Environmental Ethics


published on November 18, 2020

Jeremy Sorgen

Beyond the Anthropocentrism Debate
An Adaptive History of Environmental Ethics

The anthropocentrism debate, which centers on the place and status of environmental values, has been a core issue for environmental ethics since the field’s beginning in the 1970s. Nonanthropocentrists attribute value to non-human nature directly, while anthropocentrists claim that humans hold a certain priority. While the debate has produced a wide variety of interesting philosophical positions, it has not achieved its implicit goal of cultural reform. This is not because philosophers fail to agree on a tenable position, but because the debate is misconceived. Both sides of the debate assume that agreement on common values, worldviews, and substantive positions is prerequisite to cultural reform. Pragmatic criticism of this assumption, however, displays its underlying faults, while pragmatic inquiry into the field’s development displays how scholars are already generating methods more commensurate with the goal of cultural reform. Philosophers invested in changing public values should transition from debates in axiology (the study of values) to debating method, where axiology is just one method among others and not the one best suited to supporting cultural reform. A historical survey of the field suggests what scholars of environmental ethics are learning about methods that are both publicly engaged and culturally transformative.