Is Nature Intrinsically Valuable?

Looking through two thought experiments

As of this writing, the Trump administration has rolled back eighty-three regulations that protect the natural environment in addition to gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. These actions could come at a high human cost, possibly resulting in 80,000 more deaths per decade as well as accelerating climate change.

Photo by Ruben Mishchuk

Most of the political discussion regarding environmental degradation focuses on the impact it will have on human welfare. Indeed, any policy calling for environmental regulation must be justified based on a cost-benefit analysis, where the cost is human cost and the benefit is human benefit. In other words, the philosophical underpinning of this debate focuses almost solely on the instrumental value of nature.

What seems to be missing is a much-needed discussion of the intrinsic value of the natural environment. This question is important because most environmentalists — such as deep ecologists — assume that the natural environment is intrinsically valuable, which would have important implications for how we ought to treat it.

It’s uncontroversial that nature has a lot of instrumental value. Something has instrumental value when it brings us something else that’s valuable. The benefit it brings explains why it has value. Ecosystems, for example, provide innumerable services that are good for us. Wetlands provide protection against storm surge. Rainforests produce oxygen. Predator species provide disease and pest control. The list goes on.

I’m going to present a couple thought experiments to gauge our intuitions regarding whether nature is valuable, even if we wouldn’t benefit from it.

Something has intrinsic value if it’s valuable even if it doesn’t bring us anything else that’s valuable. It’s valuable in itself. One way of figuring out if a good thing is intrinsically valuable is by seeing if there’s no explanation for why it’s obviously valuable. Happiness is a standard example. Why is happiness valuable? It just is! This test, however, won’t help us discover if nature is intrinsically valuable. This is because it’s possible — in theory — that nature is valuable only because it provides us with other things that are valuable.

So how can we figure out if nature is intrinsically valuable?

Perhaps we could simply appeal to the joy we get when we experience nature. Witnessing a beautiful ocean sunset, enjoying a nature walk, or marveling at a natural wonder speaks deeply to nature’s value. Unfortunately, this route can’t show whether nature has intrinsic value. In such cases, nature seems to be valuable just because of the good experiences it provides us.

If the natural environment didn’t provide us with these experiences — or anything else that benefited us — would it still be valuable? Pursuing this question may be the key.

To answer this question, it’s helpful to define ‘natural’. There are many different definitions of nature. For our purposes, the best one is whatever is the most useful for our inquiry. Broadly speaking, we’re engaging in an environmental ethical issue. Since, environmental ethics deals with how we ought to treat and regard the natural environment, an appropriate definition of nature is whatever isn’t human-made. So, let’s run with that.

In what follows, I’m going to present a couple thought experiments to gauge our intuitions regarding whether nature is valuable, even if we wouldn’t benefit from it. This will help us figure out if nature is intrinsically valuable.

The Replication Thought Experiment

Imagine a lush green forest, unaltered by human beings. The forest provides all the typical goods for us. Its ecosystem provides important services. Its beauty provides pleasant experiences and recreation for hikers. It is, of course, completely natural. Call this forest Eden 1.0.

Photo by Pietro de Grandi

Now imagine scientists have figured out how to replicate natural phenomena all the way down to the cellular level. They could, for example, reproduce a redwood tree that looks and functions exactly like a natural redwood. However, the replicated redwood is silicone-based and is made by humans. It’s unnatural. Now imagine that scientists replicated Eden 1.0. Let’s call the replication Eden 2.0. Eden 2.0 looks exactly the same as Eden 1.0. It also functions exactly like Eden 1.0, providing the same ecosystem services. In other words, we get the same benefits out of Eden 2.0 as we did from Eden 1.0.

Is any value lost in Eden 2.0 that was present in Eden 1.0?

The thought experiment sets up a case in which we have two environments, exactly the same in terms of the value and benefits it produces, but one is natural and the other is not. So, any loss of value incurred by Eden 2.0 can only be explained by the fact that naturalness must be intrinsically valuable.

So, does Eden 2.0 have less value?

The thought experiment should pull us in the direction of a ‘yes.’ To many, it certainly seems like the replicated forest has less value. This lends support to the idea that the natural environment has intrinsic value. It’s the only way of explaining why Eden 2.0 has less value than Eden 1.0. More could be said, however, as to why it has intrinsic value. Perhaps, for example, the fact that Eden 1.0 has a natural history confers its value. In any case, let’s move on to the second thought experiment.

The Last Man on Earth

Imagine that there’s one person left on earth, Bobert. Having no company after so many years, Bobert becomes bored beyond measure. So he does something strange to alleviate his boredom. Gathering all the explosives he can find, he decides to blow up a chunk of an old-growth forest. He follows through and blows it up. Don’t worry, there were no animals in the forest.

Does Bobert do anything wrong?

Most people probably would think Bobert did do something wrong. So, let’s assume this is true. What explains this?

Since he’s the last person on earth the wrongness of his action cannot be because he undermined anyone else’s interests. There were no animals in the forest, so it also can’t be because he arbitrarily harmed animals. If either of these were the explanation, then we’ve only shown that the forest has instrumental value, since the wrongness would be explained by Bobert preventing other beings from benefiting from the forest’s goods. But in this case, the forest isn’t benefiting any sentient beings, except Bobert since he alleviates his boredom from blowing it up. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem like he harmed himself or thwarted his own interests since he genuinely wanted to blow up the forest.

Policies that contribute to the extinction of species or destruction of ecosystems could never be justified solely on a cost-benefit analysis if nature is intrinsically valuable

What else could explain the wrongness of Bobert’s action? A good explanation would be the fact that the forest has intrinsic value. If something is intrinsically valuable, it would be wrong to destroy it unless there’s some very good reason to do so. Alleviating boredom wouldn’t count as a good reason. So, it seems that the forest has intrinsic value since this would be a plausible explanation for why Bobert did something wrong in destroying it. If we can show that it’s the only explanation and that Bobert, without a doubt, did something wrong, then we can be pretty certain that nature has intrinsic value.

I think these cases do a pretty good job at gauging our intuitions about the intrinsic value of nature. They are a way of providing an argument that the natural environment is intrinsically valuable. Some environmental philosophers, however, believe that establishing the intrinsic value of nature is beyond argument. According to them, it’s a fact that nature is intrinsically valuable, but we can only know this through direct experience. This is why it’s important to actually go out and experience nature. I think there’s something to this idea. After all, can we really know the value of something if we’ve never truly experienced it?

Philosophical analysis can get abstract. At times it can seem divorced from the real world. This holds true with discussions about the value of nature. However, it’s important to remember that whether nature is intrinsically valuable has important practical ramifications. For example, if it’s true that nature is intrinsically valuable, then parts of the natural environment that are useless to us should still be regarded with respect and treated well.

Policies that contribute to the extinction of species or destruction of ecosystems could never be justified solely on a cost-benefit analysis if nature is intrinsically valuable since this value would be deeply morally significant. These, as we’ve seen, are policies supported by the Trump administration. I propose, then, that it would be beneficial for the environmentalist movement to bring more focus on the issue of nature’s intrinsic value.

A philosophy professor who works in practical ethics. @ryankhubbard

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