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Why Environmental Ethics?

Elizabeth Willott & David Schmidtz

It is dawn. We have come to the mountains of eastern Arizona, seeking inspiration. We left our computer back at the trailhead, in the van, having no need for such fancy technology on our hike. We do need our state-of-the-art boots, though, for the hike up the west side of Mount Baldy is seven miles; the hike back down the east side is another twelve. We thank Mount Baldy for this glorious morning, but in fairness we also thank the van and all the other technological developments that make it possible for us to be here.

We live in a world of problems, but environmental ethics reminds us not only that these mountains need to be saved and that they can be, but that they are worth saving. Environmental ethics teaches us how to enjoy the world, not just how to fix it.

Not that we do not want to fix the world, of course, but fixing is a tricky, double-edged idea. On one hand, to "fix" is to repair or improve, and there is nothing wrong with that, in principle. On the other, to "fix" is to stabilize or set in place so as to prevent further change, as when we describe a mortgage rate or a lecture schedule as fixed. Therein lies a problem, for in that second sense, ecologies are not fixed, and cannot be. It is of the essence of an ecosystem that it is a thing in flux.

Of course, human nature being what it is, flux makes people nervous. Rightly or wrongly, we feel more secure when things are "fixed." So, we want to "fix" our ecosystem, but we cannot. Not without turning it into something other than the ongoing process it is. Ecosystems evolve. Human society evolves. Something decays and is lost in the process. Always. And we, like generations before us and generations to come, will lament its passing. There probably has never been a generation that did not view its world as going to hell in one way or another. We are only human. Still, we are here. We are now. Shouldn’t we enjoy it?

Or perhaps "enjoy" is too mild a word to describe what it is like to be among wind-hewn rocks, hearing the call of a crow, wondering for how many eons that call has echoed from that perch. Or stopping to count the growth rings in a fallen Ponderosa Pine and giving up at a hundred and fifty. Or stopping just short of Baldy’s summit because it is marked as sacred ground by the Apache, wondering where the Apache were in 1492, wondering whether they already regarded this land as sacred when Columbus was still looking for a shorter route to India.

Environmental Ethics as a Branch of Philosophy

Throughout this book, we will avoid jargon as much as we can. There are, however, some basic terms you will need to know. The discipline of philosophy can be divided into fields. Typically it is divided into three. In the simplest terms: metaphysics is the study of the fundamental nature of reality; epistemology is the study of knowledge, and how we acquire it; ethics is the study of goodness and rightness–our reasons for acting in one way rather than another, or our reasons for trying to be one kind of person rather than another.

The study of ethics generally is guided by certain presuppositions. Among the main presuppositions are these. First, we are more or less rational beings, capable of understanding the world. Second, we can act on the basis of what we understand. Third, our actions can serve a purpose–we can make a difference.

Ethics itself can be divided into subfields. Normative ethics is the study of rightness in action, and goodness in states of affairs. Descriptive ethics is the study of opinions or beliefs about normative ethics. (Descriptive ethics often is considered to be the domain of anthropology, say, not philosophy. The point of separating normative from descriptive ethics is to emphasize that seeking the truth about ethics is not the same as cataloguing opinions about ethics.) The third subfield, metaethics, studies the meanings and presuppositions of moral theories and moral language and asks what it would be like to justify a moral theory. In effect, then, where normative ethics is the enterprise of formulating theories about what is right and good, metaethics steps back to study normative ethics itself.

