Ethical Anthropocentrism: Humanistic Ethics and the Need for a New Global Bioethics

By Chiarelli, Brunetto | Mankind Quarterly, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
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Ethical Anthropocentrism: Humanistic Ethics and the Need for a New Global Bioethics


Chiarelli, Brunetto, Mankind Quarterly


The author calls upon those who debate ethics and moral philosophy to rethink their formulations in terms of mankind's relation to, and dependence on, its environment - the biosphere. Many aspects of modern ethical philosophy are blindly anthropocentric to the point that they ignore evolutionary and ecological reality, and support patterns of behavior that threaten the very survival of humanity. A truly anthropocentric ethic would be based in what he calls "Global Bioethics."

Key Words: Humanistic ethics; Global bioethics; Evolutionary and ecological imperatives; The biosphere; Over-population.

Religious ethics, medical ethics, political ethics, environmental ethics, business ethics, bioethics: there is a neverending sequel of terms that began in 1892 when Felix Adler (1851-1933), questioning historic Christian and Jewish moral dogmas, established the Society for Ethical Culture in New York.

So far, the development of ethical norms in Western culture has been based on the distinction between theological ethics and humanistic ethics. The former follows Aristotle, according to whom everything has a ultimate goal that is God. By contrast, humanistic ethics bases moral philosophy on men regard as their own needs and desires.

This duality of theological and humanistic ethics, peculiar to Western culture, runs contrary to the evolutionary reality, too often overlooking the fact that mankind's first need is to survive as a species. Existing ethical systems therefore now need to be supplanted by an ethic that is rooted in man's relation to his environment, as clarified by advances in scientific knowledge. From a Darwinian point of view, the first goal of humanistic ethics is clearly survival of the species, and current ethical dogma too often overlook this fact. There is a need, in other words, for outdated ethical philosophies to be superseded by, or at least yield priority to, a new consciousness of "global bioethics."

The Historical and Cognitive Basis for Global Bioethics

As we enter the year 2007, the total human population is now 6.7 billion, and this is projected to reach 9.1 billion by the year 2050. In 1835, the figure was only one billion: in 172 years (the equivalent of only six generations), the human population has expanded nearly seven times.

The ongoing upsurge of population that marks the turn of the millennium can be compared to the period of demographic expansion that followed the technological transition from the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic some 10,000-8,000 years ago, when the world's human population rose from an estimated 10 million to over 200 million. The introduction of agriculture, animal breeding, fermentation and food conservation enabled mankind to overcome the ecological restrictions that by famine had controlled the population density of the hunters of the late Palaeolithic.

But now the present human population explosion is far more immediate in its pressures. This is a truly critical time when population growth and scarcity of vital resources and raw materials interact.

Faced with the rapidly increasing demand for more food, will bio-engineering be able to produce cheap food needed to satisfy the needs of a growing population? And if it does, how will we overcome shortages in the supply of drinkable water, and sources of energy? Will the biosphere be able to absorb the effects of the new technologies that are effecting dramatic changes in its constituents? Will governments be able to introduce and enforce the necessary changes? Will politicians even be willing to consider these issues within the short time left? The present crisis can only be overcome if the ethical problems concerning the applications of biotechnology and genetic engineering are recognized and solutions are not only found but actually put into action.

The Demographic and Environmental Time Bomb

The Sixties and Seventies were marked by an increasing awareness of environmental issues and of the critical relationship between mankind and the environment.

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