Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne.
—Jeremy Bentham (1789)
Death eventually intrudes, even in this postindustrial, postmodern age devoted to the ideals of safety, comfort, health, and happiness. We do try to keep death hidden behind closed doors as much as possible, where it can be dealt with by professionals: doctors, priests, veterinarians, and killers on the slaughterhouse floor. But people who are dying need their friends and loved ones more than ever, and in answering this need we eventually confront death. I looked death in the face during my final watch over Chico, my brother-in-law and friend, a lovely man who was dying, too young it seemed, of cancer. In the middle of the night Chico suddenly jerked up into a sitting position in his bed, gasping, his eyes bulging. I reached out to him and he grabbed my wrist with cold, hard desperation, and began to breathe as hard and deep and fast as humanly possible, as though he were trying to inhale every molecule of air in the room. I asked him what was wrong, shouting his name, but he did not respond. Then his eyes looked into mine, and I saw that he was struggling to live with every ounce of his will and strength. He was breathing like a horse at full gallop, and yet he was suffocating. But terrified as he was, he was not giving up. He struggled to live with every ounce of his being. I knew Chico; I knew immediately what he was feeling, as if his face were my own. I felt his horror of impending death. I stared into the darkness that he stared into, and felt that I was falling into it. I confess that I wanted to run away from the sheer terror of the moment. I could not have left if I had tried, since he gripped my wrist so hard I thought he might break it. I began to feel sick as we both heaved, locked together in his mighty struggle to draw air.
Somehow I managed to keep my stomach down, and Chico managed to get enough air to survive until a medical team arrived to connect him to the hospital’s oxygen system. He had suffered an embolism that blocked blood flow to one of his lungs, they told me, though why a liver cancer patient would get an embolism was never explained to me. He survived the night, and the next one too, and so got to see his best friend, who was traveling from afar, before dying. I got to ask him the question I was dying to ask: What did he see when he was staring into the darkness? He, a former nuclear submariner, answered, “It was unfathomable. Unfathomable.” I understood.
The process of natural selection favored animals with a lust for life and a dread of death. Lust and dread are famously insensitive to the dictates of reason. Reason cannot quite comprehend death, much less control our feelings about it. Try holding your breath and you know firsthand the dread of death and lust for life in the form of a bodily system that commands you to breathe and forces you to obey. Every cell in our body is programmed to survive at all costs, and the body, their creation, is designed to obey at all costs. Being made of these cells, it is difficult for us to accept death. We are designed to fight or flee as required, never to surrender, never to give up. We are not designed to know and understand, but to fly in the face of the odds and always, always bet on our own survival. We have been designed by natural selection to deny the reality of death. Romanticism capitalizes on this denial in its portrayal of nature.
But if we do face the reality of death, it is plain that nature takes our life, just as it gives us life. If we take the life of another human being, that is murder, a truly horrible crime, yet nature will take the life of each and every one of us. Nature is our mother, but it is also our executioner. It is our friend, yes, but it is also our foe. It is the sum of all our blessings and all our curses. For us, as for all living beings, nature is good and bad, beautiful and ugly.
9.1 NATURAL VALUE
The most fundamental evaluative error in environmentalism is the belief in the goodness of nature—or even the perfection of nature. It is because nature is romantically believed to be good that it must be saved, even at the expense of human suffering or death. But it is fairly easy to see that nature is neither good nor bad in itself. To see this, we need to reflect on the origins of goodness and badness themselves, or in other words, the origins of value. We can begin by imagining the world without any pain and pleasure, and we will discover that it cannot have any good or evil either. The easiest way to conceive the world without pain or pleasure is to imagine it at the time before life and consciousness emerged. According to our best current conceptions of the history of the universe, it existed for billions of years before conditions right for life-capable planets such as Earth emerged, and planets such as the Earth itself existed for hundreds of millions of years before life appeared on them. For the purposes of this exercise, it does not matter whether this scientific history is accurate, but rather, that it is conceivable. In such a world, before life itself exists, and hence before consciousness, pain, and pleasure exist, nothing is either good or bad. Why? Because it simply does not matter what happens, because absolutely nobody cares. A beautiful, albeit lifeless planet might come into existence, but its beauty exists entirely unappreciated and entirely unable to be appreciated. This planet might then crash into another and be destroyed, but nothing and nobody is hurt. The only way any of this could possibly matter is if some being might at some time and place possibly care.
But the minute there exists a single conscious being with the capacity to feel pleasure or pain, the world contains both good and bad things from the point of view of that being. If the entity experiences pain, that is a naturally bad thing. The natural world is worse than it otherwise would have been because of that pain. Similarly, if the entity experiences pleasure, that is a good thing, and it makes the universe a better place. When we speak of the universe becoming better or worse, this is to be understood as an evaluation from the point of view of the sole conscious being that it contains. By hypothesis, our imaginary universe contains only this single conscious being. Without this being, there would be no pain and pleasure, and nothing that is either good or bad. Clearly, then, the goodness or badness that results upon the arrival of this being is relative to this being. Since it is the only being, there is a hint here of absolute goodness or badness, inasmuch as there is no other being whose evaluation matters. Nevertheless, the logic of the situation is clear: Natural good and natural evil is always relative to the point of view of some conscious being that is capable of pleasure and pain.
Bodily pain is the paradigm of natural evil, and bodily pleasure is the paradigm of natural good. However, this is not to say that only bodily pains and pleasures, the ones that have a location in the body, count as good or bad. There are all sorts of nonbodily pains and pleasures which create their own sorts of good and evil, but all of them depend on bodily pains and pleasures for their existence. For example, witnessing your child suffering may cause you enormous pain, although there is no particular place in the body where the pain is felt. We call this emotional pain or psychological pain, to distinguish it from bodily or physical pain. Of course, emotional pain does normally cause us some physical discomfort as well: We may feel tightness in our chest; our heart may pound: our stomach may be in knots. However, these pains are not the pain of knowing that your child is suffering. Jogging on a full stomach might cause the same cluster of physical discomfort, but that would be a very different pain, indeed a much less intense pain, than that of knowing your child is suffering. On the other hand, most emotional pain is a function of physical pain. If someone threatens us with a weapon, the threat of the pain it would cause would in turn cause us emotional pain. Since it is physically pleasurable to eat when we are hungry, anticipating eating may give us psychological pleasure. But whether or not all pains and pleasures are ultimately a function of physical pain and pleasure, they still provide a basis of natural values.
