Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Wilderness Experience as Intrinsically Valuable.

Ernest Partridge


Quite frankly, I have no clear recollection of when I wrote this unpublished and unsubmitted paper.  Best guess: early 1970s. 


Abstract: Wilderness can be defended in terms of the intrinsic value of the experience that is gained through encountering it. This paper presents an account of the immediate phenomenological qualities of the wilderness experience and the judgmental insights and personal commitments derived therefrom.



Wilderness has been defended as both something useful and instrumental and something to be loved, cherished, and preserved for its own sake. The list of benefits resulting from "wise use" of the wilderness is long, well articulated, and, by now, quite familiar. However, many preservationists suggest that it is as rude and unworthy to ask of the wilderness: "what is it good for? What can I get from it?" as it is to entertain such questions about one's spouse or one's children. They prefer the response of Thoreau: "This curious world which we inhabit is more wonderful than it is convenient: more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used."

While it is one thing to affirm the intrinsic goodness of wilderness, it is quite another to justify it. Indeed, justification may be misapplied and pointless, since intrinsic value might not be arguable by an appeal to other values. To offer normative support of a value is to presume that the value is derivative; that is, not intrinsic. While an intrinsic value can be examined and recognized, it is not likely to be found as the conclusion of an argument It is, in this sense, in the nature more of a datum (like pain or yellow) than of an assertion -- something one has, rather than something that one derives.



And so, perhaps the best approach to a justification of the intrinsic worth of wilderness may be through an account of the experience of wilderness. It should be an account detached, as much as possible, from second-hand reports of the experience, and based, as much as possible, upon the recollection of feelings evoked directly by that experience. To do this, I will call upon the nearest and most vivid source at my disposal: my own experience. I will attempt, at the outset at least, to relate this experience with the least possible amount of preconception or post-analysis. In other words, my approach will be phenomenological. Following this exercise, I will then remove the phenomenological "brackets" and attempt to account for and qualify this experience. This is, of course, a thought- experiment that you might wish to try yourselves. I heartily recommend it.

As I reflect back upon my experience of wilderness, I seem to recall these features:

b) There is a feeling that the context about me is indifferent to me -- and yet that I belong here. Not that the wilderness is either friendly or hostile to me, but that it can well accommodate my simple needs and suffer my undemanding presence within it. With this feeling, as with the previous (a), I gain a sense of humility without humiliation.

c) A sense of permanence better of timelessness, even in the presence of processes (e.g. rain and wind, cloud movement, river currents and rapids, etc.). Natural processes are thus felt to be part of a timeless pattern -- a permanence of changes2. There is a feeling that the wilderness exhibits the primeval conditions of my being -- conditions that preceded my race, and which will survive whatever brief desecrations that my race may put upon it. (Of course, I am describing here a response that is discursive and not phenomenological. I would defend its inclusion here by suggesting that there is a feeling tone evoked by the wilderness experience that constantly generates this reflection).

d) There is a feeling of being in and of the natural context, rather than being a spectator apart from it. I am in dynamic interaction with my environment, and I feel "at one" with it. The terms "detachment," "abstraction," "isolation," and "completeness" which aestheticians are apt to use to describe the experience of art objects -- these terms seem not to apply to the wilderness experience. Rather, as Ronald Hepburn observes, in nature one is "both actor and spectator, ingredient in the landscape and lingering upon the sensation of being thus ingredient, playing actively with nature and letting nature as it were play with him and his awareness of himself."3

e) There is a feeling of distinction between necessities, conveniences and encumbrances.4 While this too might seem to be a judgmental response, the affective core is the feeling of indifference, or even of distaste, toward things and habits that I am used to, or which are important to me, in "artificial" contexts back at my civilized home. For example hearing an airplane engine or seeing a contrail while in a desert canyon, or hearing a transistor radio or trail-bike while in the forest.

f) The wilderness experience seems to share qualities described by the mystics: a harmony and unity among the elements of the natural context, and of oneself with the context; a feeling of infinity, of ongoingness, of ever-still-more; a feeling of un-threatening ego-loss, of desireless serenity, of nirvana.

g) As a consequence of these feeling, and yet correlative to them, there is a feeling of affirmation toward these experiences, and toward the environment that evokes them. There is a feeling that wilderness, and the experience thereof, is worthwhile and good. It would seem quite correct here to describe this feeling as a love of the wilderness environment. Missing from this response is the feeling of instrumentality. If, while feeling this affirmation toward nature, one's companion were to ask, "but what is it all good for?" -- one would think the remark a joke at best, and outlandishly philistine and insensitive at worst (albeit I must suspect that the remark is likely heard quite often in the company of surveyors of the Army Corps of Engineers).

