Intrinsic Value in Nature: a Metaethical Analysis

J. Baird Callicott

Presbyterian College

Two Proofs for the Existence of Intrinsic Value

The Phenomenological Proof

[1] Edwin P. Pister, a now-retired Associate Fishery Biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, worked long and hard to save from extinction several species of desert fishes living in small islands of water in an ocean of dry land. He and his allies took the case of the Devil's Hole pupfish -- threatened by agrobusinesspersons pumping groundwater for irrigation -- all the way to the United States Supreme Court; and won (Pister 1985).

[2] Pister was often asked -- not only by laypersons, but by incredulous members of his own department (dedicated as most were to providing anglers with game fish) -- What good is it, anyway? The question presupposed that a species has no claim to existence unless its members have some utility, some instrumental value. For years he struggled to answer that question on those terms. Clearly, thumb-sized desert fishes living in pools of water no bigger than a stock tank would never provide sport or meat. The Devil's Hole pupfish can dwell, however, in water several times more saline than sea water. Perhaps the secrets of its remarkable kidney could be used in treating people with renal disorders (Pister 1985).

[3] But speculative utility, the possibility that desert fishes might prove to have some instrumental value, was not the reason that Pister so ardently dedicated himself to their preservation. He felt a moral responsibility to save them from extinction. Whether they had instrumental value or not, they had, Pister believed, intrinsic value. But this "philosophical" concept was hard to explain to colleagues and constituents. As one put it, "When you start talking about morality and ethics, you lose me."(Pister 1987: 228). Finally, Pister found a way to put the concept of intrinsic value across clearly. To the question What good is it?, he replied, What good are you?

[4] That answer forces the questioner to confront the fact that he or she regards his or her own total value to exceed his or her instrumental value. Many people hope to be instrumentally valuable -- to be useful to family, friends, and society. But if we prove to be good for nothing, we believe, nevertheless, that we are still entitled to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness. (If only instrumentally valuable people enjoyed a claim to live, the world might not be afflicted with human overpopulation and overconsumption; certainly we would have no need for expensive hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and the like.) Human dignity and the respect it commands -- human ethical entitlement -- is grounded ultimately in our claim to possess intrinsic value.

[5] Call this the phenomenological proof for the existence of intrinsic value. The question How do we know that intrinsic value exists? is similar to the question How do we know that consciousness exists? We experience both consciousness and intrinsic value introspectively and irrefutably. Pister's question What good are you? simply serves to bring one's own intrinsic value to one's attention.

The Teleological Proof

[6] Richard and Val Routley (now Sylvan and Plumwood, respectively) offer another -- in this case, teleological -- proof for the existence of intrinsic value. Tools -- such as shovels, wrenches, and screwdrivers -- exist. And tools are paradigm cases of things that have instrumental value. Indeed, if tools had no instrumental value they wouldn't exist. Shovels, in other words, would not have been invented except as instruments for digging, or wrenches and screwdrivers except as instruments for turning bolts and setting screws. And since such things exist by artifice, not by nature, if they had not been invented they wouldn't exist.

[7] According to Routley and Routley, the existence of instrumental value entails the existence of intrinsic value:

Some values are instrumental, i.e., a means or an instrument to something else that has value, and some are not, but are noninstrumental or intrinsic. Some values at least must be intrinsic, some objects valuable in themselves and not as means to other ends (Routley and Routley 1980; emphasis added).
[8] The argument is enthymemic here, but appears to be analogous to Aristotle's at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics for something -- human happiness, Aristotle believed -- that is an end in itself. The existence of means, in short, implies the existence of ends. Though one means may exist for the sake of another -- say, a forge for the making of shovels -- the train of means must, Aristotle argued, terminate in an end which is not, in turn, a means to something else: an end-in-itself. Otherwise the train of means would be infinite and unanchored. And since means are valued instrumentally and ends-in-themselves are valued intrinsically, if ends-in-themselves exist -- and they must if means do; and means do -- then intrinsic value exists.

The Intrinsic Value of Nature: Moral Truth and Pragmatic Efficacy

[9] In addition to human beings, does nature (or some of nature's parts) have intrinsic value? That is the central theoretical question in environmental ethics. Indeed, how to discover intrinsic value in nature is the defining problem for environmental ethics. For if no intrinsic value can be attributed to nature, then environmental ethics is nothing distinct. If nature, that is, lacks intrinsic value, then environmental ethics is but a particular application of human-to-human ethics (See Routley 1973; Rolston 1975; and Regan 1981). Or, putting the same point yet another way, if nature lacks intrinsic value, then nonanthropocentric environmental ethics is ruled out.

The Convergence Hypothesis

[10] Bryan Norton fairly asks why we should want a distinct, nonanthropocentric environmental ethic (1992). There is the intellectual charm and challenge of creating something so novel. And that, combined with a passion for championing nature, is reason enough for me, a philosopher, to search for an adequate theory of intrinsic value in nature. But so personal, so self-indulgent a reason is hardly adequate. What can a nonanthropocentric environmental ethic do to defend nature against human insults that an anthropocentric ethic cannot?

[11] Nothing, claims Norton, if we take human interests to be sufficiently broad and long (Norton 1991). Nature serves us in more ways than as a pool of raw materials and a dump for wastes. It provides priceless ecological services, many of which we imperfectly understand. And, undefiled, nature is a source of aesthetic gratification and religious inspiration. When the interests of future generations (as well as of present persons) in the ecological services and psycho-spiritual resources afforded people by nature are taken into account, respect for human beings (or for human interests) is quite enough to support nature protection, Norton argues. Thus anthropocentric and nonanthropocentric environmental ethics "converge"; that is, both prescribe the same personal practices and public policies (Norton 1991).

