Weak Anthropocentrism - Moderating between Strong and Non-anthropocentrism

This essay is originally written for UPI2205 Ethics & The Environment.

Human beings – their future, present and past welfare – cannot be divorced from their natural surroundings. Questions regarding the ways in which human beings can and should interact with the natural environment has given rise to multiple ethical frameworks. These moral philosophies, drawing from diverse ethical traditions, may be understood according to two broad definitions – anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism. The anthropocentric approaches suggest that any analysis of nature must be human-centered. Their conceptual counterparts, non-anthropocentric paradigms, argue for an appreciation of nature from nonhuman perspectives and can be classified under three main positions – biocentrism, ecocentrism as well as deep ecology. Both anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism have ardent supporters espousing their tenets and critics arguing against their flaws. In this paper, the perceived inconsistencies of non-anthropocentrism and strong anthropocentrism will be discussed; an alternative paradigm, weak anthropocentrism will be explored and its potential to support robust environmental ethics, advocated.

I. Problems associated with non-anthropocentrism and anthropocentrism
One incongruity with non-anthropocentrism stems from its fundamental stance of ascribing nonhuman subjects with “intrinsic worth/ biospecies equality” (Devall and Sessions, 1985, p. 146). It claims that natural properties – such as integrity, beauty and biodiversity – can provide a non-human basis for valuing nature. The basis and value of subjects are assumed to lie independent of the human observers. However, according to skeptics, such qualities are neither intrinsic nor non-anthropocentric. In A Critique of Anti-Anthropocentric Ethics, Richard Watson (1983, p.157) argues that non-anthropocentric approaches are, in essence, anthropocentric:
 “The notion of a climax situation in ecology is a human invention, based on anthropocentric ideas of variety, completion, wholeness and balance. […] What would it be, after all, to think like a mountain as Aldo Leopold is said to have recommended? It would be anthropocentric because mountains do not think, but also because mountains are imagined to be thinking which human interests in their preservation or development they prefer.”
Attributing the environment with non-anthropocentric values requires us to place ourselves in their positions and imagine their viewpoints from our outsider human perspectives; this, ultimately, is a human-centered endeavor. It is “logically impossible”, Nuyen(1981, p.221) maintains, to “know how an animal thinks about itself and about human beings”. Likewise, the genuine feelings of mountains and plants cannot be rationally known. Grey (1993, p. 464) agrees and suggests that if we “attempt to step too far outside the scale of the recognizably human, rather than expanding and enriching our moral horizons, we render them meaningless, or at least almost unrecognizable.” To ascribe nature with intrinsic value is a contentious approach; from a mild anthropocentric stance, nature can be said to have inherent value as the basis of value lies within it but the source of value is in the external valuator (Nuyen, 2011, p.13). Due to this arguable attribution of intrinsic value to nature, non-anthropocentrism, at its very core, may not be as non-anthropocentric as it appears.

The controversial attribution of intrinsic value to nonhuman subjects leads to an internal inconsistency within the ethics, most aptly pointed out by Grey (1993) in Anthropocentrism and deep ecology. This, in turn, casts doubt on non-anthropocentrism’s ability to support robust environmental ethics.

On the other end of the spectrum, some anthropocentrists maintain that only humans have moral standing and intrinsic value; they claim that nature must and can only be understood from human perspectives. Of these philosophers, Immanuel Kant is perhaps the most notable. In his definitive essay, Rational beings alone have moral worth, Kant (1873, p.61) argues that “our duties towards animals are merely indirect duties towards humanity”. From his perspectives, we have no duties to nonhumans, only duties to other humans; nonhumans are appraised as instruments to human interests and values. A tree, by itself, is not valuable; it is only treasured because of its potential to be exploited as a source of fuel, paper, food, medicine or entertainment. The natural subject, by itself, has no intrinsic value; it is only valuable because it can be used to accomplish a goal desired by the valuer. In Kantian diction, they are means to an end but not an end in itself. This form of anthropocentrism has been severely criticised by non-athropocentrists as assuming moral superiority over natural organisms and systems. Rolston (1998, p.113) maintains that it is “arrogant to retreat into a human-centered environmental ethics” that presume nature only to have instrumental values dependent on human valuers.

Non-anthropocentrism has been criticised as being anthropocentric in essence and failing to convey a rational, relatable appreciation of nature. One form of anthropocentrism – such as that advocated by Kant and his supporters – has been castigated as assuming moral high grounds. Given the logical lapses in non-anthropocentrism and alienating sense of moral supremacy in anthropocentrism, there is a need to develop a different environment ethics.  Robust environmentalism can only happen if supported by a system of ethics that is both internally consistent and widely accepted – conditions which the two mentioned paradigms fail to meet. Grey (1993, p.464) proposes that the problem is not with anthropocentrism but with ill-defined anthropocentrism; he sees a need to “develop an enriched, fortified anthropocentric notion of human interest”. In view of the criticisms against existing paradigms, Bryan G. Norton argues for a philosophy based loosely on human-centered paradigms and calls this “weak anthropocentrism”.

