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What are People For?

I’ve been meaning to write a few (!) words about this article since I came across it in The Globe and Mail several days ago. It’s a review of a book called The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, and while I’ve not read the book yet, I find the premise of the book to be a curious one—one that I’m not sure is best suited for what it is trying to accomplish.

Weisman wants us to imagine a world without human beings—a world where we are no longer around to contaminate, destroy, and deface the world we live in. In this world without humans, nature’s indomitable character, awesome power, and adaptability come to the fore. What is preventing us from realizing this is our persistent anthropocentrism—we simply can’t help but consider ourselves to be the center of it all. Here’s a quote from the review which gives some sense of what the book is on about:

Still, believing we’re at the centre of it all, we find it hard, if not logically impossible, to contemplate a world without us: Some of us deny our special genius for self-destruction, some of us wallow in fear—and some of us persist in thinking that salvation, when and if it comes, will be our achievement as well. Anthropocentric to the last, we can’t conceive of a happy ending that doesn’t include us as both the agent and the beneficiary, the giver and the taker.

Well I’m going to go out on a limb and say something extremely unfashionable, especially given the current cultural anxiety about the state of the world and the apocalyptic warnings about our role in its destruction (and I’m going to resist the temptation to heavily qualify what I say—at least for now): I think that human beings really are at the center of it all. And I really can’t conceive of a happy ending that doesn’t include human beings as beneficiaries and agents of a very limited sort. Speaking as a Christian, I suppose that isn’t too surprising. Human beings are described in the book of Genesis as the pinnacle of God’s creation, the one in whom his image is said to rest. Human beings are described as being a part of creation, but a very unique and special part.

But leaving the Bible out the picture entirely, I wonder about “curing” us of our anthropocentrism as a strategy for encouraging better care for the environment. Is convincing people that they are just an insignificant part of the natural world—a curious “mammal with an oversized brain” that has no special role to play and is in no way set apart from the rest of creation—the best way to promote more responsible behaviour in the world?

From a strictly utilitarian perspective, it seems to me we ought to be arguing that human beings are more, not less significant in the grand scheme of things. The belief that human beings are nothing more than a momentary blip on the cosmic map, ultimately destined for nothing but “uninteresting” extinction and futility, could lead to the view that raping and pillaging the environment to extract whatever pleasures and conveniences can be secured in the present actually makes sense. At the very least, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious straight line between the conviction that human beings are no more or less significant than any other mammal and the firm, almost religious conviction that we ought to be doing more to preserve the environment.

There’s obviously much more that could be said about this issue, but I’ve been getting many “suggestions” to make my posts shorter, so I’m doing my best. I’d be curious to know, however, if others sense any incongruity between this double condemnation of environmentally irresponsible behaviour on the hand, and arrogant anthropocentrism on the other. For my part, I think they make an awkward pair.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. eva #

    your posts don’t need to be shorter. there are plenty of short meaningless blurbs (like on my site) out there if one so chooses to be a “sitcom blogger” – the short, sometimes funny, forget about it tomorrow type.

    July 23, 2007
  2. Gil #

    I think that the climate change debate makes no sense apart from an implicit belief in anthropocentrism. Why would we want to preserve the world if not for the desire to preserve ourselves and succeeding generations. I like your observation that a purely naturalistic analysis of ‘what people are for’ makes no sense because it would actually give us license to do pursue short term self-interest without thought to the cost.

    I do agree with Weisman in his speculation that even if we do manage to find our way through the various crises that threaten us, we will undoubtedly attribute the solutions exclusively to ourselves (likely with numerous quasi-mystical references to the ‘human spirit’). I think the human race is full of the potential to solve its problems but curiously forgetful of the fact that it causes most of those problems in the first place. Seems sort of congruent with the idea that human beings are distortions of something that was originally both powerful and good.

    It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ observation that the better ‘stuff’ something is made of the greater its capacity for either good or evil. A cow can be neither really good nor really evil. A person can be both remarkably good and shockingly evil (sometimes on the same day). It seems like most analysts seem to emphasize one of these possibilities at the expense of the other.

    July 23, 2007
  3. Thanks Eva – I’m not naive enough to think that I’m terribly appealing to the “sitcom blogger,” but I also know that I do have a tendency to ramble at times…

    July 23, 2007
  4. Gil, I think you’re right about the human tendency toward self-aggrandizement, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that anthropocentrism is an unqualified good. I just don’t think we have a choice but to see ourselves as different in important ways from the world we inhabit.

    I like Lewis’ perspective (as usual) – for better or worse human beings are unique because of their capacity for both astonishing good and evil.

    July 23, 2007
  5. Dave Chow #

    I just clicked onto the review of the book in Amazon. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m interested. It does look like a compelling read.

    From your quote, I’m interested in Alan Weisman’s definition of salvation. Does he mean the curing of all diseases? Does he mean something more than physical? Does he ever tap the metaphysical / spiritual realm? Is he talking about society / socio-political salvation?

