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3.2.2 Instrumental value of nature

In the anthropocentric view animals, plants, ecosystems and the whole of nature have a ‘value’ only in relation to human beings and their interests. This is mostly called ‘instrumental value’. The most important consequence of this perspective with respect to the protection of environment and nature is that the only acceptable reason to conserve and cultivate nature is that the satisfaction of basic human needs—such as nourishing the body and maintaining health—depends on nature. Nature, especially in the form of natural resources, is a precondition for our biological and economic life; without nature human life is not possible.

In the anthropocentric view, nature (air, water, minerals, animals, plants, etc.) is necessary and valuable for human beings—but valuable only in this sense. There is no other reason for estimating nature, no value of nature for itself, but only in respect to human interests. And reluctance to use natural resources (animals, fossil fuels, minerals, etc.) can be justified only in respect to the needs and interests of contemporary humans or, at most, future generations.

 So, for instance, the discussion of sustainable development frequently focuses on forms of resource management, with an emphasis on social justice and on the well-being of future generations of humans (see Palmer 2008: 18). Indeed, the most commonly cited definition of sustainable development, taken from Our Common Future’ (WCED 1987) is anthropocentric: ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

From this viewpoint we do not need special environmental ethics, because all ethics are always human ethics. Values are both human-generated and human-focused. In principle, only humans have ‘moral standing’ and are ‘moral agents’. In accordance with this very strict anthropocentric view we have to distinguish between, on the one hand, ‘direct duties’ to all beings with moral standing (i.e. all humans) and, on the other hand, ‘indirect duties’ to all beings (animals, plants, etc.) that humans (as moral agents) need for continuing their life responsibly, well-being. Nature is ethically valuable only in an indirect manner if, and only if, nature contributes to the needs and interests of humans. In consequence, we have to distinguish between ‘value in nature’ and ‘value of nature’ (Palmer 2008: 17): but only the second will be accepted by strict anthropocentrics such as the philosopher William Baxter, because for them there are no intrinsic values in nature itself. If we speak about the ‘value of nature’, then we only attribute to nature our own interests regarding nature. Without humans there would not be any ‘natural’ values.

But this strong anthropocentric view stands in sharp contrast to the intuitive feelings many people have towards nature: they esteem or love nature (natural beings such as plants and animals) for their own sake, not only for instrumental reasons. Wise or moderate anthropocentric philosophers concede that we can have more than instrumental interests regarding the environment and nature: they argue that it is not necessary for anthropocentric reasoning to emphasise only the pragmatic or utilitarian aspects of our interrelations with nature. Without leaving the anthropocentric position we can come into contact with nature in an aesthetic or contemplative way (more passive than active, more enjoying than using in a technological sense).