Environmental Philosophy’s Challenge to Humanism

Hugh McDonald


The breakdown of the world’s ecology is causing a shift in environmental sensibilities tantamount to a second Copernican revolution. . . . In the second Copernican revolution we may be forced to abandon the even more self-aggrandizing belief that we are the center of the moral universe and have a special, privileged status in the biosphere—anthropocentrism.

Lynton Caldwell

I would like to propose a new ethic, which I call “eccocentric cosmopolitism” to replace the familiar conceptions of humanistic ethics. Ecocentric cosmopolitanism is more in line with the notion implied and expressed by the word cosmopolitan (world citizen). “The world” includes the biosphere taken as a whole, and an ecocentric cosmopolitan is a citizen of the whole world. We reside in the world, which consists of several environments. The phrase “citizen of the world” implies an allegiance to the entire world, not simply to one particular culture. Indeed, living in harmony with the environment forms a standard by which to judge cultures. Ecocentric ethics is the only universal ethic and thus the only one that can meet the test of universality required for a rational ethic. Adopting an ecocentric cosmopolitan ethic would dissolve the distinction between humanist and environmental ethics.


Ethical cosmopolitanism emerged in Hellenic Greece when the intellectual and tribal barriers between the city-states were breaking down. The cross-fertilization of ideas that followed the mixing of people and thinkers from different regions precipitated a crisis in belief. Since different cities practiced different customs, which were best? Which of the varied customs of different city-states were “right”? The problem of human nature also emerged from this reflection, in part as an answer to it. Human nature as zoion ekhon logon, the rational animal, was an abstraction from all cultures that transcended the particular cities. Irrespective of individual varieties, language capacity and rationality as such distinguished all humans. The ability to reason is a universal capacity of humans in all cultures. Even though each city had its distinctive customs, at a higher level humans are alike in nature.

Once (human) nature had been abstracted, it became a standard by which philosophers could judge particular cultures and their practices as natural or unnatural (Plato, Republic I and Gorgias). Since this standard was independent of any one culture, it led to a certain intellectual liberation from cultural and tribal ethics. (Cultural ethics are tribal, since a tribe shares a culture that excludes the foreign as alien and includes those who share customs, a language, and the like. Often everyone in the tribe is related by blood.) The denouement was the birth of the cosmopolitan philosopher, the “citizen of the world.” Cosmopolitan philosophers rejected identification with any narrow culture, since their allegiance was to human nature as a whole. Cosmopolitan ethics was also universal, for it looked beyond cultures for a standard that transcended cultures while tolerantly evaluating the best in each.

The cosmopolitan is at home everywhere in the world: a “world-citizen” open to the world. Cultural exclusivity closes itself to the world, since what is alien to the culture is excluded as foreign. Cultural ethics is not cosmopolitan in either the literal sense of being a citizen of the world, since all mores come from the tribe, nor in the sense connoted by the spirit of cosmopolitanism. Since they reject the closed-mindedness of tribal culture, cosmopolitans are open to practices of different cultures from different parts of the world than their natal culture. Thus a cosmopolitan ethic includes living in and being part of that world.

Another virtue is tolerance. The cosmopolitan tolerates ways of life and customs different than those that he or she practices. Although the cosmopolitan may not personally endorse every cultural practice—for this would be impossible, if only because of variety—he or she recognizes such variety as itself good if basic, universal ethical norms are not violated. Cultural variety means more kinds of goods.

A tension emerged between the ethical standard of nature and the tolerance of cultural forms and varieties, which are the essence of humanistic cosmopolitanism. The nature-law (nature/custom) distinction at the basis of cosmopolitan ethics favors nature as the standard, not law. The cosmopolitan favors loyalty to nature more than culture. This tension resulted in a certain cynicism among the ancient cosmopolitans such as Diogenes. Cosmopolitans became cynical of cultural practices not “in accord with nature.” Thus Diogenes went about “clothed in nature,” lived in a tub not a house, and acted as a gadfly toward his culture. The distinction of culture and nature and loyalty to nature also lies at the root of the environmental movement. However, the emergence of the latter required an intervening historical sensibility.

Moral Progress

The idea of moral progress envisions the expansion of moral considerability from a select few men to all humans, especially women, sexual minorities, future generations, and ultimately to all animals and other nonhuman nature. The theoretical development of ethics from the tribe to those beyond has as its logical outcome the extension of moral considerability to other species and the biosphere. This extension to larger and larger numbers was first treated by Bentham and later by Darwin, Leopold, and Callicott with the land ethic, Singer and Regan as regards animal liberation, and the Ehrlichs as regards endangered species. The hope that humans can extend moral obligation from themselves to animals, other species, and the biosphere as a whole, just as they once extended it to those outside the tribe, is the core of environmental ethics. The goal is a humane ethic: all other living things are worthy of being treated justly with mutual recognition in accordance with the principle of reciprocity.

