott 1994, 33ff). Although ecology has adapted itself to be accepted among the exact sciences, it remains a discipline on the edge: the tight connection between descriptive tasks and normative questions throws ecology back onto the so-called naturalistic fallacy and underpins suspicions about its scientific claims. On the other hand, precisely because of its ambiguity, ecology challenges the natural sciences to question their established approaches.

1.2. Between Holism and Individualism

Due to its inherent affiliation both with the natural sciences and value-laden worldviews, ecology has always been extremely permeable to dominant paradigm in different epochs. During the first half of the twentieth century, especially in the United States, ecology became increasingly important as an overarching science providing support for the holistic paradigm that was then moving into the mainstream. In 1916 Clements proposed the concept of superorganism to designate a community of living beings; this would be to ecology what a single organism is to biology. Communities of living beings were thus considered as organic parts of a whole comparable to the parts of a living body that depend on it and serve its ends. The priority of the whole to its components met the needs of a specific epochal worldview and ran the risk of being misused to support the totalitarian and deterministic reduction of the individual to the whole (McIntosh 1985, 43ff). The counter-position to the holistic approach was developed by Gleason, who showed that no scientific proof of superorganisms as stable units could be given. On Gleason’s account, a concept of community of living beings could be developed that reinforced the relevance of individuals in their interaction with external conditions (Trepl 1994, 154ff). Both the holistic and the individualistic tendencies are still alive in current ecological science and shape the ongoing struggle within many environmental theories.[3] It is very important to keep in mind this historical polarization and its risks when one calls for a holistic framework in opposition to the reductionistic tendency of contemporary science.[4]

2. Whitehead and Ecology

Although Whitehead did not directly write on ecology, either as a science or as worldview, his main philosophical works reflects the contemporaneous discourse of holism, as well as the debate between materialistic and organic approaches. Whitehead’s contribution to the ecological debate addresses the following aspects:

(1) Philosophy, considered as critique of science, reveals reductionism to be the outcome of a specific worldview with very particular presuppositions.

(2) Whitehead’s own philosophy of organism allows for both efficient and final causation in nature.

(3) Whitehead’s concept of organism as a relational structure not identical with the animal body opens a path for an integral approach while avoiding the risk of slipping into the totalitarian consequences of holism.

(4) His concept of life anticipates the application of chaos theory and complexity theory to ecology and biology and supports them with a philosophical system.

(5) His concepts of value and internal relations offer environmental ethics a strong theoretical underpinning. Process scholars have focused on this particular aspect and developed it much further in the formulation of their environmental philosophies.

2.1. Philosophy as “the Survey of Sciences”

We might be tempted simply to equate Whitehead’s philosophy, which he terms a “philosophy of organism,” with ecology tout court and assert that Whitehead’s philosophy is in the end a new ecology intended as a holistic system of thought. According to Whitehead, however, philosophy has a wider task than does any holistic ecology: it must offer constant criticism of the abstractions that science needs in order to shape a coherent system of thought. The task of philosophy is precisely to recover what abstractions leave out (PR 15), by questioning them and constantly re-opening the process of delimitation. Philosophy and ecology are not the same, since “philosophy is not one among the sciences […]. It is the survey of sciences […]. It confronts the sciences with concrete fact” (SMW 87).

Philosophy as “the critic of cosmologies” (SMW vii) can scrutinize the concept of nature that classical mechanics has assumed. This concept is

the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread throughout space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ‘scientific materialism’ (SMW 17).

In order to support its assumptions, materialism relies on immediate empirical facts collected by induction. However, if we consider experience as wider than mere sense perception constrained within the narrow borders of laboratory experimentation (SMW 17, 53), it seems at least dubious that we may find any immediate empirical givenness of bare matter.[5] The modern concept of nature, far than being the obvious outcome of empirical observation, results from a restricted focus on measurable qualities, like weight, size, speed, and the exclusion of other aspects like color, smell, taste.

By abstracting from all non-measurable aspects, science accomplished a bifurcation of nature between a subjective and an objective world and excluded experience from the latter (SMW 146), with the further consequence that the percipient (human) subject had to be excluded from nature and posited in opposition to it (Hampe 1990, 39). Therefore subjectivity and teleological activity were thrown out of nature and attributed to the separate sphere of the human. However, the materialistic-mechanic theory of nature, with all its reductionism, encounters insurmountable difficulties when it tries to describe life in its dynamic and unpredictable complexity.

2.2. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism

Neither evolution nor any kind of advance into novelty can be explained simply by external mechanic relations among bits of matter blindly running in empty space and entirely devoid of subjectivity.[6] The philosophy of organism claims that

however far the sphere of efficient causation be pushed in the determination of components of a concrescence—its data, its emotions, its appreciations, its purposes, its phases of subjective aim—beyond the determination of these components there always remains the final reaction of the self-creative unity of the universe (PR 47).

Since pure deterministic relations of efficient causation can by no means account for the counter-tendency observable in the universe that resists decaying into mere repetition and dissipation (FR 27ff), Whitehead develops a concept of organism intended primarily as the outcome of “a selective activity which is akin to purpose” (SMW 107).[7] What is intended here is not a monistic principle that holds the universe together and leads it to a specific general aim. Rather, nature is considered as an evolving process brought about by fundamental self-creative events that are each an “individual act of immediate self-enjoyment” (MT 151). Whitehead’s cosmology is essentially pluralistic.

Moreover, Whitehead distinguishes between two meanings of the term organism, one microscopic and the other macroscopic. The former is intended as the fundamental activity of actualization into an individual unity of experience (PR 129), whereas the latter refers to complex enduring structures like the ones we find as “stubborn facts” in our world of experience.

2.2.1. Microcosmic Organisms—Actuality between Determination and Teleology

Anything that emerges into actuality from a background of potentialities for realization requires a process of valuation, selection and choice among all relevant possibilities, one which is not simply given by mechanic external relations (SMW 93). Therefore, the ultimate realities of nature must be thought of as actual entities that shape themselves anew arising out of the determining effects of their relevant past and attaining an end for themselves (FR 30).

No form can grow automatically from an infinite range of possibilities because of the “cross-currents of incompatibility” (PR 247). Determination as such would lead to great incompatibility without an activity of ordering and shaping, which implies a free decision among all given possibilities: causation (intended as internal, in-flowing relation) and concrete freedom (intended as self-realization) in this case coincide (Muraca 2005, 237ff).

Each actual entity, which Whitehead also terms an actual occasion of experience,[8] is a complex node of freedom and causation: past entities “act” as vectors of efficient causation upon the new becoming entity; however, they cannot fully determine its shape, since the way in which the influences of the past are bound together to give birth to a new entity depend on the decision made by the new entity itself (PR 86). This process is termed by Whitehead “concrescence” and refers both to the growing together (cum-crescere) of past influences into a new shape, and to the becoming concrete of potentialities for realization.

While bits of matter are devoid of experience and subjectivity and are connected merely through external relations, organisms in their microcosmic meaning are loci of experience[9] understood as active graspings of causally efficacious influences in a new form of realization. Accordingly, each actual entity takes account of, or prehends, other entities as constitutive components of its becoming and is internally related to them.[10] As such it is a prehensive unity of past influences, a new togetherness achieved by means of valuation among the high range of possibilities for realization (SMW 105). Hence, each actuality is a value and, as long as it becomes by growing from its past into a new self-attained shape, it is a subject: “‘value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event” (SMW 93).

2.2.2. Macrocosmic Organisms—Wholes and Parts in Dynamic Fields of Relations

Actual entities arise, become and perish; they never occur twice and never change (AI 204). Therefore, each actuality is absolutely unique and unrepeatable. However, permanent structures are not simply an illusion. So-called enduring objects like stones, planets, plants, and animals result from different modes of organization and relations among actual entities, which incorporate, manifest and reproduce common patterns. Permanence is thus the result of the repetition and positive valuation of patterns entertained by actual occasions of experience. This suggests that permanence has, with respect to its being actual, a derivative status due to the internal relatedness of all actual entities and their tendency to conformity.[11] This kind of process, which Whitehead terms macroscopic, refers to the transition “from attained actuality to actuality in attainment” (PR 214), in which past realizations are constituents by means of repetition of a new becoming actuality.

Macrocosmic organisms are organized enduring structures, in which patterns are relatively stably repeated: “the community of actual things is an organism” (PR 214). This definition might remind us of Clements’ concept of superorganism, yet Whitehead distinguishes different kinds of grouping of occasions depending on different modes of organization and does not equate organism with the organizational structure of an animal body (Hampe 1990, 174) as Clements seems to imply:

(1) A general connectedness due only to the mutual immanence of actual occasions without common relevance is termed a “nexus” (AI 201). Any kind of togetherness can be a nexus, included mathematical concepts of class.

(2) A nexus of actual entities reciprocally “ordered” is termed a “society” and requires that its members are alike because they “impose on other members of the society the conditions which lead to that likeness” (PR 89). A society presents a common element of form entertained by all its members by means of their internal relations and reproduced by future members of that society. Most enduring objects are structured societies, like molecules or crystals.

(3) A society with a serial or temporal order is termed “personal” and presents a route of occasions “which in a marked degree […] inherit from each other” (PR 89). A personal ordered society does not necessarily imply being living; nor does it require consciousness. It mainly refers to the temporal series of occasions, connected by a strong relevance to each other.

(4) Structured societies are also termed “corpuscular” and do not present any dominant route of actual occasions of experience. They can be mainly living or non-living according to their degree of novelty, although there is no sharp line to be drawn. A corpuscular society does not have an aim as a whole, although its members do constitute, even if almost negligibly, a fringe of teleological self-realization. Aggregates like stones result from the average effects of their members: even if some kind of novelty arose in some of the members this would not have a significant effect on the general structure, repeating itself over long lapses of time: “For lifeless matter these functionings thwart each other, and average out so as to produce a negligible total effect” (AI 207).

Living structures instead aim at novelty and let it emerge as relevant for the whole society instead of evening it out for the sake of stability. Therefore, they have to constantly maintain a balance between dismembering novelty and steadiness. Moreover, living structures have a better coordination among the members than non-living ones, even if they do not have a superceding personal society assigned to this task.

A complex society like an animal or a human being is constituted by both ordered societies and nexūs as well as by a subordinate personally ordered society, which seems to dominate their social system (AI 205). While the animal body is a complex non-personal society, yet very strictly structured and self-sustaining, a serially ordered society presents a dominant route of occasions eminently connected and is termed by Whitehead a “psyche” or a “soul”: “The soul is nothing else than the succession of my occasions of experience, extending from birth to the present moment” (MT 163). As David Griffin points out, the dominant occasions constituting a soul do not differ in kind from other personally ordered societies like for example living cells; yet, “they are enormously different in degree” (Griffin 2001, 120). [12]

2.2.3. Life on the Edge of Chaos

When actual occasions largely conform to the givenness of the past world relevant for them, we find order and stability,[13] but also negligible novelty and somewhat less complexity. In fact, in order to reproduce the patterns, incompatibilities need to be either excluded or integrated in a way that does not dismember the common element of form and the community of actual things, i.e. the organism achieved. Exclusion by means of abstraction allows for endurance and a conforming stability.[14] Yet, in a constant process stabilization is never simply a neutral state: in the long run it leads to relapse. The universe bears a tendency to degradation, which is exhibited for example by entropic decay.

If this were the whole story, life would have never made its appearance on the scene, since “a high grade of complexity will in general be deficient in survival value” (PR 101). The counter-agency operating throughout the universe arises as the urge to “live, to live well, to live better” (FR 8). Whitehead calls the place of anarchy, in which radical novelty can arise, an “entirely living nexus,” which is characterized by a high degree of originality in all its members.[15] Accordingly, an “entirely living nexus” is with respect to its life non-social (PR 107), i.e. it is not strongly determined by other occasions or nexūs. Its degree of freedom is extremely high and thus the risk of falling into sheer chaos with no conformity at all to the environment is dramatic. Whitehead seems to imply here that the quintessence of life is tied to the risk of chaos intended as loss of conformity and of repetition of patterns. If this chaotic non-social activity were absolutely released from any tie to the environment, this would indeed hinder the formation of organisms and structures. However, as Whitehead points out, “though life in its essence is the gain of intensity through freedom, yet it can also submit to canalization and so gain the massiveness of order” (PR 107), i.e. the possibility of a certain provisional stability. A living society is constantly swinging on the edge of equilibrium between conformity and loose novelty, engaging in a steady effort of coordination of the anarchic spontaneities throughout the occasions forming a society.[16]

Accordingly, life is the solution that structured societies have found in order to develop complexity, allowing at the same time for a high degree of novelty without being fated to instability. The power of living societies consists in their capability to canalize the several influences of the actualized world into new complex forms, instead of eliminating incompatibilities: “Apart from canalization, depth of originality would spell disaster for the animal body. With it, personal mentality can be evolved, so as to combine its individual originality with the safety of the material organism on which it depends” (PR 107).[17]

Due to their unsteadiness, living societies are reliant on a much tighter interplay with the environment and undergo a constant process of re-storing and self-sustaining activity, which we call metabolism: “the structure is breaking down and being repaired. The food is that supply of highly complex societies from the outside which, under the influence of life, will enter in to necessary associations to repair the waste. Thus life acts as though it were a catalytic agent” (PR 106).[18]

2.2.4. Whitehead’s Relevance for Ecology: First Conclusions

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism offers to ecology a supporting scheme of systematic thought in many ways.

First, Clements’ concept of super-organism seems to be more of a sort of a larger individual constituted by its subordinated parts. If this is true, holism and individualism are less in opposition than it might look like. It is more a matter of which unity plays the major role: either the whole is prior to its parts or the individual parts are prior to their whole.

According to Whitehead, there are no isolated societies. Each society is inseparable from its environment, which must contribute as well to its self-sustaining process: “the environment, together with the society in question, must form a larger society” (PR 90). Societies and nexūs for Whitehead extend over each other and are continuous in the sense that there is no strict isolation of any society from the relevant relations constituting it. Considering this dynamic interconnection among societies (i.e. macrocosmic organisms), we can refer to them as wholes, yet only in the specific sense of relative and provisional wholes, depending on the perspective from which they are looked at: “I shall use the terms ‘whole’ and ‘parts’ exclusively in this sense, that the ‘parts’ is an event which is extended over by the other event which is the ‘whole’. […] Every event extends over other events, and every event is extended over by other events” (CN 58-59).

Moreover, depending on the kind of society we address, we have different kinds of relations between dynamic and provisional wholes and its components. Some “wholes” correspond more closely to what we understand as an animal body, a structured society endowed with a certain hierarchical order and tight reciprocal dependency. This would be an organism in the common sense of the term. Even in this case, in which mostly the part serves the whole, the relation between wholes and parts is reciprocal.[19]

Other “wholes,” however, are much looser and less structured. They look more like fields of relevant relations, characterized by common elements of form and dependent on each other by means of internal relations in a less hierarchical sense. These are also termed organisms, but they are quite different from the first ones.

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism allows for a concept of constitutive relationality and intimate interconnectedness between wholes and parts, including a certain kind of priority of the wholes to their components: “In a society the members can only exist by reason of the laws which dominate the society” (PR 91). Yet, this does not lead to a one-sided subordination, in which the members are reduced to mere parts. In fact, societies as macroscopic organisms are derivative in their being actual and efficacious from the actual entities that actualize them: “The society is only efficient through its individual members” (PR 91). The relation between “wholes” and “parts” can only be a dynamic interdependency.

Accordingly, the “whole” is more than the sum of its parts and presents characteristics that cannot be simply found in the parts.[20] Since relations are internally constituting the subordinate organisms are intrinsically different according to the relational field or the larger organism in which they are located. The plan of the larger whole goes down to the smallest organisms and has effects on them. That is to say that an electron within a living body is qualitatively different from one in a different structure or state. Reductionism is rendered impossible by the ontological priority entertained by internal relations in Whitehead’s philosophy.

Second, Whitehead’s theory of life is incredibly close to the recent application of chaos and complexity theory to biology and ecology. According to complexity theory, “nonlinearity and collective behavior are characteristic features of complexity” (Solé & Goodwin 2000, 58). Hence, predictability is rendered impossible by the fact that collectives break symmetry and instead of reproducing sameness tend to repeat patterns in the mode of similarity; eventually they might choose a highly improbable path with respect to the given conditions and their standard settings. Whitehead’s organisms are embedded in and constituted by a web of patterns, most of which tend to be repeated in a similar way, with a certain degree of difference and novelty.

Chaos is understood by most chaos-theories as non-conformity to general rules (sheer chaos would be the condition in which all possible states are realized with no regularity and no repetition), whereas order represents conformity (the maximal conformity would be that only one status is realized by all entities at stake). Complexity is located at the unsteady edge between order and chaos, i.e. where a high variety of patterns emerge with some similarity and dynamic regularity over time. This dynamics takes the form of fluctuation.[21] For Whitehead, complexity is the fringe where causal efficacy of the past (conformity and order) encounters the teleological self-shaping activity of the becoming occasions to bring about enduring structures. By considering teleology as an element in nature, Whitehead ventures much further than the new approaches in natural sciences, which often remain caught within a deterministic framework even if it is non-linear (Muraca 2007).[22]

In this framework, life represents the most improbable organization of patterns suspended on the edge of disorder. It only takes place out of a state of equilibrium and constantly needs to re-establish its unsteady balance through self-organization and metabolism. Therefore, life is an extremely fragile status, constantly exposed to the risk of collapsing.

