The Nature of the Value of Nature

S. F. Sapontzis

California State University, Hayward

[1] This paper will be devoted to an analysis of the concept `value' and, based on that analysis, a discussion of the sorts of value that objects of environmental concern can have. These objects include nonhuman animals, plants, species of animals and plants, rivers, canyons, and other geological features, prairies, wetlands, rain forests, wilderness areas, and other ecosystems, and nature, the biosphere, or the so-called "biotic community" itself. However, before undertaking that analysis and discussion, I want to say a few words about the motivation for discussing the sorts of value such objects can have. (Henceforth, `nature' will be used to refer to all these objects indiscriminately.)

[2] Much of the work in environmental ethics over the past few decades has been motivated by dismay at the devastation of nature by humans pursuing wealth, exploiting natural resources, expanding suburbia, producing food for our exploding population, and fulfilling other human needs and wants. Environmental ethicists frequently claim that this devastation of nature has arisen from anthropocentric value systems in which things have value only insofar as they contribute to fulfilling human interests. Consequently, these ethicists have sought to combat this devastation of nature by attacking anthropocentric values. They have argued that nature has value independent of its contributions to fulfilling human interests; they have even argued that the value of everything, including human beings, is determined by their contribution to preserving a viable natural order, e.g., by their contribution to "the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community" (Leopold 1949: 224). In this way, analyses of value and imputations of overriding, objective value to nature have been motivated by practical concerns with "the environmental crisis" and how effectively to overcome it.

[3] While I support a great many environmental causes, I doubt that the continuing devastation of nature is a logical consequence of anthropocentric value systems and that we need to develop value systems imputing overriding, objective value to nature in order to overcome the environmental crisis. As long as people believed that nature was an inexhaustible storehouse of riches for fulfilling human interests, anthropocentrism could lead to indifference to the effects of human actions on nature. However, now that we recognize the fragility of nature, the devastating effects on nature of our indifference to the effects of our actions on nature, and the dependence of the quality of human life on preserving nature, anthropocentric values should (logically) lead us to cease doing things which are destructive of the natural order, insofar as the quality of human life depends on that order, and to start doing things which can undo the devastation already wrought, where doing so would maintain or enhance the quality of human life. Understanding what changes in our behavior an environmentally enlightened anthropocentrism would require of us is doubtless not a simple matter and likely would not require that every endangered species be preserved or that we all return to the sort of simple homesteader life some environmentalists seem to favor. However, that it would require us to do those things which must be done to overcome the environmental crisis is a logical truism, since that crisis is defined as a crisis for the biotic community on which the quality, and even the fact, of human life depend.

[4] Furthermore, attributing overriding, objective value to species, wetlands, and similar, endangered elements of nature is not the only alternative to anthropocentrism. Philosophers, such as Peter Singer, who have made a compelling case for the moral significance of the suffering and well-being of all sentient beings, human or otherwise, provide us with another alternative. 1 This alternative both avoids the conceptual difficulties of attributing value directly to unfeeling, even inanimate objects and systems and also establishes a widespread source of non-anthropocentric values. Respecting the needs and wants of wild animals would likely direct us to proceed even further along the path of doing no more damage to nature and of undoing the damage already done than would environmentally enlightened anthropocentrism. For example, where it might be difficult to show that environmentally enlightened anthropocentrism requires preserving the habitat of an endangered species, respecting the needs and wants of the wild, sentient animals who inhabit that area provides a ready basis for requiring such preservation.

[5] Finally, if the motivating concern about the value of nature really is practical, it must be political. In order to overcome the environmental crisis, we must convince peoples and governments to change their behaviors and institutions in the ways necessary to achieve that end. If the peoples and governments which are devastating nature are anthropocentric, then environmentally enlightened anthropocentric arguments have an immediate relevance to political debates concerning environmentally significant practices. In contrast, arguments employing ideas of the overriding, objective value of nature are politically irrelevant until these anthropocentric, nature-devastating peoples and governments come to believe that nature has such value. While neither task is easy, convincing peoples and governments to change their fundamental value systems seems a far more problematic and time-consuming task than convincing them that continuing their nature-devastating practices is contrary to their anthropocentric values. Especially in a time of crisis, pursuing the less problematic and time-consuming course of argument is the course to take to make a real, political difference. Consequently, the practical motivation of overcoming the environmental crisis does not direct us to establish the overriding, objective value of nature; rather, it directs us to develop politically compelling, anthropocentric arguments for environmentalism.

