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Presidential Address, September 18, 1996

International Society for the Systems Siences

40th Anniversary Meeting Budapest


Groundwork for a Biospheric Systems Ethics


We have arrived at a watershed in the history of humanity. Given current trends in demography, resource consumption, militarization, lifestyle and wealth-disparities, and the degeneration of the environment, our future on this planet is no longer assured. While on the one hand we could pave the way toward a system of social, economic, and political organization that is peaceful and capable of ensuring an adequate level of sustainability of the human Iife-supporting environment, on the other we could find ourselves on a descending path toward growing social, political and environmental crises and possibly catastrophes. The choice at this point of bifurcation is still open. It merits further reflection.

Opting toward a positive scenario calls for an improved set of behaviors. This in turn requires a set of moral codes accepted by people and assimilated in their everyday life. Moral codes themselves repose on a foundation of ethics, whether consciously formulated or not. Since the time is short and the choice pressing, a conscious formulation of an adequate ethics is a high priority: it could accelerate the discussion, and eventually the acceptance, of a suitable set of moral codes for responsibly guiding human behavior.

What kind of ethics do we require? It needs to be one that can provide general guidelines for the interaction of people with people, and people with nature. As such, it needs to have a view of the whole system in which humans live their lives and pursue their activities. This means an ethics of the whole-system of planetary existence: a biospheric systems ethics. In the following I shall try to formulate some of the principles in which such an ethics could be grounded.

In the field of ethical theory the closest branch to biospheric systems ethics is the branch of environmental ethics that goes under the name of ecological ethics. As ecology is always a system it requires systemic treatment. This branch of ethics has now become a respected academic discipline. This is a positive development, for a sound ecological ethics aims at harmonizing the rhythms and dynamics of nature with the rhythms, dynamics, and conscious or unwitting effects of human life and society on nature.

Hence, at its best, an ecological ethics is an ethics of sustainable human impact on the biosphere. It provides a platform on which a biospheric whole-system ethics could be constructed.

Ecological ethics: the state of the art Ecological ethics is a new discipline. For virtually the entire duration of Western intellectual history ethical discussion failed to manifest a direct concern with obligations that humans might have toward the natural environment. This unconcern extended even to other living things, such as plants and animals. Their value was seen mainly in reference to the values entertained by humans. Thus, at the most, plants and animals were seen to have an indirect, instrumental value, according to whether they contributed to, or detracted from, the realization of humanly held values.

Ethical commitments and moral obligations tested on a person-to-person basis: people as individuals-have ethical commitments to family, friends, and fellow-citizens; together they constitute a moral community with acknowledged obligations to each other. Ethical discourse has also been extended to other communities: a moral community has ethical commitments not only to its own members, but to similarly constituted communities elsewhere. Ultimately, with the advent of the debate on responsibility to future generations, ethical commitments have been extended to human communities across time and not only space.

But the environment of human communities was not included in the range of ethical commitments.

At the most, certain elements of it were seen to have a derivative value, inasmuch as they contributed to the health, well-being, or social and spiritual fulfillment of human beings, the sole subjects of ethical discourse. For Western common sense, such an instrumental approach to nature made eminent sense. The carrier of value, it was said, is only the human for he or she alone has a conscious mind where values can be entertained, and hence satisfied or frustrated.

Instrumental value approaches to the environment dominated up to the 1970s, when ecological ethics emerged as a bona fide academic discipline. The questions moral philosophers posed in regard to the environment concerned mainly its relevance to humans. This extended even to endangered species. The rose-colored periwinkle, for example, is a plant in danger of extinction on Madagascar, but the morality of this situation', as Timothy Weiskel noted, is typically assessed in terms of the periwinkle's use as source of a natural anti-carcinogen (Weiskel, 1990.

However, philosophers have also discussed another kind of value, known as intrinsic value. Traditionally, intrinsic values have been assigned only to humans: human life, as Kant made clear, must never be considered a means to something else but always an end in itself. By the 1980s, a number of moral philosophers began to question whether intrinsic values must be limited to humans. A few insisted that- not only ourselves and our fellowhumans, but other things around us must be valued in and for themselves.

