Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Environmental Policy-Making: Some Philosophical Caveats1

Ernest Partridge

For the 33rd Annual Conference,
Western Social Science Association
Reno, Nevada -- April 25, 1991

While an undergraduate, I encountered the following quotation by the literary critic, Joseph Wood Krutch written in support of Aldo Leopold's "Land Ethic":

The wisest, the most enlightened, the most remotely long-seeing exploitation of resources is not enough, for the simple reason that the whole concept of exploitation is so false and so limited that in the end it will defeat itself and the earth will have been plundered, no matter how scientifically and far-seeingly the plundering has been done.

To live healthily and successfully on the land, we must also live with it. We must be part not only of the human community, we must acknowledge some sort of oneness, not only with our neighbors, our countrymen and our civilization, but also with the natural as well as the man-made community.2

Though long on eloquence, the essay was short on argument. And while Krutch's and Leopold's position had a strong intuitive appeal to me, it raised more questions than it answered. In the quarter century that has followed my encounter with that passage, I have devoted much of my professional life to the task of addressing those questions, and seeking and assessing rational support for "the land ethic." One can not engage on such an enterprise without encountering, and critically assessing the established methods and presupposition of those whose task it is to manage public lands and resources. Upon doing so, one suspects that policy-making "business as usual" has strayed dangerously close to the sort of "enlightened exploitation" of which Krutch and Leopold warned us.

That, at least, will be the contention of this paper. In defense of this thesis I will examine some seemingly sound methods of policy-as-usual, and attempt thereby to explicate some not-so obvious assumptions behind them and implications beyond them. If these efforts are successful, we will find that the diligent efforts to avoid "intractable" philosophical disputes and value claims, have resulted only in policy that is burdened with unexamined and highly spurious philosophical and ethical assumptions. In short, the attempt to avoid philosophy has only resulted in uncritical philosophy.

The wayward path down the road of philosophical naïveté often begins, and persists, in the search for a methodology of "value-free policy-making." The motive seems commendable, following from the. policy-maker's troublesome question: "Who am I to involve values (inescapably my values) in this public enterprise? Better to avoid evaluation, and stick to the facts, the numbers, and objective scientific methodology."

Unfortunately, the phrase "value-free policy-analysis" is oxymoronic, since planning and policy are inescapably about choices. While the scientist asks "What is the case?" “What are the facts?" the policy-maker necessarily asks "What should be the case?" "Which of the available options should we choose?" Because the task of the policy-maker is to choose among feasible alternatives, he must ask "Which is the optimum -- the 'best' - choice among the available options?" Listing and explicating the "available options" is an appropriate task of the "value-free" scientist. The problem arises with the four-letter word "best" But what does the policy-maker mean by "best"? "Best" on what grounds? What reasons does he offer us to accept his evaluation or, for that matter, for accepting his method of justifying his claim that such-and-such a policy is "the best' of the alternatives?" These are not scientific questions; they are unavoidably questions of moral philosophy (and of metaethics in particular). Thus the philosophically informed observer would likely conclude that an uncritical insistence by policy-analysts that their methodology, "like scientific method, is value-neutral" will result, not in ''value- flee" choices, but in choices that follow from unexamined and unchallenged values. In short, if we think that scientific insight alone will give us adequate guidance in our environmental policy decisions, we will be making – even worse, continuing – a dreadful error.

Whatever has led some policy-theorists to even suspect that policy making could be "value free?" Perhaps it was the seeming availability of "value-free" methodologies to produce "objective" ranking of policy options. Foremost among these devices is cost benefit analysis (CBA) – a scheme that evokes the enthusiastic endorsement of many applied economists and legislators, and which provokes the overwhelming condemnation of most moral philosophers. As we shall see, CBA is a scheme that is both intuitively attractive on the surface, and ethically troublesome in its implications.

