Justifying the value of nature and non-human lives

The natural environment serves our human interests, at least to some degree, so the conservation or preservation of this environment can be argued from the perspective of its instrumental value to humans.

At the very least, environmental degradation and destruction has a negative instrumental value for human interests, which would then imply that its conservation and protection is a positive value. Since our survival depends to some extent on the integrity of the biosphere, and since our happiness depends to some extent on the same integrity, the destruction of the biosphere would not serve our interests.

But mere appeals to human survival do not suffice to justify ecological integrity, given the remarkable human ability to adapt to altered and artificial environments. That is, humans could live in a world of plastics and concrete, or in a world of tree farms instead of forests, cultivated lawns instead of meadows, and animal zoos instead of animal sanctuaries and preserved ecologies. Nor do appeals to human happiness suffice, since the existence of natural wilderness is not a necessary condition for our happiness. Some examples of human happiness can even be served by the eradication of wilderness and particular species.

So, we could support an environmental ethical theory that is based on instrumental value to human interests, but this would greatly limit our protection for other species and ecologies, and it would not show any actual moral respect for nonhuman entities. Mere human interests do not necessarily lead to the ethical desirability of environmental integrity. Though a more expanded and enlightened view of human interests, taking into account some deeper psychological human needs involving our eco-relationship, would have more protective ecological implications.

Environmental critics may ask, “why should we care about the interests or desires of nonhuman entities?” They might even argue that an ethical prioritization of the human species, and an instrumental view about the rest of nature, is the ethical approach that makes most sense, that it makes ethical sense to show primary allegiance to the interests of one’s own species. Yet by this logic, we might as well say that showing primary allegiance to ourself over all others makes good ethical sense, which seems an absurd reduction of ethics to selfish interests.

Any ethical approach that implies a more limited sphere of caring, versus an expanded sphere of caring, would seem to be a move away from actual morality, just as selfishness has to be morally weaker than unselfishness. Still, critics of an environmental ethic and animal rights continue to argue that such concepts are either logically incoherent or much too difficult to show in principle.

One approach of environmentalists and animal rights advocates is
to make the following argument:

1. Moral concern is deserving for anyone who has an interest in, or desire for, their own well-being.

2. Humans show a desire for their own well-being, and thus they deserve moral respect. That is, the well-being of other humans ought to be respected and protected, because these other beings have a desire for their own well-being just as we do.

3. Yet humans are not the only entities possessing such interests or desires. Other animals also show a desiring interest in their own well-being, and thus they too deserve moral respect just as humans.

The first and second assumptions are basic premises of many acceptable ethics, while the third assumption is the important extension in the reasoning of environmentalists and animal rights advocates.

Another approach for advocating animal rights makes the following points,
which can either replace or add to the argument above:

1. Moral concern is deserving for anyone with sentience (awareness and feelings) concerning their own well-being; or, moral concern is deserving for anyone with a capacity for enjoyment and suffering.

2. Humans are sentient, possessing awareness and feelings concerning their well-being, and humans have the capacity to either enjoy or suffer. Thus, humans deserve moral respect. That is, the well-being of other humans ought to be respected and protected, because these other beings are as sentient as we are and have the capacity to either enjoy or suffer just as we do. The moral challenge is to maximize their enjoyment and well-being, while and minimizing their suffering and degradation.

3. Yet humans are not the only sentient beings, with awareness and feelings and a capacity to either enjoy or suffer. Other animals also show sentience: awareness, feelings, enjoyments and sufferings. Thus, they too deserve moral respect, just as we.

The general approach of these two alternative arguments is to first show an ethical premise that is acceptable to most ethical thinking, one that involves our fellow human beings. Then, there is a crucial move to show that many nonhuman animals, as well, should qualify for moral respect, if the first premise is agreeable.

The general argument could be simplified as:

1a) Evaluative Premise:
Sentient beings deserve moral respect.
Sentience is a sufficient condition for moral concern.

1b) Alternative factual-Premise:
We show moral regard for humans because they are sentient.

2) Supposed Fact (and argument link):
Certain nonhuman animals are sentient, like humans.

3) Inferred Conclusion:
Therefore, certain nonhuman animals deserve moral respect and concern for their interests, equal to humans.

Fundamentally, the argument is an evaluative inference based a foundational premise about what factual conditions should determine moral concern. One could simply say, for example, that sentience is the necessary and sufficient condition that determines proper moral concern. The truth of sentience in nonhuman creatures, then, becomes a crucial question in the overall argument.

So the argument rests partly on inference and partly on accepted fact. Therefore, attacks and defenses regarding the argument will focus on either the cogency of the inference or the truth of the supposed fact. If the facts are acceptable, then the inference from human to nonhuman concerns may be attacked. If the inference seems cogent, depending on the facts, then the facts might be questioned.

Assuming that the first premises or principles are accepted, the argument seems to turn mostly on the question of whether some nonhuman entities actually possess those conditional characteristics which are so very central to human ethical concern. But once there is an acceptance that certain animal species are sentient, or that they have feelings and desires for their well-being, like humans; then the above argumentative approach seems rather sound and convincing.

One aspect of the argument is the assumption that certain nonhuman species share with humans a unique characteristic that is significant to moral concern. This does not imply that such species are similar to humans in other ways, or that humans cannot be distinguished from these other species. Most anyone would agree that humans are distinguishable from other animals. The argument just contends that some other animals share with humans the characteristic of being sentient and/or desiring for their own well-being, and that this common characteristic is the relevant and sufficient condition for moral respect and ethical protection.

If both human and nonhuman beings desire their own well-being and have a sentient capacity for experiencing pain; then both kinds of beings, in similar ways, can be either benefited or harmed . Hence, both kinds of beings qualify for moral concern. To grant moral respect to the one kind, but not the other, is inconsistent.

If the sceptic agrees on the ethical premise of extending moral concern to beings interested in their well-being, then he has no justification for denying this concern to nonhuman sentient creatures who are just as interested in their own well-being, or just as desiring. The sceptic would be drawing a boundary dividing sentient human beings from sentient nonhuman beings, then granting moral respect to one but not the other. But if sentience and desire for one’s own well being are essential conditions for moral concern, then it makes no sense to form a moral boundary between human and nonhuman. This boundary would be arbitrary to the relevant issue; it would only be justified by a basic premise that only humans deserve moral respect. Why? Because they are human!

Making an ethical boundary or distinction between human sentience and nonhuman sentience, or between human desires and nonhuman desires, would seem quite arbitrary and indefensible, unless one is assuming a a more primary reason for the boundary. This more primary reason might be that we only owe moral respect to those of our own species, or that only beings who consciously make moral decisions deserve moral consideration, or that the primary reason for granting moral respect to just humans is that we are ultimately only afraid of other humans and thus we are in practical need for some ethical rules and contracts involving our fellow [dangerious] humans.

As already said, the above argument depends a lot on certain supposed facts. Denying a moral concern for nonhuman beings, the skeptic can attack the uncertain fact of nonhuman sentience and nonhuman desires. To weaken the argument that many animals are sentient and can suffer just as humans, the sceptic may argue that internal mental states such as subjective pain experiences are inaccessibile for objective verification. How could we possibly know for certain that nonhuman beings are sentient and can suffer? All that we can observe are behavioral responses, which tell us nothing about mental states, awareness and feelings. Thus, there can be no empirical support for the premise that animals are sentient and sufferable.

Yet, animal rights advocates can defend against this skepticism by pointing out that this same argument, denying the knowledge of mental states, could just as well be applied to other humans, whereby we might just as well treat other humans as non-sentient creatures on the basis that we have no certainty about their sentience since their mental states  are equally non-observable .

The fact is, we know about the mammalian capacity of experiencing pain in the same way as we know about this capacity in other humans besides ourselves. Whatever way we recognize sentience, enjoyment and suffering in observed fellow humans, is the only logical way that we can and ought to recognize sentience in other creatures. Whatever external clues that we accept for the recognition of human sentience should be just as acceptable for the recognition of nonhuman sentience.

Thus, the argument of inaccessible mental states is untenable. If we recognize sentience, enjoyment and suffering in certain nonhumans, just as we recognize such in humans, then it follows that we ought to show the same moral respect to these other kinds of sentient beings. And in reply to those who do not recognize any sentience, feelings or desires in nonhuman creatures; we might ask how they specifically recognize human sentience, while not recognizing other animal sentience.

