Anthropocentric vs Non-Anthropocentric Environmental Ethics
The fundamental issue in environmental ethics is whether there can
be a non-anthropocentric environmental ethic -- that is a basis for
right and wrong action concerning the environment which is not grounded
solely in human concerns. This is the issue of the theoretical
foundations of environmental ethics. Obviously, the main dispute is
between those who claim that ethics can only ever have an
anthropocentric basis (though many go on to claim that this will be
sufficient for taking account of our environmental concerns), and those
who claim that not only can there be, but there must be, a
non-anthropocentric basis for environmental ethics.
An ethical system could be non-anthropocentric in a number of ways. Any account of morality that has the effect or removing humans from being the sole thing of concern is non-anthropocentric. The main examples in environmental ethics are:
- animal rights/liberation theories (sentient animals have moral standing)
- biocentric theories (individual living things have moral standing)
- ecocentric theories (ecological systems have moral standing)
There are variations within these views, so there is a wide range of
possible non-anthropocentric theories.
Taylor argues for the rather radical view that all living things have inherent value, and so are deserving or moral respect, equally. For Taylor, all that is required to have inherent value is to be alive -- essentially, striving towards staying alive. He grounds his view in the idea of "Respect for Nature", which is an extension of the Kantian principle of Respect for Persons.
To begin, Taylor clarifies his position by distinguishing it from an ecocentric view -- namely, it is not fundamentally holistic. The 'balance of nature' does not lead us to any moral principles. Rather, the good or well-being of all individual living things is of primary concern (so it is no anthropocentric either). There may be duties which require us to protect ecological systems, but these are only indirect duties to the individual living things that inhabit the ecological system.
Taylor argues that a biocentric ethic can be established (justified) by us taking on a new kind of moral attitude. This is the attitude that all living things, and not only humans, have inherent worth -- i.e., the attitude of respect for nature. But clearly, quite a bit of work needs to be done to establish that we ought to take on the new attitude. Two things need to be made clear, first.
(1) All living things have a good of their own -- that is, they can be benefited or harmed. This is reflected in the idea that all living things have the potential to grow and develop according to their biological natures. So, things can either go well or not with respect to this potential. This idea is not grounded, according to Taylor, in the ideas of having interests, or having an interest in something; and it is not conditional upon being sentient, or having consciousness. (Taylor thinks it is an open question whether a machine might have a good of its own in the relevant sense.)
(2) The attitude of respect for nature requires that we accept that all living things possess inherent worth. This would be reflected in us -- were we to take on the attitude of respect for nature -- adopting certain dispositions of behaviour, namely, in general, to act so as to show equal respect for all living things 'good of their own'.
This doesn't justify the claim that all living things do have inherent worth, though. So, more needs to be done to show this. Taylor's strategy is to argue that the claim that living things possess inherent worth will be justified if it can be shown that we are justified in adopting the attitude of respect for nature. Presumably, he thinks that respecting nature directly implies that we regard living things as possessing inherent worth.
Underlying the justification for the adoption of the attitude of respect for nature is the belief system characterized by Taylor as the "biocentric outlook on nature." This is an ecological outlook, with the key idea being the interdependence of living things. Taylor suggests four main components of the outlook:
(1) Humans are merely members of the biotic community -- not special.
- that we are animals -- the product of natural evolutionary processes -- is a fundamental feature of our existence. Also, as animals, we are entirely dependent on ecological systems for survival. [Humans might even be regarded as a rather nasty pest, with nothing but good consequences for the rest of Earth's living things if we were to be eliminated.]
(2) All ecosystems are built up of a web of interconnected and interdependent organisms.
- the long term ecological equilibrium is necessary for the continued existence of all individual living things. This holistic nature of ecosystems, though, is a factual aspect of the Earth, and does not lead automatically to any moral norms.
(3) Each individual living thing is "conceived of as a teleological center of life" -- i.e., with its own goals, its own "biological function."
- when we look at other living things from their point of view -- i.e., with their 'goals' -- we see that they are a unique "teleological center of life," 'striving' to 'achieve' their 'goals'. [Note all the single quote marks, indicating special uses of those words.]
(4) Humans are not in any way superior to other living things.