Within the subfield of normative ethics, we seek to formulate theories of the good, sometimes called theories of value. We also seek to formulate a theory of right action. When we try to apply the results of normative ethics–whether theory of the good or the right–we move into the realm of applied ethics. The primary areas within applied ethics currently are medical ethics, business ethics, and environmental ethics. Lumping the three together is slightly misleading, though. Business and medicine are professions, typically studied in separate professional schools rather than in colleges of art and science, thus business ethics and medical ethics currently are forms of professional ethics in large measure (although this may change). In contrast, the environment is not a profession, there are no Environmental Schools in the way there are Medical and Business Schools, and environmental ethics is not the study of ethical issues specific to any particular occupation. Environmental ethics is a way of applying normative ethics to a particular set of practical issues, but it also is a new way of doing normative ethics in general. Environmental ethics asks what we owe each other, and to ourselves, given our ecological context. It also asks what, if anything, we owe to nonhuman animals, to plants, to fragile geological wonders, to species, and even to ecosystems themselves. It asks what kind of life we should aspire to live, and what kind of world we should aspire to live in. It is the study of the value of human life, and the value of life in general. In short, part of the beauty of environmental ethics is that it not only applies normative ethics; it encompasses normative ethics.

One way to do philosophy is from the armchair, without facts. Would it be right to convert all the golf courses into marshland? To shut down all the factory farms? Is it wrong for Monsanto to develop and sell genetically engineered cotton seeds? Wrong for farmers to buy and plant genetically engineered seed, and eventually sell the harvest? Wrong for our colleagues in the agricultural sciences to advise cotton farmers as best they can on how to use the new seed while minimizing harmful environmental consequences? Wrong for you to support this whole system when you buy clothing made of genetically engineered cotton?

We could try to answer these questions by consulting our abstract theories, backed by intuitions, fears, and uninformed assumptions. When we do environmental ethics, though, it is hard to avoid the thought that doing environmental ethics without gathering pertinent facts is, in a word, unethical. Accordingly, while this book necessarily is about abstract theory, it also explores the efforts of various authors to learn how the real world actually works. We hope you enjoy both parts, and we thank you for taking a look. In the following pages, we ask a lot of questions. Indeed, we have more questions than answers. (This is partly for pedagogical reasons, but also because the questions are too difficult to settle here, so far as we can see.) We hope you find our questions interesting, and we hope you enjoy the challenge of coming to your own conclusions.

The Last Man

At a conference in 1973, Richard Sylvan (then known as Richard Routley) proposed a science fiction thought experiment that helped to launch environmental ethics as a branch of academic philosophy. (This is the only science fiction example you will encounter in this book. In Environmental Ethics, there is no need to make up strange cases, for environmental issues permeate everyday life.) Routley’s thought experiment came to be known as the "Last Man" argument.

The thought experiment presents you with a situation something like this: You are the last human being. You shall soon die. When you are gone, the only life remaining will be plants, microbes, invertebrates. For some reason, the following thought runs through your head: Before I die, it sure would be nice to destroy the last remaining Redwood. Just for fun.

Sylvan’s audience was left to ponder. What, if anything, would be wrong with destroying that Redwood? Destroying it won’t hurt anyone, so what’s the problem? Environmental philosophers have been trying to answer that question ever since, and you will hear the question echoing through this book.

How would you answer it?

Instrumental and Intrinsic Value

Perhaps the most fundamental question in environmental ethics is: What should be our attitude toward nature? No environmental ethicist says we should regard nature as merely a repository of natural resources, but we are divided over what kind of respect nature commands, or what kind of value we should regard nature as having. We will outline major divisions, but first, a word of caution about definitions. As in almost any field, writers use terms in different ways, so please do not assume every author you read will use these terms in exactly the same way. When we define a term, we are trying to indicate, roughly speaking, how most people use the term. Also, we will keep the discussion as simple as we can, setting aside all but the most central issues. Be forewarned, though, that beneath the (relatively!) simple surface lies a nasty tangle of extremely difficult philosophical problems that many smart people have spent years trying to untangle, with only partial success.

We can begin by noting that people value things like Redwoods in more than one way. Clearly, many objects are useful as means to further ends. We consider them valuable as tools or instruments rather than as intrinsically valuable in their own right. In environmental ethics, we refer to this sort of usefulness as an object’s instrumental value.

