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Intrinsic Values In Nature

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Humans are helped or hurt by the condition of their environment; and, many argue, that is what environmental ethics is all aboutÂ-protecting what people have at stake in the conservation of their life support systems, landscapes, and natural resources. Ethics is for people. People are both the subject and the object of ethics. Only humans are deliberative moral agents and humans have obligations only to other humans. Only people can be held responsible, and they can only be held responsible by and to other people.

Or so it might first appear. But this, I will argue, is only a half truth. Humans can and ought to be held responsible for what they are doing to their Earth—that is true enough. Only humans can be held so responsible—not wild animals, or plants, or species, or ecosystems. Nature is amoral. We are not responsible, of course, for Earth's being here past and present; we are late-comers in evolutionary history. But we are becoming increasingly responsible for Earth's future. In that sense, everything humans value is at stake in seeking sustainable development, a sustainable biosphere. If there are any duties at all, we must care for this surrounding world, since this is the home for us all. But—so this argument goes—these are duties owed by people to other people (as well as to themselves); caring for the planet is a means to this end.

Certainly, a great deal of the work of environmental ethics can be done mindful of our duties to other humans. Humans need to be healthy, for instance. Health is not simply a matter of biology from the skin-in. Environmental health, from the skin-out, is just as important. Humans too, like the animals and plants, need reasonably clean air and water. In agriculture, humans must grow their food in soil that is more or less unpolluted (use pesticides and herbicides though they may) and fertile (use fertilizers though they may). It is hard to have a healthy culture on a sick environment.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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