Consequentialism and Environmental Ethics
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Consequentialism and Environmental Ethics

Avram Hiller, Ramona Ilea, Leonard Kahn, Avram Hiller, Ramona Ilea, Leonard Kahn

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eBook - ePub

Consequentialism and Environmental Ethics

Avram Hiller, Ramona Ilea, Leonard Kahn, Avram Hiller, Ramona Ilea, Leonard Kahn

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This volume works to connect issues in environmental ethics with the best work in contemporary normative theory. Environmental issues challenge contemporary ethical theorists to account for topics that traditional ethical theories do not address to any significant extent. This book articulates and evaluates consequentialist responses to that challenge. Contributors provide a thorough and well-rounded analysis of the benefits and limitations of the consequentialist perspective in addressing environmental issues. In particular, the contributors use consequentialist theory to address central questions in environmental ethics, such as questions about what kinds of things have value; about decision-making in light of the long-term, intergenerational nature of environmental issues; and about the role that a state's being natural should play in ethical deliberation.

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Part I
Environmental Value and its Structure

The Bearers of Value in Environmental Ethics

Katie McShane
There are many reasons to worry about climate change. Predicted consequences include the spread of infectious disease, depletion of available fresh water, and the disruption of our food systems, our economic systems, and even our political systems, leading to widespread suffering and death. And that’s just for humans. Outside of our species, climate change is likely to lead to a significant increase in the rate of extinction as habitats change more rapidly than adaptive mechanisms can adjust.1 Some predicted victims of these rapid changes include polar bears, flamingoes, sea turtles, coral, wolverines, giant sequoias, and mangroves. The result is likely to be a decrease in species-level biodiversity worldwide—one estimate puts the figure at between 13%- and 19% worldwide by 2050.2 Given these worries about a dramatic decline in biodiversity, scientists sometimes mock popular representations of climate change in which the bad consequences are represented simply by the image of a forlorn polar bear on an ice floe. What we should really be worried about is the decrease in biodiversity, they say—that’s an ecological problem, not just a sentimental problem (e.g., “The Arctic Experience” 2007).
This raises an interesting question. On one hand, a rapid decrease in biodiversity on the scale predicted by many climate-change scenarios looks to be a serious threat to our ecological life-support system. And so we should worry about such a decrease and hence care about biodiversity. But, on the other hand, we’re not crazy to care about polar bears—or coral, sequoias, or wolverines. These creatures play an important role in our culture, our imagination, the world as we have come to know and love it. These parts of our world don’t matter to us just insofar as they contribute to the provision of “ecosystem services”—that is, the benefits provided to us by our ecological life-support system. From this alternative perspective, polar bears don’t matter only because they partly constitute or contribute to biodiversity. Rather, biodiversity matters because it is what helps to keep polar bears— and the other concrete particular things about which we care—around. Why else would we care about biodiversity, except insofar as it helps to sustain the world as we know and care about it?
In this chapter, I argue that the difference between valuing polar bears for their contribution to biodiversity and valuing biodiversity for its contribution to polar bears is one that can be traced to different ways of thinking about value. In particular, it can be traced to different understandings of what kinds of things are the primary bearers of value and different views about how we should respond to that value. These two different ways of thinking about value are thought to have their origins in consequentialism and Kantianism, respectively, at least on certain interpretations of those traditions.3
In the first section of what follows, I describe the interpretations of both consequentialism and Kantianism within which one might locate these different theories of value, paying particular attention to the ways that the theories differ from one another and the moral psychology implicit in each. In the second section, I explain the implications that the differences between these approaches have for environmental ethics—in particular, for the substantive ethical claims that environmental ethicists want to make about what is good, what we should do, and why. In the third section, I consider how these differences might affect the way that we think about the problem of climate change, particularly the kind of rapid and serious climate change that some have predicted, in terms of what is bad about it and of what it calls for from us. Ultimately I argue that while both theories of value can recommend environmentally good behaviors, they invite different kinds of explanation of what makes a behavior an environmentally good one. While this might sound like a mere technicality, I argue that it reflects two deeply different psychological orientations toward our relationship to the natural world. I conclude that in the face of climate change, we might well find that the psychology involved in the Kantian approach is the most familiar and natural, but the psychology involved in the consequentialist approach is the most helpful for addressing the kinds of choices that we will face.

