« Yo, Earthlings! Hot Enough For You? | Main | "And yet, humans can't seem to stop killing them" »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Maybe it's just the language being used, but I was struck by the attempts to describe the moral argument in terms of "value". Value is still an attempt to reckon a utilitarian argument. Intrinsic value is just some value we can't quantify to satisfaction. It still supposes that there's something for us to be gained, like the mere appreciation of nature, or a sense of wonder, or the avoidance of some harm we can't perceive, or what have you. It seems like most people, even Plumer, can't help themselves in that even when they try to frame a moral argument, it's utilitarian.

It seems to me a moral argument must be one that avoids discussions of value altogether. That, for instance, we are obligated to reasonably avoid interference with, or destruction of, other life on earth simply because it deserves it, due to the inherent dignity or grace, or a sense of our own humility.

But maybe it's just the language. Maybe "value" is just a poor choice of words.

John Ian

It seems to me that both the moral and the utilitarian arguments place nature at a distance, as if it were something outside of and completely separate from us. As if we had an inconsequential choice whether to protect it or not. We have no choice. It is the bone of our bones, the blood of our blood. We take care of the world, life is pretty good. We do not take care of the world, life is nasty and short. I don't call that a choice, except for a psychopath.

Dave Cohen

@John Ian

The point of the moral argument in terms of "value" (a human concept) is to obliterate the difference between humans and other species. This makes it consequential to preserve them and ultimately, ourselves. Re-read the relevant text in this post.

On the other hand, the standard utilitarian argument seeks to bridge the gap between humans and other species/ecosystems by placing an economic value on them, thus subsuming them in what I call the "human economic frame of reference." But that will never work, as the wild bees researchers pointed out. I also pointed that out in the second Flatland essay. And it is merely an expression of our characteristic animal anthropocentrism, which is the central problem here.

You made the ultimate utilitarian argument when you said "we take care of the world, life is pretty good. We do not take care of the world, life is nasty and short." And of course it is hard to disagree, as far as the long term goes, but the problem remains that the world is viewed in strictly human terms -- we will preserve the biosphere because it is in our best interests to do so.

But humans can not even think in that practical way, which is why conservationists make the normal utilitarian argument which places dollar values on natural systems. By and large, humans behave as though nature is merely an inconvenience standing between them and what they want.

-- Dave

John Ian

Hi Dave,

At the head of your essay you defined the utilitarian argument as being, "other species have economic value to humans." Are you also saying that simple health and survival of the body are economic values? I don't see it that way. Therefore I do not see "If we do not care for the world, life is nasty and short" as a utilitarian argument. It's not about economic value, it's about how insane it is to destroy my own life, which includes the life outside the shell of my skin that is inextricably intertwined with the life within my skin. That seems to me a different argument than either the moral or the utilitarian. Call it the ecological argument. Not that I think humans are about to get all excited over the discovery that their body doesn't end at the outer layers of the skin. I don't.

Speaking strictly for myself, I was never persuaded to care about non-human lives by arguments of any kind. I was persuaded by the animals and the plants, who demonstrated to me that I am coexistent with them, and without them I'm dead. They also persuaded me that they have remarkable lives, just as remarkable as my own, that have nothing to do with mine.

All I am saying, perhaps not very well, is that the actual encounter with another life form (e.g. Aldo Leopold's wolf encounter; my liminal encounter was with a fin whale) might be another way, besides reasoned argument, that we can come to care about the natural world, and to see how crazy it is that we would ever wonder whether that is worthwhile or necessary.


Dave Cohen

@John Ian

The argument you're making is one of "spiritual" connectedness, for lack of a better word. I won't argue that. Who am I to say that is not a valid way of looking at things?

On the other hand, for humans generally, that argument goes exactly nowhere, just like the moral argument for preserving the biosphere.


-- Dave


Pretend for a moment that you are, oh, let's say, an eagle. To you, your existence hinges on the ability to recognize the "utility" of other things. You of course, don't think about it that way. But, things out there fall into various categories such as things you can eat or drink (high utility), things that can eat you (negative utility!), female eagles (wicked high utility!), or other male eagles (utility depends on availability of food and females... lots of both, who cares... not enough, negative utility).

Again, as an eagle, we couldn't give a rat's ass about the concept of utility. We are genetically evolved to assess these utilities naturally. We just know what we like and what we don't, what works for us, and what doesn't. We try to do the former and avoid the latter, without really thinking about it, but just by living it, naturally, behaviorally. As an eagle, you probably aren't spending much time worrying about whether your control of your part of the food chain is choking the life out of the local falcon or owl, or about the local salmon situation. And, in fact, if you could, you probably wouldn't. You would just do what comes naturally. Fortunately for those species, you, as an eagle, have quite a limited capacity to cause extensive harm through your natural behavior.

