What is called "an ecosystem" may vary from a fallen log with its insect fauna and fungi living on the dead material to the environment of an entire planet with all its organisms and nonliving elements. Thus there are good reasons to doubt the usefulness of the term ecosystem, especially because of the vagueness of environment when ecosystem is defined as functioning whole of an ecological community and its environment. An ecosystem is said to be a system formed by the interaction of all living beings with their physical and chemical environment, but at least on Earth complete isolation seems hardly possible, and therefore the area in which living beings interact is probably never entirely self-contained and restricted. Yet, for our purpose the extent of ecosystems in itself need not interest us here (so long as it is not taken in such a broad sense that an ecosystem can never be killed or destroyed). What does deserve our special attention here is that the so-called 'life' of an ecosystem and the lives of its individual, living members are two basically different quantities. (Incidentally, when individuating living beings one will run in much the same problems as when individuating ecosystems.)

A well-functioning ecosystem requires that certain of its members die, be eaten or be killed. Therefore, the preservation of the life of the ecosystem conflicts with the preservation of the lives of certain of its members. Maybe, the number of plants and animals which must die in this way is the minimum number which has to die anyhow. If the whole ecosystem withered away, or were ruined, many more plants and animals would die. The death of the one living being in an ecosystem is simply prerequisite for the survival of the other. But what if life has a value, albeit a derivative one on our account? Obviously, if the life of an ecosystem has a value, the lives of living beings are looked upon from an identity-independent standpoint. On the other hand, if the lives of living beings are looked upon from an identity-dependent standpoint, then an ecosystem itself has no life with a value of its own. All living beings in an ecosystem are replaceable, not only in the physical and biological sense but also in the normative sense of an identity-independent principle of life.

Those who do not like the idea of replaceability may now argue that ecosystems are 'individuals' in their own right, and that it is accordingly an identity-dependent principle which furnishes ecosystems with their own value. To do this, however, is to acknowledge two different principles of life (fundamental or derivative), both identity-dependent, but the one concerned with the lives of ecosystems and the other with those of individual, living beings. The disadvantage of this maneuver is that the two principles may easily conflict, and that then the life of an individual, living being is due to be sacrificed to the ends of the ecosystem. Nonetheless, in the relation to external agents, such as people or human beings, it is certainly an asset to both ecosystems and living beings that it is recognized that their existence as living systems or beings is of worth. The question is then what their value would be based upon.

If all living beings have a value which no nonliving beings possess, this must have something to do with their capacity to react to stimuli, their capacity to grow and multiply or their metabolism. Yet, since this capacity for self-determination or autonomy is a modal notion it is absurd to suggest that this capacity itself would be a perfective instead of instrumental value. And if ecosystems have a value of their own (not derived from their value for individual living beings), this must have something to do with their adequate functioning or with the structure of their members' interactions. But as an ultimate end in itself there is nothing valuable in reacting (or being capable of reacting) to stimuli, growing, multiplying or interacting. A system which functions well may be a stable or creative system, it may also be a destructive one. It could be a well-functioning, human-made destroyer or a healthy beast of prey. The sole thing left over is that the typical features of ecosystems and living beings are of instrumental value for, or indicative of, something else. To say that living beings have interests and that their capacities serve these interests will, then, not help. This is merely another way of saying that living beings have a value of their own, or that they need what is good for their well-being. Moreover, ecosystems could hardly be said to have interests in any literal sense. (If interest means right, title or share in something, it is most patently begging the question to start from the proposition that all living beings have interests which no nonliving being has.) To say that it is the good or well-being of living things which count, may be true, but good and well-being are then purely evaluative terms without conceptual content and need first to be filled in --as we have already done in the case of happiness-catenal beings--.

From our neutralistic standpoint it is obvious that if ecosystems and living beings do have a value (as ecosystems and living beings), it is because they are systems which somehow preserve stability or which somehow maintain an equilibrium. This presupposes, however, that the stability preserved, or the equilibrium maintained, is not itself unneutral in an important respect (and, if possible, not in any respect). But then, it is not exceptional in nature either that one equilibrium is succeeded by another equilibrium which is better in a certain way. For stability and harmony are typical of nature, except for the not seldom fatal transitions from the one stable state to the next stable state (which, naturally, makes the idea tautologous). What is true nevertheless, is that 'life' (both that of an ecosystem and that of an individual living being) is of value, even of supreme intrinsic value, if, and insofar as, it is characterized by harmony, equilibrium and stability. Disturbing the harmony, equilibrium and stability of living systems can therefore solely be justified when the objective is a new equilibrium which better serves the ultimate end of catenated neutrality for the aspect or aspects concerned. This, however, does not only apply to living systems, it applies to nonliving and mixed, living-nonliving systems as well. The fundamental reason is that the norm of neutrality transcends all life and all nonlife.

©MVVM, 41-65 ASWW

Model of Neutral-Inclusivity
Book of Fundamentals
Life and Nonlife
The Lives of Ecosystems and Nonpersonal Living Beings