THE BLOG
09/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Perspectives on Integral Ecology--2

Michael Zimmerman
Dear Ross,

Thank you very much for your interest in the book that Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and I have written about integral ecology. I welcome the opportunity to dialogue with you about it!

You zeroed in on two hot topics: anthropocentrism and interiority. Let me say a few things about anthropocentrism first. In the late 1970s, I began working with George Sessions and Bill Devall on the emerging deep ecology movement, about which they would write the first book in 1985. One of my contributions was to argue that the famous (and controversial) German philosopher Martin Heidegger was a proto-deep ecologist. Although intrigued by Heidegger's criticism of the domination of nature, George and Bill were uneasy about his alleged anthropocentrism. Heidegger claimed that human language opens up a clearing or "world" within which things can show up in the complex ways that they do for human beings. Heidegger denied that his view was anthropocentric, because the capacity for disclosing things is a gift that brings obligations, not a tool for lording it over the planet.

Animals, too, open up worlds of their own in which things pertinent to their lives can appear. A lot of what shows up for my cat shows up for me, too -- her food, toys, other family members, the doorway, and so on. There are other things, which matter a great deal to humans, that do not show up for cats, however, including the full-blown distinction between good and evil. This lack of moral sensibility does not mean that non-human animals are somehow defective; instead, each species is complete in its own way. Species are different, however. Something that distinguishes humans from non-humans is our ability to notice and to state explicitly that there are environmental problems, that humans are causing some of them, and that we have a moral obligation whenever possible to limit harmful practices.

It's just a fact that human beings evolved to have a quite remarkable capacity for making distinctions, some of which enable us to regard most of the planet as our potential niche. We stand out dramatically from non-humans insofar as we can say: "We need to make sure there's room for some other critters besides us!" Moreover, given that we have evolved with sensory, cognitive, and moral capacities that profoundly shape how we can make sense of things, human behavior is to a large extent inescapably anthropocentric. It would, however, be fair to criticize the claim that our inherited capacities give us license to do whatever we want with so-called "lower" creatures. This dominator hierarchy (humans "on top") gives anthropocentrism a bad name.

What I've already said applies in many ways to the issue of interiority. Sean and I argue that interiority or capacity for experience may be a universal feature of beings from humans to molecules, and maybe even further down. As I noted above, animals (and presumably plants, too) have "worlds" of their own. Non-human life forms are not machines reacting to stimuli, but have their own ways of registering and taking into account the phenomena that show up within their worlds. Of course, once you combine an arrogant anthropocentrism (humans are "on top") with the belief that only humans have interiors, then you have the recipe for the gruesome treatment of non-human animals that we have seen for the past few centuries. As people have become convinced that animals (even plants) are in some way "conscious," concern about proper treatment of our animal cousins has grown. Likewise, such conviction also pulls the rug out from under those who cling to an arrogant anthropocentrism, according to which only humans are conscious. Such a view, we maintain, is false. Equally false, however, is the pretense that there is nothing special about humans. Humans are very special, indeed, as witnessed by the fact that you are reading this and deciding how to evaluate the view that I am putting forth.

We can celebrate the human difference, without using it as an excuse to beat up on animals, plants, and for that matter those humans who supposedly don't fully share in what makes us different!

Read blog entries from other EnlightenNext magazine editors.