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.




#1 jim (Guest) on Friday February 06, 2009 at 3:04pm

#2 diogenes99 on Saturday February 07, 2009 at 7:03am

Humanism is merely consistent with environmentalism and nonhuman moral entities. And the “secular” part creates urgency in this life to carry out our moral duties, but which duties?

Can one deduce the outlines of a broader moral community from humanism without merely positing indirect value?  Can humanists derive direct obligations to nonhuman animals or the environment without pulling in moral traditions outside humanism?  I don’t think so.

I think the future of humanism depends on its incorporating insights from evolutionary theory’s impact impact on psychology and philosophy of mind, from game theory, from the social sciences that study ways people have formed communities, from animal ethology, and extrapolation from earlier tribal forms of life. 

Then there is the thorny problem that not all of ethics is written in our DNA, that humans “made up ethics” for a certain set of purposes, and when the times change ethics must change to achieve the abstract notion of whatever those purposes were.

What we need is a meta-humanism.  And a new name.

#3 fontinalis (Guest) on Saturday February 07, 2009 at 11:01am

Having followed the evolution of the environmental philosophy discipline since its inception in the 80s, I would suggest that this is already fairly well-tread terrain.  Arising out of Aldo Leopold’s expanding circle or moral considerability, the early movement was characterized by this very same notion of non-anthropocentrism and the argument that the “intrinsic” value of non-human life forms left us with inescapable duties and obligations outside the human realm.  The problems with such a deontology, however, is that it is inherently incompatible with and irrelevant to the workings of the living world, most especially with regard to the “unit” of considerability: are we duty-bound to an individual plant or animal, its species as a whole, or the larger system of which it is just one component?

The “expanding circling” concept within the human realm makes perfect sense; regardless of whether its fuller embrace of other members with different cultures, gender, or sexual orientations, it is ultimately advantageous to the individual to extent rights to others, as long as the reciprocal obligation is recognized in return. And given that moral behavior is itself an evolutionary product that is adaptive and advantageous when centered on other human individuals, it is not surprising that the strength of this sentiment would so easily lead our focus to other individual life forms to which we could relate (typically the charismatic megafauna). The entire animal rights movement is founded on this same rationale, that we should subscribe to moral monism that mandates equality at the most basic level for humans and non-humans alike. 

Such a viewpoint has long been common among many segments of the humanities communities, and figures like Peter Singer have made a career out building a consistent argument to support it.  But no matter how consistent, the underlying premise is ultimately teleological (not unlike religion it is arbitrarily dictated “should”) and it’s implications are at odds with—well - virtually all scientific insight, from anthropology to ecology to the modern world of cognitive research.  That such a perspective should persist in society is not surprising, but aside from the tangential discussion regarding modern industrial food production methods, it has been long ago dismissed by the biologically-literate.

This, however, does not mean that the non-anthropocentic view was cast aside with it.  To the contrary, the intervening period saw a fairly energetic debate (even among the biologically-literate such as Holmes Rolston and J. Baird Callicott) over intrinsic value and the tacit acceptance that nature does in fact have “rights” of some form. Yet this produced nothing even close to a consensus among philosophers, and after nearly three decades of back and forth over the merits of moral monism vs pluralism, anthropcentric versus ecocentric, and the age-old conundrum of the “unit” of considerability (excluding the individual, of course), the entire discipline was in danger of being rendered largely irrelevant.

Fortunately, in recent years, the discussions have been rescued by the intervention of what are termed the environmental pragmatists.  Philosophers like Bryon Norton and Andrew Light consider intrinsic value theory be a “non-starter,” and have helped move the intellectual center-of-mass more toward what is labeled as weak-anthropocentrism, the perspective that the desired outcome (i.e., environmental protection) is best achieved with a broadened definition of “enlightened self-interest’ that can be cultivated.  As Norton would put it, the sense of “community with the future” is something that resonates broadly, even across cultures, and as such is the most efficacious path to forge. 

Such an ethos need not even look beyond the human community and the duties inherent in membership to be successful in stewarding the “environment” forward through time.  The notion of providing for our future selves - a co-opting of the almost universal desire for a positive legacy - is reinforce-able within the individual and enforceable by society.  Unlike the assortment of “value systems” that ultimately have no standing other than this group’s or that group’s definition of “should,” it relies on it’s ability to take root in the substrate of human nature, arguably the only way of building a tradition that is sustainable.

To answer you original question with a question: is this not humanism already leading environmentalism?

#4 Tim on Monday February 09, 2009 at 11:29am

One nice thing about focusing on humans is we can figure out what is best for humans by talking together. Who determines what is best for an individual animal, or for an animal species? Do dogs really “want” to be treated the way we think they do?
No good dead goes unpunished: if you save one animal from death, then you necessarily kill those that must devour it. How, without appeal to deities or spirit, can we assert that the world absent human impact is the “right” way to keep it? A lot of pop environmentalism seems to me rather religious in motivation and devotion.

I think humanism works better with environmentalism as a means rather than environmentalism as an end. It is valuable to preserve forests, e.g., so long as human health and happiness is increased by their presence.

However, environmentalism might be considered a prudent rule of thumb, in the face of complex ecologies that we do not fully understand. We might think that human needs are met by killing off a predator, for example, and then later regret being overrun by its former prey. A moderate stance of “do not greatly disrupt the environment without great consideration” might best serve present and future humans.

#5 Tim on Monday February 09, 2009 at 11:30am

haha, of course “no good dead” should be “no good deed”

#6 diogenes99 on Monday February 09, 2009 at 11:47am

Tim, I have a simple question. Suppose you live in a remote place, in a different culture, and whether you live, die or suffer will not impact me, my immediate family, my friends, and my community in the least. Also suppose I can choose actions that will either make you worse or better off.  Why, ethically speaking, should I care what you want/need when deciding between actions.

#7 Tim on Monday February 09, 2009 at 12:32pm


You can imagine me as a fellow human being, and so ethics encourages you to consider my needs (to some reasonable extent) just as you hope I might for you. If humans were not social creatures that depend on each other for health and happiness, would there be reason to invent any ethics beyond “live and let live”? Although we certainly extend our ethical duties to humans that are not currently able or willing to reciprocate, I’m not sure how much ethical weight should be given to non-human life that cannot conceivably participate in or even understand ethical behavior.

Your hypothetical involves affecting a human without impacting other humans. How does that apply to the question of environmentalism, which deals with hopelessly interconnected systems?

#8 diogenes99 on Monday February 09, 2009 at 12:43pm


I anticipated you’d say “as a fellow human.”  If ethics is a mutual contract between beings who can make such contracts, then then the “human” boundary makes some sense.  But if ethics is something else, a way of acting to meet some standard independent of a social contract, then speciesism is less tenable.  I think most humanists are social contractualists.  I am not.  So to me this is the heart of the question originally raised and my reason for not believing I fall under the humanist tent.

#9 fontinalis (Guest) on Monday February 09, 2009 at 1:12pm


Given a biological foundation for morality, the reciprocity requirement that undergirds ethical behavior does not require that the reciprocity ever actually be exercised; beyond just the enhancement of one’s reputation and status for the grandeur of exhibiting such such an extended concern, the expression of altruism might still be seen as advantageous (i.e., adaptive) even when done only AS IF the other party will be acknowledge the act.  This could be done for your hypothesized strangers or for you one’s own descendants 200 years hence (the amount of genetic relatedness might be close to the same at that point).

#10 Dating (Guest) on Thursday March 05, 2009 at 5:22am

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