“Brownlash” opponents attempted to label environmentalism and the “green movement” as an ideology—simply one more political movement. However, it is anthropocentric “ethics” that is ideological, not environmental ethics, as it represents the interests of one species as if they were universal. The interests of one species cannot be universal by definition. Anthropocentric “ethics” is the rationale of totalitarian domination by one species and in the interests of one species. The “domination of nature” means a world totally organized for human exploitation: here a logging area, there a farm, here a suburban “development,” there a “wilderness area” (usually so designated because it is on marginal land). A concept such as “designated wilderness” implies that it is up to one species to decide what should be left as wilderness.

Human ethics up until the advent of ecocentrism and biocentrism has, like tribal ethics, excluded the great majority in favor of a select minority. In contrast stands cosmopolitan ethics, the ethics of the world citizen articulated by Diogenes against the notion of belonging to any narrow group. The extension of duty beyond the tribe has its logical outcome in universalization of duty, since moral principles should include all other cultures, which coincides with cosmopolitanism as an ethic. In this ethic, a universal inclusion is contrasted with a narrow exclusion. The word cosmopolitan also connotes the rootedness of humans in the world (cosmos) as basic. As Chief Seattle remarked, humans “belong to the earth, not the earth to man.” Humans are rooted in their environment in a world that includes other species.

Parallel with cosmopolitan ethics, environmental ethics has attempted to extend moral considerability beyond the species to include animals, plants, and the biosphere as a whole. Environmental ethics is the most inclusive ethics since it includes even landscapes, and it is cosmopolitan in the sense of viewing humans as rooted in the world. Environmental ethics combines cosmopolitan ethics of openness to the world and the universality of moral principles with the thesis of extension of considerability: moral progress. (The first philosopher to combine a belief in moral progress and cosmopolitanism was Kant, who also used universality as a test for moral consistency and thus as a categorical imperative.) However, a change in what is cosmopolitan is connoted, since the logic of world-citizen is taken to include the biosphere as a whole, that is, literally the whole world. Environmental ethics interprets the world to include the biosphere and all the living things in the world.

The Challenge from Humanism

One of the main issues debated in environmental ethics has been the issue of anthropocentric rights and values as opposed to nonanthropocentric rights and values. Some have argued that only humans have rights or intrinsic value and that the nonhuman world has value only for humans. Others have argued for a more ecocentric view in which humans are just one species and the biosphere has a value of its own. Still others have argued for a combination of the two views, for example, an extension of human rights to higher animals. Anthropocentrism is the latest incarnation of classical humanism, since it would make humans the great exception in the chain of life. To argue that all value emanates from humans, that the entire world is merely of instrumental value for humans, is a form of humanism. I am going to address this issue from its justifying ground, namely, the idea that humans are the great exception and thereby entitled to use the world however they desire.

Humanism as a worldview: The hierarchy of nature as human chauvinism. Humanism is any belief that involves the evaluation that humans are at the apex of creation or nature, the top of the hierarchy of beings. Humanism is an ambiguous term, with many different meanings. Humanism as a literary movement involves an interest in human affairs as opposed to an otherworldly orientation. Literary humanism is distinct from philosophical humanism, which likewise views the study of man as central but differs in approach. Philosophical humanism is opposed to naturalism in philosophy in that humans are placed at the apex of a hierarchy, replacing God. Religious thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas of course place humans below the divine. Nevertheless, humans are flattered as being the center of creation, in the “divine image.” Humanists adopted the hierarchical structure and worldview from medieval theism and never questioned it, only transformed it. The substitution of humans for God at the apex of creation began with the adaptation of Plato by humanistic Renaissance neo-Platonists such as Pico della Mirandola and reached its culmination in atheistic humanism. In this view, humans are supreme over all other species. Humanism involves an abstraction of humans from the environment, a utopian model also adopted by anthropocentric value theories. It is utopian since in the actual world, humans depend on the environment, not vice versa.

