Article Index


3.2.1 Different anthropocentric positions

The central ethical question is: Who or what belongs to the moral universe? In other words, to whom or what do we have direct moral obligations? Who or what has a dignity that must be respected? In this section we deal only with the anthropocentric view of the moral universe. We can state: The anthropocentric view of environmental ethics is totally human-centred. But also, within the tight boundaries of a moral universe seen as strictly human, there are different ways to answer our central question. Some of the most common answers are (after Krebs 1999: 19):

  1. Only myself (egoism)
  2. Myself, my family, and friends (small group egoism)
  3. All people of my class (classism)
  4. All citizens of my country (nationalism)
  5. All people of my race (racism)
  6. All people of my sex (sexism)
  7. All living human beings (universalism of the present)
  8. All living human beings and those of the past (universalism including the past)
  9. All living human beings and those of the future (universalism including the future)

In the light of this sequence of nine steps, each of which expands the boundaries of the moral universe, a moral theory is anthropocentric if it opts for one of the positions between (1) and (9) being within the boundaries of the moral universe and excludes all non-human beings from direct moral concern. From an amplified (physiocentric) perspective that also includes non-human beings in the moral universe, this anthropocentric position may seem as ‘species egoism’ or ‘species-ism’ (Singer 1975) or as a form of ‘human chauvinism’ (Routley and Routley 1979).

The above sequence presents a hierarchical structure, expanding the focus of anthropocentrism more and more. We cannot discuss all the different positions in detail here, but of special interest is the anthropocentric position number 9, because it includes the living humans not only of the present but also of the future. Indeed, what we do to nature today severely reduces the chances of future generations to lead good lives. If moral respect is respect for the good life of all others, it must include the good life of future generations. It is difficult to see what argument could be made against this approach. As Angelika Krebs says:

Disregarding the good life of those who come after us, who have a different position in time, is parallel to disregarding the good life of those who have a different position in space, for instance people in the Third World. If the second is immoral, the first must be immoral too (Krebs 1999: 20).

It is not clear how the future will be and what future generations will need for their good life. We can’t know exactly, but we can imagine some basic needs of the people to come; although we do not know their personal and culture-specific options for the good life, we know a lot about what are universally accessible basic options.

They will, for example, want to be healthy and many of them will want to enjoy clear summer days. If we destroy the ozone layer and future generations must remain indoors to avoid skin cancer, how could this be morally right? (Krebs 1999: 20).

We can say: because they will have existence, future generations have all the same moral rights that present generations have, including the right to life. Therefore an anthropocentric ethics has to claim that we have obligations to respect the environment for the sake of human well-being and prosperity in the present and in the future. Moreover, it is evident that the actions and policies that we contemporary humans undertake will have a great impact on the well-being of future individuals (see Gewirth 2001). Although there is a lack of reciprocity (because future generations cannot do anything for us in exchange for what we do for them), and a problem of knowledge (because we do not know exactly, who and how future people will be; see Parfit 1984), one can argue that our obligations lie with ensuring that we do not prevent future generations from meeting their basis needs (see Barry 1999). This, for instance, ‘forces us to consider and appropriately revise our levels of pollution, resource depletion, climate change and population growth’ (Cochrane 2007).