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A Note on Nature as an End

I should hope that the following won't have me designated a stalwart poseur, but I consider it necessary to make a sort of meta-point concerning our relationship to the natural realm, a subject on which - as I believe some of the subtexts of the infamous crunchy-con debates disclosed - some conservatives are woefully confused.

Nature, then, may be considered as an end in itself, an end prior to all human purposes, its value not contingent upon those purposes - this, by virtue of its Creator's original donation of being, and subsequent declaration that this natural reality, having been given being, is good. Good, that is, in itself, and independent of the existence, and therefore, purposes, of man. The natural environment is good because it participates in being, in the Great Chain of Being, if you will; that is, nature is good because it is.

Several consequences follow, the first of which is that the existence of the natural world, or any aspect thereof, requires no justification: its justification is simply that it exists, and by existing, that it manifests the glory and refulgent splendor of its Creator, as an analogy of the intratrinitarian self-giving of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (If one is inclined to philosophical and mystical theology, David Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite is a masterful work of Christian thought, notwithstanding the "Greek thought corrupted Christianity" arguments of the first Amazon reviewer.)

A second consequence is that, in our approach to nature, it is incumbent upon us to apprehend, appreciate, and respect the natural teleologies of the created order. There is a certain good which is instantiated when, for example, a cow is a cow - which is to say that a cow flourishes according to its created nature, doing the things that cows naturally do, ie., munching grass and fodder, bearing calves, and so forth, as opposed to being crammed into feedlots, fed things they'd never eat of their own 'volition' (term used analogically!), and pumped full of antibiotics.

A third consequence, following upon the first two, is that human purposes towards nature are derivative of, and contingent upon, the intrinsic goodness of created being and the natural ends of particular created things. These things are given to man insofar as man receives them as gifts and acknowledges that their existence for themselves and for God is prior to their existence for him. The natural realm does not participate in the goodness of being only insofar as it subserves man's utilitarian ends; to posit that it does, or, what is more directly relevant to the way we comport ourselves toward it, to act as though its value is merely instrumental, is to deny in act the original declaration of God that creation is good.

Now, when mankind, by means of millions, even billions, of private utilitarian decisions, drives some part of the created order to extinction, two declarations are made. First, that the created order participates in goodness only insofar as it subserves the utility of man, which is to say, the desires of men; thus, acts of willed extinction declare that the will of man toward the satisfaction of his desires supercedes, and overrides, the nature of the created order: all that exists exists to serve man, whose desires must find no inherent limit. In other words, that the good of man to is satisfy himself, and not to chasten and discipline himself. Second, and more abstractly or ontologically, that it is not God who declares of being that it is good, but man: and what man giveth, man taketh away by the exercise of his voluntarist, self-ascribed divinity.

Hence, in the very broadest philosophical sense, the necessity of such things as protection for endangered species and aspects of the natural world. The technological conditions of modernity, which have greatly enhanced the power of men to dominate and destroy the natural world, only increase the necessity of such collective limitations. Which, as I have already indicated in Lydia's thread, does not entail that each particular regulatory decision is rational, let alone virtuous; the ESA process is replete with absurdities - of which the reintroduction of wolves onto private property is arguably one (they could be restricted to national parks, for example). Another is the occasional identification of a localized population as a distinct species, when it is, objectively, merely a localized population of a wider-ranging species. Yet another would be the conflation of the accidental and thus unintentional reduction of a population - say, of kangaroo rats on some California farm - with intentional destruction. All of these concrete dilemmas can be discussed and debated, but only in a proper framework, which begins with the acknowledgment that nature is not a utilitarian means of preference-satisfaction, but a manifestation of the goodness of being.

So yes, shoot the wolf that stalks your flocks, and by all means, Californians, shoot the cougars that stalk your children; but let us not indulge the lie that it is licit to willfully push species into nonbeing.

Comments (24)

...but let us not indulge the lie that it is licit to willfully push species into nonbeing.

I'm comfortable with pretty much the entire post (and grateful for the balance it brings to the discussion, which is otherwise in danger of going off the rails in the direction of utilitarianism) up to here. That is to say, I agree that willfully driving the wolf to extinction in the pursuit of some marginally greater material wealth would be illicit. But some clarification of this final point may be helpful.