In contrast, an object has noninstrumental value when it has a value apart from any usefulness it may have as a means to further ends. If an object is good quite apart from what it is good for, it has noninstrumental value. The difference is a bit like the difference between an excellent paintbrush and an excellent painting. Compared to the brush, the painting has a different kind of value, not just a different amount. Likewise, even if we have no interest in that last Redwood as a source of lumber, we might value it simply because it is the majestic living thing that it is. If we value the last Redwood in that way, then we are seeing it as having a kind of goodness that is independent of what it is good for. We are seeing it as more like the painting than like the paintbrush.

One of the main tasks in the field of environmental ethics is to be more precise about noninstrumental value, but achieving greater precision is not easy. People sometimes speak of an object’s intrinsic value, and often they mean roughly what we have called noninstrumental value. For example, an art dealer might assess two paintings, and might say that while the first painting has a higher resale value under current market conditions, the second is actually the better painting when judged on its intrinsic merits. The painting has a kind of value simply because of its intrinsic beauty, independent of any usefulness it may have when used to raise money. In different words, we attach instrumental value to an object when we value what we can use it for, or exchange it for; we attach intrinsic value when we value what the object is, period.

Does that last Redwood have intrinsic value?

Valued Objects and Valuing Subjects

Saying an object is valued presupposes that some subject is doing the valuing. All valuing, it seems, is a relation between valued object and valuing subject. Instrumental value is one kind of relation; intrinsic value is another. An object has instrumental value to me when it is useful to me. It has intrinsic value to me when I see it as valuable in its own right, independently of what it is good for. Both are values to me, although not in the same way.

One note of clarification. We are tempted to think of "intrinsic" as a synonym for "really important." Likewise, we are tempted to speak of instrumental values as "merely" instrumental, as if instrumental values were necessarily small. Both of these assumptions are false. A souvenir postcard from the Grand Canyon can have a small intrinsic value while a kidney transplant can have a large instrumental value. The systematic difference between intrinsic and instrumental is not a matter of one being bigger than the other. The real difference is more subtle, a matter of the type (rather than the amount) of respect the different values command.

After the last person is gone, there will be no valuing subjects left, therefore no one to whom the last Redwood can be useful, and therefore no possibility of the Redwood having instrumental value. Must we say the same about the Redwood’s intrinsic value, since no one is left who can value the last Redwood for its own sake? When no one is left to value it, does that mean it will have no value?

Is Value Subjective?

We will come back to these questions, but first, a note about objectivity. To say valuing is a relation between valuing subject and valued object is not to say value is purely subjective. For example, when I say vitamin C has instrumental value to me, my judgment can be correct or incorrect. It can be objectively true that vitamin C serves the purpose I think it serves, thus objectively true that vitamin C has that kind of value to me. I choose whether to care about my health, to some degree, but given that I do in fact care, my valuing vitamin C is grounded in reality in a way it would not be if my beliefs about vitamin C were inaccurate.

The objectivity of intrinsic values is less obvious. On one hand, it is objectively true that Redwoods have the properties that inspire me to think of them as intrinsically valuable. They are alive; they truly are as old and as huge as I think they are, and so on. On the other hand, reasonable people can remain unconvinced that a Redwood’s aesthetic (intrinsic) value is as objective as vitamin C’s nutritional (instrumental) value.

We said all valuing seems to be a relation between valued object and valuing subject. Sometimes, when we value an object, we seem to be creating the relationship. (When I decide to start collecting stamps, stamps suddenly have a value to me that they did not have before my decision.) Other times, we seem to be recognizing a pre-existing relationship rather than creating one. The pre-existing relationship consists of the fact that, given our nature and given the object’s nature, we have reason to value the object even if we do not know it. Thus, ascorbic acid had value to us even before we discovered that it is an essential vitamin (i.e., vitamin C). Given what ascorbic acid is, and given what we are–we are beings who want to remain healthy and who need ascorbic acid to remain healthy–it is an objective fact that we have reason to value ascorbic acid.

