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.

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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>.
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Just reading this brings you a few seconds closer to retirement.