Ethics of Nature (Berlin/New York 1999)


Ethics of nature is an inquiry into the value of nature: Is nature’s value only instrumental value for human beings (and if so, what constitutes that value) or does nature also have intrinsic value (and if so, what constitutes that value)? Can traditional anthropocentrism be defended or must we move to a new, physiocentric moral position?

The debate on the ethics of nature is fairly young. Many of its concepts and arguments stand in need of clarification and working out. This study contributes to this task by defining basic concepts such as "nature" and "anthropocentrism" and by developing a critical taxonomy of arguments concerning the value of nature.

This taxonomy is divided into three parts. First, there are seven anthropocentric arguments: arguments which explore the value of nature for a good human life. These arguments concern: 1. the instrumental value of nature for the satisfaction of basic human needs like health; 2. the instrumental value of nature for sensual human delight, the fragrance of a flower or the songs of warblers; 3. the aesthetic intrinsic value beautiful and sublime nature has for human beings; 4. the instrumental value natural design has in relieving us of "aesthetic responsibility"; 5. the role the native landscape, the "Heimat", plays in the identity of many human beings; 6. the pedagogic value of treating nature with care; and 7. the meaning of life and the intrinsic value or sacredness the wise, who know that the meaning of life is life itself, accord to nature.

The second type of arguments, the taxonomy explores, are holistic arguments, which are neither purely anthropocentric nor purely physiocentric. Holistic arguments claim that to accord intrinsic value to nature is to further the good life for human beings, as they are part of nature.

The third class of arguments is made up of five physiocentric arguments: arguments which give reasons for respecting the "good" of nature for its own sake. The first physiocentric argument concerns the intrinsic value of sentient nature, especially animals; the second concerns respect for teleological nature; and the third respect for all life in nature. While these physiocentric arguments are extensionalist moral arguments, arguments which extend elements of the human moral point of view to nature, the following two are absolute or transcendent physiocentric arguments, in that they try to find some basis for an intrinsic value of nature outside the human moral point of view. The first of these absolute arguments claims that there is a higher order of values in nature which we should follow. The second is a theological variant of the first, the higher order it talks about is God‘s order.

The critical analysis of these arguments leads to the following results: all anthropocentric arguments are good arguments. Taken together, they constitute a strong anthropocentric case for the conservation and cultivation of nature. The holistic argument and the physiocentric arguments, with the exception of  the first two when they are restricted to certain animals, are bad arguments. Whereas sentient and teleological animal nature has moral intrinsic value, and anthropocentrism must be overcome with respect to it, the rest of nature lacks moral or absolute intrinsic value. Its value consists of its instrumental value, aesthetic intrinsic value, Heimat value, and (nontranscendent) sacredness for human beings. There is nothing we owe to non-animal nature itself.