|This essay, by Colette Sciberras, for the Environmental Ethics module, was proposed for the site as it is both well structured and is a very good exposition of the different ways of understanding intrinsic value.
What might it mean to say nature has “intrinsic value”? Do you think it has?
Many environmental philosophers turn to the idea that nature has intrinsic value in order to respond to two problems in environmental philosophy, which can be drawn out from Richard Routley’s article “Is there a need for a new, an environmental ethic?” In the scenario that Routley describes, the last man, who knows that he is the last of the human species, sets about destroying the natural environment. Routley argues that although intuition tells us that what the last man does is wrong, according to traditional Western ethical systems it is entirely permissible. This is because according to the dominant Western ethic human beings are the only morally considerable class of beings, and any constraint on people’s treatment of nature comes out of concern for other people, who might be deprived of its use. Since no future human beings will be affected by his actions, the last man is under no obligation to treat nature any better1.
The first problem then, is the ethical question of whether nature is valuable only as a means to the purposes of humans, or whether it might be valuable for its own sake. An anthropocentric ethic values nature only insofar as it is useful to humans, whereas biocentric and ecocentric ethics propose that at least some parts of non- human nature have ‘intrinsic value’ which means that they are valuable apart from their usefulness and are direct objects of moral concern. This therefore, is the first interpretation of the term ‘intrinsic value’, and is intended to establish that nature is valuable for its own sake. I shall be using the term ‘final value’ to refer to this type of value, which is contrasted with ‘instrumental value’, that is, valuable as a means to something else.
The second problem is a meta-ethical one and is also implied in Routley’s thought experiments. The question concerns the source of value; whether value exists ‘out there’ in the world, independently of humans, who therefore discover it, or whether it is humans who assign value to things in the world. These two positions are known as value-objectivism and value-subjectivism respectively. The question is relevant for our purposes since it could be argued that if subjectivists are right, there is no reason for the last man to refrain from damaging the environment, since he does not destroy anything of value. That is, since there will be no people to value nature, no loss of value can result from his actions. Objective values are believed to be necessary for environmental ethics for a number of other reasons too. I will outline these reasons and provide some arguments against them further below. For now, it is sufficient to note that the second interpretation of ‘intrinsic value’ identifies it with objective value, and is supposed to establish that nature is valuable whether or not there are people in the world who value it.
Intrinsic value is ascribed to nature in environmental philosophy in both these senses and the two meanings are very often conflated. Arne Naess, for example, argues that “the well- being and flourishing …non-human life on Earth [has] value in [itself] (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent worth)… independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes” and that “the presence of inherent value in a natural object is independent of any awareness, interest or appreciation of it by any conscious being”2.
There is also a third sense of ‘intrinsic value’ that one could argue is what the term properly means. This is the value that a thing has independently of its circumstances, as opposed to extrinsic value, which is value a thing has due to its relations with other things. Unless otherwise stated, the term ‘intrinsic value’ will be used in this sense, which will be discussed more fully below.
Thus there are three distinctions in value – that between instrumental and final value, that between subjective and objective values and that between intrinsic and extrinsic value. In each case one of the poles is sometimes called ‘intrinsic value’ – which can therefore mean value that is independent of usefulness (final value), value that is independent of human valuing (objective value) and value that is independent of circumstances (intrinsic value proper).
I will argue against the idea that nature has ‘intrinsic value’, when this is taken to mean value that a thing has independently of its circumstances, since this interpretation of intrinsic value fails to account for most of the value that environmentalists find in nature. I will also argue against a standard method of establishing objective value in nature that locates the desired objectivity in the fact that natural objects have a good of their own. I will then examine whether the two problems mentioned above are valid reasons for preferring an objectivist meta-ethic and argue that a subjectivist account of the final value of nature fulfills both purposes that the concept of the ‘intrinsic value’ of nature is expected to fulfill; i.e. to establish that nature can be valued independently of its usefulness, and also that it would have value even if there were no humans around to value it. To say that nature has ‘intrinsic value’ therefore is best interpreted as meaning that people can, or ought to, value nature for its own sake, independently of its usefulness.
