Environmental ethics: moving from extrinsic to intrinsic

Nels H. Granholm

Nels H. Granholm

We recently completed our section on environmental ethics in Bio/Phil 383 – Bioethics. Because our interaction was so much fun and so interesting, I’d like to share some of our themes, concepts, and discussion with you. The ideas of Rod Nash and Aldo Leopold, splendid environmental ethicists, had a lot of zip and appeal. Their themes and concepts were just the right “cup of tea” for an exciting, provocative, and real university-type give-and-take. Let me elaborate, please.

“Why do you love me”? According to Rod Nash, this is the dreaded question men hate to hear late at night when sitting next to their wives, lovers, girlfriends, computer, robot, or whatever. Nash says the standard response of, “I love you for your beauty, recreation, and economics” just doesn’t cut the mustard. But, this is exactly what we have been saying to justify our use of natural resources. It’s pretty weak. And, it doesn’t work. It just isn’t adequate. It’s too superficial. And it won’t cut the mustard, because it’s an extrinsic response to an intrinsic reality of great value and worth. What we need is an honest and authentic appreciation of intrinsic value and worth independent of our human needs – a rather difficult but philosophically doable business.

Dr. Nash claims that ever since we’ve (Homo sapiens or the sapient ape) been around, the primary way we conceive of the natural world and natural resources has always been extrinsic or instrumental. An extrinsic point of view posits that natural resources, as instruments, are only of value to us insomuch as they can have use or be of some utility; they have no value in the wild. In his classic book, Wilderness and the American Mind, 4th Edition, Nash traces the history of humans’ attitudes toward the natural world including our need to “conquer” wilderness and our inability to conceive of and define a wilderness concept until we had civilization (i.e., you can’t define a south pole until you have a north pole, or there’s no yin without a yang). Nash concludes that the time has come for us to develop a new wilderness ethic – one of intrinsic value, i.e., to value the natural world in and of itself regardless of it’s effect or value to us. We need to do this for two reasons: 1) It is the right thing to do and 2) If we don’t do this, we’ll end up in very bad shape as our global human population increases and our natural resource base dwindles concomitantly. Nash concludes with a couple of rather striking and provocative recommendations. Now that we have conquered wilderness, we now need to conquer civilization. And, we need to replace the social contract of John Locke with the ecological contract of Aldo Leopold. This brings us to another singular environmental ethicist – Aldo Leopold.

In a nutshell, here’s the essence of Aldo Leopold. In his classic text, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes with beautiful, rhythmic, lyrical, and seductive prose to provide a virtually compete set of survival instructions (for us and for the other 29.9 million biota). Leopold’s modus operandi is one of viewing the natural world in terms of its intrinsic value, i.e., by virtue of their existence, antiquity, and evolutionary success, natural ecosystems and their community members are imbued with profound value and significance in and or themselves regardless of how humans view them. Wildflowers will bloom in high alpine meadows even it humans are not there to see them. In Bioethics class we summarized Leopold’s view in a theory of environmental ethics we call “Leopoldian or ecological ethics”. The primary principle of Leopoldian ethics, ” a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise”, is a clear statement of intrinsic value.

So, where are we going with all this? Here it is. These ideas of Nash and Leopold have merit. Maybe we need to be a bit less extrinsic and a bit more intrinsic in our attitudes toward the natural world. And it probably wouldn’t be too bad an idea to try it with our partners when, late at night, we hear the dreaded question, “Why do you love me”?

E-mail comments to Dr. Granholm at [email protected]