[6] It does not follow, of course, that we should refrain from determining the ways in which nature can have value. Such determinations may even be of political value, eventually. However, it does follow from these three considerations that beliefs that the continuing environmental crisis is a result of anthropocentrism and that acknowledging the overriding, objective value of nature is essential to overcoming that crisis are mistaken. While determining the sorts of value nature can have can have practical consequences -- if peoples and governments take philosophical determinations seriously; a very big `if,' indeed -- the motivation for making such determinations is the ordinary philosophical one of seeking understanding. We need not worry that, or feel pressured by the possibility that, the outcome of the environmental crisis depends on what we determine the value(s) of nature to be.

Analysis of `value'

[7] Values are commonly classified as instrumental or intrinsic, with a third category, inherent value, sometimes added. Here, we will develop a more diverse classification of values, and we will not employ the labels `instrumental,' `intrinsic,' and `inherent' in that classification. Being labelled an `instrumental' value has become, especially in environmental ethics, almost a term of derision; saying that something has instrumental value has been tantamount to saying that it is merely a means, something to be allocated, disposed of, and replaced at the whim of humans. On the other hand, being labelled something of intrinsic value has frequently made that something out to be an end-in-itself or otherwise to be something of overriding importance. Having `inherent' value also refers to being of overriding importance. Such priorities of value are separable from the bases for things having value of whatever priority, and, hopefully, switching to new labels for these bases can help us both to avoid confusing different issues and to understand the origins both of having value and of priorities of value.

[8] The primary distinction in this new classification of values is among derivative, direct, and immediate values. These are not exclusive categories and concern both the objective and subjective bases of having value. The `basis' of a thing's value is that about it which gives it value. That basis is `objective' insofar as it is not a kind of experiencing or intentional relation; it is `subjective' insofar as it is a kind of experiencing or intentional relation. Being `objective' in this sense implies neither that this basis of value can exist independent of experiencing subjects nor that it can be verified scientifically or mathematically. For example, the objective bases of certain values of the American Civil War are the relations of that war to how Americans have subsequently interpreted their Constitution. These relations obviously presume the existence of experiencing subjects and cannot become matters of experimental or mathematical verification. Nonetheless, they are relations that can exist without anyone's being aware of them, which contrasts with the subjective bases of value and, consequently, renders the label `objective' appropriate.

[9] One further caveat is needed before we begin our analysis, especially since our concern here is with environmental ethics. There are many uses of the word `value,' including such entirely descriptive, mathematical and functional uses as "The value of 3 times 4 is 12" and "The value of these microorganisms to the ecosystem is that they decompose dead organisms." However, when `value' is used in moral contexts, it is not used in an entirely descriptive way. In moral contexts, `value' has imperative significance: the moral `value' of something is how we should treat it, where `we' refers to us as agents who are not only self-interested but are also concerned with the well-being of others for their own sakes. Mathematical, functional, and other merely descriptive `values' can contribute to the objective bases of moral values, but since they lack imperative significance, they are not themselves moral values. The ensuing analysis and discussion are concerned only with values having imperative significance.

[10] Turning to the first of our primary categories, something has derivative value when the objective basis for its having value is its relation to something else of independent value. `Independent' here signifies that this value of that something else does not come from the derivative value. Rather, the derivative value of X comes from the value of that something else via X's relation to it. That other value can, however, be another derivative value, although in a chain of derivative values, a point will be reached where the relation is to something else of non-derivative value. That is because the thing of derivative value acquires its value from the value of that to which it is related, and that cannot go on indefinitely. This is not to say, however, that values ultimately derive from static, non-processing conditions, as the subsequent discussion will make clear -- pace Dewey. (Henceforth, `related to' will cover both being related without intermediary to something else and being related to something else through a chain of relations.)

