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Argument for Anthropomorphic Environmental Ethics

12 Dec 2017Essay Samples

The mechanistic worldview, on the other hand, depicts nature as atomistic, passive, lifeless, and wholly devoid of purpose. Feminist critics of deep ecology's insistence that an anthropocentric worldview is the root cause of the ecological crisis agree that there are important connections between the oppression of nature and the oppression of women that the anthropocentric emphasis of deep ecology obscures. Nature itself is conceived of as feminine. The powerful metaphor of "Mother Nature" allows one to see women and nature as both nurturing and gentle as well as wild and unpredictable. The irrational forces of nature must be tamed by culture and the emotional nature of women must be constructively directed by the masculine force of rationality. 

The metaphors of organism and machine upon which the organic and mechanistic worldviews are founded offer both a descriptive and normative framework for organizing one's experience and conception of nature. The organic worldview conceives of nature as being a wholistic unity in that its parts are somehow interconnected in a way that the very interconnectedness of these "parts" constitutes some essential property of nature. The organic worldview typically takes nature to be alive and sensitive as well as processing some intrinsic telos towards which it strives. The mechanistic worldview, on the other hand, depicts nature as atomistic, passive, lifeless, and wholly devoid of purpose. It is the purpose of this paper to argue for the anthropocentric view of ecology and environmental ethics.

The organic metaphor gives rise to prohibitions against interfering with many natural processes and natural arrangements. A nice sample of this is the belief shared by such Roman thinkers as Ovid, Seneca, and Pliny that mining is an abuse of their Mother Earth. The image of the earth as a living organism and nurturing mother had served as a cultural constraint restricting the actions of human beings. One does not readily slay a mother, dig into her entrails for gold or mutilate her body.

As nature was conceived of as sensitive and alive it raised the question whether nature is the sort of thing which can be but ought not to be harmed. The mechanistic model offers no such sanctions against interfering with, molding, or using nature in any way. On the mechanistic model, nature is conceived of as a plastic medium useful only to an outside agent. Just as an organism is a self-sufficient system requiring no user or controller a machine is essentially for a user, a tool, a device whose purpose lies outside itself.

Today we find many thinkers questioning both these models and laboring to construct new ones. A great deal of the impetus for such a reflection stems from the perception that our planet faces an ecological crisis directly caused by human beings. A kind of thinking has arisen, which I shall refer to simply as ecological thinking, which defends the thesis that the massive ecological destruction that we are witnessing today has as its origin certain core beliefs within our worldviews. An interesting variation of this thesis claims that the origins of both ecological destruction and political oppression are rooted in a worldview which divides reality into discrete items and endows some items with greater value than others thereby legitimating the domination of one over the other. Such ecological thinking is concerned with the critique of such worldviews as well as their transformation into a worldview modeled neither on organism nor machine but rather on the interconnected web of living things.

The primary impetus of this kind of thinking stems from the environmental movement known as Deep Ecology which has advocated a worldview called "ecocentrism." The proposed ecocentric worldview is designed to overcome a crucial flaw in the mechanistic worldviews, viz. the unspoken assumption of anthropocentrism, the view that human beings are the only entities possessing intrinsic value, are the rightful masters of nature, and are the origin and source of all values. An ecocentric worldview would be radically egalitarian in that such objects as rivers and lakes, as well as animals and humans, would be conceived of as possessing intrinsic value. A number of ecologically minded thinkers have argued that only by replacing our anthropocentric worldview with an ecocentric worldview will we be able to adequately substitute environmentally benign policies for environmentally destructive ones.

The worldview that conceives of nature as the dominion of humanity and as only the source of raw material for human purpose must be eliminated before environmentally destructive technologies can be eliminated. Feminist critics of deep ecology's insistence that an anthropocentric worldview is the root cause of the ecological crisis agree that there are important connections between the oppression of nature and the oppression of women that the anthropocentric emphasis of deep ecology obscures. When conflicts of interest arise between culture and nature or when individuals experience conflicting motivation between reason and emotion, or between the mental pleasures and the bodily pleasures, culture, reason, and mind are given priority over their counterparts, nature, emotion, and body.

Such bifurcational thinking is patriarchal because it assumes that the provinces of reason and culture are more naturally the domain of men and that women are both more emotional and closer to nature than men. Nature itself is conceived of as feminine. The powerful metaphor of "Mother Nature" allows one to see women and nature as both nurturing and gentle as well as wild and unpredictable. The irrational forces of nature must be tamed by culture and the emotional nature of women must be constructively directed by the masculine force of rationality. Women's traditional role in child-bearing and men's role outside the domestic unit have helped to conceptualize the nature/culture dichotomy along gender lines. Reminiscent of Nietzsche's master and slave moralities are traditionally defined "female" virtues such as tolerance, patience, nurturing, and modesty as opposed to so-called male virtues such as resoluteness, courage, strength, and even pride. In short, ecological feminists claim that this kind of dualistic, value-hierarchical thinking legitimates the subordination of one group by another and lays the conceptual foundation for the sanctioning of political and ecological oppression. To this extent many feminists see ecology as a feminist issue.

The feminist critique of deep ecology suggests a strategy for developing a benign form of anthropocentrism by noting that political and ecological oppression have been perpetrated by certain classes in the interest of those classes. Deep ecology is theoretically equipped to handle the charge that it is not humanity in general which is responsible for political oppression and ecological destruction but only certain classes by noting that these oppressive classes have always legitimated their control not on the basis that they were men, or Capitalists, or Christian, but rather on the ground that they have most exemplified whatever it is that has been taken to constitute the essence of humanity (e.g. being favored by God or processing rationality). Such social classes have implicitly assumed that they were the rightful agents to act in the name of humanity because they, as males, as Christians, as Capitalists, as Marxists, more nearly approached the essence of humanness. Nevertheless, the fact that anthropocentrism has served as the most fundamental kind of legitimation employed by repressive classes everywhere does not show that anthropocentrism per se is responsible for such repression.

I am led to conclude that some form of anthropocentrism is still a viable option. Any articulation of anthropocentrism must, however, guard against being biased by some conception of human nature which is needlessly based on some particular historical or social experience. The insistence by deep ecologists that humans transcend anthropocentrism may be a noble but impossible goal. By addressing their moral imperative only to the human community, deep ecologists are implicitly recognizing that human beings have a unique place in the cosmos; human beings alone are capable of good and evil.

Work Referenced

  • Grendstad, Gunnar & Wollebaek, Dag. “Greener still? An empirical examination of Eckersley's ecocentric approach.” Environment and Behavior, Sept 1998 v30 n5 p653(23). 

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