The definition of CBA is simplicity itself "if a policy, P, maximizes benefits minus costs, then P ought to be carried out,"
3 Stated thus, the rule scarcely seems open to dispute. The troubles begin as we attempt to assign operational definitions to the key terms "costs" and "benefits," so that these various amounts and dimensions might be measured together to produce a result on "the bottom line." The only available common quantity appears to be "cash value" or "willingness to pay." Enter the economist.

The significance of CBA in public policy-making can scarcely be understated. About a month after taking office in 1981, President Reagan signed an Executive Order requiring that all agencies and departments in his Administration justify their regulations with positive cost- benefit assessments. The practice pervades public administration. Read most environmental impact statements, and you will find them saturated with the statistics, spreadsheets, and finally the bottom lines of CBA.

The apparent advantages of CBA are appealing:

  • CBA is Relatively Simple. However complicated this procedure of policy-decision, the alternative procedures are more complex.

  • The Values to be Considered are Commensurable. A myriad of separate scales of measurement are translated into a common scale of "cash value."

  • The Method is Objective. The variables can be determined by open, public, replicable ("scientific") means.

  • By utilizing "market values," CBA is "democratic," in that it only utilizes existing social values, reflected in the public's "willingness to pay."

  • CBA is Definitive. Once the data has been gathered, the process of CBA will lead to an unambiguous result.

  • CBA is Value Free -- Because the process describes the "preferences" of the public (in terms of "willingness to pay), it does not impose values upon them. In true democratic form, it reflects the opinion and values of the public, not the analyst.

Closer inspection reveals significant Drawbacks of CBA:

  • The "Simplicity" of CBA is accomplished by distorting or even excluding essential ethical aspects of policy deliberation. (Imagine an offer to "simplify" your escape from a despotic regime, by leaving your family in captivity). In particular:

  • CBA devalues "fragile," "incommensurable" and non-economic values, and inflates factors that can be more reliably and accurately measured, and that can be readily expressed in monetary terms. For example:

"Fragile Values"

Friendship and Loyalty
Wisdom and Virtue
Natural Beauty
Humanistic Education
Long-Term Needs
Ecological Integrity
International Respect and Esteem

"Hard Values"

"Contacts" and "Access"4
Mineral Resources
Technical Training
Short-Term Demands
Return from Investment
Military Budget

This preference of "hard" over "soft" values reminds one of the old tale of the fool, looking for a lost coin under the street lamp. While he knows that he dropped the coin in the bushes away from the street, he prefers to look "where the light is so much better!"

  • CBA favors the interests of the wealthy. If "values" are to be assessed according to "willingness to pay," then clearly the interests of those best able to pay will be favored. Thus, for example, the wealthy are able to afford to live in safer neighborhoods, to eat healthier foods, to pay for superior medical care. According to CBA, it follows that their lives are "more valuable." So much for the maxim that "All Men are Created Equal."

  • CBA "discounts the future," thus favoring the present and near future, over the remote future. 'Future discounting" follows directly from the monetization of values. As we know, the utility of a constant cash value is inversely proportional to the term of investment – hence the necessity of interest rates. Accordingly, if "human life" is to be assigned a cash value, it follows that, at a 5% per-anum discount rate, the value of one life today is equivalent to a thousand lives in two hundred years.5  Consider how such an assessment might influence nuclear waste management policy.

  • CBA is insensitive to "the paradoxes of morality," thus it loses sight of the fact that "there are circumstances in which one can give a selfish justification for unselfishness."6  (Much more about this shortly).

  • CBA treats the public as an aggregate of consumers, rather than as a community of citizens. Thus "preferences" count more than "principles" – since, if principles are to count at all, they must be "redefined" as market preferences.7  (Sagoff 1981).

  • CBA regards "value" as reductive (to "consumer preferences") and aggregative (i.e., the simple sum of these preferences). Accordingly, it disregards the contextual and holistic aspects of morality.

