Environmental ethics

Emil Urhammer

In this section, we introduce some important concepts in environmental ethics. These concepts function as tools for discussing various environmental dilemmas and conflicts.

Anthropocentrism and ecocentrism
The problems in this theme about the view on nature and ethics can also be considered with the help of the concepts anthropocentrism and ecocentrism. The word anthropocentrism is a combination of the ancient Greek word anthropos (human) and the Latin word centrum and refers to the view that the human species is the centre of the world and is above other species, and that the interests of humanity override concern for other species. Several environmentalists have used the concept to point out how concern for humanity’s survival and well-being is now on a collision course with the life-sustaining systems on Earth to the detriment of other species and humanity itself.

In contrast to anthropocentrism, ecocentrism, like ecophilosophy, expresses the belief that humankind is just one of many equal pieces in the planet’s whole ecosystem. In this way, ecocentrism highlights humans as being part of nature and not a species separate from it. According to an ecocentric world view, other species are equal to humans, and consideration of other species is just as important as consideration of humans. In relation to this, it should be mentioned that the environmental ethicist, Finn Arler, has put forward the argument that ecocentrism is also anthropocentric because it is not possible for humans to look beyond the horizon of their species. We humans will always put ourselves in the centre of our view of the surrounding world. This manifests itself in dilemmas, whereby, even though one wants the best for all species, one ends up prioritising human considerations. Rasmus Ejrnæs gives a humorous example of such a dilemma in connection with ‘pests’ such as Spanish slugs. On the one hand, one may argue that Spanish slugs have just as much right to live as any other species, but it may be necessary to kill them when they eat one’s home-grown salad.

Intrinsic and instrumental value
In environmental ethics, the concepts inherent and instrumental are often used to talk about the value of different natural goods. If you believe that a rare butterfly or a particular plant has value in itself, i.e. value regardless of whether humans know of its existence or like it – one can say that the butterfly or plant has intrinsic value. If, on the other hand, you think that the rare butterfly or plant only has value because people derive pleasure from it or can use it for something, then the butterfly or the plant has instrumental value. In the latter case, the butterfly’s beautiful colours or the plant’s tasty berries could be examples of instrumental values.

When discussing different social priorities, such value perceptions may also play a role. To put it simply, one can say that there is often a tendency to prioritise natural goods higher when they have instrumental value, i.e. value for humans. An unspoilt nature area will, in the eyes of many, have greater value if people have access to it and can use it for recreational purposes than if it just exists somewhere untouched without being of direct benefit to humans. However, the unspoilt area may be the habitat for many species and is, therefore, important for preserving biodiversity.

In order to preserve biodiversity, it may be necessary to emphasise the inherent value of all species. This approach emphasises that a boring gray beetle has just as much right to live as a colourful butterfly or a pet. Rasmus Ejrnæs has argued that humanity does not need great biodiversity to survive on Earth, which means that the conservation of biodiversity requires other moral arguments such as the fact that all living beings have inherent value and thus the right to live regardless of whether we humans have a use for them or not.

If you think about it a little more, you will discover that inherent and instrumental value are not separate or mutually exclusive. It is, thus, possible to consider something as having both inherent and instrumental value at the same time. For example, you might enjoy a butterfly’s colours, while at the same time thinking that the butterfly has value in itself, regardless of whether you enjoy looking at its colours or not.

The idea of intrinsic and instrumental value can also be linked to the more overall world views of anthropocentrism and ecocentrism in the sense that instrumental value can be understood as an anthropocentric value perspective, whereas intrinsic value is well-aligned with the ecocentrist perspective. However, there is no need to make a sharp distinction between the two and say that anthropocentrism only encompasses instrumental values and vice versa. Instrumental value can also be considered ecocentric, while intrinsic value can also be considered anthropocentric. For example, in the first case, a flower may have instrumental value for a bee (instead of a human being), so you could say that only humans are able to understand the concept of intrinsic value and, therefore, this whole idea is anthropocentric.

Ecosystem services
The idea of inherent and instrumental value is also related to our perception of ecosystems and their conservation. If you have an instrumental view of ecosystems, you will interpret an ecosystem as something that provides a service to people. Thus, from a human point of view, it is the function of the ecosystem that gives it value. For example, a forest is an ecosystem that supplies different services to humans. It can clean rainwater on its way down to the groundwater, thereby delivering clean drinking water. It can also deliver timber, and it can be a place where you can find peace or exercise.

If you have such a perspective on the forest, it becomes natural to want to attribute a monetary value on the services it provides. Thus, some believe that the ability of the forest to deliver clean drinking water has a monetary value that can be referred to when arguing that the forest should be maintained. On the other hand, others believe that this is a dangerous road to take as it means that other actions which have a higher monetary value can trump the goal of preserving different ecosystems. If we take a species rich and diverse forest as an example and assume that the ability of the forest ecosystem to clean rainwater is worth 5 million DKK a year. If I can demonstrate that felling all the trees and establishing an industrial plantation with only one species of tree would provide 7 million DKK a year, I would have a strong argument for felling the forest. Therefore, to avoid such a slippery slope, several environmentalists believe that we should instead emphasise the unique values and beauty of the forest without trying to put a monetary value on its services. The forest has inherent value and a right to life that can not be valued in money.

One of the problems in the discussion of value is the question of value comparability or rather the lack of the same. For example, does it make sense to compare the value of an endangered animal species with the value of a large construction project that is threatening the habitat of the species? And is it at all possible, in such cases, to objectively determine what is most valuable and, therefore, should be given the highest priority?

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, some attempt to solve such problems by calculating monetary value as they believe that market prices can decide what is most valuable and should be given the highest priority. According to this logic, the market price is regarded as a credible expression of the value of something, which means that market prices enable comparison between very different things. However, among ecological economists, there is widespread scepticism about this view, and instead they propose that we must accept incomparability and that there is no single measure by which we can compare all values. Instead, democratic methods should be developed to discuss value, priorities and decisions from many different angles instead of blindly letting market prices dictate.