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ENVIRONMENTALISM, UTILITARANISM AND HUMANISM: THE THREE AMIGOES

Why is there so little apparent interest in an energy source which could be relatively inexpensive, inexhaustible, and safe? Geothermal energy seems likely to be an energy source in the future.

Why is there so little apparent interest in an energy source which could be relatively inexpensive, inexhaustible, and safe? Geothermal energy seems likely to be an energy source in the future.

Environmentalists arguing for the preservation of some plant or animal, or a species of one of these respectively, are making a claim that these things have value – that they are worthy of preservation. But why they have value is a subject that is not pursued in public discussions of the environment or at least not in sufficient depth to be philosophically convincing.((Not that environmentalists are any worse in the lack of depth of their positions – it is just part of the meaning of ‘public’ in ‘public discourse’ that it tends to veer off into sloganeering and name calling. Public discussions of abortion shy away from what gives value to human life (consciousness, on my view), the drastic negative consequences on the mother of an unwanted pregnancy, etc., for example)) However, were environmentalists to pursue the argument in more depth, they would argue that the forest, stream or frog that they consider in need of preservation has either intrinsic or instrumental value. In what follows I shall pursue what these arguments would look like from the standpoint of the moral philosophy that is most influential amongst philosophers in the Western tradition, Utilitarianism.

Environmentalists do sometimes argue for the instrumental value of their objects of concern. For something to have instrumental value it must be useful for something. One part of their argument for the instrumental value of one part of the environment is to point out that it has certain effects on another part. The second part is showing why this effect is one we should pursue. Quite often, being cynical observers of human nature, they will argue that it has important consequences for the interests of humans, since most of us have no difficulty in seeing value in benefits to ourselves.

Intrinsic value, on the other hand, is the value a thing has in and of itself; the value it has for its own sake. But what does this mean? Perhaps the simplest way of answering this question is to note that a claim of intrinsic value is often the end point in a series of reasonings about what has instrumental value. Consider this example:

Alice: Jackets are useful.
Aloysius: Why?
Alice: They keep us warm.
Aloysius: What’s the value of keeping warm?
Alice: It’s more comfortable than being cold.
Aloysius: What’s the value of comfort?

Consider two points about this exchange: first, Aloysius sounds like either a petulant little child, peppering the parent with questions because it’s fun, or a philosopher. Second, Alice, if she is not a philosopher, will probably be dumbfounded at this point. There ought to be an answer to this question, since it is bleedin’ obvious that comfort is valuable. But what makes comfort valuable? However, nothing comes to mind as the thing making comfort valuable. “It just is valuable, damn it!” Now, Aloysius, the little child, won’t be happy with an adult putting an end to his questioning with a suitably bowdlerized version of this answer. C’mon. Isn’t this just an adult reverting to her position of power, stifling a legitimate question with a nonanswer? And it would seem that Aloysius the philosopher shouldn’t be happy either. Nor Aloysius the Humanist. The latter two groups pride themselves in not being taken in by nonanswers, and being unwilling to accept something just because it comes from someone in authority, and this response would seem to be in the same league as “That’s just the way it is,” “God willed it,” “God behaves in mysterious ways,” or “Never mind.”

. . . many of the things we are wont to think of as having intrinsic value, such as beautiful sunsets, objets d’art or acts of kindness toward others, really do not have it.

But before rejecting the idea that comfort just is valuable, let’s revisit the definition of “intrinsic value” which I gave in the second paragraph above. It states that for a thing to have intrinsic value is for it to have value for its own sake. In other words, not for the sake of anything else. This would seem to preclude us from giving reasons why something has intrinsic value: any statement of those reasons would be a statement of what the thing was good for. Or, in other words, to treat that thing as having instrumental value. This is why Alice has no answer to the question why comfort has intrinsic value. But there is an important qualification that needs to be made here: the fact that she can’t point to any other value as the reason why comfort is valuable doesn’t preclude us from offering an explanation in terms of other notions. And here is one:((If Aloysius and Alice have any training in philosophy, they will recognise what follows as account as a paraphrase of the first three paragraphs of Chapter 4 of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, famously entitled “Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible.” John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Peterborough, Ontario, Broadview Press Ltd., 2000. This version is based on the 1871 edition, the last one overseen by Mill himself.))

Comfort is one psychological state of a type (a partial list would include the satisfaction one feels in seeing the move that would checkmate a wily opponent in chess, or in choosing the absolutely perfect gift for someone we love, the contemplation of a brilliant sunset, natural vista, painting or piece of music, the pleasure of a backrub or an orgasm) which philosophers have variously called pleasure (Bentham) or happiness (Mill). Neither term is satisfactory, in that it leaves out both the depth and the breadth of these psychological states. Many Utilitarians have given in to economists, who prefer the term utility to capture these things of value, and I shall use this term from now on.((There have been several attempts by Utilitarian philosophers to define utility in terms of something other than positive psychological states. But I shall stick to what has come to be known as Classical Utilitarianism, which defines utility in terms of positive psychological states.))

On the other hand, there is a whole host of psychological states (including severe pains, the feeling one has when being fired from a job or looking at or smelling what the dog has just produced) that we think of as having the opposite of value. These we call pains, even though we recognize the difficulty in breadth involved in this term, which parallels the one for happiness mentioned above. So, a better term for these states is disutility.

But what connects these seemingly diverse states (there does seem to be something which connects them, doesn’t there)? It is that people go to great lengths — sometimes extreme ones — to achieve the former psychological states, and to avoid the latter ones. In other words, the former ones are desirable, whereas the latter are undesirable. Furthermore, they are intrinsically desirable, in that we desire them quite irrespective of whether they produce other states. And this last claim is not just something that must be asserted without proof – we have developed a whole industry, involving public opinion polling, market focus groups and so on, to determine what people do and do not desire. And, we can say a great deal about why we desire certain things: we can trace these desires back to our physiologies to see why we desire certain foods, for example.

Two of the advantages of this account of intrinsic value over rival ones offered by philosophers are that it shows how a claim that something has intrinsic value can satisfy the requirement of not referring to any other value while at the same time not falling into the trap of just asserting that it is so without offering any further reason. The latter, as I said above, is an anathema for philosophers, children and humanists alike. And a third advantage is that it explains the importance of science in our moral and public policy decision-making. Science shows us the consequences of various alternative ways of satisfying our desires: what the costs there will be for further desire satisfaction, who will bear these costs, and who will receive the benefits. In short, how to get the maximum amount of utility.

There are a number of consequences that follow from the idea that what has intrinsic value are the psychological states of conscious beings. I shall first trace out the consequences, then show how they pertain to environmentalists’ claims about the value of the environment.

First, this means that many of the things we are wont to think of as having intrinsic value, such as beautiful sunsets, objets d’art or acts of kindness toward others, really do not have it. Instead, they have an instrumental value because they contribute to the psychological states which do have intrinsic value. The first contribute an aesthetic satisfaction to those who contemplate them, the second not only do this, but also produce a satisfaction in those that produce them, and the third also have a double value in that they not only contribute to the welfare of others but also to our own, deserving, self-satisfaction. It is understandable why in ordinary discourse we talk of these things as having intrinsic value. They are just one step removed from what really has the intrinsic value – they directly produce these psychological states, and not through some intervening medium. This will have immediate consequences for claims that we should preserve certain parts of our environment, which I will show after I make a few more points.

Second, it is a feature of all value, both instrumental and intrinsic, that the things which have it can have more or less of it. This is most obvious for the former: things are more or less useful for other things. One jacket is warmer than another, and so provides more comfort. But this is also true of intrinsic value: we can have more or less comfort, and we can find more utility from the comfort a warm jacket provides when we are cold than from a dessert after a meal when we are already very full.

A third and related point is that both instrumental and intrinsic values can be substituted for each other. An example of the substitutability of one item with instrumental value for another: If a jacket isn’t available, a sweater may work just as well. And for intrinsic value: One may derive intrinsic value from sitting in front of a fire with a good book, but if these aren’t available, we may choose to join the others at the table for dessert. On what basis do we make these substitutions? We choose that which provides more intrinsic value.

A fourth point is that we can say roughly how much value one activity produces for us in comparison to another. This is how we can choose between two things: we choose the thing that has the most value. Not just for ourselves – it is possible to create even more value when we consider the interests of others, and attempt to satisfy those as well.

And a fifth point, sometimes thought to be at odds with the fourth, is that one person may get more satisfaction from the book and fire, or even from one without the other, than from the dessert. But another person would choose just the opposite. But the fifth point in fact requires the fourth to be true: if we can say that you are receiving more utility from something than I am, then we have granted that we can in fact measure the two amounts. From the fact that people have different heights it does not follow that we can’t measure height or that height is an illusion. And this fifth point serves as the philosophical underpinning of tolerance. Since different people derive satisfaction from different things, we get the most utility overall by allowing individuals to pursue their own sources of utility.((A fact not lost on Mill. He wrote On Liberty (New York, Bobbs-Merrill, 1956, originally published 1859) to argue precisely this point.))

One final point before moving on: The same object may at the same time produce both positive and negative value (consider the dental treatment which saves the tooth at the cost of pain), or may produce a value but be the causal consequence of a process producing disutility. Consider the vivid colours of a sunset which are caused by air pollution which in turn is contributing to climate change.((Coco Ballantyne, “Fact or Fiction?: Smog Creates Beautiful Sunsets” Scientific American, July 2007.))