[11] Although derivative values have objective bases, derivative value is, nonetheless, always a value something has for someone, where `someone' refers to individuals or groups of individuals who experience things to have value. Things never have value without relation to experiencers of value; i.e., even where values have objective bases, they also have subjective bases. Trivially, this is because we are here confining ourselves to values that have imperative significance, and such significance requires experiencing subjects. Less stipulatively, with the possible exception of mathematical contexts, wherever the term `value' is used, it makes sense to ask, "For whom does this have value?" The someone for whom X has derivative value is the one for whom the something else to which X is related has non-derivative value. For instance, crude oil has derivative value for people who want to go fast, based on its relation to lubricants and the relation of lubricants to cars and the relation of cars to going fast. Crude oil does not have derivative value for cars; it is just functionally related to them, since although cars need things, including lubricants, to be operable, they are incapable of experiencing things, including being operable, having value.

[12] Ordinarily, when something has derivative value, the experiencing subject(s) for whom it has this value will be aware of its relation to something else of non-derivative value. However, X can be of derivative value for S without S being aware of X's relation to something else ( `Y') of non-derivative value, although S must be aware of Y's non-derivative value. For instance, unpolluted waters have derivative value for birds who use those waters, based on the relation of unpolluted waters to the health of those birds and the relation of health to the feelings of well-being experienced by the birds. On the other hand, unpolluted waters do not have derivative value for grasses growing along the waterway, even though they are chemically related to the health of those grasses in ways similar to their relation to the health of birds. This difference is due to there being nothing that is of non-derivative value for grasses, since they are insentient. Thus, although being related to something else is necessary for having derivative value and although something can have derivative value without the one for whom it has this value being aware of that value, simply being related to something else is not sufficient for having derivative value, even when that relation is a functional relation. Objective relations are merely objective bases of derivative value; actually having derivative value requires the experience of value, even when it is not the experience of the derivative value itself. 2

[13] We can distinguish different sorts of derivative value by distinguishing different sorts of relations that are the objective bases of such value. There are at least three such distinguishable varieties of derivative value. The first sort of these we shall call `productive value.' Something has productive value when the objective basis of its derivative value is its productive relation to something else of independent value. Natural causal relations are an obvious basis for productive value, but they are not the only basis for such value. Money has productive value, based on its exchangeability for other things of value, and political office has productive value, based on the authority it provides to command that other things of value be accomplished.

[14] A second sort of derivative value can be labelled `material value.' Something has material value when the objective basis of its derivative value is its providing material for something else of independent value. Many objects of environmental concern have this sort of value, and the concern of environmentalists is frequently that these things are regarded as having only this sort of value, as when a river is regarded as having value only as a source of hydroelectric power or redwood trees are regarded as having value only as a source of lumber. When the term instrumental value is employed, it is commonly material value or productive value that is intended.

[15] Such instrumental values are not the only varieties of derivative value. Another, third sort of derivative value will be called `originary value.' Something has originary value when the objective basis of its derivative value is its being a necessary condition for the possibility of something else of independent value. Perhaps the most common instance of this sort of value is the value of life. We commonly value life, our own or others', as the opportunity for having experiences, for being individuals, or for whatever, as we say, `gives value to life.' Phrased negatively, life is valued as that whose end is the end of all possibility of enjoying anything.

[16] The various capacities we have for certain kinds of experiences can also have originary value. For instance, we sometimes value sight and hearing as our openings onto a world of beautiful sunsets and thrilling music. Similarly, abilities, such as sympathy or reason, which are required for the existence of moral values can have originary value as `the ground of' moral value or as that without which the world would be devoid of moral value. Frequently nowadays, the value advocated for nature is a form of originary value. When the dependence of life on nature is emphasized not in terms of particular causal relations but in terms of the dependence of all life whatsoever on the over-all, intricate, interactive order which constitutes the biosphere, nature comes to share the originary value of life as the opportunity for there being anything of value, as being that whose demise would bring an end to everything of value.

[17] It should be noted that the value of life is frequently not unambiguously originary value. This is especially so when `life' refers to being the subject of experiences, as it frequently does when human life is the subject of discussion. When life is treated as a necessary condition for the existence of valuable experiences, it is -- indeed, must be -- distinguishable from those experiences and has originary value. However, life, i.e., subjectivity, can also be treated, as it was by David Hume, as being those experiences or as at least containing those experiences. 3 In those cases, life does not have or does not have only originary value, it (also) has the value of the valuable experiences which it contains. A similar ambiguity exists in the value of rational agency in Kantian ethics, where it is valued both as that which is necessary for moral value and as that which is of moral value. A similar ambiguity also derives from the presence of sentient animals `in nature.'