- humans must give up their arrogance towards other living things -- there is no reason to think that our special set of attributes and capabilities is somehow superior to any other organism's special attributes and capabilities. To do so is analogous to the hierarchical class structure artificially imposed throughout human history. And, there is no reason to think that we are fundamentally distinct -- and superior -- because we possess a soul, even if there exists such a thing/substance.
So, the adoption of this biocentric outlook, Taylor suggests, leads us to adopting the attitude of respect for nature, with the implication that we now have a non-anthropocentric environmental ethic.
Taylor cautions that this does not mean that we ascribe moral rights
to individual living things. However, we are left without a clear
account of just what it means.
On Being Morally Considerable
Goodpaster argues for a biocentric or "life centred" environmental
ethic. His main strategy involves attempting to show that argument in
favour of restricting moral considerability to either humans only or to
sentient beings only are not convincing. This leave the door open to
regarding all living things to be of moral worth -- though with the
qualification that there are degrees of moral worth.
Goodpaster's paper does a good job of outlining some of the main ideas concerning the criteria of moral considerability and moral worth. Some important points need to be noted before we look at these, though. First, Goodpaster states that even though he sees no reason for thinking that rationality or sentience are necessary for moral considerability, they may be sufficient. This has the direct implication that anything that is either rational or sentient will have the relevant moral standing, but it leaves it open for other things to have moral standing. Second, Goodpaster considers that we need to distinguish between moral rights and moral considerability. The upshot of this is that even if it is the case that only humans or sentient beings are legitimately bearers of rights, it remains possible that other living things legitimately deserve moral considerability. Third, Goodpaster distinguishes between moral considerability and moral significance. Significance admits of degrees, and so a criterion of moral significance could be used to weigh the moral interests of various things, when there is a conflict. However, all that Goodpaster seeks to show is that all living things have moral standing -- leaving aside what that turns out to mean in each case.
Arguments against non-humans or non-sentient beings having moral standing
(1) Only moral agents have moral
Only fully rational human persons are moral agents, so nothing else has moral standing. This seems too restrictive as it would exclude some humans, e.g., small children, mentally impaired, etc. This might be addressed by refining the criterion to 'potential rational persons', but this looks arbitrary.
(2) Only beings with the capacity
to suffer have moral standing.
We have seen a number of arguments concerning this criterion. The main idea is that things can go either well or not only for beings that can have the right kinds of interests -- which requires some kind of awareness, i.e., sentience. In non-sentient things, there is nothing to take into account from the moral point of view. Goodpaster point, already stated, is that even though the capacity to suffer may be a sufficient condition for having moral standing, he sees no reason for thinking that it is necessary. Goodpaster (as well as others) think that there is something to take into account with respect to non-sentient things, namely, life, or the striving to stay alive. Things can go either well or not for a tree even though it is never aware of this. Further, pleasure and pain are merely evolutionary tools (useful signals) for making one's way in the world, but are clearly not necessary tools for many things don't have the capacity to feel pleasure and pain (or anything at all) and still manage quite well. [Goodpaster argument, here, could be circular, though. He is right that pleasure is merely a signal, but maybe morality concerns only the signals, i.e., not the goal, which is life.]
Only beings with desires, wants, etc.
have moral standing.
It is clearly in a trees interests to have water, light, etc. But it does not want these things. That is, it is not interested in these things. Goodpaster runs a fairly standard biocentric line here arguing that these later kinds of interests (ones which are somehow noted in consciousness) are not necessary for a thing deserving to be valued for its own sake. That a thing strives to stay alive is sufficient.
Moral extension is limited by the adopted theory of
value. Many think that moral theories are properly grounded
upon theories of value. That is, you first work out what is of ultimate
value, then construct a moral theory to make it so that we ought to act
so as to seek what is of ultimate value. Further, that we are
predisposed to adopt some kind of hedonistic value theory. Given this
adoption, we will be directly led to a sentience-based criterion of
moral standing. Goodpaster thinks that this might be illegitimate in
some kind of way -- there is no necessary connection between hedonism
and the sentience criterion.
