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3.2 The anthropocentric view


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).

3.2.2 Instrumental value of nature

In the anthropocentric view animals, plants, ecosystems and the whole of nature have a ‘value’ only in relation to human beings and their interests. This is mostly called ‘instrumental value’. The most important consequence of this perspective with respect to the protection of environment and nature is that the only acceptable reason to conserve and cultivate nature is that the satisfaction of basic human needs—such as nourishing the body and maintaining health—depends on nature. Nature, especially in the form of natural resources, is a precondition for our biological and economic life; without nature human life is not possible.

In the anthropocentric view, nature (air, water, minerals, animals, plants, etc.) is necessary and valuable for human beings—but valuable only in this sense. There is no other reason for estimating nature, no value of nature for itself, but only in respect to human interests. And reluctance to use natural resources (animals, fossil fuels, minerals, etc.) can be justified only in respect to the needs and interests of contemporary humans or, at most, future generations.

 So, for instance, the discussion of sustainable development frequently focuses on forms of resource management, with an emphasis on social justice and on the well-being of future generations of humans (see Palmer 2008: 18). Indeed, the most commonly cited definition of sustainable development, taken from Our Common Future’ (WCED 1987) is anthropocentric: ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

From this viewpoint we do not need special environmental ethics, because all ethics are always human ethics. Values are both human-generated and human-focused. In principle, only humans have ‘moral standing’ and are ‘moral agents’. In accordance with this very strict anthropocentric view we have to distinguish between, on the one hand, ‘direct duties’ to all beings with moral standing (i.e. all humans) and, on the other hand, ‘indirect duties’ to all beings (animals, plants, etc.) that humans (as moral agents) need for continuing their life responsibly, well-being. Nature is ethically valuable only in an indirect manner if, and only if, nature contributes to the needs and interests of humans. In consequence, we have to distinguish between ‘value in nature’ and ‘value of nature’ (Palmer 2008: 17): but only the second will be accepted by strict anthropocentrics such as the philosopher William Baxter, because for them there are no intrinsic values in nature itself. If we speak about the ‘value of nature’, then we only attribute to nature our own interests regarding nature. Without humans there would not be any ‘natural’ values.

But this strong anthropocentric view stands in sharp contrast to the intuitive feelings many people have towards nature: they esteem or love nature (natural beings such as plants and animals) for their own sake, not only for instrumental reasons. Wise or moderate anthropocentric philosophers concede that we can have more than instrumental interests regarding the environment and nature: they argue that it is not necessary for anthropocentric reasoning to emphasise only the pragmatic or utilitarian aspects of our interrelations with nature. Without leaving the anthropocentric position we can come into contact with nature in an aesthetic or contemplative way (more passive than active, more enjoying than using in a technological sense).

3.2.3 Aesthetic and other values of nature

We have said that some less strict anthropocentrics concede that at least an aesthetic (or contemplative) argument for protecting nature could be added to the instrumental view of nature; they base the need to conserve and cultivate nature on nature’s sensual attractions for us, the pleasure we take, for instance, in breathing fresh mountain air.

Beyond a narrow instrumentalistic perspective you can recognise nature’s aesthetic and contemplative values. Such values resemble intrinsic values of nature, because they seem to be values of nature in itself, but nevertheless they are attributed by humans: they come into the world only through human beings and their aesthetic or contemplative practice. And hold in mind that aesthetic or contemplative values have another quality as moral or ethical values! For many people the term ‘contemplative value’ means not only that nature is an aesthetic resource for us, but also that nature is absolutely beautiful and sublime! Here the anthropocentric position goes over to an epistemic and ontological position (although not in a moral sense), examining the problem how we can recognise nature in a metyphysical way.

However, someone can deny this ontological implication and argue that there is no independent aesthetic quality of nature in itself; that an aesthetic or contemplative value of nature only exists if a human being values nature’s beauty and sublimity. You can consider for yourself whether you think nature has genuine aesthetic worth or not. You might conduct common thought experiment and ask: Would the last human being on earth commit a wrong if he or she destroyed nature? If it is wrong for the last person to destroy the whole planet, then non-humans must have value, perhaps even moral value in themselves!

Consider whether it is really a contradiction in itself to say that nature’s aesthetic value is an ‘aesthetic intrinsic value for us’. Could there be aesthetic aspects of nature in itself (in an objective meaning), only recognisable for us, but in a manner that we are not free to decide what we regard as aesthetically attractive in nature, because certain qualities of nature have to be estimated as aesthetic by anthropological reasons (basing on the general human constitution)?

In finding it intrinsically valuable to contemplate something, we respond to qualities which inhere in it, its enormous size or power (giant redwood trees, waterfalls) or its structural complexity (bizarre rock formations), or its freedom from marks of instrumental human activity (the sea, the desert, the sky)‘ (Krebs 1999: 46).

