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Given the current ecological crisis caused by human industrial activity, what justifications can be made for prioritizing humans over other lifeforms and ecosystems, and adopting an anthropocentric systems of values w/r to the environment?

This question first came up in paper on the topic of the philosophy of the human person, but it seems that it has as much to do with environmental ethics and with theology and metaphysics as it does with questions of personhood and personal identity.

What concepts related to Philosophy of the Human Person are relevant to this question? The concept of Selfhood or personhood? Are dualism and theocentrism relevant as well?

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    @virmajor I vote for reopen. The three persons, who gave an answer, got a similar understanding of the question. Apparently their answers either are different or use different arguments for the same conclusion. In my opinon the question can prompt interesting answers. I would be interested to read further answers. – Jo Wehler Jan 8 '16 at 3:46
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One obvious answer is to look to the recent writing by Pope Francis called Laudato Si. It explains one particular way of connecting environmental issues with a theological/dualist/anthropocentric point of view. While obviously being primarily theological in nature, it also hits on relevant philosophical view points.

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Anthropocentrismus is the view that puts the human species into the center. This can be done either in the field of ontology or ethics. In the latter case anthropocentrism is also named speciesism.

I understand your question as relating to speciesism. My answer:

  • The ecological crisis has no relation to speciesism. It neither supports nor refutes speciecism.

A person which defends speciecism will argue for fighting against the ecological crisis. Considered from an ethical point of view, there is no difference between our duties to contemporaries or to future persons. We are responsible to leave to future generations conditions not worse than we found today. This ethical view has been advocated by Hans Jonas in his book The Imperative of Responsibility.

A person which takes a broader stance in ethics than speciesism takes into account also duties to non-human animals. Hence the same argument of responsibility applies.

Summing up: Any ethics based on responsibility calls for fighting against the ecological crisis. The relevant concept is the concept of responsibility.

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Here is one farfetched - but I think sound - argument that allows us to give a privileged status to human beings compared to other forms of life without resorting to any supernatural or theistic ideas. It is a variation of sorts on Ned Block's Chinese brain concept, except with a positive spin. It also borrows from Hofstadter's strange loop concept, in that it is hinged on the idea that self-awareness develops in systems which are capable of observing themselves. Another way of looking at it is as a literalist interpretation of Hegel's world spirit.

  • A self aware world is better than a world that is not self aware.
  • Humans are the only agents by which the world is self aware, since they are what allows the world to perceive itself.
  • Human needs therefore take precedence over the needs of other forms of life.

A balance still needs to be struck between human needs and those of the overall ecosystem - the intention is not to provide a modern justification of "go forth and multiply", that would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. This just allows us to avoid going to the other extreme, which is to say that the best way to save the planet is to gradually eliminate humanity all together (There are those who hold this view).


Aside from this approach, it seems to me that any way of giving a privileged status to human needs would require some form of theism, or at least a Cartesian "Humans-are-the-only-beings-with-souls" dualism.

  • Could you please give an argument for the thesis A self aware world is better than a world that is not self aware; thanks. – Jo Wehler Jan 7 '16 at 21:22
  • @JoWehler we can argue for that thesis by the following thought experiment: Given two universes, identical in every single way, except for the fact that the first one has no self-aware or conscious beings in it and the second does, which one is better? The second one is, because in the first one - the lack of self awareness means that there is no concept of good or bad at all. – Alexander S King Jan 8 '16 at 0:22
  • In order to assess two possible worlds you need an external(!) scale of valuation. Your external scale is ceteris paribus a world with good/bad discrimination is better than one without. Where from do you take this scale? – Jo Wehler Jan 8 '16 at 3:55
  • @JoWehler the first world doesn't have a scale at all, so we might as well used the second world's scale. That's sort of the point. – Alexander S King Jan 8 '16 at 5:22
  • In order to compare two objects one needs a common scale. Don't you agree? – Jo Wehler Jan 8 '16 at 5:35
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We understand the anthropomorphic set of values better than we understand those of larger sets. Thus, we can make better decisions centered around our own viewpoint. This naturally happens whenever we use subjective terminology.

The importance of personhood or selfhood in this argument is that most such debates tend to presume the golden rule (a human value, mind you) is a good thing. Thus, if we claim we should go after our values, the golden rule suggests that it we should respect others going after their values as well, but we have to understand what those words mean. Typically, this is boiled down to the idea that a "self" can have values, and a "non-self" cannot.

I do note that the "current ecological crisis" does not automatically challenge humans acting in human interests. That argument has to be made separately. It looks like the question you came across starts from the assumption that "anthropocentric" means "humans first" not "humans in the center." If you only consider anthropocentric viewpoints which put all values of humans above all values of non-humans, you drastically limit the number of options you are looking at.

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