The view of humans as the center of the universe is the worldview of medieval humans. Humanism is only thinkable if it is attached to the notion of the earth as the center of the universe and of humans at the apex of the center. Copernicus exploded this part of the humanist viewpoint long ago. The discovery of a universe with the sun in a remote arm of a huge galaxy among millions of other galaxies should have demolished this anthropocentric view. Nevertheless, humanism survives. Humanistic thinking is an attempt to return to the archaic pre-modern perspective, a worldview of permanent hierarchy, with humans at the top of a pyramid of species. This perspective is ideological, since it takes an arbitrary species difference and attempts to derive a moral absolute from it. Ideology consists in the part masquerading as the whole, that is, in humans representing their “interests” as the interest of the whole. Humanism places humans above the rest of nature and refuses to acknowledge the whole, other species and the environment, out of a misplaced anthropocentrism. Humanism so conceived is antiprogressive, based on its refusal to extend moral considerability to nonhuman nature.

The belief that humans are special and animals machines is a very recent view. The Greeks thought we were rational animals, a distinct species but a zoion nonetheless. For the medievals, God created nature along with humans. The exploitative form of humanism is also modern: that nature is a field for exploitation for humans. The humanists’ claim that humans are special is untenable, given modern scientific findings, especially evolution. If humans evolved from other species, they cannot be distinguished biologically from other species as special. Following Darwin, modern biology conceives humans as one species among others. Humans evolved from other species and are nothing but fairly clever and successful primates.

Finally, some have argued that humans have “transcended” their environment. However, humans have not so much transcended their environment as transported it. Every breath we take, every drink of water reminds us of our place in the world, if transcend is taken to mean beyond the world. Humans still require housing and clothing in temperate and polar climates, for which they are ill suited. We bring our originary hot, tropical climate with us by adapting to novel habitats. Humans have no more transcended their environment than the lowly cockroach, which inhabits human dwellings in the same habitats and could not survive without them. Human flourishing still has environmental conditions. All the novel human values, marvelous though they may be, require an environment. Listening to Mozart, reading Shakespeare, and practicing religion all take place within an environment. Humans have not transcended their environment and require one for the practice of such values. Transcendence is a humanist myth.

The view of humans as elevated has neither scientific nor moral warrant. A species that is as dependent upon the environment as any other cannot be privileged. Our need for myths is one source of “humanism,” the delusion that we are something more than, in Rorty’s words, “clever animals.” To be sure, humans differ from other species, just as any species differs in some respects. Horses differ from elephants: that is precisely what it means to be a distinct species. Humans are incapable of certain animal capacities, just as animals may be incapable of certain human ones. So what? Why are these facts morally relevant? What is at issue is whether the differences that characterize one species provide moral warrant. Why is a species difference a unique ethical warrant? It is speciesist to count only humans as morally considerable, to speak nothing of violating the basic premise of ethics: the golden rule or some variant. More formally, ethics requires universality or it cannot be rational. Practical universality must include at least the majority of other species, or humans have put themselves in the position of the elite, an ideological stance. Since ethics must be universal and reciprocal, a species difference cannot provide such a warrant. It is not universal as distinct and unique to a species; not reciprocal as confined to a species.

Critical evaluation of anthropocentrism. Both the Western and Chinese traditions include a humane ethic, associated with such figures as Plato, Cicero, Confucius, Mo-tse, Aristotle, the Stoics, Meng-tse, Kant, J.S. Mill, and others. Humanistic ethics is specifically different but also regulative for the rest of nature by extention, for example, in mandates to be kind to animals. Humanist ethics, although an advance upon a narrowly tribal ethic, can itself be an exclusionary ethic and thereby the latest form of tribalism when taken as the source of ethics or where value is confined to humans. An ethic based on anthropocentric values is a species ethic, based on some claimed specifically human capacity, whether “reason,” “self-consciousness,” “language,” or other purported capacity exclusive to humans. Usually such posits are not actually exclusive to humans; in any case, they are arbitrary and morally irrelevant. The exclusionary principle, the notion that moral norms apply only to humans is simply human chauvinism masquerading as value theory.

A corollary of this sort of humanism is that human supremacy allegedly creates a moral superiority that entitles humans to dominate all other species. The anthropocentric formulation of this view is that humans alone have intrinsic value; other species are merely instruments of human good. Value theories that confine intrinsic value to humans are based on a hierarchy of value with humans at the apex. Since humans are at the apex of value, they are the highest good in the hierarchy of living things. Humans give value to subordinate species in this view but only if they have value to humans. The value of instruments is in relation to humans alone as intrinsically valuable, creating a hierarchy of goods in relation to their degree of worth to humans. Thus destruction of “worthless” land (habitats) for cultivation is “justified” because of its value to the ultimate, supreme end, subjective human states.

