Misanthropy

Summary—Progressivists sometimes charge that conservationists are misanthropes. In reality, progressivists are the real misanthropes, since they disdain human nature and seek to “improve” it into non-existence. As a result, they only consider “human” (and “humane”) those things that benefit civilized conditions, and use this as the framework by which to judge whether or not an ideology is misanthropic. What’s more, any actually misanthropic positions among ecocentrists is due precisely to the influence of progressivism, particularly utilitarian calculations made possible by its egalitarianism and indiscriminately altruistic approach to ethics. In the end, only wildism comes out being the non-misanthropic philosophy.

1      INTRODUCTION

malthus-was-right-sticker-minA common jab directed against conservationists claims that they are misanthropes. The response to this has been outright denial to ironic affirmation. For instance, early in the history of Earth First! the group sold bumper stickers and t-shirts with the word, along with other cute slogans like “Malthus was right.”

The claims usually center around two recurring ideas or principles assumed by conservationists. First, conservationists sometimes argue that the human race is the problem, and that non-human nature would arguably be better off if humans disappeared. Associated in the minds of critics is the conservationist belief that a massive reduction in the human population is axiomatic to conservation. The population problem, however, is its own issue, and I do not address it in this essay.

But as for the misanthropy of some conservationists, after some thought we can discern that this is actually due to a progressivist philosophy, which is itself the true embodiment of misanthropy. In the end, then, the solution to non-misanthropic views and appreciating human nature is to dispose of progressivism and embrace the respect for nature and nature’s wildness that wildism entails.

2      ECOCENTRISM AND WILDISM

Because “ecocentrism” is somewhat amorphous, as are most concepts in deep ecology, wildism is arguably ecocentric and it certainly stems from and responds to the ecocentric tradition (see the introduction to “The Foundations of Wildist Ethics” and “Relations and the Moral Circle”). In fact, most of the reasons wildists avoid the term have not kept many prominent and unrepenting deep ecologists from keeping their definitive place in the tradition. For instance, Hettinger & Throop argue for a focus on wildness instead of life, per se, but both are foremost deep ecology philosophers.

Nevertheless, ecocentrism is usually associated with an expanded moral circle approach to ethics. That is, they hope to continue expanding the circle of altruism, which began with the band and is presently extended to all of humanity, so that it encompasses nature as well. There are many philosophical issues inherent in this position (“Relations and the Moral Circle”), but, notable for this essay, it also directly leads to misanthropic positions: disdain for natural human social relations, disdain for the existence of the human species, and anti-natalism, or disdain for natural human reproductive practices. But because wildism does not take the expanded moral circle approach, it is not misanthropic, and is, in fact, far less disdainful of humanity than even the progressivists are.

Two clarifications. First, “natural” does not mean “good” in the altruistic, philosophical sense. Instead, wildists argue that the narrative of progress, that nature can be made better with civilized, artificial modification and therefore should be, must be challenged. This is because in our attempt to challenge civilization’s material destruction, we necessary need to challenge, at least among active wildists, its superstructural justifications.

But this challenge does not mean that artifice per se is sin or a taint on nature. As I’ve noted before, nature and artifice exist on a spectrum from wild to tame to domesticated to fully artificial, and all areto some extent a legitimate part of our world. Furthermore, artifice is an important element of the natural human condition, since humans have always engaged in making artifacts and artistic creations, so to destroy all artifice would require destroying human beings.

Thus, when we rail against artifice in relation to the myth of progress, we mean something very specific. It is of course possible to “progress” as far as that is just a general verb. You can progress from one end of a room to another, and it is possible to say that a piece of wood was made instrumentally better when it was sharpened. But the myth of progress is specifically referencing not just development or directionality in general, but movement from natural to artificial as an imperative. Progressivism isn’t just a statement that civilization is valuable or nice to have, but that it is morally good, and therefore that we are obligated to progress. In contrast, rewilding is about tearing down the idols of civilization and moving the world further toward wildness. It is also not borne from altruism, like progress, which brings us to our next clarification.

We would do well to distinguish between two kinds of morality[1]: the altruistic and the axiological, or value-based. The former in our natural condition extends mostly to our relations[2] (for evolutionary reasons). It is also defined by some irrational impulses and legitimates otherwise odd behaviors, like martyrdom. As I’ve said, humanism hopes to extend these practices to all of humanity and progressive ecocentrism hopes to extend them to all of nature.

But wildism is an axiological morality, which means it relies much more on moral reasoning, deriving conclusions from some base values, the most important of which is wildness. For instance, instead of arguing that we have altruistic obligations toward nature, we note that we value wildness, which in our current condition obviously produces the imperative to conserve and rewild. This also means that, whereas progressivists feel an altruistic imperative to artificially modify nature for the good of humanity, wildists rewild because of statements of value, which has little to do with altruism.

Finally, it is worth noting that some humanisms are axiological, usually based on a version of utilitarianism. See, for instance, Greene, 2013; Pinker, 2011; Singer, 1983; and Singer, 2000.

3      PROGRESSIVISM’S MISANTHROPY

Progressivism often claims that wildists are misanthropic because they do not regard humans as having special moral status by virtue of their humanity, or because they do not regard every human being as due equal moral consideration. However, these ideas reveal that it is the progressivists themselves who are misanthropic: they disdain the natural human and hope only to improve him, which in the long term amounts to his transformation into something else entirely. In the short term this amounts to the domination and suppression of his nature, the source of many of our current social problems.

