A Critical Analysis on the Intrinsic and Instrumental Value of Nature: Beyond Valuing Nature

September 30, 2011 0 Comments

This article was originally writtern for UPI2205: Ethics and the Environment. 

A society is not a monolithic entity of identical beings; it comprises of individuals with differing paradigms and what is valuable to one may not be so to another. Values, therefore, are relativistic; they depend on factors such as personal experiences, cultural contexts and political persuasions. The matrix of subjective qualities influencing values causes them to elude clear-cut definitions. Values can thus be described by many broad terms, inclusive of but not restricted to their utility, aesthetics, origins and essence. Despite this variability in characterizing values, there is a common basis for what one understands to be “valuable” – the esteemed subject must be fulfilling – or has the potential to fulfill – a certain good. The debate over Nature’s worth reflects these numerous, sometimes conflicting, views of what constitutes value. Is Nature valuable because of the material wealth it offers? Or does it have a value above and beyond tangible commodities? In this paper, two fundamentally distinct values – instrumental and intrinsic values – will be explored and their relative significance in Nature, evaluated.

Progatoras, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, once said, “Man is the measure of all things.” This quote reflects the anthropocentric tendency of an external valuer to appraise a subject with reference to his needs and wants. The subject, by itself, is not valuable; it is only valuable because it can be used to accomplish a goal desired by the valuer and are correspondingly tagged as having instrumental value. In Kantian diction, they are means to an end but not an end in itself. Nature, with its diverse landscapes, animals and plants, can contribute to numerous aspects of human welfare and consequently, has many instrumental uses – it preserves a stockpile of genetic materials that may prove useful in curing diseases or improving crop yields; it allows greater understanding of the intricate biological systems; it purifies air by trapping pollutants. Beyond instrumental uses associated with science, Nature can also be mined for commodities such as precious metals and timber – which have quantifiable economic value –  or harnessed as serene places for spiritual rejuvenation and recreational activities. These various instrumental values of Nature – be they scientific, economic or entertainment oriented – are extrinsic and can only be realized by exploiting Nature’s utility. In these examples, Nature is only valuable because of the substantial benefits it offers.

Because of the significant instrumental value placed on Nature, it is exploited, modified and even, extirpated. Reasons to safeguard the natural biosphere may be attributed to an instrumentalist attitude – perhaps to preserve the environment so that future and further utilization can occur. Godfrey-Smith, an influential researcher on environmental ethics, suggests that if the worth of Nature is believed to depend entirely on objective instrumental values, the destruction of tracts of wilderness is justifiable when the satisfactions to be gained are substantial. The reflexive discomfort that people feels at such a suggestion, he claims, is due to the belief that such willful exploitation is morally reprehensible. This anthropocentric paradigm of cost/benefit calculus places too much gravitas on the thoughts and actions of man. It suggests that Nature has only instrumental value and can be leveraged at convenience.  It ignores the intrinsic value of Nature. This begs the question: what is intrinsic value and how does it compare against instrumental value?

Subjects that are valuable, in and of themselves, can be described as having intrinsic value. They are cherished ends, not merely means to a valued end. They have objective value independent of the valuations of valuer. And from the perspectives of Biocentrism, Nature has this intrinsic value which eclipses its homocentric instrumental values. Rolston, a prominent environmentalist, advocates that intrinsic value is a real property of natural objects and processes, not projected onto nature but discovered there:
“Consider a whooping crane defending its own life, or the wild gardenias synthesizing glucose using photosynthesis, converting this to starch, and storing energy. The animals, sometimes, will be subjects of their own lives, and they too will have their preferences, simplified perhaps, but in some respects more or less like our own. […] Such as living organism is, I maintain, a being with a good of its own.”
The intrinsic value that Nature has cannot be proved, observed or quantified with ease. According to Rolston, nature’s intrinsic value is fully independent of human valuing consciousness. Individual organisms, species and ecosystems have values which they are both sources and loci of, and people are obliged to respect them.

Because values are subjective, thus relativistic, it is not straightforward to assign values to natural environments. From dissimilar perspectives, it can be gauged to have instrumental, intrinsic or even, inherent value. Take, for example, the appreciation of Nature. The personal satisfaction gained from the collecting of wild flowers is an instrumentalist attitude. However, those who advocate that frail areas of blooming meadows be preserved even though that homocentric benefits are not possible, ascribe Nature with intrinsic value. And if Nature is to be appreciated for its beauty alone – but not economic or scientific values – it may be considered to have inherent values that are not instrumentally viable. Assigning value to Nature is not an objective endeavor; depending on perspectives, Nature may be attributed with a variety of values. Simplification into defined categories of values may create a superfluous clarity, but does not actually lend understanding into Nature’s intricacies. Therefore, one must be comfortable with the quandaries of valuing Nature and acknowledge that it can be ascribed with multiple values at the same time.

