How Might We Deal With Extra-Human Values?

Eco-fundamentalism is a doctrine that demands absolute priorities for nature conservation, which are not related to fundamental human valuations and which are to override human aspirations, such as freedom, prosperity, security and justice.

The precautionary principle, often claimed for nature conservation, could then also be stipulated for job security, international peace and prosperity, for example.

In the debate about the natural environment, one sometimes hears an argument that goes beyond what has been said in the preceding literature Opens in new window. Some in the environmental debate try to place environmental conservation above all other human interests.

They see human beings as an integral part of an interdependent physical system and argue in terms of purely quantitative, physical trade-offs between human demands and the demands of animals, plants and other elements of the physical world.

Thus, a group of animal-rights activists Opens in new window in the United States of America initiated a court case to declare captive whales that perform in shows as slaves under US law.

The eco-fundamentalist school of thought wishes to extend institutional protections Opens in new window, which are designed to enhance human social interaction, to non-human beings, such as primates and whales.

The eco-fundamentalist school rejects the argument that human concerns and valuations alone should be the measure of all human activity.

Instead, it tries to place the interests of animals and eco-systems on an equal footing with human interests, if not even above them.

The eco-fundamentalist school of thought also advocates an extreme interpretation of the precautionary principle in ecology Opens in new window, namely that no harm should be done to the natural environment, whatever the consequences to other human aspirations, such as prosperity Opens in new window.

It is argued that the precautionary principle should automatically apply when damage to the environment is deemed irreversible (for example: extinction of a species), even when the connection between a suspected harmful action and the environmental effect is not (yet) scientifically proven.

This kind of thinking has, for example, become dominant in the discussion of global climate change Opens in new window. However, this approach presents fundamental logical difficulties because the design of all policy is a product of the human mind and we can express, assess and compare only human values.

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Attempts to take away the reliance on human valuations would suppress the very communication and steering mechanisms which coordinate human action, and would empower some political group to assume collective dictatorship. The implication of this type of environmentalism for freedom is now widely recognized (Kasper, 2007; Klaus, 2008; Bennett, 2012).

Once we abandon human valuations as the sole reference system for human action, we have to ask whose valuations are to replace them — maybe the polar bear’s, for whom humans are food.

Humans have no way of entering into adequate communication with other species. All that happens is that some human agent argues on behalf of another species on the pretence that she or he knows what serves that species. It amounts to a grab for political power.

Once one abandons human valuations and reasoned discourse about them, the interests of Nature become an excuse for some self-appointed elite to overrule other human valuations.

The protagonists may claim superior knowledge about what is good for nature conservation and then enforce their decisions in undemocratic, interventionist ways against the wishes of the majority of people.

The interaction of the many human beings in market decisions—who are concerned with freedom Opens in new window, justice Opens in new window, prosperity Opens in new window, future security Opens in new window, including future resource supplies—is then replaced by the dictatorial directives of an elite, however selected and legitimated. This is an absolutist approach that violates the fundamental individual values, which underpin and inform society.

This brief discussion of eco-fundamentalism clarifies one important point about fundamental values: they always have to reflect the diverse and conflicting valuations of citizens and relate all social interaction to a humane perspective.

A humane society depends crucially on the focus on human values Opens in new window, which are after all the only language in which the members of the community can communicate their aspirations.

Foisting non-human values, external to human valuation, on public policy would cause society to disintegrate in discord and poverty. This may empower an elite to override everyone’s interests, but it would destroy freedom Opens in new window, justice Opens in new window, prosperity Opens in new window, security Opens in new window, peace Opens in new window and the other aspirations.