Is there a place for Environmentalism in Humanism?

December 21, 2010

There is no escaping the accusation anymore. Humanism can’t help the environmental movement, we hear nowadays.

Sure, humanists can say that they love the environment, they want to “go green”, and they value our animal friends. Humanists can even script such devotion into declarations and manifestos. Yet environmentalists frequently doubt whether humanism is a sound basis for genuine environmentalism.

Can the principles of humanism really protect environmental resources and the earth’s fragile ecologies? Let’s review humanism’s position.

Humanism is a lifestance or ethical view, which prioritizes (1) this mortal life and (2) the ethical responsibilities we must share to best enhance this life for all.

Humanism is often confused with human-centrism. Human-centrism holds that only human beings have moral value and ethical priority. Unfortunately, some definitions and declarations of humanism do sound precisely like human-centrism, especially those dating from before 1950. Humanism should seek the preservation and enhancement of all life, not just for humans alone. Over the long history of humanism, humanists certainly have demanded that all of humanity deserve moral dignity and ethical priority. Humanists also have been impressed by the capacity of ordinary people to use their own intelligence to live morally without blind subservience to authority. But humanists have also struggled, in every century, to expand the circle — to expand the range of creatures who deserve respect and humane treatment.

Environmentalists can recognize how humanism is adding “humane-ism” to its list of priorities. Humanists may want to become more humane, becoming animal lovers, vegetarians, and environmental activists. But the concerns of environmentalists go deeper. Humanism says that humanists are supposed to try to enhance this life for “all” — but who counts among the “all”? Just some people, all people, or more species than just us?

Varieties of humanism are competing for attention nowadays. Three notable versions are getting much attention in the secular world:

A. Humanism means taking the ethical responsibility to create your own values to live your life, without religious or philosophical guidance. Humanists are atheists at liberty to enhance their lives however they want, restrained only by political principles of equal rights and procedural justice.

B. Humanism means taking the ethical responsibility to conform your values to the community’s pursuit of the good life, independent from dogmatic authority. Humanists are freethinkers who participate in society’s search for enhancing life for all, applying reason rather than religion.

C. Humanism means taking the ethical responsibility to center your values on primary virtues like compassion and beneficence to all, regardless of heavenly reward. Humanists are progressivists who push society towards fulfilling high moral ideals, feeling accountable to the future of life itself.

Rather than needlessly worry about which version or combination is the “true” humanism, let’s look at matters from the environmentalist perspective.

Type A humanism is little help to environmentalism. Type A humanists would not deplete the earth’s resources — since that it is an unintelligent way to manage matters. But valuing other species and ecologies is entirely a personal issue, optional for those who feel compelled to protect whatever they want to. Type A humanism leads most obviously toward the Management Model of environmentalism — nature should be wisely used and carefully modified to serve human needs. Environmentalists who think that resource management isn’t enough mostly aim their complaints about humanism at Type A humanism.

Type B humanism can be more help. Type B humanists take communal living seriously — since trying to live the good life with utter disregard to community welfare is the opposite of ethics. Extending the notion of community to its logical extent, community-oriented humanists can see how human communities are thoroughly interlinked with the health of their ecological environments. Humans will not flourish unless their environments flourish, especially in the very long run. Many environmentalists are humanists who can perceive how human values must simultaneously be earth values. Type B humanism receives less criticism from environmentalism.

Type C humanism can be a lot of help to environmentalism. Type C humanists take all life seriously — since life itself is the basis for value and there is nothing so special about one human species. Type C humanists can recognize how other species and entire ecologies have value in themselves regardless of whether humans actually value them. All the same, human values remain involved. Type C humanists orient and apply their values to the protection of everything that has value, and they enact these values in social and political activism. Hard-core environmentalists who stress the “intrinsic value” of all life are practically indistinguishable from Type C humanists, so there doesn’t seem to be much open conflict between these groups. 

We can leave environmentalists to their decision whether to ally with one or more of these types of humanism. On the humanist side, when a humanist declares an interest in supporting environmentalism, look for the details. Which type of humanist is this person, and what sort of environmentalism is being talked about?