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Do living things have a privileged ethical status?

It has been argued that there is a real, non-arbitrary distinction between living and non-living entities, and that this difference can be explained in terms of the form and finality of living things, rather than their functionality. The next question to be addressed is: does this difference matter ethically? Is there something about being alive that warrants special ethical treatment?

Varner contends that while many useful and valuable things have needs, only things with intrinsic finality (my term, not Varner's) have interests. As he puts it:

Cars, can openers and intrinsically valuable things [e.g. works of art - V.T.] all can be coherently said to have needs, but only things with a good of their own can coherently be said to have interests (1998, p. 56).

(Although he is happy to speak of organisms as having "a good of their own", Varner avoids the Aristotelian term "intrinsic finality", for reasons to be discussed below.)

The notion that a non-sentient organism (a plant, let us say) could be said to have interests may seem strange to many philosophers. Feinberg (1974, pp. 49-50) has argued that only a being with conations (e.g. wishes, desires, hopes, drives, aims and goals) can have interests, and that only conscious conations can define interests. Varner (1998, pp. 57-61) criticises this view because it does not do a good job in accounting for cases where an individual's desires and interests conflict.

Firstly, an individual may have desires (or conscious conations) that go against his/her best interests. Varner asks us to imagine the case of Nanci, a cat who desires access to the outdoors, but does not and cannot understand the risks involved, such as contracting the feline leukemia virus (or, in the area where I live, being run over by a car). Nanci may want to go outside, even though it is manifestly obvious (to us) that her desire is against her best interests. While a biologically grounded theory of interests can readily explain why this is so (e.g. viruses are bad for her health), a theory which grounds interests solely in mental states requires awkward counterfactuals to support the same conclusion (e.g. if, per impossibile, she could master a language and understand what we do, she would no longer desire to go out).

Secondly, an individual may have interests that (owing to ignorance on his/her part) he/she does not desire. It was certainly in the interests of nineteenth century mariners to take 10 milligrams of ascorbic acid a day, to avoid scurvy, but because they knew nothing about ascorbic acid, they had no desire for it. Such a case is unproblematic if we allow interests to be grounded in biological facts, but a psychological, desire-based account of interests can only construe the mariners' interests counterfactually: the mariners would have desired ascorbic acid, had they been sufficiently informed (in other words, had they known what we now know).

Varner proposes what he calls a

psycho-biological account of welfare, according to which to say X is in A's interest means that

(1) A actually desires X, [or]

(2) A would desire X if A were sufficiently informed and impartial across phases of A's life, or

(3) X serves some biologically based need that A has in virtue of being the kind of organism A is (1998, p. 62).

Varner makes it clear that the "or" is meant to be inclusive. His account can explain the anomalous cases cited above, by reference to condition (3). The only significant criticism I would wish to make of Varner's account is that it does not prioritise desires, informed desires and biological needs. Surely, in the case of Nanci, if there is a feline leukemia epidemic, then going outside is not in her interests, even though she may take an interest in it (i.e. desire to go outside) - to cite a distinction that Varner himself makes (p. 57). On Varner's psycho-biological account, a strange conclusion follows: both going outside and staying indoors are in Nanci's interests: the former satisfies condition (1), while the latter satisfies condition (3). One might allow the co-occurrence of conflicting interests satisfying conditions (2) and (3) - for instance, it may be in a firefighter's interest to remain in a burning building in order to satisfy her impartial interest in saving as many lives as possible, while getting out as quickly as possible may serve some biological need of hers (especially if she is predisposed to getting bronchial problems) - but it seems unreasonable to put mere desires, especially uninformed ones, on a par with biological needs.

One merit of Varner's account is that it would allow us to say that plants have interests, as they can satisfy condition (3). However, the account is open to an obvious riposte: artifacts (e.g. cars and human-built computers) have needs too, so why do we preclude them from having interests? (Varner considers the idea that a can opener has interests to be a reductio ad absurdum.) First, he addresses the empirical question: how do the needs of plants (or more generally, organisms lacking desires) differ from those of artifacts?

Varner suggests that an epistemological conundrum has prevented many philosophers from attributing interests to organisms lacking desires. The difficulty is that we seem to lack an objective method or criterion for specifying those interests:

[E]ven if plants have needs in some sense that artifacts do not, is it possible to specify, in a non-arbitrary way, what these needs are? (1998, p. 64).