3. Environmental Ethics and Process Thought

According to Whitehead each “fact” in the world is the outcome of valuation and therefore bears aesthetic as well as normative aspects. On this account science cannot avoid the ethical questions that are enmeshed in most descriptive claims. Ecology and environmental ethics are intimately linked up, as several process thinkers have shown. In this section I will briefly outline the main positions on this topic within process scholarship.

As Whiteheads maintains, actualization results from a process of evaluating self-realization and is therefore an intrinsic value. However, not all intrinsic values are the same: actual occasions in their process of becoming according to their inner complexity and breadth can achieve higher or lower degrees of novelty: “Each occasion exhibits its measure of creative emphasis in proportion to its measure of subjective intensity” (PR 47).

Whitehead’s theory of value opens a path for relevant contributions to environmental ethics. Although Whitehead himself never addressed environmental issues directly, his philosophy of organism has served as the main source for the development of a rich tradition within process thought in the field of ecology as a normative worldview.

3.1. The Ecological Model

The Liberation of Life by John Cobb and Charles Birch represents a milestone for process environmental ethics and has been the object of animated discussion among process scholars for years. The book aims at offering a new paradigm called “the ecological model” for ethics, spirituality as well as politics. Strictly speaking it is therefore not only a contribution to the environmental debate, but also to the wider context of sustainability and social justice.

The ecological model draws on Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and like it challenges materialistic mechanism with its metaphysics of substance and Cartesian dualism. Cobb and Birch propose Whitehead’s “event-thinking” as a radical alternative to substance thinking.[23] Following Whitehead they draw attention to the interconnectedness based on internal relations that constitute every event and every complex structure. According to Birch and Cobb value is intimately connected to experience and subjectivity, although neither term necessarily implies consciousness and sense perception. All events are considered actual occasions of experience and “since experience is always valuable, events have intrinsic value. All things therefore have some intrinsic value either in themselves or in their constituent parts” (Birch and Cobb 1990, 141).[24] Intrinsic value is to be found at all levels in the universe, although this does not imply that everything that exists has intrinsic value as a whole. Referring to Whitehead’s distinction among different types of organizational structure, aggregates do not bear intrinsic value as a whole, while organisms with a dominant route of occasions (e.g. something resembling a central nervous system) do. However, the constituent parts[25] of any aggregate do have some degree of subjectivity and therefore they are not completely bare of all value.

The ecological model is not egalitarian with respect to the moral standing of intrinsic values. In fact, intrinsic values can be differentiated and ranked according to the criterion of richness of experience or, as Cobb maintains, “strength of beauty.” Therefore organisms with a richer and more intense degree of experience bear a clearly higher intrinsic value.[26]

3.2. The Ecological Model Discussed

While Birch and Cobb acknowledge that life is a value and that animals, having a high degree of intrinsic value, “are not mere means to human ends” (1990, 157), they do not agree that animals have an absolute right to life. They emphasize the comparatively low degree of anticipation, which entails that most animals do not fear death as humans do. They consider, for instance, the relatively low significance of singularity in the experience that one particular chicken might have compared to the possibility of experience of another chicken. Therefore they accept the replaceability argument for there being lesser degrees of intrinsic value, although they acknowledge vegetarianism as a vital ethical choice, given the conditions in which animals are in fact treated today.

This argument has provoked a fierce reaction among several process and non-process thinkers, who see in Cobb and Birch’s position a reworking of the utilitarian concept of individuals as mere receptacles of value (Palmer 1998, 22). Palmer draws mainly on this aspect to show the inadequacy of process thought for environmental issues,[27] since it cannot do justice to individuals. However, one can reject Palmer’s argument recalling the importance of singularity within a Whiteheadian framework (Muraca 2005a, 103) and the fine distinctions between so-called “democracies” (e.g. plants) and “monarchies” endowed with a central nervous system and therefore with a high-grade singularity (e.g. animals and humans). Menta, referring to Hartshorne, points out that while democratic organisms, including ecosystems, bear intrinsic value in a more aesthetic sense, monarchic organisms have moral standing tout court, since they show interests and needs as a whole (Menta 2004, 26-27). As such their intrinsic value is not something that can be simply “bargained” over in terms of quantity and intensity independently of the singular individual that achieves it. John Cobb himself has clearly pointed out that the main differences between process thought and Deep Ecology are both the consideration of individuals as non-reducible to the whole of which they are parts, and the non-egalitarian conception of intrinsic values (Cobb 2001).

3.3. Animal Rights

As Daniel Dombrowski has shown, process thought can be extremely fecund also for the animal rights debate. Criticizing Birch and Cobb as well, Dombrowski rejects the replaceability argument as a “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” According to him, species are only abstract concepts and cannot be considered as a bank of replacements for individuals. Moreover, given the uncertainty about the future it does not seem very convincing to support any argument in favor of an elimination of present value in the name of a possible future value to replace it (Dombrowski 2001, 27ff; cfr. Deckers 2004). Dombrowski distinguishes between a “microscopic sentiency” S1, by which he refers to the subjective activity that can be found in less complex organisms like cells, and a sentiency per se S2 “found in human beings and other animals that are metaphysical monarchies by virtue of their central nervous system” (2001, 26). Given the binary choice between saving a human life and the life of, say, a bird, the human life ought to be saved; but in most non-extreme cases acknowledging different degrees of intrinsic value does not automatically entail that birds do not value their lives or do not have a right to live. Dombrowski refers to the argument from marginal cases to show that if we were to extend the concept of anticipation of death and the distinction between mentally developed and mentally undeveloped animals in order to justify taking animal life, we would inevitably fall into counterintuitive contradictions. Regardless of animals’ state of development, it is their sentience and hence their capacity to suffer that plays the major role in ethical decisions.

