The Value Of Nature – A Critical Account of Anthropocentrism In Politics, Part 3 (Anne Fremaux)

The following is the final installment of a three-part article.  Part one can be found by clicking here.  Part two can be found by clicking here. 

The defense of nature can be considered a political problem in so far as it involves the issue of freedom. As shown earlier, the freedom of humans is put into question in the process of reification and artificialization of nature, through the private appropriation of goods that were previously free, through the commercialization of body parts, through the increase of uncontrolled ‘manufactured risks’ humans are facing, and through the use of scientific and technological knowledge in the making of political decisions.

All these issues find their roots in what Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse call the use of instrumental reason. Following the Frankfurt School theorists, Hannah Arendt “criticizes the ‘anthropocentric utilitarianism’ of humankind as ‘measure of all things,’ that treats nature and the ‘things themselves’ as mere means and as valueless material for his own consumption or production-related ends” (123). This is this instrumental moral and anthropological framework that gave birth to the unprecedented level of technical power that lays at the heart of the ecological crisis and that calls for a new moral and metaphysical approach.

The Imperative of Responsibility (Anthropocentric Continental Approach)

As a result of the tremendous possibilities given by science and technology, our responsibility has also taken on immense proportions. As Hans Jonas observes in his famous opus The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (1984), for the first time in history, humankind has become responsible for the survival of both human and non-human life. At the same time, the human subject seems to disappear in front of technological power. “Loss of subject [that is to say, Loss of the sense of responsibility, increasing passivity and blindness to the repercussions of actions] is often considered characteristic of a modern technological society” (77). This means that we have an increase in power and a decrease in responsibility.

In The Imperative of Responsibility, Jonas aims to “offer solutions” (moral rules of action), to rethink the foundations of ethics, in light of the awesome transformations brought up by modern technology. As the increasing power of humankind over nature affects the future of both, as the effects of humanity’s impact far exceed the current generation’s time and space, it becomes necessary to accompany our new possibilities with relevant duties. Technology today has altered the scope of human action by affecting nature, both inside and outside (genetics, Posthumanism) in such a way that long-range cumulative, irreversible and planetary effects can be expected. Modern technology has become a threat to the world and to the next human and non-human(?) generations, but traditional ethics has left us defenceless before the extent of our new responsibilities. As is nearly always the case, our technological innovation outstrips our moral imagination.

This is why a new ethics is needed – an ethics “appropriate for the age of runaway technology” (xiii) that takes into account the threat to the future. Indeed, “the cumulative effects of our actions extend into the lives of future generations who have, as yet, no voice, and who must bear the consequences of the fact that today ‘we mortgage future life for present short-term advantages and needs – and mostly self-created needs at that'” (188). A new chapter must be opened in the field of ethics (and politics), “reflecting the new magnitudes of power with which ethics has henceforth to cope:  the claims of responsibility grow proportionately with the deeds of power” (quoted in Morris).

The greatest originality of Hans Jonas is doubtless the invention of a concept of responsibility that upholds a duty to care not only for the past and present, but most of all the future of humankind. His analysis regarding the urgent need for a new technological ethics for the future is indeed original even if some similarities can be found with the social theory of risks that aims at finding new ways of relating the impact of our past/present decisions and practices to the future.

In keeping with his anthropocentric orientation inspired by Kantian ethics, Jonas defines the imperative of responsibility as follows:  “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.” Expressed negatively, it reads: “Act so that the effects of your action are not destructive of the future possibility of such life.” Thus formulated, the imperative of responsibility seeks to answer the fact that, for traditional ethics, the scope of human action has always been strictly limited to the past and the present. Never before has ethical theory been forced to face the prospect that technology could place life as a whole at risk.

The originality of his approach also lies in the fact that his ethics includes nature. In The Phenomenon of Life (1963), he offers “an existential interpretation of the biological facts,” arguing that purposive existence is not a special attribute of human beings but is also present throughout living nature. In The Imperative of Responsibility, he argues in favor of a metaphysical grounding of our ethical obligations to nature and humans.

Indeed, Jonas’s philosophy aims at providing a reasonable ethics consistent with modern science (that shows how we relate to nature, how we emerge from it and how we depend on it). Nature is indeed considered as following ends “in itself” and “for itself.” All organisms, even the most primitive, show concern for their own being and struggle for their survival. Metabolisms are the most basic expression of organisms struggling for life. Each organism exhibits what Jonas calls a “needful freedom” (1996: 10), even if new dimensions of freedom develop in proportion with the growing complexity of faculties (metabolism, moving and desiring, sensing and perceiving, imagining and thinking).

