Why Anthropocentrism Works for Deep Ecology

July 23, 2008 at 10:22 pm Leave a comment

In “The Deep Ecology Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects” and other essays, Arne Naess wrote that an anthropocentric system of ethics is not a sound foundation for deep ecology. This was true for Naess even if such an anthropocentric ethic seemed to support the goals of the deep ecology movement. On this point, I think that Naess has it dead wrong. While all the possible foundations that Naess mentions provide a very intuitive basis for believing in the deep ecology platform, it is possible to have an anthropocentric ethic and still believe that the goals of deep ecology are important to pursue.

Right out the gate, it seems like the deep ecology platform is opposed to an anthropocentric ethic. The first tenant of the platform, after all, refers to the intrinsic value of all human and non-human life. How can an anthropocentric ethic recognize the intrinsic value of non-human life? If recognizing the intrinsic value of non-humans means that we must equate their value with those of humans, than I’m afraid Naess has me. It would seem a contradiction in terms to think that an anthropocentric ethic could work in such a way and remain anthropocentric. If, on the other hand, we can recognize the intrinsic value of non-human life and then acknowledge that different beings have different value, and that the flourishing of a being means something different for each kind of being, then an anthropocentric ethic can work for deep ecology. I see no reason why this take on intrinsic value is incorrect.

Naess is concerned, however, that even this variety of anthropocentric thinking provides too shaky a foundation for the deep ecology platform. He writes in “Deep Ecology: Some Philosophical Aspects” that such a foundation does not effective enough in producing belief in the deep ecology movement. The deep ecological ethic “would surely be more effective if it were acted upon by people who believe in its validity, rather than its usefulness.” This brings to my mind Richard Rorty’s call for sentimental education as a background for ethics. Rorty identifies the difficulty human rights ethicists have in posing effective arguments to those racists or sexists who believe that those they persecute are less than human. He proposes an education that emphasizes empathy and sentimentality as a means of promoting human rights that bypasses the arguments and deaf ears. The difference between Rorty’s call and Naess’ is that Rorty is open about his advocacy of sentimentality on the basis of its usefulness and Naess is not.

By promoting certain kinds of foundations on the basis of their usefulness and then refusing to count a pragmatic ethic among them, Naess is being somewhat inconsistent. It’s fair to say that the usefulness of a foundation is not Naess’ only criteria for an adequate foundation for the deep ecology platform, but it should be acknowledged as one criteria among many. For Naess, however, acknowledging utility as a sound ethical criteria falls into the category of shallow (read: narrow-minded) ecology. I think that this is to the detriment of what should be the big tent of the deep ecology movement, especially as an anthropocentric ethic can include belief in the intrinsic values of non-humans and can be quite effective in motivating ethical action.


Entry filed under: Anthropocentrism, Arne Naess, Deep Ecology, Ethics, Philosophy, Rorty. Tags: .

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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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