Priority Principles (and Duties) of

Taylor's Biocentric Egalitarian Individualism


1.       Question: How should we treat nonhuman organisms? Most poignantly, if nonhuman organisms have inherent worth equal to humans, how are we to resolve conflicts between them and us?


2.       Taylor's Biocentrism involves the following prima facie (i.e., overridable) duties and moral rules:

          a.       Non-maleficence: Don't harm organisms--a negative duty to refrain from harming; not a positive duty to assist. (Positive assistance would undermine their wild integrity.)

          b.       Non-interference: Leave them alone; a hands-off policy toward nature--opposed to management of wild nature; accepts that, in a sense, nothing goes wrong in wild nature.

                    i.        Worry: Can Taylor's individualistic biocentrism justify such a claim? Is respect for natural systems (ecocentric holism) necessary to ground this obligation?

3.       Taylor is well aware that humans must harm other organisms and interfere with their lives in order to live and thrive. Thus Taylor proposes the following principles to help guide us when interacting in harmful ways with nonhumans:



5.       Self-defense:

          a.       One can defend oneself against harmful or dangerous organisms that threaten one's life and basic health.

          b.       Since they don't have more inherent worth than we do, we aren't required to sacrifice our lives for theirs.

          c.       Self-defense is compatible with species neutrality (we can defend ourselves against other humans as well, including human innocents).

          d.       The justifiability of self-defense depends on trying to avoid situations of conflict and using the least harmful method to defend ourselves.

6.       Minimum Wrong:

          a.       We must achieve our goals in the least costly manner possible by pursuing our interests in a way that minimizes the number of wrongs done to other organisms.

          b.       For example, one should build a library or highway in a way that minimizes the number of trees that must be removed (killed).

          c.       In cases where the principle of minimum wrong applies, restitution is required.

                    i.        To make up for the wrong done to the trees one could, for example, plant trees of the same species or permanently preserve habitat in which such trees flourish.

7.       Restitutive Justice:

          a.       Make amends for wrongs done to other organisms by, for example, permanently setting aside wildlands.

          b.       To restore the balance of justice between humans and other living things after we have harmed them to benefit ourselves, we must make amends by proportionally compensating them: the greater the harm done, the greater the compensation required.

          c.       For example, lumber companies (perhaps) have greater duties of restitutive justice than do computer software companies and an individual who clears land to build a house has greater duties of compensation than does a person who kills a dozen insects while driving to work.

          d.       Generally, those with less consumptive lifestyles owe less in restitution to nature than do those who consume more and thus are harder on the earth.

          e.       Since all in modern society have benefitted (at least indirectly) from the wholesale destruction of other organisms, we all have a duty--as a matter of justice--to support preserving and restoring wildlands.

                    i.        Giving to the Nature Conservancy, for example, is not charity but a moral duty of restitutive justice.

          f.       Worries: Is this restitution to individuals or to a species? Can individualism justify restitution?

8.       Distributive Justice:

          a.       Seek to achieve a fair (=equal?) sharing (distribution) of the planet's resources between humans and nonhumans; when not fully achievable, pay restitution.

          b.       For example, preserve a significant amount of the earth's surface as wildlife habitat or when using water from a river, leave some of it in the river for the animals, plants, and other organisms that use that habitat.

          c.       Taylor's environmentalist argument for vegetarianism is based on distributive justice

                    i.        If plants are as important as animals, which should we eat?

                    ii.       Taylor sees the morality of eating as a question of distributive justice (fair sharing of the planet's resources with other creatures).

                    iii.      Since nourishing ourselves by eating vegetables directly requires much less surface of the earth than does growing the vegetables, feeding them to animals, and then eating the animals (a highly inefficient way to get our protein), respect for nature requires a vegetarian diet (despite the equal inherent worth of plants and animals).

                    iv.      The reduction in cultivated land that would be achieved by moving from a meat-eating to a vegetarian culture would help achieve a more equal sharing of the planet with other organisms.


          a.       Avoid behavior that is intrinsically incompatible with respect for nature: One may never act in a purely exploitative way that treats other organisms as having merely instrumental value.

                    i.        An example of behavior which is purely exploitative and thus intrinsically incompatible with respect for nature is slaughtering elephants in order to use the ivory in their tusks as piano keys (see p. 204, original numbering, of the reading for Taylor's list examples)

          b.       Taylor permits sacrifice of basic interests of nonhumans to non-basic interests of humans, in some circumstances

                    i.        Taylor allows us to sacrifice the basic interests (life, health) of nonhuman organisms for the less basic (but significant) interests of humans (education, transportation, energy) as long as those interests are "intrinsically compatible with respect for nature" (and if we also satisfy the principles of minimum wrong, distributive justice, and restitutive justice).

                    ii.       For example, he would allow destroying habitat in order to build a library. (For other examples, see his list on p. 205 of original.)

          c.       Worry: Is such a tradeoff compatible with the view that nonhuman and human organisms have equal inherent worth?

Study questions on Taylor’s Priority Principles

1.           What is a prima facie duty? Give examples. What is the opposite of a prima facie duty? Are there any such duties?

2.           How would Taylor respond to the objection that if plants and animals have inherent worth equal to humans, then it follows that we ought to allow an advancing bear to eat us and should not kill bacteria that are making us sick?

3.           What conditions does Taylor think we must we meet before we can defend ourselves against other organisms? Is it ever morally permissible to harm (or even kill) innocents in self defense?

4.           What is restitutive justice? Give an example of a situation that Taylor thinks calls for restitutive justice and then give an example of a way of meeting the demands of restitutive justice. Does Taylor think giving to the Nature Conservancy is a matter of charity? Using an example, explain how proportionality is relevant to Taylor's principle of restitutive justice.

5.           What is "distributive justice" according to Taylor. What does it mean in terms of our relations to nonhumans?

6.           Explain Taylor's view on the morality of eating. Is he for or against vegetarianism? Does he think that it doesn't matter whether we eat animals or plants (since they have equal inherent worth)? How does his principle of distributive justice relate to this issue?

7.           In order to live, must all living things consume other living organisms? Why or why not? (Hint: Think about plant life.) Are there ways humans can feed themselves without killing other organisms? If there are (were), do you think we should try to do this?

8.           Using examples, explain Taylor's distinction between a basic and a nonbasic (or less basic) interest.

9.           Does Taylor ever think it is morally permissible for us to sacrifice the basic interests of a nonhuman for the nonbasic interests of a human? If so, under what conditions and why? If not, why not? Is Taylor's answer to this question compatible with his idea that humans and nonhumans have equal inherent worth?