So how do these points impinge upon our claims about what parts of the environment have value, and are therefore worthy of preservation?

Let’s begin with what follows from the claim that positive experiences are what have intrinsic value. The news is both good and bad for environmentalists. The good news is that any creature that has conscious experience deserves consideration from the moral point of view, since consciousness is necessary for these experiences. This includes lower animals a consequence of Utilitarianism most thoroughly explored by the Australian-cum-American philosopher, Peter Singer of Princeton.((Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, New York, HarperCollins, 1975.)) But now the bad news (at least it’s bad for any kind of extreme version of environmentalism): Since animals have different levels of consciousness, some animals will have more moral standing than others. Humans, with the greatest depth and breadth of consciousness, will be at the top. Thus, when weighing the interests of frogs whose interests are impeded by the construction of a freeway, it will take a lot of frogs in order for their interests to outweigh those of humans benefitting from the new road.

More bad news: Species of animals are not conscious; only their individual members are. Thus, the extinction of a species, in and of itself, has no moral significance. There may be consequences for the utility of individuals from the large-scale killing of certain animals,((Not the least to those being killed, but other animals may lose a source of food, for example.)) and these obviously count; but what happens to the species is of no more significance. A parallel to this is the fact that it is the egg itself that provides our nourishment, not the fact that it is was taken from a dozen.

And so for plants, including the trees in old-growth forests. They are unquestionably lacking in consciousness.((Despite the fact that from time to time pseudoscientists and apologists for religions such as Buddhism will try to impute consciousness to plants. The silliest of these attempts that I have come across is Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, The Secret Life of Plants, New York, Avon Books, 1973.)) The latter provide a sense of magnificence and awe in the humans who contemplate them, and this is a reason to preserve those that are accessible to humans. Cathedral Grove, which is bisected by the fairly well-travelled Highway 4 on Vancouver Island, is certainly worthy of preservation for this reason. But other old-growth forests in other regions are accessible only to the hardiest and wealthiest eco-tourist, making the argument for their preservation for this reason pretty feeble. Of course, they have instrumental value in their capacity to replace CO2 with oxygen, especially valuable as we deal with climate change. But note that this instrumental value has nothing to do with the fact that they are old, it simply has to do with the fact that they are trees. Therefore, cutting an old growth forest while sparing a younger forest of similar capacity to replace CO2 with oxygen, is a matter of indifference as far as this instrumental value goes. But what about the value of the positive psychological states the old-growth forests produce in us? Yes, that would tip the scales. But a larger, younger forest, with a greater capacity to replace CO2 with oxygen, might tip the scales back.

What holds for plants holds in spades for natural objects such as streams, rock formations mountains or the planet itself:((But what about the Gaia Hypothesis (James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979)? Well, at most it shows that the planet is living – and Lovelock’s definition of ‘living’ is extremely problematic, since it doesn’t include reproduction as a necessary condition. And it doesn’t pay to confuse living with conscious.)) they are not conscious, and hence have no intrinsic value. They can, of course, have instrumental value, and Utilitarians would be among the first to defend them if a case can be made for their capacity – direct or through several stages of cause and effect — to produce positive experiences in conscious creatures.

Since I have so far restricted my discussion to Utilitarianism, it may seem as if this moral theory was particularly unfavourable to environmentalist claims. However, this is not the case. Every major moral philosophy in the Western tradition, from Aristotle to Kant, Hume, Aquinas, Hobbes and, in the Twentieth Century, John Rawls has been less favourable to these claims than Utilitarianism,((John Passmore, Man’s Responsibility for Nature, London, Duckworth, 1974.)) in that they do not provide, as Utilitarianism does, a specific argument for why lower animals have, in their own right, moral worth. This is a fact which has not escaped those in the environmentalist movement, and is their motivation for calling for a new ethical theory which can make sense of the idea that the non-conscious parts of nature can have intrinsic value. Various attempts — Environmental Ethics, Deep Ecology, Feminist Ecology, to name three – have been proposed. To my mind, they have had just the success you would predict from starting out with an ethical position and then attempting to construct a moral theory to justify it, rather than constructing the moral theory from an analysis of how moral reasoning works and how it applies to human nature, and then applying the theory to specific moral problems.((If you wish to see a more sympathetic assessment of Environmental Ethics than the one I present here, my best recommendation is the entry “Environmental Ethics” in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-environmental/). In fact, I recommend this work for any philosophical question. The bibliographies are especially useful.)) But if I am right, we do have an adequate moral theory, Utilitarianism. And that theory shows us why it is important to promote the interests of the part of nature which is conscious, and the rest of nature which is necessary for the conscious part to flourish.