ON THE VALUE OF
A predecessor to
this paper first appeared in the anthology that
I collected for my classes at UC Santa Barbara
(1980). This is the revision that I used
at the University of Colorado in 1985.
Throughout civilized history, moral philosophers have
attempted to define moral virtue and to defend principles of
rights, obligation and justice. Since the early days of
philosophy, these principles of morality have generally been
applied to those most vulnerable to our deliberate acts and
motives, namely our fellow human beings and a few
immediately neighboring species. In their endeavor
throughout the ages to comprehend the intricacies of our
personal virtues and our interpersonal duties and claims,
philosophers have left a legacy of enduring wisdom. But it
is a legacy of thought which tends to identify humanity as
the "measure" of value and obligation. For the most part,
this has been an appropriate perspective since, for
virtually all of recorded history, human beings have been
the primary beneficiaries and victims of human action.
"Nature," on the other hand, has appeared to be too vast,
inscrutable, invulnerable and indifferent to be morally
relevant. However, this is no longer the case. Within the
lifetime of many of us, civilized man has so increased his
scientific knowledge, his technological capacity and his
economic demands, that his horizons of moral responsibility
have expanded to encompass geophysical phenomena, wild
ecosystems and their threatened species, and unborn
generations into the remote future.
Pity the poor moral philosopher! He has been thrust
"outside" of his familiar man-centered abode of thought and
into a larger context with unprecedented challenges;
notably, the challenge of defining mankind's moral
responsibility to a newly-vulnerable nature. What is he to
An understandable and widespread response is to pour the
old wine into the new bottles -- to define and justify our
dealings with nature in terms of our dealings with each
other -- with mankind. Thus, in his provocatively titled
book People or Penguins, William Baxter writes: "I
reject the proposition that we ought to respect the "balance
of nature" or to "preserve the environment" unless the
reason for doing so. . . is the benefit of man."1
This approach to environmental ethics, which we'll call
"anthropocentrism" (and occasionally, "human chauvinism") is
intuitively appealing. We all think this way, more or less.
Moreover, in some instances, I dare say we should.
Anthropocentrism is the predominant and operative
presupposition of legislators, government planners and
policy-makers. With its long and distinguished role in the
history of ideas, it is an important ingredient of
intelligent environmental deliberation. For all that, those
who hold the anthropocentric position uncritically and
exclusively must be carefully watched, for they are the
enemy. Often honorable and intelligent adversaries, to be
sure, but the enemy nonetheless. If honorable and
intelligent, they deserve the courtesy of rational and
scholarly debate. But beware: given the weight of tradition
on their side, we can easily enter into a contest for which
our opponents have set the rules. This can be a damaging
tactical error on the part of the defenders of wild nature.
In these remarks, I would like to suggest some troublesome
presuppositions of which the ecological moralist should be
wary, and sketch the elements of a reply to the human
To begin, I invite you to eavesdrop on an imaginative
encounter between a human chauvinist and an ecological
moralist. And to bring these issues close to home, I must
dare you to contemplate the worst: It is the year 2000 AD.
The Big Sur coast has been leased to the Disney Corporation,
with sport-boating and skin-diving franchises sub-let,
respectively, to Evinrude and Marineland. Surveying the
scene at Bonzo Beach are two protagonists: "Ben" (named for
Jeremy Bentham, that quintessential anthropocentrist) and
"Drew" (for "Druid," a defeated but unbowed
Ben: Now, Drew, just look out there at all those
boaters, fishermen and scuba divers. They're having the
time of their lives! Couldn't do it if we'd left it as
it was. Would you deprive those good people, and tens of
thousands of others up and down this coast, of that
experience, just so that you and a few of your friends
can sit on a rock with your binoculars and watch
Drew: Scuba diving and motorboating are trivial
kicks compared to the profound, even religious
experiences that were to be had on these beaches, when
they were wild, isolated and unspoiled. There are many
places for one to go boating and scuba diving. But now
there are no more Sea Otters. This time the price of yet
another playground was just too much!
Ben: Well, there we have it, Drew. Plain, simple,
unashamed elitism. You have the arrogance to claim that
your enjoyments count more than those of hundreds of
thousands of other citizens. Well, they've freely chosen
their modes of recreation just has you have. So why
should yours count for more? Yet that is just what you
propose. A few dozen hikers, shutterbugs and
wildlife-watchers are to count more than thousands of
boaters, fishermen and skin-divers.
