A Clash of Values:
Why should we believe in the inherent value of nature?
Eco- vs. Anthro-
Most conservationists today believe that nature is inherently valuable, and not just valuable in relation to its usefulness for human beings. In other words, conservation tends to take an ecocentric outlook as opposed to an anthropocentric. This is especially apparent in rewilding, for example, with recent studies discussing the importance of non-human autonomy and affirming the inherent value of nature; features that perhaps define the discipline against older forms of conservation.1,2 The most comprehensive survey of rewilding practitioners to-date establishes ten principles for rewilding, with number nine recognising ‘the intrinsic value of all species and ecosystems’.3 And yet, in that paper there is no attempt to justify this belief as a normative doctrine – a doctrine that explains and defends what is ethically desirable or good. It is not clear why we should recognise nature as intrinsically valuable, or why we should act in accordance with that belief. It is just so. A well-articulated utilitarian argument, showing the usefulness of nature for human beings, should be justification enough for restoring and protecting ecosystems. So why do we need to make the philosophically tenuous leap to ecocentrism?
Often, recourse is made here to a spiritual account of nature. This is the move made by deep ecologists, as in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, and by earlier transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau. The idea of a divine natural order is an attractive and romantic philosophy that has surely given meaning to many lives, and both groups mentioned made significant contributions to conservation. However, in the world of science and logic, spirituality will not suffice. The problem being that spiritual experiences are relative: they are different and unique, or even absent altogether, across all people and cultures. This split in the conservation movement – between valuing nature for its usefulness on one hand, and for its own sake on the other – first arose in the early US with the creation of the National Park system, and has been a recurrent theme ever since. The remainder of this article argues that the utilitarian, anthropocentric argument is deficient for conservation’s values, and advocates for an alternative system of ethics that shows we can justify our belief in the inherent value of nature without a recourse to the spiritual.
Utility for conservation?
Utilitarianism can be encapsulated in Jeremy Bentham’s claim that it is ‘the greatest good to the greatest number that determines right from wrong’.4 Persuasive in its simplicity, this idea has become one of the dominant ethical theories of our age. While originally ‘good’ was equated with pleasure, most modern utilitarians have moved away from this definition, with concepts like ‘preference of treatment’ more commonly defended now. Many criticisms of the theory are applicable to all its forms, however. Philosophy journals swell with thought experiments that show the questionable alleys that utilitarian logic leads down. To give just one example, a utilitarian doctor with five patients that need immediate organ transplants to live might be justified in killing a single healthy patient to supply those five with their required organs, thereby maximising the greatest good to the greatest number.5 This kind of logical attack, a type of trolley problem, can be responded to in two ways. Either a utilitarian bites the bullet and accepts the conclusion; they say that yes, killing the healthy patient is justified for the sake of the five. Or they adjust their theory, usually by adding further premises. A utilitarian might argue, for example, that the doctor’s killing may instil such fear in future potential patients that it might ultimately result in greater pain or unhappiness than would letting the five organ-deficient patients die. This would escape the dilemma, though it reveals further problems.
Utilitarian ethics involves a weighing up of value, and yet provides no worthwhile set of scales to measure that value in terms of our actions. While various means, such as Bentham’s ‘felicific calculus’, have been proposed to measure the ‘goodness’ of an action, to perform such a task in relation to every decision and action is not feasible in reality. Nor is there an objective measure of ‘goodness’ that can be agreed upon by people collectively, which leaves the theory threatening to collapse into moral relativism.6 A utilitarian conservationist might disagree. They might argue that we can measure, and therefore justify, the value of restoring ecosystems and species by measuring the services, both material and nonmaterial, that they provide to humans. This is already a common approach for evaluating land-use strategies, species translocations, and many other ecological projects. In this way, it seems like the empirical, ‘weighing’ aspect of utilitarianism lends itself well to the purposes of conservation.
Peter Singer, a famous preference utilitarian philosopher, would even argue that we don’t have to be strictly anthropocentric utilitarians. As highly intelligent animals can be said to display preferences in treatment and behaviour, we can extend our understanding of inherent value to them, though not to the biosphere as a whole.7 However, by placing a value only on the function of a living thing, and that function’s value for the interests of sentient beings, we might end up again in some questionable alleys. For one, if that function were to stop being in our interest, what justification could we have for continuing to value the being itself? Say, for example, that beef products grown in the lab become more economically and environmentally cost effective to produce than their natural counterparts and are of comparable quality. We have other ruminants to perform their ecological functions, so what purpose do cattle now serve? While the sentience of cows may be debatable, it is not totally speculative to consider the development of synthetic analogues for a whole host of creatures – it is already happening for pollinators.8 In such a case, a utilitarian world would have no qualms in doing away with those individuals, populations, or entire species, that are surplus to requirements.
A further damning limitation of utilitarianism is that it does not distinguish between personal interests and autonomy. Consider an all-powerful and perfectly rational being – in other words, a God – in a world full of self-willed and irrational individuals. For a utilitarian, the most ethical course of action for that almighty being would be to strip those individuals of their free will and make them act in ways that are rationally in their best interest. To lose autonomy and free will is instinctively bad, and we might question whether morality can even truly exist without it. Even worse, humans are not all-powerful or perfectly rational, so the idea that we could exert that kind of control over nature, for nature’s interests and our own, is the definition of a God complex.
