A Godless Environment
Ben Rogers on the morality of environmentalism
It is sometimes argued, that God and God alone can provide reason for valuing the natural environment at its proper worth. For, or so the argument goes, if God does not exist, then we have no reason to value, say, rare species or natural habitats in a way which transcends their use to us to value them for themselves and they certainly have a value that transcends their use to us. Yet as influential as this line of thought is, it does not withstand any but the most superficial scrutiny. After all, God stands in the same relation to nature as humans do. If its value depends on his valuing it, then it does not matter for itself. Or, to say the same thing in other words, if God guarantees the value of nature, then its value remains purely 'instrumental'. Yet it was the desire to secure a 'non-instrumental' value for nature that drove us to God.
Granting then that religion does not offer us any special reason for caring about the environment, I want, very briefly, to offer the sketch of a secular approach that does justice to our convictions about the value of nature.
The starting point here is to distinguish between two ways that a thing can matter to us. It can matter instrumentally or intrinsically. If a good matters instrumentally, then its claim on me is exhausted by its use to me or by the pleasure that I derive from it. I will not think less of myself if, because my wants or purposes change, I cease to value it. Something matters intrinsically, on the other hand, if its claim on me is not exhausted by its use or the pleasure it offers. The bus that takes me to the National Gallery has, in this sense, an instrumental value: if I bought a bicycle I would no longer need it and I could say, without qualms, that it no longer mattered to me. But the Gallery's paintings have an intrinsic value. I would be dismayed to learn that I should cease to value them, just because they have a claim on me independent of my desires and values.
Now it is a sad fact that many secularists have tended to ignore this important distinction, and have treated all goods (or at least all goods other than pleasure or happiness) as purely instrumental in character. Utilitarians, for instance, have long followed their master Bentham, in arguing that all that matters in the world is the maximisation of human happiness, and that all other things derive their value from their contribution to this end. Similarly economists, who are generally if not always self-consciously deeply influenced by utilitarianism, have tended to assume that all goods can be arrayed on a single monetary scale, which is again a function of desire, or at least willingness to pay. Both approaches fail to do justice to the distinction I have tried to adumbrate above. They fail to appreciate that some things do not derive their value from their capacity to make me happy or satisfy my preferences, but matter irrespective of my values and preferences. Thus it is that, while we are happy to accord a monetary value to everyday 'instrumental' goods like carrots and cars, we draw the line at the idea that great works of art, heirlooms or historic artefacts have a price. In the same way, we rebel at the suggestion that life itself can be costed.
But of course it is not just artworks and heirlooms, friends and relations that matter in this way. The environment does as well. The survival of rare species, the preservation of endangered wildernesses is of importance to us not merely as a means to some other end, but as ends in themselves. A culture that ceased to value these things and got all its enjoyments from, say, video games, would not just be different from ours but inferior. Something vital, indeed, something 'sacred', would be missing from it. It is because we do value nature in this way, that the attempt of many economists to attach a monetary value to rare species or natural habitats can seem so offensive.
I have been arguing that it is right to say, as most of us want to do, that natural goods have an intrinsic value. But I want finally to make two significant qualifications to this line of argument.
First, it is extremely important to acknowledge that intrinsic values often clash with one another. So while there is a sense in which environmental goods have a supreme, even a sacred nature, the same is true of many other goods. A bypass might destroy a valuable meadow but save human lives; ecologically designed new towns in the South East of England might enable us to accept more asylum seekers or promote happy family life. Indeed, environmentally desirable goods sometimes clash one with another measures to preserve one rare species might endanger another. For this reason we should resist the arguments of those who suggest that nature is sacrosanct and must never be subject to human interference or influence, and instead recognise that sometimes sacrifices have to me made.
Second, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, I think that we have to admit that ultimately the natural environment does gain its value from what it offers to us and other sentient creatures. Mountain ranges and coral reefs have more than instrumental value, but ultimately they find their value in their potential to become part of a worthwhile life. Could one be certain that a sentient being would never enjoy them again, they would become instantly valueless. Saying this makes me slightly uncomfortable, but perhaps that is only because it is likely to be misinterpreted by theists as an argument for God and by economists as an argument for cost-benefit analysis. And I hope to have shown why neither of these alternatives is acceptable.