So now, if we can reasonably assume that all sentient beings with awareness and desire have intrinsic ethical value, the broader natural environment becomes implicated as an instrumental value. In other words, if we regard sentient animals as possessing intrinsic value in their own right and deserving of our moral consideration, then we ought to also care about their natural habitats and environmental needs, since these are necessary for the animal’s well-being and flourishment. We can now measure the value of nature's biological integrity and preservation, in terms of its instrumental value for both humans and nonhuman sentient beings.

A minimum conception of environmental ethics can then be constructed, on the basis that sentient creatures such as mammals and birds have morally relevant interests in their well-being, and that the degree of their well-being depends on the degree of integrity of the ecological niches they occupy. The implication is that we ought to preserve the integrity of these ecological niches. And since any wilderness or protected natural sancturary comprises important habitats for mammals and birds, it follows that the existence of wilderness and sancturaries have a positive instrumental value that is morally relevant. In general, environmental integrity is ethically desirable and nature is endowed with ethical value.

It seems that much of the environmentalist’s concern has been theoretically covered by this approach, once the ethical value of mammals and birds has been established, as well as the instrumental value of their needed environments.

But some other concerns may still be present for the environmental ethicist.

One concern may be that the environmental implications of this approach are still too limited, in that we would have no reason to care about natural environments which have less instrumental value to mammals and humans. Also, a great many exotic species of life would not be covered by this ethic, unless they were of use to the designated sentient species. Trees would have no value, unless useful to the well-being of mammals, birds or humans.

Maybe these consequences are alright, but it would only be alright from the sentient and instrumentalists view, while it would not necessarily be alright from the perspective of the morally neglected ecologies and their living inhabitants who we do not regard as sentient. The sentientist may not care about destroyed ecologies, as long as there is no great harm to the well-being of sentient creatures. But for some, this boundary of caring is still too limited and narrow. So can our ethical concern for natural environments be broadened even further?

A broader life-based ethic has been proposed to widen the acceptable value of more living species and natural ecologies. This ethical approach argues for the intrinsic value of any organic life that shows survival and regenerating interests, regardless of whether the entity is particularly aware of this interest as a desire, or regardless of whether the life is actually sentient. This might be viewed as a moral respect for any instinct for survival or species regeneration. It is more commonly known as the life-based ethic, as it assumes an intrinsic value on any living regenerating thing or any naturally regenerating bio-system. If we include the deduced instrumental value of ecosystems necessary or beneficial for the interests of all these living things, then a great part of anyone’s environmental concern is theoretically covered.

Most of the natural environment can then be shown as ethically deserving of protection,
on the basis of its instrumental value either:

a) to just sentient creatures with desires for their well-being, or
b) to all bio-regenerating things having simple survival interests.

[Of course (b) is more inclusive than (a)]

Many environmentalist are concerned generally about natural environments being merely treated instrumentally. Modern western culture tends to view nature and environments as merely useful, transformative material for our desires and economic exploitation. The sentient ethic would only broaden this convenient instrumental view, to include some other animals in its ethical elite, while continuing to treat all other living things in a diminuative and subservient manner. Though the environmental critics of the sentient approach would still have to acknowledge the ethical advancement of the sentient approach; for many environmental ethicists any instrumentalist view of nature is an incorrect approach and an ethical defeat. According to instrumentalists critcs, ecological instrumentalism may work effectively in some applied cases, but it holds an inherent ethical disease that will finally lead to ecological exploitation and degradation.

Allowing most of nature to be ethically treated in a merely instrumental way, or accepting that the natural environment has value only in measure of its usefulness to higher developed animals and humans, is intuitively incorrect for many concerned environmentalists, and the psychological as well as ethical implication of this approach is of deep concern. One concern is that nature does in truth possess intrinsic value in its own right, in spite of the virtual impossibility of deductively proving this without some metaphysical, spiritual, aesthetic or deep-psychological apriori assumptions. And to avoid this truth-issue regarding intrinsic value, just because of its philosophical difficulty or its apparent impracticality, is a sign of both intellectual cowardice and insincerity.

The other concern is that any continuation of the instrumentalist approach, regarding nature, the earth and natural ecologies, will eventually lead to a degraded natural environment, a false and disrespectful view of the natural world, and deep psychological-emotional damage to human beings.