With the advent of deep ecology, instrumental value approaches to nonhuman nature were insistently replaced by the attribution of intrinsic values.

However, current theories offering an intrinsic valuation of nature are not free of problems. We can group the principal types of arguments according to whether they attribute intrinsic value to non-hurnans on the ground that they are sentient, that they are alive, or that they form integrated wholes (Fox 1996).

The first-named approach limits intrinsic value to those entities that one holds to be sentient. The reasoning is that only sentient beings can be hurt, and we know from our own experience that sentient beings do not like to be hurt. On the premise of reciprocity in sentient-being relations, we should realize that if we want other sentient beings not to hurt us, we should not hurt them. The reasoning is transparent, but it raises the problem of where to draw the line - just what does the category of sentient beings include? Humans are sentient, and dogs and cats seem to be that, but are plants and insects sentient? And what about entire species and populations, and ecologies - could not such systems have a form of sentience as well?

An analogous problem crops up when moral philosophers extend intrinsic values to all creatures that are alive. If we define life as the property of an entity to set and pursue goals, we must consider that there are manmade entities that do just that. Would we not need to include all goalseeking systems, such as computers and all sorts of automated systems and even guided missiles, in the category of entities to which we attribute intrinsic value? And would we not need to exclude, in turn, species, populations, ecologies, and other collective systems on the grounds that they themselves are not living - and hence, a fortierori, not sentient?

The third alternative, called the holistic integrity approach (Fox 1994), comes closest to a biospheric systems ethics. This approach overcomes many of the above problems insofar as it distinguishes entities on the basis of their whole-system integrity, rather than in reference to particular properties such as sentience or life.

But in the form in which this approach has been formulated in the recent literature, it raises problems of its own. Holistic integrity-based ecological ethics provides warrant for the undifferentiated valuation of all holistically integral systems without regard to their states, functions, and manifest qualities. This has the vexing entailment of attributing intrinsic value to the status quo. When the argument is pressed to its logical conclusion, we find ourselves with an ethics of adaptation. This, however, is not satisfactory. The fact is that the way many integrated systems in the world are presently constituted, and the way they are functioning, is far from optimal. Adapting to it would mean adapting to imperfect, and possibly seriously flawed, systems.

The world around us is not only significantly sub-optimal, it may also evolve into less and less optimal states in the future. Adapting to the status quo through an indiscriminate valuation of holistically integral entities as presently constituted would not be in the best interest of human beings, or even of other integrated systems in nature.

The holistic integrity approach is built on a sound premise, but it is incomplete. In a biospheric systems ethics we have to add further conditions for the attribution of value to people and to things.

Premises of a biospheric systems ethics In a biospheric systems ethics we attribute intrinsic value to integrated entities that arise, subsist, and evolve as part of a natural process (here we define as natural a process that is largely - even if not completely independent of conscious human design and implementation). Thus the kind of entity to which we attribute intrinsic value is a “natural system.”

Evidently, not all things in the world around us are natural systems - if they were, the definition would lose all meaning. Entities that are not natural systems fall into one of two categories. Either they are directly relevant to the subsistence and evolution of some natural system, or they are largely immaterial in this regard. The former can be considered an element in the relevant environment of a natural system, and the latter not. To entities that form part of the relevant environment of a natural system we can assign instrumental value. This value is relative - and hence proportional - to the given entity's functional relation to one or more natural systems. By contrast, to entities that do not directly serve the subsistence requirements of natural systems no specific value needs to be attributed.

Biospheric systems ethics' repertory of values thus includes intrinsic value, attributed to natural systems (that is, to integrated entities that arise, subsist, and evolve largely independently of conscious human planning and execution), and instrumental value, ascribed to entities that make up the relevant environment of natural systems.

The question we need to consider is how to identify the entities that qualify for the predicate 'natural system.“

Clearly the universe in its totality is a natural system for it arises, subsists, and evolves coherently, yet independently of human intentions. (The strong version of the “anthropic principle” would disagree.)

