The fundamental question in Environmental Ethics is whether or not the physical world has inherent value, or whether it’s value is derived from its usefulness to human beings.
Clearly, this photo of a flower that I took someplace (really, I don’t remember where) has some value. It’s a pretty photo, it’s a photographically good photo because the flower is clear while the background is fuzzy (the real term for that is bokeh) and it has nice color. But, the question is whether or not the flower has value when nobody observes it? This is kind of like the “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound” kind of question… or, when I’m feeling sarcastic, “if a man speaks in the forest and no woman is around to hear him, is he still wrong? ” — (just kidding, I love a man… and like lots more… and they’re not always wrong 🙂 ).
If the environment has inherent worth, then it seems to follow that it has some version of rights… at least, if you’re a Kantian. I’m not so sure that follows. If you’re a utilitarian, nothing has inherent worth, even human beings. If you’re some version of a virtue ethicist or social contract theorist, it doesn’t make sense to give inherent worth to inanimate objects because they can’t act to find the mean and they can’t support or violate a social contract.
But, we seem to act as if the environment has some kind of value in and of itself. We preserve natural spaces. We make trips to them, we photograph them (well, I do… a lot) and we appreciate their existence. Would we do that if the environment didn’t have value in and of itself… maybe.
Perhaps the real answer is that natural spaces are good for us at a fundamental level — good for all people. Maybe when we pay homage to them, what we’re really doing is honoring the value they bring to us — as human beings. The effect on us is pretty clear, at least to me, they refresh and replenish our souls. Last Spring Break I went to Colorado with my partner. We spent several days in the mountains looking at the amazing scenery of Rocky Mountain National Park. It was relaxing in a way that looking at the photos online never can be. When I look back at the large number of photographs we took on that trip, I’m transported back to that clean mountain air, the warm sunshine of March in Colorado, the amazing experiences we had together in that beautiful state. All of those memories are special because they provided a place for my soul to rest and rejuvenate.
I think every person, if they so desire, should have a similar opportunity. That’s why it’s important to preserve natural spaces. Protecting them for generations to come makes me realize that future generations will be able to have similar experiences to my own. The ability to get outside of your normal life, to see amazing places and appreciate them for the wonders that they are and to put your life in perspective.
Does this mean that these spaces have inherent worth, I’m not so sure. Perhaps they do have inherent worth for other reasons, but it seems to me that they are worth protecting for what they do for human beings… I suppose that if it were necessary to harm or substantially alter our special wild spaces to save humanity, I’d aprove — but, only then. No amount of money, influence or politics should be the reason… human survival, sure — greed and affluence should have no part in the decision. period.