It may be that our given practice of aesthetic perception is a prerequisite to experience the beauty and sublimity of nature, but this special relationship between us and nature is a fundamental (ontological and anthropological) trait both of ourselves and the non-human natural world. Indeed, it is necessary to have aesthetic consciousness to experience nature as beauty, but nevertheless nature is beautiful in itself, and we possess an innate disposition to feel nature’s beauty! These are complex philosophical questions that are not easy to answer, and this will give us a good occasion to discuss the problem of the intrinsic values of nature in a more general perspective.

If one does decide that nature has an intrinsic aesthetic value, this does not mean that a moral intrinsic value can also be ascribed to nature. From an anthropocentric perspective moral intrinsic values are internal to our moral culture (and never external). Therefore, on the one hand, an anthropocentric philosopher may accept aesthetic and contemplative values as intrinsic values of nature, but, on the other hand, he can deny that moral values of nature are intrinsic values of nature: for him moral values are always human-related values of using and enjoying natural resources or phenomena. But he may concede that the contemplation of nature is valuable for a good human life. In this sense (and only in this sense) in an anthropocentric view the aesthetic value of nature (what may be an intrinsic value) contributes to the morality of humankind, insofar as life as a good life is of moral importance. So, aesthetic (intrinsic) values of nature contribute in an indirect manner to ethics, although aesthetic values in themselves are not genuine moral values. This is indeed a very intricate consideration, but a typical example of philosophical reasoning.

The point is that the anthropocentric position is not principally against emotions or feelings; it doesn’t refer only to material interests in nature. Anthropocentric thinkers can share with non-anthropocentric ethicists the special positive feelings towards the natural environment in which human beings have lived for long periods of their lives, because these places provide feelings of familiarity and security. These are feelings of ‘homeland’. The homeland usually contributes to the identity of those who live there. Understanding yourself in terms of a native landscape is a common form of expressing individuality (see Krebs 1999: 55). A feeling of alienation and mourning will arise in many people who return to places where they have lived in former times, and see, for example, that the trees in front of their childhood home have vanished, that the whole natural environment has changed radically. Anthropocentric philosophers can agree with the idea that nature should be conserved if it is part of the home of humans. So the anthropocentric view is compatible with a certain idealism and even romanticism (towards ‘homeland’).

An anthropocentric-oriented person can also have empathy and compassion towards sentient animals, although denying that sentient animals have any moral intrinsic value in themselves. The desire to avoid pain and unhappiness for all living beings is not unusual in an anthropocentric. To have compassion for living beings that can feel pain and distress doesn’t need a special ethical justification, because for most people this is self-evident. Even without moral respect for nature one can love nature and hold it in high esteem. The anthropocentric view is not the same as a cold and heartless view of nature. Anthropocentrics can appreciate, in principle, all natural phenomena and their integrity, although they are not disposed to attribute to nature any moral intrinsic value.

Only if the anthropocentric position is restricted to a purely instrumental view of nature is it then associated with a cruel and strict materialistic view. ‘Only someone who damages or destroys nature without good reasons, someone who leaves an empty Coca Cola can lying around in a field, or who steps on a beetle or a flower, which could easily have been avoided, vandalizes nature.’ In contrast ‘When workers on a construction site fell trees to make space for a new building, they obviously do not do anything which corrupts their character. They do not vandalize nature’ (Krebs 1999: 58).

Intelligent and prudent anthropocentrics will never destroy the natural environment just to protect the natural base of their own live, but also for the reasons of protecting their own positive (aesthetic and empathic) feelings towards an intact nature. So, ultimately, the behaviour of an anthropocentric will not differ from that of a moderate non-anthropocentric who concedes nature a moral intrinsic value.

Only in comparison to a more fundamental non-anthropocentric ethicist will the anthropocentric ethicist act differently, for example, killing a cockroach in the kitchen, something a radical non-anthropocentric would never do. For an anthropocentric ethicist a cockroach may have an ecological value (value in the sense of ‘function’), in so far as nature is a complex interconnected system (what humans need for their healthy life), but not a moral value in itself. From the anthropocentric’s perspective there is no reason not to kill an individual cockroach; no moral respect will hinder him or her from extinguishing this single animal. This marks a clear difference between a moderate anthropocentric view and a radical non-anthropocentric view of nature. Nevertheless, as we have seen, there are different possibilities of arguing for ‘values of nature’ in an anthropocentric manner—not only in an instrumental or materialistic way. On the other hand, there are good reasons to claim that anthropocentric ethics is too narrow-minded because it is too human-centred, and that not only humans belong to the moral universe.