Anthropocentrism is the idea that the human experience is the center from which to structure and organize the world.
This worldview is evident in most dominant philosophies and religions today. However, it is criticized by some influential contemporary philosophers such as Peter Singer.
Examples of anthropocentrism can be seen in the willingness of humans to cage and eat animals, the domestication of animals, and the human willingness to cause environmental damage for economic benefit.
Definition of Anthropocentrism
Anthropocentrism is a thought process that makes ‘us’, humans, the primary measure of everything.
The perspective and experience of nonhuman entities is thereby consciously or unconsciously disregarded or accorded far less importance (Probyn-Rapsey, 2018).
Anthropocentrism conveys manifestations of cultural beliefs about our place in relation to other inhabitants of the world at large such as animals but also nature as a whole.
Life should, according to the anthropocentric perspective, be structured with humans and human interests as the primal concerns (Probyn-Rapsey, 2018).
- Treatment of Animals – According to an anthropocentric worldview animals can hierarchically be organized with humans at the height of superiority. Human characteristics are utilized to categorize other animals.
- Eco Consciousness – We continue to value human life above ecological preservation. Despite our growing consciousness of the negative impacts of human behavior on the environment our unwillingness to make drastic changes as a species remains painfully present.
- Urban Architecture – Cities are structured and organized with human usage as the primordial consideration. Exceptions exist but are rather rare.
- Zoos – Animals are kept in captivity with the sole purpose of pleasing humans. Zoos thereby represent quite possibly the most straightforward example of how human life is considered superior to animal life.
- Botanical Organisation of Nature – Trees and plants of all sorts are imported, often with a total disregard for the native flora. This can have rather negative consequences for biodiversity.
- Prevalence of Omnivorous Diet among Humans – Despite the growing presence of alternatives to the consumption of the meat of animals and the growing evidence of the unnecessity of consuming said meat, the majority of the global population remains omnivorous.
- Meat Industry – Many animals are bred and raised in captivity with the sole purpose of human consumption or usage of any or all of their natural products.
- Fruit and Vegetable Importation – Exotic fruits and vegetables are imported so they would be available for human consumption at any given moment. This has a negative impact on biodiversity and the environment as a whole. A diet consisting of seasonal and locally-grown fruits and vegetables remains unimaginable because of the convenience we have created through import.
- Domestication of Animals – Animal domestication is a centuries-old practice among the human species. Although one could argue that this can benefit the animals as well, that does not mean that they are oftentimes regarded as inferior to the human members of the same household.
- Impact on Science – Anthropocentrism has led scientists to build biological theories on evolution that consider humanity as the highest form of life on earth (Kristiansen, 2003).
The Danger of Anthropocentrism
The primary danger of the worldview of anthropocentrism lies within its behavioral consequences and moral implications thereof.
A person subscribing to anthropocentric thought might condone behavior that has a negative impact on other species of organisms or components of the ecosystem as many of the examples listed above point out.
The idea of human superiority that follows from an anthropocentric worldview can and continues to be used as an excuse for the exploitation of the nonhuman.
And many environmentalists have therefore argued that the anthropocentric perspective lies at the base of ecological crises (Kopnina, Washington, Taylor, & Piccolo, 2018).
Anthropocentrism and Ethics
As a philosophical stance, anthropocentrism claims that ethical principles only apply to humankind based on its perceived superiority over other species of organisms.
All other things matter morally merely indirectly to the extent that they affect humanity (McShane, 2016).
It is found in ethics in two main thought processes: consequentialist and deontological anthropocentrism.
- Consequentialist anthropocentrism: According to consequential ethics in anthropocentric thought the centrality of the human interest results in humanity’s intrinsic right to exploit nature for its resources.
- Deontological anthropocentrism: Deontological ethics in anthropocentric thought are mainly concerned with morals. The central premise is that only humanity has ethical duties and rights according to deontological anthropocentrism (Kristiansen, 2003).
Critique of Anthropocentrism
A growing ecological consciousness since the 1960s has led to an increase in criticism of the anthropocentric worldview.
Some have argued that humanity should not be seen as distinct from nature in an attempt to ‘soften’ anthropocentrism.
They contend that precisely because of humanity’s centrality, humans will naturally become more and more aware of their duty to preserve the nonhuman world out of concern for human wellbeing.
Others, however, have proposed a paradigmatic shift away from the anthropocentric perspective towards modes of thought in which humanity is no longer regarded as the central concern. They propose alternative perspectives, such as biocentrism and ecocentrism (Kristiansen, 2003, p. 18-19).
Anthropocentrism vs Biocentrism vs Ecocentrism
|Central concern||Humankind||The biotic community||The ecosphere|
|Inherent value||Individual humans and the human species are seen as the most valuable||All living things carry an equal inherent value||Environmental systems as wholes carry inherent value|
(Washington, Taylor, Kopnina, Cryer, & Piccolo, 2017)
Anthropocentrism is a perspective that regards the world from the centralized human.
Humanity is thereby accorded superiority over all other things on the basis of its assumed centrality.
The prevalence of this thought pattern is reflected in the way humanity has come to regard nonhuman entities.
Anthropocentrism lies, according to environmentalists, more specifically at the base of human-induced environmental degradation, which is of global concern in the 21st century.
Alternative perspectives, such as biocentrism and ecocentrism, have therefore been proposed to replace anthropocentrism.
Kopnina, H., Washington, H., Taylor, B., & Piccolo, J. J. (2018). Anthropocentrism: More than Just a Misunderstood Problem. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 31, 109–127. doi:10.1007/s10806-018-9711-1
Kristiansen, R. E. (2003). Anthropocentrism. In J. W. Vrede van Huyssteen (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Science and Religion (pp. 18-20). New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
McShane, K. (2016). Anthropocentrism in Climate Ethics and Policy. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 40(1), 189-204. doi:10.1111/misp.12055
Probyn-Rapsey, F. (2018). Anthropocentrism. In L. Gruen (Ed.). Critical Terms for Animal Studies (pp. 47-63). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Washington, H., Taylor, B., Kopnina, H., Cryer, P., & Piccolo, J. J. (2017). Why Ecocentrism Is the Key Pathway to Sustainability. The Ecological Citizen, 1(1), 35-41.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]