[18] Turning to direct value, something has this sort of value insofar as it acquires value through being the intentional object of affective experience. Sometimes there is no objective basis for direct value, even though that which has direct value is an intentional object. For instance, when we enjoy remembering how much we enjoyed our last day at the beach, there is no objective basis for that direct value, since an `objective' basis of value cannot, by definition, be a kind of experiencing or intentional relation. However, when the objects of affective experiences are things other than other experiences, direct values resemble derivative values in having objective bases. For instance, the colorfulness of beautiful sunsets is the objective basis of their direct value as objects of aesthetic experience.

[19] It might be thought that direct value is ultimately indistinguishable from derivative value. If causal theories of experience are correct, the objective bases of direct value can be analyzed in terms of non-intentional relations to other things of independent value. For example, according to such theories, the beauty of colorful sunsets is the result of the scattering of light causing electro-chemical events in our optical systems and these causing electro-chemical events in our affective systems. Nonetheless, direct values are distinguishable from derivative values in two related ways. First, things having direct value must be intentional objects of the experience of those for whom they have this value, and second, things have only the direct value someone experiences them to have. For instance, colorful sunsets are beautiful only if seen, and they have only the beauty someone feels they have. This contrasts with the derivative value poisons have for birds who can neither perceive those substances nor place a value on them.

[20] Direct values can be divided into two sub-groups by distinguishing two sorts of affective experiences which are the subjective bases of these values. We can further divide the first of these sub-groups into three sub-sub-groupings on a morally significant basis. The first sort of derivative value is `sentiment value.' Something has sentiment value insofar as it is the intentional object of sentiment, which includes dis/pleasing sensations, feelings, and emotions. Insofar as we enjoy melodic sounds, feel compassion for starving children, love our pets, and admire Abraham Lincoln, those things have sentiment value for us. Although things acquire sentiment value through evoking sentiments, experiencing things to have this value is not the same as productively valuing them. This is because what is valued about things having sentiment value is not their evoking the sentiments of which they are the intentional objects. What is valued about something of sentiment value is the characteristic of the thing which is the specific intentional object of sentiment, e.g., the melodic structure of music, the plight of starving children, the personalities of pets, and the commitments of Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes we do productively value things for their ability to evoke sentiments in us, as when we turn on music to soothe us, but such productive valuation clearly differs from sentiment value, and is also clearly derivative from it.

[21] It does not follow from this distinction of sentiment value from productive value that the objective basis of sentiment value cannot be something's relation to other things, including productive relations. People do enjoy and admire efficient machinery, for example. Also, a diverse group of things have sentiment value based on their intentional relations to other things than the sentiments of which they are the intentional objects. These intentional relations include representing something, expressing something, reminding us of something, or otherwise referring to something. Examples of these sentiment values are the sacral value of icons, the symbolic value of eagles, the romantic value of a gift of flowers, and the sentimental value of momentos. These cases of sentiment value resemble derivative values in that the sentiment value of symbols, momentos, etc. derives from the independent value of what they symbolize, remind us of, etc. However, unlike derivative values, the relation here is intentional, and it follows from this that, again unlike derivative value, things cannot have this sentiment value without someone being aware of that value. As the example of the eagle indicates, this sort of value is sometimes invoked in defense of elements of nature and even of nature as a whole, when it is considered an expression of divinity.

[22] Among sentiment values, we can distinguish different sorts of value things have as intentional objects of different sorts of sentiments: `personal values' are the intentional objects of personal sentiments; `sympathetic values' are the intentional objects of sympathetic feelings; and `ideal values' are the intentional objects of feelings of admiring respect. This distinction obviously has moral significance. Things have `personal value' insofar as they are the intentional objects of sentiments which have traditionally been labelled `self-interested' and which are exemplified by dis/pleasing sensations. Things have `sympathetic value' insofar as they are the intentional objects of sentiments evoked by (images of) the suffering or happiness of others. Things have `ideal value' insofar as they are the objects of such feelings as pride, shame, guilt, accomplishment, respect, and admiration. (Let us call these `respect-feelings.') Objects of respect-feelings are felt to be ideals, instances of ideals, or exceptional approximations to or advances toward ideals, or, in the case of negative value, the opposite of these. Respect-feelings resemble sympathetic feelings in not being self-interested, but they are not essentially tied to the suffering or happiness of others. While all sentient animals experience things to have personal value, and many nonhuman animals seem to experience sympathetic values, it may be that ideal values exist only for humans, since respect-feelings can be had only by subjects who have the ability to imagine ideal conditions, an ability that only beings of considerable intellectual achievement may possess.

