Why is value a key concept in environmental philosophy? A central tenet of green thinking is the belief that the current ecological crisis is caused by human arrogance towards the natural world, which legitimates its exploitation in order to satisfy human interests. Human arrogance towards nature is rooted in anthropocentrism: the belief that ethical principles apply only to humans and that human needs and interests are of highest, perhaps exclusive, significance – humans are placed at the center of the universe, separated from nature, and endowed with unique values (see Box 2.2).
Anthropocentrism regards only humans as having intrinsic value, a claim usually based on their capacity either to experience pleasure and pain or to reason, and, furthermore, that only humans have interests. The rest of nature is of instrumental value; it has value and deserves moral consideration only in so far as it enhances human well-being. Non-human nature – the koala bear or brown rat, the field of tulips or tract of wilderness – is simply a ‘storehouse of resources’ for the satisfaction of human ends (Eckersley 1992: 26).
An anthropocentric case for environmental protection will therefore be justified instrumentally in terms of the consequences that pollution or resource depletion might have for human interests. Lead is removed from petrol because it harms human health and fishing grounds are protected because of the threat to a vital economic and food resource.
One of the key themes in environmental ethics has been the attempt to develop a non-anthropocentric, or eccentric ethic (Eckersley 1992). Egocentrism rejects the ‘human chauvinism’ of anthropocentrism and argues that Sentience: The capacity to suffer or to experience enjoyment or happiness. Non-human entities also have intrinsic value.
Precisely which entities or categories in the nonhuman world have value varies according to the writer, ranging through animals, trees, plants and other non-sentient living things (both individuals and species), and even inanimate objects such as rivers or mountains. A common thread linking all eccentric arguments is the belief that to show that some or all of nature has intrinsic value may prove a powerful instrument for defending the environment.