Based on the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, this principle claims that the existence of the universe depends on our acts of observation [Barrow and Tipler, 1986].). However, identifying the universe in its totality as a natural system while perhaps acceptable metaphysics, is too inclusive in regard to an ethics that could give rise to a practical code of moral behavior. It needs to be further specified.

A first limitation on the concept of the universe as a natural system is consideration of the biosphere as such a system. Physicists show that the entire biosphere is a thermodynamically open system, fed with free energy or negative entropy - from the Sun. Were the energy differential between the surface of the Sun (appr. 6,000 C) and the surface of the Earth (about 25 C) ever to equalize, only worms and clams at the bottom of the deepest oceans could survive for any appreciable amount of time. Plants use sunlight in photosynthesis, converting water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates; animals eat plants and other animals, and humans at the top of the food chain eat both plants and animals. The solar irradiation “drives” this thermodynamic system, structuring it so as to store ever more of the ambient free energy.

As a result, as ecologists well know, the web of life on Earth has distinct systemic properties. All elements are related to all others, and changes in one propagate at some level throughout the whole. Systems theory, more specifically its branch known as general evolution theory, discloses that the entire system moves sequentially, though periodically strongly nonlinearly, toward a state characterized by a higher level of free-energy density and greater information-content, and hence decreasing specific entropy (Laszlo 1996).

The biosphere as a whole is a natural system, but without further specification it is still too vast a system to permit the derivation of practical codes for moral behavior. One can, however, make further distinctions as regard sub-biospheric entities. Some of these entities are, and others are not, natural systems,. Of the entities that populate our world, those integrated entities can be identified as natural systems that owe their existence to processes of human volition-independent evolution. The relevant set includes the members of all living species and and populations, Hence it includes human beings individually.

There is a question, however, whether the category of natural systems also includes humans collectively. After all, groups of humans have conscious, volitional members, and they may form integrated entities of their own. Are these entities the result of the conscious, volitional actions of their members? Because if so, they would come into the category of artificial rather than natural systems., They would then be excluded from the set of entities qualifying for the attribution of intrinsic value.

Yet, on deeper analysis, human groups of a certain variety do qualify for intrinsic value-attribution. Despite the fact that their members are individually conscious beings, historically formed and ongoingly existing sociocultural communities are not the outcome of conscious volitional acts. They are not intentionally organized systems, even if they are the joint outcome of a large number of intentional actions and behaviors. The latter are seldom designed to consciously organize a society, and even when so designed, may be mistaken in regard to the actual effects. In consequence historical sociocultural systems subsist, evolve, or degenerate largely independently of the conscious intentional designs and activities of its human members, even if they are affected - and on occasion strongly affected - by such designs and activities (Laszlo 1996).

In this groundwork for a biospheric systems ethics, human beings as well as historical communities qualify for the attribution of intrinsic value. That does not mean, however, that all things in the biospheric environment so qualify. Significantly, natural systems are not the only kind of entities we find in our world. There is a multitude of atoms and molecules that are not integrated in the functional structure of living systems and of the biosphere: they make up the atmosphere and the oceans, the rivers, lakes, soils, mountains and deserts of the globe. Together with the Sun - which provides the free energy that drives the planet's life processes - they constitute the physical environment of the biosphere and its subsystems. Consequently they qualify for the attribution of instrumental value.

The question may now be asked, what entities are there that are neither natural systems, nor the environment of such systems? Given that the biosphere is a thoroughly integrated system interacting with its physical environment, there are no such entities on the surface of the Earth. There are entities of this kind, however, within the deep layers beneath the Earth's crust, and out in interstellar space. Their identification exceeds the scope of this paper, however.

Summarizing: In a biospheric systems ethics we attribute intrinsic value to the web of life that has evolved on this planet; and also to the things, from algae to ecologies and human beings and societies, that have emerged in that web and now forma part of it. We attribute instrumental value to the physical environment of the web of life, including the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the geosphere, in view of the resources and conditions they provide for the subsistence and evolution of the biosphere and its natural subsystems.

The derivation of practical behavioral codes The above concepts of value have application in practice: they define and validate the morality of a particular set of behaviors. This function has been traditionally filled by religion, for example, by the Ten Commandments for Jews and Christians, and the Rules of Right Livelihood for Buddhists. Today, however, the power of religious-doctrine-based codes for behavior has been diminished by the advance of science as a dominant force in modern society.

Yet, even if science has displaced religion as a source of authority in the minds of modern people, scientists have not come up with alternative moral codes. There have been a few attempts, however: Saint-Simon in the late 1700s, Auguste Compte in the early 1800s, and Emile Durkheim in the late 1800s and early 1900s were at pains to develop a set of “positive” - that is, scientific observation- and experiment-based - codes for moral behavior. But the endeavor as a whole was so opposed to the underlying philosophy of 20th century science that it never progressed beyond the stage of personal statements by maverick scientists and philosophers. .

By the late 1900s, however, the need for a scientifically founded moral code has been sufficiently pronounced to impel a reconsideration of its feasibility. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Parliament of the World's Religions convening in Chicago in 1993, noted “There will be no better global order without a global ethic.” (Parliament of the World's Religions, 1993) More surprisingly, The Union of Concerned Scientists was of the same opinion. “A new ethic is required,” claimed the statement signed in April of 1993 by 1670 scientists from 71 countries, an ethic which “must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes.” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1993)

To convince modern people to adopt behaviors appropriate to the conditions of the present epoch - something which many may well be reluctant to do - a set of authoritative moral codes is required. Such a set cannot come from the religions alone; they must come from the domain of scientific theory and observation. As a step in this direction, this paper takes up the challenge of outlining a set of moral codes based on premises that build on scientific insights regarding the nature,and the conditions, of life on this planet.

The moral code we contemplate bridges the classical “is/ought” gap by combining the “is” of natural systems and their environments with the .,.,ought” of their valuation. This may appear to be an arbitrary step; however, human beings are valuing systems, and they are goal-oriented. A basic goal is their individual and species survival. It is logical, then, to require that their valuations be consistent with their goals.

The moral code we require thus respond to the query: how do we act so as to satisfy our valuation of natural systems? More precisely, what kind of behavior is consistent with the intrinsic valuation of natural systems, and the instrumental valuation of their physical environment?


We distinguish two types of moral codes.

One is a maximum code: it commits individuals to goals that are critically significant for the sustainability of the intrinsically valued systems that populate the biosphere.

The other is a minimum code: it requires that, at the least, individuals observe certain rules as regards their impact on the intrinsically and instrumentally valued systems in their milieu.

In a first approximation we can state the maximum-code as follows: act so as to maximize the sustained persistence of the biosphere. The code coincides with basic tenets of the holistic integrity variety of ecological ethics: it asks us to take care of nature and adapt ourself to its patterns, refraining from reducing biodiversity, disturbing natural balances, and modifying or destroying catalytical energy- and information-flows.

In a biospheric systems ethics, however, more is involved than maximizing the sustainabihty of the natural systems that make up the subsystems of the biosphere as they are presently constituted. In any but the shortest term, the biosphere and its subsystems are likely to undergo structural and functional changes, some piecemeal and linear, others more radical and nonlinear. Moral behavior calls for adapting not to the current state, but to the foreseeable evolution, of the systems. We should rephrase the maximum-code so as to state: act so as to anticipate, and by adapting maximize the chances of, the evolution of the biosphere.

On a second look, even this modified maximum code turns out to be flawed. This is because the evolutionary process has an unsettling feature: it is constantly accelerating. Not only have more and more forms of life evolved in the course of the last 3.5 billion years, also the rate at which they have evolved has been speeding up. Over half of evolutionary time was taken up with the advance from the stage of non-nucleated procaryotes to that of nucleated eucaryotes; thereafter it took evolution but half that time to reach the level of fish. At the succeeding steps time intervals between the major evolutionary steps have constantly shortened. While some segments of the living world achieved a form of balance with their environment and ceased evolving, the overall advance of the evolutionary wave accelerated stage after stage. The Archeozoic lasted from 3.5 to 4.5 billion to about 2 billion years before our time; the Proterozoic began 2 to 2.5 billion years ago, and gave way to the Paleozoic little more than half a billion years ago. The Mesozoic dates from about 200 to 250 million years, and the Cenozoic Systems began some 65 to 70 million years before the advent of Homo.

Then evolution took off to another dimension of time. The Miocene Epoch is about 25 million years in the past, the Lower Pleistocene of the Quartemary began 1.6 million years, the Middle 750,000 years, and the Upper but 125,000 years before our time. Hominid creatures appeared during the Holocene (or Recent) epoch, though our lineage may have diverged from other hominoid species much before then. Organized societies with rites de passage, writing, and other practices that we qualify as cultural have appeared about 20,000 years ago; the first varieties of plants and animals were domesticated eight to ten thousand years before our time, and the great empires of the Middle and Far East appeared a few thousand years later.

At the dawn of the modem age the evolutionary process was further accelerated by ever more powerful human interventions. By the 20th century, driven by newly discovered energy sources, first steam and then coal, oil, and natural gas, and impelled by the new technologies for processing, storing and transmitting information, the rate of transformation in societal evolution became vertiginous.

It is difficult to see how humans, with a physiology governed by a brain and nervous system that evolved a hundred thousand or more years in the past, could keep pace with a continuation of this trend. Promoting it, even in the modest sense of making it relatively smooth, is likely to be at best a temporary measure. Sooner or later the processes of evolutionary transformation would accelerate beyond the capacity of flesh-and-bone humans to keep up. A range of ecological catastrophes could be triggered, and ultimately our species may join the ranks of the over 99 percent of organic species that had become extinct since the Cambrian.

Upon due reflection we must come to the conclusion that even more needs to be done than to anticipate, and by adapting maximize the chances of, the further unfolding of the evolutionary process. The indicated maximumcode must aim at stabilizing the process, and doing so at a humanly favorable level.

This code may appear to be unduly anthropocentric. Instead of respecting the evolution of natural processes themselves, it aims to intervene in them in the human interest. Is this not a restatement of the classical, and now largely discredited, Baconian approach to nature?

The indisputably anthropocentric, but perhaps not unduly and unacceptably so. It rests on the consideration that as a species we have the natural capability, and hence the natural right, to exercise our drives for species survival. Doing so is defensible as long as it does not interfere with the similar capability (and right) of other species. Respecting the maximum code would largely (if not completely) satisfy this proviso. Interventions that seek to establish a form of dynamic balance in the biosphere that is hospitable to humans and favorable to their well-being are likely to involve safeguarding most (though not all) the species and ecologies that exist in that system. In the systems perspective what is good for humans, is good - with at the most a very few exceptions - for non-humans as well.

The definitive formulation of the maximum code can thus read: act so as to maximize the chances of reaching, and then sustaining, a humanly favorable dynamic equilibrium in the evolution of the biosphere.


The maximum code not only calls for respect for all natural systems; it calls for appropriate behavior by human beings. On the one hand, the optimum state sustainability of the biosphere - its dynamic stability at a humanly favorable level - requires a thorough restructuring of human relations to the physical environment, transforming them from the currently unsustainable to a long-term sustainable mode. On the other it requires a transformation of the operative structures and aims of human societies so as to permit their peaceful and productive coexistence.

These requirements entail a large number of decisive actions. They suggest major transformation in the behaviors of nation-states as well as business corporations and private individuals. The gap between rich and poor nations, and between rich and poor people within nations is still growing. Hundreds of millions are without work; a thousand million or more are exploited by poor wages; three thousand million are forced into growing poverty. Though the world community is at the same time relieved of the specter of superpower confrontation and threatened by ecological crises, national governments still spend a thousand billion dollars a year on arms and the military and only a tiny fraction of this sum on education and welfare programs, development aid, and the safeguarding of a livable environment.

Chances of a turn-around of the dominant trends taking place through a globally orchestrated change in moral behavior are slim. Consequently the maximum code, though important as a goal and an ideal, is utopian as a practical guide to action. It needs to be complemented with a more practicable behavioral code.

This means adding a “floor” to the maximumcode “ceiling” for moral behavior. This floor is to function as the minimum code for moral behavior: the sine qua non of any action that is to qualify as moral.

The maximum code, I suggest, is an updated variant of the classical laissez-faire tenet, “live and let live.” The classical tenet itself is outdated: in an interdependent and increasingly crowded and resource-depleted planet, letting people live in any way they may wish is not morally feasible. The rich and the mighty would consume a disproportionate share of the planet's resources, and prevent access to vital resources for others.

Instead, we should formulate the minimum code as follows: live so as to allow others to live as well.

Here we take our cue from Kant's categorical imperative: “act so as to allow your action to become a universal maxim.” In the context of a biospheric systems ethics the minimum code says that it is imperative that all people should act in a way that could be replicated by any and all other people without pushing the evolution of the biosphere beyond the threshold of humanly favorable dynamic stability.

Though this is a minimum code for individual and collective behavior, acting in accordance with it is still far from easy. The relatively privileged strata of society live in a way that the less privileged strata could not duplicate - the planet has neither the resources nor the carrying capacity for all people to drive private cars, live in separate homes, adopt a meat-based diet, and use the myriad gadgets and appliances that go with the lifestyle of the affluent.

Changes are also called for on the part of the less privileged: they, in turn, must cease to emulate - or try to emulate - the lifestyle's of the rich. It would not be enough for Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and Australians to reduce harmful emissions and economize on energy if the Chinese people and those of the rest of the developing world acquired Western driving and consumer habits and continued to burn coal for electricity and wood for cooking.

Moral behavior in accordance with the minimum code “live so as to allow other people to live as well' is not the privilege of the powerful, nor the constraint of the powerless. It is the responsibility of all.

In the fifth century B.C., Lao-tzu wrote,

One's individual life serves as an example for other individuals; one's family serves as a model for other families; one's community serves as a standard for other communities; one's state serves as a measure for other states; and one's country serves as an ideal for all countries (Tao -te-Ching,).

The minimum code is to ensure that the example set by one individual is worthy of becoming a standard, a measure, and perhaps an ideal for all the others.


Given the technical and scientific means at our disposal, the maximum and the minimum code for moral behavior, if embraced and acted upon, could ensure a reasonable chance of achieving a sustainable and humanly favorable dynamic equilibrium in the bio-sphere of the planet.

The minimum code would defuse resentment and animosity arising from uneven levels of economic development; it would reduce the potential for conflict based on illegalities in lifestyles and resource consumption. The maximum code, in turn, would create an impetus to move purposefully to the next plateau of dynamic equilibrium between human societies and their biospheric life-support systems.

In the final analysis the minimum code would create breathing space, buying time for the necessary behavioral changes, while the maximum code would offer an ideal to strive for when attempting to carry out such changes.

Jonas Salk pointed out that, now that we have become conscious of evolution, we should make evolution itself conscious. A biospheric systems ethics could make a small but perhaps not insignificant, contribution toward this paramount aim.


BarTow?, John D. and Tipler, Frank J. 1986. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. New YorkOxford? University Press.

Fox, Warwick. 19946. A Critical Overview of Environmental Ethics. World Futures 46:1-2.

Laszlo, Ervin 1996. Evolution: The General Theory. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Laszlo, Ervin 1994.The Choice: Evolution or Extinction. New York and Los Angeles:Tarcher/ Putnam.

Parliament of the World's Religions 1993. Towards a Global Ethic. Council of the Parliament of the World's Religions, August 28-September 5, 1993,.

The Union of Concerned Scientists 1993. World Scientists' Warning to Humanity. April 1993.

Weiskel, Timothy C. 1990. Environmental ethics: converging views on a small planet. The Winter Colloquium Series, The Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies, 31 January 1990.

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