Varner proposes that "biological functions, rather than goals or end-states" are required to "draw a sharp distinction between all artifacts, on the other hand, and all living organisms on the other" (1998, p. 67). What is good for an organism cannot be adequately defined in terms of its end-states, as artifacts may also have "built-in goals". Varner cites the example of the Patriot missile, which I discussed earlier. For Varner, the distinction between life and non-life is to be made in terms of functionality, rather than finality - exactly the opposite of the position that I have been arguing.

Varner responds by arguing that living things, whether sentient or not, have organs or subsystems with biological functions (e.g. the function of eyes is to enable their possessor to see). He makes a sharp distinction between biological functions and an organism's built-in goals, or end-states.

Varner then proposes that the function of an organ or subsystem should be explained, not in terms of the advantage it gives to its individual possessor (who may be unable to properly benefit from it, for accidental reasons), but in terms of the history of the species to which the individual belongs. His account (which follows that of other authors) is an aetiological one:

X is a biological function of S (some organ or subsystem) in O (some organism) if and only if: (a) X is a consequence of O's having S and (b) O has S because achieving X was adaptive for O's ancestors (1998, p. 67).

In other words, the function of an organ is to be understood in terms of how it has served the species whose individuals possess it. A function is defined as such because it provided its owner's ancestors with a selective advantage over other individuals lacking this function. (Even if the owner is, like a mule, unable to reproduce, it can be said to possess a function such as sight, because its ancestors - horses and donkeys - enjoyed a selective advantage by being able to see.) Varner then draws an evolutionary line between organisms and artifacts:

One thing that distinguishes organisms from artifacts is that the former but not the latter are the result of natural selection (1998, p. 69).

From this, he proceeds to argue that (according to the above definition) biological functions are only found in organisms, and then re-writes condition (3) of his psycho-biological account of interests as follows:

(3) X would fulfill some biological function of some organ or subsystem of [an individual] A ["biological function" is then defined in terms of its selective advantage, as above] (1998, p. 68).

One might object that Varner's definition of "biological function" fails to confer functionality on the first organism to possess an adaptive mutation, such as a photosensitive spot, or "proto-eye" - a difficulty to which Varner responds by suggesting that new traits acquire biological functions only via subsequent selective pressure, which presumably means that the first organism on earth had no functions, and no interests! However, this is a minor quibble. The problem with Varner's account is that it uses the concept of natural selection to make a sharp distinction between organisms and artifacts - a distinction which is both empirical and ethical. While I would agree that the distinction is valid, I would suggest that "being the result of natural selection" (i) may not be enough to empirically distinguish organisms' biological functions from the needs of artifacts, and (ii) by itself, is not a morally relevant property. A more promising candidate is the concept of intrinsic finality, which was defined above in terms of internal relations, dedicated functionality and a nested hierarchy of organisation.

The empirical basis of Varner's organism-artifact distinction is questionable on several grounds. First, there is the theoretical possibility (discussed earlier) of life-forms on other planets, which do not evolve once they have arisen. Would Varner be content to say that such life-forms lacked interests?

Second, one can envisage artifacts which undergo natural selection - for instance, a von Neumann probe with a modifiable program (but without the life-conferring attribute of intrinsic finality) that travels from planet to planet, making copies of itself, which occasionally (when the program mutates) acquire new functionalities that help them to make more replicants of themselves. (However, Varner might regard such a probe as genuinely alive, and hence fundamentally different from non-evolving artifacts such as cars.)

Third, and more tellingly, it is by no means clear why a function that arose through artificial rather than natural selection should not be considered biological, and why an organism possessing such a function should not have an interest in its being fulfilled. Varner confines his discussion of artificial selection to cases of cow and turkey breeding, which seldom create new functions and make little difference to the overall biological functionality of the new breeds, so let us consider a more radical scenario (which might, for all we know, have actually occurred).

Suppose that some bug-eyed aliens visited our planet in the late Precambrian, selected a particular lineage of life-forms (the eyeless precursors of today's insects) and proceeded to set up a laboratory on earth, where they artificially selected for the structures required to make an insect eye, succeeding after many generations of culling. The aliens then proceeded to refine the eye, subjecting the insects to rigorous visual screening tests and culling those with poor vision, until they had bred an insect with good vision. However, the laboratory insects had no need for eyes in order to find food, as they were fed artificially. The only advantage conferred by possessing the genes that coded for eyes was that insects lucky enough to have those genes were allowed to live, because the aliens wanted to create a life-form looking like themselves. The insects were then released into the natural environment, where they evolved into the different species of insects we see today. (In every other lineage of sighted organisms, vision evolved naturally.) The tension in Varner's account is that for the laboratory insects with good vision, the ability to see was indeed "adaptive" for their laboratory-bred ancestors (1998, p. 68), as it assisted their survival, which makes the ability (on Varner's own definition) a biological function. However, the ability was the product of artificial selection, whereas the empirical basis of Varner's psycho-biological account of interests is that "all and only living organisms are subject to natural selection" (1998, p. 68).

