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We may value nature only as an instrument of human welfare for life support, waste disposal and entertainment and some concentrate on this. At the other extreme it can be argued that we are part of a wider community of all living things and that there is no reason other than selfish 'speciesism' to put our own interests first. Accordingly we must value nature for its own sake irrespective of human interests. Humans are apparently unique in having a moral sense and this imposes grave responsibilities on us to our fellow living beings as self-appointed environmental police.
How do we distinguish what is 'natural' from our own activities? In nature species are constantly at war with each other and millions of species have come and gone during the history of the earth. Natural processes involve living beings changing their environment and human beings are merely doing so on a larger scale and more quickly than any other creature. There is evidence that, from the start of the human industrial era 200 years ago, other species have disappeared at a faster rate than ever before except in periods of cataclysm and even these do not seem to have caused harm to the earth as a whole.
Conflicts between species are natural and the extinction of species seems to be a permanent and natural feature of life.
We might therefore adopt the position that, as part of nature, we are entitled to pursue our own goals and that nature must take care of itself arguing that in principle our interventions are no different from any other natural events. On this view we can conserve nature only as far as it meets our needs to do so. For example climatic change, global warming and loss of biodiversity may threaten human civilisation.
Nature is constantly changing, destroying and creating. Humans are part of nature and as predators we are doing what is natural to us. Why should it matter that we are destroying other species unless in doing so we harm ourselves?
On the other hand we might see ourselves as separate from the rest of nature because of our apparently unique capacity for reason and self-awareness. This might entitle us to act as trustees for the interests of other living things and to some extent against our own interests (rather like co-owners of the family home). An extreme version of this would regard human beings as a kind of cancer because of our ability to interfere deliberately with natural processes. It is arguable that our complex, unstable and highly active brains have made the human race a dysfunctional part of nature. On this view, while we might not be required to exterminate ourselves, we would have a duty to minimize the harm we cause.
Decision makers sometimes have to sacrifice one good for another greater good. The broader our area of environmental concern the more difficult becomes the balancing act. The core environmental objectives have been summarized as:
These principles are too general to be applied directly and may conflict with each other. For example forests comprising quick growing conifers are highly sustainable in terms of the timber industry but are not good habitats for wildlife compared with old mixed woodlands.
Conflict between different ethical values is likely to confuse the process of making and interpreting the law.
Policy makers generally use economic methods that involve cost-benefit analysis. These suppose that the good and bad of interfering with the environment can be expressed in money terms and, of course, commit us to a view of nature that concentrates on human interests. In this context the difference between 'incommensurability' and 'uncombinability' is important.
Incommensurability refers to values. Ethical values are sometimes incommensurable in the sense that each in itself is objectively valid but they cannot logically be reconciled with each other because they are not amenable to ranking on a common scale. In other words there are irreducible conflicts among goods and we have to accept 'tragic choices' in the sense that we can sometimes achieve one goal only at the expense of another. For example, environmental protection and liberal democracy are probably incommensurable and it is arguable that environmental protection and economic values are incommensurable.
Incommensurability should be distinguished from 'uncombinablity'. Uncombinablity is about practical possibilities and applies whether or not interests can be compared on a common scale but where they cannot each be fully satisfied in a single person or group because for example of limited resources. For example the interests of a factory to boost its production may be uncombinable with the interests of the local neighbours to be free of pollution. Issues of uncombinablity may sometimes be expressed in money terms and resolved by techniques of cost-benefit analysis to produce a solution that maximizes overall welfare.
There is no necessary connection between incommensurability and uncombinablity. For example incommensurable goods might if you are lucky be combined. The rescue of a member of a rare species might happily combine the animal rights and eccentric ethics and sustainable forestry combines respecting species (but not individual trees) with human well being. On the other hand housing need and the amenities of the countryside for human tourism are commensurable but uncombinable. The use of wind turbines as a source of renewable energy is uncombinable with landscape amenity and both incommensurable and uncombinable with wildlife welfare.
The wider our ethical concerns the more likely we are to meet incommensurables The costs of closing the power station can be calculated in money terms but can the life of the seal? Where we are faced with incommensurables that are also uncombinable the decision maker is forced to make a subjective judgment – a 'tragic choice' that can be justified only by reference to political acceptability. Court or other decision maker might narrow the focus of a case by excluding moral concerns thus turning the problem into one of incombinables and making it easier to apply to contaminated land control, defines harm as 'harm to the health of living organisms or other interference with the ecological system of which they form a part and in the case of man, includes harm to his property'.
The notion of harm raises problems in relation to liability for damaging non-humans. Traditionally liability in tort relates only to human physical injury or property damage and consequential economic loss. To what extent for example can injury to wildlife or rare species be compensated?
Ethical standards are a means of criticizing the law and revealing its unstated value judgments. Uncertainties and conflicts in the law can often be traced to the absence of common ethical ground. A convincing ethical justification helps to make a law or a court's decision respected. Legal regulation, particularly if it allows negotiation between regulator and regulated may help to shape ethical attitudes. Ethical arguments can be used as ammunition in litigation. Shared ethical values help to co-ordinate the work of different agencies. An important task of the law is to ensure that different points of view get a fair hearing.
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