Love for Nature and Anthropocentrism

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of feelings in environmental ethics.  Do we need to love nature to be good stewards of the Earth?  What if you don’t even like being outside?  Can you still be an environmentalist?  Can you still act ethically with respect to the environment?

Fortunately, philosopher Katie McShane has answered all of these questions in a short, easy-to-read paper.

Just kidding.  But I have stumbled upon her writing, and it’s good: clear and understandable.  I think I like it too because she is defending some of the older strands in environmental ethics, such as the search for nature’s intrinsic value. This is what got me into environmental philosophy in the first place, and when I learned, just a few weeks ago, that environmental philosophers had abandoned this topic – nay, threw up their hands in exasperation and defeat – I was disheartened because I had really wanted to understand it.  So finding McShane’s voice calling us back to our roots (with, of course, her own criticisms and novel ideas), well, it struck a chord.

I read her article called “Anthropocentrism vs. Nonanthropocentrism: Why Should We Care?”  Briefly, anthropocentrism is the view that nature has value only in that it serves human interests.  Nonanthropocentrism says that nature has value apart from the ways it serves our interests.  Bryan Norton, whose work I have not yet read, has argued that, practically speaking, these two views “converge” on the same policy prescriptions.  In other words, it doesn’t really matter.  And what’s more, there are some downsides with nonanthropocentrism: it’s not popular among the public (most of the volunteers I work with at restoration sites do not buy into it), it’s a radical theory (since most ethical theories outside of environmental ethics are anthropocentric), and it’s theoretically problematic (e.g. it leads to some questionable metaphysical claims about what exists in the world).  Thus…

Only a fool would choose the nonanthropocentric route.

McShane, however, disagrees.  She thinks that the distinction does matter.

Before jettisoning nonathropocentrism…I think it would be useful to think carefully about what exactly we would be giving up.

She thinks we’d be giving up attitudes toward nature – namely, love, respect and awe.  Here’s the reasoning:

Some attitudes that we can take toward a thing are incompatible with thinking that its value is entirely dependent on its satisfaction of our interests.

If we believe in anthropocentrism, we cannot feel love, respect or awe toward nature, because anthropocentrism says that nature has value only insofar as it serves our interests.

Yet these feelings, which might be called “other-centered” feelings, require that we find value apart from our interests.

To love a friend is in part to deny that her value is just a matter of serving your interests.

So a belief in anthropocentrism would prevent us from…loving nature:

If to love something is to think of it as having a kind of value that doesn’t depend on us and our interests, then according to anthropocentrism, to love the natural world is to make a mistake about its value.

(Notice that anthropocentrism doesn’t result in the same thing as nonanthropocentrism with respect to emotions – i.e. there is not a convergence between the two.  Why?  Because emotions, more so than actions, are closely connected to beliefs: it’s hard feel love for nature unless you also think that nature has value apart from your interests.  On the other hand, you could act as if you believed this to be true.)

McShane doesn’t try to convince us that we ought to have any of these feelings toward nature.  She just wants to show that there are practical effects of adopting an anthropocentric viewpoint.  In the introduction to her article, she writes that, as practical ethicists,

We should demand that there be an issue of practical importance at stake before we commit our time and energy (not to mention journal space, etc.) to addressing a theoretical dispute.  If two theories have exactly the same practical implications, we shouldn’t spend our time worrying about what other differences there might be between them.  What I want to explore here is the question of what counts as a “practical implication” of an ethical theory.

But why are feelings important for ethics?  McShane sketches four reasons.  First, feelings affect actions; they motivate us.  Second, in our evaluations of people’s attitudes, we value genuineness.  For instance, we want our friends to actually like us, not merely pretend that they do.  Third, we care about whether objects deserve certain feelings.  Fourth, when we consider our own moral development, we care about our feelings: are they right?  Are they appropriate?  I find this the most interesting.  McShane writes:

Our moral lives are lived from the inside, in the first person, and from this point of view we have an interest in more than just satisfying the claims that others legitimately make on us.  We care not only about generating properly the ‘outputs’ (actions, behaviors, choices, etc.), but also about the inner life of the being who produces those outputs.


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