Green political philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S019-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2018, from

2. A green theory of value

The green theory of value holds that the worth of some things does not derive solely from human assessments of their utility or beauty, and still less from their price or market value (see §5 below). Some things have intrinsic value; that is, they are valuable in and of themselves, quite apart from any human estimate of their worth or any value they might have as means to some other end. This is especially true, some greens argue (see for example Goodin 1992: 30–41), of certain natural objects or entities. For example, wilderness per se has no instrumental value; indeed, it is often called ‘wasteland’. Locke put the point well in the second of his Two Treatises of Government (1690: para 42): ‘land that is left wholly to nature, that hath no improvement or pasturage, tillage, or planting, is called, as indeed it is, waste; and we shall find the benefit of it amount to little more than nothing’. Nor of course is Locke alone in taking this view; he merely articulates a pervasive – and decidedly anthropocentric – view of the value of cultivated versus uncultivated land. Against Locke and other like-minded thinkers, environmentally minded philosophers maintain that wilderness has value in itself, and for the non-human creatures whose haven it is. Likewise, many of these species – the northern spotted owl, for example – have no instrumental or market value; they are not a means to any human end, nor are they sold or traded in any market. And yet all are valuable and worth protecting, for all have a place and a function in their respective ecosystems.

Greens tend to reject, with widely varying degrees of rigour, the anthropocentric view that human needs and wants supply the only standard of value or worth. They opt instead for one or another version of the biocentric view that the health and wellbeing of the biotic community – for example, an ecosystem and the myriad species it sustains – takes precedence over any of its individual members. This amounts to a conception of value that is both naturalistic and holistic; that is, it takes nature – and not one of its creatures, namely man – as the source and measure of value; and it views all creatures as part of a larger, life-sustaining whole. Some dark green thinkers, especially those calling themselves ‘deep ecologists’, say that this new way of thinking requires a radical shift in perspectives – roughly, from a hierarchical pyramid with humans at the apex, to an interdependent web in which humans are but one species amongst many (Devall and Sessions 1985) (see Environmental ethics).

Not all green thinkers agree, however. Indeed, some – including ‘social ecologists’ such as Murray Bookchin (1990) – are highly critical of any attempt to make Homo sapiens merely one species among many. Such a view would, they contend, diminish the value of human beings more than it would re-value nature. And such a view would fail to recognize that, like it or not, human beings, because of their knowledge and technology, have a disproportionate power over nature and its creatures, and therefore disproportionate responsibility for the health and wellbeing of both. To see the human species as co-equal with other species is to be blind to this exceedingly important – and indeed unique – aspect of human existence.

This in turn introduces another ‘green’ theme: the use and abuse of scientific knowledge and technology. Much of Western thought since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century has tended to celebrate the increasing power of the human species over nature. Sir Francis Bacon and other seventeenth-century philosophers saw science and technology as means of mastering or dominating nature for human ends (Leiss 1972). Variations on this view can be found among later thinkers. Karl Marx, for one, looked forward to the pacification or ‘humanization’ of nature which modern science made possible. The productive forces – roughly, natural resources and the technology used to turn them into objects useful to humans – that were developed under capitalism have transformed nature beyond all recognition, and that, Marx thought, was a commendably progressive development (see Marx, K.).

Right and left, capitalist, communist, conservative or liberal, Western political philosophers have for the most part embraced and celebrated the ‘conquest’ or ‘pacification’ of nature for human purposes. Green political philosophers have, by contrast, been highly critical of any philosophy that views nature only as a ‘resource base’ or a means to human ends and is, in consequence, heedless of the conditions conducive to the health and wellbeing of nature’s myriad species.

In different ways and with different emphases, green political philosophers generally subscribe to what one might call a ‘systemic’ or ‘ecological’ view of value. Some things, as noted already, have intrinsic value as ends in themselves. Others, by contrast, have value by virtue of the contribution they make to a larger whole. The value of such a thing is determined by its place in, and contribution to, some larger functional whole – an ecosystem or (in Leopold’s phrase) a biotic community. Thus, for example, certain predator species – for example wolves – have value not only in themselves but because of their function within the ecosystem of which they are an integral part. Wolves cull sick, lame or deformed deer; by preventing the weaker members of the deer population from reproducing, wolves actually benefit that species. And by controlling the deer population wolves protect the larger ecosystem which both share with other species. This green view of value is directly contrary to the conventional view – long established in law and public policy in North America – that wolves and other predator species should be trapped or shot (and bounties paid to trappers and hunters) because predation is cruel, wanton, wasteful and without value to human beings.

But what, exactly, is ‘political’ about predators and prey, about anthropocentric versus biocentric conceptions of value, and the like? The most obvious answer, of course, is that laws, rules, regulations and government policies on environmental matters must be made on the basis of our beliefs about nature and its creatures. These include laws and public policies concerning mining and forestry, tourism and economic development, land use and property rights, motorway construction, parks and recreation, re-forestation, the preservation of wilderness, the protection of endangered species, and many other matters. Some of the most heated and hard-fought political battles of the modern age have been concerned with these and other broadly environmental issues.

These matters are also ‘political’ in a second, and much older, sense. For politics is concerned (as Aristotle famously put it) with the good life and the conditions conducive to it. But while Aristotle was concerned with the good life as lived by (some) human beings, modern greens cast their net more widely, to include non-human creatures and the biotic communities they share with human beings. And still, in our day as in Aristotle’s, what constitutes or counts as the good life is hotly disputed amongst philosophers.

Contemporary political debates and divisions over environmental issues are, as often as not, based on philosophical differences over value (anthropocentric versus biocentric; instrumental versus intrinsic), over what counts as the good life, over the proper place and role of human beings in the natural order, over obligations to non-human creatures and future humans, and so on. A green political philosophy is simply the attempt to articulate and justify a biocentric view of the good life for human beings and for other creatures with whom they share a common planet.

What will count as the good life for fish will of course differ from what counts as the good life for monkeys. But what all creatures share is an interest in a healthy habitat. Fish and frogs have an interest in clean or unpolluted water, monkeys in intact tree canopies, whales in plankton, koala bears in eucalyptus trees, and so on. They need not know or be consciously cognizant that they have an interest in these things in order to actually have an interest, since being aware that one has a need for or interest in X is not a necessary condition for having an interest in X (see Needs and interests §1).

Humans are of course able to know, as non-human animals are not, what is required to sustain non-human species. This confers upon humans the ‘epistemic responsibility’ that comes with knowing what members of other species do not or cannot know. Our knowing what conditions are conducive to some species’ survival and flourishing confers upon our species an added measure of responsibility. More specifically, it requires that we recognize, and not wantonly disregard, the interest such a species has in the conditions conducive to its survival and flourishing (Johnson 1991, ch. 6). Our ever-expanding knowledge of the natural world brings with it an expanded responsibility to recognize the interests (some greens go further, and say ‘rights’) of other creatures. And while we may not always be able to promote these interests, we must, as moral and political agents, at least accord them serious consideration (see Animals and ethics).

A green political philosophy expands the circle of value and moral concerns not only spatially, so to speak – to include non-humans – but also temporally, to include generations of human beings who are as yet unborn. A green political philosophy – and a green theory of value in particular – places posterity on a par with people now living. Our distant descendants are our moral equals, their happiness and wellbeing as valuable as our own (see Future generations, obligations to).

Citing this article:
Ball, Terence. A green theory of value. Green political philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S019-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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