Anthropocentrism tends to see humans to be the only, or primary, holders of moral standing. It puts humans first and thus animals and the natural environment second. However, arguing for the sustainable use of natural resources and arguing for the preservation of nature can be a valid anthropocentric argument. This is because both animals and the natural environment act to improve our happiness and to sustain our existence on planet earth.
Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his book “Politics” argued that: “in nature nothing is in vain so, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of man.” Indeed, the dominant view in the history of Western philosophy is one of anthropocentrism. However, the “Copernican” shift in understanding, from a geocentric to a heliocentric worldview, represented a shift away from an anthropocentric view of the universe! It follows then that one day we ‘may’ no longer see ourselves as the rulers of flora and fauna but as equals to them.
Indeed, biocentrism and ecocentrism seek to place humans on an equal level with all other living things. Environmental ethics developed as an idea in the 1960s and 1970s. Deep ecology argues that all living things are alike in having value in their own right, independent of their usefulness to others. In short, it argues that the preservation of biodiversity is an ethical goal. Interestingly, the “ethics” in environmental ethics shares the same “ethics” in (human) philosophical terms. The concepts of consequentialism and deontology are used to try and give “environmental ethics” a philosophical basis. However, neither are perfect and, in my opinion, anthropocentrism (of a certain kind) may actually be the best for treating flora and fauna with dignity.
Consequentialist ethical theories maintain that whether an action is right/wrong is determined by whether its consequences are good/bad (think “utilitarianism” and seeking the greatest balance of pleasure over pain). The problem with consequentialism is this: practices such as bull fighting, hunting foxes for sport and watching dogs fight, might be okay because such ‘cruel’ hobbies produce happiness for human beings.
Deontological ethical theories contend that whether an action is right or wrong should not consider if the consequences are good or bad but only if the action itself is good or bad. For deep ecologists who take this view, they see all living things as having the moral right to respectful treatment. This sounds fine at first, but the problem is this: it could mean that we aren’t allowed to cut down any trees or prevent any insects from passing on diseases to humans. Therefore, such views are too extreme and will not be accepted by rational human beings.
I actually think enlightened anthropocentrism can contribute to what those who believe in environmental ethics want. This is because human survival on planet earth (think of Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene”) depends on a healthy natural environment. At present, humans are the only species capable of protecting all other life forms. An enlightened form of anthropocentrism would mean (a) being vegan more often (b), shopping less (c), have fewer children and (d), urging governments to only invest in clean energy projects.
- Ethically — killing an animal is no longer justified (for cavemen it was, but today we have nutritious vegetarian alternatives).
- Environmentally — animal farming is no longer sustainable (rainforests are being cut down for meat production).
The only way, individuals, societies and humankind can respect and make into law the things that deep ecologists dream of is to (1), stop farming animals for meat and protect animal rights by law (this will make us healthier and feel less guilty too) (2), act to protect the range of remaining ecosystems and (3), change the way globalisation works (invent in human production processes that don’t cause pollution or deplete natural resources)
If we continue with a short-term anthropocentric mentality, there is a danger that we will focus on pleasures today (over-consumption) and let the environment suffer permanent damage. However, this would directly harm future generations of humans! An enlightened form of anthropocentrism would advocate, protecting the natural environment (many love the idea of wilderness) and protect the rights of animals (many of us get pleasure from observing David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet” and “Planet Earth” documentaries).
BBC (2019). Blue Planet II. British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04tjbtx
Brennan, A & Yeuk-Sze, L. (2015). Environmental Ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-environmental/
Padwe, J. (2013). Anthropocentrism. Oxford Bibliographies. Retrieved, 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0073
Steed, E. (2018, 25 June). Philosophy Illustrated. The New Yorker.