Monday, September 04, 2017

J. Baird Callicott

My environmental philosophy class this weekend introduced me to the writings of J. Beard Callicott.

Callicott is branded as one of the founders in environmental philosophy - developing Aldo Leopold's "land ethic" and attempting to put it on a more solid philosophical foundation.

Concerning the nature of value, Callicott holds that there is no value without something that values. This makes him a "subjectivist" in the common use of the term. There are no values that exist "out there" - that would continue existing even if no person cared about them.

To develop this further, we need to apply the distinction that philosophers generally make between instrumental value and intrinsic value. Instrumental value is value that something has in virtue of its tendency to contribute to something else. A hammer has instrumental value because it is useful in helping to build a house. A house has value because it keeps the foul weather outside and allows one to live and sleep in comfort. Living and sleeping in comfort has value . . . well, it just does. Intrinsic value theorists say that these ultimate ends have value in virtue of possessing an intrinsic value property - a goodness built into their very nature. A "subjectivist" like Callicott says it has value because valuers have come to value them.

Callicott goes further and argues that these ultimate ends come from evolution. We have evolved to prefer some states over others because our biological ancestors - in preferring some states over others - had more offspring and, thus, brought us into existence with those same dispositions. Ancestors with an aversion to pain lived while those without such an aversion perished, so we are beings with an aversion to pain.

These evolutionary forces also brought about dispositions to cooperate with others. We see this first in the care for offspring. If we were a species that abandoned our young upon giving birth - leaving them to fend for themselves as we sought our own food and our own comfort - our species would not exist. In the same way, we have acquired dispositions to cooperate with others as well. By forming clans, our ancestors were able to hunt and forage more effectively, and take care of their weak and injured members that would have died in the wild.

Callicott makes an observation about these evolved dispositions that many evolutionary psychologists seem to get wrong. These evolved dispositions are not "morality". If they were "morality", we would have to say that the worker bee that goes out to collect pollen for the hive or who cares for the eggs that the queen lays are acting on some sort of sense of civic duty or moral principle. We would have to say that there is some sort of praise that is due to those who do their duty and condemnation for those who do not. Yet, this makes no sense. Cooperation does not imply morality.

Instead, according to Callicott, morality is engineered cooperation that humans have built from the materials that nature provided. We have taken the dispositions given to us by nature that made the family and the tribe possible and expanded on them to create cooperation between tribes - ultimately to form nations, and to form institutions of cooperation between nations.

Ultimately, the "land ethic" calls for expanding the use of these foundations for cooperation even further to include animals, habitats, and ecosystems.

Though, here, I fear that Callicott's subjectivism does not allow him to draw the conclusions that he wants to draw. Recall that nothing has value unless there is a valuer. We cannot form cooperative communities with inanimate objects - or objects that do not have their own interests. We cannot negotiate with them and say, "If we do this for you, then you must agree to do that for us." Indeed, we cannot do anything "for" them because they have no interests for us to serve. One way to see this is that they are not capable of appreciating our sacrifice, or to gain anything that they want as a result of our actions - unless they have wants.

Here, it is important to notice a distinction between a subjectivist view in which nothing has value depends on an experience of value, and a subjectivist view that merely requires an experiencer. We can describe this distinction by looking at G.E. Moore's famous though experiment where we are asked to imagine that a beautiful world exists, even if nobody would experience it.

There are three relevant positions that one could take.

Henry Sidgwick argues that the world would have no value independent of somebody experiencing it - that it is the "utility" (in terms of pleasure or happiness found in the experience) that gives it value, not its mere existence.

G.E. Moore's position seems to be that the world would have an intrinsic value that makes it worthwhile for the world to exist for its own sake. We do not need any person - we do not need to have any thing that values - for the existence of the world to have value.

Callicott's position seems to be that the existence of the world has no value independent of there being a valuer, but a valuer can value that the planet exists even if nobody was around to experience it. If a valuer were the last person alive, and had a choice to leave behind a world in which a beautiful planet existed or one in which it was destroyed, the valuer can choose the world where the beautiful world existed. Then, the existence of the beautiful world (even though nobody experiences it) has value.

Desirism holds that desires are the source of all value, that if a person has a desire that P for some proposition P then any state of affairs in which P is true has value for that agent. Thus, if an agent has a desire that a beautiful world exists, then any state of affairs in which a beautiful world exists has value for that agent.

Here, it seems, we are going to run into a problem with Callicott's view. For it seems to follow that if the last surviving valuer preferred that the beautiful world ceased to exist - that it was destroyed - then it is the destruction of that world that has value. Callicott seems to think that some things have an "ought to be valuedness" about them. That, even though you cannot have value without a valuer, once you have a valuer, there are certain things that the reasonable and rational valuer ought to value.

But if there is an "ought to be valuedness" in the world, this would seem to require a type of objective, intrinsic value - or something so similar to the philosophical account of objective, intrinsic value that it would be impossible to tell the difference.

Callicott seems to want to call this a type of "potential value." He used the term "inherent value" to distinguish it from "intrinsic value". It is the value that something would have (and, perhaps, deserves to have?) if valuers existed.

Ultimately, there seems to be some inconsistency in Callicott's view of value. Much of nature is incapable of valuing anything, which means - if value is subjective - we cannot do anything that nature itself values or that is good for nature. We can only do things that are good for creatures capable of valuing. To say that entities that cannot value can, nonetheless, be harmed or benefitted, then this would seem to require the existence of some sort of object, intrinsic value. Giving this objective, intrinsic value a new name, as Callicott does, does not change the fact that it is, in every way, like the intrinsic value that philosophers debate about.

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