Aren't you just telling us that you have a better
quality of enjoyment than the rest of us poor,
insensitive slobs? Just who the hell do you think you
are to say such a thing! I won't stand for it!
Now look, Drew, we live in a democracy. Once we let
people like you trample on other's enjoyments -- where
will it all end? From "officially preferred enjoyments"
to "officially preferred thoughts?" If we let you loose,
we won't have a democracy any more!
Drew: There are many kinds of tyranny, Ben. One
of them is tyranny of the majority. Must every, or even
any, magnificent wild shoreline be despoiled for water
sports? These so-called "sportsmen," not to mention
those oil rigs out there, have more than their share.
It's a big, big, ocean! Why must they have this too?
Just as an ecosystem is richer and stronger the more
diverse it is, so too a civilization is strengthened
through diversity -- a diversity of ideas, tastes and
More people enjoy the BeeGees than Bach. Should every
radio station be a rock station? Should classics be
crowded off the air (as they effectively are in many
places)? Is there no place for diversity? Must the
majority crowd out and destroy the enjoyments and tastes
of the minority?
And consider options, Ben, options. What do we do
when we run out of gas and these sports become obsolete
and uneconomical -- or maybe just unfashionable. We
can't go back again! This once magnificent place is a
ruin. The condors and the sea otters are gone, never to
return. Extinction is forever. We have forever lost the
chance for those earlier, gentler enjoyments, and the
world, and civilization, are the poorer for it.
Very eloquent, Drew, but watch out! You may find that you
are playing the other guy's game. Do that, and he's gotcha!
Consider, first, the anthropocentrist's familiar "elitism
argument." It is a powerful ploy, and the preservationist
will not help his case by casually dismissing it. The charge
of "elitism" deserves careful reflection and response. For
consider: how many thousands of happy, beer guzzling,
swinish, motorized vacationers does it take to offset the
loss of the refined, spiritual enjoyments of a sensitive,
beautiful, high-minded communicants with nature, such as
you, gentle reader? Well, let us presume, as we surely
should, that it will take a great deal of gleeful
divers-boaters-fishers to count more than the profound
experience enjoyed by those of us who have sat alone by the
surf watching the sea otters at play. But however lopsided
the ratio, it still represents a finite number. What number?
Ten to one? Perhaps so. But the ratio of "sportsmen" to the
nature lovers they replaced may well be turn out to be in
excess of one-hundred to one. So is the enjoyment of the sea
otter's friend 100 times better? He still loses. A thousand
times better? Well, maybe so. But let's face it, if we
insist upon defending this ratio, we begin to sound more
than a little bit cheeky, for we are asserting, in effect,
that our enjoyments are a thousand times greater and thus a
thousand times "more important." Isn't this beginning to
sound just a bit implausible? If so, and if human enjoyment
alone is to be the sole measure of the comparable value of
the coastline before and after Disney Inc.'s "improvements,"
then it appears that the decision to lease the place was not
such a bad idea. In sum: beware the "quality of experience"
argument. While there is much to recommend it, if we place
too much stock in it, we may end up playing by the other
The reply by our preservationist to the "elitism"
argument is quite astute. He raises, we recall, the issue of
fairness and justice; in particular, he believes it unfair
to allow "the majority [to] crowd out and destroy the
enjoyments and tastes of the minority."
The justice argument is a strong and effective response
to the utility argument ("by the numbers") proposed by
"Ben." But note that both arguments are anthropocentric. A
preservationist may thus need more than the sort of values
that "cash in" in terms of sums of human enjoyment and
benefit (utilitarianism) or, alternatively, in terms of the
fair treatment of humans, respect for the dignity and
integrity of humans, or the value of human diversity. But
where is one to find such non-anthropocentric values? How is
one to validate such values?
Consider now another conversation, this one recorded by
John McPhee in his book Encounters with the Archdruid. The "archdruid"
of the title is David Brower, and the "encounter" is between
Brower and Charles Park, a mining engineer. Surveying the
magnificence of the endangered Glacier Park wilderness,
"Wilderness was originally a nice place to go to, but
that is not what wilderness is for. Wilderness is the
bank for the genetic variability of the earth. We're
wiping out that reserve at a frightening rate. We should
draw a line right now. Whatever is wild, leave it wild."
Park replies: "Taking very large areas out of the
country and keeping them as they were a thousand years
ago -- you can't do it. The population pressure is too
"A wilderness," says Brower, "is a place where
natural forces can keep working essentially
uninterrupted by man. If ten per cent is still wild, we
should tithe with it. Man has taken enough for himself
already. We should pretend the rest doesn't exist. It's
there for a different purpose."
"What purpose?" challenges Park.
"Not man's purpose. Man is a recent thing in the time
So there we have it: "not man's purpose" -- a direct
rejection of anthropocentrism.
Let's now give the devil his due -- and the best argument
that we can muster in his behalf. Accordingly, the human
chauvinist might then ask: "If 'not man's purpose,' then
whose? and if wilderness exists for a 'purpose' other than
man's, then why should mankind care about it -- care enough,
that is, to protect and preserve wilderness? Why should we
care about so-called 'non-human purpose' - we're humans!
What moral constraint and obligation can such a "purpose"
have upon us?" I think that there is an avenue out of this
trap, and I will shortly suggest it to you. But first, let's
recapitulate the issues that have emerged from this
When a preservationist plays by the developer's rules,
thus confining his arguments to considerations of concrete
benefits to human beings, the preservationist might very
well lose. But when the preservationist tries to weigh
"interests of nature" against human interest, his argument
appears weak, or at least quite unpersuasive. We seem to be
without a clear reason to lift a finger to benefit non-human
reality, if that "benefit" does not benefit mankind as well.
Because of this, of course, the preservationist's arguments
(so far) are unlikely to convince those in his audience
presumably humans) who are not already convinced.
Let's look at this dilemma very carefully: first (a)
appeals to human interest will, in some important cases, be
insufficient to warrant the preservation of wilderness.
However, (b) appeals to "non-human purposes" have no
psychological hold upon human beings, and in addition to
this (perhaps even because of this) they may convey little
moral obligation either. Short of conceding the argument to
the anthropocentrist, what are we to do about this impasse?
Philosophy professors have long advised: "if stymied,
don't ask 'what is the answer?' ask instead, 'what is the
question?'" It's good advice, since an adversary's questions
often covertly employ his rules for the contest. Such, I
suggest, is the problem before us, and the culprit question
is as follows: "Do we need "useless nature?"
It would seem, simply by definition, that we do not --
after all, we don't need what is useless -- that is, "what
we do not need." A second pointed question readily follows:
"Why, then, should we preserve that which we do not need
(e.g., wild nature and some wild species)?"
Of course, a preservationist might quickly reply that "we
just think we don't need wilderness. But how do we know, for
sure, that we or our posterity do not or will not need it?"
This is a splendid answer -- perhaps it is answer enough.
But note that it is nonetheless an anthropocentric answer.
So, for the sake of our effort to refute human chauvinism,
let's assume (falsely, I believe) that we can somehow
determine, beyond doubt, that certain species, ecosystems,
landscapes and seascapes are now and for all time "useless"
to human beings. What, then, remains by way of support for
On the face of it, it appears that the eco-moralist is
trapped -- that his adversary has cleverly led him into a
logical corral and locked the gate. But there may be a hole
in the back fence. And here it is: the apparently
contradictory statement "we need to need what we don't need"
is a false caricature of the preservationist claim. A better
and fuller statement of that claim is this: "Human life may
be enriched by caring for things that are of no (practical)
use to human beings." Not only is the claim not
contradictory, it is validated in the lives of most alert,
perceptive and caring individuals. And those whose lives do
not validate this claim may, for that very reason, lead
The human chauvinist's retort is straightforward: "Why
should this be regarded as an alternative to our position?
If anything whatever is found to cause an 'unenviable' human
life, we reject it, and if anything is found to 'enrich'
human life, we embrace it. After all, that's the very point
of the anthropocentric position. It's as simple as that!"
It's too simple, perhaps; for while the direct aim of
anthropocentrism may be to improve human life, there is
abundant historical and psychological evidence, as well as
philosophical speculation, to support the suggestion that
the deliberate and exclusive pursuit of the aim of
maximizing human utility may frustrate that very aim. Moral
philosophers, from Aristotle of old to his present
successors, in addition to contemporary psychologists, game
theorists, economists, etc., have commented time and again
that morality, at its root, is paradoxical (in the sense
that it is productive of results contrary to aim and
expectation). For example: happiness eludes the pleasure
seeker; the pursuit by each individual of rational
self-interest brings ruin upon all individuals (the tragedy
of the commons); to seek a "love affair" for the sake of
personal "payoff" with little care for the welfare of the
"love object," is a self-defeating enterprise; national
striving for security provokes international insecurity.
Paradoxes all -- and the list can be readily extended.
Might it not, then, be possible that, in their
"goal-oriented activity," many "practical" businessmen,
legislators and policy-makers lack a sense of the paradox at
work in our moral deliberations and actions? -- a sense of
paradox intuitively appreciated by most of us in the course
of our personal lives and devotions? Many moral philosophers
(including this one) would contend that crucial
environmental decisions are made by individuals without such
a sense of paradox. Furthermore, we would contend that
morality, though paradoxical, is not incomprehensible. In
fact, once we acknowledge the fact of paradox in moral
behavior and judgment, study its psychological grounds and
its rationale in game theory, and finally view our
responsibilities to others and to nature from the
perspective of the social and biotic communities, these
paradoxes are resolved and our morality responsibility
appears quite intelligible and rational.
If, as moral philosophers, we can embrace paradox, then
the ecological moralist need not be embarrassed by his
assertion that "we need 'useless things'." For naturalists,
from Thoreau and Muir to Jeffers and Brower, have all
pointed out that an awareness of the very indifference of
nature to humanity is a tonic, and that, on the other hand,
a projection of human ends and interests into the
contemplation of wilderness diminishes the values of the
wilderness experience to the observer. Thus a "developer"
who assesses the wild in terms of its "payoffs" for mankind,
may, paradoxically, deprive us of the enrichment offered us
by wilderness, just as the so-called "lover" who plots to
"get the most out of this relationship " will end up with
much less than one whose love is manifested in selfless
Earlier, I promised a sketch of a non-anthropocentric
defense of nature. I now propose to fulfill that promise.
But first recall, please, that I identified the proponent of
"uncritical and exclusive anthropocentrism" as "the enemy."
This need does not, however, mean that "human benefit" might
not be appealed to in defense of the natural environment. If
compelling evidence of "human benefit" can be offered in
defense of the natural environment, that's just more bread
on the eco-moralist's plate. But unlike the uncompromising
anthropocentrist, the eco-moralist need not live by bread
alone. So what else is there to support the argument of
First of all, an ecological perspective in morality
reflects sound scientific concepts, principles and facts. Homo sapiens is, in fact, a functioning member of the
life community. Life forms in natural communities do, in
fact, interact, and they are best understood as functioning
components in integrated systems rather than as discrete
aggregates that happen to share physical space. Mankind, in
fact, evolved in this life community, and virtually all of
his taxonomic history took place in direct encounter with
wild nature. Biotic "insularity" and artificiality is a late
development in the career of homo sapiens. Quite possibly,
then, human beings retain a neurological and even a
psychological need for the natural environments in which
From moral psychology we find that for our personal
fulfillment we need to have things which "matter" to us that
are not ourselves; indeed, we need things that are valued
for their very independence and externality from us. Thus
our personal and moral life is enriched to the degree that
it is "extended out" in self-transcending enjoyment,
cherishing and contemplating things, places and ideals that
are remote in space and time -- even, in a sense, timeless.
As we assume the ecosystemic point of view, our personal
egos fade in the contemplation of the vastness of natural
time, space and complexity, and our lives are enriched with
a sense of exuberance, variety, wonder and reverence.
Wanton, thoughtless destruction of the natural order strikes
the ecological moralist as supremely arrogant. When we place
ourselves in the center of our evaluative universe and
thereby regard nature as a mere storehouse of commodities,
these expansive sentiments vanish and we are
temperamentally, intellectually and spiritually reduced to
the tiny circle of our personal lives and circumstances.
So here, once again, we encounter the paradox in
ecological morality: for mankind's sake it is wiser to love
nature for nature's sake. And why? Because, as the ecologist
will insist, human good and biotic good are confluent. For
just as our personalities have their origin and sustenance
in our social communities, nature is likewise the source and
sustenance of our physical, neurological, even psychological
selves. Thus, as we expand our ethical perspective to
encompass the life community, we find that human and
ecosystemic interests shift toward congruence. "That
alteration," writes Holmes Rolston, "centers in the
dissolution of any firm boundary between man and the world.