According to many concerned environmentalists, the instrumentalist view of the natural world is the deeper cause of our current environmental problems and will continue to make matters worse in the future. This is why many are holding fast to a non-compomising, strong ethical view regarding nature and ecology, for the sake of the diminishing natural environments and for the sake of all animals and humans alike, as well as for the future of this living earth and life itself.

So, are any other ethical approaches important to consider? Is nature's value limited to an instrumental value for sentient beings? Is the value of any natural environment merely dependent on its service to sentient creatures? Might nature possess an independent intrinsic value, in addition to its instrumental value? But can this intrinsic value be determined or justified?

What about arguing for the intrinsic value of any natural environment, or of all the natural world independent of human interests? What about the intrinsic value of natural ecologies in general, independent of any defined instrumental value? Or the intrinsic value of organic systems untampered by human interests and technologies?

It is often argued that any theories dealing with these questions will not only be dubious, due to the problem of justiying intrinsic values, but they will also be unnecessary since they would not add to any further ethical values than that already covered by the arguments already stated. Yet these presumptions of the dubious and unnecessary may be unwarrented. Also, to argue that a theory is inherently difficult to prove or that it is unnecessary, would seem to avoid the very question itself. In other words, if there is a question of whether nature has intrinsic value in itself, or whether the organic environment without human intervention has intrinsic value; then any argument that such questions are too difficult, or quite unnecessary, is a rather lame argument.

The endeavor of environmental ethics remains fundamentally incomplete without the clarification of intrinsic value. After all, the initial philosophical problem sparked by the environmental crisis concerns this question directly: something is wrong with the destruction of nature, something valuable is destroyed; how can we make theoretical sense of the value apparently contained in nature? Hence, the question of nature's value is not peripheral or supplementary to the task of environmental ethics. It lies at the very heart of the philosophical endeavor.

For many people, the intrinsic value of the natural environment, or of untampered ecologies, is intuitively correct. Or maybe there is a natural feeling in many people that all of nature, or the whole natural ecology, deserves moral consideration. There could be many plausible reasons for this intuition or feeling. Maybe because nature is simply present and we have grown from it and within it. Maybe we have some deeper psychological connection to nature and a need for its preservation, that we have yet to acknowledge in our youthful western science of human psychology. Maybe the integrity of organic ecosystems is aesthetically pleasing or serves an aesthetic purpose for our well-being. Maybe there is a metaphysical or cosmological reason for the intrinsic value of untampered ecosystems, even though such reasons are inherently difficult to prove.

Let us consider one simple method for analysing an intrinsic value theory or argument. Distinguish in the argument two fundamental types of premises. One is a supposed fact and the other is an non-reducible appreciation (or at least a respect).

For example, an argument for the intrinsic value of mammals and birds might be as follows:

1) We believe they are sentient, or that they have desires and feelings concerning their well-being and can experience pleasures and pains, much like us. [This is the supposed fact.]

2) We ought to respect their sentience, their desires for well-being and their feelings of pleasure versus pain.

In other words, the structure of the argument is to describe a characteristic fact about something, then define a moral imperative in relation to this characteristic. As said before, a counter-argument against such a structure could attack either the supposed fact (ie., that mammals are sentient and have feelings) or the imperative principle (ie., that sentient creatures with feelings ought to be respected), and of course one could argue against both premises. One tact is to put the advocate position on the defensive by asking it to prove that mammals are in fact sentient. Another tact is to ask for some compelling reason why sentient creatures ought to be respected and their interests protected.

One common response from the advocate position is make a case for logical consistency. It can be pointed out that sentience is a relevant reason for the moral consideration of humans, and thus it would be inconsistent to deny an equal consideration to sentient nonhumans. The question here, then, would be if sentience is essentially relevant, or a sufficient condition for moral consideration. For if sentience is a compelling reason to morally consider humans; then sentience should be a compelling reason in relation to nonhumans. Moral inconsideration of sentient nonhumans, then, could only be accounted for by human prejudice, and one of the very principles of morality would be contradicted in practice.

If sentience is not a compelling reason for moral consideration, then this means that sentience is an insufficient condition for moral obligation. Then at this point, the skeptics of the animal advocate position could put the others on the defensive by asking: What then is sufficient?

Is moral consideration dependent on the mere fact of an entity being human? Well, that most definitely is a prejudicial anthropocentric view!  A morality defined by humans to be limited to humans!  Morality coming full circle to a principle of species selfishness! The very logical consistency of this seems quite dubious.

