Human history has been a history of ethics. Most of the past roughly till the end of the Medieval Ages seems to have been dominated by what I call authoritarian ethics. There is a brief explanation here but I will try to give one myself. In authoritarian ethics, the desirability of an action is decided by the relevant authority (i.e. religious leaders, lords, kings, husbands). From there, we (i.e. the western world) gradually moved on towards the ethics of natural (human) rights. Roughly, natural rights are a set of things a human is entitled to. In a broad sense, over time, more and more humans have had access to some common entitlements. While in practice not all humans currently have access to some common entitlements, there seems to be an interest in moving towards universal human access to common entitlements. So there might come a time where all humans have access to common entitlements. Some tout this point as the final point when it comes to the development/evolution of ethical state of affairs. Let us visualise this.

Circle E and circle H
Circle E and circle H. A set is represented by a circle.
Set H inside set E. Hypothetical future final point.
Set H inside set E. Hypothetical future final point.

 

If E is the set of life forms with access to common entitlements and H is the set of humans, human history is just the story of how P and H gradually overlapped till the hypothetical future final point where H will be inside P (all humans having access to common entitlements). But is this final stage qualitatively than the previous ones? You could say that yes, for the first time in the history of humanity, all humans have rights (all H are inside E). This should be the homeostasis of ethics in the Earth and presumably cause of celebration for everyone.

However, if an extraterrestrial visitor witnessed how H eventually got inside E, he might ask: what about other life forms? While we saw H as a set of its own, our visitor might see H as part of L (set of all life forms). This is what he would see:

Set A (life forms), Set B (humans) and Set C (all those life forms with entitlements)
Set A (life forms), Set B (humans) and Set C (all those life forms with entitlements)

For our visitor, only some members of set A which call themselves set B have got inside C (the set of those who have entitlements). So the question our visitor would ponder might be: what about those members of set A that are outside B. If he were to ask: “Hey, members of set B! Should ‘members of set A that are not members of set B’ be allowed to get inside C?”, the answer would most likely be an overall “No.”. The visitor would get to hear responses invoking metaphysical inventions and all sort of excuses to keep the current state of ethical affairs. This is what I call Anthropocentric ethics.

Now let us see what authoritarian ethics would look like:

Circle P and circle H
Circle E and circle S.
Set H inside set E. Hypothetical future final point.
Set H inside set E. Hypothetical future final point.

If E is the set of humans with access to common entitlements and S is the set of special humans, human history (till the Medieval Ages) is just the story of how S and E gradually overlapped till the hypothetical future final point where S will be inside E (all special humans having access to common entitlements). By special human I mean any human considered by other humans to be “important”, so special humans would be lords, knights, kings and any other person with some sort of influence on other humans. But is this final stage qualitatively than the previous ones? You could say that yes, for the first time in the history of humanity, all humans that are special have rights (all S are inside E).   This should be the homeostasis of ethics in the Earth and presumably cause of celebration for everyone.

However, if a 21st century human visitor witnessed how S eventually got inside E, he might ask: what about other humans? While we saw S as a set of its own, our visitor might see S as part of H (set of all humans). This is what he would see:

Set A (humans), Set B (special humans) and Set C (all those humans with entitlements)

For our visitor, only some members of set A which call themselves set B have got inside C (the set of those who have entitlements). So the question our visitor would ponder might be: what about those members of set A that are outside B. If he were to ask: “Hey, members of set B! Should ‘members of set A that are not members of set B’ be allowed to get inside C?”, the answer would most likely be an overall “No.”. The visitor would get to hear responses invoking metaphysical inventions and all sort of excuses to keep the current state of ethical affairs. This is what I call Authoritarian ethics.

Now let us make some main points about the visualisations:

  1. Both have a sub-group (called SG1) of a group moving inside another group G2
  2. Both sub-groups are part of a larger group G1
  3. SG1s do not want non-SG1s to move inside another group
  4. SG1s do not seem to have rational and consistent reasons to keep to non-SG1s outside G2
  5.  The only difference between SG1s and non-SG1s is the power they have
  6. Those inside G2 are the powerful members of G1

The final point to make when it comes to the main common characteristic between anthropocentric ethics and authoritarian ethics is that they are both ethics of power. In ethics of power, desirability is defined in terms of the interests of the powerful. When it comes to conflicting interests between the powerful and the non-powerful, that which is desirable or right is that which falls under the interests of the powerful.

Conclusion

Seeing this, how are the arguments supporting anthropocentric ethics any different than arguments supporting authoritarian ethics? It is worth mentioning that both the transition from pre-authoritarian ethics to fully fledged authoritarian ethics and the transition from the authoritarian ethics to the broader anthropocentric ethics was mainly a transition of a larger group of life forms inside the category of those who have entitlements, in other words, an increase of life forms who are considered to have entitlements.

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