Ecology does not know an encapsulated ego over against his
environment. . . The self, metabolically, if metaphorically,
interpenetrates the ecosystem. The world is my body."3
"Nonetheless," the critic might argue, "a paradox is a
paradox. If we seek human fulfillment, we should go after it
directly. It is flatly incoherent," the critic might say,
"to claim that 'for mankind's sake, we should love nature
for nature's sake.'" In reply, we must wonder if our critic
has ever been in love. For this paradox of ecological
morality is no more incoherent than the rule of fulfillment
in a love relationship; namely, that one who genuinely loves
one's beloved for the sake of the beloved gains most from
being in love, and that unconditional gifts of love (among
worthy, reciprocating lovers) bring the greatest mutual
rewards. Conversely, one who asks of his love relationships,
"what's in this for me?" is likely to discover, that the
very attitude which prompts the question produces a negative
answer to that question. While this is a paradox, far from
being incoherent and contradictory, it has been verified
countless times in the lives of those who both gain and lose
in matters of love.
Analogously, the human chauvinist who sees nature in
terms of its uses -- in terms of direct human benefits --
cheats himself. By drawing all value into himself and his
species, he eventually finds himself inhabiting an alien
world. In contrast, the ecological moralist regards his
"world partner" with dignity and respect. Rolston reflects:
How starkly this gainsays the alienation that
characterizes modern literature, seeing nature as
basically rudderless, antipathetical, in need of
monitoring and repair. More typically, modern man,
for all his technological prowess, has found himself
distanced from nature, increasingly competent and
decreasingly confident, at once distinguished and
aggrandized, yet afloat on and adrift in an
indifferent, if not a hostile universe. His world is
at best a huge filling station; at worst a prison,
or "nothingness." Not so for ecological man;
confronting his world with deference to a community
of value in which he shares, he is at home again.4
So, once again, we gain by losing ourselves in wonder and
admiration of our natural estate. Once again, the paradox of
ecological morality is confirmed.
Finally, we should take warning from the possible
psychological and cultural consequences of unconstrained
anthropocentrism. For our own moral good, and even for our
own personal and communal advantages, we constantly need to
be reminded that we of this generation are not nature's
favorites, not the end-product of evolution, not history's
culmination. Nature, evolution and history have not all
converged, through trackless time, simply to benefit us. For
the sake of our good mental and moral health, we need to
remind ourselves that we are but a step in the long road
behind and beyond us. While thinking otherwise might thrill
us with some brief, ill-gotten moments of false pride, such
a species-centered, "now-centered" perspective is as futile
as it is false, and thus barren as a source of secure,
long-standing, broad-based satisfaction. Arrogance is a
habit of character that cannot be well-contained. Arrogance
toward nature and toward history spills over into arrogance
toward our contemporary human neighbors. Arrogance does not
lend itself to prudent provision for the future or to safe
and congenial communities. One must therefore wonder if this
generation can at one time be exploiters and destroyers of
the natural community and at the same time good neighbors in
the social community; whether amoral or even worse immoral
policies toward nature and toward the future can securely
co-exist with a sound, secure and operative social morality.
Callousness and solicitude are deeply incompatible moral
stances, even if the callousness characterizes an attitude
toward non-human nature, and the solicitude is an admired
attitude toward human beings.
If this argument has been successful, then I think that
we have found reason to conclude, first of all, that we need
nature, in fact. We need viable, independent, flourishing
natural ecosystems. We need them as scientific resources, to
expand our understanding of what we are biotically and what
made us what we are. We need wild ecosystems as economic and
technical resources, to provide rare biochemical substances
for our future use. We need nature as an aesthetic resource,
to enrich our sense of delight and wonder. We need natural
landscapes and seascapes as psychological resources, so that
we can put ourselves at ease by returning home again to the
environment that made us the natural organisms that we are.
And we need nature as a moral resource -- as a source of
wonder, amazement, admiration, humility, perspective and
solicitude -- as a reminder that we are actors in a drama
and participants in an adventure too complex for us ever to
comprehend. Nature, the stage of that drama and the
wellspring that adventure, may be the ground of ultimate
value to us -- if we have the good sense to remove ourselves
from the center of our moral universe. The time may be
urgently at hand for a Copernican revolution in ethics.
For reasons of moral psychology and moral paradox, and
apart from reasons of self-interest and prudence, a world
unsafe for "useless" wilderness is a world less safe for
human beings and for human moral ideals.5
1. William Baxter: People or
Penguins: The Case for Optimal Pollution, New York,
1974, Columbia University Press, p. 7.
2. John McPhee, Encounters with the
Archdruid, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1971,
3. Holmes Rolston, III, "Is There an
Ecological Ethic?", Ethics, 85:2, Jan, 1985, p. 104.
4. Ibid, pp. 107-8.
5. These final three paragraphs are "autoplagiarized"
from the close of
as a Moral