Many environmental ethicists who advocate for solving environmental issues hold a biocentric worldview and usually think that nature has intrinsic value. Bryan G. Norton, a professor of philosophy at Georgia Tech disagrees and has introduced a whole new idea of an environmental ethic, one where the debate over whether an anthropocentric view should be established is not relevant whatsoever. In his mind, individualism versus non-individualism is the crucial distinction that needs to be made. He argues that an individualistic view cannot make up a successful environmental ethic and how the resulting conclusions build an environmental ethic.
Norton thinks that the application of traditional value ethics should be applied to the environment. In this, he appeals to practical effectiveness in a world where only so many people advocate for certain ethics, such as the Land Ethic, that may never be accepted by a majority of the population. He values interdependence and harmony with Nature still but maintains that Nature is really a bundle of resources and that human ethical goals should remain building an egalitarian moral community that has direct duties to them. In the end, his main goal is not to determine which ethics are true, but rather which are adequate to uphold certain intuitions.
When he looks at the difference between non-anthropocentrism and anthropocentrism, he remains convinced that not nearly enough has actually been concluded about what human interests are. He looks particularly at two interests: felt preferences, which are any desires or needs of a human individual that can be temporarily sated by some specifiable experience of the individual, and considered preferences or any desire or need that a human individual would express after careful deliberation.
He also looks at strong anthropocentrism, or the view that all value is explained by reference to satisfactions of felt preferences to human beings, and weak anthropocentrism, or the view that all value is explained by reference to satisfaction of some felt preference of a human being or by reference to its bearing upon the ideals which exist as elements essential to determinations of considered preference. If humans have strong consumptive opinions then they will feel that their interests dictate that nature should be used in an exploitive manner and weak anthropocentrism determines that humans can have strong relationships with other living species.
Weak anthropocentrism is what Norton thinks can be a framework for protecting nature. In a post-Darwinian world, one can understand that logic and science support living in harmony with nature but the idea that there is intrinsic value in nature could be more popular. Norton also sides with John Stuart Mill’s idea that ideals are merely human preferences, and he explains that this is why environmentalists commonly take a weak anthropocentric view.
Norton also argues that in order for a value system to work it must not adhere to utilitarian thought because that is too individualistic. An adequate view will uphold the ideal that even the potential life of future generations is important, not just the lives of those today. It is assumed that a whole new set of people will be living on Earth in a certain number of centuries, so for us to ignore their existence is mere folly.
His overall proposal is for an environmental ethic is a weak anthropocentric environmental ethic. The ethic would focus on finding all value in human loci, and also being nonindividualistic. Ethical questions about the environment are then divided into those concerning distributional fairness within generations and those considering long-term, cross-generational issues. Individualistic ethics will not resolve these issues because a future generation will not be taken into account as long as we continue to try to simply maximize the happiness of ourselves in the present day. At the same time, Norton also maintains that humans should not look to destroy themselves as a human-inhabited universe is better off than one without humans. The extinction of the human race should be avoided but at the same time fairness in all senses of environmental issues should be taken care of.
Science has a crucial role in helping humans realize that there is inherent good in preserving human consciousness as well by making concrete the specific obligations flowing from the central obligation but not supporting it. One conflict is worrying that draconian measures will be put in place to threaten human livelihood but weak anthropocentrism maintains the balance between caring for the environment and also allowing for human exploration. A more common conflict tends to be over-consumptive behaviors, however.
Norton, in the end, discusses not making the commitment to attributing nature with intrinsic value because there is a means through anthropocentrism to achieve environmental goals. In my opinion, this view seems to make the most balanced approach to environmental ethics so far in that it does take account the reality of the situation without sugar-coating everything but also does seem to understand that science is not wrong in its conclusions about climate change and other previously controversial topics.
If I were to choose an ethic to live by I may choose Weak Anthropocentric ethics as the pragmatic solution but certainly not as the ideal ethic to live by since I do not reconcile Nature as having no intrinsic value. The question still remains though, has this ethic been tried and actually been proven to work, or is this simply the supposed pragmatic conclusion made by a philosophy professor. I do not think that my skepticism is unjustified because there have been other thinkers who felt that their conclusions were correct and reasonable. Only time will tell if politicians, educators and other figures start to use this system to better mankind.