In discussing Varner's case of the Patriot missile above, I suggested that the reason why it failed to deflate the notion of intrinsic finality was that its parts were not suitably integrated: they acquired no new physical properties when assembled, and their their repertoire of functionality was not dedicated to supporting that of the next highest level in a nested hierarchy of organisation. There is more to possessing intrinsic finality than having a built-in goal. While the Darwinian account of functionality elaborated by Varner provides us (in practice) with an excellent yardstick for objectively determining what is good for an organism, it does not properly define what "good" means.

A fourth example will bring out what I mean. Suppose that a team of alien scientists visits earth long after all life has become extinct, and uncover two things: a watch, and a fossil insect preserved in amber, with its DNA remarkably well-preserved. The aliens could infer the functions of the different parts of the watch. Discovering that the insect had DNA and other chemicals in its cells, they could also deduce that the insect had a built-in "master program" regulating its biochemistry, and was once alive. After examining its anatomy and biochemistry, they might then conclude that the function of the insect's eye was to see, and (on a lower level) the function of its cell mitochondria was to store energy. The point of the illustration is that: (i) not only built-in finality, but also built-in functionality, occurs in artifacts; (ii) it is possible to deduce functionality in an organism without examining its ancestors. What is good for an organism can be ascertained from understanding how its functionality, on each level, supports that of the next highest level.

In the ethical arena, the concept of natural selection appears inadequate to explain why organisms, and not artifacts, "qualify ... for direct moral consideration" (1998, p. 69). The nub of Varner's argument (1998, pp. 73 - 74) is that (i) the fulfilment of biological functions in sentient organisms is in their interests irrespective of their even being able to take an interest in their fulfilment (as is shown by the cases of Nanci the cat, who wants to go out during an epidemic of feline leukemia virus, and the nineteenth century mariners, who had no desire for ascorbic acid); so (ii) the fulfilment of biological functions (which we can enumerate in a non-arbitrary fashion, using the concept of natural selection) in non-sentient organisms, should be considered as being in their interests, even though they cannot take an interest in their fulfilment. I do not wish to criticise the logic of Varner's move from (i) to (ii), which seems reasonable. I would simply like to point out that the role served by natural selection in this argument is merely to identify what the biological functions of organisms are, rather than why they are morally significant. That question is left unanswered.

Putting the problem another way: although Varner has managed to assimilate the biological interests of non-sentient organisms to those of sentient organisms, by invoking a Darwinian criterion to define both, he has failed to answer the question of why a biological interest, per se, matters morally, while a mere need (e.g. a car's need for oil) does not. Granting that the needs of plants are the product of Darwinian evolution while the needs of cars are not, I might say, "So what?"

In answering this question, I would like to return to an earlier remark of Varner's:

only things with a good of their own can coherently be said to have interests (1998, p. 56).

This sounds like a good starting point for grounding an ethical distinction between organisms and artifacts. The problem arises when we define a thing's "good". If it is "the set of functions which helped its ancestors", then it does not seem to be morally relevant. If instead "good" is defined (roughly) as "the set of functions to which its parts are dedicated", then at least its benefit to the thing itself is clear.

I would like to offer a final comment on the desire-centred theory of welfare, which overlooks biological interests. If this theory is correct, then "doing good" has to be cashed out in terms of "satisfying someone's desires" - perhaps, if one is generous, the greatest number of desires in the greatest number of interested parties, along the lines proposed by some utilitarians. Yet it is not at all clear why the satisfaction of anyone's desires is a good thing, without further need of justification. If instead we consider the satisfaction of biological interests, then in this context, "doing good" means (on my proposal) "promoting some biological function(s) in an organism, which its body parts are dedicated to supporting" - roughly, promoting its health. Promoting the health of an organism, as a doctor, a vet or the parent of a child might do, does sound like a good that needs no justification. If this is not acting ethically, then it is difficult to see what might be.

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