  • The claim that CBA merely applies socially accepted values, as determined by the market, (i.e., "willingness to pay"), simply reverses the relevant normative order of evaluation. How "valuable" is a clean environment to our society? The economist replies, "well, just find out how much the public is willing to pay? Let's look at the budgets for the EPA, etc." But how does such information assist the citizen, or the legislature who asks: "knowing full well what we pay to preserve and restore the environment, I want to know what we should pay -- i.e., is our investment in our environment right?" How is the citizen or legislator to answer this question, if not through serious and reflective evaluation. Surely not by looking again at the existing "market value" of environmental renewal, which raised the question in the first place.

  • In brief, and in summary: CBA is necessarily value laden. Even if it could be totally detached from the values of the analyst and policy-maker (which I doubt), CBA would only reflect the operative "consumer preferences" of the public. However, CBA is not "free" of the analysts’ values. These values appear (in part) in the selection and weighing of items in the CBA. Most fundamentally, as we have noted, any and all policy-making is by nature "value laden," since it is, by nature, a deliberate choice among options that will affect the welfare and rights of persons. This defines the activity as "evaluative."

Three items on this list -- economic preferences vs. economic principles, "the paradox of morality," and "the ecology of morality" -- will shortly receive special notice and elaboration. But first, I must respond to an anticipated rejoinder.

When I have presented this list of complaints regarding the questionable methods and presuppositions of policy consultants and policy makers, some economists, and even more political scientists, complain that "this list is a straw 'man – terribly over-simplified and unqualified. We don't think or talk like this." They are right, of course. But that's not quite to the point. For while I grant all this, I then ask, "but how much is your qualified and elaborated policy-theory put into the practice of policy-making? How much of this subtlety, complexity, qualification survives in the summaries that appear before the legislators and the bureaucrats, or the testimony offered in their committees?" (A common response to this challenge is a pained look and a shrug). It is, I think, also fair to ask, "while you, and others, find intuitive fault with this list of (I contend) operative methods and assumptions, how well does your discipline explicitly and systematically deal with the intuitive objections to the above 'straw men?'" All too often, when such intuitive qualms are raised, the expert will write a blank check: "but that's outside the scope of our discipline," following which the objection is set aside and forgotten. Nonetheless, I maintain that this list does indicate some of the operative assumptions made by those who actually make policy decisions, and that these so-called "unfair simplifications" reflect the stronger, but unexamined assumptions of some of the more influential policy theorists

Now to those elaborations:

First, economic preferences vs. community principles. Why should our individual, free and rational choices, measured in economic terms, not add up to a valid statement of public opinion? Because, to put it bluntly, we don't merely function and evaluate as consumers. We also act, on moral principles, as citizens of our communities. My friend, Mark Sagoff points out the contrast with admirable clarity and wit.

Last year, I bribed a judge to fix a couple of traffic tickets and I was glad to do so since it saved my license. Yet, at election time, I helped to vote the corrupt judge out of office. I speed on the highway; yet I want the police to enforce laws against speeding. I used to buy mixers in returnable bottles – but who can bother to return them? I buy only disposables now, but, to soothe my conscience, I urge my state senator to outlaw one-way containers... I applaud the Endangered Species Act, although I have no earthly use for the Colorado squawfish or the Indiana bat. The political causes I support seem to have little or no basis in my interests as a consumer, because I take different points of view when 1 vote and when I shop. I have an "Ecology Now" sticker on a car that drips oil everywhere it's parked.8

As consumers, we look after our own interests. As citizens we protect institutions and act upon ideals that we care about, precisely because we value them for themselves, not for how they can satisfy our "personal preferences " The latter is regarded, by classical free-market economists, as "irrational behavior."

The Paradox of Morality. It is an ancient insight: Selfishness is self-defeating. Philosophers back to Aristotle and beyond have reiterated that the single-minded pursuit of personal pleasure is likely to be less satisfying than a life focused "outward" on the well-being of other individuals, institutions, and ideals. Only recently, with developments in moral psychology and game theory, have we begun to understand why this is so. Time permits only three brief illustrations of "the moral paradox" at work.:

  • Imagine that you are an infantryman facing a year-long tour of duty in combat. You are given the choice to be an egoist in a platoon of egoists (like yourself, "looking out for Number One"), or an altruist in a platoon of altruists. In the latter case, you understand that each member of the platoon (yourself included) is prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice his life for the safety of the rest. In which platoon would your self-interest in personal -survival best be served? Military history supplies an unequivocal answer.

  • Consider the case of two couples, the Joneses and the Smiths. Jack and Jill Jones agree to the marriage on the condition that each will get his and her "share" of personal gratification from the relationship. Each is constantly on the alert to assure that this is so. In contrast, the foremost and loving concern of Sam and Sue Smith is for the happiness and well-being of the other. I will leave it to you to guess which of these four individuals are the happiest.

  • Finally, there is The Tragedy of the Commons -- a paradigm that is presumably familiar to most of you. Following Garrett Hardin's original example, imagine a pasturage in common ownership, stocked to carrying capacity with individually owned livestock. Each herdsman, pursuing his "rational self-interest" is motivated to add a few additional animals to his aggregate wealth. The result, of course, is destruction of the common resource. The significance of this paradigm is that analogous cases can be found with air pollution, international whaling, and fisheries management. When carrying capacity is exceeded, the result is the same: "Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons."9

These examples, and many more, convey the same message of "the moral paradox:" A life predicated on self-interest is self-defeating. There are sound self-interested reasons not to act purely in self-interest.

The Ecology, of Morality. If my argument as been successful so far, it has indicated that a moral community is not accurately portrayed as a marketplace, comprised of rational, informed, self-serving consumers. Thus the advantages of living in a morally well-ordered society are not to be gained simply by calculating, then implementing, policies that show a maximum cost-benefit ratio. It then follows that policy-making, an inherently moral enterprise, should not be based exclusively on the cost-benefit method of analysis, since that method reduces moral attention to individual preferences.

Moral enterprises, such as policy-making, should instead lead our consciousness in the opposite direction, namely outwardly, to encompass awareness and effective concern to all beings and entities that deserve our moral attention: namely, to people of other cultures and races, to animals, to wilderness ecosystems, and to future generations. The values that direct our moral concern in this direction, are "fragile values" – not readily translated into dollars and cents. That "impediment" to clear-cut and definitive policy analysis should not exclude effective concern for these "distant others" from our public policy concerns. Indeed, the lack of "fit" between CBA and "fragile values," should be regarded as more troublesome for CBA than for these values.

Just as a zoo, with isolated cages of specimen creatures, does not represent nature, so too does the market place of individual transactions fail to represent the morally well-ordered society (although, to be sure, a morally sound community sustains markets). And just as the life of the individual organism and its species is best understood in the context of a functioning and ongoing ecosystem, the moral life of the individual person is best understood in the context of a cherished community, society and culture, with a legacy from the past and a continuity into the distant future.

In short, there is an ecology of morality, just as there is an ecology of life forms. Because the parts of each system are in dynamic interaction, "you can not do just one thing." Remove a native species or introduce an alien species into the ecosystem, and there is no telling how the whole might be affected. So too with our moral and cultural systems. For example, who could have foreseen the consequences, including some regrettable moral costs, of introducing commercial television into mass culture? What are to be the consequences of the personal computer? How might it's undoubted, if largely unknown, impacts be directed to produce benign payoffs?

Our culture, and therefore our values, are in a state of unprecedented flux. Amidst this confusion of change, we are in peril of losing our sense of moral direction, and therefore our personal identity and justification. If we are to find and sustain meaning and direction to our lives and to our culture, we must look outside the flux to constant points of reference -- to fixed navigational points in the moral universe, and not to the moving masthead lights of passing fads and fashions.

