Today i received a formal notification that my abstract "Biosemiotics and animal ethics" has been accepted for oral presentation at the second Minding Animals conference, which is to take place in Utrecht, the Netherlands, July 3-6.
BIOSEMIOTICS AND ANIMAL ETHICS
In «Meaning Matters: The Biosemiotic Basis of Bioethics» (Biosemiotics, published online October 15 2011), Jonathan Beever suggests that “Biosemiotics has the empirical potential to avoid transcendent explanations of morally relevant properties. Furthermore, it offers an account of the source and scope of value that is foundational to popular accounts such as those based on sentience.” This is because biosemiotics as a scientific discipline or approach interprets living systems as sign systems, and is focused on investigating the origin, emergence and development of meaning and of meaning-making at various levels of biological organization. A fundamental concept in biosemiotics is that of the Umwelt, introduced by the Baltic-German biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) in 1909 and further developed through a series of works of his which are all of foundational significance for Biosemiotics, noteworthy Theoretical Biology (1920, 1928), A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men (1934) and Theory of Meaning (1940). According to conflicting contemporary interpretations, the Umwelt is either the experiential world (subjective world, phenomenal world) of animals at large, of animals with a nervous system (including or excluding humans), or of any living creature whatsoever. The Umwelt is often portrayed as species-specific, but I have argued that the term and model of the Umwelt can be applied from any level reaching from the individual organism via populations and species to possibly even higher taxa. I am further aiming to develop the Umwelt notion as applicable within the human realm by specifying it in various aspects, including by developing a tripartite model of the (human) Umwelt.
In this paper I will review Beever’s approach to biosemiotics as foundational for bioethics with a particular emphasis on animal ethics, and present developments of my own approach to the same topic. My approach was first presented in the 2003 article «Umwelt ethics» (Sign Systems Studies 31 (1): 281-299), which is in large measure an Uexküllian interpretation of the deep ecology platform – and one out of three early dealings with biosemiotics’ relevance for ethics treated by Beever in his recent article. In that article I stated that “[t]he reason why it makes sense to regard all semiotic agents […] as moral subjects, is that in respect to these entities, our actions make a difference. Only for semiotic agents can our actions ultimately appear as signs that influence their well-being. In capacity of meaning-utilizers, all semiotic agents, be it the simplest creature, are able to distinguish between what they need and what is irrelevant or harmful to them.” I further theorized: “But why regard higher-level bio-ontological entities as moral subjects? Because a living being is not an isolated incident. In a profound sense, a subject is what it relates to. The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about. The individual self branch[es] off into the society of phenomenal subjects and into the phenomenal world, it is already social, already worldly, already more-than-individual. You cannot really value a subject without at the same time valuing the web of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in.”
There is no consensus on the ontological and epistemological status of the Umwelt in the biosemiotic community, and even less so on ethical matters (which are essential to some and anathema to others). Nevertheless, the prospective of biosemiotics as foundational for animal ethics is well worth inquiring into. Though I might disagree with Beever on his apparent gradualism with regard to moral standing, I definitively see a common project in his quest for a biosemiotic ethic.