Skip to main content

Foundations of a General Ethics: Selves, Sentient Beings, and Other Responsively Cohesive Structures

  • Warwick Fox (a1)

Everything we can refer to – physical, biological, psychological, or a human-created entity, institution, activity, or expression of some kind, and whether constituted of brute physical stuff or less tangible complexes of social arrangements, ideas, images, movements, and so on – can be considered in terms of its form of organization or structure. This applies even if what we want to say about these things is that they represent a disorganized or unstructured example of their kind or else that they simply lack any discernible form of internal organization or structure in the sense that their internal structure is undifferentiated or homogenous as opposed to being ‘all over the place’. We therefore live in a world in which everything can be characterized, either positively or negatively, in terms of its form of organization or structure. (The terms ‘form of organization’ and ‘structure’ can be used interchangeably in the context of this paper, although I will tend to use the term ‘structure’ in what follows.)

Hide All

1 Nagel's Thomas famous 1974 essay ‘What Is it Like to Be a Bat?’ is reprinted in his collection Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Canto ed., 1991), 165180.

2 Two points here. First, for an overview of the emerging range of evidence that suggests that beings really do divide into two groups like this, see Fox Warwick, A Theory of General Ethics: Human Relationships, Nature, and the Built Environment (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), chs 6–8. See also Penn Derek, Holyoak Keith, and Povinelli Daniel, ‘Darwin's Mistake: Explaining the Discontinuity between Human and Nonhuman Minds’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31 (2008): 109178. Second, ethicists have tended to use the term ‘persons’ rather than ‘selves’ in this context. However, although the evidence – more of which I will cite in the concluding section – suggests that people are the only selves we currently know of, there seems to be no reason in principle why there might not be other selves elsewhere in the universe or created by people here on Earth. The term ‘persons’ – even in the wider sense that some ethicists want to give it (i.e. to cover nonhuman selves) – therefore seems increasingly archaic and parochial, not to mention misleading to ordinary readers, so I prefer to use the term ‘selves’.

3 Thomas Nagel employs this form of the distinction in his influential essay ‘Moral Luck’, repr. in Nagel, op. cit., 24–38.

4 Donald Merlin, A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001).

5 Fox, op. cit., passim.

6 For a general overview and critical introduction to Schweitzer's views, see Warren Mary Anne, Moral Status: Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), ch. 2; Goodpaster Kenneth, ‘On Being Morally Considerable’, repr. in Zimmerman Michael, gen. ed., Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001), 5670; Attfield Robin, ‘The Good of Trees’, repr. in Schmidtz David and Willott Elizabeth, eds, Environmental Ethics: What Really Matters, What Really Works (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 5871; Varner Gary, In Nature's Interests?: Interests, Animal Rights, and Environmental Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Gary Varner, ‘Biocentric Individualism’, in Schmidtz and Willott, op. cit., 108–120; Taylor Paul, Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), ‘standpoint’ quotation, 63.

7 Rolston Holmes III, ‘Value in Nature and the Nature of Value’, repr. in Light Andrew and Rolston Holmes III, eds, Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 145; Rolston Holmes III, ‘Respect for Life: Counting What Singer Finds of no Account’, in Jamieson Dale, ed., Singer and his Critics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 251.

8 Rolston, op. cit. (both papers); Heffernan James, ‘The Land Ethic: A Critical Reappraisal’, Environmental Ethics 4 (1982): 235247.

9 Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2nd ed. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), 9.

10 Singer Peter, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 279.

11 Rolston (‘Respect for Life’, op. cit.) is also quite explicit about the fact that Singer is looking for the value of nonsentient living things – and failing to find any – in what I am calling the ‘wrong place’; however, as indicated, Rolston addresses this issue in a quite different way to the way in which I will below.

12 The term ‘cohere’ means to cling, hold, stick, or adhere together; from Latin cohaerēre, from co- together + haerēre to cling, adhere. The term responsive derives from the Latin rēsponsum answer. Thus, the term responsive cohesion can also be thought of as referring to a structure or form of organization that holds by virtue of the mutual ‘answering to each other’ of its elements or salient features.

13 Goodpaster, op. cit., 68, has made a similar suggestion.

14 Other things are not equal – and we modify our judgments of value accordingly – when a particular example of responsive cohesion (e.g. a deadly virus, an assassin, or an invasive species) causes certain kinds of harm to selves or other sentient beings or, especially, works against wider, contextual examples of responsive cohesion. I will briefly discuss these matters – including the kinds of priority rules that apply in these situations – in the final section of this paper. Suffice to say for now, however, that these kinds of examples do not tell against the responsive cohesion thesis but rather speak to its explanatory power when its full implications are developed; when it is advanced, in other words, from being a bare bones ‘thesis’ to a full-blown ‘theory’ (on which, see my A Theory of General Ethics, op. cit., for the fullest expression of the ‘theory of responsive cohesion’).