Having determined that values are relativistic and can co-exist in a single subject, one can imbue Nature with both instrumental and intrinsic values. Harold N. Lee, of Tulane University, reminds, “the object is not the value; it has the value; and any object may have many values according to the various contextures which it may be a part of.” The instrumental value of an object can only be realized by exploiting its utility; this, however, may destroy the subject’s intrinsic value. The converse is not true; a subject’s intrinsic value may be appreciated without physically altering the subject. Suppose, for example, an appreciation of tigers. It can be valuable instrumentally as Chinese medicine, fur coats or taxidermised trophies; these manners of valuing tigers require destruction of the tigers which, in essence, destroy their intrinsic value. However, if tigers are treated as magnificent creatures with non-homocentric rights, they are ascribed with intrinsic value independent of observers; their intrinsic value can be appreciated, yet remain unharmed. From this analogy, it can be inferred that Nature’s intrinsic value is far more transcendent and significant than its instrumental value.

Nature, with its pristine tracts of fauna and flora, require prudent stewardship. By appreciating the nuances of various values ascribed to it, influential stakeholders – including environmentalists, companies and governments – can understand perspectives divergent from theirs and, with this awareness, cooperate to promote a more harmonious relationship with Nature. Leopold, an ecologist who campaigned for wilderness conservation, rationalizes:
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
The meaning in Leopold’s statement can be extrapolated and viewed through the lenses of Consequentialism; a central tenet of this philosophy implies that it does not matter how societies view Nature – be it as a commodity to be managed or a community to respect – as long as they work towards protection of their emerald treasures. Through understanding that Nature has both instrumental and intrinsic values, different campaigns for environmental conservation may be crafted to appeal to divergent sensibilities. However, one must note that intrinsic value is more “valuable” – more transcendent and worthy – than instrumental value. Should there be a significant conflict in interests, the former factor should take precedence.

Bogen, Joshua. 2000. Intrinsic Beauty? – Intrinsic, Instrumental, and Inherent Values.
Godfrey-Smith, William. 1992. The Value of Wilderness. The Trumpeter, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Summer 86)
Holmes, Rolston III. 1994. Value In Nature And The Nature of Value. Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, pg 13-30.
Leopold, Aldo. 1996. The Land Ethic. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press Inc, pg 217.
Missoni, John. St Francis, Paul Taylor, and Franciscan Biocentrism. 30 August, 2011. <http://www.umweltethik.at/download.php?id=436>.
Nunes, Theodore. 1999. Rolston, Lonergan, and the Intrinsic Value of Nature. The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring, 1999), pg 105-128
Partridge, Ernest. Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. The Online Gadfly. 1 September, 2011 <http://gadfly.igc.org/papers/values.htm>.


Beyond Arguments for and against Human Enhancement

September 25, 2011 0 Comments

This article is originally written for WP2201E From Humans To Posthumans.

Despite being published simultaneously within an inaugural volume of a journal – Studies in Ethics, Law and Technology, Volume 1, Issue 1– Sarah Chan and John Harris (2007) do not agree with Michael Selgelid (2007) on the merits of human enhancement, or its lack thereof. The former pair argues for human enhancement while the latter has his reservations. This juxtaposition of opinions – for and against genetic enhancement – highlights the contentious nature of using biotechnology to alter the characteristics of human beings. Proponents of human enhancement, including Chan and Harris, believe in the alluring promises of science and consider that there is a “moral imperative” to use such genetic enhancement technology for “the benefit of future generations” (p. 3), be it to engineer viral immunity oraugment intelligence. The problem, however, arises when critics discuss disadvantages that may be associated with such potential benefits.Selgelid, in his An Argument against Arguments for Enhancement, suggests that the drawbacks of such technology – such as overall social inequality – may overshadow its expected benefits.
According to Selgelid, such technology may not be as beneficial as it promises. Competition for medical research resources between treatment and enhancement may widen social inequality and “one should not act to benefit her own child irrespective of costs entailed for other individuals and society as a whole” (p. 3). He tacitly acknowledges that enhancement technology may benefit individuals and yet, warns of its possible negative influences on social utility and equality; the liberties and benefits of individuals should be subsumed under greater social concerns. This warning contradicts Chan’s and Harris’s call to make use of “all available knowledge and medical technology” to make one’s child “as healthy as possible” (p. 3), an approach centred on an individual’s interests. There is little doubt that safe and effective genetic manipulation – if it exists – may benefit an individual, but questions remain on its wider implications for the society.

Supporters and detractors of human enhancement – Selgelid, Chan and Harris included – agree that current genetic technology is dangerous and grasp of genetic modifications and its effects, tenuous (p.2). However, they adopt different stances when interpreting this observation. Selgelid posits that current genetic engineering techniques are not safe and sardonically notes that they “do not just fall out of the sky and into our labs” (p.3). His reluctance to support human enhancement research contrasts with Chan’s and Harris’s advocacy for it. They contend that medical know–how had always been risky in its infancy stages but can be developed until potential benefits outweigh risks.

Selgelid, Chan and Harris differ in their opinions of pursuing such expensive research too. Selgelid suggests that such enhancement–oriented research and development compete for resources which might otherwise be dedicated to the reduction of suffering “by making the worst–off better off” (p. 3); his focus remains on the greater good of the society. Chan and Harris, on the other hand,propose that the technology can be developed on private funding. Private funding, they claim, will remove “arguments founded on distributive justice” (p. 3), thereby soothing concerns about unfair allocation of public resources for research. However, they fail to explicate the link between private funding and “distributive justice” – why would it be fairer if genetic enhancement research is funded privately and would private funding paradoxically lead to other forms of social inequality? Would it be such that only the wealthy can afford the technology resulting from such expensive private –funded research? Their narrow definition of justice – resting mainly on “distributive justice” – weakens their argument for human enhancement, especially in view of Selgelid’s more encompassing and thorough explanation of social equality.

The authors – Chan, Harris and Selgelid – share common goals of furthering societal good and humanity. Their contrasting stances on genetic enhancement stem from disparities in their beliefs of what constitutes beneficial. Like Chan and Harris, Selgelid believes that development and use of safe enhancement technologies is unobjectionable; however, unlike them, his support comes with a caveat: sweeping changes must be instituted globally before genetic enhancement becomes socially acceptable (p. 4). Human enhancement is a dynamic and controversial science spanning international borders. Frequently, there are technological breakthroughs and correspondingly, quagmires of bioethical concerns. Unlike Chan and Harris, one cannot – and should not – methodologically rationalise away all opposition to bioenhancing. A more measured approach will be to evaluate each technology on a “case by case basis” as suggested by Selgelid. And despite Selgelid’s reservations, genetic technology continues to march ahead before institutional changes could be implemented; there is no easy way to halt the progress of scientific knowledge so that social reformations may occur first and, as a corollary, human enhancements become “morally […] acceptable” (p.4). No decisive judgement as to who – the proponents of human enhancement or their opponents – makes the most convincing argument may be passed for this ethical conundrum is more complex than the sum of factors for and against human enhancement; the interplay of these factors within particular geopolitical contexts must be considered as well. The most apt course of action, for now, will be to let societies respond to and evolve alongside science.

Chan and Harris.(2007). In Support of Human Enhancement.Studies in Ethics, Law and Technology, Volume 1, Issue 1, 2007.
Selgelid. (2007). An Argument against Arguments for Human Enhancement.Studies in Ethics, Law and Technology, Volume 1, Issue 1, 2007.


Snatches of words

September 20, 2011 0 Comments

"You're too harsh on yourself."


"Yes, allow yourself time to grow. To experience."


"Do you get what I'm saying?"

"I guess so. But I... I want to move somewhere, anywhere. I don't want to be static. To be stale. I want to move."
"Art isn't really for me."

"I'm afraid of being seen."

Then why are you doing art in the first place?

"It hurts when I'm not good enough."

"I don't know what I want. I wish I know so that I can pursue it with wild abandonment. But I don't."

"And it shows in my art too, doesn't it? The ambivalent existentialism?"

The floating in anti-gravity. 
"Just try. Keep drawing. Some artists take years before they find their purposes in creating art."

But I don't want to take years!

"Be kinder to yourself.  Do art for what you will."

"I - okay."



September 16, 2011 0 Comments

Classical utilitarianism. Consequentialism.

Intrinsic, inherent and extrinsic values. Instrumental and non-instrumental values. The differences between the intrinsic and non-instrumental; the disparities between extrinsic and instrumental ideas.

Deontology. Teleology. Virtue ethics. Pragmatic ethics.