[23] The second sort of direct value will be called `end value.' Something has end value insofar as it is the intentional object of desire, want, or felt need. End value is closely related to sentiment value. For instance, to the extent that desire involves imaginatively evoking feelings and emotions, end value is accompanied by sentiment value. However, there is an important difference between the two. Something's sentiment value always agrees with the immediate value of the sentiment of which it is the intentional object, being positive or negative as that sentiment is positive or negative. On the other hand, the immediate value of desires, wants, and felt needs is negative, while the direct value of their intentional objects is positive.

[24] Finally, let us turn to our third primary category of value, immediate value. This is the value of affective experiences as such. (`Affective experiences' refers to dis/pleasing sensation, feelings, emotions, desires, wants, and felt needs.) Such experiences have value which does not derive from something else of value, and they also have value without being intentional objects of other experiences. These experiences have simple to complex positive or negative feels to them, and this gives value to having these experiences. Since the feel of affective experiences is definitive of what they are, they cannot exist without having immediate value. In contrast, although the intentional objects of these experiences cannot be such objects without having direct value, many (if not all) of them, e.g., melodically structured sounds and the personalities of domestic dogs, can exist without being such objects, hence without having direct value. It could be said, then, that things of immediate value are `intrinsically' or `inherently' valuable, while things are not intrinsically or inherently valuable insofar as they are of derivative or direct value.

[25] To conclude this analysis of value, we shall briefly address two further issues. First, the imperative significance of values derives from their relation to affective experiences, for it is only the dis/pleasing sensations, feelings, emotions, desires, wants, and felt needs we experience that move us to action. Without affect, experience is merely the presentation of information. Furthermore, affect has the sort of resistible impetus toward action needed to provide the non-necessitating (physically or logically) character of the imperative.

[26] In the case of moral values, their imperative significance comes from their relation to feelings of sympathy and respect-feelings, since moral values concern how we should act as agents who are not just self-interested. In spite of his distrust of sentiment and his desire to base moral values on pure practical reason, even Kant admitted that it is by being an object of the unselfish feeling of respect that "law itself" becomes a command for us. 4 It is because of their admiration for leading lives of reason that the determinations of reason have imperative significance for enthusiasts of the Enlightenment like Kant and for many other mainstream philosophers. On the other hand, for some romantics, Kierkegaardian aesthetic personalities, and would-be Nietzschean heroes, who love spontaneity and individual uniqueness and feel contempt for cool deliberateness and impersonal universality, that an action is or is not universalizable is the objective basis for its having the opposite value it has for Kantians.

[27] Second, as noted earlier, where the term is used imperatively, questions of `value' are frequently questions about the comparative importance of different values. Since derivative value depends on direct and immediate value, but not vice versa, it may seem to follow that these non-derivative values are always more important, hence more `valuable' in this sense, than derivative values.

[28] Actual practice certainly belies that inference; particularly in environmental matters, derivative value, e.g., the material value of a river, is commonly considered more important than direct value, e.g., the river's aesthetic value. Such practices cannot be dismissed as illogical just because they give greater importance to derivative value than to non-derivative sorts of value. It is not illogical to consider something's derivative value more important than its non-derivative value, if its non-derivative value is considered less important than the value of that to which it is derivatively related. Consequently, determining that something has direct or immediate value does not entail that it should be treated as some sort of end-in-itself and never solely on the basis of its value as a means. Disregarding something's direct or immediate value in favor of its derivative value is a logical possibility.

Applying the analysis of value to nature

[29] In the context of environmental ethics, questions about the `value' of nature are questions both about what sorts of value nature has and the comparative importance of the value of nature. We shall address each in turn. No one questions that nature has derivative value; issues here concern the sorts of derivative value nature has, the implications of its having these derivative values, and the comparative importance of these values.