Goodpaster closes with a discussion of six objections with replies to biocentric theories. Some points are repeated from earlier in his paper. Some key, new points are:
- It might appear that life based theories have the problem of not being able to adequately define life, but this is not so. We have an adequate definition. In addition, other theories have similar problems -- e.g., do we have a clear definition of "sentience"?
- Even whole biosystems might be deserving of moral considerability.
- How are we to know what a tree, for example, 'wants' or 'needs'? Goodpaster thinks that there is no epistemological problem, here. Wee have no problem in making decisions (i.e., acquiring knowledge) about others wants and needs. And, it is quite clear what a tree wants/needs.
- Some think that a biocentric ethic would be untenable in that we could never live by it -- we could not eat, protect ourselves, etc. Goodpaster thinks that we could do many of the things we now do, but still act in accordance with a principle of genuine respect for all living things. Presumably, though, many of our current actions would be wrong.
Ecocentrism: The Land Ethic
Leopold suggests that throughout the history of ethics there has been an underlying theme of moral extensionism. From this, an ethic for nature (i.e., the Land) can evolve. This ethic would be philosophically based but also, importantly, ecologically based.
Leopold says that
"An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct."
Some might think that this view is somewhat simplistic and perhaps presupposes a particular conception of morality, but the definition looks good enough for our purposes. Following this, though, we get Leopold's definition of an ethic understood from the ecological point of view, namely:
"An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence."
Leopold thinks that these are, in essence, definitions of the same thing, grounded in evolutionary modes of cooperation. Traditionally, ethics dealt with relations -- or more precisely, conflicts -- between individuals (and usually individual humans), and relations between individuals and society (i.e., politics). From this, within moral contexts, we can talk of both the individual good and the common good. Both need to be taken into account. Leopold's main concern is that there is no ethic dealing with the relations between individuals and the Land. Such an ethic is both an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity, according to Leopold.
This ethic is the "Land Ethic". It arises out of a criticism of the conventional way of viewing the Land -- i.e., in purely economic terms. The key problem, here, is that most members of the Land community do not have an economic value. Because of this, there is no grounding for prohibiting or even restricting their destruction. We see this reflected in a number of ideas and attitudes we commonly have towards various non-economic pieces of the environment. Wetland areas, dunes, deserts, etc., are considered 'wasteland'. Further, there is a problem with Conservationist attempts at dealing with environmental concerns. Conservation, again, will focus primarily on economically valuable natural resources, without any consideration for other things and the interconnections between these that enable sustainable biological production of the resources we use/need.
Opposed to this view of the Land, Leopold suggests we adopt the ecological outlook. That is, we should see the Land as a pyramidal system with interconnected chains -- "a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soil, plants, and animals." The ecological point of view recognizes that all species are ecologically valuable, and that we are likely to never fully understand the relations between things that enable ecological systems to be sustained. The fundamental principle of the Land Ethic is this:
"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
With the Land Ethic, Humans' role is changed from conqueror to plain member or citizen of the biotic community. We see clearly that Leopold proposes a fundamental shift in the criterion of moral considerability, with the direct result of a considerable extension of the boundaries of the moral community. Further, that there is a move from an individualistic ethic to a holistic ethic.
Leopold thinks that once evolved the Land ethic is not likely to lead to ending of alteration, management, and use of 'natural resources' -- plants and animal included. However, it will lead to sustainable practices.
Leopold was somewhat pessimistic of the likelihood of the establishment of the Land Ethic. An ethical relation to the Land requires love, respect, and admiration for the Land, and a high regard for its value (moral value, not economic value). But the likelihood of many people coming to have this view seems not great. We are separated off from nature -- both physically or geographically, and conceptually -- and so do not have the required connection to the Land. Also, there still remains the rather strong view that the Land must be conquered and put to use, if it not to be wasted. The development of the Land Ethic is an intellectual as well as an emotional process, and like all other similar things, it will take time.
- Is it legitimate to think of ethical systems as arising out of a process of 'social evolution'?
- How does the extensionism of the Land Ethic fit with other, more traditional, extensions?
The Conceptual Foundations of
the Land Ethic
J. Baird Callicott
Callicott is sympathetic to Leopold's 'Land Ethic' and attempts to make more robust its theoretical foundations.