The potential of relational ethics
In 2003 a team of scientists set up an experiment on two capuchin monkeys to test whether they had a grasp on the concept of ‘fairness’.9 For completing a certain task the monkeys would each receive a reward. However, one monkey would receive a grape, and the other a slice of cucumber. With the former being far more desirable, the cucumber-receiving monkey quickly became incensed at the injustice of the situation, and began rejecting the reward and lobbing it back at the researcher. Even though, when both received cucumber there was no issue. This suggests that the monkey displayed an understanding of the moral concepts ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’. This example, among a wealth of others, have led some to argue that morality is abundant in the animal kingdom, and that highly social and cooperative animals particularly have evolved a capacity for kindness, trust, and respect.10 While this conclusion has been widely debated,11 it reflects the possibility of an alternative natural theory of ethics that is grounded in the emergence of sociality and co-operation.
This might be called ‘relational ethics’, and it starts with the idea that morality is a product of evolution; a notion that can be traced back to Darwin’s Descent of Man, through Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and Leopold’s Land Ethic, and defended more recently by environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott.12 The idea suggests that we all possess an in-built ‘moral sentiment’, an evolved system of nerves and chemicals that allows us to respond to various scenarios in a way that is consistent with our ‘natural moral inclinations’: in a way that we feel to be right and just. It may be argued again that these inclinations – experienced as individuals – represent just another relativism, and therefore lack the normative justification we are searching for. The move made here is to argue that while some moral claims are inevitably relativistic; claims like it is wrong to gamble, to drink alcohol, to have multiple partners; there are a set of universal forces and natural structures in the universe that in turn produce a corresponding set of universal morals. For example, familial relationships have evolved widely in nature, particularly in social mammals, so that these relationships are a key fact of human life. As a result, the killing of a family member is universally taboo. The normative dimension of this theory can then be described as a ‘consensus of feeling’. As the capuchins above show, ‘fairness’ is a concept that finds consensus not just among humans, but among primates and possibly other socially intelligent groups. The violation of this ethical norm produces strong emotional reactions of anger and disbelief, in a way that is not fully explained by learned behaviour. Just try taking food away from a baby. Instead of absolute laws of right and wrong, what we are left with are universal patterns of response that emerge from our shared biology: quite literally from our DNA. Ethics is then itself an emergent property. It is not an essential or unalterable feature of the universe, but is contingent on the processes of natural history and the physical laws that make up our reality.
Even given this, and it is not a given, we still cannot justify believing in the inherent value of nature, for nature cannot be said to share this moral sentiment. To complete the picture of relational ethics, I propose to introduce the concept of ethical potential. Ethical potential does not claim what is good or bad according to personal, cultural, or biological inclinations, but rather makes the argument that the potential for something to be good or bad is a normative consideration in itself. Therefore, we can measure the moral worth of something based on its capacity for a moral or immoral action, or in its effect on the capacity of others for such action. What that means is someone, or something, does not have to be necessarily ‘good’ in the traditional sense (pleasant, desirable, beneficial) to warrant ethical consideration, but that the ability to be so is the higher concern. Further, that capacity for morality is an evolutionary product that emerges out of a dynamic interacting biosystem. This means we can value the intrinsic worth both of individual living beings (whether they are sentient or not), as well as whole ecosystems, as integral parts of a system that evolves towards complexity, sociality, co-operation, and ultimately, the possibility of ethics. There is intrinsic ethical potential even in the most basic microbial life, as in interactions across time and within the whole interconnected and expanding tree of life, they sustain, are part of, and over aeons may even become, organisms capable of having an ethical relationship with the world. It was only the existence of our single-celled ancestors and all the ancestors that came after, just as it is only the existence of the vast web of life in daisies and oaks, spiders and bees, herbivores and carnivores, that has allowed us to emerge as individuals of ethical potential. It is therefore the protection and restoration of the ability for earth’s natural systems to provide sustenance – not only to ourselves and our organic cousins, but to the very possibility of ethics and personhood – that is the highest good we can aspire to. As the basis of all ethical potential, the inherent value of nature then is obvious.
2. Jonathan Prior & Kim J. Ward 2016. ‘Rethinking rewilding: A response to Jørgensen’, GeoForum 69, 132-135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2015.12.003
3. Steve Carver et al. 2022. ‘Guiding principles for rewilding’, Conservation Biology 35:6, 1882-1893. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33728690/
4. Jeremy Bentham 1776. in Burns, J.H. & Hart, H.L.A. (eds.). 1997. A Comment on the Commentaries and a Fragment on Government. London: The Athlone Press.
5. Philippa Foot 1967. ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect’, Oxford Review 5, 5–15.
6. Rachel Briggs 2017. ‘Normative Theories of Rational Choice: Expected Utility’ in Zalta, E.N. (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/rationality-normative-utility/
7. Peter Singer 1975. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals. HarperCollins.
8. Svetlana A. Chechetka et al. 2017. ‘Materially Engineered Artificial Pollinators’, Chem 2:2, 224-239. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2017.01.008
9. Sarah F. Brosnan & Francis B.M. de Waal 2003. ‘Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay’, Nature 425, 297-299. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01963
10. Marc Beckoff 2004. ‘Wild Justice and Fair Play: Cooperation, Forgiveness, and Morality in Animals’ in Biology and Philosophy 19:4, 489-520. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/sBIPH-004-0539-x
11. Simon Fitzpatrick 2017. ‘Animal morality: What is the debate about?’, Biology and Philosophy 32:6, 1151-1183. https://philarchive.org/rec/FITAMW
12. Joseph B. Callicott. Beyond the Land Ethic: More Essays in Environmental Philosophy. SUNY Press.
Jack Crone is a student at Queen’s University Belfast soon to graduate (as of Dec 2023) from an MSc in Leadership for Sustainable Development. His interests lie at the intersection between philosophy and environmental practice. email@example.com