II. Weak anthropocentrism as a moderate alternative
In Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism, Norton (1984, p.134) maintains that environmental ethics need not “justify [difficult] claims to intrinsic values” in nature. A perfectly sufficient environmental ethic, he explains, is one which can criticize value systems purely exploitative of nature. From such a perspective, environmental ethics would be principally about “concern for the protection of the resource base through indefinite time”. Norton, as a professor of philosophy as well as public policy, expresses his concerns with “creating a theory of sustainable development that captures the key role of human values in the search for better policies to protect nature and humans of the future”. He wants a theory capable of criticizing anthropocentrism that has exploited nature and yet, does not wish to attribute nature with intrinsic values. Thus, he differentiated strong anthropocentrism from weak anthropocentrism.

To fully comprehend the differences between strong and weak anthropocentrism, we must recognize two types of human desires: felt and considered preferences. A felt preference, according to Norton, is one that may be temporarily satisfied by some specific experience. A considered preference, on the other hand, is one arrived after “careful deliberations” that determines the preference to be consistent with a “rationally adopted worldview”. By rational worldview, Norton refers to a conception of the world in accordance with established scientific research, a metaphysical framework to interpret this research as well as a set of rationally supported aesthetic and moral ideals. To illustrate the difference between a felt and considered desire, suppose, for example, the act of recycling. A desire to recycle is not a felt preference; it does not fulfill any specific desire of an individual. It is, however, a considered preference in light of the individual’s rational worldview about environmental responsibility.

Having defined felt and considered preferences, Norton then regards an ethic to be strongly anthropocentric if it focuses on felt preferences alone. In the value system of strong anthropocentrism, there is “no check upon the preferences of individuals” and as a consequence, “no means to criticize the behavior of individuals who use nature merely as a storehouse of raw materials to be extracted and used for products serving human [felt] preferences”. Strong anthropocentricism – such as that assumed by Kant – could provide no balance against felt preferences that may endanger the natural world. It allows for the rapid destruction of rainforests and its subsequent conversion to farmlands, even if it may harm nonhuman organisms and systems, as long as there are substantial tangible benefits to the general human populace.

Weak anthropocentrism, by contrast, finds value in both felt and considered preferences. It determines felt preferences to be rational or irrational based on their consistency with one’s rational worldview. As a decision-making calculus, weak anthropocentrism determines what the agent wants (felt preferences) and how these interests fit in with the agent’s rational worldview (considered preferences). The weakly anthropocentric view avoids the difficulties of justifying an environment ethic from either end of the gamut. On one hand, it avoids contention over the non-anthropocentric attribution of intrinsic values to nonhuman systems and organisms. On the other hand, it avoids strong anthropocentricism’s tendency to make felt preferences the loci of all value; it explains how considered preferences within a rational worldview can account for the value in natural environments. At this point, it may be helpful to consider how weak anthropocentrism compares to non-anthropocentrism and strong anthropocentrism.

Weak anthropocentrism encourages the protection of an organism because it holds a pivotal position in the key chain, or its genetic library could potentially cure certain human diseases, or even for the sheer pleasure that observing it may bring. It attributes value to natural organisms and systems from a human-centered perspective that most people can empathise with. A non-anthropocentrist would have to justify protection of an organism by appealing to its intrinsic value. However, why a worm or fish in an isolated lake is valuable in itself is difficult for many people to relate to.

Another advantage of weak anthropocentricism is its ease as a decision-making calculus. Weighing the intrinsic value of non-human subjects is more challenging than weighing human values. Should there be a conflict in preserving the intrinsic values of two organisms, non-anthropocentrism may reveal internal inconsistencies. Take, for example, the conservation of lions. If a lion has equal intrinsic value to a cow, would that justify the killing of the lion so that many more cows would not have to die? If the lion has to be protected on the basis of it having more intrinsic value, how much more valuable is it intrinsically? And who decides it is more valuable than cows anyway? (The very act of deciding may be an anthropocentric assignment of value.) All these questions must be answered to act on a non-anthropocentric ethic. However, the problems may be resolved – or rather, avoided – by turning to weak anthropocentrism. In a rational worldview,established scientific research indicates that extinction is forever; a metaphysical framework interprets this irreversible loss in biodiversity as a corresponding loss in aesthetic ideals and a collective failure as stewards of the natural environments. Hence, weak anthropocentrism, unlike non-anthropocentrism, allows for the weighing of a lion’s value in accordance with a rational worldview; the subsequent sacrifices of more animals, which are less rare, become justifiable. Weak anthropocentrism also differs from strong anthropocentrism. The latter philosophy may claim that lions should not be preserved for they compete for food with humans; this felt preference may be checked by considered preferences in a rational worldview (as advocated by weak anthropocentrism) and hence, argued against.

Critics, however, may claim that even weak anthropocentrism falls prey to the same problem of assigning values to organisms. Whether or not one believes a lion or a cow is more valuable is always a relevant question when following a weakly anthropocentric ethic. What that may constitute a rational worldview to one may not be so to another. Admittedly, weak anthropocentrism faces the same issue in determining the value of one human’s worldview compared to another’s, but this problem is easier to resolve given more experience with and greater empathy within homocentric perspectives. This problem, on the other hand, will be more pronounced with non-anthropocentric paradigms, given that they are projecting their human perspectives on and attempting to sympathise with non-human subjects, a “logically impossible” endeavor, as Nuyen (1981, p.221) has pointed out. Also, to resort to a tu quoque response, this problem of recognizing what is valuable to different individuals is a problem for all ethical systems, and not unique to a weakly anthropocentric environmental ethic.

Non-anthropocentric ethicists often claim that weak anthropocentricism is impossible, that any anthropocentrism “taints the whole ethic because it always devolves into appeals to existing human desires” (Mendenhall, 2009, p.35). This, however, is not problematic as long as there is a clear distinction between felt and considered preferences. Maintaining this distinction will place a constraint on felt preferences, deeming them irresponsible and destructive if they are inconsistent with a rational worldview. The key here is finding a worldview that values things like ecological diversity and human consciousness. Naess (2003, p. 264), one of the founders of deep ecology, further argues against weak anthropocentrism, claiming that it is “indecent for a teacher to proclaim an ethic for tactical reasons only”. Naess’s strongly-worded criticism wholly misses the perspectives of weak anthropocentrism. The supporters of this philosophy want to expedite an agreement between environmental ethicists with strongly anthropocentric or non-anthropocentric persuasions, ultimately to campaign for the common goals of protecting the natural environments.

Weak anthropocentrism’s relation to other philosophies
Norton (1984) envisions weak anthropocentrism as an environmental ethic that eschews the contentious assignment of intrinsic value, in order to focus on pragmatic principles intended to “protect nature and humans of the future”. Weak anthropocentrism, however, did not go so far as to adopt a strong stance counter to non-anthropocentrism. Instead, it adopts a moderate position which allows for the criticism of exploitative acts towards nature – one which strong anthropocentrism does not allow. Weak anthropocentrism, thus, is amoderate foundation capable of supporting robust environmental ethics.

Felt preferences stem from the anthropocentric tendencies of humans to assign values according to their needs and wants. Because it is a must to sustain oneself through the provisions of nature, there is an element of felt preferences in all environmental ethics. Considered preferences, on the other hand, depends on adherence to a rational worldview. The protection of nature “can be justified as being implied by the ideal of harmony with nature,” Norton (1984, p.315) rationalizes, “(and) this ideal, in turn, can be justified either on religious grounds referring to human spiritual development or as being part of a rationally defensible world view”. The broadness of what constitutes a “rationally defensible world view” – be it based on logic or spiritual sensibilities –allows many philosophies to be subtended under weak anthropocentrism.

Social ecology, as advocated by Murray Bookchin (1987), is a weakly anthropocentric paradigm. It has considered preferences in terms of socio-cultural ideals and regards environmental degradation as the result of social inequalities.

Ecofeminism,in the manner envisioned by Karen Warren (1990), may be considered weakly anthropocentric too. It weighs the felt preferences of women in general and their considered preferences of an ideal whereby nature and women are treated with respect and not oppressed.

Confucian role-based ethics, as supported by A.T. Nuyen (2011), suggests that the attribution of inherent value to nature is part of a rational worldview. It may also be interpreted as weakly anthropocentric.

Even non-anthropocentric philosophies, such as biocentrism, ecocentrism and deep ecology, can be interpreted with the tenets of weak anthropocentrism. After establishing that these ethics are, essentially, anthropocentric, what constitutes a rational worldview to these philosophies may be further defined.

To biocentrists, a rational worldview attributes moral standing to all and only living things.  To ecocentrists, species, ecosystems, natural processes and earth itself are deserving of respect. To deep ecologists, a rational worldview is one in which there is spiritual harmony with the natural environment.

One must recognize that these aforementioned environmental ethics are different and espouse multifarious approaches towards the treatment of nature; it will not be fair to ignore the nuances in their philosophical inclinations. However, through the common lenses of weak anthropocentrism, environment ethicists will be able to see a thread of camaraderie running through paradigms that appear dissimilar. Through this, it is hoped that there will be greater empathy between ethicists from various fractions.

In this paper, I began with an explanation of the flaws associated with non- and strong anthropocentrism. I then moved on to explain how weak anthropocentrism differs from these two strong paradigms and offers a moderate ethical alternative. The discourse progresses to a focus on how different philosophies may, in one way or another, be weakly anthropocentric.

Even as I write this paper, the British Broadcasting Channel (BBC) reports the death of the last Javan rhino in Vietnam. The degradation of natural systems and exploitation of its creatures continue. It is critical for environmental ethicists to work together in a concerted fashion to protect the natural environment.

Nobutsugu, an ethicist supporting Norton’s weak anthropocentrism, explains the problems of ideological conflicts between different ethical frameworks:
“Norton sees ideological polarization in the American conservation movement since the age of Gifford Pinchot and John Muir. He thinks that preexperiential commitments of environmentalists to one’s own ideology (e.g. anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism) profoundly influence their rhetoric in environmental debates and that “outbursts of ideologically motivated rhetorics are unlikely to result in improved environmental policies” (Norton, 2005).”
While there may be flaws associated with weak anthropocentrism – such as what constitutes a rational worldview – it remains an adequate ethics that may serve as a meeting point between strong anthropocentrists and non-anthropocentrists. It is not the most ideal, but it is sufficient.

Weak anthropocentrism cannot cater to the beliefs of everyone. Because of the inherent biological differences in people and disparities in their external socio-cultural-political-geographical upbringing (which shaped their beliefs), it is difficult – perhaps, even impossible – to develop an ethics that everyone could agree with. There will be deep ecologists who seek spiritual harmony with nature and strong anthropocentrists interested only in viewing nature through economic costs-benefits calculus.

Weak anthropocentrism, while not the most ideal ethics that appeal to everyone, is an adequate basis for robust environmental ethics.The weakly anthropocentric view avoids the difficulties of justifying an environmental ethics from either end of the spectrum. It does not lapse into the questionable attribution of intrinsic value to non-human organisms, biospheres and ecologies. It avoids the short-sightedness of strong anthropocentrism, which judges mainly on felt preferences.

As Nuyen (2011, p.215) writes in An anthropocentric ethics towards animals and nature, most people, if not all, agrees that it is wrong to treat animals and nature without respect, to inflict needless destruction. The ecological world desperately needs the damaging human population to adopt an ethic that will slow or reverse environmental degradation. It is important to expand our moral horizons through debates on what constitutes an ideal environmental ethics. But, we must not miss the forest for the trees. It is pressing to focus on protecting what we now have, to focus on protecting our natural environment. In this regard, weak anthropocentrism’s pragmatism serves well. Certain aspects of nature, once destroyed, may not be reversible. Vietnam’s last Javan rhino is a startling example.

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Grey, William. 1993. Anthropocentrism and Deep Ecology. Australian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 71, No 4, p. 463 – 475.
Holmes, Rolston III. 1998. Value In Nature And The Nature of Value. Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, pg 113.
Kant, Immanuel. 1873. Rational beings alone have moral worth.Environmental Ethics, Readings in Theory and Application, Sixth Edition.
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Naess, Arne. 1972. The Shallow and the Deep, Long Range Ecology Movements. Environmental Ethics, Readings in Theory and Application, Sixth Edition, p. 129 – 133.
Nobutsugu, Kanzakaki. 2011. Communication, Community and Commitment: Environmental Virtue Ethicist’s Interpretation of Bryan Norton’s “Sustainability”.Kyoto University.
Norton, Bryan. 1984. Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism. Environmental Ethics 6:2 (1984).
Nuyen, Anh Tuan. 1981. An Anthropocentric Ethics Towards Animals and Nature. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, p. 215 – 223.
Nuyen, Anh Tuan. 2011. Confucian Role-Based Ethics and Strong Environmental Ethics. Environmental Values, The White Horse Press, p.215.
Warren, Karen. 1990. The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism. Environmental Ethics, Readings in Theory and Application, Sixth Edition, p. 589 – 601.
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  1. Hi I'm reading this piece in 2021 and would love to be able to cite it for a University paper I'm writing, where can I find the original? It's fantastically written

    1. Hi, sorry, I just saw your comment. I wrote this paper and only published it here.


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