    Anyhow, it seems like he’s proposing that a world without humanity can survive just fine, thank you very much, it also seems like he’s saying we have a responsibility inherent to who and what we are as the top of the food chain.

    If we are part of nature, what is our responsibility / role / part to play in this venture called life?

    July 25, 2007
  6. Dave, I’m not sure about Weisman’s definition of salvation, although if I were to venture a guess it would be heavy on the socio-political and light on the metaphysical/spiritual.

    I think you’re right – he believes that the world would likely recover from the abuses of human beings, but I can’t help but wonder if it would be the same. For me, at least as impressive and awe-inspiring as the natural world and all that it contains is a creature with the capacity to appreciate it and render praise where it is due.

    July 25, 2007
  7. Dave Chow #


    July 26, 2007
  8. I wonder if anything in our natural world should be considered insignificant.


    July 27, 2007
  9. Whoops! I also meant to mention that, putting aside the species hierarchy, I think the preservation of ‘life’ itself is a greater priority.


    July 27, 2007
  10. Jerry, I agree that nothing in the natural world should be considered insignificant, but I don’t think that this precludes assigning different levels of value and significance to different creatures. And I remain unconvinced that the view that human beings are no more significant than anything else (a la Peter Singer) is the best strategy for promoting better care of the world.

    July 27, 2007
  11. I don’t deny that human beings are much more significant than other creatures in this world (like a mosquito or flee, for instance). I wonder, though, how much value or what kind of value we should put into species comparisons.

    Other creatures do their part (however innately developed) to preserve ‘life’ along with humanity. I think this is significant. And humanity has developed their skills of consciousness to such a degree that it all becomes quite complicated. I think this is significant too.

    Not that I’d advocate the extinction of humanity. No, like I said before, I advocate a greater recognition that there is something greater here than one species – ‘life’.


    July 27, 2007
  12. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but I assume that you would favour moving toward a less anthropocentric way of looking at the world. Do you feel that advocating “a greater recognition that there is something greater here than one species – ‘life'” provides us with better philosophical resources for properly caring for the world than, for example, the belief that human beings, as image-bearers of God, have a unique mandate to do so?

    July 27, 2007
  13. I haven’t put in a lot of time into this topic, but off hand, yeah, I’d say I was somewhere between the Peter Singer variety and Monotheists who understand “image-bearing” to exclude all but human beings.

    I like the way you put your question. And my answer is, “I don’t know.” If you’re interested, maybe we could test and compare the Christian philosophy with the priority of life idea – though it might be short and lacking depth due to the minimal time (and minds) the idea has had to give it substance.

    I know my lack of scientific expertise may fail me here, but nevertheless, I wonder about how delicate the existence of ‘life’ is, how far off balance it would need to be to be in serious trouble. And how much responsibility or tasks do all living beings have to take care of ‘life’.

    I wonder about the significance of the extinction of species and how the significances vary between species (including human beings). I wonder how powerful are it’s self-healing properties – which leads to an exploration in the religious sense… Should I be concerned if ‘life’ is immortal? Should ‘life’ have the power of immortality? And I wonder if Monotheists should (are expected to) leave any ‘life’ responsibilities to God that non-believers would take on for themselves.

    I’m sure your mind has wandered to many other different areas of testing than mine has, but I thought I’d just throw this stuff out onto the table.

    Sorry for the long-windedness,

    July 28, 2007
  14. I think you ask a whole bunch of interesting questions – questions that I am also unqualified to answer. I’m intrigued by your statement that we should test and compare the Christian philosophy with the “priority of life” idea. How do you see this test proceeding? What would count as confirmation or disconfirmation of the truth of one or the other?

    The idea of a “test” was sort of what I was trying to get at in my initial post. The test is “can this worldview provide us with the necessary resources to act ethically toward the environment?” I don’t see how a form of species-egalitarianism gets us anywhere. Not only is it unclear how the ethical treatment of the world can be read off of nature itself, but such a philosophy can quite easily be used to justify grossly irresponsible behaviour.

    It’s hard to see how, in principle, the view that human beings are just a peculiar species that happened to evolve brains too sophisticated for their own good, could be used to argue against treating the world as nothing more than the means to satisfy whatever ends we deem desirable or necessary. Why not just exult in our good fortune in developing this capacity and go about the business of exploiting the world however we see fit? There’s nothing built into the worldview itself that could prevent this whereas I would argue that the Christian worldview does give us good moral reasons to resist unethical environmental behaviour.

    (I, too, apologize for the long-windedness – occupational hazard, I suppose…)

    July 28, 2007
  15. From my understanding, the moral reasons within the Christian worldview is that a supposed divine being said so, either in a personally manner or through some sort of authoritarian. And therefore, can just as easily “be used to justify grossly irresponsible behaviour”.