By doing so, Jonas challenges the modern credo of anthropocentric theories according to which human existence is the source of all value in nature. He challenges as well the reductionist materialistic view of modernity that considers nature as value-free and without purposiveness. Humanity is not the only source of value as other living beings flourish, suffer and express forms of interests. In this sense, Jonas follows a naturalistic project of ethics.

But finally, Jonas comes back to anthropocentrism. Indeed, even if living beings are “centres of purpose,” the reason why one ought to approach nature in an ethical way is not because the earth represents something in itself (something sacred, as “Gaiaists” would say), nor because all living species are of equal worth (biocentric egalitarianism), but because the survival of humankind itself is at stake. Human beings are the most noble creatures that the evolutionary process has yielded, the highest and most complex species, the only one able to hold a responsibility towards the rest of nature.

According to Jonas, our main duty, therefore, is to ensure that human beings remain among earth’s citizens (that is to prevent their auto-destruction). On this path, Jonas does not follow the official Darwinian mechanistic view, which is resolutely anti-teleological, and which holds that complex species result from utterly contingent alterations in lower elements and evolved by chance. According to Jonas, Darwin’s materialist explanation of evolution “contains the germ of its own overcoming” (1963: 53, emphasis added) insofar as Darwin, according to Jonas, makes himself room for the idea that the whole life-world is a chain of psycho-physical organisms who coevolved in order to allow greater freedom and individuality to emerge.

Indeed, according to the German philosopher, humankind can therefore be interpreted as the outcome of a teleological evolution whose immanent purposes are self-knowledge and freedom. According to him, for instance, the emergence of the human mind does not mark a great division within nature, but elaborates what is prefigured in all organic existence (1963: 4). We humans should therefore understand ourselves as “being called by nature, our own source, to be her guardian” (1963: 284). Principles of ethics can, therefore, be grounded in biology.

As he says, once the immanence of purpose in nature has been shown, “the decisive battle for ethical theory has already been won” (1984: 78). Jonas summarizes the central argument of The Imperative of Responsibility in chapter 4, “Towards an Ontological Grounding of an Ethics for the Future.” He seeks to demonstrate that the good is not relative to subjective purposes but that there is an objective reality of value – a good in itself – in purposive nature. But it is through humans that the principle of purposiveness reaches its highest peak, especially through the freedom to set ends rationally and the power, through will, to carry them out. Then, “[man] himself becomes, in the name of that principle, the first object of his obligation, which we express in our ‘first imperative’: not ruin (as he well can do) what nature has achieved in him by the way of his using it” (1984: 130).

The capacity for responsibility is essential to the idea of humanity. The duty to ensure the future existence of humankind comes therefore from the duty to preserve this capacity in the future. The archetype of responsibility is the care of parents for their children:  the ideal goal of parenting is the perpetuation of the capacity for responsibility itself. It is a duty related to the idea of humanity (embedded itself in the idea of purposive nature).

Indeed, because human beings are part of nature, they share a common destiny and “to put the needs and desires of human beings before that of nature as a whole […] expresses a lack of understanding of the relationship and further degrades the meaning of being human” (Morris: 189-190). Here, Jonas follows a theme dear to the Frankfurt School theorists, the interaction between the alienation of nature and the alienation of humankind:

Such narrowness in the name of man, which is ready to sacrifice the rest of nature to his purported needs, can only result in the dehumanization of man, the atrophy of his essence even in the lucky case of biological preservation […] The duty towards nature is part of our humanist duty. (1976: 78)

Therefore, Jonas assumes his indebtedness to the Western tradition. His philosophy of nature can readily be said to be anthropocentric (but devoid of arrogance) since nature has value only insofar as it gives birth to humans and to the idea of responsibility carried by them. Nature must also be preserved to the extent that it is the condition sine qua non for the preservation of the capacity of responsibility held by humans. At the same time, Jonas shows such proximity of thought with non-anthropocentric theories that eventually his position appears tinged with unsolved contradictions.

On the one hand, he rejects the anthropocentrism of the traditional occidental Judaeo-Christian ethics, declaring a “community of destiny” between humanity and nature and claiming the respect of the “autonomous dignity of nature” above utilitarian views. But on the other hand, he wants to maintain humans’ prominent position in nature, defending the idea that humankind embodies the teleological purpose of nature. As Jonas says, what makes the conservation of nature a moral interest is the fact that human destiny depends on the state of nature. Therefore, he preserves the anthropocentric orientation of classical ethics.

However, is it possible to hold the two ways together (anthropocentrism and ecocentrism) without facing diriment (invalidating) contradictions? Can nature be protected in the name of its autonomy and at the same time for humans’ sake? Can the “good in itself” of nature be claimed at the same time as the call for a traditional ethics that takes into only account humans’ interests?

Paul Ricoeur, in his study of the imperative of responsibility (1991) reconsiders the originality of Jonas’s position, arguing that, eventually, it only asks to preserve the condition of human existence, or better, existence in general as a condition of the possibility of humanity (in the name of the “ontological completeness” of human beings), which is different from founding an ethics of nature that claims the protection of the fullness of life for its own sake. In this way, he fully remains attached to the framework of traditional ethics that grants moral value only to persons and therefore to the instrumental attitude that prevails in our institutional efforts to “protect” nature (enlightened anthropocentrism).

The ecological democracy

Jonas’s imperative of responsibility nonetheless offers a solid ethical foundation for the consideration of future generations and for the expression of their voice in the political arena. Indeed, since the ’70s, efforts have been pursued in order to place environmental priorities in decision procedures. Some normative systems have been shaped, incorporating precautionary and responsibility principles in political institutions. To go further in the representation of those who have no voice, some ecologists try to address the matter of representing future generations, in spite of the difficulties inherent in it:

The matter of representing future generations poses even greater challenges. Indeed, the expression of future generations offers, to use Frege’s categories, meaning (Sinn) but not denotation (Bedeutung) […] In relation to future generations the very notion of “representation” is puzzling. How can anyone “re-present” someone who is not even present yet? What does it mean to speak on behalf of people who, because they have not even been born, have never had a chance to develop a particular personality with interests and cultural commitments? Doesn’t representation mean that the “represented” have a chance to give voice to their own concerns and to react to political propositions, whatever they are? (25)

The authors propose two different solutions to solve the difficult issue of representation of those who are absent. On one side, the creation of an upper chamber (on the model of the House of Lords in the UK or the “Sénat” in France) whose mission would be to care about the long-term interests (technocratic solution). This solution would be implemented at the expense of democracy and in favour of greater technocracy. The room is missing here to analyze the reasons why such a solution does not seem favourable (one of them being the defence of conservative interests that such chambers usually hold).

The other solution offered by Bourg and Whiteside is “to increase direct public involvement in processes of hitherto dominated by expert decision-making […] by means of devices such as deliberative polling and citizen conferences” (27). Most green theorists who see in the environmental crisis an opportunity to deepen the democratic institutions would favour this option. However, the defence of the interests of next generations raises specific issues, first of which is the problem of “representation.” Bourg and Whiteside fairly point out that

Unlike modern representation, ecological democracy does not measure itself mainly by its ability to satisfy people’s immediate preferences. It expresses a determination to take seriously its responsibility to bequeath a healthy and beautiful world to its descendents […] The audacious conviction of ecological democrats is that it is possible to devise participatory structures that make environmentally-justified laws less onerous, because the people come to understand their relation to the public good, play a role in their development, see burdens distributed fairly and have opportunities to use their power to prevent dangerous abuses of authority. (28-32)

Of course, the solution that emphasises the role of deliberative democracy in the creation of an ecological democracy sounds attractive but encounters many difficulties – another major issue (beside the problem of representation) concerns the incompatibility between short-term interests of voters and ecological values. As Saward puts it, “ecological value-sets often contain a considerable tension between advocating certain essential policy outcomes and valuing direct democracy” (64). Indeed, the defence of green values can lead to the critique of democratic decision-making insofar as democratic decision-making does not always lead to the most ecologically wise decisions.

Indeed, is it possible to convince citizens to be driven by a sense of ecological virtue and not by short-term interests? The conceptual framework of the negative individual freedom that characterizes our current consumer societies does not speak in favour of a collective agreement to a more sustainable way of living, insofar as that would entail less consumption, less waste, more moderation (not to say more restrictions) – even if those who advocate, for instance, for post-growth policies, defend the idea that the abandonment of materialistic styles of life would also mean more solidarity and a better quality of life (Jackson, 2009).

As Saward observes, “Green principles expressed as imperatives leave open authoritarian solutions” (76). To prevent authoritarian drifts arising from the inherent inability of democracies to self-regulate, I would defend, like Barry (2012), the development of a republican ecological society based on civic ecological virtues, in the line of the civic republican tradition (Hannah Arendt or Cornelius Castoriadis) and the green state (Eckersley, 2004).

Green republican thought finds common roots with communitarian ideas according to which political communities rooted in common features or activities must be defended, except that, as Arendt supports, this conception of a political community should be based upon collective deliberation, civic-minded attitude and engagement rather than rooted in racial, ethnic or religious identity. As Macauley puts it,

Arendt’s neo-Aristotelianism (as with Hans Jonas, Ernst Bloch, and Bookchin) also implies a commitment to social and natural equilibrium, aesthetic, and ethical balance, and face-to-face public relations, meaningful foci for an emerging ecological society. In this philosophical tradition, community remains coextensive with smaller and prior forms of association, but can reach out potentially to touch larger spheres, including the natural world. (124, original emphasis).

Consumer society, as Arendt recalls, is intimately bound with an economy of waste “in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared” (quoted in Macauley: 123). As Macauley says, Arendt “criticizes the ‘anthropocentric utilitarianism’ of man qua Homo Faber who, as ‘measure of all things’, treats nature and the ‘things themselves’ as mere means and as valueless material for his own consumption or production-related ends.”

The construction of a sustainable society requires not only procedural changes (like the move towards semi-direct democracy), but most importantly a change of mindset or, even deeper, a move from the anthropocentric pattern of morality to an ecocentric culture. This is the reason why, on the contrary to green pragmatists who think that an ecological sustainable society can be achieved without cultural revolutionary changes, I contend, with radical green thinkers (deep ecologists, for instance), that a change of perception, of imagination, of values, in brief, of culture, must be achieved in order to be able to move toward a sustainable society.

The “politics of the earth” we are calling for requires nothing less than a normative approach grounded in the ecocentric views of environmental ethics. Indeed, ecocentrism broadens our perception of what makes a community (membership in ecological community). As McShane says,

In the same way that ethics tells us not just to ask “what is good for me?” but also “what is good for all of us?”, ecocentrism tells us not just ask “what is good for people?” but also “what is good for the ecological community as a whole” […] What might someday surprise us is that we ever allowed ourselves to evaluate our political systems independently of their effect on the earth’s ecological systems. (90).

To take into consideration the voice of the future generations but also the voice of the planet (Vogel, 2006) must be the priority of a green radical politics. The political acknowledgements of these remote human and non-human interests is already occurring through the precautionary principle that should become “a mandatory procedural requirement in policy making” (26). Worth noticing is also the attempt, in the field of justice, of the advocate Polly Higgins to implement an international law of ecocide.

An ecocentric orientation in the formation of laws and policies can be found in the Constitution of Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia’s Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integrated Development to Live Well (2012) that explicitly grants “rights to nature” (among which the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right not to be polluted, and so on.). The Ecuadorian constitution’s preamble refers to “celebrating nature, the Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) of which we are part and which is vital to our existence.” In these cases, it is worth noting that humans are considered as part of the natural world, not separate from it, and that nature is entitled with high value (“sacred,” “vital”) (McShane, 89-90).

It should be emphasized, once more, that the protection of non-human interests against the process of reification of the world and against instrumental behavior is part of a global “emancipatory project” that includes humans and nonhumans (Eckersley, 2002). As the Frankfurt theorists have shown, the same process of alienation is working for humankind and the planet. In the line of a critical ecological theory, Eckersley shows that ecocentrism would involve both the emancipation of nature and the emancipation of humans and would allow, incidentally, that humans leave the stage of “self-made apocalypse.” True humanism is logically ecocentrism:  belief in the value of humans also entails belief in the value of the planet, and requires protecting the wellbeing of both.

Dr. Anne Fremaux received her PhD “Towards a Critical Theory of the Anthropocene and a Life-affirming Politics” from the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University in Belfast to which she is still associated as a visiting research fellow. Her doctoral thesis has been published under the title: After the Anthropocene: Green Republicanism in a Post-Capitalist World (Palgrave, 2019). She has also published a science-fiction novel on transhumanism, posthumanism and ecological crisis entitled L’ère du Levant and a philosophical essay about ecology and politics, “La nécessité d’une écologie radicale.” She is currently looking for a postdoc or assistant position in the fields of political ecology, environmental philosophy, critical ecology, environmental studies and in general continental and Western philosophy.

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