[12] But do they? The most pressing environmental concern of the waning twentieth century is the erosion of nature's biological diversity. Edward O. Wilson estimates that the current rate of anthropogenic species extinction is 1000"background" rate (Wilson 1988). Several episodes of abrupt, mass species extinction occurred previously in the biography of Planet Earth. But none are believed to be attributable to an organism run amuck -- certainly not to an organism capable of moral choice. Is the current tide of species extinction inconsistent with human interests, however wide and long we make them out to be?

[13] David Ehrenfeld, for one, doubts it. Probably endangered species -- such as the Bengal tiger and African elephant -- that conservation biologists call "charismatic megafauna" would be sadly missed by future generations of Homo sapiens if the present generation allowed them to become extinct. And for just that reason there is a good chance that many such species will survive the holocaust. But, as Ehrenfeld points out, the brunt of the human assault on nature is borne by species that are not charismatic. In fact, most are insects, creatures more usually feared and loathed than admired by human beings. Nor is it likely that most of the species at risk of imminent extinction will prove to be raw material for useful products -- such as medicines, fuels, fibers, foods, or feeds. Moreover, as Ehrenfeld notes, "the species whose members are the fewest in number, the rarest, the most narrowly distributed -- in short, the ones most likely to become extinct -- are obviously the ones least likely to be... ecologically influential; by no stretch of the imagination can we make them out to be vital cogs in the ecological machine" (1988: 215). The aforementioned Devil's Hole pupfish is a case in point. If it goes extinct the biosphere will be poorer, but will function not one iota less serviceably.

[14] Norton's stretching of human interests, however, goes beyond goods, services, and the charismatic megafauna (and flora, such as the giant sequioa and Douglas fir) that excite popular natural aesthetic sensibilities. Those people who have what Aldo Leopold called "a refined taste in natural objects" may "value the wonder, excitement, and challenge [presented to the human mind] of so many species arising from a few dozen elements of the periodic table," as Ehrenfeld puts it (Leopold 1953: 149; Ehrenfeld 1988: 215). We might call that the "scientific" or "epistemological" utility of other species. Beyond even that, Norton finds a "moral value" in noncharismatic species. But it is a curious sort of moral value similar to the moral value that Immanuel Kant, notoriously, found in refraining from cruelty to animals. According to Norton

Thoreau... believed that his careful observation of other species helped him to live a better life. I believe this also. So there are at least two people, and perhaps many others, who believe that species have value as a moral resource to humans, as a chance for humans to form, re-form, and improve their own value systems (Norton 1988: 201).
[15] Let us grant the truth of Norton's "convergence hypothesis." All species severally and biodiversity globally can be embraced by an anthropocentric environmental ethic. From that does it follow, as Norton claims, that the attribution of intrinsic value to nature in environmental ethics proper is a pernicious redundancy? A sufficiently widened and lengthened anthropocentrism can do all the moral work that attributing intrinsic value to nature does. That's the redundancy claim. And trying to attribute intrinsic value to nature only stirs up contention among environmentalists, which the anti-environmental forces can exploit on the military principle of divide and conquer. That's the perniciousness claim. The more conventional, the more conservative approach of limiting intrinsic value to human beings is, therefore, the more pragmatic approach. If providing suasive theoretical support for private environmental practice and public environmental policy is, after all, the raison d'etre of environmental ethics, then environmental philosophers should abandon the theoretical search for intrinsic value in nature.

[16] However, Norton, I think, has overlooked two points: one pragmatic, the other a matter of, shall we say, moral truth.

Moral Truth

[17] To take the latter first, one wants to offer the right reasons for doing the right thing -- as well as to get the right thing done -- irrespective of pragmatic considerations. The agony of the American Civil War might have been avoided if Abraham Lincoln and his ilk had just argued for an end to slavery on economic instead of on genuinely ethical grounds. Lincoln might have persuaded Southern plantation owners to voluntarily, even gladly, free their slaves, because to do so would be in the planters' enlightened self-interest: Hired laborers can be laid off during slack seasons, while slaves must be fed, clothed, and sheltered year-round; the high "security" costs of slave owning -- the costs of confining slaves, overseeing and guarding them while they work, catching runaways, and protecting oneself, one's family, and one's property from attack by mutinous slaves -- could be saved; and so on. And if that were not argument enough, Lincoln might have pointed out that freeing their slaves would present Southern slave owners a chance to form, re-form, and improve their own value systems. Abolition could be a moral resource. (Think for a moment about that argument.)

[18] Let me hasten to say that there's nothing wrong with giving instrumental reasons, ancillary to the right reasons, for doing the right thing. Human beings, we believe, have intrinsic value. Therefore, we think that to enslave human beings is wrong. And besides, slavery is economically backward. Similarly, other species, we are beginning to believe, are also intrinsically valuable. Therefore, to render other species extinct is wrong. And besides, we risk injuring ourselves and future generations of human beings in a wide variety of ways if we do not vigilantly preserve other species.

The Burden of Proof

[19] Moreover, granting intrinsic value to nature would make a huge practical difference. Were we to do so, the burden of proof would be lifted from the shoulders of conservationists and shifted onto the shoulders of those who, pursuing other values, are -- intentionally or unintentionally, knowingly or inadvertently -- destroying nature.

