In Defence of Anthropocentrism

In the environmental debate, economics is oftentimes criticised for being explicitly anthropocentric, which means, among other things, that it ignores any intrinsic values non-human entities might have. The last time I wrote about this subject, I defended an anthropocentric perspective for rather pragmatic reasons. This time, I would like to offer an ethical defence of it.

The basic premise of anthropocentrism is simple: it’s people who count. Only we have intrinsic value, value of our own, and thus also rights. Other entities–be it animals or plants, or “Nature”–only have instrumental value, i.e., they are valuable insofar as they contribute to our well-being. For the environmental debate, this means that only such environmental protection measures are in order which can be viewed in terms of a positive contribution to human well-being (including, however, future generations of yet unborn people).

How do we protect this one? What ethical base should we choose?

How do we protect this one? What ethical base should we choose?

What is the alternative to anthropocentrism? Basically, as I discussed elsewhere, there are three possible extensions of anthropocentrism, each of which grants rights/intrinsic values to a different range of living things (and beyond): Pathocentrism includes sentient animals among morally relevant entities. Biocentrism considers all living things to have moral status, whereas ecocentrism/holism also includes more abstract entities such as ecosystems.

In what follows, I would like to focus on the following question: (Why) should we protect the environment?, and argue that anthropocentrism offers the most satisfying answer to it. However, this is not meant to dismiss all the other “centrisms” altogether. Indeed, anthropocentrism, as I understand it, includes specific elements of them, particularly pathocentric considerations. Still, I prefer to call the standpoint that I wish to defend anthropocentrism–or, following some authors, enlightened anthropocentrism–for reasons that I will sketch below.

Let us start with a non-anthropocentric answer to the question posed above. The argument can oftentimes be encountered that we should protect Nature for its own sake, i.e., because it has intrinsic value. As I see it, there are at least three problems with this proposition. First, if we grant Nature intrinsic value, how do we trade-off its “interests” (I assume for the moment that we can know what they are–see below) against ours? Is Nature completely equal to us or do our interests have higher moral standing? If the latter–how much higher? As suggested above, I think that these questions are easier to answer within an (enlightened) anthropocentric framework than, e.g., a biocentric one. I will come back to that below.

Second, what are Nature’s interests? Does it “want” to be preserved? The natural history of the Earth is a story in which the only constant element is change. Even without humanity’s workings, there were five major extinction events–and one could argue that, from an evolutionary perspective, these were actually a “good” thing (if we can attach the attributes “good” and “bad” here at all, which I seriously doubt). In the end, Nature will most likely survive even a Sixth Mass Extinction, even if many species–possibly including Homo sapiens–won’t. The basic problem of ascribing an intrinsic value to Nature is the question of what Nature is actually. Is it a state? Or is it a process (evolution)? Depending on the answer given, different, possibly contradictory practical consequences result.

Third, when we want to preserve Nature for its own sake, we want to save it from ourselves–thus implicitly placing ourselves outside the natural world. There are two difficulties that this view incorporates. First, it might well be argued that we are part of Nature, just as any other species is. Then, our actions that destroy ecosystems might be viewed as just another evolutionary pressure–we are just more successful than other species. At least in the short run–in the long run we might actually be harming ourselves, to which I shall return below. Second, if we are not part of the natural world–where is this world? There hardly exists any ecosystem on this Earth that has not been heavily influenced and, indeed, shaped by human activity. Not only in the modern age. Just think of the medieval large-scale logging or, if that is not distant enough for you, the “success” humanity had in annihilating most megafauna on every single continent except Africa and Antarctica. If most of Nature has emerged under human influence (although the severity of this influence varies, of course): what is this Nature that we are supposed to protect for its own sake? Is there any at all?

Given these conceptual and practical problems, to which I do not know any convincing solutions, I would like to propose that the best available ethical basis for protecting the environment is our broadly understood self-interest. Broadly understood, for anthropocentrism does not mean that we may destroy all ecosystem as we wish. Just the contrary: it is in our interest to, e.g., keep the climatic system in a more-or-less stable state; keep the oceans clean as they are an important source of food; protect large ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest, for their destruction might have unexpected negative consequences for us; etc. Of course, from an anthropocentric perspective the protection of “pristine” ecosystems makes little sense, unless we view them as a legacy/heritage that we would like to pass on to our descendants. But, as I already pointed out above, pristinity is a myth. So is, by the way, the idea that the introduction of exotic species to “native” ecosystems is generally bad–in fact, most species were exotics at some time where they are now considered to be “natives”.

I have not yet touched upon the issue of animal ethics. This is the last point I wish to make. While I sympathise with pathocentrism and consider it a nice idea to grant the right not to suffer to sentient organisms, I see at least two difficulties here, too. First, what is suffering? Are there grades of suffering, which would allow for making (utilitarian) trade-offs? And second, how do we make trade-offs? The protection of animals from suffering is a great endeavour, but sometimes interests of humans are in conflict with it, e.g., when drugs or novel foods are to be tested, or when people have to control populations of certain animals by means of hunting so as to protect agriculture, forestry etc. Pathocentrism appears to be too demanding in this respect, for it potentially prohibits any such trade-offs. Conversely, enlightened anthropocentrism would allow to “use” animals and even to let them suffer when this is justified by objective human needs (I use “objective” in the Smithian-Senian sense of an impartial spectator). What the latter are in specific cases and how much suffering they can justify is, of course, a matter of discussion. Not an easy one. Still, I think that (enlightened) anthropocentrism has more to offer here without risking inconsistency, as compared with pathocentrism.

I believe that to make this world a better place, anthropocentrism is a sufficient ethical base. Furthermore, instead of discussing whether it is our interests that count or whether Nature’s are to count, too, we should maybe refocus and ask ourselves different questions: What kind of humans do we want to be? What kind of society do we want to be? And what kind of world do we want to pass to our yet unborn fellow humans? By giving proper answers to these questions we might come to conclusions that would make even pathocentrists and biocentrists happy.


2 thoughts on “In Defence of Anthropocentrism

  1. Wouldn’t we wish to preserve maximum options/choices for future humans and earth other earth species?

  2. Sounds nice, yes. But what does “preserve maximum options/choices” mean? The extreme version of this argument would mean that we should compromise any choices for ourselves, which clearly is not an option. So trade-offs are to be made. And for these trade-offs we need a base, so I tried to sketch one here.


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