Those things that an organism seeks as part of its nature will have a positive natural value for the organism, while those things that it must avoid will have a negative natural value. Natural values can be observed empirically from both the first-person point of view (we can experience food, sex, warmth, and other sources of bodily pleasures and pains) and from the second- and third-person views (I can see that you value freedom from pain; we can see that other animals value freedom from pain as well). Like other natural properties, natural values are tied to natural kinds and are captured in type truths. Just as it is a natural type truth that rocks are hard and dandelion fluff is soft, it is naturally type true that photosynthesizing plants need sunlight and human beings need food. That human beings value food is also a natural type truth. Natural values are matters of degree, such as warmth, light, nutritional content, toxicity, or other natural properties. Too little food is bad, but so is too much food. Just as plants need a certain level of sunshine, so there is a certain level of food that is good for human beings. Natural values are also typically in tension with each other. Animals require both food and shelter, and typically cannot pursue both by the same course of action. Therefore, a harmonious resolution of the tension is required.
At the core of natural values of any species are its natural necessities, the needs it must satisfy to survive and reproduce. Again, there is no sharp boundary separating needs from other values. The coyote clearly needs food, so it kills and eats a rabbit, but whether it needs every mouthful of that rabbit is not clear. Natural necessities gradually shade off into natural desires. We should not make the mistake of thinking that any vagueness in the distinction between needs and desires means that the distinction itself is false. There really is a difference between mountains and hills, even though there is no nonarbitrary height to distinguish the two. Similarly, there really is a distinction between the human need for food and the human desire for caviar: You can get by without caviar but not without food. Many animals are capable of pursuing their desires even after their needs are satisfied. Cats may hunt even when they are full, and beavers continue to dam streams even when they have more than enough pond habitat already. However, the gap between needs and desires tends to be small except for Homo sapiens. The fact that human values have a vast range and even go beyond the natural to the supernatural and the transcendent is part of what makes humankind appear to be somewhat unnatural or even beyond the natural world altogether.
Nevertheless, the fact that people desire such supernatural things as pleasing God, and aim for such transcendent objectives as the health of the environment, does not eliminate the fact that they, too, have natural needs, and that the satisfaction of these needs is a natural good. While illuminating the goals that human beings should have, whether natural or not, is an ongoing philosophical project that cannot be addressed profitably in this book, recognizing the natural good of satisfying the natural necessities they do have, and that nonhumans have as well, is central to the philosophy of nature. The natural goods of the human species are food, clothing, shelter, and natural freedom (freedom from excessive work, suffering, and death). Other things being equal, it is good for human beings to have food, clothing, shelter, and natural freedom. So, given merely that we ought to act, as far as we can, to bring about the good, we ought to act to realize natural human goods. This assumes that the achievement of natural human goods does not cause any outweighing natural harm, for the range of natural goods is not restricted to human beings alone but extends as far as consciousness extends within nature. Pain, the fundamental natural harm, is bad whether it is the pain of a human being or the pain of a mouse or whale. Given the same quantity of pain (roughly the product of its intensity and its duration), it is just as bad no matter whose it is.
Natural values, then, are plainly not anthropomorphic, or human-centered, or biased toward the interest of human beings. For human beings to work for the increase of natural goods and decrease of natural evils is not for them to be selfish in some way. To repeat, natural good and evil extend as far as consciousness of pleasure and pain extend within the natural world. Just how far they extend is not entirely plain, although we do have clear cases. Clearly, human beings are capable of conscious pleasures and pains, but so too are many other animals. Cats, dogs, horses, and pigs do feel conscious pains and pleasures. The evidence for this is manifold: Their bodies, in particular their nervous systems, are similar to ours. Pain serves the same purpose for them as it does for us from an evolutionary point of view: avoidance of damage and death, nursing of wounds, prevention of further damage through normal activity, and so on. Pain is also indicated by the same sorts of behavior: involuntary interruption of activity; involuntary spasms, contortions, and cries; determined efforts to escape the cause of pain; and so on.2
Whether or not something is capable of feeling pain or pleasure is a vitally important question because natural good and bad extends only as far as pain and pleasure do. A cat cannot be kicked around like a football, because doing so would cause it pain, which is naturally bad. And while we do not get the luxury of proof concerning any matter of natural fact, including whether or not a given organism can feel pain, we nevertheless can be sufficiently confident about the extent of consciousness to act without uncertainty or remorse in most important cases. We have no reason to suppose that we have caused massive pain to untold thousands of microorganisms when we take an antibiotic, and little reason to suppose that cutting down a tree causes it any pain. We have good reason to suppose that it does hurt warm-blooded animals (and some other animals as well) to be physically injured. Assuming that we are correct about the potential for pain and pleasure in these cases, it follows that microorganisms and trees cannot be harmed, but many types of animals can be harmed. In general, only those organisms that can feel pain can be harmed, and only those that can feel pleasure can be helped.
Therefore there is nothing wrong in itself with damaging or destroying an organism that is incapable of feeling pain. The only way that such damage or destruction could be wrong would be via its impacts on other organisms that are capable of pain. Most human beings are aware of this, so they treat inanimate or insensitive things very differently from the way they treat those beings that are capable of pain or pleasure. Roughly speaking, our care and concern for other natural entities is proportional to their capacity for pain or pleasure. Human beings have by far the largest range of pains and pleasures, since we invest most things in life with our basic biological interests for survival, flourishing, and reproduction. Such biologically abstract things as a rise in the price of gasoline might hurt one person because she owns a trucking firm, and give joy to another because he has invested in fuel companies.
However, here we can concern ourselves only with natural good and evil at the type level. This, in turn, requires that we deal with the most basic and universal types of human desires, or human needs. This is not to deny the importance of the particular desires of each of us or our own particular conceptions of the good in a larger sense than being considered here. The philosophy of nature is continuous with ethics in the full sense, and the border area between them need not be formally, and officiously, defined. On the other hand, its main concern is the ethical or evaluative place of nature within philosophy as a whole. The answer, I suggest, is that there is a type of good and bad that is completely natural. It presupposes nothing supernatural, and can be observed like other natural phenomena and even studied with the aid of the natural sciences. Natural values extend as far as conscious pains and pleasures do, and we should continue to explore just how far that is. Indeed, we have seen that there are various sorts of bodily pains and pleasures, each with its own range among organisms. Assuming that this summary is correct, then natural good and natural evil does exist. If we merely assume what is generally taken to be platitudinously true, that we ought to promote good and decrease evil, it follows that we should support natural goods and oppose natural evils.
The values entwined in our very nature are our values. They are not only our values, since we share these values with every conscious organism capable of feeling pain or pleasure. And they are not our only values, since we also value justice and courage and the willingness to forgo pleasure on behalf of higher causes and even to suffer and die for them. Nevertheless, natural values are our values. They are in touch with fundamental realities. Bodily pain has the function of indicating bodily damage, and bodily pleasure has the function of making us satisfy our biological necessities. Natural values are an expression of our fundamental human nature and our human love of life. They grow out of our union with life itself and entwine our interests with those of living things everywhere.
Yes: Nature is not only good, but good in itself. No doubt the case can be made that nature is good for human beings as well, but to conceive of the goodness of nature in those terms is to make the same human-centered mistake that has led to so much environmental damage in the past. Yes, nature is good but not just from the anthropocentric point of view, not just in terms of human interests. It is good on its own terms, without reference to us. In other words, nature is intrinsically good.
No: Intrinsic values do not really make any sense. Suppose for a minute that you are right, that nature is intrinsically good, which means that its goodness is not a matter of being good for us human beings. Well, assuming that we are not being singled out here as the only organisms whose interests are not served by the intrinsic goodness of nature, it follows that none of the other life-forms on the planet are being served by nature’s intrinsic goodness. Indeed, that is precisely what is meant by saying something is intrinsic: namely, that it is not relational or relative to anything else. In other words, being intrinsically good is distinct from being good for something else. But that means that the intrinsic goodness of nature is not good for any living thing—or indeed any thing at all. So even if nature is intrinsically good, this is hardly of any interest as far as the question at hand is concerned. To put it baldly, goodness that is not good for anyone or anything can only be of interest to metaphysicians and no one else (see also the box “Nature and Intrinsic Value” above).
Yes: Perhaps the concept of intrinsic goodness is too abstract to capture the goodness of nature accurately. But nature is nevertheless good, and the only reason that the concept of intrinsic goodness was used here was to make it obvious that the goodness of nature is not merely a matter of its serving human interests. Maybe the best way to conceive the goodness of nature is that it is good for all natural beings rather than none. Indeed, it is good not only for living things but for the purely physical things upon which living things depend: the oceans, the land, the atmosphere, and so on.
As a matter of fact, this way of looking at the goodness of nature helps us to get at the heart of the environmental crisis. Nature has been good to us human beings, but we alone, among all of the life on the planet, have not appreciated nature’s goodness and have repaid it with neglect and even contempt. We call nature “Mother Nature” for a very good reason: It has brought us into the world and has nurtured us. But we have repaid her with pollution, destruction of habitat, and unrestricted growth of our population and its environmental impact. Nature is good, but we are not. We have returned nature’s goodness with evil, and it will surely extract its revenge unless we change our ways, and soon.
No: You are now speaking of nature as though nature were a person, and that raises a different sort of problem. Values can be either personal or impersonal. The use of the good–evil contrast usually indicates personal values. Good and evil flow from people’s intentions, while impersonal good and bad are not intended by anyone. The kindness of one person to another is an example of personal goodness, while the healthy effects of vitamins are examples of impersonal goodness. Cruelty is an example of evil, while bad weather is merely bad, not evil. But nature is not a person and does not intend to do us either good or harm. In terms of good versus evil, the question of whether nature is good can only have a negative answer. Nature is not good, but not because it is evil. Nature is not good because it is neither good nor evil. Nature does not want anything for us, either beneficial or harmful.
Yes: Don’t get carried away with my use of the poetic image of Mother Nature! Of course nature is not literally our mother, and does not literally love and care for us—at least it would be difficult to argue that it does without sounding farfetched. So let us just grant that nature has no intentions to either help or harm us or any other thing. Even so, it is good, for it has given us life, and life is good. As Wordsworth once said, “tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes” (Wordsworth, 1798b).
No: It seems to have gone generally unnoticed that there are far more bodily pains than bodily pleasures in life. Part of the reason it is not noticed, perhaps, is that we
are in the habit of lumping bodily pleasures and pains in with pleasures and pains generally, rather than considering them in themselves. A bodily pain is one that is felt in, or at, some location in the body. If you burn your finger, the pain is in your finger. Similarly, bodily pleasures occur at some location in the body. Now, as you can confirm for yourself, the most intense bodily pleasure, orgasm, is not nearly as intense as the most intense bodily pain, nor does it last nearly as long as equally intense bodily pains, as shown in Figure 9.1. In fact, a fairly mild bodily pain, such as that produced by being stabbed by a pin, will normally overpower an orgasm. Given that the most intense bodily pleasure is outweighed by a modest bodily pain, we should not be surprised to find that generally speaking, our pleasures are small relative to our pains.
It is common for people to suffer from prolonged (even intractable) pains. A car accident may cause a back injury that is intensely painful day after day and can only be relieved by strong medication. Moreover, just from hefting a bag of groceries, you can experience nearly paralyzing back pain, a continuous dull throbbing that lasts for days, punctuated by agonizing stabs when you try to move. It is perfectly routine for people to call their doctors or their pharmacists to get pain medication to get relief from pain. But you will never hear someone calling the doctor in search of relief from paralyzing pleasure: “I bumped my knee and the pleasure it is causing me is driving me crazy. I can’t concentrate, can’t get my work done, can’t drive safely. Please, Doc, you’ve got to give me something for it!” Of course, if we did feel constant intense pleasure, we would think twice about making it stop, but the point is that the issue just never comes up.
Each of us knows what it is like to suffer protracted and intense pain. Some of us experience pain of truly epic, life-spoiling dimensions. Yet none of us has experienced pleasure of anything like the same degree or duration.3 None of us has any trouble imagining the torments of hell, and descriptions of hell abound, yet the pleasures of heaven are vague and insubstantial—because we have plenty of experience of prolonged and intense pain but no experience of prolonged and intense pleasure.
Yes: There is a perfectly good explanation for the imbalance: Nature is protecting us against the hazards that surround us. Pain is certainly awful but it serves a natural and necessary function, as is proven by the fact that those rare individuals who are born unable to feel pain usually do not live very long, because they tend to injure themselves and not look after their injuries when they do. Pain protects us from all of the things that might harm us, although we naturally do not find it very nice. On the other hand, pleasure is nice, but it also just serves a function: It draws us toward the things we need, such as food and sex. You are being self-centered, and frankly, rather childish to complain about the amount of pain in life, when both pain and pleasure serve our best interests in the end.
No: There is no denying that pain and pleasure serve functions, but that is not relevant. The question is whether nature is good, and that brings us back to the fact that the natural world in which we live gives us much more pain than pleasure. Food and sexual partners, as it turns out, form only a very small proportion of the objects with which nature confronts us. Aside from these two sources of significant pleasure, there are innumerable sources of significant pain. Snow chills us, fire burns us, thorns stab our flesh, insects pierce us and suck our blood, attach themselves to us, or bore right under our skin. Plants poison us; larger animals kill us to eat, and sharp stones gash our unguarded feet as we walk. Clothing is not an option for us. We need clothing just to avoid physical harm and discomfort. We need footgear just to walk about.
There are sharp pains, dull pains, stabbing pains, shooting pains, burning pains, throbbing pains, aches, stings, prickles, itches, and nausea: a wide variety of negative stimuli designed to help us distinguish one noxious source from another. There is no matching range of bodily pleasures of similar variety, force, and vivacity. The intense pleasures that we do feel are fleeting and can be enjoyed only under ideal circumstances. Sexual intercourse leaves us very vulnerable to predators or competitors; hence sexual pleasure is fragile and easily interrupted. Eating is a pleasure, but not intensely so, for that would be dangerous and distracting. Our fear of predators and of other dangers must generally be stronger that our pleasures, or else we would be eaten long before we had a chance to perpetuate our species. Nature has designed us so that our pains generally outweigh our pleasures. That is hardly a good thing.
Yes: If you are right, you are implying that life is not worth it, which reduces your argument to absurdity. You have been given the invaluable gift of life, and yet you complain that there is too much suffering. Life is good, and therefore the struggle to live is a worthy struggle. Your argument undermines our morale in this struggle and therefore should be rejected as not only misguided but as dangerous. If you were right that there is more pain than pleasure in life, people would not want to continue living; but people do want to continue living, so obviously there is more pleasure than pain.
No: People do in fact cling to life even when it obviously gives them much more pain than pleasure. Natural selection has provided us with a powerful drive to survive, a drive that persists in the teeth of even quite severe pain. That is why people want to continue living. The simple fact of the matter is that we will strive to keep living as long as we are free of prolonged and intolerable pain. Because we have been outfitted by evolution with a burning desire to stay alive at all costs, we are vulnerable to what amounts to self-torture: We are inclined to keep ourselves alive even when we are in a state of unrelenting pain, and even when there is no hope in sight for its relief, rather than die. To keep someone else in a state of pain without any hope of relief would be a crime, but nature routinely does this to us as well as other animals. Nature and human nature cooperate to make us not only suffer but to make us unable to escape our suffering.
Yes: You are exaggerating the pain and ignoring all of the joy. What you say is not strictly speaking false, but it is not balanced. Nobody has claimed that nature is entirely good. Nobody is trying to deny that nature can cause living things pain, even intense and prolonged pain. But that is not to say that nature is not good.
Common ground. Nature is not wholly and entirely good.
9.2 THE VALUE OF LIFE ITSELF
What about the value of life itself, the joy of living? Is that the reason we continue to struggle to survive even when our bodies no longer provide us with an excess of pleasure over pain? There is something to this idea, but it is not easy to define just what the value of life itself might be. Certainly, death is of extreme negative value to us. Death is the object of fear and loathing. Usually when death is near we are racked
with bodily pain and painful emotions.4 Since the removal of pain is itself pleasant, the avoidance of death will be pleasant. However, pain is still pain, and its relief can only lead to its absence. The absence of pain is not itself pleasure, and there is no bodily sensation of pleasure implied by the mere absence of pain. How, then, can we speak of the value of life in such a situation? Part of the answer seems to lie in the fact that the movement of our bodily state away from pain and toward pleasure is pleasant, whereas movement toward pain from pleasure is unpleasant, as illustrated in Figure 9.2.
Pleasure and pain are states of our body; pleasantness and unpleasantness are trends toward pleasure or pain. So we feel a sense of disappointment and loss when our bodily state trends downward toward pain, even if we do not actually feel pain, and we feel a sense of satisfaction and gain when our body trends upward toward pleasure. As Mark Twain observed: “Do not undervalue the headache. While it is at its sharpest it seems a bad investment; but when relief begins, the unexpired remainder is worth four dollars a minute” (Twain 1897).
This also shows, moreover, that there is more to our values than bodily pain and pleasure. Natural value does not exhaust the domain of human value, although it is the basis of that domain.5 Complex creatures that we Homo sapiens are, we have evolved a structure of values, ethical rules, systems of obligation, concepts of virtues and vices, and notions of beauty and ugliness that defy any brief analysis. When it comes to life and death, we have buttressed our biological imperative to stay alive at all costs with ethical principles against suicide and murder. We have also developed concepts of heroism in which risking or sacrificing life in order to save the lives of others is deemed a great good. These complex values in which life is sacrificed or pain is tolerated still attest to the positive value we place on life itself. Life is required in order that pain and pleasure can exist, and in this way life is the foundation of natural value. Even though life may not be worth it for various individuals at various times, even though it may be hellish, life itself is often of positive value.
In addition to the value we find in life collectively, each of us can find value in our own individual lives. Humans have developed countless forms of life, activities, aspirations, amusements, arts, athletics, and so on. Our interests extend beyond ourselves to our kin, our countrymen, our fellow human beings at large, and even living things in general. Of course, there is also the mirror image of all of these possibilities: We get bored when we are denied the chance to be active, our amusement may become insipid, and our aspirations can be crushed. Just as we take pleasure in what pleases others, we may also be pained by what pains them. We may then speak in more general terms of our capacity for satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Although climbing a mountain or getting a university degree may be extremely difficult, and exhausting both physically and emotionally, we may nevertheless get great satisfaction out of these activities, or even in just attempting them. In these ways, we may find our own life either satisfying or not, and thus feel happy or not. This is yet another way in which life itself may have a value for us. Even when we live with almost continuous physical pain it is possible for us to be happy. Given that most of us achieve a level of satisfaction and happiness in life, life in general has a positive value in this sense.
Thus, humankind not only places a high positive value on life, but is allied with it. We have common cause with everything that is living and feel a sense of solidarity with living things. Our solidarity with life is not just with currently living things here on Earth, but with living things in general. We belong to the domain of living things and depend on that domain for our own life. We are united with life in general, and through it to the natural world at large.
9.3 ARE WE ALIENATED FROM NATURE?
Environmentalism emerged in the industrialized nations in the postwar 1950s, taking root in the romanticism still latent and manifest in that era. We think that the romantic age died out in the late nineteenth century and was replaced by realism. To some extent, that is true, and to some extent romanticism only went underground. The new modern ideals of human rights, along with freedom from despotism, want, and ignorance certainly have a romantic ring to them. In any case, despite whatever realism had injected itself into people’s thinking by the 1950s (and heaven knows there were sufficiently many horrors to kill romantic fancies), environmentalists believe in the beauty and goodness of nature. Belief in the goodness of nature is a romantic trait, and quite different from both pagan and biblical views of nature. The pagan view was that nature was animated by good and evil personalities (even apparently inanimate things such as rocks and streams were thought to be alive and conscious), hence that nature was both good and bad. The pagan gods explained both the good and the evil in the world. The biblical view is that nature was originally good, the Garden of Eden, and then became bad because of human sinfulness, which, in turn, was due partly to Satan’s even more original sin. Because of our offense to God, the natural world we see, which has been changed to include work, pain, suffering, and death, is no longer only good. And Satan continues to dwell among us on this Earth, in this natural world, ensuring its corruption.
But in the romantic view, nature is our mother, for nature gives us life. In the romantic picture of nature, we are alienated from nature, like a child cut off from its mother, and this alienation is a major source of our unhappiness, our moral failures, even our warfare. The romantic typically believes that we are the only species that kills its own kind (or is willfully cruel, or sexually adventurous, or whatever else she or he disapproves of), and is inclined to explain this aberration by reference to urban crowding or some other unnatural aspect of city life. Any aspect of city life that the romantic imagines was not part of the life of pre-urban humans will count as unnatural. Although our alienation from nature may not explain all the evil we suffer or do, it is certainly thought to explain much of it. This is also the view implicit in environmentalism. Prior to agriculture, humankind lived in harmony with nature in small hunter-gatherer bands, in harmony with local ecosystems. In those days we played a proper role in nature, keeping some species in check and encouraging others. We had respect for the natural world, and recognized its sacred value.6 Nature, in turn, kept us in check. Since that time we have used technology to escape the natural bounds that were set for us and have treated nature with contempt. We have created enmity between ourselves and nature. We are thus alienated from nature. Natural justice will come due (or is upon us) in the form of an environmental crisis.
There is no reason to believe that the romantic view is true. Nature is magnificently indifferent. It is beautifully and fearsomely unmoved by our concerns. Nature neither loves us nor hates us: It does not care. Nature is the basis of all that is good and all that is bad. It gives us life and joy, and but it also gives us death and sorrow. It is presupposed by all that is either good or bad, but it is neither in itself.
Whatever our problems may be, they will not be solved by reuniting ourselves with nature and reversing our technological achievements. We never left nature—that is impossible. We are natural creatures just like everything else. Although nature is, from the point of view of our interests, both good and bad, nature never intends to be good or intends to be bad. It waters your fields or floods them with complete indifference. Ice ages or meteorite impacts are served up by nature without any cruelty on its part. Nature is not a person.7 We cannot have a personal relationship with nature, so there is no relationship with nature that could have ended in alienation. Nature was not our friend, and never has been. It has never threatened vengeance, and never will.
9.4 OUR SEPARATION FROM—AND UNION WITH—NATURE
Consider the fertilized egg inside the womb. It has a most amazing power: It can turn into an animal. This power is not unconditional, however, for if the egg is removed from the womb, this power is lost. The egg can take the raw materials of life and assemble them into a complete animal, but only if these raw materials are provided to it, within a certain range of temperature, pressure, and so on. So the power of life does not reside solely in the fertilized egg itself, but also in the womb. The womb, of course, does not have its power to nourish the egg unless it is inside a functioning animal, and this animal does not have the power to support the womb and the egg unless it is in the sort of natural order that provides it with food, shelter, and other animals of its own kind. All living things on Earth are structured to function within the parameters provided by the nonliving physical system of this planet: specific ranges of temperature, oxygen, sunshine, rainfall, salinity, and so on. Finally, the physical parameters that Earth provides for the life it harbors is dependent on the conditions outside itself in the solar system and beyond. Thus, every living thing on Earth is tied to the Earth by metabolic or biological dependency.
Nevertheless, the biological union of living things with the larger environment around them is not unconditional. The fertilized egg is necessarily separated from the rest of the contents of the womb by a membrane. A membrane, or skin, separates each living thing from the rest of the universe, and in this way defines it as a separate entity. The womb, too, is separated from the body by a membrane, the body is separated from its environment by a membrane, and so on. The membranes have to be permeable in a functional way: they have to let certain things in while keeping everything else out and let certain things out while keeping everything else in. So the fertilized egg, which has the conditional power to create a living being, is separated from the rest of the universe outside by a series of membranes, each of which separates some living entity from the rest of the universe. Thus, living things are not only united with the rest of nature, but separated from it as well. This separation is just as essential as the unity. Separation of the individual organism from the rest of nature is the logically necessary (realist) complement to its (romantic) union with the rest of nature. Life is a tension, logically speaking, between union and separation. The resolution of the tension lies in balance and selectivity: Traffic through the dividing membrane must be controlled in both directions.8
Feathers, shells, burrows, hives, nests, all provide another layer of separation, another membrane between the living entity and the environment outside. Our clothing, houses, and cities are just an extension of this salutary trend. Cities are common in the organic world. Organisms of a given species make characteristic structures. Corals make coral reefs, cement cities in which they dwell. Even plants make structures. Prairie aspen trees form small forests of interwoven clones, cities of wood on which their living sapwood and leaves lodge, to gain an advantage in the struggle for existence. Animals make nests and hives, structures distinct from their own bodies, with specialized substructures for specific purposes. For instance, the wax combs of a beehive are used as nurseries and for honey storage, while the outer paper skin is used for protection from the elements and predators. Protection, of course, implies the presence of threats. The nonliving elements of nature present threats. The weather can kill you. Living threats, such as predators, not only can kill you but have been naturally selected for that very purpose. Ants and bees make nests and hives because that is a way to gain protection from their environment. The knowledge of how to make the nest or hive is hardwired into their nervous systems.
Humans are in the same overarching natural scheme as the trees and social insects: Life is maintained just as long as the struggle for survival is won. Like them, we struggle with the elements: the wind, rain, lightning, and frosts that can and do kill us. Like them, we struggle with predators large and small that feed on us or even move inside us to take up residence while dining. Our cities are nothing other than a new wrinkle on the nest and hive building of other species. Rather than hardwiring the structures we make right into our nervous systems, natural selection has hardwired the ability to learn right into our nervous systems. Unlike the social insects, our behavioral repertoire is not fixed at birth. Instead, we are provided with the ability to acquire behavioral skills from our parent generation, and to modify those skills as well. We are programmed at birth to be programmable. If we are born among first-century Romans we become a first-century Roman, and if we are born among thirteenth-century Eskimo, we become a thirteenth-century Eskimo. Our brains have been the same for about 100,000 years, but our cultures evolve much more quickly.
Because we are organisms just like any other, nature is our foe, just as it is our friend. Because we have evolved to evolve, our species can acquire new behavioral possibilities continuously without having to wait for the eons-long process of genetic evolution. We can and do collectively acquire new ways of living not only from one generation to the next, but within a single lifetime. My grandfather traveled by horse and buggy when he was a boy, and lived to see a man walk on the moon. So all of the things that separate us from nature—our clothing, shelter, and cities—keep changing. The pace of change was much slower long ago. For hundreds of thousands of years our ancestral hominid species made identical stone axes one generation after another. Homo sapiens made only small changes too, at first, and even a few thousand years ago most cultures aimed for stability from one generation to the next, rather than change. Constant change has become accepted since then, and now many people not only expect change but demand it. We want a cure for cancer, better television coverage of international news, a manned mission to Mars, and so many other things that will permanently change the world we live in.
So our adaptable, programmable brains have speeded up our own evolution relative to that of other species, and this has given us an enormous competitive advantage when it comes to defending ourselves from our environment. Nature is our foe as well as our friend, and in our struggle with nature we have gotten the upper hand by virtue of our programmable brain. We have discovered and developed agriculture and civilization: country and city life. Our cities protect us so well from the elements and predators that we have had the leisure to reflect that the elements (in particular, the climate) and the predators might need protection from us as well.
9.5 THE VALUE OF FREEDOM
Freedom has been the main political ideal of those people who have acquired democracy. It is noteworthy that democracy emerged gradually alongside industrialization in Western Europe and North America, a pattern that was repeated—and is still being repeated—in the rest of the world. This is no accident, because industrialization provides freedom from constant work, the foundation on which democratic freedoms are built. This foundational freedom from constant preoccupation with the struggle to survive, or natural freedom, is the form of freedom on which all of the other freedoms listed among human rights are based. The facts concerning freedom are almost exactly the opposite of what the romantics tell us. Humankind gained freedom because of industrialization, not because of its absence. As long as muscle was the source of power, slavery was inevitable. The steam engine harnessed fire and provided a new and abundant source of energy, thereby sounding the death knell of universal slavery.
The democratic freedoms we take for granted would have no value if it were not for natural freedom, freedom from constant work. Freedom of movement, for example, is of no worth if you have to work all day long just to obtain food, clothing, and shelter. You will not feel much like working even more hours to raise the fare for the bus or the plane if you are struggling just to get by, and even if you did, you would be too tired to really enjoy the trip. Much the same sort of limitations applies to the freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom to run for office, and so on. The industrial revolution made it possible for people to gradually reduce the amount of work they needed to do just in order to survive, and this in turn sharply raised the value of political freedoms. Freedom to travel means a lot to someone who has the time, energy, and money to use it, whether to visit her parents across town or the national park across the continent. The freedom from excessively burdensome labor is the main blessing of the industrial revolution, the one that people still hasten to receive if they have the chance. This blessing is eagerly sought by people everywhere, and still motivates the industrialization of developing nations, thus making all of the other democratic freedoms possible and worthwhile.
Philosophical discussion of freedom has taken two primary forms. One seeks to find a way in which human will itself might be free of causal determinism, and the second seeks a definition of political freedom that prevents the freedom of one person from restricting the freedom of others. It seems pretty clear that the first investigation has revealed indeterministic freedom of the will to be a contradiction-ridden metaphysical fiction (Dennett 2003). In any case, it is not at issue here. Political freedom is closer in spirit to the sort of freedom that people are seeking, although, as the previous paragraphs imply, it too is not in itself quite what people are looking for. Political freedom legally protects us from being completely controlled by our fellow citizens. Crucial as this sort of freedom may be, philosophical discussions of it ignore the fact that it is valueless without the material prosperity required for natural freedom.9 Because these discussions neglect the material basis of freedom, they tend to lose touch with reality and to venture into utopian visions of universal equality and the elimination of differences between people. By not first ensuring the material basis of freedom, they risk undermining the very thing they seek.
The most efficient definition of what we seek is relief from the mythical curse that was placed upon humankind for stealing fire from the gods (in its pagan form) or for disobeying God (in its biblical form). Whatever the narrative may be that explains and justifies the curse, the curse itself is the same: work, suffering, and death. In the most common form of the curse today, the biblical form, as God casts us out of the very embodiment of nature beatified, the Garden of Eden, he commands that we shall henceforth gain our bread only by the sweat of our brow, that our children will be born only through the labor pains of their mothers, that suffering and death will follow us all the days of our life, and so on. What we ultimately seek, in its full perfection, would be the lifting of this curse: freedom from work, suffering, and death. By providing us a degree of freedom from work, science, technology, and industrialization have given us the basis to pursue (with some success) freedom from suffering and death as well. Nature and human nature cooperated to subject us to hundreds of thousands of years of slavery, suffering, and death. They have also provided us the intelligence and motivation to escape this natural bondage. Because it is natural for us to seek and obtain this escape, we may call it natural freedom.
Science and technology have generally been embraced by humankind because they provide human beings a substantial increase in natural freedom, and where they are resisted they are resisted by those in power who gain from keeping their fellow human beings enslaved. Industrial civilization has reduced the amount of work that people have to do, has reduced their suffering from injury and disease, and has tripled their normal expected lifespan from about 25 years to 75 years. Reduced disease and increased lifespan are well-known aspects of the rise of modern life and are well documented, well studied, and highly prized. They have been gained by the gradual reduction of natural hazards to human well-being from the elements, predatory animals and microbes via improved housing and public sanitation on the one hand, and the gradual improvement of disease prevention and treatment via the advance of medical science on the other. They also depend on partial freedom from work. Work is required for us to gain the necessities of life, in particular food, clothing, and shelter. Modern industrialized life has permitted us to gain these necessities much more easily and safely. Just as freedom from excessive work is at the core of the standard political freedoms (or natural rights, as they are sometimes, somewhat misleadingly, called), it is also at the core of the other natural freedoms as well. Our increased freedom from suffering and death are in large measure possible only because of our increased freedom from work.
Until industrialization freed us from muscle power as our only source of energy, humankind generally could not afford the generosity of spirit that makes freedom and tolerance possible. Freedom from the struggle with other human beings for the means to survival was the first luxury of industrialization. We tend romantically to forget that evolutionary competition is equally intense within a species as between species. It is the members of our own species who fight with us for the very things we need in order to exist. Whereas we naturally sympathize with our next of kin in their struggles, it is not natural for our fellow-feeling to extend to people in general. Sympathy with our fellow human beings in general is a luxury, a political luxury, and one of the great boons of material prosperity.10 This political luxury simply cannot be afforded until industrialization and the general technological advance of our struggle to survive are achieved.
Although the political rejection of slavery that swept the industrializing nations of the nineteenth century removed the legal mechanisms of slavery, it did not itself produce any natural freedom. As many recently freed slaves discovered, only a small increase in their natural freedom resulted when the legal institution of slavery, the ownership of one person by another, was rejected. Free, that is, unowned, people still required life’s necessities—food, clothing, and shelter—and found that they were required to work to obtain them just as hard as before. They became wage slaves, or were reduced to effective labor serfdom in company farms, camps, or towns. Although the coal miner who spent his wages to rent a company house and to buy food from the company store was indeed free, politically speaking, to leave his job without any fear of punishment, he could do so only by losing his access to the food, clothing, and shelter that he and his family needed. This amounts to virtual slavery, even in the absence of legalized ownership of one human being by another.
Only a real reduction in the amount of human labor required to produce life’s necessities could ever have permitted this virtual slavery to be overcome by humankind in general. Fortunately, this was precisely what industrialized life accomplished: real reduction in the amount of work required to make a living. It actually has brought us closer to the Biblical and romantic ideal of the birds of the field, which neither reap nor sow, and yet are fed, clothed, and sheltered. The Garden of Eden that never was may one day be achieved.
Work, as understood by everyone who has ever had to work, consists of things that you have to do even though you are not inclined to do them. Children do schoolwork, adults work to make a living, and in both cases they rejoice when their work is done. Work is unique to our species, and would not exist on Earth were it not for Homo sapiens, although we also extend the curse of work to other species as well. To this day, countless animals are forced to do what they are not inclined to do in order to satisfy human needs: pulling wagons, dragging plows, herding sheep, and so on. Their workload has also decreased due to industrialization, and in industrialized countries horses are far more likely nowadays to be lazily ranging in pastures than working. However, were it not for humankind, animals would not know work at all. In their natural state, animals only do what they are inclined to do. They hunt for food when they are hungry, and when they find it, they eat it, as they are inclined to do. They run in flight or turn to fight as they are inclined. Usually, they feel no external compulsion to do what they do.
Human beings, by contrast, spend the bulk of their days doing things that they are quite consciously aware that they are not inclined to do, but have to do. From an early age children are forced to get up when the alarm rings, to wash, eat, and go to school, where they behave as instructed all day long—despite being inclined to do otherwise. We require this of children as part of their education, which in turn is required in order that they may get a good job—more work—when they grow up. The necessity for work is one of the chief forms of humankind’s supposed alienation from nature that so fascinates the romantic mind. It is, however, a completely natural effect of our social nature coupled with our intelligence.
The natural human tendency toward organized work is worthy of attention. It places modern Homo sapiens in a rather unique category, since we spend so much of our time working, hence doing things that we would not do in the absence of social pressure. Work is just one aspect of the necessity to act against one’s own inclinations that people generally face in civilized life. It seems plausible that the continual dislocation of our behavior away from what our instincts tell us to do does make it harder for us to be happy. We do not wake up when we have gotten enough sleep, but when the alarm clock goes off. We do not lie in bed musing about this and that, but get up and prepare ourselves to face the day. We do not eat because we are hungry, but because we know we need the nourishment to get through the day. We get our school-age kids up as well, and stifle their cries and complaints, telling them that they need to go to school or do whatever else that we’ve planned for them. Our deeper inclinations were fashioned long ago in our evolutionary past, and they are out of harmony with what we actually need to do now. Surely, the constant need to deny our inclinations is the source of a great deal of stress in modern life.
