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April 28, 2008

three different ways of thinking about the value of nature

These are three conflicting or rival positions:

1. People value nature, and the best measure of how much they value it is how much they would be willing to pay for it. Actual market prices may not reflect real value because of various flaws in existing markets. For example, if you find an old forest that no one owns, chop it down, and burn the wood for fuel, all that activity counts as profit. You don't have to deduct the loss of an asset or the damage to the atmosphere. However, it would be possible to alter the actual price of forest wood by changing laws and accounting rules. Or at least we could accurately estimate what its price should be. The real value of nature is how much human beings would be willing to pay for it once we account for market failures.

2. Nature has value regardless of whether people are willing to pay for it. Perhaps nature's value arises because God made it, called it "good," and assigned it to us as His custodians. Or perhaps nature has value for reasons that are not theistic but do sound religious. Emerson:

The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. ... The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.

Emerson's view is sharply different from #1 because he believes that his fellow men do not value nature as they should. "To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. ..." Thus prices do not reflect nature's value.

If you're an economist or a scientist, you may not personally feel that God is present in nature or that nature is ineffably precious. Regardless, you can respect your fellow citizens who hold those feelings. One version of scientific positivism says that there are (a) testable facts about nature and (b) opinions about nature as a whole. The latter are respectable but not provable. They are manifestations of faith, neither vindicated nor invalidated by science. This sounds like the early Wittgenstein.

3. Nature has value irrespective of price: real value that may or may not be recognized by people at any given moment. But this value does not derive from a metaphysical premise about nature as a whole, e.g., that God made the world. We can make value judgments about particular parts of nature, not all of which have equal value. We can change other people's evaluations of nature by providing valid reasons.

Yosemite is more precious than your average valley. How do we substantiate such a claim? Not by citing a foundational, metaphysical belief, but by describing Yosemite itself. Careful, appreciative descriptions and explanations of natural objects are valid arguments for their value, just as excellent interpretations of Shakespeare's plays are valid arguments for the excellence of those works.

This view rejects a sharp distinction between facts and values. "Thick descriptions" are inextricably descriptive and evaluative. This view also rejects the metaphor of foundations, according to which a value-judgment must rest on some deeper and broader foundation of belief. Why should an argument about value be like the floor of a building, which is no good unless it sits on something else? It may be sufficient on its own. (This all sounds like the later Wittgenstein.)

This third position contrasts with Emerson's. He says:

Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood.

This third view says, pace Emerson, that nature varies in quality. Tigers are more magnificent than roaches. A good way to make such distinctions is indeed to "extort [the] secrets" of nature. When we understand an organism better--including its functioning, its origins, and its place in the larger environment--we often appreciate it more, and rightly so. The degree to which our understanding increases our appreciation depends on the actual quality of the particular object under study.

April 28, 2008 9:51 AM | category: philosophy , philosophy | Comments


From Mark Sagoff, via email:

Any discussion of the value of nature must set forth from the distinction John Stuart Mill draws between two senses of the term "nature." The first refers to anything under the sun and the sun itself -- that is, whatever conforms to the laws of nature -- "the sum of all phenomena together with the causes that produce them." The significant opposite of the "natural" in this sense is the "supernatural." A waste dump, an internal combustion engine, and Yosemite National Park are all equally natural. No one denies the instrumental value of "nature" in the sense of everything that is not a miracle. It is a waste of time to talk about the value of nature in this sense, that is, the value of everything.

Second, the term “nature” may be used to refer to the pristine, that is, to nature’s spontaneous course or, in Mill’s phrase, to those phenomena that take place without the agency of man. When you ask about the value of nature, I assume you do not mean the value of an internal combustion engine, set of steak knives, or anything else produced through human agency. I imagine you mean nature as it exists apart from human agency, that is, as it exists on its own or as a result of its own spontaneous course.

In this sense, nature is a cruel mother and antithetical to human existence. As the Pilgrims found out when they died, nature is a place where you cannot get good service. I have a bad leg and could not sustain myself more than a day in the wild. Anyone who touts the instrumental value of nature in the sense of the spontaneous and pristine ought to try to live there until starvation, cold, disease, or some predator ends his or her fantasy on this point.

This brings us to consider the ethical or aesthetic value of nature. Do we now refer to “nature” in the sense of the worked or cultivated environment, such as gardens and parks, which are sedulously managed, or nature in the sense of the spontaneous and wild? Is this even a distinction with a difference – given that virtually no place exhibits nature’s spontaneous course or would appear at all as it does were it not for intentional or more likely inadvertent influence of humankind?

You offer us a choice between value in the sense of reverence (Emerson and the Transcendentalists) and value in a sense of secular appreciation. In the first sense, nature is seen as the expression of the divine. In the United States this view of the value of nature is associated with the Christian tradition. It applies (as you point out) to nature as a whole and in all its parts wherever we find them even if we must abstract away the effects of human influence. (Humanity is not part of nature, of course, because of Adam’s fall from grace and loss of innocence). In the sense of secular appreciation, some parts of nature have more value than others – the tiger, tiger, burning bright, for example, more than Mehitabel, the redoubtable cockroach.

If you take the secular or “thick description” approach to value, however, what difference could it make that a place appears as it does because 1) it was formed by nature’s hand (nature’s spontaneous course) or 2) it resulted from human device and invention? Let us suppose you found that what you thought was a tiger was in fact a liger, that is, a human cross between a lion and a tiger, and its burning bright results from human contrivance. A firm now markets a “glowfish” which burns bright – and may be considered beautiful, indeed, miraculous – only because it was designed for its economic value in the pet trade.

I believe that from an aesthetic and ethical point of view we are confronting once again the difference between the original work of art and the reproduction. Does it make a difference that the glowfish glows – or the Rembrandt glows -- because 1) the hand of the original artist (God, Rembrandt) created it rather than 2) some machine or technologist was able to diddle with paint or genes or whatever to sell some weird replica or invention to a market? I think it makes a difference. Authorship is everything. Some landscape designers are better than others, of course, and you can make invidious distinctions, as Tom Stoppard does so brilliantly in Arcadia, between the whims of one age rather than another. We are still pulled back, over and over again, to the mystery and mastery of it all, to human ignorance and incapacity and thus the wonder and imagination.

April 30, 2008 7:43 AM | Comments (1) | posted by Peter Levine

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