The Holy Grail in Environmental Ethics

374px-Holygrail

“To hear those who would know tell the tale,” writes Katie McShane, “in the early days of environmental ethics,” intrinsic value was “the holy grail.  Everybody wanted to find a theory on which it would turn out that nature had intrinsic value…”

(SPOILER ALERT: the story ends in disappointment.)

But Katie McShane salvages a happy-ish ending in her article “Why Environmental Ethics Shouldn’t Give Up on Intrinsic Value.”  It’s a helpful introduction to the issue of intrinsic value.  It also presents a nuanced view of how we can fit intrinsic value into a field that no longer quests after its glimmering gold.

McShane first shows that “intrinsic value” can be used to talk about four things:

The role that something should play in moral decision making

We might say that intrinsic values outweigh other values.  Photo by Norbert Nagel.
We might say that intrinsic values outweigh other values. Photo by Norbert Nagel.

The way in which it makes sense to care about something

We might say intrinsic values are not means to some other ends.  Photo by Erik Strindberg.
We might say intrinsic values are not means to some other ends. Photo by Erik Strindberg.

The properties of something that make it valuable

We might say that something has intrinsic value because its value does not relate to anything beyond itself.
We might say that something has intrinsic value because its value does not relate to anything beyond itself.

The metaphysical status of something’s value

We might use intrinsic value to refer to values that exists "out there" in the real world.
We might use intrinsic value to refer to values that exist”out there” in the real world.

McShane wants to focus on the second use of “intrinsic value” – the way it makes sense to care about something.

800px-20060513_toolbox

She first explains what she means by “valuing.”  McShane says that when we value something, we assume one or more valuing attitudes.

Among these particular valuing attitudes, some have a different structure than others. Some are what we might call intrinsic valuing attitudes—ways of valuing something for its own sake, or in its own right, while others are what we might call extrinsic valuing attitudes—ways of valuing something for the sake of some other valuable thing.

So some valuing attitudes might be called intrinsic valuing attitudes.  These include, for instance, respect, awe, love, etc.  “Love involves seeing the object of love as having worth independently of the value of other things that you (and others) care about.”  “To be in awe of something is in part to treat it as having a kind of greatness in its own right.”

One reason that we might find the concept of intrinsic value useful then is that we seem to do a lot of intrinsic valuing.

McShane also thinks that not all valuing attitudes are appropriate in a given situation.  For instance:

We think that some things should be valued intrinsically and other things should be valued extrinsically.

Consider the case of Ebenezer Scrooge…His mistake was that he valued money intrinsically and he valued people extrinsically…He got it backwards.

So when we say that “something is the sort of thing that it makes sense to value,” what we mean is that something deserves to be valued in a particular way – e.g. from a particular valuing attitude.  And when we say that a forest – or a mountain or the meadow at the edge of town – “is the sort of thing that it makes sense to value,” we might mean that it deserves to be valued from the perspective of an intrinsically valuing attitude.  

How do we know which valuing attitude is appropriate in a given situation? McShane doesn’t tell us.  But when it comes to valuing nature, she points to a literary culture that tell us to assume an intrinsically valuing attitude toward nature. Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Barry Lopez, etc…”all describe various intrinsic valuing attitudes that they take toward parts of the natural environment and urge these attitudes upon their readers.”

356px-Walden_Thoreau

If we abandon the idea of intrinsic value, we create a mismatch between our concepts of value and our sense of which values are appropriate in particular contexts.

What we lose, then, in giving up the concept of intrinsic value, is the prospect of an ethics that can accept the structure of many of our most common valuing attitudes…


 

McShane uses this definition of intrinsic value to respond to three objections raised against intrinsic value.

1) Intrinsic value is too “atomistic.”  Values are interdependent.

McShane dodges this objection nicely.  She simply points out that she is talking about intrinsic value as the second of the four uses she identified – i.e. the way it makes sense to care about something.  If she were talking about the first use – how we weigh moral decisions – then this objection might have some bite.  But even if she were, it sounds like she has an answer:

Once we give up the idea that believing in intrinsic value means holding some sort of hyper-atomistic picture of the world on which the only thing that matters for the purposes of ethics is what each individual thing is like in its own right, there is less reason to be disturbed by the claim that our deeply interconnected world contains things that deserve to be intrinsically valued.

2) Believing in intrinsic value leads to metaphysical implications that are unfounded and…wacky.

McShane again dodges this by what I’ll now call “taking the second” – reminding critics that she is only referring to that second use of intrinsic value.  If she were discussing the fourth – to refer to values that exist “out there” in the real world – then she might have a problem.

3) We don’t need the idea of intrinsic value to justify environmental policy.

McShane, in a response that’s reminiscent of another of her articles that I posted about previously, focuses on the importance of attitudes.

Even if it were true that considerations of extrinsic value could justify the same policies as considerations of intrinsic value, they still would not be able to justify taking the same attitudes.

[E]thics is not just a matter of figuring out which public policies we ought to adopt…


 

What do I think?

I think McShane’s view of intrinsic value is a good one.  It makes clear why it’s necessary for us to continue thinking about intrinsic value.  But she avoids the most intriguing question: how do we know which valuing attitudes are appropriate?  Do we just look around at what people tend to think?  When it comes to valuing nature, McShane cites writers such as Aldo Leopold to argue that intrinsic valuing attitudes are appropriate.  But should we look to literary culture to decide the question of appropriateness?

Also, what are some examples of extrinsic valuing attitudes?  McShane doesn’t mention any.  Can they too be inappropriate in given situations?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s