How would Humanism guide Environmentalism?

February 6, 2009

Let’s keep pursuing the question of how and why humanism would support environmentalism. We’ll have to go back to basics. What precisely is humanism? Looking at over 500 years of “humanism,” it is not too hard to find a common core of principled ideas. In fact, only two principles are sufficient, in my view.

Humanism is a lifestance, a philosophy, which prioritizes (1) this mortal life and (2) the ethical responsibilities we must share to best enhance this life for all.

Humanism is often confused with human-centrism. Human-centrism holds that only human beings have moral value and ethical priority. Unfortunately, some definitions and declarations of humanism do sound precisely like human-centrism, especially those dating from before 1950. Humanism should seek the preservation and enhancement of all life, not just for humans alone. Over the long history of humanism, humanists certainly have demanded that all of humanity deserve moral dignity and ethical priority. Humanists also have been impressed by the capacity of ordinary people to use their own intelligence to live morally without blind subservience to authority. But humanists have also struggled, in every century, to expand the circle—to expand the range of creatures who deserve respect and humane treatment.

Humanism’s early struggles were to expand the circle to include people regardless of race or creed, and then to expand further, to include people regardless of class or gender or age. Over its long history, humanists have been mostly combating religious theologies and political ideologies that instead prioritize God, the afterlife, and an elite class who supposedly know how to rule over the rest of ignorant humanity. With theocracies and monarchies now in decline, and with democracy’s confidence in the people’s capacity for self-rule now increasing, humanism’s intense devotion for just humanity now sounds odd to many ears.

If contemporary humanism still places excessive emphasis on humanity’s priority, this can alarm and offend people who have turned their worry towards humanity’s harmful dominion over the rest of life on this planet. For example, many pro-environmentalists now reject humanism. This is unnecessary, because humanism only believes that this life has priority over any possible afterlife, and that those capable of taking ethical responsibility (at present, that’s us humans) should do so, for the good of all (that is, for all life and not just humans).

It is true that Enlightenment humanism was so impressed by human reason that it tended to fallaciously infer that only beings with reason had any moral value. We now realize that Enlightenment humanism went too far. Instead, humanity’s ability to reason and make moral decisions only makes it more urgent that we have serious ethical concern and take full responsibility for our impact on the whole planet. Humanism is perfectly compatible with any reasonable pro-environmentalism stance. Humanists should clearly renounce human-centrism, since human-centrism is outdated, and positively irresponsible and unethical. Humanism should help balance the needs of humans with the value of all life. Of course, the specific ways of achieving this aim are not so easy to figure out.