Let us look at the structure of an intrinsic value arguments that are not obligation-based, but rather naturalistic-based. Here, one premise is still a supposed characteristic fact, but the other type of premise is a fact of our self-evident appreciation or respect. This may be called the aesthetic approach. For example, we may value rainforests and coral reefs for their ecological complexity, their organic richness, and their systemic coherence.

The structure of this evaluation can be simplified as:

1. Certain things exhibit ecological complexity, organic richness, and systemic coherence. [Fact]

2. We naturally appreciate and respect ecological complexity, organic richness, and systemic coherence.

We believe in certain facts about the object, then appreciate or respect such characteristics. This could be called an aesthetic form of intrinsic value. An inherent problem with this approach, though, is that it is dependent on our human response, so many have rejected this aesthetic approach because of its human-perspective and dependency. Yet, though the approach is admitedly centered from human judgement, it is not actually contingent on ulterior interests. That is, it is not actually anthropocentric, in the sense that it does not determine the value of something by its instrumental use to human interests. Rather, the value is determined by an irreducible and self-evident appreciation, an acknowledged value of something just for the qualities it has, without regard to any non-aesthetic interests.

This approach may be applicable to certain cases of environmental concern, where the aesthetic response is generally uniform for most human beings. In other words, if most humans naturally appreciate and value certain characteristics of ecosystems, such as ecological complexity, organic richness, and systemic coherence, then this is relevant for applied ethics. Yet this approach makes no absolute demands, and an important question will be how this value measures against other values such as economic gain. For example, does organic richness have more value to us than economic interests? The answer to this is indetermined by just the aesthetic approach to ethical value. And the same problems would arise from any non-normative naturalistic approach, because of its inherent pluralism of values and indefinition of any absolute encompassing principles.

The facts appear to be true about the object, while the value arises from our response to these facts. The facts depend on the object, while the value depends on we who judge in relation to those facts. Because of this, the idea that external objects can possess intrinsic value seems contradictory, since this value could not be externally independent of the judgement.

Another definition of intrinsic value would be that it is a property attributed to anything that is valued just for itself, independent of any instrumental or functional use. That is, we simply appreciate or respect the object, or the facts about the object, without any justifying reason, except that maybe this appreciation and respect is simply a natural response of the human condition. No ulterior justification can be given that involves the object’s instrumental value to some other potential external fact.

Consider another view of value, where the presence of a value does not presuppose human evaluation. What if some animals value their own well-being? Is this not a value independent of human evaluation? Some animals may value their own well-being, regardless of our human evaluation. It is our human prejudice to believe that only our conceptualized values can be values. Given that nonhuman sentient beings demonstrate through their behavior that they have preferences for their well-being, and given that such preferences illustrate that their well-being is a desirable state, it follows that the well-being of nonhuman sentient beings is valuable for these very beings. Considering this, the value is external to our human judgements, regardless of whether or not we also value their well-being. The facts now suggest that there is value external to us, and the question now arises whether we will respect this value.

Their well-being is not a fact that is value nuetral.
The value is not dependent on human evaluation.

Since these nonhuman sentient beings are integral elements of ecosystems and genuine parts of nature, it follows that nature contains intrinsic value through the desired goal-states of its sentient members.

We can even go a step further in showing intrinsic value in nature, pushing beyond sentients. It may be sentient prejudice to only value those which show sentience like us. Ecosystems such as rainforests, though presumably nonsentient, nonetheless possess goal-states and thus show value-for-themselves. If a rainforest suffers some limited damage, the rainforest will regenerate. Its growth even appears directed towards attaining a particular equilibrium between maximum diversity of species and maximum quantity of biomass. This equilibrium is the rainforest's ecological integrity. The rainforest is showing purpose, and thus value. So, value is out there. The question is whether we ought to respect this value by not degrading it.

A more general argument for the intrinsic value of nature could be as follows. Since ecological integrity characterizes the goal and flourishment of an ecosystem, ecological integrity is functionally valuable, even necessary, for the ecosystem. As the essential objective of collective growth, this integrity possesses a positive value within the ecosystem, regardless of human valuation. The untampered integrity of an ecosystem is, thus, a significant value for the ecosystem itself. Therefore, nature contains value intrinsic to itself.