What about the last Redwood? Is it like ascorbic acid? Is it an objective fact that we have reason to value Redwoods? Insofar as we have reason to value Redwoods, is our reason something we discover, or something we create?

Does Value Presuppose a Valuer?

Now suppose, when the last person is gone, nothing will be left that needs ascorbic acid. Will it continue to be an objective fact that ascorbic acid has value? No. Ascorbic acid has value to us here and now, but in a world without animals that need it, there is nothing to whom it could have value.

Again, what about that last Redwood? Does it make sense to say the last Redwood would command respect? In a world without sentient beings, whose respect would it command? Are Redwoods the sort of thing that have value to us here and now, but would not have value in a mindless world?

To this last question, some theorists would answer yes, and would add that we should not find this troubling. What matters is whether the last Redwood commands the last person’s respect, which is independent of whether the tree will have intrinsic value after the last person is gone. Others will say something is missing from this picture: the fact that Redwoods have value, period. They will insist that the world would be a better place with that last Redwood in it, regardless of whether anyone is left to appreciate it. But why insist on this? Practically speaking, what difference does it make?

There is no easy way to settle this debate. The problem, in part, is that we use the word ‘value’ in more than one way. Sometimes, we use the word as a verb. We say, "I value Redwoods." In that sense, value clearly presupposes a valuer–objects are valued only if valued by a valuing subject. Other times, we use the word as a noun, and then the relation between value and valuer is less clear. When I say, "Redwoods have value," that may simply be another way of saying, "I value Redwoods." Or, I may be saying something different, such as, "I have reason to value Redwoods." When I say Redwoods are intrinsically valuable, I seem to be saying the latter. When I say the mindless planet would be a better place with that last Redwood in it, I am saying I would have reason (and so would you) to value the last Redwood. I cannot be saying the last Redwood would be valued by beings on that planet, because in the thought experiment valuing subjects no longer exist on that planet. For the same reason, I cannot mean anything on that planet has reason to value the last Redwood: the thought experiment stipulates that subjects capable of having reasons no longer exist. Presumably, what I really mean is, valuing subjects such as you and me, here and now, have reason to value Redwoods (even when they have no instrumental value), and therefore, in the world we are imagining, we would have reason to value the last Redwood.

Where does that leave us? We are in deep and treacherous philosophical waters here, but the upshot appears to be twofold. First, when I tell you the last Redwood has intrinsic value, I am not saying you or I or anyone else actually is there to respect it. But second, I am saying that if we were there, it would be true that we ought to respect it. When the last person is gone, there will be no perspective in that world from which the last Redwood would have value, but it remains true that the last Redwood would have value from my perspective, here and now. So if you ask me whether the last Redwood would have value, you are asking me here and now for my perspective on the last Redwood’s value, and that is what I am giving you when I answer, yes, it would have value.

Suppose the last person is a painter. The last person might reason as follows: My paintbrushes have value because they are useful. After I am gone, there will be no one to use them. Therefore, they will no longer be useful. Therefore, they will no longer have instrumental value. My paintings, though, are different. My paintings have value because they are beautiful. After I am gone, they will still be beautiful. (They are beautiful to me, and after I am gone, they will continue to be the kind of thing I would find beautiful if I were still around.) Therefore, won’t they still have value even after I am gone? To answer yes is to see the paintings as having intrinsic value.

If this still seems too abstract, then think about everyday analogs of the same problem. If I tell my insurance agent I want my children to be financially secure when I die, the agent does not say, "You’re confused. The fact is, when you’re dead, you’re dead. You will no longer be a sentient valuing creature. Therefore, you won’t care. So why not spend the money on something you care about?" If my agent said that, I should reply, "No, you’re the one who is confused. I am not saying that after I die, it will matter to me then what happens to my children. What I’m saying is, it matters to me now. I am imagining a world in which I no longer exist, so when I say I value my children’s financial security in that world, I’m not saying I value it from a perspective that exists in that world. I’m saying I value it from my perspective here and now. Here and now, I see my children’s security as having a value that will survive my death. In other words, my attitude toward my children is that their value does not depend on my attitude. From my perspective, here and now, they are worthy of my love and respect, and they will continue to be worthy even after I am gone."

