Don’t worry, it’s not contagious

One of the questions that drew me into environmental philosophy was whether ecosystems could be healthy or sick.  A lot of people around me were talking (and still do) about “restoring ecosystem health.”  When I started my job with the environmental non-profit, I felt like I’d joined a clinic of nurses attending to patient Earth.  So I wondered, does it make sense to describe an ecosystem as healthy or unhealthy?  Is this merely metaphorical (as in a “healthy economy”), or can an ecosystem actually be unhealthy?

And once again, as with every step I take in environmental philosophy, I was surprised to learn that lots of people were actively debating this very topic.

Philosopher Katie McShane argues that in “Ecosystem Health” that, yes, it does make sense to describe an ecosystem as healthy or unhealthy.

First, she avoids discussing whether an ecosystem is “an organism”, which she thinks is “a red herring in the debate about ecosystem health.”

Rather than worry about the features of organisms, we should directly consider what characteristics a thing must have before we can call it healthy or unhealthy.

What does it mean to be “a bearer of health”?  You must have three things: a structure, parts with functions, and the ability to be better or worse off.  McShane argues that ecosystems have all three.

1) Structure

McShane says that “healthy things are those that maintain the structure that they are supposed to have – the structure that is appropriate for them in their particular circumstances.”  McShane says that ecosystems have structures – e.g. patterns of speciation, cycles of energy flow, etc. – but she doesn’t explain which structures “are appropriate.”  

2) Parts with functions

This is a little tricky.  McShane says that, “For to be a function of X is for it to be the case that X is there because it does F, and that F is a consequence of X’s being there.”


But not all functions are constitutive of health.  For instance, a dairy cow’s function (Fmight be to enrich dairy farmers.  It is bred, raised, and maintained because it does F, and F is a consequence of its existence.  But it would be odd to say that if a cow’s milk failed to earn money for a dairy farmer, the cow is unhealthy.

So we need to limit functions to those that are related to health.

3) Ability to be better or worse off 

To do this, McCane narrows it down to functions that promote well-being, by which she means functions that would make sense for someone who cared for you, to want for you, for your own sake.  

But in the case of ecosystems, it’s not even clear what “you” meas.  Turns out,  it’s tricky to define – or delineate – an ecosystem.  It is “underdetermined” by the natural facts.  Instead, humans decide how to delineate an ecosystem when doing research, etc.  But…

If the definition of any particular ecosystem depends on human interests, and if what counts as good for the ecosystem depends on how the ecosystem is defined, then what’s good for the ecosystem depends, although indirectly, on human interests.

So we’re back to the absurdity of saying that a cow is unhealthy because her milk – for whatever reason – isn’t making money for the dairy farmer.

McShane makes an interesting move: she compares the difficulty in delineating an ecosystem with the difficulty in delineating a person.  For instance, are you today the same person you were twenty years ago?  It’s in society’s interest to say “Yes”:

Thinking of the current you as the same person as the former you enables social conventions for attributing responsibility – praise, blame, etc.

So if you go binge-drinking tonight, that will be bad for the health of “you” tomorrow.  Fine.   The point is that how we define “person” will determine how we evaluate their health, because if tomorrow’s you were not the same you as today, then binge-drinking tonight would not decrease “your” health tomorrow.  And importantly, our definition of “person” is in the interests of society: to allow us to assign responsibility for one’s (prior) actions.

If this analogy is right, then we should expect an analogous worry to arise here: if what counts as “you” depends in part on society’s general interest in attributions of responsibility, and if your well-being depends on what counts as “you,” then your well-being will be a function of the interests of society, which seems to violate our understanding of what it is to have a good of your own.

But it doesn’t, because McShane sees a difference between a definition contributing to something else’s interests, and a good contributing to something else’s interests.

While the former is the situation for ecosystems and person, the latter is what it would take for your good to be merely derivative, i.e. not a good of your own.

So the fact that we define “ecosystem” based on our interests – say, as a researcher – does not require us to conclude that ecosystems don’t have the ability to be better or worse off for their own sake.  

But let’s go back to McShane’s definition of well-being:

To do this, McCane narrows it down to functions that promote well-being, by which she means functions that would make sense for someone who cared for you, to want for you, for your own sake. 

What does it mean for it to “make sense” to care for an ecosystem?

She says there are two ways in which it wouldn’t make sense, neither of which pose a problem here.  First, it wouldn’t “make sense” to care if there were concerns about the rationality of doing so, such as errors in reasoning, incomplete information, etc.  Second, it wouldn’t “make sense” if the nature of caring conflicted with other views we held – e.g. if we were simultaneously indifferent.  Frankly, I can’t quite follow McShane on this point.  Suffice to say, she thinks that it can “make sense” to care for an ecosystem.

She concludes:

In sum, then, we can see ecosystem health as a matter of maintaining the structure and functions that are good for the ecosystem. In order to determine which structure and functions are good for the ecosystem, we should ask what it would make sense for someone who cared for the ecosystem to want for it for its sake. At least on most understandings of what an ecosystem is, there are things it would make sense for a carer to want for an ecosystem for its sake. Insofar as this is the case, ecosystems are the kind of thing that can be healthy or unhealthy in a fully literal sense.

Are you convinced?

I’m not sure I am.  I find troubling her point that:

we should ask what it would make sense for someone who cared for the ecosystem to want for it for its sake.

There are four components:

(i) what it would make sense

(ii) someone who cared for the ecosystem

(iii) to want for it

(iv) for its sake

McShane addresses (i), although in a way I did not follow.  She also addresses (iv), in what I think was the most interesting part of the article: the analogy between defining an ecosystem and defining “you.”  The second point, (ii), does not seem to require more analysis.  But I think McShane needs to address (iii).  What does it mean to define health based on what someone else wants?  Is this really how we think about health?  Do we consider our own health in terms of what someone else – say, our friends or family – want for us?

I wonder if McShane uses this definition because it avoids discussing nature’s intrinsic value.  After all, it does seem (to me at least, and my understanding is currently rather superficial), that ecosystem health and intrinsic value might be related concepts.

With respect to (iv) – the analogy between defining ecosystems and defining selves – I noticed that McShane doesn’t consider human health.  She considers human “well-being” in the context of moral responsibility.  But questions of human health are questions of the body, which – unlike the definition of “the self” – are not “undetermined by natural facts.”

I think McShane does a good job arguing that ecosystems can in fact be healthy, but I’m not entirely convinced.  I hope to get her thoughts on these points soon, via interview, for I think my evaluation of her argument has more to do with my recent entry into philosophy, rather than the soundness of her ideas.  I’m also realizing how much literature outside of environmental ethics exists on questions of value.


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