Green Values

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Editor: Robert W. Kolb
Date: 2008
Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Green Values

Green values are the wide range of values appealed to in defense of environmental policy prescriptions. Environmental policies can be defended by reasons of prudence, morality, social justice to present generations, social justice to future generations, aesthetics, spirituality and religious conviction, historical significance, symbolic meaning, and economics. Green values also involve giving greater normative consideration to nonhuman interests and concerns, including the status of animals and other nonhuman natural objects; to the preservation of biological diversity; to the protection of ecosystems; and to the aesthetic impacts of human operations on the environment.

Environmental philosophers debate the possibility of reconciling this diversity of environmental values. Monists argue that unless a single unifying principle ultimately holds sway, environmental policy will remain relativistic and inconclusive. Value pluralists maintain that there can be a plurality of independent values that cannot and need not be reduced to a single unified theory.

Extending Moral Values

In general, values are what incline us to act in one way, or to choose one thing, rather than another. Thus, values are the perceived goods that provide us with a reason for action. The value that a person places on education leads him or her to study rather than play video games, and it provides him or her with a reason to study.

Philosophers have long distinguished the value of prudence (self-interest) from moral value. Prudence is the value of protecting one's own self-interest. A prudent person does not spray pesticides on the garden one is about to harvest. Moral values expand the range of this to include the impartial consideration of the interests of others. Moral values would, for example, prohibit dumping toxic wastes into a stream that flows onto one's neighbor's land.

Much work within environmental philosophy can be understood in terms of extending the range of moral value. As societies confronted a variety of new environmental challenges, philosophers began to consider the possibility that the domain of moral value was being too narrowly drawn. Disposal of nuclear wastes, for example, forces us to consider the value of human beings not yet living. A variety of other issues, from species extinction to the destruction of ecosystems, raised the possibility that moral value ought to be extended to nonhuman living beings as well. Animal welfare advocates extend moral standing to at least some animals on the basis of sentience or consciousness. Biocentrists argue that only life itself can provide a nonquestion begging ground for moral consideration and extend moral value to all living beings.

The shift to more holistic and ecological approaches to environmentalism suggests that moral value might be overextended when applied to nonhuman natural objects. While some might argue for the moral value of ecosystems and species, others prefer to explain green values in nonmoral terms. We might seek to preserve natural and wild spaces, for example, because they are beautiful, awe-inspiring, and majestic. Preserving biological diversity might be sought as an expression of religious or spiritual values. Protecting an endangered species is defended as symbolically valuable. Wilderness areas get preserved not because they are moral beings but for their historical and cultural meaning.

Instrumental and Intrinsic Values

A distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value can help explain the nature of such aesthetic, religious, spiritual, historic, and symbolic values. Philosophers have sometimes spoken as if the value domain is exhausted by the categories of moral value and instrumental value. Perhaps influenced by Kantian language of ends and means, subjects and objects, some philosophers suggest that if something is not an end in itself, not a moral subject, then it is a mere means and has only instrumental value. Since only autonomous beings are ends in themselves, the nonhuman natural world is reduced to having only Page 1041  |  Top of Articleinstrumental value. But many environmental values cannot be reduced either to questions of moral standing or to mere usefulness.

Instrumental value is a function of how something is used and this value can be replaced by another object with equal or more efficient usefulness. For example, the instrumental value of having a garden might be replaced by a local grocery store. An object is intrinsically valuable, valued in itself, when its value depends on the unique object itself. Intrinsic value cannot be replaced with the substitution of another object, no matter how similar or useful. Accordingly, a garden might also have intrinsic value as the product of one's own creativity. This symbolic and aesthetic value is irreplaceable by a grocery store. This value inheres in, or is intrinsic to, this particular garden itself.

There are many environmental issues that do not involve intrinsic moral value. The concept of moral standing is stretched beyond recognition in claiming, for example, that a prairie, a wetland, or the Grand Canyon is a moral subject. But it is equally misguided to conclude that such things are to be valued simply for their usefulness. Many nonhuman natural objects possess intrinsic value and human beings would be doing a harm, not a moral harm but a harm nonetheless, in destroying them or in using them as mere instruments for human satisfaction.

Green Values and Business

What are the implications of these reflections for the social responsibility of business? According to a standard understanding of corporate social responsibility, business fulfills its social responsibilities when it responds to the demands of the marketplace while obeying the law and respecting minimum moral duties. Business may choose, as a matter of supererogation, to promote environmental values, but it is otherwise free to pursue profits by responding to the demands of the economic marketplace without any particular regard to environmental responsibilities. Insofar as society values environmental goods, for example, lowering pollution by increasing the fuel efficiency of automobiles, it is free to express those values through legislation or within the marketplace. Absent those demands, business has no special environmental responsibilities.

The problem with this approach is that it excludes any ethical responsibilities for individuals or business that emerge from those nonmoral intrinsic values found in nature. This standard would leave us with a very impoverished environmentalism. Perhaps some animals could be brought in under moral values, but the rest of the natural world could be valued only instrumentally, and we would be left with what is, at best, a conservationist ethic. A richer understanding of green values and practical reason, one with roots in Plato and Aristotle rather than in Kant, can support a more robust environmentalism. In this view, the point of ethics is to provide an answer to the (Socratic) question: How ought we to live? That is, ethics seeks to provide good reasons for doing one thing rather than another, for being one type of person rather than another. Individuals or institutions have ethical responsibilities (not categorical obligations in the Kantian sense) when doing one thing rather than another will produce or preserve something of value. To the degree that these values are more than mere subjective preferences, our reasons for acting are more than merely instrumental, hypothetical imperatives. In this sense, the range of environmental values previously described provide many good reasons for acting in ways that minimize harm to the natural environment. Some, but not all, of our environmental responsibilities involve moral responsibilities to other human beings. Some, but not all, are morally obligatory. In general, reasonable humans have ethical responsibilities to, and have good reasons to act in ways which, promote or preserve intrinsic value.

Of course, by claiming that green values should receive greater attention from the business community, one risks the possibility that such values will be co-opted by businesses' financial interests. Examples of greenwashing are a case in point. Some companies have learned that they can hide objectionable practices, or gain a marketing advantage, by appropriating the language of green values. Terms such as all-natural, recyclable, biodegradable, organic, and earth-friendly are often little more than a marketing ploy that uses the language of green values to promote products that have little if any environmental value.

                              —Joseph R. DesJardins

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Further Readings

DesJardins, J. (2005). Environmental ethics: An introduction to environmental philosophy. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Light, A., & Katz, E. (Eds.). (1996). Environmental pragmatism. New York: Routledge.

Norton, B. (1991). Toward unity among environmentalists. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stone, C. (1987). Earth and other ethics: The case for moral pluralism. New York: Harper & Row.

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