James M Dow

Environmental Values Taxonomy— Intrinsic/Instrumental



In my last post, I discussed Richard Sylvan’s (1973) article “Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?,” in which it is argued that a human chauvinistic framework is not sufficient to capture our care and concern for natural environments, and therefore a new a uniquely/distinctively environmental ethic is necessary. I now focus the next few posts to the classic essay by Clare Palmer’s (1994) “An Overview of Environmental Ethics,” from which I develop a framework for the taxonomy of positions on environmental value. The taxonomy will enable me to outline key concepts, principles, and distinctions in environmental value theory. Rather than summarize Palmer’s article step by step, however, I will instead outline the pivotal questions of my project by thinking through the different distinctions.

My thesis in the first chapter of the project is that aesthetics, mind, and action are central to the various theories of environmental value in a way that we have not recognized or acknowledged. Throughout the project, I will provide a detailed account of aesthetics/mind/action for Leopold’s (1966) Land Ethic, which I will argue defends intrinsic (what Leopold calls ‘inherent’) value, non-anthropocentric focus, holistic scale, and naturalistic origin of the value of nature. However, I want to argue over the next few posts that issues of aesthetics, mind, and action need more attention in environmental value theory in general, before I move on to the particular account of the role of aesthetics in the Land Ethic. Take my comments as sketches for further work in environmental values for others to take up.

The pivotal question of environmental ethics is “How should humans interact with the natural world?” If the general ethical question is “How should I live?” then the environmental ethical question concerns “the ways in which human beings can and should interact with the nonhuman natural world” (Palmer 1994, 15). A pivotal question within environmental ethics is a question about the value of nature. What is the locus of the thing we are valuing? What is the source or origin (the “Genesis”) of the value of the thing we’re valuing?

One confusing issue is that the notion of “environmental” in the context of environmental ethics is taken for granted. We might think of “the environment” in environmental value theory as being divided by an ontological pluralism— physical, chemical, evolutionary, ecological, cultural, linguistic— that admits that these are not exclusive or exhaustive. However, the intuitive notion of ‘environmental’ in environmental ethics refers to the nonhuman natural world. Leopold’s view is that the appropriate locus of value ought to be ecosystems. So, what is the nature of the value of the nonhuman natural world?

I will eventually outline the distinctions and positions in this diagram I’ve constructed (inspired by Clare Palmer’s 1994 essay).


In the diagram, the capital ‘V’ stands for ‘value’ and the lower case ‘e’ stands for ‘environment’ understood as the nonhuman natural world. A pivotal distinction for taxonomizing different accounts of environmental value is the distinction between intrinsic value and instrumental value. The distinction is usually drawn with respect to the means-ends way of assessing value. Is the nonhuman natural world a means to humans’ ends or can and should we think of features of the nonhuman natural world as being ends-in-themselves? Do plants and animals strive to exist? Do plants and animals deserve respect or reverence? Do plants and animals feel pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering?


For instance, air and water possess instrumental value for human beings. Air and water are means to the ends of survival. (Although remember the point of the Lorax is that it’s absurd to buy and sell air, until it’s not…) We might ask “What’s the value of survival?” But, it seems as if surviving throughout our lives is an end-in-itself. Survival is end in itself rather than as a means to some other end. We could say, therefore, that survival possesses intrinsic value. (Think about how fascinated we seem to be with reality television shows about survival, for instance, Survivor, Survivorman, and Man Vs. Wild, and many more. WTAF with all these survivalist shows? Is this a collective expression of a crisis in our environmental values?) Can the intrinsic/instrumental distinction be extended to the nonhuman natural world? Does the nonhuman natural world possess intrinsic value? Some have argued that on pain of infinite regress there must be intrinsic value, because not everything can have only instrumental value (for instance O’Neill 1992,131).

O’Neill (1992) provides three distinctions that are worth highlighting. O’Neill distinguishes between instrinsic as non-instrumental (Intrinsic value1), instrinsic as non-relational (Intrinsic value2), and instrinsic as non-subjective (Intrinsic value). He then uses these distinctions to argue for two propositions: 1) It’s not the case that if the nonhuman natural world possesses IV­1, then the nonhuman natural world must possess IV2, namely the value of nature might be relational; 2) It’s not the case that if the nonhuman natural world possesses IV1, then the nonhuman natural world must possess IV3, namely the value of nature might be subjective. My focus in this post will be on IV1, namely instrinsic value as non-instrumental value.

A pivotal question in the context of O’Neill’s article that relates to the questions about aesthetics, mind, and action arises in a discussion of McDowell’s (1998) view of the relationship between secondary qualities and evaluative qualities. “Like secondary qualities, evaluative qualities are real qualities of objects. An object’s evaluative properties that it has to produce certain attitudes and reactions in ideal observers in ideal conditions. We might tentatively characterize goodness thus: x is good if and only if x would produce feelings of moral approval in an ideal observer in ideal conditions. Likewise, beauty might be characterized thus: x is beautiful if and only if x would produce feelings of aesthetic delight in ideal observers in ideal conditions” (136). How might further discussion of aesthetics, mind, and action enable us to articulate this position further to clarify the distinction between intrinsic value and instrumental value?

One way to argue for the intrinsic value of the nonhuman natural world would be through the idea that the value of natural environments can be perceived to be intrinsically valuable or valuable for itself. Can we see, hear, touch, taste, smell the intrinsic value of the nonhuman natural world? G. E. Moore did think that intrinsic value of the good was a basic value that is best understood in terms of a second quality of the action being performed (Moore 1922). I return to this possibility below.

Another way to make sense of the contrast between intrinsic value and instrumental value is to discuss the question of whether environmental economics is sufficient as a framework for capturing the value of nature. Environmental economics had its rise in the 80s (AKA blame Ronald Reagan…) with the work of Constanza, but as Mark Sagoff (2012) has argued, environmental economics cannot capture the intrinsic value of nature and instead “ecological economists drain away the moral power that once sustained environmentalism.” I will return to my pessimism about the possibility of an environmental economics when I discuss the sustainability framework. I think “sustainability” has also drained away the moral power that once inspired environmentalism. For now I’d like to say that if the aesthetic value of the nonhuman natural world is perceived to be priceless, beyond quantification, and independent of the market forces of capitalism, then the possibility of accounting for aesthetic value as a means to an end— for instance, pleasure, happiness, or joy— seems unrealistic, unpragmatic, impractical. Environmentalists should focus on the valuing of the nonhuman natural world in moral terms rather than monetary terms.

An argument, however, for the view that the beauty of the natural world can be perceived as an intrinsic value is outlined by Rolston (2002) in “From Beauty to Duty: Aesthetics of Nature and Environmental Aesthetics” and it’s comparable to the view presented by O’Neill above. Rolston says “When we light up the beauty in nature, if we do it right, often we are seeing something already there” (330). Is the grandeur of a mountain already there? Is the gracefulness of a running deer already there? Is the suspense of the venus fly trap’s impending closing already there? If a tree falls in the forest…

Rolston argues for a view about intrinsic aesthetic value through the idea that our aesthetic capacities cannot be understood independently of aesthetic properties. The argument is a transcendental argument because it starts with an experience via our aesthetic capacities, then asks what makes that experience possible, then argues that posited structure is necessary in order to make that experience possible. “There are two sorts of aesthetic qualities: aesthetic capacities, capacities for experience that are only in beholders, and aesthetic properties, which lie objectively in the nature of things” (330).

Suppose you’re looking over the side of a cliff in the Grand Canyon. You feel a sense of the abyss, of the earth falling out from underneath you, a sense of precarity, that your basic needs will be swept away with even the gentlest breeze. Suppose you look out towards a mountainside as the leaves start to change in fall. You see a spectrum of greens, yellows, and oranges, as a vibrant pattern blending and mixing on the mountainside’s palette. Or listen to the breeze through the trees as a thunderstorm approaches. Or feel the pull of a roaring stream through your fingertips. Rolston argues that experiences like these cannot be understood merely in terms of the aesthetic capacities of perceivers, but we must also consider the aesthetic properties that give rise to them.

I would go further and say that the genealogy of the relationship between the aesthetic capacities and aesthetic properties is deeply important. Human perception evolved and adapted in response to our survival and reproduction during the Pleistocene. Our aesthetic capacities are structured by relationships between features of our environment of evolutionary adaptedness and the constancies that structure our perceptual systems. Human perception also has been taken up in an ecology of basic needs that builds upon our evolutionary ancestry, but is also structured by our agricultural pasts, our joint cooperative pursuits with social groups, our accumulation of cultural forms, etc. Our aesthetic capacities depend importantly upon how we pursue our basic needs. This view needs further development throughout the project, but the basic idea is that an account of intrinsic value that is partly objective can be developed through reflecting upon human evolution and human ecology, by rethinking our model of aesthetic appreciation, through the lens of evolution and ecology. As I will discuss in a critique of Allen Carlson’s (2000) view of the aesthetics of nature, this evolutionary/ecological structuring of human perception is not discussed.

One way that the distinction between intrinsic value and instrumental value relates to philosophy of mind is asking to what extent a nature aesthetics can involve the perception of mind-independent goals or aims. We can ask whether there are perceptual constancies not merely of edges or shapes or sizes, but also of movement. When we see organisms striving are we perceiving an organism living for itself or is that organisms life something only valuable insofar as it’s valuable for human ends? Look at and listen to hummingbirds hover at a flower. Look at and listen to a whitetail spook and run gracefully through oak hickory forest. One way to think about intrinsic value is through perceiving organisms pursue goals and aims. For instance, if we see and hear a bear swimming to shore after getting tired in the rapids catching a salmon, then we might say he swam to shore as means to the bear’s survival. But, if we see and hear a bear trying to catch its breath in a flood, we seem to perceive its survival as an end in itself. “Why does it want to survive?” is a strange question. Am I merely mentally projecting this idea upon the bear? I will develop this view of the relationship between perceptual capacities and perceptual properties of nonhuman natural environments later in the project.

One way that the distinction between intrinsic value and instrumental value relates to the philosophy of action has to do with the question of what distinguishes between a mere bodily movement, a purposive action, and an intentional action. (Cf. Frankfurt 1978 for this distinction). A mere bodily movement as something which might have a purpose and might not. A reflex, or a habit, or a basic response to stimuli would not have a purpose necessarily. Some bodily movements are purposive bodily movements. When we need to breathe as the water rises we lift up our heads. When we come upon a stream during a long hike in the wilderness, we drink after filtering. When we need to find shelter from a thunderstorm, we scurry underneath to protect ourselves from lightning or falling branches. Each of these are purposive actions, but they may not be intentional in the sense of being an aim or goal that we can make intelligible for ourselves. However, there is a minimally enactive pursuit in such purposive actions. What usually keeps us from attributing intrinsic value in plants or animals is that we presuppose that plants’ and animals’ movements must be intentional actions. However, that is not necessary insofar as purposive actions can be attributed.

There’s more to be said about the distinction between intrinsic value and instrumental value in the context of the aesthetics of nature. In my next post, I will discuss the distinction between anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric value.


Carlson, Allen (2000). Aesthetics and the Environment. London, UK: Taylor and Francis

Frankfurt, H. (1978). “The Problem of Action” American Philosophical Quarterly. 15.2: 157–162.

Leopold, Aldo (1666) “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac Ballantine Books.

McDowell, John (1998) “Value and Secondary Qualities” in Mind, Value, and Reality. 131–150.

Moore, G. E. (1922) “The Conception of Intrinsic Value” Philosophical Studies.

O’Neill, John (1992) “The Varieties of Intrinsic Value” in Andrew Light and Holmes

Rolston III (eds.) Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, 15–37.

Palmer, Clare (1994) “An Overview of Environmental Ethics” In Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III (eds.) Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, 15–37.

Rolston III, Holmes (2002). “From Beauty to Duty: Aesthetics of Nature and Environmental Aesthetics” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott (2008) New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 325–338.

Sagoff, Mark (2012) “The Rise and Fall of Ecological Economics” In The Breakthrough. Retrieved Online: https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/the-rise-and-fall-of-ecological-economics

Sylvan, Richard (1973). “Is there a Need for a New, and Environmental, Ethic?” in Proceedings of the World Congress of Philosophy. No. 1 205–210. In Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III (eds.) Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003, 16–24.


Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.