3.4. Life-centered Ethics

Similarly, Jay McDaniel draws on the distinction between democracies and monarchies (McDaniel 1989, 77ff) and allows for distinguishing different degrees of intrinsic value, although no a priori ranking can be made once and for all. By acknowledging that it is humans who rank other creatures, McDaniel stresses that when a decision is inevitable humans need to rely cautiously on their own experience, while avoiding arrogance: “the need for judgment on the basis of degrees of value must be complemented by reverence for life,” knowing that God loves each creature on its own term and for its own sake (1989, 84). To say that intrinsic value is to be found everywhere does not imply automatically that everything has a moral standing. Intrinsic value involves prima facie an aesthetic consideration, which plays an important role for any reverent attitude towards life. However, not every organism or entity endowed with intrinsic value automatically deserves moral consideration, since “many more things have intrinsic value than have rights” (1989, 69). Animals are moral patients and therefore have rights, even though these rights are not absolute. Yet, the burden of proof for violating animals’ interests lies with human, who are not only moral patients but also moral agents (1989, 68).

3.5. Extrinsic Values

Process scholars are actively involved in the current discussion within environmental ethics about the attribution of intrinsic value only to individuals, and even here only to humans or to humans and animals endowed with higher forms of mentality and sentience, or to extend this attribution to other categories like the ecosystem or biosphere (see Moses 2000). Most environmental ethicists tend to focus on intrinsic and inherent values as the basis of moral consideration; they thus risk the pitfall of moral impasses[28] connected with too wide an enlargement of intrinsic value in nature.

However, one specific contribution that process thought can offer to the contemporary debate is precisely the emphasis on the ethical relevance of values other than intrinsic ones. Given that relations in a process framework are internal, intrinsic values cannot be considered in isolation. In fact, entities in virtue of the constitutive interrelatedness of all beings also bear so-called instrumental values.

As Griffin points out, there are at least three ways of understanding value in Whitehead: “value of an individual for itself; value of the diverse individuals of the world for each other; value of the objective world which is a community derivative from the interrelations of its component individuals, and also necessary for the existence of each of these individuals” (RM 48; see Griffin 2001, 89). While the first refers to what we call intrinsic value, for the second concept Griffin prefers the term “extrinsic” over the more usual instrumental value. He defines extrinsic value follows: “While it is a subject enjoying experience, an actual occasion has intrinsic value, value for itself. When it becomes an object for others, it has extrinsic value, value for others” (Griffin 1993, 198). The extrinsic value cannot be considered as a mere external mean or instrument, which can be taken in possession, used or enjoyed by humans. Rather, an extrinsic value is the value for other things, “be they plants, animals, humans, or God” (2001, 202). According to Griffin, extrinsic values include

companion value, instrumental value (in the narrow sense, such as a stick’s value to a bird in ferreting out bugs from a tree limb), aesthetic value, and medicinal value. Some forms of extrinsic value are such only to human beings, such as scientific value, monetary value, and symbolic (including moral and religious) value (2001, 193).

Aesthetic value and medicinal value are not exclusive to humans, since animals as well seem to enjoy beauty in nature and at times use medicinal qualities of plants and roots for their well-being. This is a typical process assumption, which is all too often neglected by other approaches.[29]

Moreover, to the extrinsic value of anything belongs, according to Griffin, its ecological value, i.e. “its value for sustainability of other parts of the earth’s ecosystem” (Griffin 1992, 18). Ecological value and intrinsic value are often inversely related:

Those species whose (individual) members have the least intrinsic value, such as bacteria, worms, trees, and plankton, have the greatest ecological value: without them, the whole ecosystem would collapse. By contrast, those species whose members have the greatest intrinsic value (meaning the richest experience and thereby the most value for themselves), such as whales, dolphins, and primates, have the least ecological value (Griffin 1993, 203).

As a consequence, not only the intrinsic value of each single individual for itself ought to be taken into account, but also the relational factors as constitutive of its total value (Griffin 1992, 18). This conception allows for a high moral consideration of relational structures like ecosystems without considering them endowed with intrinsic value. Moreover, by focusing on the essential interrelatedness of all things it calls attention to the moral relevance of relations as prior to individuals, without risking a reduction of individuals to mere functional parts of wider wholes.

3.6. The Kalogenic Model

In his work dedicated to postmodern process ontology, Frederick Ferré holds that, since the process of becoming of each actual entity gives rise to beauty, it can be termed a kalogenic process (literally “giving birth to beauty”) (Ferré 1996, 340). Like all process thinkers, Ferré emphasizes the essential importance of relations and explains the difference between internal and external relations in terms of degree of responsiveness to influences.[30] On this account he maintains that instrumental values play a major role in any environmental ethics.

Accordingly, Ferré proposes a more precise distinction between the different types of organizational structures with respect to the question of value in an ecological framework. Things like stones and mountains can be considered aggregate entities. These structures result from the aggregation of many different elements, which are for the main part externally related among them and to their surrounding (1996, 326). They do not have an aim as a whole, i.e. no aggregate as a whole has either experience or value, or is endowed with subjectivity of any sort. Nevertheless aggregates are not completely bare of intrinsic value, which can be found in their constituent parts, and can very well bear dramatically relevant instrumental values.

Systematic entities, like ecosystems, are entities that bear a much higher internal coherence than mere aggregates. A system is intended as having “a whole relative (stochastic) stability over time;” it has an intrinsic property of resiliency that “is not simply attributed, but found” (1996, 327). Systems are wholes with internally related parts (1996, 331). Referring to Golley, Ferré asserts that an ecosystem can be considered as a “weak whole,” which is responsive both to its environments and to the delicate interactions among its own components. Moreover, it is a dynamic structure endowed with a reciprocal relation to its environment and not merely responding to it (1996, 314). Systematic entities are somehow teleological since they have a tendency to “continuous self-correction toward the maintenance of a central value” (1996, 328). Ecosystems are therefore “stochastically self-determining resilient systematic entities.”

Species do not seem to be entities at first, since they do not act in any sense, not even in the sense in which we might say that an ecosystem is “active.” Neither do they have interests of their own. Ferré argues that species seem to be more mental than empirical. He calls them formal entities with a temporal development. Species are temporal entities and can therefore be endangered or disappear. Species are ultimately the result of (and seem to be as well the condition for) historical processes of growing complexity: “all individuals carry more ‘load’ (more possibilities for genetic expression) than is needed for the individual” (1996, 330). As some ecologists maintain, species can be considered as “historical individuals” and therefore have a moral standing.

Organic entities are living systems “capable of novelty, improvisation, evolution, growth—in a word, creativity” (1996, 331) and are constituted by tight internal relations among one another. However, the degrees of novelty and tightness of bond between the parts are very different depending on the level of complexity achieved.

Persons are intended by Ferré not in Whitehead’s technical sense of a serially ordered society, which could as well be a cell or even a molecule. While the latter are termed by Ferré compound entities, the term person refers only to higher organisms, endowed with the capacity of thought and symbolism. As he writes, “on Earth only humans are persons” (Ferré 2001, 141).

From this account of the differentiation among various structures Ferré deduces the ethical significance for axiology as well as for deontology. While organisms and persons possess intrinsic value, aggregates and systemic entities as well as species are ethically relevant for their instrumental values, which does not imply that they have a lower moral standing. Addressing biodiversity Ferré argues that in spite of its lack of intrinsic value, “it can be a compelling instrumental value which, multiplied by indefinitely large numbers of kalogenic individuals, can outweigh the intrinsic value of individual organisms” (1996, 138).

Ferré therefore proposes three maxims of ethical behavior ranked according to the different values that are at stake. (1) First, do no harm. For, all other things being equal, there is no reason for destroying even an aggregate; it does not have intrinsic value as a whole, but is constituted by processes endowed with intrinsic value and deserves at least our appreciation. (2) Second, protect existing good. This maxim applies particularly to the natural world threatened by our behavior. (3) Third, create new good. This maxim applies to the human cultural world and its great value with respect to the possibility of richness of experience.[31]

3.7. Ecofeminist Process Theologies

Although it is impossible to do justice here to this complex field, I will briefly outline three main approaches that are complemented by Carol P. Christ’s own entry in this volume.

Whitehead’s thought can offer a remarkable basis for the development of ecofeminist’s perspectives and, as Nancy Howell clearly shows, especially “for a feminist theory of relations” (Howell 1988, 78), provided that the hierarchical aspects of his philosophy are criticized and modified according to feminist post-patriarchal concerns.

Howell’s criticisms address the interpretation of Whitehead’s cosmology offered by the “ecological model,” which allows for hierarchy among different degrees of intrinsic values and therefore introduces a ranking among creatures. According to Howell, “from the perspective of feminist consciousness, this hierarchy seems unlikely to effect the liberation of life that Cobb and Birch envision for nature,” since it risks reproducing the patriarchal pyramid of domination (1988, 85-86).[32] Moreover Howell emphasizes Whitehead’s refusal to draw sharp lines of distinction between living and non-living, and among living beings. On this account she claims the relevant contribution of process thought for a framework that takes primate culture seriously, also in a theological perspective.

Referring to the debate between holism and reductionism, Sallie Mcfague maintains that reductionism does not do justice to individuals and their difference. In fact, the reduction of the world as “obviously rich, diverse, intricate, interrelated and interdependent” to its smallest constituents does not take differences into account and seems to be heavily opposite to our common sense (Mcfague 1993, 93). While reductionism can by no means include any holistic perspective, a holistic metaphysics based on process thought can account for both the reductionistic methods of research and the recognition of “wholes” as complex interrelated dynamic structures. A holistic approach does not necessarily have to be a denial of difference. Rather, as is the case in a process feminist approach, holism refers essentially to differences and plurality. The philosophy of organism can respond to the need of a holistic metaphysic without underestimating the individuals, as Mcfague points out: “the organic model […] acknowledges the well-being of both the whole and the parts” (1993, 96).

Moreover, Mcfague draws on the epistemological criticism developed by Kuhn as well as by Sandra Harding about the historicity of worldviews and their connection to mainstream dominant models, in order to develop viable frameworks for a theology aware of the environmental crisis. Since all attempts to speak of reality are in the end metaphorical and performative in their intimate connection to power, the metaphors we choose do have a dramatic impact on our visions and behavior. Referring to Whitehead’s and Hartshorne’s theology, she proposes the metaphor of the world as the Body of God.

Among process feminist scholars, Catherine Keller is one of the few who have drawn on Whitehead’s philosophy of organism stressing its connection with chaos theory and showing its relevance for ecology as well as theology (Keller 2003). By focusing on Whitehead’s concept of an “entirely living nexus” as a non-social nexus, Keller shows the importance of the chaotic element as the origin of life, a vibrating pulsation that interrupts continuity while at the same time re-building it (Keller 2001).[33] On the edge of encounter between process thought and post-structuralism, Keller reconstructs the increasing phobia of chaos rooted in Western tradition, the fear of the “tehomic” as it is called in Genesis, a “deep” that has to be mastered and put under control, since “chaos or tehom is that which resists a status quo order.” Life on the edge of chaos becomes for Keller a locus not only for ecological claims but also for a complex criticism of power and structures of domination.


[1] While this tendency can be observed along the whole history of the discipline, a quite decisive move in this direction occurred, according to McIntosh, after World War II, with the attempt to base ecology on stronger mathematical methods as well as on higher theoretical generalizations (McIntosh 1985, 242ff.).

