Environmental ethics is the study of of the human relationship to the environment. While there are many different environmental ethical philosophies, each helps us answer one important question: what is our duty to the environment?
Anthropocentrism is one of the main branches of environmental philosophy. It argues that human beings are more important than other life forms and beings, and ultimately leads to the idea that we should only value nature for the benefits it provides to humankind.
In this article, we’ll look into the concept of anthropocentrism in environmental ethics, including what it means, how it impacts our belief systems, and some of the dangers that may accompany an anthropocentric viewpoint.
Background information: What Is Environmental Ethics?
What Is Anthropocentrism?
Anthropocentrism comes from the greek work anthropos, meaning ‘human’, and the word kentron, meaning ‘center.’ Thus, anthropocentrism is an environmental philosophy that believes humans are the “center” of the universe, and are thus the only beings worthy of moral standing. This philosophy places humans not only as separate from nature, but as more important than nature.
Under an anthropocentric viewpoint, humans regard the environment to be in service of the wellbeing of humans. When evaluating what is ethical under anthropocentrism, only human beings’ needs and emotional wellbeing must be taken into consideration. Other entities such as animals, plants, and minerals are viewed as resources for humans to use and consume. Some also refer to the concept as human exceptionalism.
Most modern Western societies operate from an anthropocentric viewpoint, believing it is morally acceptable to use nature for our own purposes. However, many older societies or non-Western societies leaned towards a more biocentric viewpoint, in which all life was valued, or even towards ecocentrism, in which all parts of nature, including non-living things, are valued.
Anthropocentrism and the Environment: What Does This Philosophy Lead To?
Anthropocentrism can lead to exploitation of nature and depletion of natural resources. If we believe that we don’t owe anything to nature, then it follows that we can use it as we like to meet our own needs. For example, anthropocentrists would argue that there is no moral wrong in cutting down trees, as we can use them to keep ourselves warm. Many of today’s environmental crises, including climate change, ultimately stem from an anthropocentric view that humans are entitled to natural resources.
However, anthropocentrists may still value nature and find reasons to protect it that fit within a viewpoint that humans are superior. This way of thinking values nature for its usefulness to people. For example, some might argue that we must protect nature so that humans can continue to rely on it (In other words, we can’t deplete natural resources completely because that would endanger human survival). Anthropocentrists would argue for conservation, the protection of nature so that it may be used in the future, rather than preservation, the protection of nature from any interference at all.
Similarly, anthropocentrists may argue for environmental protection because a healthy environment is crucial to human health. For example, polluting water or air often leads to health problems in humans that drink the polluted water or breathe the polluted air.
Finally, some anthropocentrists argue that because humans have superior intellect, we have a moral responsibility to protect lesser species. According to this viewpoint, the very fact that we’re superior is what compels us to act in the favor of other species. Wesley J. Smith summed up this outlooks well in his book A Rat Is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Right Movement: “Because we are unquestionably a unique species—the only species capable of even contemplating ethical issues and assuming responsibilities—we uniquely are capable of apprehending the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, proper and improper conduct toward animals. Or to put it more succinctly, if being human isn’t what requires us to treat animals humanely, what in the world does?”
In summary, anthropocentrism is an environmental ethical philosophy that places humans above all other living and non-living beings. While this philosophy can lead to exploitation of nature, it can also lead to valuing nature for its use to humans – in other words, protecting nature so that we can continue to use it.
Learn more about other environmental philosophies: