Values, Ethics and Environment

2011-12-05 20:28:25

Rudolf Kolářský, Igor Míchal

The devastation of the Earth, already frightening and continuous, witnesses that humans have not been able sufficiently orientate their behaviour with regard to the value of terrestrial nature. Prevention of the global catastrophe depends on our valuing system. It is an impulse to some questions. Does it suffice to change values only? Is a change of values necessary? And if it is necessary, how do we change our values and what values must we change? Nearly three decades of discussions attest that the search for answers is an ongoing process.


I. Is Our Environmental Crisis a Crisis of Values?

  1. The Earth is the only place in the universe that offers humans a suitable habitat, yet the devastation of that Earth in our time has reached an unprecedented extent. The Earth and its living nature are a product of an unrepeatable evolution. They have grown under conditions that are no more, and in a time that is irreversible. The extinction of a species, the destruction of an ecosystem, represent an irreversible loss. That creates -- among others -- a value of terrestrial nature.
  2. The terms krísis originally meant a conflict, a moment of decision--a moment of trial and judgement. Today we can speak of a crisis since we are speaking of a historical situation in which we humans are threatening and devastating nature while its finitude and fragility force us to rethink and reevaluate our actions as well as our ideas, goals and values.
  3. The devastation of the Earth attests that the direction of our civilization is flawed because it cannot be sustained. A civilization is sustainable only if it can meet the needs of those now living without endangering the sustenance of those yet to come. Our present ecological crisis is also a crisis of our civilization to the extent to which that civilization, in devastating the Earth, endangers and destroys the possibility of future development.
  4. That unsustainability is in part physical. The demands of expansion are destroying natural resources for the future. However, there is a value dimension to it as well.
  5. One of the main causes of the devastation of the Earth is a way of valuing which does not respect its value. The current environmental crisis is a crisis of valuing in this sense.
  6. A value system can be said to fail when it no longer provides an ethically satisfactory orientation for human life--as when it deprives human life of dignity. It fails when it does not warn humans against devastating the Earth and against living at the expense of future generations. In that sense, the ecological crisis calls on us to rethink and reevaluate what we value.
  7. The need for a reevaluation of our values becomes pressing when what we value begins to destroy what is valuable. The problem is not simply that our values lead to a collision with our physical and biological limitations, or that they fail us in our instrumental interaction with nature. What we value itself loses value when it does not respect the plurality of life forms, the unique value of finite and fragile nature. What we value, we believe, is rendered valueless by a lack of respect for both life and the Earth.
  8. This recognition need not imply a rejection of the great religious and philosophical value systems which make up our cultural treasure. Recognising that we belong to this Earth and learning to respect life and the Earth calls only for a rejection of the quest for a domination of nature. It does not deny the need to interact with nature, only sets that interaction within the limits of wisdom and experience. Far from rejecting other values, it purifies them of an indifference to nature and so protects them from being used as an excuse for devastating the Earth. So purified, our traditional values can provide a far clearer guide to a life worth living.
  9. Our religious and philosophical heritage was shaped in a time when the fragility of nature did not appear a problem for humanity. As a result, it left us unprepared for the ecological crisis. That crisis helps give us a new understanding of what we believe. Humans bear a responsibility for preserving the diversity of life on the Earth, for preserving its habitability for all who dwell therein, be they humans, plants, other animals or microorganisms.
  10. The need for a new understanding is most pressing in the Western culture which most contributed to the devastation of the Earth. In retrospect, it is a guilt, in prospect, it becomes a responsibility. We need to reexamine our culture. How should we interpret the Biblical conception of humans as creation's stewards, responsible before God? How should we interpret the classic conception of humans as endowed with reason and so capable of acting freely and responsibly? How should we understand the newer traditions of humanism and liberalism? Is not our humanity at risk precisely when we use it to defend a ruthless exploitation of nature? Does not a disregard for the needs and rights of other animate beings and plants deform human freedom as well?


II. The Foundations of Environmental Ethics: Biocentrism and Anthropocentrism

  1. The ecological crisis threatens not only our physical life but our moral life as well. A disregard for the fragility of nature burdens it with immorality. Our ecological crisis is thus a crisis of morality and of its theory, ethics. At the same time, however, it points to ways of developing our moral life in a considerate and friendly relation with nature. Therein it suggests how to extend our ethics so that it would come to terms not only with interhuman relations but with our relation to nature as well; humans can fail morally in the latter no less than in the former (A.Schweitzer, A.Leopold).
  2. In considering the foundations of an environmental ethics we need to ask whether such an ethics can be based on what has been termed "anthropocentrism"--that is, the assumption that human alone are endowed with an intrinsic worth and are the source of all value, nature being valuable only as a means to their ends. Would a more adequate basis for an ecological ethics be a "biocentric" conception--that is, the view that nature, too, has not only an instrumental value but also its own intrinsic worth, independent of its utility for humans?
  3. In recent discussions, those two views have tended to approach each other. Anthropocentrists recognise the validity of biocentrism when they note that it is difficult for humans to function as the focus of free, meaningful self-determination and a source of value when they treat all other nature as worthless. Conversely, the biocentrists recognise the validity of anthropocentrism when they note that a recognition of nature's intrinsic worth represents a free decision, the fruit of human uniqueness. We need to examine both the possibilities and the limits of a reprochement between biocentrism and anthropocentrism.
  4. The contrast of antrhopocentrism and biocentrism puts the question of our humanity in a new light. Hitherto, we have tended to associate our humanity with a conquest of nature and an independence of it. The ecological crisis makes us aware of respect for nature, for life and for the Earth as intrinsic aspects of our humanity and human dignity.
  5. It is beneath human dignity to live in a society which sustains itself by destroying its environment. It is beneath human dignity to be despoilers of the environment--or to be its victims. A destruction of the environment undercuts the human dignity which is the foundation of modern democracy. To respect nature, to care for a healthy and an aesthetically acceptable environment, to cherish nature's multiplicity, all that is an expression of human dignity, of self-respect and of respect for others.
  6. Thus one of the most important goals of an ecological program must be the development of the moral dimension of ecological policy, making that policy. The restoration of the environment could contribute to the moral restoration of society.


III. Value Options

Once we pass the limits of poverty, the level of consumption is no longer the chief factor in determining human happiness. Contentment in family life and at work, satisfying leisure time, the supportive friendship of others as well as other factors that make for happiness can then be largely independent of the volume of material consumption.

It is when the deep human need for the positive regard of others remains unfulfilled that humans may seek to replace it with conspicuous consumption. The hope of changing the destructive-- and also antisocial--practices that follow from it may thus be closely linked with healing the destructive relations among humans.

