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Key Terms in Environmental Philosophy

by Barnhill, David L. last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM

Here are a few terms that are central to thinking about nature and our relationship to it.


Anthropocentrism : In an anthropocentric view, the focus is primarily or exclusively on humans, with the natural world ignored or merely a background. (Most branches of learning – e.g., psychology or philosophy – are anthropocentric in this sense.) Value is placed primarily on humans, with the natural world having lesser or (usually) only instrumental value. In this perspective, humans are usually seen as separate from and even transcendent to the natural world, with nature as an object of study and use. There are various types and degrees of anthropocentrism, from extreme to more modified types in which nature does have some intrinsic value.

Biocentrism/Ecocentrism : Both biocentrism and ecocentrism oppose anthropocentric views. Both focus on the natural world (with humans considered an integrated part of it or as an unnatural and destructive rogue) and accord it high degrees of intrinsic value. The term biocentrism is sometimes used to indicate views in which focus and value are placed on living organisms (animals and perhaps plants), while ecocentric views tend to include abiotic factors such as rivers and systems that include abiotic elements, such as ecosystems and watersheds. Biocentric thinkers often emphasize the value of individual organisms, while ecocentric thinkers tend to be haracterized by a more holistic approach, giving value to species, ecosystems, or the earth as a whole. However, “biocentrism” is sometimes used in a broad sense to include ecocentrism, especially if rivers and ecosystems are considered to have “life.”


AXIOLOGY (the study of value)

Moral Considerability : One of the key issues in environmental philosophy is who and what is worthy of moral (or political/legal) consideration. Do we have any moral obligations to animals? Do trees have legal standing (the title of a book)? Should we consider the well-being of a desert ecosystem when we make decisions about mining? The issue of moral considerability concerns both what is worthy of moral consideration, and to what degree it has.

Instrumental Value : Something has instrumental value if it is valuable for something else. A deer, for instance, could be considered to have instrumental value as an object of sport hunting or a source of food. Similarly, a forest can be considered to have value only as a resource for creating lumber and paper (two examples of anthropocentric instrumental value). Or an individual organism can be given value only insofar as it contributes to the health of a species or vitality of an ecosystem (ecocentric or holistic instrumental value). Anthropocentrism usually sees nature as having only instrumental value.

Intrinsic (Inherent) Value : Something has intrinsic value if its value is “for itself” and independent of its value for something else. A deer, for instance, can be considered to have value in and for itself, whether or not it has value for humans or for species or ecosystem. Biocentrism and ecocentrism see nature as having intrinsic value. There can be disagreements, however. One biocentric philosopher, Thomas Regan, argues that only individual organisms have intrinsic value; species or ecosystems have no value in themselves. And he argues that only adult mammals have moral considerability; other animals are not “subjects of a life” in a philosophical sense. For some ecocentric thinkers, it is species or ecosystems that have the primary intrinsic value; an individual deer doesn’t matter nearly as much as the health of the species or the ecosystem it inhabits.

>>Keep in mind that something can have both instrumental and intrinsic value. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive terms.


Individualism and holism are two basic ways of conceiving of nature and valuing it, and they concern both reality and value. Individualism sees the world as made primarily of distinct individuals: an individual person, animal, or plant has primary reality, rather than some abstraction of a social group, species, or population. And it is individuals (a person, an animal, a plant) that have value. Placing value on groups is dangerous and can lead to fascism.

Holism sees the world as an integrated whole. To study reality is to study a system of interrelationships. Value is fundamentally found in wholes such as species, ecosystems, or the planet, and individuals have value as part of those wholes.

Individualist and holistic perspectives can be absolute and mutually exclusive, such as atomism (which denies the reality of relationships) and monism (which denies the reality of individuals). But they also can be held in a relative and mutually complementary way: things are distinct yet integrated, and both individuals or wholes have value.

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by Barnhill, David L. last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM