Anthropocentrism

An anthropocentric environmental ethic grants moral standing exclusively to human beings and considers nonhuman natural entities and nature as a whole to be only a means for human ends. In one sense, any human outlook is necessarily anthropocentric, since we can apprehend the world only through our own senses and conceptual categories. Accordingly, some advocates of anthropocentric environmental ethics have tried to preempt further debate by arguing that a non-anthropocentric environmental ethic is therefore an oxymoron. But the question at issue is not, "Can we apprehend nature from a nonhuman point of view?" Of course we cannot. The question is, rather, "Should we extend moral consideration to nonhuman natural entities or nature as a whole?" And that question, of course, is entirely open.

In the mainstream of the Western cultural tradition, only human beings have been treated morally. Thus—at least for those working in that tradition—anthropocentrism is the most conservative approach to environmental ethics. Nevertheless, anthropocentric environmental ethicists have had to assume a more reactive than proactive posture and devote considerable effort to defending traditional Western moral philosophy against calls by bolder thinkers to widen the purview of ethics to encompass nonhuman natural entities and nature as a whole.

John Passmore and Kristin Shrader-Frechette were among the first to advocate a strictly anthropocentric approach to environmental ethics. Shrader-Frechette finds it "difficult to think of an action which would do irreparable harm to the environment or ecosystem, but which would not also threaten human well-being" (Shrader-Frechette, p. 17). Since many of the anthropocentric ethics in the Western canon censure behavior that threatens human well-being (utilitarianism, most directly), she argues that there is therefore no need to develop a newfangled non-anthropocentric environmental ethic.

Some of the damage that people have done to the environment certainly does threaten human well-being. Global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer are notorious examples. But it is easy to think of other instances of environmental vandalism that do not materially threaten human well-being. David Ehrenfeld asks us to contemplate the probable demise of the endangered Houston toad, a victim of urban sprawl, that "has no demonstrated or conjectural resource value to man" (p. 650). But, as Ehrenfeld points out, the Houston toad is not unique in this respect. Thousands of other species in harm's way are nondescript "non-resources."

To morally censure the extinction of such species and other kinds of environmental destruction that do not materially threaten human well-being, must we abandon anthropocentrism? Amplifying the work of Mark Sagoff (1988) and Eugene C. Hargrove (1989), Bryan Norton (1987), the leading contemporary apologist for anthropocentric environmental ethics, argues that we should enlarge our conception of human well-being instead. In addition to goods (energy, foods, medicines, raw materials for manufacture) and services (crop pollination, oxygen replenishment, water purification), an undegraded natural environment contributes to human well-being in important psychological, spiritual, and scientific ways. Scenery unmarred by strip mines or clear cuts and undimmed by dirty air is important to human aesthetic satisfaction. Clean air and water, open spaces and green belts, complex and diverse landscapes, national parks and wilderness playgrounds are important human "amenities." Experiencing the solitude of wilderness and the otherness of wild things is an important aspect of human religious experience. Even if no one will be materially worse off after the extinction of "non-resource"

species before science has a chance to discover and study them, important subject matter for pure, disinterested human knowledge will nevertheless have been irredeemably lost. Norton also suggests that contact with and care for the integrity of the natural environment can also be "transformative"; it can make better people of us.

Additionally, Norton argues that we should, as a matter of intergenerational justice, ensure that future human beings will be able to enjoy bountiful natural resources, a whole and functioning ecosystem, the full spectrum of environmental amenities, and the opportunity to partake of the psychospiritual experiences afforded by nature and to explore ecology and taxonomy intellectually. If we make our conception of human well-being both wide and long, he thinks that we may ground an adequate and effective environmental ethic without sailing off into the unfamiliar and treacherous waters of non-anthropocentrism.

The principal reason Norton offers for preferring an anthropocentic approach to environmental ethics is pragmatic. Anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism, he argues, support the same environmental policies. Norton (1991) calls this practical equivalence of anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism the "convergence hypothesis." Why then advocate non-anthropocentrism? Most people, including most environmentalists, he claims, accept the familiar and venerable idea that human beings are ends-in-themselves deserving moral standing. On the other hand, the suggestion that all living beings (and species and ecosystems) ought to be granted a similar status is unfamiliar and controversial. If we rest environmental ethics on as broad and firm a foundation as possible, we can best ensure its rapid implementation. Indeed, Norton suggests that the vigorous philosophical effort to develop non-anthropocentric approaches to environmental ethics has actually done the beleaguered environment a disservice. The environmental movement, as a result, has been divided over purely intellectual issues that have little if any practical import.

Norton's empirical claim that most people and even most environmentalists are anthropocentrists is supported only anecdotally. But opinion polls and the outcome of political contests suggest that most people probably have narrower allegiances—to self-interest, to institutional interests, to class interests, or to national interests—than to present and future collective or general human interests, very broadly construed. On the other hand, a growing minority of environmentalists seem to doubt the philosophical foundations of anthropocentrism. Are human beings really created in the image of God—the idea upon which anthropocentrism in Western religious ethics is founded? Are we uniquely self-conscious, rational, autonomous (some of the foundations of anthropocentrism in Western moral philosophy)? Must every being possess such characteristics to qualify for moral treatment? One may agree with the convergence hypothesis—that practical environmental goals are as well served by anthropocentric as by non-anthropocentric environmental ethics—but disagree that anthropocentrism is philosophically defensible. Hence, the question of the philosophical merits—the truth, as it were, of anthropocentrism—remains open.

Norton's convergence hypothesis, furthermore, overlooks an important difference between the way anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric environmental ethics support the same environmental policies. Suppose, as non-anthropocentrists variously argue, that the environment is "intrinsically" as well as "instrumentally" valuable— that is, that the environment is valuable for its own sake as well as for all the benefits, tangible and intangible, that it provides human beings. Warwick Fox decisively argues that such a supposition would shift the burden of proof from those who would disinterestedly preserve the environment to those who would destroy it for personal gain:

If the nonhuman world is only considered to be instrumentally valuable then people are permitted to use and otherwise interfere with it for whatever reasons they wish____ If anyone objects to such interference then, within this framework of reference, the onus is clearly on the person who objects to justify why it is more useful to humans to leave that aspect of the nonhuman world alone. If, however, the nonhuman world is considered intrinsically valuable then the onus shifts to the person who would want to interfere with it to justify why they should be allowed to do so; anyone who wants to interfere with any entity that is intrinsically valuable is morally obliged to be able to offer sufficient justification for their actions.

Norton, for example, might object to lumber companies cutting down redwood forests because the remaining redwood forests are of greater benefit to present and future human generations as amenities than as raw material for decks and hot tubs. But to preserve the remaining redwood forests, Norton would have to persuade a court to issue an injunction preventing lumber companies from harvesting redwoods, based on the assertion that the trees, while living, are more useful to human beings as psycho-spiritual and transformative resources than cut down and sawed up as consumptive resources. If, on the other hand, the trees were regarded as being intrinsically valuable, then a lumber company would have to make a case in court that the utility of redwood forests as raw material is so enormous as to justify their destruction. Thus, although Norton may be correct in claiming that a long and wide anthropocentric environmental ethic supports the same policies as non-anthropocentric environmental ethics—in the case at hand, the policy of preserving redwood forests—he cannot correctly claim that it would do so as forcefully.

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