What have the humans ever done for us?

Photo by neeravbhatt licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Photo by neeravbhatt licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

…Or, Why I Changed My Mind About Anthropocentrism in International Ethics

I’ve spent the last year or so trying to develop a concept of harm that encompasses diverse nonhumans and the collectives they form. Up until very recently, I thought that anthropocentrism was the major obstacle to this goal. In fact, here’s me saying as much in a video produced for my department’s research blog. It seems like a simple enough argument: anthropocentrism stunts the potential for ethical responsiveness and entrenches human domination. Some of the most interesting work in broadly ‘posthumanist’ critiques of IR and security reflect this belief. Martin Coward stakes his work on urbicide explicitly ‘against anthropocentrism’, arguing that built environments and objects can be targets of harm in their own right. Robyn Eckersley argues that anthropocentrism is the most important factor that stops humanitarian regimes from taking account of ‘ecocide’, or the destruction of species and ecosystems. In a recent article, Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden argue that anthropocentrism not only entrenches a false separation between humans and other kinds of beings, but also obscures the diversity of the human species. Influential  ‘new materialist’ scholars like Jane Bennett and William Connolly suggest that nonhumans have the potential to shape complex phenomena. That is, nonhumans have ‘actancy’ (in Bruno Latour’s language)  or contribute to emergent forms of causality that far exceed human agency and control. IR scholars who have adopted this approach show how nonhumans – whether weapons or ‘critical infrastructure’ shape how international security functions (or, indeed, how it malfunctions).

Either way, the argument suggests, being anthropocentric leads to wilful blindness about the well-being of other kinds of beings – and, ultimately, to destructive actions and events.

The problem is, anthropocentrism is quite a difficult position to escape, a problem I confronted early on in my research on ‘worldly’ security ethics. I shared my work with some colleagues who specialize in analytic philosophy, particularly in the areas of environmental ethics and animal rights. You can always count on this lot to ask pesky questions such as ‘OK, but what kind of being is asking these questions about ethics?’ or ‘an entirely open ethical system sounds great, but how would it work in a system that relies on categories?’ And they usually have a point. Every tactic I tried – arguing for an ethics that was totally open to all kinds of beings, or for a co-constitutive ontology – started or ended with a human viewpoint. Plus, at the end of the day, if an ethical system is going to shape security practices, it needs to have some basic categories and restrictions, which are created by and designed for (you guessed it) humans. So, it looks as if we’re stuck with anthropocentrism.

But is this necessarily a bad thing? That depends very much on what kind of anthropocentrism we’re talking about. There are, in fact, several forms of anthropocentrism, some of which preclude an open ethics, and others which do not.


What people normally mean when they say ‘anthropocentrism’ is a specific logic that I call ‘anthro-instrumentalism’. This is an ethical standpoint that assigns value to nonhumans only if they are instrumentally useful to humans – which, for the most part, means if we can eat, drink or breathe them, live in/on them, be inspired by them, make something out of them and/or sell them to other humans. It relies on what Latour calls the ‘Great divide’: the ontological barrier set up between humans and everything (everyone?) else.

Within this logic, the only reason that humans should protect nonhumans is because the latter can make human life better. This leads to the belief that any human need – no matter how trivial – is worth more than any nonhuman need. So, for instance, human demands for luxury or entertainment are prioritized above the survival and non-suffering of animals.

This form of anthropocentrism also promotes zero-sum thinking. It treats human care and attention as a scarce commodity, and suggests that paying attention to nonhumans necessary diverts attention away from humans. The nightmare scenario for proponents of this belief is that we might adopt an ethical system that gives nonhumans equal or even higher priority than humans – for instance, by refraining from eliminating viruses that might wipe out large groups of humans.

The fear that such scenarios strike into the hearts of humanists is very useful in drumming up support for anthro-instrumental policies, such as human security. Human security frames the human individual as the absolute subject of security and the ultimate recipient of protection. It is focused on producing autonomous, individual humans buoyed up by physical health, a clean ‘environment’, the ability to participate fully in economic and social life and integrity of the person and her cultural milieu.

Producing and sustaining this kind of ‘secured’ human demands a great many ‘resources’: the materials produced and traded in the economy; the plants and nonhuman animals that are cultivated and killed for food; the production of bio- or chemical compounds as medicine and the destruction of bacteria. And let’s not forget the  fuels, plastics, metals, chemicals and other materials used to create the weapons that protect and enforce physical security.

According to the norm of human security, all of these beings can and must be instrumentalized if the individual human is to be protected and its potential maximized. So even though nonhumans are the namesakes of various dimensions of security, they are not its referent objects – humans are. For example, ‘environmental security’ is not about protecting the ‘environment’ in its own right, but rather about protecting the ‘resources’ humans need to sustain the specific form of life discussed above. So, this kind of anthropocentrism is clearly an unsuitable basis for an ethics aimed at protecting collectives of diverse kinds of beings.

Weak anthropocentrism

But being human – and thinking, acting or feeling like a human – does not necessarily stop one from adopting an open ethical stance. Eugene Hargrove has argued that anthropocentrism can’t be reduced to the kind of anthro-instrumental logic I’ve described above. It simply refers to a perspective that arises from being human, and it can take many forms. Hargrove explores four of them:

i) anthropocentric instrumental value (as described above)
ii) non-anthropocentric instrumental value (the instrumental value that nonhumans – animals and plants, say – have for each other);
iii) non-anthropocentric intrinsic value (the value that nonhumans have, independent of human judgment)
iv)anthropocentric intrinsic value (value attributed by humans to nonhumans, regardless of the latter’s usefulness to the former).

According to Hargrove, the first form of value is too narrow for the reasons I’ve suggested. But he also claims that humans can’t appreciate the second and third forms – we can only, at best, imagine what it is like to be another form of being. So, from this perspective, our best bet is to embrace the fourth form of value and harness human capabilities like agency, affect and the capacity for rational thought as a means of opening our ethical responses to other kinds of beings.

This is actually a very promising basis for a conception of ethics that is open to the more-than-human. And, it turns out, it is the ethical stance that lies at the heart of many of the approaches that claim to oppose ‘anthropocentrism’. For example, Coward’s work (mentioned above) argues that urban spaces should be protected in their own right because they are embodiments of the conditions of radical plurality that make us human. So, the rationale for opposing urbicide is that this form of violence is an attack on ‘humanity itself’. This argument comes from an unmistakably human perspective –but that doesn’t mean that it is ignorant of, or indifferent to, nonhumans.

Many new materialisms are also weakly anthropocentric. Their proponents aim to overhaul the concept of agency to include the quasi-agential properties or actancy of many other kinds of beings and assemblages of them. But when it comes to ethics, new materialism invokes human values, experiences, emotions and forms of agency as means for responding to harms to nonhumans. For instance, when Connolly highlights the need to ‘mobilize actions and ethical sensibilities’ to counter destructive phenomena such as climate change, he doesn’t appeal to buildings, machines or animals (and certainly not deities). Instead, he calls on humans to draw on their ‘care for this world’ to induce changes in individual and group conduct, to apply pressure on international institutions, or to engage in artistic practices driven by gratitude. From this perspective, human agency is not the only game in town, but it is an important means for responding to threats that affect humans and the complex, heterogeneous worlds which they help to constitute.

So, anthro-instrumentalism is the real obstacle to a ‘worldly’ ethics, not anthropocentrism per se. There is nothing wrong with starting from a human viewpoint, as long as it is used as a basis for acknowledging and respecting alterity and not as a normative measuring-stick or a cordon sanitaire. And there is no problem with seeking to harness human agency as a means of response to harms, provided that it is seen as one contribution to complex  knots of causality that involve many other kinds of beings.

It also suggests that we should put more thought into how our (limited, and probably not exclusive) human capacities for rational thought, intentionality and directed agency are amplified through the actancy of other beings. For instance, the digital infrastructure of the internet is already used to mobilize social movements that have re-shaped physical and political landscapes in ways that exceed intentional, planned human agency.

So, for me, the challenge is to re-think the ‘anthro’ in weak anthropocentrism, framing it as a being that is fundamentally linked – ontologically, physically and ethically – with radically different beings. Perhaps ironically, weak anthropocentrism offers a platform  from which we can challenge – and change – what it means to be human and other-than-human.


3 responses to “What have the humans ever done for us?

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