For Nature’s Sake

The protection of Nature is, among other things, an ethical problem. Ethics plays an at least equal role as the other components – technology, economics, politics, sociology, psychology. Particularly so, since it is clear that the environmental protection comes at a cost. We cannot have it for free. Indeed, every serious attempt to stabilize the climate, to change the conditions of farm livestock or to protect the Earth’s scarce resources, should be expected to be painful for us humans. The more every call for action needs a clear ethical foundation. Why should we emit less greenhouse gases? Why should we abstain from the consumption of industrial meat? Or become vegetarians? Maybe even vegans? Should we do that because we grant other people rights – possibly also those who are not born yet? Or does Nature, at least parts of it, also an intrinsic value, independently of what we humans consider useful? These are questions in need of clarification before we talk about concrete measures. They determine which measures are needed and which are redundant or even excessive.

The subject of this post is known in the discourse of (environmental) ethics as the inclusion problem. It is dealing with the question of demarcation – which entities do we award with intrinsic value and thus rights to protection, and how should these rights be weighted, if at all?

Basically, there are four general positions in this discourse: anthropocentrism, pathocentrism, biocetrism and holism. For practical reasons I will focus on the former three. Every one of these perspectives gives a different answer to the inclusion question. Indeed, they give answers of rising degree of inclusiveness, in the order I named them.

Anthropocentrism is the traditional basis of social sciences, particularly of economics. Seen from this ethical perspective, only such actions (e.g., environmental protection measures) have sense and are justified which benefit humans (anthropos in Greek). Of course, there are different schools of thought within anthropocentrism as well, it is by no means a homogenous framework. For example, there is the question of how far-reaching our duties are toward people who a) live far away and with whom we do not come in touch, not even indirectly (e.g., the inhabitants of a self-subsistent island in the Pacific), or b) are not born yet. The common opinion, however, is that it is hard to justify why we should grant any group of human beings fewer rights than we do grant others – be they ill or healthy, living or yet unborn, young or old, Europeans or Aborigines. Already on the basis of anthropocentrism very far-reaching environmental protection measures are justifiable, far beyond what we have experienced to date. Even certain animal protection measures (e.g. with regard to industrial livestock farming) could be supported in this way, by shifting the focus toward human health issues.

Pathocentrism takes it a step further. It largely adopts the position of anthropocentrism by also saying that the human freedom to do what one may wish to it constrained by similar freedoms/rights of other people. According to pathocentrism, however, there exists another constraint, which results from the rights of or our duties toward higher animals (vertebrates mostly). This ethical position modifies the arguments of anthropocentrism, giving more weight to some (when the interests of animals and those of humans go hand in hand) and less to others (since human benefit is often confronted with animal loss – vide windmills, which may be killing birds or bats). It also adds new arguments, for instance with regard to animal experiments. From a purely anthropocentric point of view the latter are clearly beneficial. From a pathocentric point of view they are at least problematic. How much problematic they are depends on how we weigh animal rights against the rights of humans. Mostly, pathocentrists admit that animals should “count” less than people and that violation of their rights to protection may be allowed if it is of large benefit to us (at least some animal experiments are). However, it is possible to argue more strongly, equating the rights of animals and those of humans, although this goes heavily toward biocentrism (see below). At this point it should be noted that many legal frameworks contain at least a pinch of pathocentrism – e.g., in many places it is a crime to torture a dog. Seen (parochially) from the anthropocentric perspective, there is actually nothing wrong about doing this. A similar inclusion of pathocentric concerns is reflected in the recent ban on the use of laying batteries in the EU.

Biocentrism is the more inclusive of the three ethical positions we discuss here. Going back to Albert Schweitzer, it grants the whole Nature (animals and plants) rights to protection. Biocentrism argues truly “for Nature’s sake” (less so for “the environment’s” sake, for this term is often interpreted as being implicitly anthropocentric). Here, also, grading and weighting is possible and usual – only extremists claim that the life of an earthworm or of a sunflower is equally worth to the life of a human-being (however, frutarians tend toward such an extreme position). By the way, if you think biocentrism is generally “extremistic”, think about whether you would think it is OK for your child to root flowers out without reason or to throw a snail into a fire. If you do not think it would be OK (and I think most people don’t), you should be able to answer the question – why actually? It is not doing harm to people (anthropocentrism) or higher animals (pathocentrism).

Thus we have three ethical standpoints, which can be invoked in debates about environmental protection. I hope to have made it clear that no one of them is completely absurd. Perhaps unconsciously we follow any of them once and again. Nonetheless, most people view a consequent biocentrism or pathocentrism as too extreme. With regard to anthropocentrism, there are hardly any controversies in theory. When it comes to everyday practice, however, it is also becoming problematic.

Indeed, most environmental protection measures can be justified anthropocentrically – from climate protection, certain forms of sufficiency up to regulations of livestock farming -, as soon as we realize what it means to grant other people the same rights one claims for oneself (Is shopping at TESCO’s or in a WalMart morally defensible from this perspective? I strongly doubt it.). Some environmental and particularly animal protection measures can be justified only patho- or biocentrically, e.g. the abstinence from the consumption of animal products. However, everything more far-reaching than anthropocentrism is not acceptable for many people.

This is an important point of critique of many in the environmentalist movement. Even if one is convinced that patho- or biocentrism are “right”, it does not necessarily mean that it is constructive and advisable to invoke such justifications while trying to convince other people of the need of concrete measures. Quite the contrary, it may be counter-productive. Even though, as I have tried to point out, most of us do think patho- and biocentrically from time to time, it is too great a demand for them to adopt such an ethical position consequently. One should, therefore, make anthropocentric arguments where possible. It is possible to justify very many measures in this way, without harming one’s case by scaring people off with “extremism”. It may well be that occasional or “part-biocentrism” is inconsequent. But to rub someone’s nose in this is rapidly diminishing the chances to achieve a change. So, it may be advisable to postpone urges for ethical consistence and to take the line of the least resistance first by arguing “anthropocentrically before pathocentrically before biocentrically”. It does not help Nature when self-appointed environmentalists intimidate the public with (alleged) extremism. Seen this way, anthropocentrism may well work “for Nature’s sake”.

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