Does the Biodiversity Norm Short-Circuit Ethics? Donald Maier’s Contribution to the Biodiversity Debate (10 Comments)


As the study of "Biodiversity" turns 25, the University of Oregon is hosting an interdisciplinary seminar series, titled "The Problem of Ecological Proxy Values". This week we present perspectives from two graduate students - one a philosopher and the other an ecologist - on the first presentation by Donal Maier.

Below is the first installment in a two-part series of posts on the philosophical values of biodiversity. It was motivated by Donald S. Maier’s presentation, “Can biodiversity ground normative truths” in a lecture series at the University of Oregon titled “Biodiversity at Twenty-Five: The Problem of Ecological Proxy Values”. The series is divided in two different viewpoints; In this post, PhD student Tim Christion Myers investigates the value of biodiversity conservation through the eyes of a philosopher. In the second installment,  PhD student Lorien Reynolds reflects on the value of biodiversity through the eyes of an ecologist.

Whether we realize it or not, ours is a philosophical age. Lasting philosophies spring up when historical problems compel a need to question things all over again. This happened in 5th century BCE Athens beginning with the inward turn to ethics in Socrates following the Peloponnesian War as well as with the rise of Christianity as Rome crumbled. And it happened in the turn outwards to Nature with Laozi after the Warring States Period in ancient China and in the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century as medieval Europe disintegrated.

Today, by contrast, we have to deal with the implications of inaugurating the anthropocene in the form of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction and climate change. Historically speaking, the conflict between how nature works and how we live is still dawning on us. Thus, the challenge before us, I think, isn’t about turning inward towards the ethical or outwards toward the scientific. It’s learning how to be both scientific and ethical. How, for instance, can we value nature in ways that lead to wise, consistently good decisions in the anthropocene?

This, it seems to me, makes the concept of biodiversity centrally relevant. And that’s why I’m excited that the University of Oregon is hosting an interdisciplinary workshop this year entitled “Biodiversity at Twenty-Five: The Problem of Ecological Proxy Values”. The workshop includes three speakers, all of which question biodiversity as a scientific concept that serves as a proxy for nature’s value.

The series was inaugurated by moral philosopher Donald Maier with his presentation “Can Biodiversity Ground Normative Truths?”. Doing what philosophers do well—breaking down arguments and classifying them into chess pieces maneuverable across a clearly laid out field of play—Maier subjects biodiversity as a normative concept to the test of reason. For instance, he analyzes “state-given” reasons for protecting nature’s value in terms of ecological balance, integrity, continuity with the past, etc., as well as “desire-given reasons” for conserving nature’s value on, say, aesthetic or economic grounds. In all cases, biodiversity fails.

But Mair’s larger project, as detailed in his book What’s So Good About Biodiversity?, isn’t limited to analytic slicing and dicing. Although the biodiversity concept has been used for a quarter-century to legitimize a long list of conservation projects, it has led to sloppy, contradictory reasoning about nature’s value—as in a regrettable confusion of goals or (worse) as a rationalization for ambitious projects that have little if anything to do with the ‘respect for nature’ that this term implies.

Ultimately, Maier argues, no matter how you look at it, biodiversity cannot be a reliable guide for how we ought to think about the human relationship to nature. It simply usurps the good name of diversity as a notion that inspires respect, as in ‘cultural diversity,’ and applies it to nature. Understandable. Who, after all, wants a completely humanized and homogenized biosphere? Thoughts of clear-cut hillsides, desertification, and myriad other symptoms of Earth’s sixth mass extinction make the concept of biodiversity immediately attractive as a referent to flourishing health and renewal, and perhaps even human redemption.

In my own view as an environmental philosophy student, however, this immediacy has an insidious dark side to it that makes philosophers like Maier relevant. Like the idea of wilderness, which came under serious interrogation in the 1990s, biodiversity was designed to do two things at once: articulate nature’s (evolutionary and ecological) essence or reality and nature’s ultimate value. Here, in this single concept, we find an immediate, unambiguous bridge between objective science and subjective values—between the most widely-recognized epistemological authority we have and our profound desire to conserve nature against the crazed bulldozer called industrial development. This is what makes the biodiversity concept “normative” or action-justifying. It was constructed with this in mind.

In 1985, Michael Soulé published “What is Conservation Biology?” to announce the arrival of a “crisis discipline” with sweeping philosophical implications: “It’s goal is to provide principles and tools for preserving biological diversity,” adding that “ethical norms are a genuine part of conservation biology, as they are in all mission- or crisis-oriented disciplines.” Breaking with the traditional raison d’être of science as a method for separating facts and values (by filtering out “subjective” interests and interpretations in order to arrive at “objective” truths) conservation biology sought to unify them. Finally, a way to objectively value nature, and thus justify projects in a universal language heard by grant-funders, policy makers, and voting citizens alike.

What this really means, however, is that biodiversity acts less like a bridge from science to ethics and more like a short circuit. As the unmediated link between what nature is and what nature ought to be, the unifying concept of biodiversity obviates contentious ethical considerations—ones that are especially difficult for societies mechanistically organized by massive bureaucratic institutions. Thus, instead of bracketing out values, the biodiversity move (the philosophical completion of scientism?) shorts them out. This, it seems to me, is why Maier was able to cut through the biodiversity norm so thoroughly. Although in centralized societies like our own the impulse is strong to standardize and regulate large-scale decision-making processes by shunting ethical considerations, this may be a counter-productive. Defaulting to some ultimate institutional authority, whether science or economics, keeps the whole thing running by minimizing gear-jamming disagreements, but at the expense of careful deliberation, sound judgment, and ultimately practical wisdom itself.

At the end of his presentation, Maier asks if perhaps we just haven’t discovered the “as-yet undelivered brilliant stroke, which finally cuts through the many confusions and errors in normative reasoning” implicated in the concept of biodiversity. Although he didn’t have time to explore this question, he expressed doubts that the biodiversity idea could ever allow us to justify nature’s value. The reason, he explains, is that our approach to this term “gets the framing all wrong.” To the extent that biodiversity prompts us to look for factual conditions that we can value universally, or invites us to find something in nature that legitimately satisfies some human good, this term will forever bog us down in imbroglios of one kind of another. Instead, he suggests (and argues for in his book), we need to reframe nature’s value in terms of “the role that it can play in integrating our human lives into the world at large.” In other words, nature’s value is to be located, not “in” nature as something external to human agency, and not in its usefulness for humans alone, but rather in human relationships to nature. We need a more nuanced language to explore this third term between the human and nonhuman worlds if we’re to develop the ethical wisdom needed to make consistently good decisions.

All things considered, Maier’s sometimes dry logical analysis is nevertheless rich with implications of enormous consequence. The larger question raised by Maier’s critique calls on us to confront a painful truth: that we are not very good at talking about facts and values, even if our lives depend on it. In mass societies like ours, we don’t really have the practical wisdom to dialogically navigate that unavoidably contentious and contingent middle ground between what is and what ought to be—between objectivity and subjectivity, nature and culture—in ways that work towards consensus as opposed to thinking we can jump right for it if only we had the right concepts.

Although I take issue with some of Maier’s philosophical presuppositions and ethical conclusions, I certainly respect the significance of his larger project, as well as his courage to pursue it. When William Cronon questioned the concept of wilderness in 1995, he set off a firestorm. As ‘pure nature unspoiled by human agency,’ wilderness was at once idea and ideal, fact and value, what nature truly is and what the human relationship to nature truly ought to be. Challenging foundational ideals like wilderness and biodiversity cuts to the quick. Unfortunately, the habits of thought established by these comprehensive ideals need to be reexamined. As the case of climate change demonstrates (with all due anxiety), the strategy of avoiding ethical questions by assuming an immediate jump from science to action, from climatology to carbon-friendly lifestyles and policies, is clearly not working. One of the struggles of our time, I think, is figuring out why this is.

Issues revealed by science like climate change and Earth’s sixth mass extinction are also ethical problems—profoundly and irreducibly so. The monumental task of cultivating an environmental ethic capable of facilitating the historical transition before us is figuring out just how to ethically respond to scientific findings, not how to scientifically bracket out ethical problems that are inextricably historical and socio-cultural in nature. Maier’s penetrating critique of biodiversity prods us, perhaps reluctantly, in this direction.

13 January, 2014

January 13, 2014

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