This forest of polysyllabic words is unfathomable. Philosophy is a pointless venture.

Allow me to correct myself. Modern philosophy is a pointless venture. We study to be wiser - to remove the lenses of prejudices clouding our vision. We learn more to see clearer. What current philosophy teaches is a matrix of ethical principles that bears little relevance to reality. It impedes clarity of thought.

"Class, what should land ethics be? Is it a branch of teleology or deontology? Or is it a system of virtue ethics?"

In the past. people write beautiful passages about life and its meanings. Now, people interpret these wondrous words with the myopic and verbose tools of modern philosophy. I know all the polysyllabic words to describe something. So? Knowing these doesn't show genuine appreciation of the nuances involved. I end up saying that Nature has both intrinsic and instrumental values or describing land ethics as an overlap between deontology and teleology. Rather pointless since almost everyone can determine so prior to learning philosophy (just that they may not know the academic jargons).

"Back when Rachel Carson/ Aldo Leopold wrote their essays, these philosophical frameworks don't exist. But now that we know, we can classify them as XXX."

Philosophy, based on 'if and what if's, is a nebulous branch of knowledge. It complicates issues, for no other purpose than to rationalise its existence.

What's their point? What's the point?


Small and significant

September 12, 2011 0 Comments

There are subtle laws governing life.

These laws, they may be perilously difficult to prove - perhaps even impossible - but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

They are beautiful in their nuances.

Recently, he had a wondrous chance to discover some of them.

Sometimes, he is bored with his studies, with endless chains of facts to memorise and regurgitate. Sometimes, he is inexorably fascinated. Quantum chemistry has the rare quality of evoking both frustration and fascination at the same time for it details some bedrocks of life.

Little particles but not so little.

Do you know that molecules can only vibrate with a certain amount of energy? That they can't really move freely, that they can't cartwheel with wild abandonment through space?

There is a certain mysticism to this realisation: our world abides by strict physical laws. These laws may be easily missed - after all, they're omnipresent and invisible. But, when he realised that they're all around him, working their unseen magics, he couldn't help feeling a sense of wonder.

The minute particles in his tummy are all moving with the quantised energy! Can you imagine it?

He doesn't really understand the math well. Or the materials that will be tested.

But what he understands is delightful enough.

Whoever likes such convoluted math anyway?

 But the resultant quantisation of energies is sure awesome!


The Relativity of Age

September 08, 2011 0 Comments

"You are so young, not like me."

I read the message twice, with increasing amusement and irony.

There we were, two twenty-years old odd young adults, both behaving with world wearied lethargy.

Age is relative, isn't it?

To the bouncy primary school kids, my sobriety signals a common trait with coffee shop uncles. I move slowly, fluster and tell them to make peace, keep quiet and be friends. With them, I feel prehistoric. Ancient, bumbling and shriveled up.

To the elders, I'm in the prime of my life, wise enough to think, old enough to execute, energetic enough to pursue. (I'm like Justin Bieber, minus the fame, fortune, fan club and singing ability.)

I had never thought of myself as young, not even when I was in secondary school. One close friend had described me as "precocious" - being unusually mature for my age. Then, I didn't know whether to be flattered or not;  I wasn't sure what "precocious" meant.

Now, so much had changed.

I'm not young enough to be innocent, nor old enough to be wise. A strange equilibrium.

"May time unfurl the petals, not whither them further."

Sunset along Liverpool Beach


Word histories

September 04, 2011 0 Comments

Words, like man, have their histories. They leave indelible footprints as they meander along the flow of time.
Do you know how the word 'porcelain' came about? In the 14th century, when British first encountered Chinese pottery, they were fascinated. What could be made into such exquisite vessels? Pig bones? They must have been made from pig bones. With such logic, it's no wonder that pork and porcelain share the same initial syllable.

Why do we cross our fingers for good luck? Any ideas? During the dark ages, Christians were persecuted by Romans and had no way of recognising comrades of likewise faith. They, by sheer necessity, developed a subtle sign language. Yes, you've guessed it right - they crossed their fingers. Crosses, after all, are emblematic of the Christian faith. Over time, crossing fingers became synonymous with favorable fortunes.

And why do we say "bless you"s when people sneeze. Long ago, people believed that their souls leave the bodies as they sneezed. To prevent evil spirits from occupying the empty shells, they said, "bless you."

Milestones - significant moments in life - are used metaphorically nowadays. In the past, they were literal signposts marking intervals of one-miles.
Many words have fascinating histories waiting for us to uncover. May the discovery of such etymology bring you great joy.