Conceptual and Ethical Issues in Environmental Philosophy and Policy-making

Participating researchers: Petra AnderssonChristian Munthe (project leader).

Time: 2000-2002

Administrating department: Department of Philosophy, Gothenburg University

Funded by: The Swedish Research Council

Plan of the Project (Summary)

Environmental ethicists as well as policy-makers, activists etc. frequently speak about the need for preservation of various parts of nature. Two main grounds are repeatedly presented for this need:

1. Our moral responsibilities to future human beings (sometimes called sustainable development) require that we stop using technology and science for short-term gains at the expense of long-term risks of very negative ecological effects for future people. In several official declarations and policy-documents this idea has been expressed as "the precautionary principle", roughly the idea that we should not use particular means of production, distribution etc. unless they have been shown not to effect too serious risks. However, it is far from clear what is meant by this. What determines whether or not the effecting of a certain risk (in order to secure some short-term gain) is too serious or not? - and what determines whether or not this has been "shown"? Some traditional decision-theorists would say that it is a question of traditional instrumental efficiency (i.e. rationality) in relation to morally respectable aims. Some ethicists would instead claim that it is a question of whether or not the severity of the scenario illustrating an actualisation of the risk in question makes the taking of this risk morally wrong in itself. Others, yet, hint that they want to take a stand in between these two extremes, however, without specifying what this could mean. There is also a rather grim debate regarding whether or not it can ever be shown that a certain action does not effect too serious risks, and this of course depends on what requirements should be laid on someone who purports to show such a thing. In both cases, then, the questions seem to boil down to basic issues regarding what is required of risky decisions in order to make them morally justified. But, obviously, it must be a kind of moral justification different from the one dealt with by traditional ethical theories of the rights and wrongs of actions, since these only deal with justification in terms of actual outcomes, not in terms of risks for such outcomes.

2. Natural systems possess a value in themselves which makes them worth preserving also at the expense of human well-being and man-made constructs. This idea is less common in official documents than the former (although it is explicitely set out as a part of the basis of the Swedish Environmental Policy Act) than it is among environmenonmental philosophers and ethicists. However, also this idea is far from clear, since it is not clear neither how a natural system is to be distinguished from a non-natural one and why this difference is to be taken as morally relevant, nor why preservation is the only recommendation which follows from the placing of an intrinsic value in nature. Although there are several suggestion on what it is that makes certain systems intrinsically valuable, it is has not been suffieciently explained, first, why these characteristics (typically complexity, self-preservation/replication, beauty etc.) do not justify preservation also of systems normally not taken to be natural (such as metropolitan areas, hamburger restaurants or nuclear power-plants), secondly, why this value does not imply a recommendation to reshape rather than preserve natural systems, in order to increase the presence and magnitude of the value-making characteristics. In particular, it seems to be a challenge for a preservationist to argue in favour of restoration of certain biotic variants, without leaving the door open also for reshaping, for example by the use of modern biotechnology.

The aim of this research-project is to attack these two families of issues, both connected to the justification of common ideas regarding the importance of preserving various parts of nature. In one part (carried out by Christian Munthe), the project will be aimed at mapping out moral intuitions regarding the moral responsibility of the taking of risks, in order to use these for developing a normative theory of the morality of risk-taking which can be used to underpin a more specific version of the precautionary principle. The other part of the project is instead aimed at systematically reviewing various proposals as to how to distinguish between that (i.e. nature) which should typically be preserved according to preservationists and that which does not need to be so preserved, and to resist the conclusion that reshaping of nature might be a better idea from the point of view of typically preservationst values than actual preservation. The focus here will be on ideas ascribing a value in itself to nature or certain natural systems, with people such as Aldo Leopold and Arne Næss as evident points of departure.

Publications and presentations from the project