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Anthropocentrism is the belief that people are the most important thing in the world. Also called human centredness, this attitude strongly affects animals.
The reason why some people are against animal rights is that they have strong anthropocentric feelings. Anthropocentrism is the belief that humanity is the most important thing in the universe.
A more intelligible name for anthropocentrism is human
People with anthropocentric leanings tend to see humanity as separate from nature or as part of nature but at the apex of a hierarchy of species. Either way they cherish humanity as the most important being in that only humans have moral status and human practical concerns always take priority over other creatures.
Anthropocentrism can be traced to religious traditions, such as Judaeo-Christianity, and to ancient Greek philosophy. The word anthropocentrism
derives from the Greek anthropos
meaning human + kentron
Anthropocentrism usually takes two main forms: dominionism and stewardism.
- Humans are masters of nature, which exists to serve our needs.
- Nature is a limitless resource to which we can do anything.
Dominionism appeals in particular to big business. It says nothing about respecting or caring for other creatures. It has no thought about the negative consequences of human actions, unlike stewardism.
- Humans are caretakers of nature in that we look after it in some way.
- Humans are important, but other creatures also have some value, they have 'intrinsic value', a value in themselves irrespective of any usefulness to humans.
Religious people claim that nature exists for God and it is the role of humans to ensure his works continue by acting as his stewards. A secular view of stewardism is that we should look after nature for future human generations to use, a brand of stewardism that appeals to nature conservationists.
A new variation on dominionism and stewardism is enlightened anthropocentrism:
- Humans should give consideration to the needs of nature, although human needs always take precedence over nature’s needs.
Enlightened anthropocentrism is similar to anthropocentrism in that it is motivated by exploiting nature for human wellbeing and prosperity, but attempts not to destroy it, albeit if only to make sustainable use of its mineral wealth, wildlife, aesthetics and recreational capacity.
Enlightened anthropocentrism is widely accepted as a strategy by liberal governments and is moderated only by the fear of inviting natural destruction, like floods, drought and animal extinctions, on human ventures. The benefits from nature and the fear of natural destruction make a doubly powerful incentive to protect nature from too much human violation. Hence this brand of anthropocentrism is said to be 'enlightened'.
Adherents of enlightened anthropocentrism make a number of claims about it.
- Adherents of enlightened anthropocentrism make a number of claims about it.
- Our moral duties are only to humans.
- Although we exploit nature we protect it as a human resource and thus it benefits indirectly through human protection. Preservation of the environment need only depend on the practical degree to which humanity can modify and manage ecosystems and not any other notion; alternative non-human-centred outlooks, such as animal rights, environmentalism and deep ecology, amount merely to impractical, difficult to prove moral arguments for safeguarding nature.
Humanity at Centre Stage?
Man looking out on the heavens. Woodcut from Universum by Camille Flammarion, published Paris, 1888. Monochrome version coloured by Hugo Heikenwaelder.
Since ancient times humanity has believed it occupies the physical centre of the universe. But science repeatedly cautions us that anthropocentric views glorifying man are false:
- Humans are descended from animals and are just one of millions of species on Earth.
- The Earth is not flat with Jerusalem at its centre but is a sphere with no focus on its surface.
- The Earth is not at the centre of the heavenly bodies but orbits the Sun, just one of billions of stars in the Milky Way.
- The Milky Way is unexceptional and only one of billions of galaxies.
- The Universe is only one of umpteen universes.
Many people today still support in some way the notion that humanity occupies centre-universe, although they often conceive of this in a spiritual or other sense, as shown by this quote from one of the world's leading cosmologists:
"We are just an advanced breed of monkey on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special."
Stephen Hawking. Quoted in: The Black Hole War Leonard Susskind 2008:433.
Humans may only be a "breed of monkey" but nevertheless they are still perceived to be "something very special." Anthropocentrism is an attitude that dies hard.
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