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Anthropocentrisms

Recently there has has been a lot of talk about non-anthropocentrism, and what that would mean for ethics, politics, and philosophy in general.  I think some of the difficulty in agreement comes from the fact that different people have different conceptions of anthropocentrism and therefore different thresholds for what constitutes non-anthropocentrism.  I remember thinking a lot about this during a course I took in the Fall of 2010.  It was a class in environmental ethics, so we discussed anthropocentrism a lot.  What became clear to me through our readings and in our discussions was that my definition of anthropocentrism was markedly different from the conceptions put forward by the authors and my classmates.  The difference made my threshold for accepting a given approach or philosophy as non-anthropocentric somewhat higher than others.  Let me break down a couple of the different approaches to anthropocentrism that I’ve noticed and explain how they affect our reactions to different philosophies.

1) Boundary anthropocentrism – This is, as far as I can tell, the most common approach to anthropocentrism.  It argues that anthropocentric philosophies arbitrarily circumscribe ethical consideration to humans.  Thus an arbitrary boundary is created which limits the ethical consideration that can be given to non-humans.  The solution to this – the way to create a non-anthropocentric approach – is to extend the boundary to encompass non-humans, or at least certain classes of non-humans (i.e. animals).  To take a simple example we can look at the discourse on animal rights.  Early rights theorists limited the ascription of rights to humans – animals simply were not considered to possess inalienable rights, but were treated as utilitarian objects for human consumption.  Animal rights discourse takes the same ethical basis – rights – but extends the boundary of consideration beyond the human such that animals would be thought to have intrinsic value and inalienable rights just as humans do.  The same approach has been used to extend certain rights to ecosystems and other non-human organisms and assemblages.  But it doesn’t have to be rights specifically – it could be any form of ethical argument that’s used for humans (utilitarian, deontological, etc.) that is then extended to non-humans.  Thus, for this type of non-anthropocentric philosopher, the extension of human values to non-human beings is sufficient to create a non-anthropocentric ethics.

2) Agential anthropocentrism – This approach to anthropocentrism is somewhat more stringent than boundary anthropocentrism.  In this approach anthropocentrism is the failure to recognize the active participation of non-humans in the co-construction of relationships.  It’s possible for a philosophy to be non-anthropocentric from a boundary perspective, but still be anthropocentric from an agential perspective.  For example, in a rights based framework, it’s possible to extend rights to animals, but to see them as essentially unable to speak, act, or participate in a relationship themselves.  Thus the extension of rights to animals is a fundamentally human act – that we humans value them, and therefore we ought to give them some ethical consideration.  Instead agential anthropocentrism would recognize that animals, plants, even rocks in some sense contribute to the relationships that we compose with them.  These relationships are often unbalanced simply because we fail to recognize them as active participants and instead treat them as mere matter to be manipulated to our will.  However, it argues that simply extending human values to non-humans is insufficient to overcome that imbalance.  We must instead understand how humans and non-humans relate to one another, how they alter and affect one another, and how they both actively compose those relationships.  Only then can we hope to overcome our anthropocentrism.  This also corresponds to some forms of anti-correlationism, I think, and is the approach I tend to take towards anthropocentrism.

3) Perspectival anthropocentrism – This, I think, is the approach Levi Bryant is advocating, and is even more stringent from what I can tell.  For this approach, anthropocentrism is defined as the inability to see and understand from a non-human perspective how the world is shaped and how they relate to one another.  To use the example Levi was toying with a few weeks back, it’s not enough to extend ethical consideration to a shark, nor is it enough to recognize the shark as an active participant in the co-construction of relationships.  Instead, we must understand the shark’s ethics in order to be non-anthropocentric.  A truly non-anthropocentric ethics would be able to describe the ways in which sharks, worms, jellyfish, bats, iguanas, plants, and maybe even computers, rocks, books, and houses see the world and interact with it ethically.  Such a task is likely to be impossible, and Levi recognizes this, so we content our selves with boundary or agential non-anthropocentrisms, but these will always fall short of the true non-anthropocentric ethics that we need.

I think the differences between these approaches to anthropocentrism make communication between philosophers who follow them difficult to manage.  Often the definition of anthropocentrism, and thus the threshold for non-anthropocentrism, is taken for granted in these debates.  What ends up happening is an argument over how to achieve non-anthropocentrism, when what really needs to take place is a discussion about what exactly we mean when we talk about anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism.  I’m not in a position to advocate any of these (though I tend towards the agential approach in practice), but only wanted to point out a discrepancy I’ve seen in these discussions.  Hopefully it makes for better discussion in the long run.

Note: All of this also applies to the concept of ethnocentrism as well, which I take to be a subtype of the broader category of anthropocentrism.  Also, these names (boundary, agential, and perspectival) are not ideal – they’re the best I could come up with in my morning haze.  If anyone wants to suggest better terms, I would wholeheartedly approve. :)

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2 Comments

  1. Philip wrote:

    Great post! So many of these online disputes seem to arise from people failing to recognise the multiple meanings of various words. The debate over ‘anthropocentric’ ethics demonstrates this. People just end up talking past each other because they’re not even really talking about the same things. It’s refreshing to have someone actually define some terms, as unfashionable as that is!

    Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 3:16 am | Permalink
  2. Thanks, I’m glad you like it. I’ve often found philosophical debates speak past one another simply because they’re not talking about the same thing. I don’t mean to suggest that any one of these (or David Roden’s additional categories) ought to be taken as the definition for anthropocentrism – just that in these kinds of debates we need to make sure to realize that different people use the terms in different ways. There’s nothing wrong with that (except that it muddles things a bit), but it means a little extra work in terms of figuring out actual differences between various positions.

    Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

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