  1. Is it possible to explain that values of terrestrial nature do not orientate human behaviour sufficiently for the prevention of global catastrophe? The causes of environmental deterioration are not (always) ignorance, lack of understanding, or unresponsibility. Under certain social conditions, e.g. technological or economic, it is often very difficult to live in a way other than at the cost of nature and the environment. What could present as a fruit of insufficient knowledge, insufficient intellectual capacity or lack of morals, is a result of conflicts of values which have a social basis.
  2. Citizens have usually a limited range of opportunities to contribute to the conservation of nature. Nevertheless, every citizen can do what is in modern democratic societies one of the conditions of overcoming of environmental crisis. He can rethink --from the point of view determined by this crisis--how he lives and how he wants to live, how others live and how they want to live. He can rethink his goals and values and the goals and values of others. If he finds that the terrestrial nature is not respected sufficiently he can express it as a customer and a voter.
  3. Our ecological crisis renders a further expansion of an already high material consumption problematic. We need to examine the possibilities and limits of an ecologically guided consumption --so called "green consumerism"--as well as to recall the values of moderation and frugality.
  4. It can appear as a cynicism or as naivety, if those who live at or under the poverty level are reminded of the moral priority of frugal life. The unwillingness to recognise that in finite terrestrial nature the levels of consumption taken for granted by the advanced countries are not attainable by all may also be considered as a cynical manner. Given the precipitous rise of population, the Earth would become inhabitable before its habitants could attain that goal.
  5. Western civilization has long been guided by a quest for a life-style associated with ever increasing material consumption. Numerous politicians hold that out as a goal for the countries of the poor southern hemisphere. In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, that is often taken to be the goal of rebuilding market economics and pluralistic political systems as well.
  6. Granted, a certain measure of material consumption is necessary for the development of personality while affluence does broaden the scope of free choice and responsibility. However, it is also evident that there comes a point at which further expansion of material consumption becomes pointless.
  7. Not only affluence, but also squalor can endanger the biosphere. The record of some developing countries shows that an impoverished people can survive only at the cost of destroying its environment, in turn adding to its impoverishment.
  8. Both the upper and the lower limit of acceptable consumption can be determined in terms of values such as human health and dignity of life as well as the stability and diversity of nature. Material consumption should neither sink nor rise so much that it would endanger any of these. A satisfying life sinks into squalor or rises into superfluousness when levels of consumption become so low or so high as to endanger health, dignity and the integrity of nature.
  9. A life-style appropriate in our environmental crisis is neither self-mortifying nor ascetic, as its critics would claim; it seeks only to give to consumption its appropriate place among the many sources of human fulfilment. The point is not to consume less but to consume better, wanting only as much as we can love. We believe that such a life-style could increase pleasure in living and improve the quality of life beyond the present levels.
  10. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe might at the present have a distinct opportunity to choose freely a direction of development which would fully respect the demands of an ecological ethics and which, while providing a satisfying level of material consumption, would place a far greater emphasis on the quality of life and spiritual values. Might we not have an opportunity to let our goals be inspired by the post-materialist values at which the developed countries are arriving after decades of consumerist development?
  11. Market economy and modern democracy creates a system which is in principle more sensitive to the demands of citizens than the authoritarian system. On the basis of ecological demands of citizens, democratic governments can systematically narrow the opportunities for everybody to reach goals by means of activities which contribute to the devastation of the Earth.
  12. A moral posture to life and environment cannot be imposed by force or deduced from theoretical postulates alone. It requires the voluntary concurrence of the majority, and that in turn might well become possible only once democracy has been firmly established and economic reform carried out. Should we fail at either task, we can expect that living standards will continue to sink, that most people will become preoccupied with survival and that intensifying ecological and economic crises will make the growth of an ecological morality far more difficult. Still, the task is too urgent to postpone.
  13. If we humans are to be worthy of our humanity, our posture toward nature and toward our fellow humans needs to be based upon respect and toleration, not on a quest for a domination of nature and society. It needs to support the variety and distinctiveness of natural ecosystems and human cultures, not seek to reduce them to uniformity. It must recognise the autonomy and freedom of all there is, recognising that nature's worth is not reducible to utility.
  14. The fate of humanity within the fragile biosphere of this Earth may well depend on our ability to cultivate deeper sources of satisfaction and fulfilment that consumption, satisfaction based on the values of the spirit and a fulfilment that turns to deeper values. We need to restore the word wealth to its true meaning of weal, of being well, replacing material accumulation with the vision of a humane quality of life within a free nature as life's goal.
  15. The crisis of values as a part of the current environmental crisis shows that the recognition of instrumental value of terrestrial nature in principle is not in contradiction with the recognition of values belonging to Western cultural traditions - as a love to fellow humans or respect to freedom of personality or to human rights. This crisis also demonstrates that in many cases it is not possible to recognize these values in their full sense without recognizing intrinsic value of terrestrial nature.

This is one of the sources of the hope--that global catastrophe will be prevented.


Institute of Philosophy, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences Prague
Federal Committee for the Environment, Prague, Czechoslovakia