Does nature have ‘intrinsic value’?
In “Two Distinctions in Goodness” Christine Korsgaard shows that intrinsic value is often taken to be the same thing as the converse of instrumental value, that is, final value. If a thing’s value does not derive from its utility, if it is valuable as an end or for its own sake, then it is claimed that it has intrinsic value. Indeed what most environmental philosophers try to secure when they argue for the ‘intrinsic value’ of nature is that it is valuable for its own sake, and not only for the sake of humans. Callicott, for example, argues that “something is intrinsically valuable … if its value is not derived from its utility, but is independent of any use or function it may have in relation to something or someone else”.3 Korsgaard points out that this is not what the term ‘intrinsic value’ means and she reminds us that intrinsic value is properly opposed to extrinsic value, whereas instrumental value, is contrasted with final value, or valuable for its own sake4.
According to Korsgaard, something is intrinsically valuable if it includes its own goodness, while an extrinsically good thing gets its value from something else. The distinction originates in the moral theory of G.E. Moore, for whom intrinsic value is something that depends on the intrinsic nature of the thing in question, which turns out to be its non-relational properties. Therefore, the distinction in goodness between intrinsic and extrinsic value is meant to distinguish between things that are always good, independently of their circumstances, and things that are good only sometimes, and because of their relations with other things.
John O’Neill and Karen Green point out that when environmental philosophers argue that nature has ‘intrinsic value’ they do not usually mean that it has value independently of its circumstances5 6. The value of some natural objects, such as particular organisms or species, at least from an environmentalist’s perspective, is necessarily tied up with the object’s relations with other things. For example, a particular tiger is considered especially valuable, because it is a member of an endangered species, of which there are a limited number. This is a relational property – it is not part of the intrinsic nature of the particular tiger, but rather depends on its circumstances. If tigers were as numerous as cows say, this particular tiger’s value would be considerably less; it might possibly even become negative value, since the tiger might then be a threat to other species. Likewise, to determine the value of a species it cannot be taken in isolation, since a species always exists in an environment. A species may have value in its natural environment, where it plays a role in maintaining the stability of the ecosystem, but none in a foreign one, where it causes disruption. As Karen Green points out the central properties valued by environmentalists, such as rarity, uniqueness, diversity, and stability all form part of an organism or species’ external relations and thus cannot be called their intrinsic values at all.
It is only the survival of the biosphere as a whole, which may be intrinsically valuable, Green claims, since it is something we always value, irrespectively of the circumstances. To this one might add that other complex wholes, that is, ecosystems such as forests might also be said to have intrinsic value in this sense, since diversity and stability form part of their intrinsic natures. Still, the concept of intrinsic value in Moore’s sense is not able to accommodate much of the value that environmentalists seek to protect in nature.
This of course, does not establish that nature does not have intrinsic value in the sense used by Moore, only that when environmental philosophers talk about nature having intrinsic value they do not usually mean it in Moore’s sense, unless perhaps they are referring to the value of the whole biosphere, or an ecosystem.
When final value is given the name ‘intrinsic value’, this leads to the confusion of things that have value independently of their circumstances, with things that have value for their own sakes. It also leads to the mistaken conclusion that anything that is not always valuable, such as the tiger, but that is valuable only in some circumstances, and not in others, is valuable only instrumentally. Therefore, it is supposed that since the tiger is valuable because it is rare, and would not be as valuable if it were more pervasive, it is valuable only as a means to something else, perhaps diversity. As O’Neill shows this is wrong, a thing valued because of its relational properties, such as its rarity, can still be valued for its own sake. If we keep the two distinctions in mind, that is between intrinsic and extrinsic value and instrumental and final value, it becomes evident that what is valued for its extrinsic relations, although it does not have intrinsic value, can still be valued as a final good, for its own sake, and not for the sake of anything else.