In a way, then, valuing does presuppose a valuer. Intrinsic valuing, though, presupposes a special kind of valuer, namely a kind of valuer who can see the valued object as having value, period–who can see the object as intrinsically worthy of respect.

Moral Standing

The fundamental question is, as we said earlier: what should be our attitude toward nature? In particular, many theorists have pondered whether it is possible for nonhumans to have the sort of moral standing that humans have. As we understand the term, a being has moral standing just in case it has a right to be treated with respect. Things with moral standing are things to whom (or to which) we can have obligations. We can have obligations regarding a painting, but not to a painting. We ought to treat beautiful paintings with respect, but not because we have obligations to the paintings. We ought to respect them because they are beautiful (or because their owners have rights), not because they have rights.

What about plants, then? Does a Redwood command respect in the way excellent paintings command respect? Or does it command respect in the way persons command respect? Is it enough for us to have obligations regarding Redwoods, or must we think of ourselves as having obligations to them as well?

What is your view? If we destroyed that last Redwood, just for fun, would it be like destroying a person for fun, or would it be more like destroying a beautiful painting for fun?

Perhaps we should seek an intermediate position. Could we argue that moral standing comes in degrees? There are serious thinkers who view moral standing as a switch with only two settings. The switch is on or off. You either respect an entity or not. Other thinkers, equally serious, see moral standing as coming in degrees. Trees have some standing; people have more. Fish have some standing; dolphins have more. Mice have some; chimpanzees have more. Accordingly, if it seems preposterous that a mouse could have the same moral standing as a chimpanzee, it might be possible to argue that a mouse has a lesser, yet still real, moral standing.

What Kinds of Things Have Moral Standing?

Anything we can put to use is a potential bearer of instrumental value. Equally clearly, anything we can value simply because of what it is, independently of what it can be used for, is a potential bearer of intrinsic value. Paintings can have intrinsic value. Plants can have intrinsic value. Persons can have intrinsic value. But being a bearer of value (even intrinsic value) is a long way from having moral standing.

Almost everyone agrees that persons have moral standing, although different theorists explain that obligation in different ways. Quickly put, some would say what separates plants from paintings is that plants have lives. What separates animals from plants is that animals have perspectives. What separates humans from other animals is that humans have principles. Humans have a unique or virtually unique capacity for self-conscious moral agency. (Do all humans have this capacity, though? Do all nonhumans lack it?)

What is the connection between having the capacity for self-conscious moral agency and having moral standing? That capacity is the paradigmatic case of what most theorists consider sufficient for moral standing, but is it necessary?

Suppose we say that it is. Would that imply that only humans have moral standing? (Again, be forewarned: these are difficult issues on which consensus may never be achieved.) Anthropocentrism is the view that the answer is yes. Nonanthropocentrism, in contrast, is a view that at least some nonhuman life has moral standing, either because some nonhumans have a capacity for self-conscious moral agency, or because the capacity for self-conscious moral agency is not the only basis for moral standing. (Weak anthropocentrists stress that while only humans have a full-blown right to be treated with respect, various nonhumans ought to be treated with respect not because they have rights but because they have intrinsic value.)

Nonanthropocentrists say at least some nonhuman life has a full-blown right to be treated with respect, but they do not agree on which nonhuman life has such standing, or why. Animal liberationists such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan depart from anthropocentrism in one direction. Rejecting the view that self-aware moral agency is the only proper basis for claiming moral rights, animal liberationists say sentience–the ability to feel pain and pleasure–would be a more properly inclusive basis. They say the realm of moral standing extends to all sentient animals. Further, everything within that realm has equal standing.

