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Jonathan Beever “Meaning Matters”

Beever, Jonathan 2012. Meaning Matters: The Biosemiotic Basis of Bioethics. Biosemiotics 5(2): 181-191.

I argue that biosemiotics, as a robust scientific approach to meaning, can offer an empirical and immanent justification for the inherent moral value of all living things. Biosemiotics is capable of playing a role in justifying a broad scope of moral considerability. (182)

While we moral agents on the one hand rely on contemporary scientific analysis of the natural world to inform our moral habits, we also on the other hand hold on to transcendent metaphysical assumptions in our ethical analysis of those intuitions that we are unable to sufficiently articulate. This metaphysical stubbornness creates and maintains the dualism between fact and value. When we consider alternative approaches toward moral value, we discover that each faces the same difficulty. It is this grounding of justification on transcendent principles that continues to split ethics from science. The empirical and naturalistic approach to moral philosophy can be a development of our moral thinking that will allow the progress of our societal ethic to continue. (183)

It wasn’t until 1789when Jeremy Bentham famously questioned the modes of justification of human moral worth. He suggested that reason ought not be considered a criterion of moral value but, instead, the capacity to suffer. (Bentham 1789) Sentience, the capacity to experience pleasure or pain—to be better or worse off—is arguably the first criterion to offer a serious justification for the inherent moral worth of the non-human animal. (184)

Recognizing that all living things can be understood as semiotic systems directed toward ends,
biosemiotics is compatible with the denial of the traditional dualistic model of the natural opposed to the cultural. This divide—between the natural and cultural or between fact and value—stands only if the moral and/or the human is considered to be different in kind from the factual/natural. Peircean semioticians hold this not to be the case: semiotics entails the denial of the absolute natural/cultural divide based on the holistic understanding of semiosis, the use and interpretation of signs. Instead, one finds biological information to be messages rather than mechanisms: a naturalistic intentional/purposive attitude rather than a reductionist mechanical one. (185)

For, what are“subjective experiences”if not the creation of meaning from lived phenomenological experience? It seems to me that the basis of all these attempts to justify some scope of moral considerability focus on what matters to the subject, or what meaning the subject gives to its umwelt. It’s not having a soul, having the capacity for language, being able to reason, or being sentient that matters: rather, meaning matters. (186)

Biosemiotics offers us a theory of meaning based on the semiosic relationship of living things to their inner and outer worlds. As Jesper Hoffmeyer defines it,“[a]ccording to the biosemiotic perspective, living nature is understood as essentially driven by, or actually consisting of, semiosis, that is to say, processes of sign relations and their signification—or function—in the biological processes of life.” (Hoffmeyer 2008, 4) (186)

Peircean biosemiotics offers us the initial positing of a relevant and pragmatic theory of meaning-making at the boundary of life and semiosis. If meaning is at the root of moral considerability, and the goal of biosemiotics is to offer a scientific approach to meaning, then biosemiotics can be understood as a study of moral considerability. Central to this claim is that this semiotic value theory overcomes both the untenable transcendent ontology and the outmoded mechanical metaphysic that have plagued contemporary ethical motivations by reengaging an approach based on a naturalized semiotic intentionality. (186)

John Deely: „Semioethics, in short, is nothing more nor less than the question of what we are going to do about, how we are going to handle, the fact that human beings are not merely “rational animals”, still less res cogitanes, but in the fulness of their species-specifically unique being, semiotic animals, each and every one, an animal to and for whomnil semiosica alienum me
cogitabile est. It is a unique responsibility, alright, springing from the awareness of semiosis as embracing the whole planet, of times past, present, and to come, and of our impact upon it as the only semiotic animals within the Gaia. (Deely 2010a, 125)“ (187)

[…] his focus on human moral agency does not offer an account of the value inherent in semiosis
itself. We ought to remain wary of this impulse and to question whether what morally matters is semiotics or semiosis. On the account for which I argue, what morally matters, what makes something appropriately morally considerable, is making-meaning—semiosis—even if this meaning does not include an understanding of semiosis qua signa ipsa. (187)

Kull sets up a split between perspectives on biological value (reproductive, meronomic, and functional) (ibid 357) and models of semiotic value (valeuras sign network complexity, purposiveness, signification) (ibid 358) demonstrating the potential link between our thinking about biological and semiotic value. However, this early analysis is descriptive rather than prescriptive: offering us an explanation ofhow we do valuerather than why we ought to value. At this descriptive level, it cannot stand unamended among our best ethical theories. (188)

Morten Tonessen: „The reason why it makes sense to regard all semiotic agents, i.e., bioontological monads, 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 meaningutilizers, all semiotic agents, be it the simplest creature, are able to distinguish between what they need and what is irrelevant or harmful to them. (Tønnessen 2003, 292)“ (188)

Hoffmeyer further explains that “…the decisive factor in triggering empathetic feelings toward
organisms of other species is the degree ofsemiotic individuationthat we perceive in them.” (Hoffmeyer2008, 331) The uniquely semiotic role of the human animal is essential to the creation of moral value, on this view. Despite this anthropocentric turn, the semiosic holism of biosemiotics offers the broadest possible criterion for value, one that coincides with life itself.“ [W]e may consider living systems as subjects in this restricted sense, that they are temporal beings capable of distinguishing and acting upon selective features of their surroundings and participating in the evolutionary incorporation of the present into the future.” (Hoffmeyer 1995, 149) (190)

A biosemiotic ethic is necessarily anecological ethic, bringing together the semiosphere and the biosphere in a theory of meaning tied to individual umwelten and justifying the moral considerability of all living things. (190)

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