[20] Warwick Fox has developed this -- the pragmatic -- point most fully and clearly (Fox 1993: 101). He begins by noting that having intrinsic value does not make its possessor "inviolable." As pointed out in the previous section of this essay, human beings claim to be intrinsically valuable. But acknowledging that claim does not entail that the life, the liberty, the opportunity to pursue happiness of every human being on every occasion ought not be eclipsed by some superior, opposing, and inconsistent value. Felons are rightly deprived of their liberty; sometimes of their lives. Though there is a sizable pacifist minority, a majority of decent people think that to put at risk the lives of innocent young men and women to defend their countries against aggression is morally permissible. A narrow majority of Americans even believed that, during the recent Persian Gulf War, we rightly risked -- and in thousands of instances actually sacrificed -- the lives of innocent Iraqi citizens as well as Iraqi soldiers and the soldiers of many industrial nations merely to keep down the cost of energy and to disabuse a tyrant of his delusions of grandeur.

[21] However, when an intrinsically valuable human being is deliberately deprived of his or her liberty or life, or deliberately put in harm's way, we believe that, to be consistent with human-to-human ethics, sufficient justification for doing so must be offered. Thus trials are conducted, evidence is presented and weighed, and grave verdicts are rendered, before a person may be imprisoned or executed; and public debates are held over the course of many days, before soldiers may be sent into combat. But, as Fox points out, since

the nonhuman world is only considered to be instrumentally valuable then people are permitted to use and otherwise interfere with any aspect of it for whatever reasons they wish (i.e., no justification for interference is required). If anyone objects to such interference then, within this framework of reference, the onus is clearly on the person who objects to justify why it is more useful to humans to leave that aspect of the nonhuman world alone. If, however, the nonhuman world is considered to be intrinsically valuable then the onus shifts to the person who wants to interfere with it to justify why they should be allowed to do so. (Fox 1993: 101)
[22] Since old-growth forests, for example, are not yet widely acknowledged to have intrinsic value, timber companies may fell them without first offering any justification whatever. If environmentalists want to stop the clear-cutting of dwindling old growth forests on public land (to say nothing of those on privately owned land) they have to go to court seeking a legal injunction. If, on the other hand, the intrinsic value of nature were widely acknowledged and legally institutionalized, then timber companies would have to go to court seeking permission to fell an old-growth forest -- thus being burdened to offer sufficient justification -- whenever they intended to do so. As Fox notes, this would amount to
a revolution in the way we treat the nonhuman world that is comparable to the difference for humans between a legal system that operates on a presumption of guilt until innocence is proved beyond reasonable doubt and one that operates on a presumption of innocence until guilt is proved beyond reasonable doubt. The question of just where the onus of justification lies can be highly significant for the parties concerned! (Fox 1993: 101).

A Modern Theory of the Intrinsic Value of Nature

[23] So far, then, the following is certain: intrinsic value exists: enjoying widely acknowledged intrinsic value makes a big practical difference to someone's or something's moral status; and, therefore, providing theoretical grounds for according intrinsic value to nature (or some of its parts) is a worthwhile project -- the principal, the defining project of environmental ethics. But just what, more precisely, is intrinsic value?

[24] The term 'intrinsic value' and the less-used alternative term 'inherent worth' mean, lexically speaking, pretty much the same thing. Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition, defines "intrinsic" thus: "belonging to the essential nature or constitution of a thing." A And it defines "inherent" thus: "involved in the constitution or essential character of something...: intrinsic." The English word "value" comes from the Latin word "valere to be worth, to be strong"; and "worth" comes from the Old English word "weorth worthy, of value." Lexically speaking, to claim that the value (or worth) of something is intrinsic (or inherent) is to claim that its value (or worth) belongs to its essential nature or constitution.

[25] Now, note that the above-rehearsed phenomenological and teleological proofs for the existence of intrinsic value do not prove that intrinsic value, thus defined -- that is, lexically defined -- actually exists. True, when, in response to the question What good are you?, one considers one's own value, some value remains when one subtracts one's instrumental value to family, friends, employers, and society from one's total value. But that residue of value may not necessarily be part of one's essential nature or constitution in the same way that having, say, a central nervous system is. And, true, the existence of instrumentally valuable means, such as tools, entails the existence of noninstrumentally valuable ends, such as tool-users. But the value of those tool-using ends-in-themselves may not necessarily belong to their constitution or be among their essential characteristics in the same way that having, say, hands is.

[26] Some properties of a thing may be intrinsic in the lexical sense of the word. The inertness of helium, for example, is a lexically intrinsic property of that element, as is the mass of a billiard ball. Bipedal locomotion, an opposable thumb, and language-use are lexically intrinsic characteristics of human beings. But, from the point of view of Modern philosophy, value cannot be such a property or characteristic of a human being or of anything else. Why? Because the radical Cartesian distinction between subjects and objects is fundamental to Modernism; and the value of something, from the Modern point of view, is determined by the intentional act of a Cartesian subject respecting an object -- be that "object" the subject him- or herself, another subject, or a Cartesian object proper (a physical object).

[27] Let me explain. Some states of Cartesian subjects are intentional; that is, they necessarily relate to something other than themselves (often, but not always, to proper Cartesian objects, that is, to physical things). And some states are not intentional. A Cartesian subject, for example, can be in an emotional state -- a state of depression, say -- without reference to anything else. Thus emotions are not necessarily intentional. But other subjective states are necessarily intentional. Desire, for example, is necessarily for something, though not necessarily for a proper Cartesian object. A depressed Cartesian subject might desire, for instance, to be in another nonintentional subjective condition, such as a state of euphoria. Or Cartesian Subject A might desire Cartesian Subject B to be in a certain intentional emotional state, such as in love with A. But most of the intentions of every-day desires, at least in our materialistic Modern experience, are proper Cartesian objects -- certain foods, drinks, clothes, houses, cars, appliances, jewelry. From the point of view of Modern philosophy, value is conferred on or ascribed to an "object" by an intentional act of a subject. In the Modern world view, 'value' is a verb first and a noun only derivatively. Among other things they do, subjects think, perceive, desire, and value. The intentions, the targets, of a subject's valuing are valuable, just as the intentions of a subject's desiring are desirable. If there were no desiring subjects, nothing would be desirable. If there were no valuing subjects, nothing would be valuable.

[28] The ethically all-important distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value, can, nonetheless, be preserved within the metaphysical constraints of the Modern world view. Something (be it oneself, another Cartesian subject, or a proper Cartesian object) "has" instrumental value if it is valued instrumentally. And what does it mean to value things instrumentally? To value them as means to some end -- shovels for digging, wrenches for turning bolts, slaves for work, prostitutes for sex, cattle for milk and meat, Madagascar periwinkles for making the anti-cancer drug vincristine, the Yellowstone National Park for viewing monumental scenery and natural wonders, oneself for being a productive member of society and a good parent. Something (be it oneself, another Cartesian subject, or a Cartesian object) "has" intrinsic value if it is valued intrinsically. And what does it mean to value things intrinsically? To value them for their own sakes, as ends in themselves.

[29] So what, from a Modern point of view, does it mean to claim that nature has intrinsic value? Nature has intrinsic value when it is valued (verb transitive) for its own sake, as an end itself.

[30] Now valuers don't value things arbitrarily. We frequently give our fellow valuers reasons to value things instrumentally. Suppose, for example, that Valuer A is fixing to hammer to bits a cracked and leaky ceramic pitcher and mix the shards with the clay in her garden to condition the soil. Valuer B may point out to Valuer A that the cracked ceramic pitcher can still serve as a vase for dried wildflowers or, if beautifully made, as an objet d'art. Valuer B has, in effect, given Valuer A a reason to value the cracked ceramic pitcher instrumentally. And in our moral discourse, we frequently give our fellow valuers reasons to value things intrinsically. Abraham Lincoln and other Abolitionists gave their fellow valuers reasons to value African-American slaves intrinsically. Tom Regan and other animal rights advocates give their fellow valuers reasons to value animals intrinsically. A big part of the normative work of contemporary environmental ethics is to give our fellow valuers reasons to value nature intrinsically.

[31] Part of the metaethical work of contemporary environmental ethics -- the work of this essay -- is to analyze the concept of intrinsic value in nature. And that work would at this point be finished except for two considerations. First, some philosophers working well within the metaphysical constraints of Modern philosophy claim that lexically intrinsic value exists in nature. They claim, that is, that intrinsic value is not merely conferred or ascribed by valuing subjects, but that it exists objectively. Second, the radical Cartesian distinction between subjects and objects that is fundamental to Modernism has been subverted, thus suggesting the possibility of constructing a postModern theory of intrinsic value in nature.

Kant on Objective Intrinsic Value

[32] Immanuel Kant, a thoroughly Modern philosopher, tried to draw a distinction between objective and subjective values, without ignoring the Cartesian boundary between things subjective and objective. A close analysis of Kant's gambit may shed some light on claims by contemporary Modern philosophers to find objective intrinsic value in nature.

[33] In the Foundations Kant writes,

Suppose that there were something the existence of which in itself had absolute worth, something which, as an end in itself would be a ground for definite laws.... Now, I say, man and, in general, every rational being exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will.... Such beings are not merely subjective ends -- whose existence, as a result of our action, has a worth for us -- but are objective ends, i.e., beings whose existence in itself is an end.... (Kant 1950: 318; emphasis added).
Schematically expressed, Kant seems to be asserting:
end in itself ==> objective end ==> absolute worth.
[34] But why are such beings -- beings whose existence in itself is an end -- objective ends? Such beings may value (verb transitive) themselves as ends in themselves -- that is, they may value themselves intrinsically -- but how does that make their intrinsic value objective? Kant seems to realize that he has explained nothing. So he goes on.
Man necessarily thinks of his own existence in this way; thus far it is a subjective principle of human action. Also every other rational being thinks of his own existence by means of the same rational ground which holds also for myself; thus it is at the same time an objective principle from which, as a supreme practical ground, it must be possible to derive all laws of the will. (Kant 1950: 318; emphasis added).
[35] Kant does not here claim that the "absolute worth" (intrinsic value) of rational beings is straightforwardly objective -- a (non-natural) property woven into their essential nature or constitution. Nor does he commit the Naturalistic Fallacy by arbitrarily (and self-servingly) asserting that rationality is a value-conferring property. One values (verb transitive) oneself intrinsically. "Thus far," Kant carefully notes, one's intrinsic value "is a subjective principle of human action."

[36] Kant immediately claims, nevertheless, that it somehow becomes "objective" when one considers that others value themselves in the same way. Does the intrinsic value of a rational being magically get transformed from a subjectively self-conferred to an objective property, merely by this consideration? If so, How?

[37] Two interpretations of this transmogrification of subjectively conferred intrinsic value into objective intrinsic value occur to me.

[38] The first is that rationality is the same -- in the strong sense of identical -- in all rational beings. When it reflects on itself as an end itself, it reflects, perforce, on itself in all other rational beings. Maybe this is what Kant means when he writes, "Also every other rational being thinks of his own existence by means of the same rational ground which holds also for myself." In other words, maybe for Kant, rationality is sort of like Atman-Brahman in the Advaita Vedanta Hindu tradition of thought. Perhaps there is, in reality, only one rational being.

[39] But does that make its value objective? Suppose it manifests itself in all rational beings and in them all it values itself. But its value still remains conferred by the intentional act of a (now supposed to be universal) self-valuing subject.

[40] Or Kant might mean that when one realizes that others value themselves as one values oneself, then one transcends the limitations of one's subjectivity. The blinkers come off. The scales fall from one's eyes. A kind of community, the moral community, the "kingdom of ends" comes into being. This transcendence of subjectivity operationally, but not actually, objectifies the value of others. That is, to realize that other rational beings value themselves as one values oneself -- to wit, intrinsically -- provides the functional equivalent of an objective property available to disinterested observation. A rational being should be "an end for everyone because it is an end for itself." (Kant 1950: 318).

[41] So unless I'm missing something, when we look closely at Kant's claim that the "absolute worth" (intrinsic value) of rational beings is objective, all we find is an assertion that it is, together with some interesting justificatory clues. But when we follow those clues up, they lead not to genuinely objective intrinsic value, but only to its functional equivalent or to a universal self-valuing subject. Perhaps Kant's intellectual descendents in environmental ethics can do better than the master himself.

The Biocentrists on Objective Intrinsic Value in Nature

[42] The transition from Kantian anthropocentrism (or, more precisely, ratiocentrism) to Kantian biocentrism begins with the question Why should we rational beings value only ourselves and other rational beings intrinsically?

[43] Because, Kant seems to assume, only rational beings are capable of self-valuing. Certainly, only rational beings are capable of transcending the limitations of their subjectivity, of realizing that others value themselves as one values oneself -- to wit, intrinsically. And only rational beings are autonomous, capable of deriving moral laws from the supreme practical principle, imposing those laws on themselves, and freely choosing to obey. Only rational beings, in other words, are legislators in the kingdom of ends.

[44] To possess "objective" intrinsic value then, according to Kant, seems to require that a being be capable of (1) valuing itself as an end in itself and (2) realizing that other beings value themselves in the same way.

[45] But is the second qualification morally defensible? So what if a being that values itself intrinsically is not capable of realizing that others value themselves in the same way? Why shouldn't it also be an end for everyone who is able to transcend the limitations of subjectivity -- because it is an end for itself? In effect, Kant requires that a being be able to requite respect in order to qualify for receiving it. That amounts to a reciprocity criterion for moral considerability: Only moral agents can be moral patients.

[46] And that exposes Kant's anthropocentrism (ratiocentrism) to the Argument from Marginal Cases (See Regan 1979). If we suppose that rationality is itself an observable ability of certain beings -- not an Enlightenment equivalent of the Medieval imago dei, possessed by all human beings irrespective of capacity -- then we must admit that all human beings are not rational beings. And if not, they are, by Kant's clear reckoning "things" not "persons" and, therefore, "have only relative worth as means" (Kant 1950: 318). Kant's ethic would therefore seem to countenance painful medical experiments on prerational human infants, hunting nonrational human imbeciles for sport, and making dog food out of postrational elderly human beings, among other wicked and depraved things. One way to avoid such untoward consequences of Kant's ethical theory is simply to eliminate the reciprocity criterion for moral considerability and value intrinsically all beings that are arguably ends in themselves.

Albert Schweitzer

[47] To my knowledge the first Modern philosopher to take this course is Albert Schweitzer. According to Kant, unknowable "noumena" lie behind all phenomena which we apprehend spatially and temporally, through our built-in "forms of intuition" and variously organized by our built-in "categories of understanding." Perhaps Kant thought of Universal Reason as one such noumenon, the same, identical thing in all rational beings. Arthur Schopenhauer, the postKantian philosopher from whom Schweitzer takes his metaphysics, identified a single noumenon at the core of all phenomena -- the will-to-live -- which we neither perceive nor know, but of which we are sometimes vividly aware (like when our lives are threatened). According to Schweitzer, "In me the will-to-live has become cognizant of other will-to-live. There is in it a yearning for unity with itself, a longing to become universal.... Is it a result of my having become capable of reflection about the totality of existence?" (Schweitzer 1994: 67).

[48] Schweitzer, clearly working in the Kantian and postKantian tradition, seems to bid for objectivity through both the universality of the will-to-live and the reflective transcendence of subjectivity:

Just as in my own will-to-live there is a yearning for more life, and for that mysterious exaltation of the will-to-live which is called pleasure, and terror in the face of annihilation and that injury to the will-to-live which is called pain; so the same obtains in all the will-to-live around me, equally whether it can express itself to my comprehension or whether it remains unvoiced.