1. Consequentialist and Kantian Accounts of Value

Recent work in ethics has suggested that consequentialists and Kantians typically have very different views about how one ought to respond to the good: the consequentialist view is that we ought to produce or promote it, while the Kantian view is that we ought to respect it (e.g., Anderson 1993; Bradley 2006; Parfit 2011). Following Derek Parfit’s convention, I refer to the consequentialist view of value as value-to-be-promoted and the Kantian view of value as value-to-be-respected.4 Some writers have suggested that the difference between value-to-be-promoted and value-to-be-respected follows from another more fundamental difference between consequentialism and Kantianism: consequentialism attributes intrinsic value to instantiated states of affairs, while Kantianism attributes it to concrete individuals, for example, persons or things.5 My aim here is not to assess the arguments for these claims, but rather to consider what impact such differences might have on the claims that environmental ethicists want to make about the value of and in the natural world.
Let us first consider consequentialism and the consequentialist understanding of value-to-be-promoted. Though consequentialist theories are quite varied, they tend to agree that one ought morally to do whatever produces the best consequences compared to the consequences of the alternative courses of action open to one.6 Understood this way, the core of consequentialism is a theory of the right: the claim that the right thing to do is whatever produces the best consequences. To be helpful as an ethical theory, consequentialism must be conjoined with a theory of the good—a theory about which aspect(s) of the consequences makes them good consequences. Here there is much disagreement, though consequentialists typically opt for a welfarist theory of the good, according to which the “good” just amounts to the “good for”—that is, the aspect of consequences that makes them good consequences is the amount of welfare contained in them. In any case, if a consequence is a state of affairs, a way the world might be, then all versions of consequentialism must understand the good as consisting in some state of affairs or another. That is to say that good consequences will always be the primary bearers of value; the value of all other entities will depend on their contribution to good consequences. Following Elizabeth Anderson, we can say that according to consequentialism, only good consequences have (positive) intrinsic value; the value of everything else can only be extrinsic.7 Viewed this way, consequentialism involves a metaphysical restriction on the kinds of things that can be bearers of intrinsic value: the bearers are restricted to states of affairs. On a consequentialist view, you couldn’t have intrinsic value, but the following states of affairs involving you could: you existing, you feeling pleasure, your desires being satisfied, your preferences being satisfied, you exercising your rational agency, and so on.
On this interpretation, not only is consequentialism committed to a view about the kinds of metaphysical entities that can be bearers of intrinsic value; it is also committed to a view about what one ought to do about intrinsic value: one ought to bring it about. The consequentialist agent isn’t just supposed to sit around admiring good consequences, she is supposed to produce them. Furthermore, she is supposed to produce them not just once, but as much as possible: the more value that is brought into the world, the better.8 If she has a choice between a course of action that will make one person very happy and a course of action that will make two people very happy, then all other things being equal, a (hedonist) consequentialist will tell the other person to choose the course of action that makes two people very happy. Why? Because people feeling happiness is good, and more of the good is better than less of the good.
Value-to-be-respected is often traced back to Kant, since it seems to accord with his claims about the value of persons (Anderson 1993: 19–20; Korsgaard 1996: 275–310). Because of its association with Kant, I refer to it here as “the Kantian view,” though I do not wish to take a stand on its fidelity to the various aspects of Kant’s overall moral theory—that is a project best left to Kant scholars. According to this view, it is concrete particulars that have intrinsic value: people, animals, ecosystems, communities, places, and things (Anderson 1993: 19). (Kant himself would limit this list to rational agents.) The value of states of affairs involving these concrete particulars is extrinsic: it derives from the value of the particulars themselves.9 Thus, unlike consequentialism, wherein you couldn’t have intrinsic value, but the state of affairs “you feeling pleasure” could, the Kantian view says that “you feeling pleasure” couldn’t have intrinsic value, but you could. What is at issue here seems to be an order of explanation claim. The Kantian claims that “you feeling pleasure” only has value because you do. If you didn’t have any value, why would it be a good thing that you feel pleasure?10 Thus, on this kind of view it would be the value of a community that makes the state of affairs “the community prospering” valuable; it would be the value of pandas that makes the state of affairs “pandas being saved from extinction” valuable; it would be the value of ecosystems that makes the state of affairs “the ecosystem continuing to exist and flourishing” valuable, it would be the value of rational agents that makes the achievement of their rational ends valuable, and so on. As Anderson describes it, on this view it makes sense to care about these states of affairs only because it makes sense to care about the particular things (people, communities, animals, ecosystems) involved in them.11
Of course, for this order of explanation claim to work, proponents of the Kantian view must deny that the value of particulars just is the value of certain states of affairs involving them. That is to say, they must reject the view that to value polar bears is nothing more than to value their continued existence or their flourishing. To be sure, the Kantian would argue, when we value living things we often also value their continued existence and flourishing, and when we value nonliving things we often value simply their continued existence. But this is not a conceptual truth. We can value things without valuing their existence or flourishing. To borrow an example from Anderson (1993: 26), “[a] remarried widow may still love her long-dead husband, but be appalled if he were to pop back into existence.” There is no contradiction involved in valuing things while embracing their (current or eventual) nonexistence. Conversely, we also can value the flourishing or the existence of a particular thing without valuing the thing itself—for example, when we value a thing’s existence or flourishing instrumentally.
On the Kantian view, because the bearers of intrinsic value are concrete particulars rather than states of affairs, it doesn’t make sense to think that the correct response to intrinsic value is to produce as much of it as possible. The way to respond to your value as a person isn’t to make as many of you as possible (perhaps by cloning you). Rather, the way to respond to your value as a person is to respect you: to treat your experiences and your ends as worth caring about.12 The right actions are those that express respect for what is valuable, the right character traits are those that orient us toward both feeling and expressing respect for what is valuable, and so on. On this view of value, the aim isn’t to maximize one’s correct responses to the valuable, as it is in the consequentialist view. It might make sense to maximize the number of good consequences that one produces in the world, but it doesn’t make sense to maximize the number of times that one expresses respect for what is valuable (e.g., by trying to meet as many people as possible to express one’s respect for them as persons). Rather, the idea is that when one is in a circumstance in which one can either act in ways that express respect for the good or act in ways that express disrespect for the good, one should choose the former.
Other theoretical differences between consequentialist ethics and Kantian ethics might help to explain their different understandings of value. For one thing, they each conceive of the task of morality somewhat differently. In the consequentialist view, we imagine the moral agent as someone who has to decide among many possible courses of action. Consequentialism advises her not just to consider the consequences that each course of action will have for her, but rather to consider the consequences that each course of action will have for everyone affected by it. The ideal consequentialist agent will make choices as a wise ruler does: by considering which course of action will produce the best consequences for everyone, all things considered, over the long run. A wise ruler shouldn’t be swayed by the fact that some courses of action will be better for her or for her friends and family. The job of a wise ruler is to determine what is best for everyone. Such an agent is in the business of trying to bring about the best state of the world possible in the future.
Because of this approach, some have argued that consequentialism cannot account for what have been called “agent-relative reasons” or “personal values.” As Thomas Nagel describes it, agent-relative reasons concern what we do rather than what happens. The idea is that in cases in which bringing about the best state of the world requires me to do som...