Rubin has a particularly powerful critique of this point in his book, The Eclipse of Man, in which he critiques transhumanism, the next major ideology of progress. He notes, for instance, that transhumanism lacks grounding because it involves modifying the very desires that are supposed to be the measure by which we hold progress. This is because of the oft-forgotten fact that genetic engineering (for instance) does not just modify baby faces; it also modifies baby minds. As a result,

It becomes harder and harder for our authors to imagine what will be retained, hence where change will start from. And if the rate of change is accelerating, that simply means we are headed the more rapidly from one unknown to another, while the recognizable old standards for judging whether the changes are progressive are overthrown with our humanity.

The same applies for all previous civilizations. Cities did not just require managing ecosystems, but also called for managing human beings, which is why they birthed states, police forces, propaganda machines, artificial desires, institutional distractions, etc. Hunter/gatherers would not willingly choose to adopt a nine-to-five job, which is why things like the pacification process and the civilizing process were called for.

The most intellectually astute progressivists recognize this and argue that these things have nevertheless been good, allowing for the expulsion of many kinds of diseases, a drastic reduction in violence, longer life expectancies at birth, and many other things. They also usually recognize that these are post hoc justifications: humans did not decide to make the world less violent and then achieve this through technical development. Instead, overall technics developed autonomously—they evolved—and took humans beings along with them.

But wildists, and many humans, for that matter, are uneasy with the fact that modern society controls their natures to such a degree, and this is even taking into consideration that most human beings do not understand the sources of their unrest.

4      ECOCENTRISM’S MISANTHROPY

Ecocentrism is misanthropic when it is of the expanded moral circle approach, which is progressive. In other words, misanthropy is the direct result of the very same philosophy that the progressivists who make the charge espouse.

For instance, ecocentrists sometimes dislike humanity because it is selfish rather than cooperative and altruistic, which they claim would allow the non-human world to flourish. This is the same as the humanist narrative, except extended. Of course, technically this attitude does not embody the ideal of progressivist solidarity, since it is ambivalent toward one group (humans) who are included within that ideal. But because it ascribes equal moral value to both humans and non-humans (usually expressed as “rights”), it allows for the possibility of martyrdom, which tellingly became prominent with the rise of another progressivist philosophy, Christianity, from which humanist ethics sprung. In other words, it allows for the utilitarian calculation that, since all suffering is equally bad, and since ending humanity would (according to the progressive ecocentrists) decrease overall suffering, the end of humanity is worth it. This is the same as saying that killing one person is better than killing five, a common humanist utilitarian thought experiment called “the trolley problem” (Greene, 2013). All this, plus martyrdom in this case relies on the philosophical belief that value can be objective (e.g., external to humans), which is not possible with a materialist analysis (see “Relations and the Moral Circle”).

All the above applies to the anti-natalism of some ecocentrists, but this brings up an additional point. Both the expanded moral circle approach and anti-natalism are, like other progressivisms, philosophies that try to implement reasoned abstractions onto nature in order to improve it for the sake of some body with equal moral value. The expanded circle has disdain for humanity’s natural propensity to favor relations; anti-natalism has disdain for humanity’s natural reproductive practices; etc. This is not wildism, but a renewed progressivism, one that could even become useful for changing economic and technical conditions (see “Refuting the Apartheid Alternative”).

5      CONCLUSION

Although progressivists often like to claim that those in the conservation and environmentalist movements are misanthropes, the very same beliefs that compel them to make this claim actually reveal that they are misanthropes. These philosophical beliefs are also the reason some progressive ecocentrists advocate misanthropic positions, which reveals that it isn’t conservation that is the problem, but progressivism. Wildists, in contrast, advocate the defense of nature, including human nature, against the revolutionary projects of the progressivists, who seek to “improve” all these things for the sake of their expanded circle of altruistic morality. As a result, wildist and wildness-centered conservationists are, in fact, the only notable challenge to progressivism’s misanthropy.

6      NOTES

[1] I define “morality” broadly, “the rules, self-imposed or collectively-imposed, that govern behavior.”

[2] “Relations” is a technical term in wildism, referencing an individual’s natural group of close friends, family, and environments. In the nomadic hunter/gatherer condition, an individual’s relations amounted to the band and the ecosystems in which he lived. Relations are largely restricted by biological and other material factors. See, for instance, Dunbar’s number (Dunbar, 1992).

7      BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bookchin, M., & Foreman, D. (1999). Defending the Earth: A Dialogue Between Murray Bookchin and Dave Foreman. (S. Chase, & D. Levine, Eds.) South End Press.

Dunbar, R. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469-493.

Foreman, D. (1987). Whither Earth First!? Earth First!, 8(1), p. 20.

Greene, J. (2013). Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Penguin Books.

Jacobi, J. (2016). Refuting the apartheid alternative. Hunter/Gatherer, 1(2).

Jacobi, J. (2016). Relations and the moral circle. Hunter/Gatherer, 1(2).

Jacobi, J. (2016). The foundations of wildist ethics. Hunter/Gatherer, 1(1), 6-55.

Lee, M. (1995). Earth First!: Environmental Apocalypse. Syracuse University Press.

Miss Ann Thropy. (1987). Population and AIDS. Earth First!, 7(5), p. 32.

Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Viking Books.

Rubin, C. (2014). The Eclipse of Man. Encounter Books.

Singer, P. (1981). The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress. Princeton University Press.

Singer, P. (2000). A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation. Yale University Press.

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