does the natural world have intrinsic worth?

treeUnless you have been living in a closet for the last 20 years, it can hardly have escaped your notice that many people perceive the world to be in environmental crisis. In Australia alone we have vast tracts of farmland rendered useless and dead through salinisation; we have agricultural runoff, trawling and climate change destroying the Great Barrier Reef; we have less than 5% of old growth forests remaining. We have a kangaroo cull quota of over five million while introduced hoofed animals that outnumber the human population 10 to one are pulverising our marginal ecosystems beyond repair. In Queensland we have the highest rate of land clearing in the western world, the fifth highest in the world if we were a country. Globally, climate change has resulted in the hottest 14 years on record since 1980; yet we continue to use fossil fuels (indeed our use of them increases yearly) despite the knowledge that the carbon rich pollution that results is a major contributor to this climate change.

Globally, biodiversity is decreasing at an alarming rate:

  • 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully or over-exploited. One third of all fish species are threatened with extinction.
  • 14% of the world’s 242,000 plant species are threatened with extinction.
  • 11% of the world’s 9,600 species of birds are threatened with extinction
  • 11% of the world’s 4,400 mammal species are threatened with extinction

This decline in species can inevitably be traced to over exploitation or negligent use of habitat by human beings.

In the face of these sobering facts, it is difficult to see what difference philosophy can make. However, ethical theories can help make clear our concerns by attempting to show that what we feel is right or good is also logically valid. That our feelings of moral outrage are justified.

A study carried out by the Wilderness Society in 1996 found that most Australians do value wilderness, only 12% thought economic growth was of greater importance. The study found that:

there was strong and widespread agreement…(that) ‘wilderness areas should be conserved for their own sake, not because people want to use them’ and ‘ we have a duty to future generations to conserve wilderness areas (1999:2)

There are obviously deep contradictions in our society when most people value nature, yet are acting within a system that is detrimental to it.

Roderick Nash elucidates the two views that promote human obligations to preserve nature:

 first, some people believe that it is right to protect and wrong to abuse nature…from the standpoint of human interest…But the more radical meaning…is that nature has intrinsic value and consequently possesses at least the right to exist. (1989:9)

The first view is what has been called anthropocentrism, or human-centred ethics; the latter covers biocentrism and deep ecology. Nash sees this more radical way of viewing nature as part of the evolution of ethics. He observes that “environmental ethics is revolutionary; it is arguably the most dramatic expansion of morality in the course of human thought” (1989:7) He also observes that the idea, to most people, is still ‘incredible’. However, so too was the idea of freeing slaves, women’s equal rights and the rights of indigenous peoples. Every milestone in the evolution of ethics, in the words of John Stuart Mill, has been met with ‘ridicule, discussion, (and finally) adoption’ (in Nash 1989:8) Paul Taylor also sees the acceptance of ‘life-centred’ rather than ‘human centred’ ethics as having the potential for a “profound reordering of our moral universe” (1998:72)

Before I go on to discuss the more radical premises of environmental ethics, I would like to say a little about the enterprise of ethics in general. The main purpose of ethics, as I see it, is to make clear to us the reasons for what we do. When it comes to other human beings, this is a relatively easy task. We assume that other people are very like ourselves – we accept that they feel pain and pleasure and have the same basic needs as we do. We are able to put ourselves in the place of another because we know what it feels like to be a human being. It is on this premise that we rest our obligation to treat others well, hence we have the ‘golden rule’ that we should ‘do unto others as we would have them do to us’. Thus we value human life. We can call this value an intrinsic one because it is not merit-based, it rests on no personal quality or talent, just the virtue of being human. So even human beings that are medically brain dead are still accorded some moral consideration even if that consideration involves turning off their life support to preserve their dignity as persons.

Peter Singer has shown us that it is not difficult to extend the realm of moral consideration to other sentient, or feeling, beings because we can empathise with them. We can imagine what it feels like to be a rabbit whose eyes are being washed with a caustic substance, what it feels like to be a monkey deprived of its young and incarcerated in a small cage for the duration of its life. Singer accords value to the lives of animals because:

  1. there is something it feels like to be an animal with which we can empathise
  2. we can extrapolate from this that the animal has an interest in the preservation of its life through the avoidance of suffering and the seeking of pleasure.

This last point is what rights thrusts have called a point-of-view that amounts to a purpose or and end to their lives.

However, Singer voices some doubt about the usefulness of speaking of life having ‘intrinsic value’. In his essay All Animals Are Equal 1974, he suggests that intrinsic value “takes the problem back one step, because any satisfactory defence of the claim…would need to refer to some relevant capacities or characteristics that all and only humans possess.” Given that there is no such characteristic, to use intrinsic value to substantiate a claim necessitates including all of life, including non-sentient life, which Singer is loath to do. However, nineteen years later, in the 1993 edition of Practical Ethics, Singer does accord animals intrinsic value, but sees any further extension of the concept as ‘problematic’. Hence Singer’s view of environmental ethics is restricted to the instrumental: preserving the environment protects the interests of sentient beings.

Singer draws the line of moral consideration at animals, while plants, trees, rocks, rivers and mountains remain only as useful to sentient life. There is room in this theory to accommodate caring for the environment, despite the fact that we cannot know what it is like to be a tree or a river. Singer encourages assessment of our idea of luxury, and a measure of pleasure based not on consumption, but on developing human relationships.

Others seek to justify our obligation to preserve the environment beyond the needs of sentient life. When deep ecology speaks of nature having ‘intrinsic value’ they seek to find value in nature that is not attached to the needs of life forms. Paul Taylor claims that judgements based on merit are a human cultural phenomenon, a form given to nature based on our value system. Inherent worth or intrinsic value judgements, on the other hand, have no grounding in culture. If a thing has inherent worth, it simply does, you believe it or you don’t, but no evidence can be brought forward to defend the claim. The ‘good’ or ‘end’ of an organism life exists independently of our valuing it.

 it is the good (well-being, welfare) of individual organisms considered as entities having inherent worth, that determines our moral relations with the Earth’s wild communities of life. (Taylor 1998:73)

Taylor’s life-centred ethics seeks to expand the realm of moral consideration to include all life, using the notion of the inherent worth of life as it’s justification. Being alive, he says, involves having a ‘good of one’s own’. That good is the “full development of (one’s) biological powers”, through the realisation of the life cycle. There is no need for a life form to have awareness of this end for it to exist.

Taylor’s theory overlaps with deep ecology when he speaks of the interconnectedness of life being vital to the realization of individual good. Holmes Rolston III accords individual life value because of this interconnectedness. For Rolston, individuals have ends-in-themselves which cause them to value their own lives intrinsically, but individuals also serve the system that supports them. The ecosystem and the biosphere as a whole is credited with a higher respect because not only is it instrumental to the lives of individuals, it is the source of new species, or kinds. Individuals and species increase their kind, but the biosphere increases kinds. The biosphere is a creative force. Inanimate life and non-life are all valued intrinsically in this theory. It is ‘short sighted’, he says,

 to say that the only value in the system is the production of life…the astronomical and geological processes are precursors to life, but that does not reduce them to mere instrumental value. Nature is not inert and passive until acted upon…by life and mind. Neither sentience nor consciousness are necessary for inventive processes to occur (1988:198)

It is the creative potential, or ‘inventive processes’ of the biosphere that Rolston identifies as the “root of all value” (1988:198).

It is difficult to comprehend how something so apparently inert and insensitive to what happens to it, like dirt for instance, could have intrinsic value. Dirt doesn’t have interests in the Singerian sense: it can’t suffer. Dirt doesn’t have a goal, an end that wants realising that would give it value in Taylor’s theory. It appears to be the mere by-product of natural processes a resource for life.

Dirt can be accorded value in Taylor’s system if one accepts that “commitment to certain normative principles” (to a moral code) need not involve validation by empirical truth or facts. Taylor gives up claims to comprehensive reason for confirming beliefs. This is not without precedent because, as CS Pierce points out, human beings often use a combination of experience and reason to fix their beliefs. Additionally, comprehensive reason has been used to justify some heinous crimes and makes egoism seem entirely plausible. But egoism does not offer protection for animals or nature, or even for other human beings except as they are resources for the pleasure of the egoist.

Respect for Nature, then, is an attitude informed by beliefs, based on experience and intuition. This is the tack that some ecofeminist philosophers take when they identify feelings, compassion and caring as the source of morality. Indeed, when one thinks about the right or wrongness of despoiling wilderness, it is a feeling that something good will be lost by doing so that first arises. John Rodman describes this sensation when he says:

 I confess that I need only stand in the midst of a clear-cut forest, a strip-mined hillside, a defoliated jungle, or a dammed canyon to feel uneasy with the assumption that could yield the conclusion that no human action can make a difference to the welfare of anything but sentient animals…

An appreciation and respect for nature arises, for Rodman, as a sensibility developed through experiencing the facts of nature and reflecting on the feelings that arise form those experiences.

Rodman is in good company when he refers to the feelings of awe inspired by nature. Paul Davies, astrophysicist and physics populariser sees microphysics, astronomy and chemistry as “fine tuned to such a stunning degree (that) a hidden principle seems to be at work, organising the cosmos in a coherent way.” Mike Corwin, another astrophysicist wonders:

 our very existence appears to be the merest happenstance. Any significant change in the initial conditions would have ruled out the possibility…(in Rolston 1988:193)

Getting back to valuing the dirt, Edward O Wilson, biologist, describes the awe which he associates with the valuing of nature:

 think of scooping us a handful of soil and leaf litter…this unprepossessing lump contains more order and richness of structure, and particularly of history, than the entire surface of all the other (lifeless) planets. It is a miniature wilderness…Every species living there is a product of millions of years of history, having evolved under the harshest of conditions of competition and survival. Each organism is the repository of an immense amount of genetic information… Each of the species has a distinct life cycle fitted to a portion of the micro-environment… The individuality of each is programmed by an exact sequence of nucleotides…these species have evolved as independent elements for thousands of generations…

This is the creative process that Rolston describes. The path from accepting that this is wondrous to formulating a moral code that defines how we ought to behave towards the dirt (or non-living nature in general) appears to amount to wanting to care, and feeling that caring is the right thing to do. I don’t know if this amounts to according non-living nature intrinsic value, but it certainly defines the setting for a code of conduct towards nature. The idea of intrinsic value in non-living nature remains problematic.

However, if one is prepared to accept that nature and the universe itself may be intrinsically valuable, it could indeed result in the “profound reordering of our moral universe” that Taylor hopes for. Practically, one would expect to see radical changes in our use of the planet. Perhaps the influence of this ‘deep’ appreciation of the creativity and wonder of nature has already been felt in the values that underlie the Endangered Species Act, The Wilderness Act and The World Heritage Convention.

The intrinsic value of nature is a given to the more radical environmental protectionists like the Earth First! group whose spokesperson Dave Foreman professes:

 every living thing in the system has intrinsic worth and a nature-given right to be here…we must constantly extend the community to include all the other beings – four-legged, winged, six-legged, rooted, flowing etc…they are their own justification for being, they have inherent value, value completely apart from whatever worth they have for…humans (in Nash 1989:92)

Earth First!, with their slogan “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth” and their campaigns of monkeywrenching (tree spiking, destroying roads, decommissioning earth-moving equipment, defacing billboards etc) believe themselves to be performing “the most moral of all actions: protecting life, defending the earth” (Foreman in Nash 193) They defend their actions as morally justified, but more importantly as morally required, as duty. There is no doubt to Earth Firsters! That the realm of moral consideration extends beyond sentient beings.


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