Ethics thus consists in this, that I experience the necessity of practicing the same reverence for life toward all will-to-live as toward my own. Therein I have already the needed fundamental principle of morality. It is good to maintain and cherish life: it is evil to destroy and check life. (Schweitzer 1994: 66)

Paul W. Taylor

[49] Not to demean his biocentric ethic, Schweitzer was an amateur philosopher, less sensitive to the metaphysical constraints of Modernism than a professional might be. Paul W. Taylor is usually thought to have himself been untroubled by the difficulty that troubled Kant in moving from subjectively conferred value to objective value and to have provided a Kantian theory of objective "inherent worth" (Taylor's preferred term) in nature uncomplicated by some obscure transition from subjectively conferred to objective intrinsic value (or inherent worth). But such is not so. Taylor, a thoroughly Modern philosopher, was troubled by this problem. In his first essay on environmental ethics, he is quite clear that all "worth" (all value) is "ascribed" (conferred) by "valuers" (Cartesian subjects) "who must do the valuing":

We must keep in mind that inherent worth is not some mysterious sort of objective property belonging to living things that can be discovered by empirical observation or scientific investigation.... Nor is there a logical connection between the concept of a being having a good of its own and the concept of inherent worth.... In order to show that such an entity "has" inherent worth we must give good reasons for ascribing that kind of value to it (placing that kind of value on it, conceiving it to be valuable in that way). Although it is humans (persons, valuers) who must do the valuing, for the ethics of respect for nature, the value so ascribed is not human value. That is to say, it is not a value derived from considerations regarding human well-being or human rights. It is a value that is ascribed to nonhuman animals and plants themselves, independently of their relationship to what humans judge to be conducive to their own good. (Taylor 1981: 204)
[50] But in his book on environmental ethics, Taylor changes his mind. Inherent worth there is treated as "some mysterious sort of objective property belonging to living things." It is mysterious because Taylor distinguishes (1) "the concept of inherent worth" from "the concept of the good of a being" and (2) from the concepts of "intrinsic value" and "inherent value," both of which, he acknowledges, are "ascribed" (conferred) by valuing subjects. Avoiding the Scylla of the Naturalistic Fallacy by drawing the first distinction and the Charybdis of subjectivity by drawing the second, he sails off into unfathomable waters.

[51] First, Taylor avoiding the Naturalistic Fallacy:

The concept of inherent worth must not be confused with the concept of the good of a being. To bring out the difference between them, consider the logical gap between the fact that a being has a good of its own (an is-statement) and the claim that it should or should not be treated in a certain way (an ought-statement). One can acknowledge that an animal or plant has a good of its own and yet, consistently with this acknowledgment, deny that moral agents have a duty to promote or protect its good or even refrain from harming it. (Taylor 1986: 71-72)
[52] According to Taylor, inherent worth bridges the is/ought or fact/value dichotomy -- which was first clearly articulated by David Hume, but is a function of the Cartesian cleft between subjects and objects. His reasoning appears to be purely Kantian: If we can successfully objectify "inherent worth" then statements about the value of beings that have it will be "is-statements." Fact and value will be welded together and we can thus move validly from "is-statements" to "ought-statements." Schematically expressed:
good of its own ==> inherent worth ==> duties to it.
[53] Now, here is Taylor defining two types of subjectively conferred value:
(a) Intrinsic value. When human or other conscious beings place positive value on an event or condition in their lives which they directly experience to be enjoyable in and of itself, and when they value the experience (consider it to be good) because of its enjoyableness the value they place on it is intrinsic....

(b) Inherent value. This is the value that we place on an object or a place (such as a work of art, a historical building, a battlefield, a "wonder of nature," or an archeological site) that we believe should be preserved, not because of its usefulness or commercial value, but simply because it has beauty, or historical importance, or cultural significance.... Besides works of art, natural wonders, historical monuments, and other inanimate objects... wild animals and plants may also have inherent value to people. But it is to be observed that, whatever the basis of the inherent value placed on something may be, whether aesthetia, historical, cultural, or a matter of personal sentiment, wonder, or admiration, the inherent value of anything is relative to and dependent upon someone's valuing it. (Taylor 1986: 73-74)

[54] The (ever-so-subtle) difference between intrinsic and inherent value according to Taylor is that the former characterizes the way we value our subjective experiences (for example, the pleasure that a work of art gives its beholder), and the latter the way we value objective entities (for example, the work of art itself). So far, so good. Taylor has not yet confronted us with a Modern mystery.

[55] But what about "inherent worth"? Taylor says that it "is to be attributed only to entities that have a good of their own" (Taylor 1986: 75).

[56] Wait a minute. What does "to be attributed" mean here? That this kind of worth, no less than the three species of value (instrumental, intrinsic, and inherent) is conferred, ascribed -- that is, attributed (verb transitive) -- to beings with a good of their own, such that were there no "attributers" (no attributing subjects), there would be no inherent worth? Or does it simply mean that we should reserve the term "inherent worth" for some sort of objective property of beings that have a good of their own? Apparently the latter, because Taylor goes on explicitly to say that a being's inherent worth does not depend on some valuer valuing it instrumentally or inherently, or some valuer valuing the experience of it intrinsically. Thus, in his own words from his earlier essay, Taylor leaves us in Respect for Nature with "some mysterious sort of objective property belonging to living things," for which he provides no justification whatever. Just like Kant, he is aware of the problem. And just like Kant, he simply asserts that beings that have a good of their own have inherent worth, which worth somehow exists objectively, that is, independently of any valuing subject. And just like Kant, he couches this assertion in some obfuscating prose in an attempt to clothe its nakedness.

