5 minute read

Environmental Ethics

The Debate Over Anthropocentrism

Following Leopold's suggestion, the central issue in the first quarter century of environmental ethics has been a debate about anthropocentrism and the idea of intrinsic ethical value. Traditional ethical theories are characterized as anthropocentric because they regard only humans or human experience (or reason) as having intrinsic ethical worth. Everything else is valuable only as a means to promoting or enhancing human interests. For Aristotle, this much is obvious. "Clearly, then, we must suppose … that plants are for the sake of animals, and that other animals are for the sake of human beings.… If then nature makes nothing incomplete or pointless, it must have made all of them for the sake of human beings" (Politics, 1256b15–22) John Locke, writing in the seventeenth century, reflected the consensus view when he spoke of the distinction between man and nature. Mankind is "the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker," and thus the law of nature teaches us that man "has not the liberty to destroy himself," and that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions" (Second Treatise of Government, chap. 2, par. 6). But reason also tells us that, "land that is left wholly to nature, that hath no improvement of pasturage, tillage, or planting, is called, as indeed it is, waste; and we shall find the benefit of it amount to little more than nothing" (chap. 5, par. 42). For land to have value, it must be made to serve human needs and ends.

The classical utilitarians were the first to move explicitly beyond anthropocentrism. They argued that sentience was the locus of intrinsic value, and thus the ultimate ethical end was an existence "exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments." Morality consists of "rules and precepts," as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) put it in his Utilitarianism (1861). Its aim is to secure such an existence "to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation" (chap. 2). Although utilitarianism may provide a basis for rejecting anthropocentrism, it will not get us to anything resembling a land ethic. Even if sentience is a sufficient basis for gaining intrinsic worth or value, it gives us no reason for regarding endangered species, forests, wilderness, or ecosystems as worth preserving in their own right. Thus, philosophers who follow Leopold have rejected utilitarianism along with anthropocentric conceptions of ethics.

The problem with extending the scope of morality beyond sentience is to explain the basis for attributing intrinsic value to entities that have no inner lives and are not subjects of experience. Two ways of attempting this extension figure most prominently in the literature. The first is to identify intrinsic value with having an interest, which is interpreted in turn as having an end or a natural good. If it makes sense to say of any thing that it has an end, then we can make sense of talking about what is good or bad for that thing. And just as sentient beings have an interest in not suffering, all living things, sentient and nonsentient alike, have an interest in realizing their natural ends. It is in this sense good for any such thing to thrive (Goodpaster).

One objection to extending the scope of intrinsic ethical value in this way is that the idea of having an end or a natural good applies to more than living organisms. This might appear to be a good thing for the purposes of developing environmental ethics in the direction of a land ethic, because it would allow us to include entities like species and ecosystems within the community of intrinsically valuable beings. An ecosystem is not a living organism, but it has a good (however difficult it may be to determine it), which it is in its interest to realize. The problem is that this analysis does not allow us to discriminate among living things to exclude deadly viruses or invasive species from having intrinsic moral worth, nor does it allow us to discriminate among other nonliving entities with ends, such as gangs, terrorist cells, or corrupt political regimes. Each of these has ends and an interest in thriving, but surely they do not all have intrinsic moral worth.

A second objection to this proposal is that it equivocates on the morally relevant concept of an interest. Utilitarians extend the idea of intrinsic moral worth to sentient creatures because nonhuman animals not only have an interest in avoiding suffering, they can act in ways that show that they take an interest in seeking enjoyment and avoiding pain. If human suffering is morally relevant not merely because we are capable of suffering but because as conscious agents we care about or take an interest in avoiding suffering, then nonhuman suffering should be morally relevant for the same reason. But when we talk about the interests of nonsentient entities (and perhaps the interests of many species of lower animals, such as sponges or clams), we do so in a different sense. They may have interests, but they cannot take an interest in anything. It begs the question to suppose that having an interest in any sense that does not presuppose subjectivity or consciousness has any moral relevance of its own.

A second way to reject anthropocentrism and extend the scope of intrinsic ethical value beyond sentience is associated with deep ecology, a political movement that emerged in the 1980s in response to disillusionment with large, well-funded environmental groups that some critics saw as having been co-opted by prevailing political powers. The "shallow ecology" of these large environmental organizations, in the eyes of their critics, was associated exclusively with the fight against pollution and resource depletion, which were seen as elitist and anthropocentric goals of affluent classes living in developed countries. Deep ecology defends the idea of ecocentric identification, a form of self-realization, which calls on us humans to see ourselves not at the top of creation but as merely one part of the "web of life," on an equal footing with every other part. The deep ecology manifesto claims that nonhuman life has value in itself that is "independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes"(Devall and Sessions, p. 70) If a living, free-flowing river is a good thing to have on this planet, then it is good independently of human existence and interests, and it would equally be a good thing on a planet that never hosted conscious life.

Leaving political agendas aside, many people who have sympathy for Leopold's land ethic find deep ecology an unsatisfying way to develop the idea. It is one thing to believe that traditional conceptions of ethics have perhaps wrongly viewed nature as having no value except as resources for human satisfaction. It is quite a different matter to think that the only alternative to such a conception of ethics is ecocentric identification in the sense demanded by deep ecology.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEnvironmental Ethics - Antecedents, The Debate Over Anthropocentrism, Value As A Feature Of Actions And Attitudes, Ethics And Environmental Policies