[30] Nature obviously has the material and productive sorts of derivative value in a wide variety of ways. While acting on some of these values involves interfering with, severely altering, and even destroying nature, at least locally and temporarily, acting on others requires preserving that order. For example, some environmentalists have emphasized the productive value nature has for many people in relation to their feelings of spiritual well-being, and that is a derivative value that requires preserving nature. Similarly, as noted above, environmentalists also emphasize the originary value of nature for the possibility of life on earth, and this is, once again, a value that requires preserving nature. Thus, even if nature had only derivative value or even if nature's derivative value were its highest priority value, that would not imply that we should treat nature as a storehouse of disposable items.

[31] But nature does not have only derivative value. That nature also has or contains things of immediate and direct value is also non-controversial. Since nature contains many sentient, nonhuman animals, it contains many things of immediate value, namely, the affective experiences of these animals. Nature also contains many things that are objects of desire, want, or felt need and thereby contains many things having end value, for humans as well as nonhumans. Finally, elements of nature have direct value (personal, sympathetic, and ideal) by being intentional objects of sentiment. They acquire personal value by being intentional objects of human and nonhuman personal sentiments, including dis/pleasing sensations and aesthetic feelings. The suffering and happiness of wild animals are sometimes intentional objects of sympathetic human and nonhuman feelings and thereby acquire sympathetic value. Furthermore, some people find elements of nature (perhaps even nature itself) to be instances of an ideal condition. Exuberant descriptions of the beauty, harmony, balance, efficiency, and order found in nature frequently indicate that nature contains ideal values for the authors of those descriptions. Also, concepts that have long been used in portraying ideal worlds, e.g., `richness' and `abundance', are commonly used in portraying certain states of nature, e.g., the natural order of the Great Plains before urbanization. As was the case with the derivative values of nature, many of these non-derivative values require preserving nature, although some do not. For instance, while the aesthetic value of sprinting cheetahs requires preserving their way of life, the sympathetic value of the suffering of wild animals implies that we should interfere with the natural order, if that can be done without creating even greater suffering.

[32] Let us now turn to three more controversial possibilities of value for nature. First, for as long as there have been theories of evolution, there have been attempts to find in evolution a goal-directed process, and environmentalists sometimes portray nature as it existed a few hundred -- at most, a few thousand -- years ago as having the end value of being the goal of evolutionary processes. 5 This contention has two major problems. First, it presupposes both that evolution is a goal-oriented process and that the goal of the process is a condition containing those characteristics which differentiate the condition of nature a few hundred or thousand years ago from preceding and subsequent conditions. Those presuppositions are likely false; they are certainly in need of justification.

[33] The second problem here is that for a state of nature to have end value requires that it be the intentional object of someone's desire, want, or felt need. If that requirement is not met, then evolution can be `goal-directed' only in a descriptive sense analogous to the functional sense of `value' discussed above. Conversely, meeting that requirement would require treating nature as a feeling, desiring entity, postulating some supernatural being who has desires, wants, or felt needs concerning nature, or acknowledging that human desires, wants, and felt needs provide the subjective basis for this end value of nature. Justifying either of the first two of these options would be difficult, at best, and while it is obviously true that certain states of nature have end value for many people, that will not give them end value as the goal of evolution.

[34] A non-evolutionary variation on this position is that since living is a goal-directed process -- the goals being health and reproduction -- life itself establishes many values in nature which are independent of human and even nonhuman feelings (See Goodpaster 1978; Taylor 1986). The health of the biosphere and the proliferation of living things on earth also have end value for the dynamic process of life as a whole, on this view. The problem with this view is that it either presumes that all living things and life itself have feelings and desires, which is indefensible, or uses goal and value in strictly descriptive senses which contrast clustering functions, such as maintaining body temperature, with linear functions, such as erosion. Noting such organic `goals' and `values' just provides information; like noting linear functional `values,' it lacks imperative significance.