Holmes Rolston, III

[57] Perhaps Taylor cannot find a way to defend the objectivity of inherent worth in nature and finds himself reduced simply to asserting dogmatically that the worth of beings with a good of their own is independent of a valuing subject because he tends to think that only human beings are valuing subjects. Remember, in "The Ethics of Respect for Nature" he writes that "it is humans (persons, valuers) who must do the valuing." There he conflates human persons and valuers. In his book, when defining 'intrinsic value,' he writes "When human or other conscious beings place positive value [etc.]" -- thus acknowledging that nonhuman valuing subjects may exist. But when he goes on to define 'inherent value,' he lapses into expressions that indicate that, once again, he is thinking only of human beings as valuing subjects: inherent value is the value "that we place on an object or place" because of what "we believe"; "wild animals and plants may also have inherent value to people"; inherent value "is relative to and dependent upon someone's [not something's] valuing it."

[58] But if we could be convinced that all living beings are self-valuing then, by Kant's gambit, their value could at least be functionally equivalent to objective intrinsic value (now departing from Taylor's special sense of the term 'intrinsic value' and returning to its standard usage in environmental ethics) if not actually objective. That is Rolston's ploy.

[59] After Darwin, no great leap of faith is required to believe that other conscious beings -- imbeciles as well as rational human beings, all other primates, all other mammals, perhaps all other chordates -- may value themselves intrinsically. To the sort of conflation of valuers with human beings to which Taylor seems to be prone, Rolston wryly retorts, "No doubt the lemurs will take a dim view of such a theory, since lemurs... value their own lives intrinsically for what they are in themselves.... Lemurs cannot self-consciously evaluate... but they can behaviorally demonstrate what they value" (Rolston 1994: 160).

[60] Okay, sure. But how could all merely living beings be self-valuing? To be able to persuade us that they are is Rolston's particular forte.

[61] The ingenious adaptations and survival and reproductive strategies of plants and other organisms that lack consciousness are of value to themselves. Such value is, to be sure, instrumental value. Some of these strategies -- the edible casings of the seeds of angiosperms, for example -- are also instrumentally valuable to human beings; and some-nectar-rich flowers, for example -- are also instrumentally valuable to certain kinds of bats, birds, and insects. But all such adaptations and survival and reproductive strategies are, first and foremost, valuable to the plants themselves whose devices they are. And by the Teleological Proof for the existence of intrinsic value, the existence of instrumental value implies the existence of intrinsic value.

[62] Further, plants are not as passive as they appear. Most contend with rivals and struggle for sunlight. Many excrete allelopathic chemicals from their roots to discourage competitors. Some are even actively carnivorous. All reproduce themselves. Each has a good of its own. "A life is defended for what it is in itself, without further contributory reference.... That is ipso facto value in both the biological and philosophical senses, intrinsic because it inheres in, has focus within, the organism itself" (1994: 173).

[63] Now take a close look at what Rolston has done. A striving, self-valuing plant is an end in itself. It has a good of its own, in respect to which its various adaptations and survival and reproductive strategies are valuable to it. But it is not conscious. Hence, it cannot be true to claim that if all consciousness were annihilated at a stroke, all value would be annihilated with it. So, it turns out, after all, that value is not necessarily subjective in the sense that it depends for its existence on the intentional act of a Cartesian -- that is, conscious -- subject. But is Rolstonian intrinsic value fully objective?

[64] Not quite. Suppose all life -- unconscious as well as conscious -- were annihilated at a stroke and only atoms and molecules existed, organized only into non-living entities like stars and rocks. In this circumstance, as Rolston admits, his argument for objective intrinsic value -- which depends, like Kant's, on some sense of self-valuing -- could not get off the ground. Even for Rolston, value remains a verb first, but the syntactical subject doing the valuing is no longer necessarily a psychological subject. Thus Rolston manages to argue persuasively that intrinsic value in nature is not necessarily dependent on a conscious subject -- certainly not on a human subject. But he has not shown that intrinsic value can exist independently of a self-valuing subject of some sort.

[65] Rolston's achievement, nevertheless, is quite extraordinary. For without expressly challenging the broadly Modern metaphysical assumptions bequeathed to Western thought by Descartes, Rolston has freed intrinsic value from its dependency not only on a self-conscious human subject, but even on a conscious animal subject.

[66] Rolston's non-subjectivist (but not fully objectivist) theory of intrinsic value in nature, however, is no more adequate for environmental ethics than any other version of biocentrism. For, without further argument, we are left with an environmental ethic that directly enfranchises only individual organisms. But environmental concerns have little to do with the welfare of individual bugs, shrubs, and grubs, and a great deal to do with wholes (such as species and ecosystems) and with abiotic aspects of nature (such as the atmosphere and ocean).

[67] Rolston is aware of this limitation of biocentrism, and, to his credit, frankly acknowledges it:

Instrumental value uses something as a means to an end; intrinsic value is worthwhile in itself. A warbler eats insects instrumentally as a food resource; the warbler defends her own life as an end in itself and makes more warblers as she can. A life is defended intrinsically, without further contributory reference. But neither of these traditional terms is satisfactory at the level of the ecosystem.... We are no longer confronting instrumental value, as though the system were instrumentally valuable as a fountain of life. Nor is the question one of intrinsic value, as though the system defended some unified form of life for itself. (1994: 177)
[68] For this reason, I myself have opted not to try-following Kant and his biocentric descendents -- to conjure objective intrinsic value out of self-valuing subjects and our capacity to realize that others value themselves as we value ourselves. Rather, I have suggested we base environmental ethics on our human capacity to value nonhuman natural entities for what they are -- irrespective both of what they may do for us and of whether or not they can value themselves. And this we can do regardless of the nature of the object of our intentional act of intrinsic valuation as long as we think we have good reasons to value it intrinsically. We can value species (such as the Devil's Hole pupfish), ecosystems (such as Cedar Bog Lake), the oceans, the atmosphere, the biosphere -- all for what they are in themselves as well as for their utility.