[2] According to Ott, ecology in a strict sense refers only to a subfield of biology and is therefore one of the sciences. Ecology is concerned with “the identification of matters of fact and ecosystemic relations as well as with mathematical modeling of ecosystems and the elaboration of theories” (Ott 1999, 2; my translation). Hence it is wrong to consider environmental claims as belonging to the specific field of ecology. Ott aims at a more precise differentiation of the two fields. However, it seems hard to deny that the historical discourse about ecology has been enmeshed with ethical consideration. In this article I will not engage in this particular debate but will refer simply to the historically established discourse and the contribution of Process philosophy and theology to it.

[3] The application of system theory to ecosystem analysis offers a good example of this on-going debate.

[4] For a detailed presentation of this debate see McIntosh 1985, especially Chapter 7.

[5] For Whitehead this is a narrow, overly abstract perspective: “For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon” (CN 29).

[6] Whitehead writes: “The aboriginal stuff, or material, from which a materialistic philosophy starts is incapable of evolution. […] There is nothing to evolve, because one set of external relations is as good as any other set of external relations” (SMW 107).

[7] Whitehead’s “organism” is not identical with a biological body even if it includes it among its forms. For an animal body presents a specific organizational structure endowed with hierarchical functions that are not necessary characteristics of an “organism” tout court.

[8] According to Whitehead’s definition, all actual entities are actual occasions of experience, except God. But keeping this exception in mind, one can take both term as synonyms.

[9] Experience refers here to the grasping of a plurality of elements into a new creative unity, and not merely to sense perception. Hence experience does not necessarily require any cognitive or conscious activity, and achieves both only at very high level of complexity.

[10] As David Griffin points out, “the causal influence of the past upon the present is in-fluence, a real in-flowing, which affects the present experience internally” (Griffin 1993, 197).

[11] Whitehead writes: “every particular actual thing lays upon the universe the obligation of conforming to it” (S 39).

[12] Griffin suggests considering Whitehead’s system as a panexperientialism with organizational duality: for while Whitehead does overcome Cartesian dualism, he still differentiates between body and soul, due to their different degrees of freedom and their different organizational structure (Griffin 2001, 6).

[13] Assertions such as “[i]t seems as though a certain similarity were a favourable condition for endurance” (SMW 109) brings Whitehead even closer to contemporary work that applies chaos theory to biology and ecology.

[14] Cf. The Function of Reason: if survival in the sense of enduring through time were the only aim attained by organisms, then a rock would be a champion in the struggle (5).

[15] A route of entirely living nexus is a “living person.”

[16] Life is neither a defining characteristic of a whole society nor can it apply to a single occasion (AI 207). Only a nexus can be living or non-living according to the degree of novelty available to it. Accordingly, a whole society can be termed “living” only if among the nexus constituting it are ‘regnant’ (PR 103).

[17] Therefore, life is the necessary condition for the development of a higher degree of mentality (e.g. consciousness) endowed with even more capacity for novelty: “Mental experience is the organ of novelty, the urge beyond” (FR 33). While in the lowest forms mental activity is extremely irrelevant and tends to the conformal reproduction of stable order, more complex forms contain “a factor of anarchy” (FR 33) that lets novelty emerge.

[18] In living societies, “this interplay takes the form of robbery. […] It is at this point that with life moral acute. The robber requires justification” (PR 105).

[19] “The parts of the body are really portions of the environment of the total bodily event, but so related that their mutual aspects, each in the other, are peculiarly effective in modifying the pattern of either. […] Thus the body is a portion of the environment for the part and the part is a portion of the environment for the body” (SMW 149)

[20] “The concrete enduring entities are organisms, so that the plan of the whole influences the very characters of the various subordinate organisms which enter into it” (SMW 79).

[21] “Self-organization processes in far-from-equilibrium conditions correspond to a delicate interplay between chance and necessity, between fluctuations and deterministic laws” (Prigogine and Stengers 1984, 176). Cf. Whitehead: “we shall conceive each primordial element as a vibratory ebb and low of an underlying energy, or activity” (SMW 35).

[22] The principle of novelty does not emerge all of a sudden at a certain level of complexity without being at all present before. On the contrary, according to Whitehead, novelty, self-realization and a flicker of freedom are present all the way down, even if in a nearly negligible form below the threshold of relevance.

[23] “Event thinking must recognize the existence of relatively enduring ‘substantial objects’ and undertake to explain them in terms of patterns of interconnectedness among events” (Birch and Cobb 1990, 86).

[24] However, it is important to notice that each actual entity is a value because it is the outcome of a process of valuation, which alone can properly explain the advance into novelty. Indeed this process of valuation is describable in terms of experience in the mode of causal efficacy as a taking account of (SMW 69): experience is “always valuable” precisely because it is this process of valuation itself, i.e. the grasping of past influences, the (evaluative) selection among them, the (evaluative) consideration of new possibilities charged with value by means of God’s envisagement and the final self-realization in a new subjective form.

[25] Whitehead’s term “members” suggests more precisely an acknowledgement of their being active self-shaping entities. In a strict sense of the term actual entities are not parts, into which a whole could be divided. This would reproduce the materialistic framework of divisible matter spatially extended.

[26] As David Griffin points out: “We can and should think in terms of degrees of intrinsic value: bacteria have more intrinsic value than molecules, cats have more than bacteria, humans and apes have more than cats” (Griffin 1992, 17).

[27] Palmer asserts that process ethics is a maximizing ethical system, and that “the ultimate aim of ethical behavior is to produce the greatest possible value for the consequent nature of God” (Palmer 1998, 15). She writes: “What matters is the generation of rich experience for God. It is not the source of value which is significant, but the quality and quantity” (1998, 25). For a criticism of Palmer and a more detailed discussion of the topic, see the Forum on PS 2004.

[28] Considering instrumental values as secondary with respect to the moral relevance of intrinsic values leads to the extreme consequence that if we acknowledge moral standing to collective entities like biosphere or ecosystems, we must consider them as endowed with intrinsic value as well. This seems to be counterintuitive, unless we find a definition of intrinsic value different from the concept of being an end in oneself, valuing for oneself, being a valuer. How can an ecosystem “value” itself and for itself? To assert that ecosystems have value independently of human valuation does not necessarily require the attribution of intrinsic value to them, if one develops a complex concept of instrumental value that goes beyond the idea of a mere mean to (human) ends.