It was pointed out earlier that when environmental philosophers, like Callicott, try to establish that nature has ‘intrinsic value’, it is usually in order to counter the idea that it is only valuable as means to human purposes. Thus what they require is that nature can be said to have final value, which we have seen is not the same thing as being intrinsically valuable. It is perhaps regrettable that environmental philosophers talk of ‘intrinsic value’, when what they mean is that something is valuable for its own sake, since then, their theory unnecessarily opens itself to the criticism that the notion of intrinsic value in Moore’s sense has been subject to.
To conclude: Although it may be possible to speak of the intrinsic value of the survival of the biosphere and of other complex wholes like ecosystems, it seems that most of the values that environmentalists seek to establish in nature depend on the relations of natural objects and can change according to the object’s circumstances. Thus environmentalists cannot say that these things have intrinsic value, if they mean it in Moore’s sense. This does not exclude the possibility that nature has final value which is what most environmental philosophers mean by ‘intrinsic value’ and which is the kind of value required for an argument against anthropocentrism.
Does nature have objective value?
O’Neill points out that ‘intrinsic value’, as was mentioned earlier, is sometimes used as a synonym for ‘objective value’, “value that an object possesses independently of the valuations of valuers”7. Hence a third distinction in value besides those between intrinsic and extrinsic value and instrumental and final value, has to do with meta- ethics; the debate of whether value has objective existence, or whether it is conferred upon things by people. Objective value exists in the world whether or not there are people to perceive it, and whether or not they actually do perceive it. Arguing for ‘intrinsic value’ in this sense, therefore, denies the subjectivist view, “that the source of all values lies in valuers – in their attitudes, preferences and so on”8.
A standard way of establishing the objective value of nature links the required objectivity to the fact that things in nature have their own good, irrespective of human interests and preferences. Various environmental philosophers, like Holmes Rolston and Paul Taylor, seem to subscribe to this view. O’Neill makes a similar case for objective values, the best examples of which, he claims, are to be found in nature.
O’Neill’s argument for objective values rests on the premise that individual organisms and also collective entities, such as species and ecosystems can flourish or be injured, they can have lives, or be in states that are better or worse. Therefore these things can be said to have their own good. An animal or ecosystem that is flourishing will display certain properties, like being healthy or being stable, other properties such as being defective, abnormal, or unstable are evidence that the thing has not achieved its own good. Similarly, Taylor’s theory of respect for nature “assumes that animals are beings to which it is correct to apply the objective concept of entity-having-a-good-of-its-own” 9
Moreover, a natural object or collective entity has this good independently of human interests and preferences. To determine what it takes for a natural object to flourish or to realize its own good, we only need to know the characteristic features of the kind of thing that it is, its normal conditions, and we need make no reference to human preferences. For example, greenfly has its own good to which mild winters are conducive, and this is independent of whether humans think greenfly ought to flourish or be injured. Again, an ecosystem will flourish if it is stable, an animal will achieve its own good if it is healthy. As O’Neill puts it the good of these things is “independent of both human interests and any tendency they might have to produce in human observers feelings of approval or disapproval”10.
For O’Neill it is only humans who confer value, and therefore, since the evaluative properties such as being healthy, stable and so on point to a good that is independent of human values, these evaluative properties and goods must be objective. It will be noted that O’Neill’s argument is a lot more elaborate than the outline I have given; I have simplified it a great deal mostly in order to draw a parallel with similar arguments that make a case for objective value in nature on these grounds.
In O’Neill’s example, greenfly was said to have its own good, even though humans might prefer to see it unachieved, and this good therefore is independent of human preferences. Yet to call a particular state of an organism or collective entity its ‘good’, does seem to presuppose certain general human values. That is, to use words like ‘flourishing’ or ‘good-of-it-own’ and not a more value neutral word such as ‘growing’ or ‘state’, one must presuppose that there is a broad human preference for life and health over sickness and death. Therefore, though humans might not value the flourishing of greenfly, overall, they do value flourishing, and this is what enables them to speak of the ‘good’ of greenfly. Otherwise O’Neill has to show is how a particular state can be called a ‘good’- unless we take account of humans’ ordinary preference for life, how can we say that mild winters affect greenflies favorably by enabling them to ‘flourish’, rather than simply affect them neutrally by enabling them to grow in numbers?
