Is ethics anthropocentric?

It seems as if ethics mainly revolves around the issues that human intelligence faces? Do we treat ethics as just a mere end and not a means, and if so, does that make ethics an objective or subjective phenomenon?

Being a theist I believe in the idea of somethings existing and functioning independently of human observing capabilities. I am currently taking a beginner ethics course in university and would like to understand whether ethics is objective or subjective.

Some help would be appreciated.

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    can you clarify what you mean by anthropocentric? the term can have multiple meanings and it matters greatly what you mean by it. In some cases, it means humanistic (centered on the human). In other cases, it means biased/skewed towards humans. Which sense are you referring to? – virmaior Mar 25 '14 at 4:42
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    Is ethics anthropocentric? Ethics is about concepts of right and wrong conduct, i.e. about man and its actions. Anthrops is man; so, what else ? – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 25 '14 at 7:11
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    @abuser.user Also, please note that you posed two questions, of which only one is represented in the headline. If you want to know whether ethics is subjective, maybe you should ask that separately. – iphigenie Mar 25 '14 at 8:44
  • See: "Monkeys Show Sense Of Fairness, Study Says" at news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/09/… "Justice- and fairness-related behaviors in nonhuman primates" ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3690609 – Dan Christensen Nov 11 '14 at 5:19

Ethics is usually thought of as being subjective.

It's also usually anthropocentric as it's universally assumed (at least as far as I know) that only humans can act as moral agents.

Furthermore, ethics is usually anthropocentric in so far as moral theorists are usually only or mainly interested in human welfare, granting human utility a higher status than animal utility. That said there are ethical philosophers who are very interested in animal rights for example Peter Singer (see "Animal Liberation" but you might also be interested in "How are We to Live").

Personally speaking I was greatly inspired ethically by John Stuart Mill (see "Utilitarianism" and "On Liberty" in particular) whose utilitarian philosophy can easily be used to defend human or animal utility. His forerunner and mentor Jeremy Bentham was also an early animal rights activists.

On an less related note Philippa Foot's 'Trolley Problems' are a fun introduction to ethical questions which I found particularly clear and compelling.


Ethics is not necessarily anthropocentric. I'm going to start with Karl Popper's epistemology. Popper points out that some knowledge is objective, it is instantiated in things other than human brains like books, computer programs, e-mails and so on, which means it can be criticised by others. According to Popper all knowledge is created by conjecture and criticism and can't be created in any other way. If there were non-human aliens creating knowledge they, too, would have to create it by conjecture and criticism. As a result any thing that wants to create knowledge would have to adopt ideas that many people don't have, like the idea that you should answer criticism instead of ignoring it. This just leaves the question of whether there is some non-anthropocentric reason to favour the growth of knowledge. Imagine that there aliens or AIs or some other non-human thinking beings. We would have some disagreements with them and we would have to create knowledge about how to resolve such disagreements.

See "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch for arguments about connections between morality and epistemology and explanations about why rationality and science are not anthropocentric. For Popper's epistemology, see Chapter I of "Realism and the Aim of Science". For Popper's ideas on ethics see "Toleration and Intellectual Responsibility" by Karl Popper http://universaltolerance.org/articles/Toleration%20and%20Intellectual%20Responsibility%20%20Sir%20Karl%20Popper%20%20.pdf



and references therein.

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    popper's theories are a bit clumsy IMVHO, unsophisticated etc.. IIRC his epistemology is irrational by his own standards. beside which why suppose alien life values knowledge? it's possible, but strictly no more possible than animals and freedom. EDIT you may say that freedom is not an objective fact, but you can sub "physiological needs" for freedom, no problem what so ever – user6917 Aug 13 '14 at 3:24
  • Popper's epistemology is not irrational by his own standards. The standard objection along this line is that it's not empirically testable. Two problems. (1) Popper didn't say a theory had to be empirically testable to be rational. He stated explained that epistemology could not be empirically testable, see chapter 2 of Logic of Scientific Discovery. (2) His standard of rationality is that theories must be held open to criticism, this is a property of how we act toward theories not the theories themselves. – alanf Aug 13 '14 at 9:52
  • Aliens who can't create knowledge pose no moral problems because they can't make decisions. Aliens who can create knowledge should want to do so in order to solve problems, e.g. - how to get food or fuel, how to dispose of waste and other higher order concerns like aesthetics. – alanf Aug 13 '14 at 10:00
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    i have read that books, and the counter-claim is more sophisticated that you think. i can't quite remember, something alone the lines of scientific justification being impossible without induction. look up the popper page on stanford... – user6917 Aug 13 '14 at 16:52
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    as to point 2 - aliens don't need to "value" knowledge to be knowledgeable, and don't really need to value anything in order to pose moral problems. maybe we're talking past each other now – user6917 Aug 13 '14 at 16:55

According to Eliezer Yudkowsky's research on how to design a General AI which will not go sky-net and kill us with nukes (or worse,) it is.

His hypothesis goes that the human brain is the most complicated thing in the known universe, and that humans have hundreds or thousands of disconnected desires. One example he gives is surgery: You shouldn't stab people with knives; unless you are a surgeon; but then only if you have a filled-out consent-form, otherwise it is malpractise.

The thesis then goes, that brain damage, neurological disorders and psychological disorders can turn people callous and strange, so ethics on an individual basis is most definitely a thing of the human mind.

Further he argues that if ethics were external to humankind, why should we follow it. He has an article wherein he poses the hypothetical scenario where the Stone Tablet of Morality (tm) commands thee to do despicable or weird things. In that case, Yudkowsky would elect to disregard the Tablet and not do despicable.

Yudkowsky makes a point of playing malvolent wish-granting genie with people who come to him with ethical theories not rooted in the human mind; going so far as to write fictional portrayals of "wishes gone wrong," to quite horrific extent in his story Failed Utopia #4-2 wherein a researcher has activated a superintelligent AI, which changes the world order in ways which are only almost right.

ETA: Yudokowsky does at no point argue that ethics are subjective, based on them not feeling that way, nor working out that way in thought-experiments involving altered states of mind, with reasoning as follows: Even if you get lobotomized to think murder is the right thing to do, it is still the wrong thing to do.

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