Pragmatism and the Problem of the Intrinsic Value of the Environment

Dissertation, New School for Social Research (2000)

Hugh P. McDonald
The New School (PhD)
The recent literature of Environmental Ethics has frequently centered on the issue of whether nonhuman life or the environment as a whole has intrinsic value in some sense. In chapter one, I review the debate over the intrinsic value of the non-human and also the environmental critics of pragmatism. Pragmatism has been criticized as unsuitable for an Environmental Ethics on the grounds that it undermines intrinsic value, subjectivizes value, and thus cannot provide a sufficient basis for the protection of the environment. In the second chapter, I examine the issue of intrinsic value in the classical literature of ethics. The argument is that subjectivization of value is the cause of the devaluation of the environment and that this is based on the metaphysics of the subject initiated by Descartes. The root of the problem of the intrinsic value of nature is metaphysical. A third chapter discusses the value theory of John Dewey. Dewey's Instrumentalism it is argued, modifies but does not abandon the notion of intrinsic value. By criticizing subjective value, however, Dewey transforms the issues. Intrinsic value is not treated as foundational to ethics, as it is for many subjective theories. Dewey retains it in a larger holistic system, as one element of justification. The fourth chapter argues against the charge that Dewey's philosophy is anthropocentric or based on the subject through a discussion of Dewey's Naturalism. Dewey's philosophy is an attempt to overcome subjectively based theories by showing how humans require a natural environment in which they live and of which they are a part. Intrinsic value is brought back into nature as a trait of nature: nature is revalued. I argue that this may be superior as a basis for Environmental Ethics to alternative approaches. Norms are derived from Dewey's moral writings which could be used for specific environmental issues. In the Conclusion, I briefly describe how the other pragmatists can be defended against the charges of subjectivity, anthropocentrism and undermining intrinsic value. I also suggest certain approaches to environmental issues for which pragmatism could be used as a basis
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