The Question of Moral Standing or Intrinsic Value and the Anthropocentric Answer


        Which beings have moral standing, that is, are morally important in their own right and why
Which beings are intrinsically valuable (i.e., are valuable in a way that transcends their utility to other beings)?

        People are paradigm cases of beings who are morally important in their own right and whose value is not reducible to their usefulness to others.

        Utilitarian artifacts (pieces of chalk) are paradigm examples of beings without moral standing or intrinsic value; they have purely instrumental value (i.e., use value for others).

        Moral agents (beings who are morally responsible for their behavior) have direct duties to all beings with moral standing. Beings lacking moral standing cannot have duties owed to them, but there may be indirect duties pertaining to them.

Four Main Positions (on moral standing) in Environmental Ethics

1.       Anthropocentrism: All and only humans have moral standing (including mass murderers, permanently unconscious humans, and human fetuses?) (The received view that environmental ethics challenges.) (William Baxter)

2.       Sentio-centrism: All and only sentient beings have moral standing (mammals, perhaps all vertebrates and maybe some invertebrates; e.g., humans, cows, woodpeckers). (Animal welfare ethics, animal liberation, and animal rights: Peter Singer & Tom Regan)

3.       Bio-centric Individualism: All and only living beings have moral standing (humans, bears, butterflies, oysters, trees, bacteria). (Paul Taylor & Albert Schweitzer)

4.       Eco-centric Holism: Natural non-individuals have moral standing or intrinsic value and are deserving of respect; Species per se (spotted owls), ecosystems (Yellowstone), natural processes (fire, glaciation, speciation), and/or Earth itself (Aldo Leopold, J. Baird Callicott, and Holmes Rolston)

Anthropocentrism [Distinction between Anthropocentrism and Anthropomorphism (=attributing human characteristics to nonhumans)]

1.       Strong anthropocentrism: All and only humans have moral standing or intrinsic value. (This is what we will mean by the phrase and is Aquinas’, Kant’s and Baxter's view (“I have no interest in preserving penguins for their own sake; penguins are important because people enjoy seeing them walk on rocks.”)

          a.       Nonhumans are mere instruments to human benefit; a mere means to human ends. Earth as a human resource.

          b.       We have no duties to nonhumans, but only duties to other humans pertaining to nonhumans.

          c.       Can have a strong env. ethic: Important to protect the environment for the sake of people (not for its own sake)

2.       Weak anthropocentrism: Literally ‘anthropocentrism’ suggests that morality should be centered on humans and that nonhumans are of peripheral moral concern.

          a.       On this view, humans are at the center of moral concern; humans are superior; humans matter more than other beings. (This suggests that nonhumans intrinsically matter some, and thus weak anthropocentrism is not compatible with strong anthropocentrism for it claims only humans matter).

          b.       Weak anthropocentrists need to work out answers to these questions:: Is the claim that any individual human is more important than any individual nonhuman? That any human interest (no matter how trivial) is more important than any nonhuman interest? That the human species as a whole is more important than all of the millions of other species on earth combined? That one individual human is more important than an entire species of nonhumans?


Strengths of (and arguments for) anthropocentrism

1.       Anthropocentric arguments needn't be selfish or shallow.

          a.       Worrying about lead poisoning because it kills black children disproportionately--a problem of environmental justice--is human-centered but not selfish or shallow.

          b.       Anthropocentric reasons are clearly good reasons for protecting nature; what is controversial is the view that they are the only good reasons. Why not argue for env. protection using both nonanthropocentric and anthropocentric reasons?

2.       Anthropocentrism needn’t be “unenlightened;” it can be enlightened.

          a.       Unenlightened anthropocentrism ignores future and nonconsumptive human interests and focuses on immediate preference satisfaction (more consumer goods now) (Gifford Pincot)

          b.       Enlightened anthropocentrism takes seriously the interests of future humans and understands the significant tangible benefits (e.g., cancer cures, recreational opportunities) and intangible benefits (aesthetic and spiritual enrichment) and services (oxygen production, pollination by insects) the natural world provides for humans.

3.       Politically effective: Appeals to self-interest and fear of harm to humans are often very effective.

4.       Anthropocentrism can ground environmental protection policies because human welfare depends on the sound functioning of natural systems.

          a.       How strong these environmental policies will be depends on (1) how closely human and nonhuman welfare is tied and (2) to what extent humans can modify natural systems while insuring that they continue to provide life-support for humans.


Problems for anthropocentrism

1.       Arguments for restricting moral concern to humans are not persuasive.

          a.       Being human as a criterion of moral standing is no longer useful or self-evident as it once appeared to be

          b.       The argument that: Only humans are moral agents and therefore only humans have moral standing ignores the distinction between moral agent and being with moral standing ( beings that owe duties to others and beings to whom those duties are owed.

          c.       Rationales that include only humans in the moral arena, also exclude some humans and this is implausible.

2.       Arguments for nonanthropocentric moral concerns are persuasive

          a.       Last person arguments (Wrong for the last human to destroy the planet, and thus nonhumans must matter morally.)

          b.       Seeing the "higher" animals as mere resources is an obvious mistake (dumping toxic chemicals on penguins wrongs the penguins themselves and not merely animal lovers)

3.       Anthropocentrism as a parochial, narrow-minded, submoral approach to the earth that is largely responsible for the environmental predicament (Ehrenfeld); A kind of species egoism and species selfishness: The nonhuman world is one giant resource for us.