A lot of teaching and writing in environmental ethics adopts a geometrical image: the center. The field of environmental ethics began with numerous and varied critiques of anthropocentric values and practices. Here’s how the story often goes: to center on the human is to marginalize the non-human, and developing an ethic that accounts for the moral considerability of non-humans requires an extension of the center from humans to life (biocentrism) or to ecosystems (ecocentrism).
One problem here is that this moral extensionism still starts from the human. It radiates out to include organisms and ecosystems, but it radiates out from the human. An extended anthropocentrism still subordinates nonhumans to humans. How can we develop ethics that account for non-human centers on their own terms?
Some have argued that centrism as such leads to domination and oppression, whereby the center gains superiority over the periphery (e.g., humans exploiting nature or, conversely, misanthropic environmentalisms marginalizing human social issues). Val Plumwood’s critique of hegemonic centrisms is an exemplary case in point. However, privileging acentric systems over against centric systems is an “uncritical reversal” (as Plumwood would say): the acentric is the new center.
The challenge, then, is this: how to think of nonhuman centers on their own terms while subverting any tendencies for centers to become hegemonic centrisms. Anthony Weston provides an excellent articulation of this challenge in “Multicentrism: A Manifesto.” Weston proposes:
a multicentered vision according to which more-than-human others enter the moral realm on their own terms, rather than by expansion from a single center—a vision according to which there are diverse centers, shifting and overlapping but still each with its own irreducible and distinctive starting-point. For a multicentered ethic, then, the growth of moral sensitivity and consideration does not proceed through an expanding series of concentric realms, each neatly assimilating or incorporating the previous stage within a larger and more inclusive whole. No; instead we discover a world of separate though mutually implicated centers. Moral growth consists in experiencing more and more deeply the texture of multiplicity in the world, not in tracing the wider and wider circles set off from one single center.
Weston adds that this approach to environmental ethics is pluralistic. Most environmental ethics debates about pluralism vs. monism are debates about whether we should have many or one theories. Multicentrism is a realist pluralism, implying a “much more radical and polymorphous pluralism,” for which multiplicity is a feature belonging to the real world, “to things themselves.”
Biocentrism and ecocentrism are too big (“mega-centrisms”), totalizing and assimilating the things themselves. Weston is clear that his vision of pluralistic realism is against environmental holism.
Contra holism, though, multicentrism does not assert a single ecological “whole” that is somehow the single, prior ethical center. The multiverse is more mixed and complexly textured, including both ecological “wholes” and individuals of various sorts and levels—species, organisms, biotic communities—all in flux and flow, and none always or necessarily prior.
What does multicentrism look like in practice?
Multicentrism asks us to “take care” with respect to everything, and the sort of mindfulness thus implied can only be called polymorphous too. […] Imperative is to move from the familiar one-species monologue to a truly multi-polar dialogue. […] What multicentrism adds is the wider and wilder vision: a sustainable, participatory, multivocal philosophical practice—a way back into the Multiverse.
Multicentrism is a kind of centrism to end all centrisms. Given the dangers of centric metaphors, Weston considers a couple alternative names for his position. The first is “multiversalism.” The second is my favorite. It’s a term Weston adopts from Irene Klaver: “ex-centric.”