My argument here is against the claim that living beings and collective entities have ‘goods- of – their –own ’ that are independent of any preferences for them at all. Referring to these states as ‘goods’ in the first place, presupposes human beings’ general interest in, and approval of health, life and so on, and therefore the value we ascribe to things in calling them healthy or defective remains subjective. To further clarify this point it might help to point out that an entirely objective language that was independent of what humans prefer would describe the differences between a healthy and a defective sample of a species simply as differences without implying that one was better or worse. Without the notion that health and life are better than sickness and death, a defective organism, say a three-legged dog, might be described as ‘original’. To move to the evaluative term ‘defective’ it is true that we need to know what the normal characteristics of the species are, but this is not all. Being normal does not always carry positive evaluation, what is needed in this case is a preference for dogs being normal over being deformed. The property that exists objectively in the dog then, is its having three legs, a natural property. The evaluative dimensions of ‘defective’ depend on a further preference for health to deformity.
If we allow that other species can be said to have preferences, or interests then humans can take the standpoint of other species to discover what is good from their perspective. Thus we might value deformity in the dog negatively because it is seen to be contrary to its (biological not psychological) interests. However these non-human biological interests and preferences are nothing like human psychological ones, which are normally accompanied by thoughts about what is right or desirable. The ‘good’ of a natural object, then, becomes nothing more than its biologically determined end, and loses a great part of what the word ‘good’ normally indicates. This is in fact what O’Neill seems to mean by the good of an object, and as he readily admits the concept is of limited use to the environmentalist, since it entails no moral implications. There is no way of deriving from the fact that beings have a biological end or norm towards which they strive, any obligations to promote it, or not to impede it. To use O’Neill’s examples, a dictatorship and a virus can also be said to have their own good and to flourish, yet this does not mean we have any moral obligation to promote them. It would seem that this sort of objective value, then, is necessarily divorced from prescriptivity, and is therefore irrelevant for an environmental ethic.
To establish that there are objective values by claiming that a thing has a good of its own independently of whether humans value this good or not renders the concept of the good of a natural object ethically uninteresting. A more promising approach, I believe would be to recognize the subjective aspect in valuing the good of an object. That is, we call a particular state of a natural object its ‘good’ because we subjectively place value on natural organisms flourishing, and developing in their biologically determined way, even though we might not value this particular object’s flourishing. In this way we can let our other subjective preferences decide when and what sort of flourishing we value. Subjectivism however is considered suspect in environmental ethics for a number of reasons, which I will outline in the next section.
Subjective final value is sufficient for an environmental ethic
Many environmental philosophers argue for the objectivity of values as it is believed to be a necessary starting point for a satisfactory reply to the last man example. The reasons for this are twofold, and correspond to the two problems which we saw the last man example raises. Thus the first reason is the belief that a subjectivist account of value leads necessarily to anthropocentrism, the idea that only humans can be valuable for their own sakes, and the second is the idea that subjectivism cannot account for value in a world without humans.
The first reason is easily dismissed; as O’Neill demonstrates, there is nothing in subjectivism that excludes non-anthropocentric values. The suggestion that if value is conferred upon things by humans then it is necessarily conferred only upon humans, confuses claims about the source of values with claims about their objects. Even if what is valuable does depend upon the preferences and attitudes of people, this does not mean that people can only value other people. Moreover, people may value non-human objects for their own sakes, even though this value is subjectively conferred. Thus I might value the existence of a rainforest, for its own sake, and not for any instrumental use it might be to me even though I recognize that ultimately this value depends on my preferences and attitude.
Indeed, the distinction between valuing something as a means and valuing it as an end seems to have more to do with the subjective aspect of valuing, since it is a distinction in the way we value things. To value something for itself rather than as a means to something else requires only a change in attitude on our part, that is, that we adopt a disinterested perspective, to enable the object to reveal its properties, for which we might value it. Therefore a subjectivist meta-ethic is compatible with the idea that nature is valuable for its own sake; it simply states that this value is something that we confer upon nature, by attending to it disinterestedly.