The science of ecology accomplishes a constancy amidst the study of flux, through such enduring concepts and rules as energy flow, nutrient recycling, Liebig's law, etc. Similarly, there may be constant points of moral reference available for those individuals who reflect responsibly upon the human condition, and their place in it. Among these points, I would suggest:

  • An acknowledgment of the inalienable worth and dignity of personhood in oneself and one's neighbors. "Personhood," the core concept of moral philosophy, refers to the gift of self- consciousness and reflective thought, and the consequent capacity to reflect upon one's future and upon one's rights and one's duties to others.

  • Due admiration and respect for such universally acknowledged virtues as courage, compassion, loyalty, sacrifice, love, and wisdom.

  • Perspective upon the human enterprise as an adventure of many generations, with a priceless legacy from the past, and a responsibility to protect and enhance this legacy for the benefit of future generations.

  • Respect for the natural conditions which nurtured our species, and which sustain and enrich the human adventure. In brief, a love and loyalty toward "Mother Gaia" – our planetary ecosystem, too complicated for us ever to fully understand, too marvelous for us ever to adequately appreciate.

In this final point of reference, social morality and ecological morality meet.

If we lose sight of these enduring moral beacons, our society and ourselves will drift, among the immediate currents of our egocentric "preferences," toward alienation and eventual destruction. Due to our technological capacities, that last possibility, "destruction," is now an ominous possibility – either by means of the "bang" of nuclear holocaust, or the "whimper" of global ecological collapse.

In "the ecology of morality," personal virtue and communal justice are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. And both the moral health of the person, and the flourishing of the just society, are enhanced by the "broad perspective" – through time, and across racial and gender divisions and national boundaries. But the manifest rewards of living a virtuous life in a morally well-ordered. society exacts a price: we must give up the easy psychological payoffs of self-centeredness, of racism, of sexism, of nationalism, of anthropocentrism, and of historical myopia. However tempting, we can not, in good moral health, allow ourselves to believe that we are life's culmination or history's favorites. Life on this earth has not evolved for more than two billion years; and civilization has not advanced through a recorded history of two hundred generations, just for the benefit of our generation. We have neither right and nor the privilege, albeit we have the power, to bring civilization, and perhaps life itself, to an end. And we must never allow ourselves ever to believe, far less to act, upon such cosmic conceit. For if we forget our past, and ignore our future, our lives will be drained of significance. As we face our own mortality, and our personal days dwindle down to a desperate few, we will be unable to recognize anything of value that will survive us. Thus is egoism ultimately it's own punishment. If we injure the future, we damage our present as well.



1. This paper refines and elaborates ideas expressed in two previous conference papers: "The Moral Uses of Future Generations," Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, (Bend, Oregon, February 8, 1989), and "Policy-Making by the Numbers," Presented at the "Davis Seminar," University of Colorado, June, 1983.

2. Joseph Wood Kutch, "Conservation is Not Enough," University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, pp. 5-6 ND. (c. 1955).

3. Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce, People, Penguins, and Plastic Trees, 1986: Belmont, CA, Wadsworth Publishing Co., p. 238.

4. Those who have difficulty finding a "cash value" for contacts and access might consider the case of Michael Deaver.

5. Derek Parfit, "An Attack on the Social Discount Rate," QQ: Report from the Center for Philosophy and Public Policy, Winter, 1981, 1:1, p. 8.

6. Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy, 1966: New York, McGraw-Hill, p. 240

7. Mark Sagoff, The Economy of the Earth, 1988: New York Cambridge University Press, Chapter 2.

8. Ibid, pp. 52-3.

9.Garrett 11ardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science, Vol 162, 13 December,
1968, p. 1244.

10. Time constraints allow only a statement of these views, without elaboration or supporting argument. Accordingly, these remarks are more rhetoric than philosophy. My supporting arguments may be found in the following publications: "Why Care About the Future?", in Partridge (e), Responsibilities to Future Generations, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1981), "Are we Ready for an Ecological Morality?", Environmental Ethics, 4 (Summer, 1982), "Nature as a Moral Resource," Environmental Ethics, 6 (Summer, 1984).

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 .