Day 20 Blog Post
So far it seems that there exists this deep dichotomy between socially opposing views of environmental conduct. It seemed as if one would have to choose between varying levels of either Baxter’s totally anthropocentrically based, free-market economic view that serves the whims of the admittedly greedy human race OR Leopold’s strictly ecocentric Land Ethic that neutralizes all hierarchies of organism dominance, placing human beings on the same level as trees and animals. Split down the middle between two completely opposite, extremist schools of thought. Surely anyone who knew that moderation is key would try to meld benefits of both, but it would seem these two ends of the spectrum can never converse with each other. Maybe that’s true, but Bryan Norton’s environmental ethic proposes something to consider.
In his paper, “Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism,” Norton seeks to identify a distinctly environmental ethic. He starts by deducing that a distinctively environmental ethic must take a stance on accepting or rejecting anthropocentrism – the view that only humans are the “loci of fundamental value.” Anthropocentrists mainly believe that anything that is deemed valuable is only so because it contributes to human well-being. Some nonanthropocentrists reverse this by saying that humans are the source of all values, but they can also ascribe value to nonhuman things. This decentralization of human beings as the start and end of anything valuable allows for at least a more flexible reasoning system that an environmental ethic would require.
Since any form of anthropocentrism takes into account human interests, it becomes necessary to illuminate what really are human interests. Norton says there are two types: felt preferences and considered preferences. Felt preferences are human desires or needs that can at least temporarily be sated by some specifiable experience of the individual. A considered preference is any desire or need that a human individual would express after careful deliberation, including a judgement that the desire or need is consistent with a rationally adopted world view. Traditional economic approaches see felt preferences as the basic platform for decision making – how many pizzas does this community want/consume, the usefulness of this forest for the indigenous population or for that company, money. The considered preference has way more thought put into it and can only really be accounted for after an individual has thought of how this particular preference mixes with his or her entire world view – I prefer to use my reusable water container because I know that by doing so I can be only less contributor to an unsustainably open-loop materials system. More thought is put into my “preference.”
Further, there is strong anthropocentrism and weak anthropocentrism. Those who think in terms of strong anthropocentrism make choices based almost completely off felt preferences. Those who have weak anthropocentrism are really making convenience less of a priority and make their choices based on their considered preferences. Logical progression would find that “weak anthropocentrism provides a basis for criticism of value systems that are purely exploitative of nature.” When you weaken the “I want, I use, I need” mentality of strong anthropocentrism, you find that “nature need no longer be seen as a mere satisfier of fixed and often consumptive (in our society) values,” but rather, Norton says, “it also becomes an important source of inspiration in value formation.”
There’s also the difference between individualism and nonindividualism. Basically, nature doesn’t cater to just one type of species. It is unquestionable that we biologically share the earth’s resources with every other living thing. Norton points out that “the satisfaction of individual interests are the basic unit of value for utilitarians, and in this sense, utilitarianism is essentially individualistic.” He clarifies that “no ethical system which is essentially individualistic, regarding less of how broadly the reference category of individuals is construed, can offer ethical guidance concerning current environmental policy in all cases.”I liken this to how the royal families would satisfy their preferences by utilizing all of the resources of the country without sharing it with the rest of French society. Life is not supportable this way, and, eventually, something must give.
Ultimately, “in a post-Darwinian world, one could give rational and scientific support for a world view that includes ideals of living in harmony with nature, but which involve no attributions of intrinsic value to nature.” Leopold wouldn’t like this very much, but I say at least it’s a realistic step in the right direction of attuning people’s relationship more directly toward nature. I think that Leopold’s Land Ethic is great, and in a perfect world it would reign supreme, but we can’t go from zero to 60 that fast. Even though the dawn of environmentalism occurred almost 30 years ago, we’re just witnessing the topic of global warming and climate change in our societies’ presidential speeches. Real progress will take time, and I think Norton’s weak anthropocentric environmental ethic is the best life preserver we can cling to while we continue to mend our policies, attitudes, and overall relationship to the planet.