Other thinkers would extend moral standing literally to all living things. Where animal liberationists accuse anthropocentrists of being "speciesists," animal liberationists are in turn accused of speciesism or "sentientism" by biocentrists who see sentience as an arbitrary cutoff and who endorse an even more radically inclusive view that simply being alive is the proper basis for moral standing. Among biocentrists, Paul Taylor (in this volume) says not only that the realm of moral standing extends to all living things, but also that literally everything within that realm has equal standing. Gary Varner (in this volume) agrees that all living things have standing–they all command some respect–but denies that they all command equal respect. Thus, while Taylor and Varner are both biocentrists, only Taylor is a species egalitarian.

We have distinguished different varieties of anthropocentrism and nonanthropocentrism. We also can distinguish between individualism and holism. Individualism is the view that only individual living things can have moral standing. Gary Varner thus calls himself a biocentric individualist. Opposed to individualism is holism, the view that individual living things are not the only kind of thing that can have moral standing. Can species have moral standing? How about fragile ecosystems? Biocentric holists such as Aldo Leopold and Holmes Rolston III believe the most serious environmental issues concern not the suffering of individual animals, and certainly not respect for individual plants, but rather the preservation of species and whole ecosystems: in a word, the environment. Clearly, holism and individualism are real options. Each should be taken seriously by those who seek to understand the world and their place in it. Likewise, anthropocentrism and nonanthropocentrism are real options. You may be more attracted to one perspective rather than another, but each captures key insights in its own way.

When we commit to one view or the other, we risk losing sight of what is valuable in opposing views. We will be tempted deliberately to distort opposing views, reducing them to cartoon caricatures. For example, we could have defined anthropocentrism as the view that only humans have intrinsic value and that anything nonhuman must have merely instrumental value at best. But that would be a caricature, not a serious theory. No one should deny that a vast array of objects, including Redwoods, are intrinsically valued. The genuine division between anthropocentrists, animal liberationists, and biocentrists, the issue that leaves us with serious thinkers on each side, is the question of whether (or which) nonhumans command respect in the same way (if not to the same degree) that self-aware moral agents do. If certain nonhumans do command respect, is it because certain nonhumans (dolphins, chimpanzees) are self-aware moral agents, or is it because self-aware moral agency is not necessary for moral standing?

We are human, of course, and therefore our values are human values. That is, our values necessarily are the values of human subjects. But that does not make us anthropocentrists, for anthropocentrism does not say merely that we are human. Instead, anthropocentrism is a theory about which objects have moral standing. In particular, it is the theory that nonhumans do not belong in that category. Should we be anthropocentrists? Perhaps, but the bare fact that we are human does not make us anthropocentrists. It does not commit us to thinking that only human beings have moral standing. We have a choice.

Whether we should be holists or individualists, and why, is an ongoing matter of hot debate. Whether we should be anthropocentric, or how far beyond humanity the realm of moral standing should extend, is likewise a matter of hot debate. However these debates are resolved, though, the fact remains that there is much to be gained from cultivating a more biocentric appreciation of nature. Simply appreciating nature–appreciating it for its own sake, treating it with respect–is how most of us begin to develop an environmental ethic. We learn that we live–and learn how to live–in a world of things worth appreciating.

What Really Works

At the same time, we must also learn that we live, and how to live, in a world of never-ending disagreement about what we owe to each other and to our environment. For better or worse, we are, in many ways, free to choose how to live, and for the most part we choose as individuals. No person or government is in any position simply to decide how "We" are going to act. As individuals, we must decide how to live in a world full of people trying to decide how to live, each coming to different conclusions. Therefore, after we come to our own conclusions about what really matters, we still have a long way to go before we figure out what really works. Each of us needs to figure out how to live in peace–an environmentally friendly peace–with people who have come to different conclusions about what really matters.

Notes