The challenges of Anthropocentrism

Pius Mosima, some philosophical perspectives from Africa
21 min read
3 Apr 2020

Are humans really superior to life on Earth and do we continue to dominate?

We – humans – have a tendency to place ourselves in the center of the universe and to behave as superior to nature, plants, animals, and things. But with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crises, isn’t nature sending us a clear message? And what does all this mean for our globalizing, intercultural world today? There are salient African values that can contribute to answering these questions, enrich our discourse about the challenge of anthropocentrism and help us realign with nature, technology, objects and intelligent systems.

Anthropocentrism as a major philosophical challenge

The way philosophers have viewed nature is at the heart of its abuse. The entrenched traditional worldviews that have privileged men above women and humans above the environment make it difficult to clearly see the modern-day challenges posed by the neglect of these issues. Anthropocentrism is the philosophical view that humans are the central or most significant entities in the world. Most traditional western ethical perspectives are anthropocentric (human-centered). They assign a significantly greater amount of intrinsic value to human beings than to any non-human things, such that the protection or promotion of human interests or well-being at the expense of non-human things is nearly always justified. This view came to the fore with Enlightenment thinkers like Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Immanuel Kant.
We also find this belief in many Western religions
. Anthropocentrism regards humans as separate from and superior to nature and holds that human life has intrinsic value while other entities (including animals, plants, mineral resources and so on) are resources that may justifiably be exploited for the benefit of humankind. In fact, in his Discourse on Method, Descartes claims that science can make us masters and possessors of nature. However, the advent of environmental philosophy in the 1970s seriously questioned traditional Western attitudes to the non-human world. Val Plumwood (2003), for example, speaks of “more-than-human nature” instead of “non-human nature” in a bid to resist the ‘backgrounding’ of humanist centrism, and ‘foregrounding’ the ‘more-than-human’, which leads to viewing the human being as just one of the different agents peopling the Earth (Plumwood 2003:61). Furthermore, environmental ethicists have questioned the human-centered approach by asking whether humans should be considered superior to other living creatures, and they have also suggested that the natural environment might possess intrinsic value independent of its usefulness to humankind (Roothaan 2019).
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The African response to anthropocentrism

An interconnected ‘web of life’The pre-colonial African metaphysical outlook can be described as eco-bio-communitarian (Tangwa 1996:192), implying recognition and acceptance of interdependence and peaceful coexistence between earth, plants, animals and humans. With the notion ‘vital force’, Tempels explains the inter-relatedness of natural entities as grounds for treating nature with respect. This notion is based on the fact that there is a force that comes from God to sub-gods to spirits, ancestors to man and all other beings of nature. African ontology is explained in terms of this force, which is interconnected between all natural beings. It also explains the deep spirituality, religious outlook, ethics and psychology of Africans. In this way, human beings tend to be more cosmically humble and therefore not only more respectful of other people but also more cautious in their attitudes towards plants, animals and inanimate things, and to the various inanimate forces in the world. The difference between plants, animals and inanimate things, between the sacred and the profane, matter and spirit, the communal and the individual, is slim and flexible. This probably explains why, in certain circumstances, humans can transform into animals and plants or into forces, such as the wind. This is because humans live within the community of nature, actively participating in the interrelationship of forces and beings running down from God (the origin of the vital force), through man (including the dead ancestors and the living community of humans), to the animal and inanimate world. The vital force can be nourished, diminished or stopped altogether. It increases or decreases in every being and from one transition to another. With these interactions between forces, beings are not bound to themselves but constitute what Tempels calls a ‘principle of activity’ (Tempels 1959: 51) and through their interactions account for the ‘general laws of vital causality’. Among the Bakweri people of Cameroon, there is the belief in Epasa Moto, the god of Mount Cameroon, who is half-human half-stone. His wife, Liengu, is a mermaid who lives at the Atlantic Ocean following an agreement with her husband. It is believed they protect the Bakweri from both land and sea and so deserve the frequent sacrifices offered to these gods throughout the year. Moreover, the Bakweri also have the Maale (Elephant Dance), whereby members of a secret society dance and possess elephant doubles. This example demonstrates the place of nature in my society. Humans do not feel a special privilege or think that they have a God-given right to dominate, suppress or exploit the rest of nature as Western anthropocentrism insinuates. Nature is approached from a perspective of conciliation and peaceful coexistence. This can be seen in the frequent offering of sacrifices to the God of our ancestors, the forces of nature and to divine spirits for blessings, fertility of the land and humans. It is a life of live and let live (Tangwa 2004). This African background is only consistent with the cautious and piecemeal use of technology.

Conclusion

Traditionally, Africans are therefore convinced that all things in the cosmos are interconnected. All natural forces depend on each other, so that human beings can live in harmony only in and with the whole of nature. This is what makes a true African community, as it gives them the duty to account for their species and the moral obligation to preserve biodiversity for generations to come. If this way of life could be revalued in our times, we would not endanger the existence of both life and the universe itself.
Plumwood, V., 2003, “Decolonizing Relationships with Nature”, in W.A. Adams and M.Milligan (eds.) Decolonizing Nature. Strategies for Conservation in a Postcolonial Era. London and Sterling, V A: Earthscan Publications Ltd., pp.51-78.

Roothaan, A., 2019, Indigenous, Modern and Postcolonial Relations to Nature: Negotiating the Environment, London and New York: Routledge.

Tangwa, G., 2004, Some African reflections on biomedical and environmental ethics, in: K.Wiredu, (ed) A Companion to African Philosophy, Malden: Blackwell.

Tangwa, G., 1996, “Bioethics: An African Perspective”, Bioethics, 10(3):183-200.

Tempels, P., 1959, Bantu Philosophy, Paris: Présence Africaine. First published as Tempels, P., 1955, Bantoe-filosofie, Antwerp: De Sikkel.

About Pius Mosima

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Pius Mosima is a philosopher from Cameroon. He deals with African and intercultural philosophy, globalization, traditions, politics and management, civil society, gender studies, culture, and identity. He now researches what the (Western) world can learn from African wisdoms.