It would appear that we have succeeded in identifying "the intrinsic worth of nature" as a component of the experience of nature -- at least to this observer. Unfortunately, it is not at all that simple, for while the feeling of intrinsic worth might be a datum of the experience of nature, we might still be called upon to determine whether this "feeling of intrinsic worth," is in fact worth having. We will return to this question at the close of this paper. Let it suffice here to note that while the feeling of the intrinsic worth of nature might indeed be a component of the experience of nature, the question of what we are to make of this feeling is an additional problem -- and a vitally important one at that. To this problem, we now turn.


As we allow discursive judgment back into our contemplations, what then are we to make of this account of the experience of the wilderness? In reviewing this list, I find the following noteworthy characteristics of the experience:

i) We often find a "unity in diversity" -- a contrasting pair of responses that are somehow consistent. And so we encounter (in item a) personal finitude and diminution without dread; or (b) an indifference of nature, yet with a belonging to it; or (c) a sense of timelessness in the midst of process; or (f) serenity in the presence of vastness. (Students of the Philosophy of Art will recognize "unity in diversity" as a familiar criterion of aesthetic judgment).

ii) The experience is intensely personal, but not in the sense of being "ego-involved" -- that is to say, an encounter with wilderness may involve a large compass of a person's attention and behavior. A wide spectrum of feelings and attitudes may be affected by the experience. One's evaluation of himself, his possessions and his acquaintances may be materially altered by the perspective afforded by wilderness. Because the wilderness experience has powerful influences upon, and large implications for, one's behavior and outlook, the natural environment is commonly looked upon by some with enthusiasm and love, and by others with dread and revulsion.

iii) The wilderness experience is "knowledge-contingent." Our perception of the natural environment is influenced by our past experience with, and our understanding of, nature, With increased technical competence, a mountain slope looks different to a skier, a rapid looks different to a kayaker, a cliff face looks different to a rock climber. Further, a knowledge of the processes at work in nature will affect one's perceptual assessment of nature. Hepburn illustrates the point well:

Suppose I am walking over a wide expanse of sand and mud. The quality of the scene is perhaps that of wild, glad emptiness. But suppose that I bring to bear upon the scene my knowledge that this is a tidal basin, the tide being out. I see myself now as virtually walking on what is for half the day sea-bed. The wild glad emptiness may be tempered by a disturbing weirdness.5

iv) It would appear that an encounter with nature does indeed add unique and valuable dimensions to human experience, understanding and judgment. If this be questioned, then look again at our list of encounter experiences. We note there the feelings of:

  •  Personal finitude and limit before vastness.

  •  Belongingness to a context that is nonetheless indifferent to us.

  •  Humility without humiliation.

  •  Permanence and timelessness.

  •  Encounter with the primitive conditions of one's being, and a feeling of harmony and unity with them.

  •  Distinction between necessities, conveniences, and encumbrances.

  •  Serenity and desireless contemplation.

  •  And finally, a feeling that something independent of ourselves -- something that precedes and survives us -- is worthwhile and deserving of our admiration and love.

With this inventory of experiences in mind, I would then ask once more: (1) Can these experiences, in their full breadth and depth, be had in any way other than by an encounter with wilderness? (2) Are these experiences worth having? Are they enough worth having that we should forever preserve the possibility of ourselves and our posterity having them -- worth enough that we should save and protect a significant remnant of our wilderness?

I leave these questions to your own contemplation, as perhaps I must. But I leave them with these further considerations: In reviewing this list, do you find experiences described therein that you would judge worth having? Of those experiences so judged, do you find it pointless and impertinent to ask "What are these experiences good for? If your answers are affirmative, have you not also affirmed the proposition that nature and the experience thereof are intrinsically worthwhile?




"Your list of encounter experiences of nature is just that: your list of experiences. The list is subjective, personal, idiosyncratic. As such, is it not without any valid application to the experiences of mankind in general?"

That this list is subjective and personal, I will readily agree. After all, I compiled it by the method of introspection. That it is idiosyncratic and not applicable to general experience is a point that I would dispute. My answer to the charge is quite direct: my claims are open to objective investigation. One such avenue of investigation would be to study the writings of those who believe that nature is intrinsically worthwhile (e.g. Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Robinson Jeffers, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, David Brower, etc.). We would then ask, are their experiences of nature at all similar to those that I have outlined above? My impression, drawn from my personal experience and study, is that they would generally concur with this list. The reader is invited to pursue this investigation personally.