Such a hierarchy cannot be used as the basis for a universal ethic, however, without a fallacy in values. The values that differentiate humans are distinct and thus cannot be universal. Human value cannot be the universal value and thereby define value. The intrinsic value of human differences is confined to humans, not to all value. Otherwise, it could not be distinctly human. Humanism cannot thereby serve as a basis for a universal ethic. Human ethics is particular as speciesist and thus can never generate the universality required for rational duties. Specific differences are not universalizable by definition. Since they are not universal, such posits are therefore not necessary and cannot be obligatory.

Species differences are also morally arbitrary, just as tribal, racial and class differences are. The “reasoning” in human chauvinism is parallel in form to the reasoning used by the racist who argues one race is unique and therefore entitled to subdue/exterminate the other races. The claim is false because humans are not as unique as stated: there are many analogues of human behavior in the animal world, and humans are biologically one species among others. It is arbitrary since it is not morally relevant. Even if true, it cannot provide ethical warrant for extermination or subjugation of other species, since this would be immoral. Why should an alleged superiority create a privilege? Alleged human superiority is irrelevant.

Like racism, speciesism argues from a dubious premise to an exclusive ethic. One argument for human speciesism is that only humans can be moral agents. I would argue that while humans may be capable of morality, it does not follow that they are essentially moral. Clearly, moral capacity is not part of the essence of being human, a species difference, since humans are also capable of the evils of genocide—to speak nothing of crimes against the environment and the horrendous treatment of animals, especially in factory farms. Thus moral capacity is not a specific difference on which privileges can be based. Since it is not part of the human essence, it is only relevant and valid if some humans actually act morally toward other species. The record suggests just the opposite: other species are resources to be used for human convenience. What is almost comical about such arguments is that the alleged exclusive moral agency of humans is argued by some as a warrant to treat animals immorally, i.e., as suitable subjects for experimentation!

It would be as much of a mistake to confuse moral capacity with moral considerability as to confuse a moral capacity with an essence. Nonhuman nature should receive moral considerability even if animals are incapable of certain human capacities. No special human capacity creates the privilege of raping nature but rather the responsibility not to, since it is a moral capacity. A moral capacity involves responsibilities, including a responsibility to treat nonhuman nature morally. If humans alone have a special moral capacity, they should treat other species morally, not with violence or exploitation. Otherwise this so-called capacity is ideological. Humans can’t have it both ways (privileged status). If we are moral agents, then mistreating animals is ruled out. For then we are contradicting the premise of moral difference, and we can’t claim a special moral status. If on the other hand we are just another predator species, then we cannot make the claim of moral superiority on which human chauvinism rests. Otherwise we are morally hypocritical.

Moreover, proponents of exclusive human moral agency overlook the “ethic” of other species. An “ethic” is a way of life and of living together. All species have a way of life, and many live together, particularly herd animals. Moral agency by this definition is not confined to humans. Moreover, animal parents sometimes sacrifice themselves to preserve their offspring, altruistic behavior that Darwin noted.

Environmental Ethics as Ecocentric Cosmopolitanism

Ecocentric cosmopolitanism calls for a fuller understanding of human life in its environmental context. It is a platitude that humans require food, clothing, shelter, air, and water in order to feel happiness, that is, the environment is the condition of other values. These are the conditions of all life, including human life, thus practically necessary as conditions of life. Polluting our air and water and destroying our soil is opposed to our species’ interest, to say nothing of other species. However, environmentalists do not think that the entire planet is simply a field for human exploitation. They do not think only in economic terms of self-interest and enrichment. Basing our ethics on human greed does not bring out the best in us. Ecocentric cosmopolitan ethics recognizes the place of humans within a larger whole. Humans have as much value as any other species. Universal ethics includes humans and would attempt to harmonize human life with other life without overly privileging humans. A specific environment gave rise to life including human life. Ecocentric cosmopolitanism is a revaluation involving the decentering of anthropocentric ethics. The extension of moral considerability involved in moral progress expands the field of moral regard.

Ironically, the best of human ethics consists in a moral consciousness and a profound sense of the value of life. The lessons of nineteenth- and twentieth-century genocide include the moral requirement for cosmopolitan tolerance of and respect for other cultures and ways of life. A merely tribal, anthropocentric reading of these events ignores its central lesson: that tolerance of different ways of life in the world ought to include ways of life of different species. Otherwise we are expanding the circle of moral considerability only to close it: a contradictory, hypocritical movement. In the light of these events, our ethics should be cosmopolitan and ought to be extended universally, even as we remain members of limited, overlapping communities, whether a nation, a family, a business, a religion, or an ethnic tradition. Belonging does not exclude toleration; it demands it.

