A “-centrism” is a worldview or way of looking at things that places some particular value or group at the center. Anthropocentrism is that worldview that considers humans to be the most important thing in the Universe, or at least on the planet Earth. In contrast, the biocentric worldview considers humans to be a particular species of animal, without greater intrinsic value than any of the other species of organisms that occur on Earth. The ecocentric world view incorporates the biocentric one, while additionally proposing that humans are a natural component of Earth’s ecosystem and that humans have a right to the products and services of ecosystems in order to sustain themselves and their societies.
It is agreed by almost all scientists and philosophers that scientific knowledge cannot resolve questions of value. That is, science can only reveal what is, not what should or shouldn’t be, which is the realm of values or morality. Therefore, although some value debates involve facts provided by science, they are not scientific debates. Scientific research cannot resolve them and scientists do not speak in them with special authority. The debates about anthropocentrism and other value systems are of this type.
There are a number of implications of the anthropocentric view, which strongly influence the ways in which humans interpret their relationships with other species and with nature and ecosystems. Some of these are as follows:
- The anthropocentric view suggests that humans have greater intrinsic value than other species. A possible result of this attitude is that any species that are of potential use to humans are a “resource” to be exploited. This has, historically, usually occurred in an unsustainable fashion that results in degradation, sometimes to the point of extinction, of nonhuman species, as has occurred with the dodo, great auk, and other animals.
- The view that humans have greater intrinsic value than other species also influences ethical judgments about interactions with other organisms. These ethics are often used to legitimize treating other species in ways that would be considered morally unacceptable if humans were similarly treated. For example, animals are often treated cruelly in medical research and agriculture. This treatment of other species has been labeled “speciesism” by some ethicists.
- Another possible implication or assumption of the anthropocentric view is the belief that humans are the height of the natural evolutionary progression of species and of life. This belief is often said to be in contrast to the modern biological theory of evolution, which does not find any scientific use for ranking some species as “higher” than any others (although such language has often been used by biologists over the last two centuries).
Thus, anthropocentric views can be, and often have been, used to justify unlimited violence against the nonhuman world. However, it should also be noted that such violence does not follow as a logical necessity from all forms of anthropocentrism. For example, an anthropocentrism that views human beings as charged with a caretaking or nurturing mission with respect to the rest of Nature might urge human beings to be mindful of the nonhuman. A few evangelical Christian thinkers have advanced such ideas in recent years. Likewise, ecocentric or biocentric views that cast human beings as “just another species” do not logically require that we treat nonhumans as well as we treat humans; the darker conclusion might be drawn that humans need be treated no better than we now usually treat nonhumans. A few extreme thinkers of the ecoregional school have argued that mass famines in places such as Africa are “natural” and should not be interfered with.
The individual, cultural, and technological skills of humans are among the attributes that make our species, Homo sapiens, special and different. The qualities of humans have empowered the species to a degree that no other species has achieved during the history of life on Earth, through the development of social systems and technologies that make possible an intense exploitation and management of the environment. This power has allowed humans to become the most successful species on Earth (although if sheer numbers are the measure of success, then bacteria and insects are more successful than humans and always will be). This success is indicated by the large population of humans that is now being maintained and the increasing amounts of Earth’s biological and environmental resources that are being appropriated to sustain the human species.
Success, however, is a value concept, not a strictly scientific concept. Thus, group size is not the only possible measure of evolutionary success. Sustainability or duration of the group might be chosen as a better measure. There are clear signals that the intense exploitation of the environment by humans is causing widespread ecological degradation and diminishing the Earth’s carrying capacity or ability to sustain people, other species, and ecosystems. As this environmental deterioration continues, the recent centuries of unparalleled success of the human species may turn out to be short-lived. Human beings have always, and will always, require access to a continued flow of ecological goods and services to sustain themselves and their societies.
Anthropocentrism should not be confused with the anthropic principle, a controversial idea in cosmology and astronomy. The anthropic principle is that since we are observing the universe, cosmic conditions must be such that they permit us, the observers, to evolve. That is, only a universe that permits observers to evolve is an observable universe. The significance of this fact for physics and cosmology has been much debated. Some scientists have argued that there is an infinite multiverse or endless foam of universes, all with different characteristics, and that only those universes whose conditions permit the evolution of intelligent observers can be observed by us or anyone else. The multiverse concept remains a hypothesis.
Anthropocentrism (human-centered) is a term used to describe certain philosophical perspectives that claim that ethical principles apply to humans only, and that human needs and interests are of the highest value and importance. Anthropocentrism is found in both religious and secular philosophies. In science, anthropocentrism has played an important role in liberating human knowledge from external authorities, and in promoting the interests of humanity as a whole against particular interests. Both scientists and theologians have drawn on anthropocentrism to defend specific views about nature, scientists often on the basis of a perspective on evolution in which humans are considered the highest form of life on Earth, and theologians on the basis of a divinely mandated right for humans to exercise dominion over nature.
Beginning in about 1970, anthropocentrism became common in environmental discourse. Anthropocentric ethics evaluates environmental issues on the basis of how they affect human needs and attaches primary importance to human interests. The term contrasts with various biocentric (lifecentered) perspectives, which assume that nonhumans are also carriers of moral value.
Anthropocentrism in ethics is found in two main forms: consequential ethics and deontological ethics. Basic to both is the perception of a discontinuity between humans and the rest of nature. Humans are considered superior to animals for various reasons, including their ability to think and speak, plan, organize projects, and so on. According to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), humans alone have self-consciousness. Humans are therefore fundamentally different in rank and dignity from all other beings, while animals can be treated as means to human ends. The moral status of humans is thus awarded on the basis of "excellence." Values are grounded in the fact that something is valuable for humans, and so human actions should be valued on the basis of their usefulness for humans.
The basic idea of consequentialist anthropocentrism is that human actions are valued according to their consequences for other humans. In a market-oriented society, consequentialist anthropocentrism is often linked to the idea that problems in relation to society and nature are technical. Both human and natural resources are considered unlimited and available for human consumption. If there is a shortage, then replacement products will always be made available on the basis of the law of supply and demand. High status is awarded to technical products such as buildings, bridges, dams, and highways. The basic premise is the idea that human interests rule the world, and that nature is considered relevant only as a resource to be exploited by humans. If a crisis arises with regard to available resources, it is primarily a technical problem, which can be solved by adjustments. In its simplest form this could mean that humans need to move to a new place. When no new place is available, other measures can be taken, such as moving pollutants to a different place or using technology to get rid of toxic elements. The ideal is "business as usual" for the benefit of humans, modified by ad hoc measures to prevent discomfort for human society. Consequentialist anthropocentrism is also the central approach in policies of resource management that respond to the problem of limited resources by adjusting production and consumption, and by avoiding extreme pollution. The anthropocentric attitude is expressed through the ideals of wise use and sustainable development. The central concern is to secure the demands of the present without endangering future needs.
Deontological anthropocentrism in ethics deals primarily with rights and duties that are carried by ethical subjects or by those affected by intended actions. An important issue is who or what may count as a moral subject. In deontological anthropocentrism, only humans have ethical duties and rights. A major concern is therefore to find reasons why humans alone have qualities that set them apart from all other creatures. This is a difficult task because it is hard to define qualities that include all humans while at the same time excluding other living beings. In the Kantian tradition, the hallmark of humans has been connected to the ability of human beings to take moral demands upon themselves. To be an authentic human being is to exercise the freedom to accept morally binding restrictions on "free" choices of actions, thus rejecting selfishness for the sake of a higher moral rationality. Humans are by virtue of their possibility of free choice a "moral community," distinct from other communities on Earth. From a Kantian perspective, one may have indirect duties towards nonhumans, but such duties are only relevant in so far as they have instrumental importance and ultimately lead toward the promotion of human freedom.
Anthropocentrism is common in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in Islam, in part because God is perceived in anthropomorphic categories, but also because the primary concern of theology is humanity's relation with God (theological anthropocentrism ). With regard to environmental concerns, theistic traditions affirm that humans have an obligation to treat the natural world with respect and care in much the same way as a farmer cultivates the land (stewardship ethics ). In some Eastern religions (e.g., Mahayana Buddhism), the salvific interest is more universal. All sentient beings, however, have to reach the level of human existence before they can attain nirvana.
Since the 1960s awakening of ecological consciousness, the anthropocentric attitude has been strongly criticized, especially regarding its role in theology and ethics, and in secular science and public policy making. Some have attempted to "soften" anthropocentrism by correcting the perceived misconception of humanity as distinct and separate from the natural world. They have argued that anthropocentric concerns for human wellbeing should be based on enlightened self-interest in which humans regard themselves as partly constituted by the natural world and pay sufficient attention to sound metaphysics, scientific theories, aesthetic values, and moral ideals. This self-interest will naturally lead to respect for the nonhuman world, thus preventing it from degradation and destruction. Others claim this view to be shallow and assert the need for a total reversal of the anthropocentric perspective, as in biocentrism, in which the biotic community is seen as the central concern.
See also Deep Ecology; Ecology, Ethics of; Freedom; Kant, Immanuel; Value, Religious; Value, Scientific
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sessions, george, ed. deep ecology for the twenty-first century. boston: shambhala, 1995.
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roald e. kristiansen
This article discusses the notion and refers to historical forms of anthropocentrism in Christian thought.
Notion. As the name implies, anthropocentrism makes the dimensions of human existence (the supreme reality of the world of man's experience) a central term of reference in the orders of intelligibility and value. Anthropocentrism is only fully intelligible as a correlative of theocentrism on the one hand and a dehumanized naturalism on the other.
Two basic tendencies have constantly manifested themselves in human culture. One is preoccupied with realities immanent to this world, and especially with the supreme among them, man. (Protagoras: "Man is the measure of all things.") The other is preoccupied with the Transcendent. (Plato: "God is the measure of all things.") The supreme achievement of human culture is an integration of what is valid in both of these insights. Such an integration is essential to Christianity, founded as it is upon the Divine Word's presence in the world in human flesh (see incarnation). The Christ event at once canonizes anthropocentrism and subordinates it to theocentrism: the intelligibility and values of human existence are safeguarded by their subordination to the divine reality, through Christ.
Historical Review. The reconciliation of anthropocentrism with theocentrism cannot remove the tension that exists between these two terms of reference in man's world-view. It is with reference to this tension that historical forms of anthropocentrism within Christian thought should be understood. Broadly, it seems true to say that thought in the Western Church (which has its beginnings against the background of the anthropocen the world-view of Stoicism) has been characteristically anthropocentric, while that of Eastern Christianity (which developed in a confrontation with a theocentric Gnosticism) has been more markedly theocentric. Thus the great theological controversies of Western Christianity have concerned man's condition under God's grace (Pelagianism, Lutheranism); while those of the East have concerned the supreme mysteries of God (Trinity, Incarnation). In the theological traditions that are the background to the early councils, the anthropocentric tendency was most evident in the school of antioch. It provided a healthy corrective to the theocentric tendency of the school of alexandria.
In reaction to the unbalanced theocentrism of the early Middle Ages, the late medieval period in the West saw the emergence of a new anthropocentrism that progressively obscured the recognition of the Transcendent. It is typified in a concern with the human sufferings of Christ in the Passion that loses sight of the essentials of the Paschal mystery (see resurrection of christ). This tendency emerged as the humanism of the Renaissance and the modern period, more and more emancipated from religious connotations.
With existentialism and personalism a new form of anthropocentrism has emerged in Western thought in recent decades and has had a profound influence upon Christian theology. Its essential correlative is not theocentrism but a positivistic naturalism that would neglect the unique ontological status and value of the human person in a world of things.
Bibliography: c. h. dawson, The Dynamics of World History, ed. j. j. mulloy (New York 1956) e.g., 458–459. k. rahner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und Kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 1:632–634.
Anthropocentrism is a world view that considers humans to be the most important factor and value in the Universe. In contrast, the biocentric world view considers humans to be no more than a particular species of animal , without greater intrinsic value than any of the other species of organisms that occur on Earth . The ecocentric world view incorporates the biocentric one, while additionally proposing that humans are a natural component of Earth's ecosystem , and that humans have an absolute and undeniable requirement of the products and services of ecosystems in order to sustain themselves and their societies.
There are a number of important implications of the anthropocentric view, which strongly influence the ways in which humans interpret their relationships with other species and with nature and ecosystems. Some of these are discussed below:
- The anthropocentric view suggests that humans have greater intrinsic value than other species. A result of this attitude is that any species that are of potential use to humans can be a "resource" to be exploited. This use often occurs in an unsustainable fashion that results in degradation, sometimes to the point of extinction of the biological resource, as has occurred with the dodo, great auk, and other animals.
- The view that humans have greater intrinsic value than other species also influences ethical judgments about interactions with other organisms. These ethics are often used to legitimize treating other species in ways that would be considered morally unacceptable if humans were similarly treated. For example, animals are often treated very cruelly during the normal course of events in medical research and agriculture. This prejudiced treatment of other species has been labeled "speciesism " by ethicists.
- Another implication of the anthropocentric view is the belief that humans rank at the acme of the natural evolutionary progression of species and of life. This belief is in contrast to the modern biological interpretation of evolution , which suggests that no species are "higher" than any others, although some clearly have a more ancient evolutionary lineage, or may occur as relatively simple life forms.
The individual, cultural, and technological skills of humans are among the attributes that make their species, Homo sapiens, special and different. The qualities of humans have empowered their species to a degree that no other species has achieved during the history of life on Earth, through the development of social systems and technologies that make possible an intense exploitation and management of the environment. This power has allowed humans to become the most successful species on Earth. This success is indicated by the population of humans that is now being maintained, the explosive growth of those numbers, and the increasing amounts of Earth's biological and environmental resources that are being appropriated to sustain the human species.
However, the true measure of evolutionary success, in contrast to temporary empowerment and intensity of resource exploitation, is related to the length of time that a species remains powerful—the sustainability of its enterprise. There are clear signals that the intense exploitation of the environment by humans is causing widespread ecological degradation and a diminished carrying capacity to sustain people, numerous other species, and many types of natural ecosystems. If this environmental deterioration proves to truly be important, and there are many indications that it will, then the recent centuries of unparalleled success of the human species will turn out to be a short-term phenomenon, and will not represent evolutionary success. This will be a clear demonstration of the fact that humans have always, and will always, require access to a continued flow of ecological goods and services to sustain themselves and their societies.