Ecocentrism in Environmental Ethics

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  • 0:04 Human Environmental…
  • 0:36 Environmental Ethics
  • 1:23 Ecocentrism
  • 2:07 Origins of Ecocentrism
  • 3:22 Ecocentrist Issues & Debates
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we explore the perspective of ecocentrism within environmental ethics, defining and explaining both concepts. We also explore some of the early ecocentrists and highlight issues and problems this perspective faces.

Human Environmental Responsibility

In the second half of the 20th century, people around the world began to notice devastating changes in the environment. The air around cities was filthy, species were dying out in record numbers, and even the rain was contaminated with acid. A number of writers, philosophers, and academics began asking questions about the human responsibility to the environment and the other species living on the planet. Of the variety of perspectives that formed the new field of environmental ethics, ecocentrism developed as the most distant from the previous perspective of putting humans above all else.

Environmental Ethics

To best explain ecocentrism, we need to first understand a little about the field of environmental ethics. This is an area of philosophy that explores the relationship between humans and the environment from a moral and ethical perspective, attempting to define our responsibilities and determine right actions.

There are many diverse perspectives within environmental ethics, but their main difference lies in how they place value on nature or aspects of nature. There are two types of value that play vital parts in this discussion. First, we have instrumental value that describes the value of something in how it can be used or useful, usually in relation to human wants or needs. The second is intrinsic value, which is the value something has for its own sake, regardless of whether it's useful to humans or not. So with that in mind, let's now turn to ecocentrism.


The perspective of ecocentrism focuses on the interests of all species and natural features of Earth's ecosystems, refusing to place any aspect or species above the others. Much of the supporting information for this ethic comes from ecological sciences and their study of interspecies relationships, natural processes, and the interrelationships between natural features and biological organisms.

Ecocentrists focus on the intrinsic value of all these entities in their own right while acknowledging their instrumental value to one another as part of the natural process. The term itself preferences the ecosystem as the most important unit or source of value. This stands in stark opposition to anthropocentric views that place human wants and needs as more valuable and important than all other natural entities.

Origins of Ecocentrism

Aldo Leopold is often credited as the earliest ecocentrist, based on his writings in the late 1940s. His book, A Sand County Almanac, is still highly cited in the field today. In this book, he introduced the concept of land ethic. By ''land,'' Leopold refers to the entire ecological community of a place or of natural settings in general.

His two most cited statements in support of a land ethic are as follows:

''That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.''


''A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.''

While Leopold's work inspired many ethical theorists to come, he did not develop an ethical theory based on his work. This came from the work of later theorists, like J. Baird Callicott, who build on the original concepts of land ethic.

In Callicott's interpretation, neither intrinsic value nor instrumental value actually existed outside the realm of human thought. However, it was the ethical responsibility of humans to preference the intrinsic value of nature over the instrumental value they saw. While this places humans at the source of Callicott's ecocentrism, it doesn't prioritize humans and their interests, thus avoiding anthropocentrism.

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