[69] Rolston, I should hasten to add, supplements his biocentrism by introducing other types of value tailored to wholes: "systemic value" and "projective value" (1994; see also Rolston 1988). (An analysis of these kinds of value, however, lies beyond the scope of this essay.)

Toward a PostModern Theory of Intrinsic Value in Nature

[70] According to Rolston,

resolute subjectivists cannot be defeated by argument, although they can be driven toward analyticity. That theirs is a retreat to a definition is difficult to expose because they seem to cling so closely to inner experience. They are reporting, on this hand, how values always excite us. They are giving, on that hand, a stipulative definition. That is how they choose to use the word value. (Rolston 1994: 193-94).
[71] I think that that is a mischaracterization. Those who insist that value is subjectively conferred do not merely stipulate a definition or make a personal terminological choice, they reflect, rather, a foundational tenet of Modernism. Rolston believes himself to offer an account of objective intrinsic value, and by his own understanding of the subjectivist alternative, he does so indeed. Subjectivists, Rolston assumes, believe that value, like a tickle, must be experienced to exist: No experiencer (no conscious subject), no feelings and no value. But as my analysis here indicates, value, from a Modern point of view, is not, primarily, a subjective experience, but a subject's intentional act: No intending subject, no value. Now some intentional acts, even those of highly evolved self-conscious subjects, may not be experienced as such. A philanderer, for example, may not realize that he loves his wife until she leaves him. The reason that Rolston's biocentric account of intrinsic value is so persuasive is precisely because nonconscious organisms can be plausibly portrayed as self-valuing beings, even though they can have no experience of doing so.

[72] A postModern account of intrinsic value in nature is difficult to envision because we are still very much in a state of transition from Modernity to something else. What that something else may be, we cannot be sure; that's why we call this interregnum "postModernism" not "Systematism" (or something else more definite and descriptive). But at the critical core of postModernism, whether approached from the perspective of the New Physics or from that of Literary Theory, is the decentering, the deconstruction of the Cartesian subject.

[73] The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in the New Physics subverts the clean Cartesian cleavage between subjects and objects. On the one hand, the knowing subject is, so to speak, physicalized, objectified -- since information can be registered only if energy is exchanged between object and knowing subject, and energy belongs on the object side of the Cartesian cleft. And, on the other hand, the known object is subjectivized -- since a necessarily physical act of observation, in the sub-atomic domain, disturbs, changes the observed system. On this basis, I have elsewhere suggested a theory of intrinsic value in nature which makes value, like any other natural property, a potentiality to be actualized by a situated observer/valuer (Callicott 1985). Intrinsic value is not wholly objective, according to such an account, but neither are the formerly "primary qualities," such as position and velocity. Bryan Norton criticizes this postModern account of intrinsic value in nature as still too overshadowed by the Cartesian distinction between subjects and objects (Norton 1992).

[74] Rolston never describes himself as a postModernist. And his non-subjectivist account of intrinsic value in nature is, as this analysis shows, consistent with the foundational tenets of the Modern world view, turning, as it does, on the (unconscious) intentional act of a self-valuing organism. But notice, in developing this account, Rolston has deconstructed the Cartesian subject. He establishes a continuum, a slippery slope, running from fully self-conscious human valuers to quasi-self-conscious lemur valuers to conscious but hardly self-conscious warbler valuers to utterly unconscious trillium valuers. Step by step, the subjectivity of the subject is eroded until, with plants, we reach self-valuing nonsubjects.

[75] Not only does Rolston deconstruct the Cartesian subject, the bigger story he tells -- the story in which his account of intrinsic value is located -- also decenters the deconstructed subject:

Things do not have their separate natures merely in and for themselves, but they face outward and co-fit into broader natures.... Intrinsic value, that of an individual "for what it is in itself," becomes problematic in a holistic web. True, the system increasingly produces such values with its evolution of individuality and freedom. Yet to decouple this from the biotic, communal system is to make value too internal and elementary. Every intrinsic value has leading and trailing ands ["ands" not "ends"] pointing to value from which it comes and towards which it moves. Adapted fitness makes individualistic value too system-independent. Intrinsic value is part of a whole, not to be fragmented by valuing it in isolation. (1994:173-74)
[76] These and similar remarks in the same vein lead up to Rolston's account of "systemic" value. But they might also be, as I am suggesting now, a prelude to a postModern account of value in nature. Rolston both deconstructs and decenters the Cartesian subject. First he erodes the subject's subjectivity to a vanishing point, then he takes the subject out of the center of the picture. The self-valuing organism is located in a context, outside of which it is meaningless.

[77] Eventually the Cartesian subject -- like Plato's form of the Good -- will become a historical curiosity, having lost its grip on the Western mind. What will take its place we cannot now foresee, residing as we do at the cusp of two paradigms -- the waning Modern world view and the waxing embryonic one that so far has not yet sufficiently developed to have acquired a distinct identity.

Received February 16th, 1995.


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©1995 J. Baird Callicott
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The Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy, 3 (Spring 1995)