Cosmpolitanism acknowledges the value of distinct cultures while seeking a broader view. The obvious next step in moral development would acknowledge the place of humans in the larger world, just as one particular culture is a small part of a larger whole of all human cultures. An ecocentric cosmopolitanism involves the relation of humans as one part to other parts of the whole, that is, to other species, habitats, and the biosphere.

Human domination of the environment has come at too high a price, namely the loss of too many species and habitat destruction. Like a death wish, destruction of our environment is a form of self-destruction in which even human survival is threatened by the massive destruction of habitats. It could well end in the extinction of the human species through destruction of as yet barely understood processes of ecological dependence in the chain of life or which results in alteration of the climate, global warming. On pragmatic grounds alone, then, it would be better to halt the rapacious destruction of the environment. The environment, including air, water, and soil, is universally required for all life, including human life. What is required is practically necessary; what is universally required is obligatory. In turn, all theories of value require life as a condition, for example, life as the condition of pleasurable states in hedonism or feelings of happiness in several theories. The conditions of life are required for any theory of value and are thus morally considerable. Thus, elements of the environment that are universally necessary to all of life should receive moral priority.

Humans cannot be both superior and dependent: this is the contradiction of anthropocentric ethics. It is not a devaluation of humans to recognize, with Aldo Leopold, that humans are not the masters of the environment but plain citizens within it. It is a change in perspective comparable in some ways to the Copernican Revolution. Ecocentric cosmopolitan ethics recognizes the value of life, of species and habitats beyond the narrowly human. The advent of ecological ethics marks a whole new orientation for philosophy.

The ultimate denouement of this movement must be that environmental ethics is ethics. Thus the separation of ethics and environmental ethics as genus and species is no longer tenable. Ecological cosmopolitan ethics, the ethics of cosmopolitan membership in the world, is the only universal ethics and therefore constitutes the new basic framework for ethics. The universality requirement is not confined to Kantian ethics but is included in Dewey’s pragmatic consequentialism and Singer’s utilitarianism; indeed any rational ethic requires some universal principles. Environmental ethics also includes social contact between species, not simply within human society. It covers social relations between different social types, humans, higher and lower animals, plants, and the biosphere as a whole. Again, this is not a devaluation of previous ethics, anthropocentrically based, but a fulfillment of the potentiality of ethics: its fullest realization. Ecocentric cosmopolitanism is the ethics of the future.

Cosmopolitanism also includes the principle that the world includes different communities, different cultures and species. Ecocentrism stresses the dependence of humans on their environment as much as on technology and culture. Relations to other species are cosmopolitan, taking the form of different relations to each species in the world, which recognizes the distinctive value of the species. We may avoid association with bears and lions when it is imprudent, just as we may avoid cultures that are hostile to outsiders. Valuing of all such modes of association involves a more cosmopolitan outlook in which tribal ethics is rejected as a norm. A citizen of the world recognizes pluralistic sources of value in the world and rejects subordination of all value to the good of the human tribe.

The foremost duty in an ecocentric revaluation is to the living world as a whole that is the condition of all values. All our values require the world as the place and condition for such human values. The revaluation of reciprocity means expansion of the other to include the whole, not just the human part. Our loyalty cannot simply be to our tribe or our species but should include the environment, the source of the necessities of life. Moral principles, then, must be revalued in terms of consequences for the environment. We are obligated to consider other species and their requisite habitats in moral deliberation and act accordingly. The central issue of our time, the destruction of the environment, must serve as a negative norm against which we evaluate actions.


Humans are parts of a much larger whole, and any attempt to make humans coextensive with the whole are ideological. Thus, anthropocentric ethics has been revalued from the whole to the part. Ecological norms provide a value ranking in structure, independent of utility for humans. Wildflowers, insects, predators, and other species are all given a place regardless of their utility for humans. In the past, cosmopolitanism has been interpreted as a humanist view. But in the final analysis, cosmopolitanism implies a much larger whole of the world. Cosmopolitanism should be revalued from anthropocentric to ecocentric. However, ecocentric cosmopolitanism can be viewed as a new way of describing humans, as part of a larger global whole.


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Hugh McDonald

Hugh P. McDonald is professor of philosophy at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY). He is the author or editor of numerous journal articles and books, including F. C. S. Schiller on Pragmatism and Humanism: Selected Writings, 1891–1937 (coedited with John Shook, Prometheus Books, 2007) and, most recently, Pragmatism and Environmentalism (editor, Rodopi, 2012).

  The breakdown of the world’s ecology is causing a shift in environmental sensibilities tantamount to a second Copernican revolution. . . . In the second Copernican revolution we may be forced to abandon the even more self-aggrandizing belief that we are the center of the moral universe and have a special, privileged status in …

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