Thursday, October 07, 2010

Anthropocentrism and automatons: you don't need to be a tree hugger to care about ecology

"The righteous know the needs of their animals, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel."

- Proverbs 12.10.

In a recent post, I included a quote which alluded to the idea that non-human creatures might also in some sense be considered our neighbours, included within our moral community. Properly qualified, this idea has merit and a foundation in holy scripture (where the Law proscribes various forms of cruelty and includes animals in Sabbath rest and Jesus affirms that God cares for even the sparrows). Indeed, Christians were at the forefront of creating the world's first animal welfare charity, the RSPCA. I am not going to attempt those qualifications here (though I note that Jesus tells his listeners that they are worth more than many sparrows), but simply note that there ought to be nothing particularly contentious about the extension of (at least certain kinds of) moral concern to non-human creatures.

However, even the most hardened anthropocentrist, who, like Descartes, considers the brute beasts to be unfeeling automatons, is not thereby released from all ecological concern. The damage we are causing to the integrity of the living spaces of the planet is so severe that it is a threat not simply to biodiversity or unique ecosystems, but to the conditions under which human civilisation can flourish, perhaps even survive at all (certainly in anything like its current form, complexity and size). It is not just trees and frogs and sharks and tigers and phytoplankton under threat, it is also our very human neighbours who are increasingly suffering as a result of our failure to live with humility and prudence.
Image by CAC.


phil_style said...

I've heard, more times than I care to record, the comment "why care about the animals when humans are dying?"

This kind of thinking seems to completely ignore the fact that environmental care CAN be purely motivated by anthropocentricism. The fate of humans IS connected to the fate of our environment - i.e. our habitat. And our habitat is serviced, cleaned and supported by (the interconnected) natural/ ecological processes.

So, one can still place high(er) value on human life, and justify ecological action. In fact, it could motivate ecological action.

byron smith said...

Yes, that's right. I think there are plenty of good reasons also to care about animals (and even, in some sense about places, like mountains, or catchments, or ecosystems), but these are not necessary to get some traction on ecological matters, because ecology isn't just external (and more or less irrelevant) "environment" but it is our home.

byron smith said...

Fascinating piece documenting the history of the participating of animals in legal trials and then exploring the philosophical implications.