Thus we might value deformity in the dog negatively because it is seen to be contrary to its (biological not psychological) interests.The second reason for which environmental philosophers might prefer an objectivist meta-ethic, rests on the premise that if value originates in the experiences of a valuer, and does not exist objectively in the world, then a world without human beings cannot possibly have any value. The problem therefore, is how there could be loss of value in the state of the natural environment after the last man is gone. That is, if nature is valuable only because people find it so, then once people are out of the picture, there is no way of saying that the world as the last man left it was any better or worse than it would have been had he left it intact. In other words, the last man has destroyed nothing of value, because there will be no people to confer value on it. Again, according to O’Neill, this confuses the source and object of values; even if values are conferred upon things by people, there is no reason why they cannot be conferred on a world without people in it.
Robert Elliot, in “Facts about Natural Values”, elaborates further on this point. The fact that there is a world, here and now in which valuers exist, means that possible worlds that are empty of valuing agents, can be valued from the perspective of this actual world. There is no need for a valuer to be in direct interaction with a state of affairs in order to value it; he or she can rather represent it to himself or herself, through words, and presumably other methods such as mental pictures and so on11. Therefore a possible future world without human beings but where a rainforest is preserved can still be more valuable than one in which the rainforest too is gone, because people in this present world do place value on rainforests, and this value is extended even to rainforests in possible worlds where people do not exist. Likewise, we can, from the perspective of this present world, assess the last man’s actions as wrong, because he has destroyed something of value, even though there are no people in his hypothetical world to perceive the loss of value.
There are still other, more general objections to subjectivism in ethics, to which I will now turn. It is argued that subjective values do not allow for disagreement, and that consequently there is no point in moral debate. If my values are dependent on my preferences and attitudes and yours are likewise dependent on yours, then you and I cannot possibly disagree about whether a rainforest has intrinsic value or not12. This is because what our arguments amount to, is a statement of our preferences; for example, what “Rainforests are valuable for their own sakes” really means is something like “I have a preference for rainforests”. Thus engaging in debate with another would involve no disagreement- an opponent in a debate would not disagree that I have a preference for rainforests. Consequently, we cannot be wrong about our values either, since we are always correct about our own preferences (except in unusual cases for example when we are being insincere) and there is no objective truth to be discovered. Subjectivism implies that nothing is good or bad, right or wrong objectively.
James Rachels shows that this argument rests on the mistaken idea that ethical judgments are simply a statement of fact, that what we do when we engage in moral discussion is report our preferences. Moral utterances are not made simply to report one’s preferences, but involve an attempt to influence others’. That is, if I claim that ‘rainforests are valuable for their own sakes’, my purpose in making the utterance is to influence people’s behaviour, to enable them to appreciate the value of rainforests, and not to state that I have a preference for rainforests. Thus the argument that there cannot be disagreement rests on a mistaken notion of what moral utterances are meant to do13.
Moral debate does have a purpose; it is undertaken in the attempt to align others’ preferences and values to one’s own. Although a subjectivist meta-ethic implies that there is no objective truth about values, this does not mean that there can be no value judgments that are better or worse. A value judgment, though it expresses an attitude or preference, is backed by reasons, and therefore we can after all, discover that we were wrong about our values if after we have considered the facts we feel differently about the matter, and our attitude and preferences change. To paraphrase Rachels, a thing will be said to have value if a completely reasonable and impartial person would find it valuable after having thought through the facts. This is the standard then to which subjectivist value judgments can appeal.