    Nature hasn’t said anything about proper ethical decisions, but it does reveal some tangible consequences (of exploitation, for instance), consequences I’m trying to understand. Hence, my previous questions.


    July 29, 2007
  16. Even if we agree that the moral reasons for taking care of the world from a Christian perspective come from an “authoritarian” God (as opposed to saying, for example, that God has created the world in such a way that immoral decisions have negative consequences), how could this be used to justify grossly irresponsible behaviour?

    Whether I’m acting responsibly out of fear (I think an authoritarian God is going to punish me if I don’t obey him) or because I believe that God has created me to reflect his image in certain ways (and there thus ought to be a certain resonance between God’s desires and mine), I’m still acting in a manner that is consistent with my understanding of the worldview itself.

    You’re absolutely right – nature hasn’t said anything about ethical decisions. Nor can it. That’s my point. You can’t look at someone who is abusing the world and accuse them of acting inconsistently with a worldview which claims that this world and our existence in it is the result of chance and has no ultimate purpose. I’m not for one minute suggesting that most people who subscribe to a naturalistic worldview believe that abusing the environment is unproblematic, or that this worldview leads to irresponsible behaviour. I’m simply saying that there’s nothing built into the worldview itself that can be used to argue that poor treatment of the world is unethical. Understanding the consequences of of exploitation can help us act in ways that are more conducive to self-preservation, but it can’t give us ethics.

    Maybe that’s good enough – maybe all we’re really after is self-preservation. My sense is that the issue is often presented as a moral one. And if environmental care is framed as a moral issue, I think that we are owed a philosophical justification for this – one that I don’t think can come from nature itself.

    July 29, 2007
  17. I have to say, I’ve enjoyed this conversation (among others) with you. I don’t know what (if anything) you gain from my input, but I get to learn more about my self and the evolution of my personal worldview by trying to articulate it here on your blog.

    For instance, I realize my assumption is that ethics has developed through a democratic process between two parties or more seeking mutual advantage. You know, much like the universal golden mean of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ or ‘do not do unto others as you would not have done to you’.

    I’ve somehow or from somewhere, taken on the assumption that humanity has for thousands of years come up with principles, should a community follow them, that would benefit the community’s political, physiological, and psychological health (whether they attribute the principles to a deity or not).

    Unfortunately, when the religious leaders of these communities took their current principles that have been evolving throughout past centuries, and made them canon, the ethical process became more of a totalitarian one than a democratic one – which is scary because I don’t know of any supposed deity whose moral standards are not highly questionable. All of humanity’s bibles I’ve read have examples of deities supporting genocide and/or other forms of sanctified death penalties. But fortunately, there still were and are communities/individuals across the globe that have continued the process of evolving their current ethical principles.

    So I realize I need to do some reading to find out if the sources I’ve taken these assumptions from are reliable or whether I’ve just imagined the whole thing up!

    A pleasure,

    July 30, 2007
  18. I, too, enjoy the dialogue Jerry. I get the sense that you’ve had enough of this discussion for the time being, but I feel that one more point is in order. Please don’t take it as a “parting shot” or anything like that, it’s just that I wonder about the following claim:

    “All of humanity’s bibles I’ve read have examples of deities supporting genocide and/or other forms of sanctified death penalties. But fortunately, there still were and are communities/individuals across the globe that have continued the process of evolving their current ethical principles.”

    I take you to mean, here, that religious leaders/texts distort or get in the way of an otherwise steadily progressing human ethic – that ethics evolve despite religion, not in any way because of it. I come across this claim frequently in my thesis research, and it’s one that I feel is problematic. Perhaps your statement does not mean to convey what I am attributing to it; if so, accept my apologies and please disregard what follows.

    I agree that religious texts have been and continue to be used to support/justify horrific violence. But they also have been and continue to be used to promote incredible good as well. To cite but one example, the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century was largely motivated (at least in Britain) by Christians who were reading their bibles and coming to the conclusion that all people were created equal before God. The philosophical/religious resources for the abolition movement, at least initially, did not come from deism, naturalistic atheism, idealism, or any number of the other philosophical movements that were flourishing during this time. They came from people reading their bibles and coming to the conclusion that obedience to God demanded taking a stand for the oppressed.

    This is no attempt to whitewash religious texts or religious history; it’s simply a plea for a more balanced approach. As I read history, I do not see human beings steadily becoming more ethical to the extent that they are able to resist the evils of organized religion and “hateful” religious texts. I see good and evil being done in the name of both religion and irreligion. I think that a good case can be made that the Christian religion, in particular, has led to much more good than evil, but perhaps that is a discussion for another day.

    I, too, have extraordinary difficulty with parts of the bible, but in the end, I feel that its overall narrative is one of redemption – a story which moves away from evil and pain towards goodness, harmony, and wholeness. And I think that such a story, warts and all, is able to provide a solid foundation for ethics that cannot be derived from nature itself.

    July 30, 2007

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