15 Fox, op. cit., see esp. ch. 4; Williamson Terry, Radford Antony, and Bennetts Helen, Understanding Sustainable Architecture (London: Spon Press, 2003); Radford Anthony, ‘Responsive Cohesion as the Foundational Value in Architecture’, The Journal of Architecture 14 (2009): 511532; Radford Anthony, ‘Urban Design, Ethics, and Responsive Cohesion’, Building Research and Information 38 (2010): 379389; Brook Isis, ‘The Virtues of Gardening’, in O'Brien Dan, ed., Gardening – Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom (London: Wiley, 2010), 1324. For examinations of the applicability of these ideas to areas such as (environmentally-oriented) aesthetics and political theory, see, respectively: John Brown, ‘Responsive Cohesion and the Value of Wild Nature’, paper presented to Canadian Society for Aesthetics Annual Meeting, Vancouver, June 2008: Hugh McCullough, ‘An Examination of Warwick Fox's Notion of Responsive Cohesion and its Relevance for Environmental Theory’, paper presented to the Western Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Vancouver, 18–20 March 2009:

16 For example, Korsgaard Christine (‘Two Distinctions in Goodness’, Philosophical Review 92 [1983): 169195) argues that the common distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value actually conflates two distinctions that should be kept separate (those between instrumental and final value on the one hand and intrinsic and extrinsic value on the other) and is thus an ill-posed distinction in the first place, while O'Neill John draws attention to ‘The Varieties of Intrinsic Value’ in his paper by that name in The Monist 75 (1992): 119137.

17 Day Christopher, Places of the Soul: Architecture and Environmental Design as a Healing Art (London: Thorsons/HarperCollins, 1990), 18.

18 For an enlightening discussion of the principle normative concepts in conservation biology of ‘ecosystem health’, ‘biodiversity’, and ‘biological integrity’, see Callicott J. Baird, Crowder Larry, and Mumford Karen, ‘Current Normative Concepts in Conservation’, Conservation Biology 13 (1999): 2235.

19 I offer formal reasons for ‘carving nature at its joints’ in this way in A Theory of General Ethics, op. cit. In the context of that more detailed level of discussion I formally refer to the ecological, human-social, and human-constructed realms as the ‘biophysical realm’, the ‘mindsharing realm’, and the ‘compound material realm’, respectively.

20 Moore Chris and Lemmon Karen, eds, The Self in Time: Developmental Processes (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001); Fox, op. cit., chs 6–8; Markowitsch Hans and Welzer Harald, The Development of Autobiographical Memory (New York: Psychology Press, 2010).

21 See the extended argument that runs through Fox, op. cit., chs 5–8.

22 As this formulation suggests, the guidance that issues from the full-blown theory of responsive cohesion that informs this paper (for which, see Fox, op. cit.) is couched in agent-relative as opposed to agent-neutral terms. This theory also issues in a range of more nuanced constraints in regard to selves and other sentient beings than these two basic constraints suggest. However, I have been primarily concerned in this paper with offering a different way of approaching the main ideas in this theory to the one I offered in A Theory of General Ethics – couched in terms of the contrast between internal and external perspectives – and can otherwise do no more than lay out the bare bones of this theory within the limits imposed by this paper.

23 I have been arguing for some time that just as the nonhuman world has constituted a major blind spot in theorizing associated with traditional, anthropocentrically focused forms of ethics, so the human-constructed environment has constituted a major blind spot in theorizing associated with the development of environmental ethics to date; see, for example: ‘Introduction: Ethics and the Built Environment’, in Fox Warwick, ed., Ethics and the Built Environment (London: Routledge, 2000), 112; A Theory of General Ethics, op. cit.; ‘Architecture Ethics’, in Olsen Jan-Kyrre Berg, Pedersen Stig, and Hendricks Vincent, eds, A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 387–91; ‘Developing a General Ethics (with Particular Reference to the Built, or Human-Constructed, Environment)’, in Keller David, ed., Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions, (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 213220.

24 Turner Graham, ‘A Comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 Years of Reality’, Global Environmental Change 18 (2008): 397411.

I am grateful to Isis Brook, Simon Hailwood, and Antony Radford for discussions relating to the theory of responsive cohesion.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements
  • ISSN: 1358-2461
  • EISSN: 1755-3555
  • URL: /core/journals/royal-institute-of-philosophy-supplements
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 5
Total number of PDF views: 26 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 118 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 17th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.