[35] Second, at least one environmental ethicist contends that nonsentient elements of nature can have direct value as the intentional objects of expanded sympathetic human feelings (See Callicott 1989). However, such feelings are evoked by the suffering or happiness of others; so, to the extent that one believes elements of nature to be insentient, they cannot be objects of sympathy. As the wide variety and extent of animistic beliefs show, it is easy for people to attribute feelings to elements of nature, and such animistic beliefs can provide a basis for attributing sympathetic value to nature. However, these animistic beliefs are not credible.

[36] Third, the phrase `respect for nature' is frequently used in discussing environmental issues. `Respect' can refer to certain behaviors, where it means `taking into account' or `not interfering with.' In these senses, `respecting' nature is non-controversial. But, as discussed above, `respect' also refers to feelings whose intentional objects have ideal value. Now, as already noted, it is non-controversial that some people find elements of nature to have ideal value, but controversy arises when it is claimed that nature has such value independent of human beings. Such ideal value would require that there be a nonhuman subject or subjects of sufficient intellectual ability to entertain ideals for whom nature is the object of feelings of respect, and demonstrating that that requirement has been met is again difficult, at best. Furthermore, the imperative implications for us of nature having ideal value for some other subject or subjects are also not obvious.

[37] Finally, let us conclude with three comments concerning comparative evaluations, and for purposes of this discussion, let us presume that human and nonhuman animals provide the only subjective bases for the values of nature. First, perhaps the most obvious priority value of nature arises from its originary value as a necessary condition for the possibility of life and, thereby, of all other values. However, the practical significance of that priority is unclear, due both to uncertainties about how much nature can be changed without destroying life on earth and to concerns with what is required for preserving quality of life and not just the fact of life.

[38] Second, things of ideal value thereby acquire high priority. Consequently, to the extent that people come to have feelings of respect for certain states of nature, preserving or regaining those states will have high priority for them. However, bringing people to have such feelings on the basis of moral argument will be difficult, at least in the West, since our traditional moral principles and concepts have tended to contrast the ideal with the natural, e.g., the lion lying down with the lamb vs. nature red in tooth and claw.

[39] Third, since all values emanate directly or derivatively from immediate values, things of immediate value have a kind of logical priority to other things of value. That is, the value of things of direct or derivative value always depends on the value of things of immediate value, while immediate values are inherent, even though the existence of things of immediate value depends on the existence of some things of direct or derivative value. Now, insofar as affective experiences are part of subjectivity, subjectivity shares in this priority, and insofar as sentient subjects are part of nature, nature also shares in this priority. To those extents, then, treating nature as lacking immediate value involves a mistake. Also, to the extent that our moral concerns direct us not to disregard the immediate value of things by treating them as mere means, directs us to maximize positive or minimize negative immediate value, or otherwise directs us to give a high priority to respecting all things of positive immediate value, at least in the sense of not interfering with them, nature can share in that moral priority.

Received October 11, 1994.


Callicott, J. Baird (1989). "On the Intrinsic Value of Nonhuman Species." In In Defense of the Land Ethic. Albany: SUNY Press.  

Goodpaster, Kenneth (1978). "On Being Morally Considerable." Journal of Philosophy, 75: 308-25.  

Kant, Immanuel (1959). Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Lewis Beck White (translator). Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.  

Leopold, Aldo (1949). A Sand County Almanac. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Sapontzis, S. F. (1987). Morals, Reason, and Animals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.  

Singer, Peter (1990). Animal Liberation, Second Edition. New York: New York Review.  

Taylor, Paul (1986). Respect for Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.  

Worster, Donald (1993). "The Ecology of Order and Chaos." In Environmental Ethics, Armstrong and Botzler (eds.). New York: McGraw-Hill.


1 See his Animal Liberation (1990), especially Chapter 1, "All Animals Are Equal." Return.

 2 See the discussions of the difference between `having an interest' and `taking an interest' and of the value of life in my Morals, Reason, and Animals (1987), chapters 7 and 9. Return.

 3 See A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part IV, Section VI. Return.

 4 Kant contends that "law itself can be an object of respect and thus a command" (emphasis added), and while he is at pains to distinguish respect from feelings "which may be referred to inclination or fear," he acknowledges that "respect is a feeling" (1959: 16-18). Return.

 5 For example, "Natures course, [Frederlc Clements] contended, is not an aimless wandering to and fro but a steady flow toward stability" (Worster 1993: 40). Return.

©1995 S. F. Sapontzis
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