On the other hand, the romantic’s proposed solution to the problem of inclination-denial, which they conceive as alienation from nature, is to head backward, toward the structures and practices of the past. This surely is not the solution. The way forward does not lie in the past. To begin with, people living in less modern cultures apparently suffer from inclination-denial at least as much as we do. Indeed, slavery was more, not less, common in pre-industrial societies, and only disappeared with the rise of industrialization. Homo sapiens is a paradigmatically social species. We are adapted to life in groups and to social control of behavior, including work. So the work that characterizes modern life is perfectly natural. Inclination-denial is part of human nature. We are born programmable, not programmed. Because we are big-brained organisms capable of sustaining rich cultural evolution in the arts and sciences, we have adopted technological innovations to gain a degree of freedom from work. This, too, is neither new nor unnatural. Work-saving technology is just another means whereby the tension between the inclinations of the individual and the inclinations of the group can be resolved more harmoniously. We do not want to reject technology, but to develop it in a way that continues to increase our natural freedom.
Natural freedom thus emerges as a core natural value for humankind. Natural freedom is freedom from excessive work, suffering, and death. No one would deny that escaping these things would be good in itself, although people could reasonably worry whether the consequences of escaping them might be bad. With few exceptions, nobody wants to work (assuming that work is doing what one is not inclined to do), to suffer, or to die. So freedom for these things is a natural good. But escaping or delaying death, for instance, might lead to intolerable population growth. But if we consider work, suffering, and death just in themselves and not in terms of their consequences, they are the sorts of thing that we would avoid. Sure, work may produce results that we desire. A person may willingly, even passionately, work to achieve a goal, putting aside mere pleasures in order to work harder, and so on. But if there were no possibility that our work could ever achieve our goals, we would not want to do it. We desire our goals, not the work itself. Since work is the sort of thing that we want to avoid, then freedom from work has a positive value for us. Its positive value, moreover, is completely natural (as opposed to supernatural). Work, suffering, and death are things that we observe among us and experience for ourselves. We can see for ourselves whether they are good or bad. In our view, not only are these things bad for us, they are bad for living things in general. Human freedom is a natural good in just the same way that work, suffering, and death are naturally bad: They are at opposite ends of the same spectrum, the spectrum of natural value.
- On the other hand, I do not think that there is any sharp boundary within nature between things that are alive and things that are conscious. As I see it, all life requires some sensitivity to surroundings, and sensitivity is a form of consciousness. Nor do I think that there is a sharp boundary between the living and the nonliving. This is not to say that these distinctions cannot be drawn, only that they are distinctions of degree rather than distinctions of kind. A mountain is distinct from a molehill, even in the absence of a sharp boundary between the two. A rock is not conscious, and a person is. Between them lie many grades and gradations of consciousness, which again shows that the distinction between the conscious and the unconscious is valid. ↩
- It is sometimes argued that we can never know that nonhuman animals feel pain, or are even conscious, since they lack language with which to communicate to us their pains or their conscious states. This argument unreasonably privileges linguistic communication over other sorts. Indeed, we have the power to describe our pains to others in words. However, verbal avowals that we are in pain are not convincing in the absence of the more universal behavioral and physiological expressions of pain. If someone calmly tells us that he feels excruciating agony, we will not believe him. People in excruciating agony should be agitated, covered in sweat, unable to pay attention, and struggling to escape their pain. Simple verbal avowals mean nothing in the absence of these more important forms of expression when it comes to pain and pleasure. Although we have words such as ouch to express pain, they do so mainly by their emotive rather than their lexicographical content. A calm “that was extremely pleasurable” is not half as convincing as an emotionally charged gasp or sigh. ↩
- Drug users may make an exception to this claim. Since like the ones surrounding it, this claim is meant as a type truth, as in Section 7.5 and as explained below, its truth is consistent with occasional exceptions. For more on how drug use fits within the range of pleasure and pain, see Foss (1996a). ↩
- Our experience of death seems to be in part a function of the amygdala, a small subunit of the brain that is essential for the experience of fear and loathing. Amygdala activity results in a state of the nervous system and body similar to that in the experience of bodily pain. By means of the amygdala, natural selection has enabled many animals to react to the perceived danger of death with much the same response that would be generated by actual damage to the body. ↩
- In logical terms, natural value is presupposed, or is a necessary condition of the other values. ↩
- An environmental organization in my community (Garry Oak Restoration Project, www.gorpsaanich.com) is dedicated to restoring stands of local trees to their pre-European state. These “restoration ecologists,” as they denote themselves, have discovered that the local native populations used to routinely set fires among the trees before the arrival of European and other settlers. This native behavior they describe as tending the trees, and they would like to resume the practice, if and where feasible, to return the stands of trees to their native state (GORP 2007). This presumes that the native populations were in harmony with nature, that they were not significantly agricultural and technological to have alienated themselves from nature. It indeed seems likely that the native practice of setting fires did prevent the occurrence of the very large forest fires that would have otherwise occurred if the underbrush had been allowed to accumulate. But even if another form of fire prevention could be assured, these restoration ecologists would still like to resume the regular burnings to encourage the larger trees and specific mix of native plants and native animals they believe were present prior to colonization. Again, the presumption is that this is the proper or natural state of the trees, which in turn assumes that the native populations were in harmony with nature, and that the modern population is not. ↩
- If it were, its intelligence and power would place it beyond our comprehension and place us beneath its concern: it could no more have a personal relationship with us than we could have a personal relationship with a bacterium. ↩
- Global warming theory claims that the flow of heat through the membrane of the Earth’s atmosphere has become unbalanced. ↩
- John Rawls, whose work (1971) has defined the contemporary discussion of political freedom, separates the worth of our political freedoms from the fact that we have them—and then goes on to ignore the first in favor of the second. This fundamental error is part of the romantic industrial-counterrevolutionary attitude that typifies modern philosophy and political science. ↩
- Environmental sympathies are a further broadening of natural human sympathies and require further growth of freedom from work, suffering, and death in order that they may emerge. ↩