Callicott notes at the outset that the Land Ethic has not been well received in mainstream moral philosophy. Many have been highly suspicious of the idea of an ecology based ethical system. He thinks that part of the reason for this is Leopold's style of presentation of his ideas (in a "condensed prose style"), and the radical nature of his main claims. To claim that the 'Land' is deserving or some kind of moral respect is a radical departure from conventional ethics.
As we have noted, Leopold grounds his strategy for establishing the grounds for the Land Ethic on the idea of moral extensionism. Callicott notes that, traditionally, ethical systems or theories have originated and developed either in religious contexts (with divine command serving as the grounds) or in secular contexts (with rationality serving as the grounds). In each of these contexts, moral extensionism is limited by certain fundamental ideas; in general, only humans, or at best, only rational beings, have moral standing. Callicott thinks that the Land Ethic suggests an alternative -- one that is preferable to the others.
This alternative account of the origins and development of morality is grounded in evolutionary ideas. Briefly, morality is grounded in cooperative survival strategies. Further, the development of moral sentiments (moral emotions) predates the development of religion and even rational capacities. This suggests that an evolutionary based ethic is possible -- moral behaviour developed as a survival trait before religion or even rational capacities.
This thinking allows for the extension of the concept of community -- from family or extended family members only be members of 'your' community, or smaller to larger groups of humans, or even the so-called 'Global Community' (of humans, again), to humans being merely members of the biotic community. Thus we get the holistic approach of the Land Ethic. An important implication of this community conception of morality is that the interests of individuals become subordinate to the interests of the whole -- i.e., the interconnected collective. This is modeled on the ecological status of the individual as merely a component in an ecological system through which energy flows. The maintenance of the system (the stability and integrity of the flow mechanisms, etc.) becomes the ultimate concern, or the ultimate good -- i.e., that which is to be sought by moral action. This gives riser to Leopold's general principle: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
Some less general principles follow from this, but in general we are to act so as to preserve ecological systems. Evolution tends to increase the diversity of species. So, maintenance of species diversity becomes a moral requirement. In fact, maintenance of the conditions under which evolution can expand species diversity likely is the moral requirement.
One important problem the Land Ethic seems to have is that
if humans are mere members of the biotic community, it seems that there
is no reason why humans should not be greatly reduced in number so that
we do not cause destruction of the environment. This strikes many as a
wildly implausible implication of the Land Ethic. As Callicott noted,
Tom Regan called it "environmental fascism."
Callicott suggests that the way out of this difficulty is to recognize that the Land Ethic does not imply that humans give up their status in the 'community of humans' We still have standing as humans. So, we could not be killed just for the reason of preventing loss of species diversity, for instance. Further, our closest community relationship take priority over more distant ones. This seems to mean that the Land Ethic would not be overriding. Callicott argues that this is reflective of our thinking that we owe duties to people close to us -- e.g., family members -- first. He suggests as evidence our revulsion at children turning in their parents to some authoritarian regime. However, this looks not to be clearly analogous. Most would think that there may be some cases in which it was a moral requirement to override familial duties -- e.g., when parents are committing some grossly immoral act. Callicott claims that the Land Ethic does not cancel human ethics, but it is not entirely clear why. This difficulty aside, though, the Land Ethic is meant to suggest a pervasive, fairly significant level of concern for environmental systems.
A final issue is whether Leopold's Land Ethic is truly non-anthropocentric. Callicott argues that even though there are places where Leopold writes as if we ought to follow the principles of the Land Ethic so as to make things go well for humans, his expressed ideas predominantly suggest that he thought the Land Ethic provided non-anthropocentric reasons for acting to preserve nature. The 'biotic community' concept seems to support this. It is quite clear, though, that these same reasons could be taken anthropocentrically -- that is, it is to humans advantage to preserve nature, and further, that because of this we have moral duties to other humans with respect to environmental issues.
The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecological Movement
Naess is considered the founder of the so-called "deep ecology" movement. Deep ecology involves a shift from 'shallow' concerns for the environment -- i.e., anthropocentric concerns about pollution, resource depletion, etc. -- to 'deeper' non-anthropocentric concerns directly for nature.
As is directly implied by the title, deep ecology is influenced by fundamental ecological principles. As Naess points out, though, this does not mean that the moral principles or prescriptions that arise follow directly from ecology; ecology is, of course, descriptive, whereas deep ecology is prescriptive. Rather, the norms of deep ecology come from having an ecological attitude. Naess characterizes it in detail in the following way.
(1) Relational, total-field image -- a view of nature such that individual organisms are understood and not having an independent existence. Rather, each organism is at least partly constituted by its relations to other organisms in an ecosystem. This includes humans, so humans are not independent of nature.
(2) Biospherical egalitarianism -- a view that, in principle, all living things deserve a certain kind of respect. In particular, a respect for their "equal right to live and blossom;" not according this respect is "anthropocentrism". This does mean that all living things have equal moral worth. To illustrate, it would not necessarily be wrong to kill and eat some animal.
(3) Principles of diversity and symbiosis -- a recognition that there is mutual advantage in having diversity both of organisms and modes of life for humans. With this is the idea that symbiosis and cooperation (with nature) are better ways of viewing our relationships to nature rather than domination and control.
(4) Anti-class posture -- the above principles of diversity and symbiosis are meant to apply to all things and all people. That is, there are no 'classes' of organisms or people, with respect to choices of modes of life.
(5) Rejection of anti-pollution and conservation strategies. The thinking here is that concentration on 'conservation' issues rather than deep ecology (and preservation) will do two things: (i) detract from the requirements of, and need for, deep ecology, and (ii) enhance rather than reduce class differences.
(6) complexity, not complication -- recognition of the complexity of the biosystem should make humans suitably modest about our level of understanding of natural processes. It's not entirely clear what Naess thinks this means for humans, but he seems to be suggesting that because of our ignorance, our best policy is to adopt pluralistic modes of life so as to avoid causing systems to fail because of singular destructive actions.
(7) Local autonomy and decentralization -- local control allows for direct relationships between the seats of power and specific concerns. It also has the influence of localizing resource use to reduce energy consumption.
These various ideas are meant to characterize an attitude,
or perhaps a set of attitudes, that will lead us to develop norms of
conduct that would reflect a concern for the environment on an
ecological level. Such an attitude arises out of what Naess called
"ecosophy" a blend of ecology and philosophy. Specific principles of
action will likely vary according to local contexts, but the underlying
ideas are universal.
A Critique of Anti-Anthropocentric Ethics
Watson argues against the "egalitarian anti-anthropocentric biocentrism" developed by writers such as Naess. He proposes an ecologically based anthropocentric alternative.
In the first section of his paper, Watson attempts to characterize the anthropocentric environmental ethic labeled biocentrism. Don't worry to much about the details of the account; the summary at the end of the section suffices to show the position taken by this group of environmental philosophers. Most of the basic principles should be familiar by now, but I'll repeat Watson's summary here to lay the foundations for his further arguments.
- The needs, desires, interests, and goals of humans are not privileged. [This is universalizing extended to all living things.]
- Human should not change ecological systems [excluding, presumably, any 'natural' actions we might take].
- The complexity of ecological systems make it impossible for humans to understand fully.
- The summum bonum (or highest good) for humans is the contemplative understanding of nature. [It is this good that we (we ought?) ultimately seek.]
- The complex of nature must be understood holistically. All things are interconnected.
The upshot is that nature must be understood as being in a state of dynamic equilibrium, and human conduct must be constrained so as to prevent disturbance of the state.
[Watson notes that there is a serious philosophical problem in arguing from ecological facts to moral prescription -- the fact-value problem -- but he sets it aside. We'll do the same. Just to state the problem, though, most agree that it is illegitimate to argue from purely factual premisses (reasons) to a value or moral conclusion. An ethic grounded on ecological principles looks like it does just this.]
Watson's key criticism of the biocentric model outlined by Naess, etc., is that it is internally inconsistent. Here's a breakdown of the argument:
If we accept biospherical egalitarianism, then humans should be treated in no special way; humans are not to be set part from nature. But by arguing that natural states occur only when an ecosystem is left untouched by humans, Naess and others are implicitly separating humans from nature. What human do turns out to be unnatural. Hence, there is an internal inconsistency.
Further, all human actions must be seen as natural -- including environmentally destructive ones. Only then do we have humans as being intimately part of nature.
Watson then asks: Should we not, though, halt our environmentally destructive behaviour? Yes, he answers, but only because it is in our best interests to do so. Clearly, then, we have reduced the outlook back to anthropocentrism. Human beings ought to curb their evolutionary tendencies, rather than let them flow as Naess and others argue, because we have such a great potential for being destructive. The fact that only human behaviour is subject to moral evaluation does set us apart. If we really are merely members of the biotic community, then surely egalitarianism implies that we ought not to be treated differently. But most non-anthropocentric ethical systems prescribe constraints only on human conduct.
There is a further point. Most non-anthropocentric theorists suggest that we must preserve certain ecological systems as they are because they are natural, and so are inherently good. But how do we know what the good is? That is, what kinds of ecological systems are inherently good? The Earth has changed considerably over its 4.5 billion year history. Why suppose that current ecological systems are somehow inherently valuable, but others are not? And why suppose that human modified ecological systems are not valuable? Watson thinks that there are no clear answers here.
Watson concludes by suggesting that most environmental
ethical systems are anthropocentric at their foundations. Even those
who explicitly claim to be non-anthropocentric will usually make some
reference to the human good of actions taken to preserve nature. And
usually, this reference will end up being the grounding reason for
restricting human behaviour. Why preserve a diverse global ecosystem?
Because it is best for humans to do so.
Environmental Justice: Reconciling Anthropocentric and Nonanthropocentric Ethics
James P. Sterba
Sterba attempts a kind of reconciliation between anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric environmental ethics. His main point is that the most plausible interpretations of each view will generate roughly the same set of prescriptions concerning our behaviour towards the environment, even though some fundamental theoretical disagreements remain.
As we have noted, non-anthropocentric theories can be either individualistic or holistic. The key aspect of these theories is the view that there is no sound reason for thinking that any species is special or superior, including humans, with the apparent direct implication that there are no good grounds for treating either individuals of different species, or living things collectively, differently. In particular, humans occupy no privileged place in nature. This has the radical consequence, so it seems, that human interests count for not more than the interests of any other living thing or system. Many find this highly implausible. Sterba thinks that this final implication need not follow.
Sterba's argument is outlined on pp. 179-80. Some key points are:
- It can be morally permissible to act showing preference for human interests on self-defence grounds. The arguments here are parallel to those justifying self-defence against other humans. We must note, though, that actions taken in self defence must be proportional, if possible, to the attack (e.g., with respect to the degree of force).
- It can be morally permissible to act showing preference for
human interests for the sake of preservation of human basic needs. The
caveat here is that it is impermissible to attain those needs at the
expense of other human basic needs. Even though this shows a preference
for humans, Sterba thinks that this is not a problem because it is the
way all species behave, i.e., showing preference to their own species.
In other words, there is no reciprocity between species. [There looks
to be a problem here, though; if reciprocity is necessary for moral
constraint, then why should we have any kind of moral concern for other
- It is impermissible to show preference to human interests when the goal is disproportionate to the harm caused. That is, if what humans seek is some non-basic need, then the action taken against members of other species is not justified. [Note the radical practical implications of this principle.]
Two things follow:
- Given the acceptance of an individualistic
non-anthropocentric ethic, if basic needs are at stake, there are good
grounds for humans harming other individuals living things.
- Given the acceptance of a holistic non-anthropocentric ethic, if only non-basic needs are at stake, there are no good grounds for humans harming other individuals living things.
Sterba thinks that the truth of these two claims should lead to a resolution of the disagreement between individualists and holists.
Sterba asks what follows if we adopt an anthropocentric position, general. First, traditional ethical systems allows both for self-defence and preservation of life by seeking basic needs. But will there be any moral requirement of proportionality concerning non-humans?
Sterba argues that there will because even though it is the case that human superiority leads to humans having the greatest value, it does not follow that other species are of no value. Each has at least some kind of intrinsic value. Moreover, proper recognition of this value requires that we take their interests or needs into account, again, with the corresponding practical implications.
The upshot, overall, is that these practical implications are roughly the same for each view.