[29] Referring to Naess’ Deep Ecology, Griffin calls attention to the difference between his use of the term intrinsic value and Naess’ use of the term inherent value. For Griffin intrinsic value is to be contrasted with the value for others; for Deep Ecologists “the inherent value of something […] stands in contrast solely with its (perceived) value for human beings” and their purposes (Griffin, 1993, 202). In this narrow understanding, one respects or saves something either for its own sake or for our sake as human beings.

[30] A pencil and the desk on which its lies can be said to have mainly external relations because their reciprocal influence is relatively low, even though not absent.

[31] The latter serves Ferré as an argument against the universal claim of ethical vegetarianism (Ferré 2001, 277).

[32] Howell proposes to assess the value referring not to the consequent nature of God, as Birch and Cobb do, but from the perspective of the primordial nature. This implies that the value of each being does not depend on the actually achieved intensity and richness of experience that is prehended by God in the consequent nature. Rather, in the primordial nature, “God’s aim is toward the richest possible experience for each moment. At that moment, each event is related to God as a unique instance of value” (Howell 1988, 86).

[33] “Chaos does not display mere disorder. Rather, it reveals an order in nature too complex to have been understood in terms of modern deterministic materialism. Probabilistic chaos refers to nonlinear patterns of unpredictable, asymmetrical dynamics in nature” (Keller 2001).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Birch, L. Charles, and John B. Cobb, Jr. 1990. The Liberation of Life (Denton, Environmental Ethics Books).

Cobb, John B. Jr. 2001. “Protestant Theology and Deep Ecology,” in Deep Ecology and World Religions: New Essays on Sacred Ground, editey byDavid Landis Barnhill and Roger S. Gottlieb (Albany, State University of New York Press Press), 213-228.

Deckers, Jan. 2004. “Christianity and Ecological Ethics. The Significance of Process Thought and a Panexperientialist Critique on Strong Anthropocentrism,” in Ecotheology 9, no. 3. 359-387.

Dombrowski, Daniel. 2001. “The Replaceability Argument,” in Process Studies 30.1, 22-35.

Ferré Frederick. 1996. Being and Value. Towards a Constructive Postmodern Metaphysics (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Ferré Frederick. 2001. Living and Value. Towards a Constructive Postmodern Ethics. (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Griffin, David Ray. 1992. “Green Spirituality: A Postmodern Convergence of Science and Religion,” in Journal of Theology. United Theological Seminary (Dayton, Ohio), 5-20.

Griffin, David Ray. 1993 “Whitehead’s Deeply Ecological Worldview,” in Worldviews and Ecology, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A. Grim (Lewisburg, P.A., Bucknell University Press), 190-206.

Griffin, David Ray. 2001. Reenchantment without Supernaturalism (New York, Cornell University Press).

Hampe, Michael. 1988. Die Wahrnehmung der Organismen (Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht).

Howell, Nancy. 1988. “The Promise of a Process Feminist Theory of Relations,” in Process Studies 17.2, 78-87.

Keller, Catherine. 2001. “The Face of the Deep: Reflections on the Ecology of Process Though,” in Concrescence: The Australasian Journal of Process Thought (Available at – ISSN 1445-4297).

Keller, Catherine. 2003. Face of the Deep. A Theology of Becoming (New York, Routledge).

McDaniel, Jay B. 1989. Of God and Pelicans. A Theology of Reverence for Life (Kentucky, Westminster, John Knox Press).

McFague, Sallie. 1993. The Body of God. En Ecological Theology (Minneapolis, Fortress Press).

McIntosh, Robert, P. 1985. The Background of ecology. Concept and Theory (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Menta, Timothy. 2004. “Clare Palmer’s Environmental Ethics and Process Thinking: a Hartshornean Response,” in Process Studies 33.1, 24 – 45.

Muraca, Barbara. 2005. “Wie kann sich etwas, was noch nicht ist, sich aus seiner Zukunft heraus frei gestalten? Identitätsbildung zwischen Kausal- und Finalursache ausgehend von Whiteheads Kreativitätsbegriff,” in Kreativität. XX Deutscher Kongress für Philosophie. Sektionsbeiträge. Bd.1 edited by Günther Abel (Berlin, Universitätsverlag der TU Berlin).

Muraca, Barbara. 2005. “Welt, Umwelt, Mitwelt. Cultural, Natural, and Social World as Complex Intertwined Field of Internal Relations,” in Process Studies, 34.1, 98-115.

Muraca, Barbara. 2007. “Teleologie der Organismen: Grenzbegriff oder ontologische Notwendigkeit,” in Prozesse des Lebendigen. Zur Aktualität der Naturphilosophie A.N. Whiteheads, edited by Spyridon Koutroufinis (München, Karl Alber Verlag).

Ott, Konrad. 1994. Ökologie und Ethik (Tübingen, Attempto Verlag).

Ott, Konrad1999. „Ethik und Naturschutz,“ in Handbuch Naturschutz und Landschaftspflege edited by Werner Konold, Reinhard Böckler, and Ulrich Hampicke (Landsberg, ecomed),1-17.

Palmer, Clare. 1988. Environmental Ethics and Process Thinking (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

Prigogine, Ilya, and Isabelle Stengers. 1984. Order out of chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature (New York, Bantam Books).

Trepl, Ludwig. 1994. Geschichte der Ökologie (Weinheim, Beltz Athenäum Verlag).

Author Information

Barbara Muraca
University of Greifswald
Department of Philosophy/ Institute for Botanic and Landscape Ecology
Grimmer Strasse, 88, D-17487 Greifswald

How to Cite this Article

Muraca, Barbara, “Ecology Between Natural Science and Environmental Ethics”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL =