Some theorists working in the field see no need to develop new non-anthropocentric theories. Instead they advocate either weak or strong anthropocentrism. With regard to strong anthropocentrism, it is hardly an adequate theory on which to approach environmental problems. As Bryan Norton (himself a weak anthropocentrist) says,
“Strong anthropocentrism… takes unquestioned felt preferences of human individuals as determining value. Consequently, if humans have a strongly consumptive value system, then their “interests” (which are taken merely to be felt preferences) dictate that nature will be used in an exploitative manner (Norton, 1984, p.135).”
In contrast, weak anthropocentrism takes into account ‘the full range of human values not just economic ones’ (Norton, 2008, p.10.) and ‘recognizes that… preferences can be either rational or not’ (Norton, 1984, p.135).
It is this latter form of anthropocentrism that Norton endorses. Human interests, on this view, are said to be sufficiently diverse to include an interest in protecting the environment and its nonhuman inhabitants. The nonhuman world is seen as a source of spiritual well-being and diversity. In this respect, weak anthropocentrism recognises that human interests are intimately connected to the interests of other things, including animal interests.
Peter Singer is well known for arguing that we should extend moral standing to all things that are capable of suffering. For Singer, moral consideration is limited to sentient beings, 3 so on his view it is only a minority of livings things that are included in the moral sphere. For a being to have interests it is necessary that it can suffer. Both humans and animals are capable of suffering. Because sentient animals are capable of suffering they do have interests, and if a being can suffer there can be no justification for not taking that suffering into account. Singer argues that our treatment of sentient animals is analogous to the racial and gender discrimination of the past, and he defines the mistreatment of animals in ways that it would be considered outrageous to treat humans as ‘speciesism’ (see Singer, 1998, pp.26-40).
Tom Regan is another well known philosopher who takes a sentientist stance. He says that the capacity to suffer, to feel pain and pleasure, and to be subject to frustration make a difference to the quality of our lives. Regan agrees with Singer that the pain and suffering of a being should be given moral consideration, but he does not think that the capacity to suffer is the only reason why nonhumans should not be treated as a mere means. For Regan, many sentient nonhuman beings are subjects of a life that can be affected for better or for worse, and, as such, have inherent value (Regan, 1998, p.51). (It is worthwhile noting that Regan attaches inherent value to individuals themselves, not to their experiences.)
Goodpaster points out that there is an essential link between beneficence and morality. Those things that can be harmed or benefited will naturally deserve moral consideration. While living things are capable of being beneficiaries, inanimate objects, such as rocks, cannot be benefited or harmed, and so have no place in morality. Goodpaster, like Attfield, is a biocentrist, and claims that ‘X’s being a living thing is both necessary and sufficient for moral considerability’ (Goodpaster, 1978, p.313). Goodpaster argues against sentientism, claiming that it is not just sentient beings that can be harmed. Of sentientists, such as Singer, he says
[A]lthough I acknowledge and even applaud the conviction expressed by these philosophers that the capacity to suffer (or perhaps better, sentience) is sufficient for moral considerability, I fail to understand their reasons for thinking such a criterion necessary. To be sure, there are hints at reasons in each case. Warnock implies that nonsentient beings could not be proper “beneficiaries” of moral action. Singer seems to think that beyond sentience “there is nothing to take into account.” And Frankena suggests that nonsentient beings simply do not provide us with moral reasons for respecting them unless it be potentiality for sentience. Yet it is so clear that there is something to take into account, something that is not merely “potential sentience” and which surely does qualify beings as beneficiaries and capable of harm—namely, life—that the hints provided seem to me to fall short of good reasons.
Biologically, it appears that sentience is an adaptive characteristic of living organisms that provides them with a better capacity to anticipate, and so avoid, threats to life. This at least suggests… that the capacities to suffer and to enjoy are ancillary to something more important rather than tickets to considerability in their own right (Goodpaster, 1978, p.316). For Goodpaster, then, while the capacity to suffer and experience pleasure may be sufficient for moral standing, it is not necessary. However, that a being can suffer may make that being’s interests more morally significant or important than the interests of a being who lacks such a capacity.
Goodpaster recognises that in cases of conflict the interests of, say, a tree will be overridden by the interests of a sentient being. But, importantly, he says that such cases point to the distinction between moral standing and moral significance. It may be the case that a human’s interests override or be given more moral significance than, say, a tree’s interests. But the reverse may also be the case, that is, in some instances the tree’s interests should be given more moral significance than a human’s interests.
[Moral significance] aims at governing comparative judgments of moral ‘weight’ in cases of conflict. Whether a tree deserves moral consideration is a question that must be kept separate from the question of whether trees deserve more of less consideration than dogs, or dogs than human persons. We should not expect that the criterion for having ‘moral standing’ at all will be the same as the criterion for adjudicating competing claims to priority among beings that merit that standing (Goodpaster, 1978, p.311). Attfield would agree that there is a difference between moral consideration and moral significance. He takes a capacities-based approach, arguing that in cases of conflict different capacities and interests should be weighted appropriately. It may well be the case that a being with greater capacities has more moral significance than one with lesser capacities where their interests conflict. He recognises the problems caused by Taylor’s egalitarian approach and sees this approach as not properly accounting for the morally relevant differences between beings: ‘Only when the different capacities and interests of different creatures are recognised to uphold differences of moral significance can a defensible and viable ethic be held’ (Attfield, 2003, p.44).
After completing this session you should be familiar with the central debates in environmental ethics concerning the scope of morality, and in particular of the different normative stances relevant to environmental ethics and the various problems associated with such stances; an awareness of the kinds of things which we may have some responsibility to treat as if they matter in some way and for some reason; as well as an understanding of the link between interests and morality.
After completing the reading and the exercises related to this session, read the boxed text on p.75 of Attfield’s Environmental Ethics. This encourages you to form a view with regards to ‘whether an ethic that is not anthropocentric can motivate action, and whether it it possible to care about the good of non-human creatures’. It also encourages you to form a view ‘on the range as well as the limits of environmentalist arguments based on human well-being alone’ (Attfield, 2003, p.75).