So, what is really different about humans? What do we do? Same thing, writ large. We know what we like and try to do those things, and we know what we don't and try to avoid those things. We just do what comes naturally. Unfortunately for pretty much all other species, there are enough of us, and our skill set is sufficiently dangerous, that what comes naturally (largely unconsciously) to us can, and does, have enormous impact on virtually all other species. Sure, we could postulate that we could change. Yet, the behavior and the impacts are not unknown, nor is that knowledge just recently come to light. Indeed, humans are known to have been the proximate cause of many thousands of extinctions, with many thousands more fully documented as being in the balance. And still, the behavior remains unchanged at large scales. One is therefore led to the remaining conclusion, that change, under any circumstances that have existed to this point in time, is not actually possible after all.

Perhaps, in some future existential crisis situation the circumstances would exist to actually cause large-scale changes in human behavior. But that idea is theoretical. There is no evidence, at those scales, that such change would actually occur, or, if it did, that it would take a form that in any material way improved the lot of earth's other species. To date, the evidence seems quite clear...

We do what we do. We are what we are.


And the train kept a' rollin'

Mike Roberts

Putting "nature" in human centred economic terms seems to be impossible and certain to be wrong. How can we tell that the majority of wild bees have no economic value to "us"? Determining that would mean understanding the whole network of interactions between bees and the rest of nature. I doubt that will ever be possible. To me, all species have value (to me; "value" is probably a subjective term) but to an incalculable degree. It is probably impossible to know the effect of any perturbation of the ecology we inhabit. Allowing (as if we had any real control over it) any one species to go extinct may have dire consequences on us down the line (or on another species which may ultimately have dire consequences on us). It's impossible for humans to grasp this, of course.

On an unrelated point, I note that conservation biologists and doomers overlap. The NTHE proponent you linked to described himself as a conservation biologist, in his former life. Are conservation biologists doomed to become doomers over time? I find it hard, though, to imagine the NTHE message to be consistent with conservation biology.

Tony Noerpel


You not only write an intelligent blog but this is one of the few blogs where the comments are worth reading, too.

@Brian, the word you are looking for is leveraged. An eagle is not highly leveraged. He only has his own claws and beak. Even primitive humans had sharpened sticks, clubs and flaked rock and fire. Today the typical human leverages hundreds of energy slaves. The energy an eagle spends hunting has to come from the energy acquired from the hunt. So eagles cannot hunt mice to extinction. If there are few mice the energy required to hunt them exceeds the energy that they yield and the eagles starve until things are brought back into balance. Two coupled differential equations describe that. Humans can hunt cod to extinction because the hunt doesn’t require the energy derived from the cod itself but comes “free” from fossil fuels. And you are right. Humans think like eagles without the natural governors.

Successful organisms and systems of organisms evolve to efficiently dissipate energy gradients. The chemical energy gradient between stored fossil fuels and atmospheric oxygen is massive and Homo sapiens are dissipating that gradient quite efficiently. Not that what we chose to do with the energy is particularly useful but that we do consume it as fast as we can. So we will be quite successful until it is gone.

If we had free will, we could imagine a different outcome and do something to effect that. But we have evolved ideological or belief-based thinking with only limited ability to do evidence-based thinking and I submit that sacrosanct ideology precludes free will. I would also submit that our brains are nothing special. Certainly cetaceans and elephants are smarter. What we have are exquisitely beautiful hands, which evolved to dissipate that marvelous energy gradient.

Anyway, keep up the good work, everybody.



Mike Cooper

Hi everybody here,
just felt moved to say, I enjoy reading the blog Dave, and all the comments too, on the whole (a few comments excepted now and again) it's one of the few islands of sanity in this world.

As for the contents of the post - well, the Flatland analysis suggests that humans cannot help but anthropomorphise, and to me this is where the 'save animals because it's the right thing to do' argument comes from - i.e. animals are people too so we should look after them - or we fall into the 'humans are the shiz and everything else belongs to us' camp - in which case nature is there to be either used, ignored, or destroyed, depending on what we can do with itor whether it is in the way of something else we regard as being of higher value (a mine, a farm, a building, or whatever). So yes, there will be a minority who might care about protecting nature either because they view nature as being part of humanity (or vice versa) or they value nature intrinsically - but the vast majority will always value the human requirement over nature, every time. Because they're programmed to.

Cheers everybody

The comments to this entry are closed.