I am not, of course, arguing that all persons have these experiences of nature. Surely we all know of individuals who are repelled by natural wilderness. What I am suggesting is that those who are attracted to wilderness share similar responses, and that the list that I have compiled characterizes some prominent elements of this response.



"Even if we grant that the experience of wilderness is an agreeable one and that it is felt to be worthwhile in itself, is this reason enough to preserve wilderness? Is this worth the of preservation?"

This challenge rests upon the sound assumption that it is not sufficient for moral approbation that an experience appear to be good-in-itself. For if the feeling of non-instrumental worth bestows value upon an object or an act, then the miser's money, the despot's power, and the sadist's cruelty must be judged good. Surely this will not do. For the behavior of the miser, the despot and the sadist has consequences which exact a moral cost far in excess of the positive personal feelings enjoyed by the agents. All of which is to say that the "intrinsic worth" of miserliness, or despotism, or cruelty, is quite simply not worth it!

On the other hand, a doctor may gain intrinsic satisfactions of recognition and approval through his practice, or a scholar might gain the intrinsic joys of contemplation and understanding -- and in these cases the additional extrinsic results are beneficial. In brief, then, the intrinsic value alone of an object or an act should not be sufficient of itself to cause us to approve or to condemn that object or act.

And so we might be well advised to ask: What, additionally, are the likely effects of this experience of the intrinsic value of nature?" "If one has a love of wilderness and believes nature to be intrinsically worthwhile, how is this likely to effect his personal behavior, and how is such an attitude, if widespread, likely to effect the well-being of a society?" These, I would quite agree, are separate questions to the question of "intrinsic worth," but they raise problems which we must pursue if we wish to evaluate the total value of the wilderness experience.

Clearly, wilderness can be hoarded and the preservation of it can have socially disruptive effects. Thus the land baron may summarily execute any and all of the starving peasants who poach the game in his private forest preserve. Similarly, a nation can starve for resources and food if large sections of wilderness are "locked up" and protected from human use. On the other hand, wilderness can be "loved to death" -- witness the destruction of ecological communities in Yellowstone Park and the imported smog in Yosemite Valley.

But to say all this is to reiterate what we already know too well: That the preservation of wilderness exacts a cost. Even if the wilderness experience is truly worth having, we must "pay" to preserve it. We will have to control, at long last, our population and restrain the impact of our technology upon the environment. We will have to take positive steps to curtail the exploitation of the remaining wilderness and improve the already deteriorating remnants of the natural environment. And we will have to invest in programs of education that will instill an appreciation and love of the natural environment, and a widespread willingness to preserve it.


We argue here that wilderness, and the experience thereof, are intrinsically worthwhile, not that they are absolutely valuable, to the exclusion of all other values. If we can successfully defend, and teach, the intrinsic value of wilderness, then we might hope that wilderness values will be tallied with other values and have a significant place in the planning and the unfolding of future human destiny. We would further urge that wilderness values not be assessed primarily in terms of monetary cost -- a contest in which, according to the rules of the game, the wilderness would be fated to lose.

In posing the question, "Is the experience of the intrinsic value of wilderness worth the cost of having these encounters?", let us once more review our list of experiences. Then let us ask, "Will a person so sensitized and aware of his natural element and thus of himself be inclined to add to, or to detract from, his own well-being and the welfare of his society?" "Will the intrinsic values of the experience additionally generate some instrumentally desirable attitudes and commitments?" "What should we be willing to pay in order to preserve the possibility of enjoying these benefits, both intrinsic and extrinsic?" Again, I leave the answering of these questions to the reader's own contemplation. My own feelings on this matter should, by now, be manifest.




1. A feeling not shared, I would suppose, by certain engineers and bureaucrats who often seem to be nauseated and offended by an encounter with a piece of unspoiled wilderness, existing quite well without their sufferance.

2. I am able to feel this sense of permanence even when paddling on a river due to be impounded, or when hiking in a forest due to be clear-cut. this is perhaps accountable to the background awareness that this bit of wilderness, vulnerable as it is, is but a sample of others, exhibiting like qualities.

3. Ronald W. Hepburn. "Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature," in Harold Osborne (ed), Aesthetics in the Modern World, (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1968), p. 51.

4. "Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only dispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." Henry David Thoreau, Walden, (Economy).

5. Hepburn, op. cit., p. 55.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .