It is often claimed that we humans abuse the environment. But what does this actually mean? We may be referring to one or more of the following: depletion of resources, extinction of species, use of animals for scientific experiments (vivisection), pollution of rivers, air, soil, etc. Scientists will refer to the ‘environment’ as a system of ecosystems, and will charge our interference in the world’s ecosystems as being both too great and too dangerous. Not surprisingly, this is the view of both the Green activists and the environmental philosophers. Philosophers often add that treating an object as if it were a mere instrument is at least one, if not the main, component of abuse.
Now, if we accept that the environment is a system of ecosystems, it ceases to be a single object, as say, in the case of a tree, a person or a book, and becomes instead a matter of relationships. Some may prefer to call it a “community”, while others suffice to describe it as a “system”. Whatever the term, all agree that the “environment” involves relationships. But to return to what the philosophers mean when they say that we abuse anything: how can one abuse a relationship? Does it make sense to claim that “relationships” are treated instrumentally and that this treatment is wrong? Well, perhaps it could be argued that not only objects can be the subject of abuse. For example, trust can be abused. But in fact, when we speak of “trust being abused” we really mean that a certain person’s trust has been abused: i.e., that the person who trusted has been abused. So in this sense, it seems we cannot claim that the “environment” is being treated instrumentally. One of the contentions in this paper is that such a claim may be made only if we relate to the individuals living in the environment. However, many environmental philosophers have in mind the environment as a whole when they talk about “value”, or when they protest about humans treating the environment instrumentally. I think that some of the arguments may be misguided and that this has affected the tendency among the general public to dismiss arguments put forward by environmental philosophy with regard to policy related discourse. I will return to this claim towards the second half of this paper. But first, I wish to examine a further, related, claim, namely, that there is another way of treating something instrumentally, i.e. when one uses a new interpretation of a concept which is different from the conventional one in order to re-interpret the normative significance of another object or concept. For example, when we claim to talk about one thing but are in fact talking about another. I call this attitude “conceptual instrumentalism”.
This is therefore the first issue raised in this paper. I argue that many among environmental philosophers have done just this, i.e. they have used the concept of the “environment” in a political and instrumental manner, in order to talk about something else, and thereby evoke certain political (not necessarily “ecological”) attitudes. I reach this conclusion after examining the ramifications of understanding the concept of the environment as a system of ecosystems or relationships. Again, because environmental philosophers have taken this position, and directed their views at certain political, not necessarily environmental, goals, while claiming to discuss environmental philosophy, their theories have lacked relevance in terms of the argumentation put forward in the political, real-life, debate on the environment.
So, in what follows I explain the notion of “conceptual instrumentalism”, and argue that the “environment” is indeed a description of relationships and we therefore cannot conceive of it objectively, but only through interpretation and language, which, in this case, would be political. I further claim that several currents of thought in environmental philosophy are to be blamed for conceptual instrumentalism, since they use the “environment” in order to promote political ideas related to non-environmental issues. Finally, I discuss the implications of the claim that the environment is a description of relationships in main-stream environmental philosophy and return to the argument that environmental philosophy ought to be considering objects within the environment, rather than the environment as a whole. Finally, I conclude on a more optimistic note and maintain that we should not jump to the hasty conclusion that environmental philosophy lacks validity and relevance. Nevertheless, I feel that there is a price to be paid, namely that we must learn to distinguish between environmental ethics and meta-ethics on the one hand, and the political theory regarding the institutions most likely to protect the environment on the other.
Economic and Conceptual Instrumentalism
Economic instrumentalism is of course a widely recognised concept, and I will not be discussing it here in any detail. It often stands for a situation in which the valuer seeks exclusively economic objectives, or else, that the object valued is treated as a means to economic benefit for the valuer. Examples of this phenomenon are the evaluation of African elephants solely in terms of the income they generate in the ivory trade; the rapid development of historically important or aesthetic urban centres with the construction of huge complexes in their place, the idea that we may evaluate the lives of seals in economic terms, e.g. the value of their lives equals the price of their fur, and so on. While the above examples probably sound familiar to those interested in environmental matters, the notion of conceptual instrumentalism, on the other hand, may be novel.
Outside the environmental arena, we find that conceptual instrumentalism is, in fact, quite common in the world of politics. For example, when George Bush accused his presidential opponent, Michael Dukakis of being a “liberal” during the 1988 campaign, what he meant to say was: “softie”, weak, unstable, hesitant, ambiguous, etc. But we all know that this does not describe liberalism. Bush may have referred to liberalism, but in fact, he was out to say something about Dukakis. In his use of the term, he disregarded its definition, and distorted its meaning to say something quite different about someone else. He did this by capitalising on a certain amount of confusion and misunderstanding on the part of his audience. Another example would be Tony Blair’s asserting that he is a socialist while presenting an agenda which is the closest the British Labour party has ever come to the Conservative manifesto. It may be argued that he uses the term “socialism” in order to put forward non-socialist ideas while at the same time speaking to those who regard themselves as socialists.
However this is a paper about environmental philosophy, and my next example is therefore related to the environment. In the short history of the Zionist movement there have already been three interpretations of the concept of the “environment”, two of which at least have been entirely political. The attitude of the first Jewish immigrants to Palestine to their new environment was one of anxiety. Coming from Europe, they found a new world which seemed to them totally alien. Thus they regarded the sandy dunes, the desert and the swamps as a threat to their survival. The leadership chose the route of romanticising the environment and the immigrants’ relationship to it. They claimed that the reunion of Jewish soil with the Jewish soul would serve to emancipate the Jews from their bourgeois character. However, when this strategy failed, it was followed by a second interpretation whereby the new environment was to be `conquered’ as a way of making it more tame and human-friendly. The environment, which hitherto had been described in political speeches and school text books as “nothingness”, “emptiness”, “loneliness” “desolation”, “ruin” and “dreariness”, thus became an object to be “conquered”, “suppressed”, “made to flourish” and “civilised”. These interpretations, in which the environment played the role of “emancipating” the Jews, “abolishing their alienation”, or binding – in the political sense of the concept – the Jews to their new land, in fact treated the environment instrumentally. In other words, Zionism adopted different interpretations of the environment in order to create a new type of Jew, or to prove that Zionism was right. In so doing, it constantly re-defined the environment.
I raise this example not as a critique of Zionism, but because I wonder whether it is possible to think of the environment in a non-political manner at all. It seems that something happens to the concept of the “environment” once one moves from the scientific to the social discourse. (I consider the philosophical discourse to be part of the social.) Instead of being an object which is scientifically observed, the environment becomes an object of political discussion. This leads to the subordination of the environment to political preoccupations, and the abandonment of an objective and neutral conception of the environment. Consider, for example, the concept of “the British Minister for the Environment”, or even “the British environment”, as if the environment has artificial borders. At the end of the day, what is “British” about this environment?
What I have just been describing may seem inevitable: when we humans come to enjoy, or treat, or even conserve the environment, we discuss it as a public good, and hence by definition it becomes a political object. But is the phenomenon of conceptual instrumentalism restricted to the general public, rather than common to everybody, including environmental philosophers? I doubt this. But before continuing, I would like to distinguish myself from the current post-modern approach to environmental philosophy, according to which, the ‘world’ is ‘constituted’ by diverse cultures, and it is therefore epistemologically impossible for humans to have non-instrumental knowledge of the environment; humans know nature through socially-constructed science. As argued below, I think that objects in the environment have an objective existence, and that there should be an objective understanding of the ‘environment’. This thinking however is absent from most of the current philosophical works on the environment, for reasons which I explore below.
The Environment and Language
It is widely believed that the “true” (or most neutral) notion of the ‘environment’ is the one held by scientists. Some people question this. In a brilliant article, Shrader-Frechette and McCoy argue that the so-called “scientific’ notions of the environment presuppose certain normative commitments, and that ‘environmental values can and do contribute to ecological hypotheses’; environmental values influence the practice of the science of ecology.
And yet, it seems to me that we can still try to point to the core of the scientific, non-normative, notion of the environment, especially if we relate to the difference between biology and ecology. The difference basically is that the former describes objects in nature without reference to other objects to which they are related, whereas the latter describes and analyses relationships rather than objects. This characteristic of the environment is crucial to understanding the concept of the ‘environment’. Indeed, if we look at the dictionary, “environment” is defined as”conditions” (Oxford Dictionary of Current English), or as “the aggregate of surrounding things, conditions, or influences, especially as affecting the existence or development of someone or something” (The Random House Dictionary). In text-books, ecologists define their science as “the research of the forms of balance in nature”. And notice that “balance in nature” is not the same as “nature”. The “balance” here is defined in terms of persistence (existence over a long period of time), stability (ability to return to a regular pattern of existence after a change caused by a disturbance or interference) and robustness (continuous stability). As for ecology, it is a science which seeks to understand the process within the biosphere. Hence an ecological theory is a theory about the nature of this process. Now, processes, influences and conditions, or forms of balance, are not objects; rather they describe relationships. (Notice, again, that I do not claim that they do not exist objectively: my claim is much more modest, namely that they are not objects, as, for instance, a tree is.)
Thus, the environment is scientifically defined as relationships. But what about the social description of these relationships? Can we assume that relationships may be described objectively, and hence that there is an objective understanding of what we mean when we say the ‘environment’? We define it – I have argued – as relationships within and between ecosystems. This is indeed objective and neutral. But what happens in the social discourse when we describe the environment? I would like to argue that when the environment is discussed in the social discourse it is not described objectively. This might be due to two reasons:
- it may be that any set of relationships cannot be described objectively in the social discourse. This may or may not be true, but even if it is false, it may be that…
- there is something about the notion of the “environment” which makes it impossible to describe objectively.
Let us look first at relationships in general. It goes without saying that the insider, the one whose relationships are described, cannot describe them objectively. But is it possible for an outsider to characterise relationships objectively? I doubt it because I doubt that it is possible to be an outsider when it comes to relationships. The point is, that one cannot describe a certain relationship, X, without having a certain other relationship, Y, with one or more of the parties in the described relationships. The relationship Y does not have to be continuous. It is enough that at the moment of describing, the outsider names this or that party as PP rather than ZZ (assuming that both ZZ and PP are proper names for this party, e.g. I can be named Dr. de-Shalit or Avner). But if this is true, then one automatically becomes to some degree an insider, in the sense that one has a view, indeed a relation, to the described party, and is therefore unable to describe the relationship in an objective and unbiased manner.
Suppose I wish to describe my wife’s relationships with her parents. It is obvious that I see my wife in a certain way (my; wife), and I have a certain interest in these relationships. This is also true, I believe, with regard to more complex matters. If I wanted to describe the relationships between the Scots and the English, I could not detach myself from my own relationship with the English. This is often because one has a certain relationship, ranging from ethnic to ideological, with at least one element in the system of relationships one is describing. But even if we do not have such relationships (Y), we are unable to describe the relationship (X) objectively. This is because the language used to describe the particular relationship determines the content of our interpretation. Do I describe the relationship between James and his wife Anne, or between James and his spouse, or between Anne and her spouse, or between Anne and her husband? Or perhaps her partner, or friend? In general, I would argue that relationships cannot be described without one’s personal, subjective outlook being revealed through the words chosen to describe the relationships.
At this point, my argument may be challenged by drawing a distinction between social and natural relationships. Thus, it could be claimed, the relationships between a deer, the grass it eats and the nearby lake can be described both neutrally and objectively. Moreover, physical phenomenon such as magnetic fields may also be defined as relationships and described objectively. So in response I must first modify my claim by adding that it refers to relationships between moral agents. This then rules out such relationships as magnetic fields. But more important is the general claim about natural relationships. Here I wish to reemphasise that my claim is not the post-modern one whereby everything is political and subjective. I do not claim that relationships can never be described or stated objectively, rather I mean to offer an empirical observation concerning the social discourse. Thus, I agree that scientists have a neutral and objective model of the relationships within the environment. At least they should have one, if we accept the Shrader-Frechette thesis. But once the term moves from the scientific to the social discourse, its understanding becomes subject to the values, emotions and political goals attached to it. These values, feelings and goals are part of the context within which this discourse takes place.
Thus, when I say “this is a lion and that is an antelope”, I assume we all know what I mean, and that there is an objective understanding of this statement. When a scientist states that the relationships between them is such that the lion chases the antelope and eats it, this is also neutral. But once this statement is made within a social and philosophical discourse, it assumes other meanings related to certain ethical or political goals. Consider the sentence above in the context of a Walt Disney or National Geographic film. Or think of this: would the person describing these relationships like us to do something about it because, for example, antelopes are becoming an endangered species, or does he or she mean that we should not interfere because this is nature, and humans are best kept out of it? Or does this person want us to stay out of it because this way we can overcome our speciesist attitudes? Notice that the move from the objective to the non-objective is not related to the person who talks. A philosopher is capable of being objective in many circumstances, just like the scientist. Instead, it has to do with the concept of the environment as a set of relationships and the use of this concept within a specific discourse. The word “lion” describes an object which can be defined objectively; the relationships between the lion and the antelope can be defined objectively within the scientific discourse, but not within the social discourse. It is the context of language and discourse that affect the objectivity of the meaning.
One might still challenge my line of argument, claiming that there are cases in which the observer is not an insider. Well, perhaps this is so. But then, in the case of the environment there is something about this particular concept that makes it difficult to describe objectively, namely, that we are all inside it. You and I discuss the environment but are also part of it. And if we are insiders, can we describe it objectively? So if the person describing the environment is part of the environment, and if, as Rolston claims, that person’s organs are “natural”, and hence also part of the environment, then it follows that the environmental philosophers’ claim to be objective about nature (their capacity to get outside of their self-interested reference frames), and their argument that they are the only ones to respect nature because they regard it objectively and without instrumental intentions (perhaps even neutrally), is at least questionable. In that respect the environment is a contested concept, just like other concepts in moral and political philosophy, e.g. liberty, justice, and so forth.
Political Uses of the ‘Environment’ Among Environmentalists
Accordingly, the description of relationships and hence the use of the term ‘environment’, besides not being objective or neutral, is often biased, ideological, or political. The amazing thing is that the politicisation of the concept of the environment is legitimised by well-meaning environmental philosophers, who seem to misunderstand the consequences of their action. For example, they use the term ‘ecology’ to describe political attitudes (e.g. ‘deep’ ecology). In fact they are taking a ‘scientific’ term which belongs to one discourse and using it in another, without reference to the original (‘scientific’) meaning. For these scholars, nature and the environment are not a genuine “telos” in the Aristotelian sense. Without being aware of it, they conceive of the ‘environment’ politically even when asserting that this is not so. For example, following Deep Ecology, Andrew Dobson says we can learn from nature how to improve our human existence:
There is a strong sense in which the natural world is taken as a model for the human world (…) Many of ecologism’s prescriptions for political and social arrangements are derived from a particular view of how nature “is”. (…) The principal features of the natural world and the political and social conclusions or prescriptions that can be drawn from them are: diversity – toleration, stability and democracy; interdependence – equality; longevity – tradition; nature as “female” – a particular conception of feminism.
This is in fact, a new conception of society and politics arrived at through a new understanding of the environment. The environment, of course, cannot teach us moral or political goodness, because it is a-moral and a-political. Nature is natural and politics is artificial.
But Dobson, obviously, is not alone. There are currents of thought among environmental philosophers which consistently use conceptual instrumentalism. I would like here to discuss two examples: Deep Ecology and Ecofeminism. With regard to Ecofeminism, I believe I have a novel argument to put forward; as for Deep Ecology, which I have already touched on, I am widening a critique put forward by Andrew Light. However, I do this not out of criticism for these theories, but rather as an illustration of my argument and my critique of the use of the term “environment” in environmental philosophy.
Deep Ecologists put forward a theory which stands on two pillars: the one being their idea that human beings should stay out of the game when it is a matter of stability in nature – where a stable ecosystem is a system which is hardly changed; and the other is their belief that if we act in this way we shall achieve a ‘new self’.
While these two ideas are interconnected, the goal is not a different environment, but rather a change in life quality, coupled with personal growth and improvement. Thus Naess’s first principle of Deep Ecology rejects the concept of man-in-the-environment in favour of a relational image. But this is only a basis for a new conception of the subject, or the person. He uses the concept of the environment in order to put forward a different conception of the ‘self’, which is regarded as part of a total holism and the integration of all with all. Indeed, the idea of the extension of self to a self whose self-realisation is part of an ecological whole, or, in Naess’s words, the extension of the “social self” to concepts of the “ecological self” , is regarded by Deep Ecologists as one of their main contributions to philosophy.
But let us return to the initial postulate and the demand for a stable environment. A stable environment is, in fact, a stable system of ecosystems. But a stable ecosystem is not a system which does not change at all. The conception that an ecological system is stable when it does not change (as Deep Ecology implies) is a political, not a scientific idea. Indeed, it contradicts the scientific idea whereby an ecological system is stable when it is capable of regaining its equilibrium following any deviation. So, not every change is anti-environmental – only those changes which alter the balance irreversibly should be considered immoral from the point of view of environmental philosophy. Thus Deep Ecologists use the concept of a stable ecosystem instrumentally, revising its conventional (and, I would add, only reasonable) meaning. Their theory is, therefore, a very original and important political theory, but not necessarily a genuine environmental ethics theory.
In fact, Deep Ecologists themselves declare that they are not interested in value-theory (axiology) or in a new moral theory. Theirs is an eco-sophy, not a philosophy. It is based on intuition and is subjective , and not ‘rational’ in the usual meaning of the term. When Henryk Skolimowsky compares eco-philosophy with what he calls ‘present philosophy’, he claims that while present philosophy is spiritually dead, eco-philosophy is spiritually alive, that while present philosophy is intolerant to trans-physical phenomena, eco-philosophy tolerates them (this represents a new and broader conception of the self), and that while present philosophy is politically indifferent, eco-philosophy is politically aware. Warwick Fox, in his own defence of Deep Ecology claims that the main concern of Deep Ecology is “to express the characteristic attitudes which will be adopted by those who go along with the metaphysical teaching” of Deep Ecology. Fox thinks that this teaching is metaphysical, but I am of the opinion, and I hope that my argument below proves this, that this is a political theory which aims at changing politics, or, in its radical version, at replacing current politics with the theory of the new self. (Notice that I do not make any claim against metaphysics in general). Consider the following paragraph in which Attfield summarises Fox’s approach:
“The central tenets [of Deep Ecology] include (…) denying various classical dualisms (…) an enlarged conception of the self, such that the world is seen as part of the self; and an emphasis on self-realization, granted this enlarged conception of the self, such that any diminution of natural entities becomes a diminution of oneself, and such that self-love comes to involve care for the world as for oneself.”
Is this a theory about the environment, or about the self? Does this reflect any sense of care for other species, or does it in fact discuss ourselves, allocating care for other species a merely instrumental role? Is it concerned with the environment, or does it represent an attitude which uses the concept of the environment in order to put forward a new conception of the self? Does it aim at the liberation of the environment or at the salvation of human kind?
Now, you could say that the Deep Ecologists are well-meaning individuals who do not want to use the environment instrumentally. I agree. But the point here is that in their approach, and in their attitude to the environment, there is a built-in tendency to subordinate the concept (not the components or the objects: e.g., the bee, the elephant), to other goals. The language, at any rate, indicates that the main target is a new self.
The idea of a new self has also been suggested by Rudolf Bahro, the leading German environmental theorist and Green party member, who currently teaches philosophy at the Humbolt University in Berlin. The target for Bahro is not merely an environment-friendly world, but rather the abolition of the existing order, a ‘world transformation’, a “new collective psyche”, a “spiritual renaissance”, the “rise of a new consciousness” and “spiritualism” – emancipation from the logic of “self-extermination” . He speaks of the need to change the “basic psychological structure of Western humanity”, or, as he puts it at the start of his recent book: we should not aim at “ecologising the boat [in which we live]” but at building “new lifeboats”. It seems that the goal here is the abolition of bourgeois democracy. The means is to become Green.
This is a ‘politics of salvation’ rather than of the environment, though the first step towards realising this politics is by acknowledging the interconnectedness of humans and nature. In Bahro’s description of the new world, little is said about the condition of trees, rivers, animals, etc. A great deal is said however about the “new spiritual authority(…) the invisible church, [which] will depend on the amount of inner space freed up from ego-control and waiting for restructuring”. Under the title “Overcoming ecological crisis”, Bahro writes about “transcending oneself”. We can thus say that like many other Deep Ecologists, Bahro uses the concept of the environment instrumentally. The ecological crisis is another name for the psychological one, and as such relates to the environment instrumentally. Bahro sees the environment as a reflection of our consciousness: the damaged environment is the reflection of our current logic of “self-exterminism”; the new environment will reflect the new psyche and our emancipated soul.
One may ask: so what? Does it matter that Deep Ecology uses the term “environment” differently from science? My answer is: it may not matter, as long as we recognise that this is indeed the case, that Deep Ecology is a political theory whose goals do not always seek to reform our attitudes about the environment, but rather to replace politics by a non-political system. If, however, Deep Ecology claims to respect the environment and treat it as it is, then this claim may be deceptive because environmental attitudes are a means of changing the “system”. Their theory, then, is not about the moral grounds for respecting the environment, but about non-environmental goals. If we understand this, it is clear why at least Deep Ecology has rarely, if at all, served as a rationale for environmental policies. The general public, including activists, may have sensed that when they want to justify recycling or the treatment of sewage, talks about the new psyche will not do. The deeper problem, I fear, is that since Deep Ecology is rather dominant in environmental philosophy, many people in the general public conclude that “this is environmental philosophy” and therefore that “arguments taken from environmental philosophy in general will not suffice in real cases.”
The other current of thought I would like to examine as a political theory rather than an environmental ethics is ecofeminism. To begin with, ecofeminists claim that nature is female,pointing to ancient cultures which had a goddess of nature, the “nurturing mother” . But bearing in mind that the environment is a matter of relationships, does this claim have any meaning, apart from the assertion that certain relationships are female? And does this make any sense? “Female” is an adjective that cannot be attached to relationships; the environment, then, can be neither female nor male. So why do ecofeminists present this argument? The answer is they would like us to rethink the relationships between the sexes through a reinterpretation of the environment. So it may be argued that these eco-feminists have a non-environmental motivation for discussing the environment. Again, this is legitimate and highly important, but at the same time, it must be recognised and acknowledged.
Val Plumwood’s attack on Paul Taylor’s Respect for Nature is a good example of the way several ecofeminists treat the environment. For her, it is another opportunity to expose the prejudiced, biased character of male-dominated ethics (and, I agree, it is more than reasonable to claim that ethics has traditionally been male dominated and biased), and to offer a radical feminist theory concerning the place of women in the world. But the place given to the environment in her theory is only minor and instrumental. Plumwood complains that Taylor’s “respect for others” is not genuine, since he treats care (a concept described by many feminists with good reason as having been neglected in morality, politics and political philosophy), as “desire”, and therefore irrelevant to morality.
From this, Plumwood moves on to a criticism of male-dominated morality. The latter, it is argued, treats ‘feminine’ emotions as essentially unreliable, untrustworthy, and hence morally irrelevant. Therefore a distinction is drawn between personal and particular values (mostly feminine) vs. universality and impartiality. From here, the road leads us to a critique of Kantian ethics as chauvinistic.
Thus, eco-feminists see a connection between an instrumental attitude towards the environment (the view that the value of the environment lies in its usefulness to a privileged group, i.e. human beings), and instrumentalism towards women (the view that their value lies in their usefulness to a privileged group, i.e. men). Thus they conceive of both the environment and women as passive within male attitudes. They may be right, but this is irrelevant to the present discussion because several eco-feminists are themselves instrumental towards the environment, when they use the concept to reveal the political injustice perpetrated on women, and the philosophical poverty of the “self-interested individual presupposed in market theory”.
The interests of such an individual (…) are defined as essentially independent of or disconnected from those of other people, and his or her transaction with the world at large consist of various attempts to get satisfaction for these predetermined private interests. Others are a “resource”, and the interests of others connect with the interests of such autonomous selves only accidentally or contingently.
At the same time, it is argued, this kind of instrumentalism is absent from feminist theory.
People do have interests that make essential and not merely accidental or contingent reference to those of others, for example when a mother wishes for her child’s recovery, the child’s flourishing is an essential part of her flourishing.
I am most sympathetic to this political theory. But didn’t we lose sight of the environment somewhere?
One might argue that I have misinterpreted ecofeminism which is, in fact, a theory of moral relations with nature. But while protesting against misinterpretations of ecofeminism, the ecofeminist Deborah Slicer recently argued that Fox and others who challenge ecofeminism have reduced ecofeminism to an environmental theory, which, she argues, is wrong: “In our best forms [ecofeminists] examine the interconnected and mutually reinforcing oppression of women and nature in patriarchy […and we construct] new versions of self.”
Now, it may further be argued against me that the two – a change in the attitude of men to women, and a change in the attitude of human beings to nature – must go hand in hand. Ecofeminists therefore emphasise this connection and the need to change both modes of behaviour. This I agree with. I have even reasoned this way myself on the basis of empirical research. But this is not the main point here. The point is that we must be aware of what takes place in the name of ‘environmental’ philosophy, namely, that we are being offered a feminist philosophy about the politics of gender relations. Now, morally or politically speaking, this may be positive, but we must realise that this is indeed what is happening. We must realise that often when people, including environmental philosophers, discuss the environment, they have in mind a political concept which already involves non-environmental political goals.
So what do the Deep Ecologists, Ecofeminists, and others have in common? The fact is that these philosophers have political goals which are not necessarily related to pollution, sewage, radioactive radiation, waste disposal, the extinction of wild animals, or the keeping of balance in ecosystems. They are looking to say something about politics; from the definition of the self, to the system of order (e.g. the chauvinistic male hierarchy). They cannot emancipate the environment, because relationships, being a matter of interpretation and language, cannot be ’emancipated’. The self on the other hand may be emancipated via a new interpretation of the environment. The working class and all citizens can be emancipated through a new interpretation of the environment. Women and then, finally, everyone can be emancipated through a new understanding of the environment.
Should We Dispense With Environmental Philosophy?
So far, I have limited my argument to the two examples discussed above, i.e. Deep Ecology and Ecofeminism, two representatives of what Light refers to as “environmental ontologists”, i.e. those who base their theories on the “inseparable ontological roots of humans and non-human nature”. But I have also asserted that I am not after a critique of their theories, rather an illustration of my argument concerning the ‘environment’ and its description through language. But if there is a problem here, what does it imply? Should all environmental philosophers return to their universities and suggest that their deans and rectors close their departments down? Should all environmental philosophers transform themselves into political theorists? The answer, of course, is negative. Not all environmental philosophers have non-environmental political motives. The reason Deep Ecology and Ecofeminism fall into the trap of conceptual instrumentalism with greater ease is that they refer extensively to relations and relationships. The way to avoid making the environment subservient to other political goals is to avoid relating to it as a whole, i.e. to its relational aspect, and rather to relate to the individuals within the environment. This may be difficult because as we have seen, the environment is a system of ecosystems, and as such, involves relationships. The issue then, is how not to overemphasise the relational aspect. Deep Ecology and Ecofeminism cannot do this because the essence of their theories is the relationships. This leads us to the question of whether mainstream environmentalism itself can avoid conceptual instrumentalism. Any mainstream environmental philosopher could come to me and say: “O.K., but does your argument have any bearing on us? Is it wrong or instrumental to maintain that, for instance, there is an intrinsic value in nature?” My answer to this would be:
First, I suggest that we use the term ‘environment’ with extreme care; that we should be aware of our conception of the “environment” and that we should recognise our tendency to use it as a political idea, especially when trying to promote social change. Secondly, I would like to examine the implications of my argument in terms of the theory of intrinsic value.
Let me first elaborate on the point that we should be more careful using the term “environment”. This is no light request. It relates to the is-ought fallacy. When discussing the ethics of relationships between human beings, philosophers are careful not to derive the ought from the is, because the existing relationships (the is) already reflects a certain morality. Hence, philosophers should do more than simply justify our ways by clinging to the practice of a certain morality which already exists on the grounds that we should follow it simply because it exists. A minori ad majus they have to do more than describe and explain what happens. They have to supply normative justifications for (or against) it. But environmentalists may say that, with regard to environmental ethics, the is (a certain model of the world, or of the environment) is not created by human beings but is given. It is not first constructed by humans, but is discovered. It may therefore be claimed that environmental philosophers should not be so careful with the is-ought distinction. Thus, Rolston, for example, argues against the dichotomy between facts and values in environmental matters.
Nevertheless, if I am right so far, then the environment model currently used by philosophers is not a natural given, nor is it neutral and non-political; hence the model, and not the environment itself, is constructed as opposed to discovered, and is often politically oriented. This is not to say that there may not be a neutral and non-political model of the environment in the scientific discourse, but it seems that often, in the social discourse, we do not have an objective model for the “environment”; rather, we have a number of different political models. I therefore think that we should be careful not to assume, or take it as given, that the model of the environment used by philosophers in the social discourse is a scientific, “true” description. And if so, philosophers should indeed be very careful not to derive the ought from the is, and not to derive social codes of behaviour from “the way the environment is”. Notice, however, that my claim is twofold: first, that environmental philosophers should be careful not to derive the ought from the is in general; but also that they should be careful not to move from a particular and biased is (which, because it is particular and biased, has its own oughts within it) to the oughts that follow from it.
Second, I wish to make a bolder claim, namely, that my previous arguments carry implications for the theory of intrinsic value. The notion of intrinsic value means, in very broad terms, that an object can have a value which is both (or either) not instrumental to any other person, and which exists objectively. In general I would accept the theory, but with certain modification. Accordingly, intrinsic value will apply to individuals in the environment but not to the environment. I will demonstrate this by discussing Rolston’s theory in the light of what has been argued this far.
Rolston suggests a theory of what we can call ‘pluralistic intrinsic value’. He finds different categories of values in nature: life-support value, economic value, recreational and creation value, scientific value, aesthetic value, diversity, unity, historical, stability, spontaneity, wildness, historical, religious, and other values. I could not agree more with regard to the intrinsic value of individuals, such as particular deer, or species. But although he does not directly say that there is value in the relationships themselves, Rolston does mention the value of systems, or “systemic value”. He discusses the value of non-biotic things: humans, sentient fauna, e.g. squirrels, endangered species , but at the same time claims that “nature [as a whole – AdS] is an objective value carrier”. He then goes on to identify “the projective system”, which is “the most valuable phenomenon”:
“The shallow reading [of this…is…] that humans, when they arrive, are able to value the system out of which they have emerged. A deeper reading means that the system is able to project values, among which are humans.” and
“What humans value in nature is an ecology, pregnant Earth, a projective and prolife system in which individuals can prosper but are also sacrificed indifferently to their pains and pleasures, individual well-being a lofty but passing role in a storied natural history. From the perspective of individuals there is violence, struggle, death; but from a systems perspective, there is also harmony, interdependence and ever-continuing life.”
Thus, Rolston sees systemic value, on the level of ecosystems, especially where it is not quite clear whether we may speak in terms of “regular” intrinsic value in individuals or species because the good of an object is partly its good for others, or its role in sustaining the system, its ability to maintain the ‘fitness in a pervasive whole’.
If I read Rolston correctly, he may mean that relationships have intrinsic value, and it may even be argued, as Judith Scoville did recently, that his theory may be recast in terms of Richard Niebuhr’s relational value theory, in which value is a basic of relationships. I think that while it is clear that the rest of what he says is welcome – i.e. that there is intrinsic, objective and non-anthropocentric value in individual objects, species, etc. – this particular idea should be avoided, because otherwise we immediately fall into the trap of conceptual instrumentalism. Unlike objects like trees, donkeys, human beings, and so forth, an ecosystem is a description of relationships, and as such it is mediated through language which is changeable and social, and hence cannot be a source of value and even less, be emancipated. The “environment” is a description of relationships, which when described are oriented towards a certain telos; hence the “environment” cannot be a source of value, especially intrinsic value. (That is not to say that relationships cannot have instrumental value!).
By way of illustration, consider the family. Obviously, Rachel, John her spouse, and their children have intrinsic value; but the family is a description of legal relationships and certain obligations that John, Rachel, and their children have to each other. In other words, the family is a description of relationships which guarantee the individuals’ intrinsic value. If the family ceases to exist – that is, if John and Rachel get divorced – they all still have an intrinsic value, although the relationships between them are different. Indeed, if they get divorced, there are now other means (i.e. a new mode of relationships) of respecting the individuals’ intrinsic value. For instance, there is a divorce agreement which is supposed to ensure that the new relationships will guarantee respect for the intrinsic value of John, Rachel, and their children. It may still be true that the family is the best guarantee for these people’s intrinsic value (as well as for their love to each other), but then the family has an instrumental, rather than intrinsic, value.
Some may defend the position that intrinsic value can be ascribed to relationships by arguing that relationships could exist prior to individuals. But such a claim would not be reasonable. Relationships cannot be prior to the objects whose affiliation to each other they describe, because in order for there to be relationships between objects there must first be the objects.
Again, I do not wish this argument to be interpreted as a call to eliminate the idea of intrinsic value from environmental ethics. Rather, I would suggest a modification of this theory in the light of my argument and ascribe intrinsic value to objects within the environment but not to the ‘environment’ itself.
Neither do I wish to dismiss using the concept of the environment in environmental philosophy or its use as a metaphor. In fact it has been suggested that the terms “environment” and “ecology” contain metaphorical elements, e.g. when we speak of “the economy of nature” or of “biotic communities”. I think this is indeed correct: we do use metaphors when speaking of the environment. Thus, for instance, my saying that I care for and about the environment is short for saying that I care for, and about, objects in the environment, and that the relationships I would like to see between human beings and other objects in the environment are better than those which, say, a capitalist polluter would see, in that they guarantee greater respect for objects in the environment. This respect includes respect for the relationships these objects have (i.e. the particular mode of ecosystem balance).
This is, in fact, the “happy ending” of my otherwise critical paper. I do not believe we should dispense with environmental philosophy, but I do suggest however that environmental philosophers should acknowledge that:
- the “environment” is often tacitly a politically-loaded concept; and
- one should therefore be cautious about using this concept; and
- one should be careful about deducing the ought from the is: there is no neutral is in this case; and
- the theory of intrinsic value should be modified so that it applies to objects rather than to relationships (i.e. to the environment); and
- there are philosophers who are too keen on combining environmental philosophy with political theory. This should be done cautiously, and it may be better for the environment if we concentrate separately on the moral grounds for environmentalism, i.e. environmental ethics (often meta-ethics), and the political theory concerning the institutions which best guarantee a cleaner environment, animal welfare, etc., let alone social justice. Environmental ethics should answer the question: what moral grounds are there for a more environment friendly attitude? Political theory should answer the question: what sort of human institutions are conducive to, and able to sustain environment-friendly policies? I believe that if environmental ethics is approached modestly, as opposed to pretentiously, if it does not claim to solve meta-ethical questions, if it is more accurate (e.g. intrinsic value can apply to individuals only) and does not seek to replace political theory, then it will be regarded as reasonable. The practical results will be much more far-reaching than at present: greater numbers of people will be convinced and will develop environment-friendly attitudes. It might even be argued that if this stage is reached, there would be no need for the drastic changes in morality demanded by some environmental philosophers, and that the time will then be ripe for political theory to turn its focus on our (human) institutions.