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.

  • 1
    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
  • 3
    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 ? Mar 25 '14 at 7:11
  • 3
    @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 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.

  • 2
    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
  • 1
    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
  • 1
    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

Be wary of what is meant by objective and subjective. Subjectivity is neccessarily involved, because it is a domain of concern about persons, with their points of view. But science begins with investigations by persons, but uses tools like repetition, consilience, etc to achieve repeatable results based on abstractions tested as representing the system or process well. In ethics, there might be a transcendental subjective, that is the picture of the supreme deity in Hinduism, & of Leibniz's monadology, which allows universal statements about subjective experiences. I would also point to the role of mirror neurobs and intersubjectivity, as essential precursors to the layer of thinking ethics is in. And the insight from the Dunbar number to note our minds developed primarily to deal with oyr social landscape, rather than for tool use. It is complex language in particular, which facilitates us being able to be ethical rather than instinctive, the communion of minds in modes of life, another meshing of subjectivities. Rawl's theory of justice is I would argue based on this kind of intuitive intersubjectivity.

You should consider moral realism stances, rather than be looking fir objectivity in morality. Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape proposes a mathematical science of morality based on axioms, and I was arguing here that isn't tenable. A science of morality holds more water, but I was argue here that culture, especially religious and political culture, need to be thought of as part of a combined practical craft for building social cohesion and balancing people's competing concerns, which builds on what is already present culturally. In particular, I'd mention Durkheim's idea that holding shared values as sacred, binds together moral communities.

I have a particular interest in non-human minds, artificial general intelligences, animal cognition, and considerations around communication with aliens. I am surprised how few philosophers seem to directly consider these issues. Peter Singer has done a lot from his utilitarian perspective around ethics in relation to animals, writing Animal Rights which popularised that term, and writing The Expanding Circle which argues for a definition of moral progress which is expanding - and he has done work to support enhanced rights to be given legally to great apes and dolphins. Dinna Harraway in The Cyborg Manifesto rejects rigid boundaries between human, animal and machine. I asked a question about dynamic animal cultural intelligence in relation to our morality, but it seems it was deleted - I haven't found any philosophical thinking on this.

It is worth saying ethics do not have to lay claim to be universalisable, like Kant argued with the categorical imperative. Ethics can be pictured as a kind of therapy, a set of tools for a personal journey, analogous to a theodicy. I'd point to Stoicism as a clear example of this, especially Aurelius' Meditations, where an unjust and unfair world is taken as a given, abd the work is about what we can do with our own expectations, reactions and behaviours. This is very comparable to Buddhist ethics also. This is significant in relation to the charge of anthropocentrism, because animals or any other beings can readily be considered in their own terms - and Buddhism does so, considering not only animals but deva deities and hell-beings as moral persons we should have concern for and seek to help.


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.

  • "Even if you get lobotomized to think murder is the right thing to do, it is still the wrong thing to do." War? Self defence?
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 6 at 1:47

Morals isn't really human-centric.

I'm going to begin with Karl Popper's epistemology. Popper calls attention to that some information is objective; it is launched in things other than human cerebrums, like books, PC programs, messages, etc, which implies it tends to be scrutinized by others. As per Popper, all information is made by guess and analysis and can't be made in some other manner.

On the off chance that there were non-human outsiders making information, they, as well, would need to make it by guess and analysis. Accordingly, anything that needs to make information would need to receive thoughts that numerous individuals don't have, similar to the possibility that you should answer analysis as opposed to overlooking it.

This fair leaves the subject of whether there is some non-human-centric motivation to support the development of information. Envision that there outsiders or AIs or some other non-human reasoning creatures. We would have a few conflicts with them and we would need to make information about how to determine such differences.

See "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch for contentions about associations among ethical quality and epistemology and clarifications concerning why judiciousness and science are not human-centric. For Popper's epistemology, see Chapter I of "Authenticity and the Aim of Science". For Popper's thoughts on morals, see "Toleration and Intellectual Responsibility" by abid ali


The first step in philosophy is always clarification of meaning (so, for example, to clarify the terms of a question before proposing an answer to a question). (1) "Anthropocentric" means over-narrowly understood from the perspective of human beings (as opposed to the perspective of other animals, deities, inanimate objects, etc.). I guess it's a matter of degree, but for any of the ways I've listed in which something can be anthropocentric, there are philosophers who consider ethics from a non-anthropocentric (i.e. less anthropocentric) perspective: e.g. Peter Singer for animals, Thomas Aquinas for deities, Gilles Deleuze for inanimate objects. (2) Usually people talk about "mere means" rather than a "mere end," because ends are typically held in higher regard than means because means are means to (i.e. for the sake of) ends. Most moral philosophers consider ethics an end-in-itself (e.g. Spinoza: "Virtue is its own reward"), but there are some that consider it a means to some further end (e.g. Epicurus: treat others fairly so that they treat you fairly so that you reduce likelihood of pain and increase likelihood of pleasure). The question of whether ethics is a means or an end is asking whether the point of acting ethically is for its own sake or for the sake of something else. (3) "Objective" vs "subjective" is a separate question. Very roughly, a proposition is "objective" if its truth doesn't depend on anyone's beliefs about it, and "subjective" if it does. So, for example, moral truths would be subjective if everyone agreeing on a certain set of moral rules would make those moral rules the right ones, whereas moral truths would be objective if it's possible for everyone to be wrong about what the correct moral rules are (and there would still be some truth of the matter about what the correct moral rules are; it's just that everyone happened to be wrong about it).

But from your self-identification as a theist and the general directions of your questions, I get the sense that what you're really wondering is whether moral truths get their justification solely from human conventions or whether they're based on something nonhuman (e.g. divine authority). By "moral truths" I mean true propositions about which acts one morally ought to do ("morally permissible acts"), which acts one morally can do ("morally permissible acts"), and which acts one morally ought not to do ("morally prohibited acts"). Please correct me if I'm way off on this reading of your post. As for the answer: Whatever moral truths there are can only ever be justified by human conventions. If moral truths did get their justification from something nonhuman, we'd only recognize it insofar as we justify it by the conventions of human reasoning.


It derives from our shared history. That should make it valid. Ethics, you could say, is a life imperative, otherwise it wouldn't exist: entropy and randomness would have won.

  • So, can we expect aliens to abide by any of our morality? You haven't addressed the question in the post.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 6 at 1:41
  • @CriglCragl: the OP didn't say anything about aliens. When one really examines the notion of the UNIverse, there is no reason to believe that aliens exist outside of about 2 dimensions of reality. But if they did, they would have to share our history at some point -- even if it begins in the formation of atoms.
    – TheDoctor
    Aug 12 at 21:05

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