Anthropocentrism, Utilitarianism and the Question of Value

Recently, I had the beautiful opportunity to attend the IALE World Congress 2023 in Nairobi—an exhilarating week filled with stimulating exchanges of ideas, networking, and boundless learning. Engaging with remarkable colleagues, we delved into our shared passions, with nature conservation at the very heart of our discussions.

Among the many ponderings that continuously captivate my mind is the perplexing misperception of our human nature. How we misconceive human nature often leads to misguided interpretations of concepts like ecosystem services. I must admit, the notion that humans can transcend their very humanity when it comes to our relationship with other species and the natural world strikes me as peculiar, lacking a solid foundation in both philosophy and science. Allow me, if you will, to express my unspoken thoughts, nurtured through the wisdom of my mentors.

The concept of ecosystem services has often been dismissed as “anthropocentric,” a label I’ve encountered countless times. But what does that term truly mean? Permit me to offer a simple yet profound philosophical response. Can we, as humans, genuinely see, perceive, and experience reality through the eyes of another being—let’s say, a rabbit (a whimsical example beloved by many for their adorable nature, albeit not by rabbits themselves)? The idea that we can dictate what is best for other species, divorced from our own perceptions, interests, and limited knowledge, is fundamentally flawed. In essence, we cannot fathom what truly benefits a rabbit because, fundamentally, we do not comprehend the very essence of “rabbitness.” We have no idea what a rabbit is [1]. We merely bestowed a name upon a phenomenon that is individually perceived and socially constructed, as anthropology aptly illustrates. Thus, any notion we entertain regarding the best interests of rabbits ultimately stems from our own anthropocentric perspective. Moreover, I find the presumption of stewardship over rabbits and nature as somewhat overbearing and arrogant. The biblical notion that we were created distinctly separate from other species only exacerbates my discontent. Protagoras, a philosopher from 2,500 years ago, eloquently illuminated our human limitations with the words, “Man is the measure of all things: of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.” This, in essence, embodies what I call “the ultimate anthropocentric principle”. Even in our compassion for other species, we remain confined by our own humanity, forever limited by the constraints of our bodies and their profound limitations when perceiving reality. Our evolutionary biology reinforces that we are adept at survival, rather than perceiving reality as it truly is.

This brings me to another concept: utilitarianism. Given our inherent nature as survival-oriented beings, our perception of reality fundamentally revolves around utility, rather than intrinsic value—an aspect that, from a philosophical standpoint, may appear nonsensical. In essence, it couldn’t be otherwise. Even in the most altruistic sense, when one finds solace in the beauty of nature or revels in the sheer awareness of its existence (often referred to as bequest value), it is ultimately driven by personal pleasure, satisfaction, and individual interests and preferences. We may deem it an ethical satisfaction if we wish, but ultimately, it remains utilitarian in essence, as it serves a particular purpose—a personal “use” of nature. Even the act of contemplating nature itself becomes a form of “use,” whether for personal pleasure or any other motive. It is an interaction, as ecosystem services have been characterised. I could extend this argument even to the ecological realm, where the term “ecosystem functions” is sometimes employed in lieu of “services” to evade the shackles of utilitarianism. If you are interested, I have devoted an entire chapter to this topic.

Anthropocentrism and utilitarianism are intertwined, and they thrust the question of value into the centre of our discussions. This question is of paramount importance in conservation, yet regrettably, it is often dismissed out of ignorance or deliberately sidestepped for fear of being labelled as “too anthropocentric.” The fact is that our behaviour is intrinsically tied to value because we are inherently designed to survive rather than comprehend reality as it is. We assign value to everything, consciously or subconsciously, from selecting the perfect seats for a movie or opera—seats that coincidentally match the preferences of countless others (humans, of course, not rabbits). Value permeates our interactions, friendships, love, business endeavours, and even our choices concerning food, drink, vacations, and accommodations. We even assign value when we convince ourselves that we don’t value anything, for the question of value is one that demands an answer—we simply cannot escape it. I call it “a forced question”.

Consider this scenario: You receive an invitation to a birthday party, but for various reasons, you forget to attend. In essence, you have assigned zero value to that invitation. Regardless of your excuses—falling asleep, being preoccupied—it is your absence that matters. This fundamental issue mirrors our relationship with nature. When we fail to recognize and appreciate the benefits it bestows upon us, we inadvertently assign them zero worth. Consequently, they become vulnerable to destruction through our voluntary or involuntary actions—much like the disappointment caused by our absence at a friend’s birthday party due to forgetfulness.

Finally, I want to emphasize what value truly means within the context of ecosystem services. It is not a matter of price, for only a fool confuses price with value[2]. Instead, it revolves around the question of how much it matters—to you, to me, to our grandparents, to all of us.

When we evade the question of value, driven by our desire to avoid being labelled as anthropocentric or utilitarian, we unwittingly contribute to the destruction of the very nature we strive to protect.

[1] I took this idea from John Conway, a great mathematician. Although, the original statement is about a cat, obviously in reference to Schrödinger.

[2] This idea comes from Antonio Machado, and I took it from my friend Erik Gomez.

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