Of the three different meanings ascribed to ‘intrinsic value’ in the introduction then, only one turns out to be necessary for an environmental ethic. ‘Intrinsic value’ in Moore’s sense, it was argued, is not what most environmentalists mean by the intrinsic value of nature. In addition, for the concept of the ‘intrinsic value’ of nature to be useful for environmental ethics, there is no reason to suppose that this value must be objective, since subjectively conferred final value can satisfy both requirements that nature is valued for its own sake, and that it is valuable even if there are no people in the world at the time to value it. All that is required of the notion of ‘intrinsic value’ for an environmental ethic then, is that it establishes that nature ‘has’ value for its own sake, meaning that people confer this value on it.
What might it mean then to say ‘nature has intrinsic value’, on this account of intrinsic value? It would be to say nothing about nature objectively, rather it would be to express an attitude that leads one to value it for its own sake, and not only as a means to one’s purposes. Valuing it in this way would, however, still rely on reasons. Thus we might value the rainforest, apart from any medicinal properties its species might have, but rather for other properties that are not particularly useful to humans. If engaged in debate with a person who did not so value rain forests, one might give reasons for one’s evaluation of it, perhaps by pointing to its beauty, natural harmony and exceptional biological diversity. It would be basically to argue that there is another way of looking at the forest, that does not perceive it as a means to another good, and to try to change others’ attitudes to the forest in order that they might begin to look at it in this way.
I have argued that to say that nature has intrinsic value can be interpreted in three ways, that it has intrinsic value in the term’s proper sense of value that is independent of circumstances, that it has intrinsic value in the sense of final value, or valuable for its own sake, and that it has intrinsic value in the sense of objective value, independently of whether people actually do place value on it.
Intrinsic value in its proper sense is not what environmentalists have in mind, since most things in nature are valued because of their external relational properties, and therefore this value is very much dependent on circumstances. When environmental philosophers talk of the intrinsic value of nature, what they usually mean is that it is valuable for its own sake.
Many environmental philosophers argue that there is value in nature that is objective, and a standard way of establishing this is to claim that natural objects have a ‘good’ that is independent of human preferences. I have argued that calling this a ‘good’ or claiming that a thing ‘flourishes’ depends on a general preference for life, health and so on. Otherwise the ‘good’ of an object turns out to be its biologically determined end, and can have no consequences on our actions, since there is no way of deriving moral obligations from it.
The reasons for preferring an objectivist to a subjectivist account of value were outlined and rejected, and it was therefore concluded that the only sense of ‘intrinsic value’ that is necessary to ascribe to nature, for an environmental ethic, is that of final value, and that a subjectivist meta-ethic is compatible with what the concept must accomplish. To say that ‘nature has intrinsic value’ therefore can be best interpreted as meaning that it can (or ought to) be valued by people for its own sake. I have not argued for whether it does ‘have’ value in this sense, since it seems evident that anything at all can be valued in this way, and requires only a change of attitude on our part.
Attfield, R. ‘Postmodernism, Value, and Objectivity’ in Environmental Values 10 (2001) pp.145-162
Benson, J. Environmental Ethics: An introduction with readings (London: Routledge 2000)
Callicott, J. Baird, In defense of the land ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy (New York: State University of New York Press 1989)
Elliot, R. ‘Facts about Natural Values’ in Environmental Values 5 (1996) pp 231-234
Green, K. ‘Two Distinctions in Environmental Goodness’ in Environmental Values 5 (1996) pp 31-46
Korsgaard, C. ‘Two Distinctions in Goodness’ in Korsgaard, C. Creating the Kingdom of Ends, (New York: Cambridge University Press 1997) pp 249-274
Mackie, J.L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Middlesex: Penguin Books 1981)
O’Neill, J. ‘The Varieties of Intrinsic Value’ in The Monist 75 (1992) pp 119 –137
Rabinowicz W. & Rønnow-Rasmussen T. ‘II—A Distinction in Value: Intrinsic and For Its Own Sake’ in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 100 (2000) pp 31-51
Rachels, J. ‘Subjectivism’ in Singer P. (ed) A Companion to Ethics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd. 1991) pp 432-441
Rolston, Holmes Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World (Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1988)
Zimmerman, M. et al (eds.) Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology (New Jersey: Prentice- Hall Inc 1998)