It seems to me that there are some living or quasi-living things I wouldn't mind in the least driving to utter extinction. Yersinia pestis comes to mind. So I think even deliberate species-genocide is probably a matter of the prudential order rather than intrinsically evil.

Excellent post, Jeff. The instruction to man, that he "fill the earth and subdue it," must be carried out in light of the goodness of creation, and in, as you put it, respect for "the natural teleologies of the created order."

The problem with with much of left-wing environmentalism is, bluntly, that it is anti-human. The goodness of creation is recognized, after a fashion, but man being posited as merely another animal, he soon becomes a rampaging one -- the source of all disorder.

In a sense he is, but not because he is just another animal.

Well, I'd probably wish to make it more fine-grained than that. I'd certainly think species-genocide perpetrated against the wolf would be intrinsically evil; I'd not say the same thing about the plague, or even the mosquito (provided that its elimination would not ramify throughout the ecosystem by leaving birds with nothing to eat, say). And I think that the manner in which Europeans decimated the Bison population, more or less "because they were there, and made good target practice", was evil. And I believe that the overfishing of the seas generally falls into that category: we overfish, say, tuna, because we can, the market will pay, and because nothing stops us. I've just not derived a satisfactory principle of discrimination.

I'd certainly think species-genocide perpetrated against the wolf would be intrinsically evil; ...

Hmmmmm. Still not comfortable.

Suppose I know it is the last female wolf in existence, and it is attacking a person, or I'm starving to death. I think I can kill the wolf, even knowing that by doing so I am wiping out the species. So it depends on circumstances, that is, it is of the prudential order.

Mind you "prudential" isn't code for "can't be unequivocally condemned in all the circumstances in which Jeff would be inclined to condemn it"; it just means that the liciety does indeed depend on circumstances in general. Perhaps the insight we need is that while animal species are ends in themselves in the sense you discuss in the post, they are nevertheless subordinate to other things which are ends in themselves. So the "end-in-itselfness" of an animal species cannot trump the end-in-itselfness of a person: if it comes down to the person or the animal species, the person trumps. But marginal production of additional material wealth isn't an (legitimate) end-in-itself, so it cannot warrant the willfull eradication of a species of animal.

What about the marginal safety of your children?

I'm absolutely _not_ prepared to agree that driving an animal species--even a higher and beautiful animal species--to extinction is _intrinsically_ wrong. Again, the reasons that might justify it are things we will in all probability disagree about. For example, I'm more likely to think of "profit margin" or "production of affordable meat food" in terms of "human flourishing" or the production of legitimate and valuable good things rather than as something intrinsically trivial, self-indulgent, or distasteful to pursue.

But I think there is nonetheless a huge divide between those who really believe that the extinction of a species--or of some particular species--really is an intrinsically evil act and those who don't. Intrinsically evil act is a very strong concept. We're talking about things like rape or the killing of an innocent human being. Things you should never, never do. I think that morally the killing of the last wolf cannot possibly be in that category.

I reject categorically the claim that it is licit to drive a species to extinction, or to violate its natural ends and goods while preserving it in being, in order to generate higher marginal utility factors. This, because I do not believe that better, faster, cheaper, more are rights. Marginal increments of wealth or utility do not equate to the either/or survival of man or beast, and so I have enormous difficulty formulating even a prudential reason that would warrant violation of the end-in-itselfness of the natural order for such ends. We can pay more, and we can do with less.

I'll concede the point regarding intrinsic evils. I simply do not perceive any reason to treat cows as noncows, or to render some species extinct, merely because we will thereby increase our marginal utility.

What about the marginal safety of your children?

Well, I think there is a legitimate distinction, though it is a sorites, between the marginal and the acute. If the last wolf in existence (and I know it to be so) is attacking a child I will definitely defend the child, without hesitation. I probably wouldn't kill the last wolf in existence on the offchance that it would attack a child: I would need some reason to believe that the danger was acute.

I tend to think that this is one of those things nature takes care of at the level of epistemology. If I am in a position to know that the wolf I am killing is the last one in existence, in all probability other than in hypothetical circumstances contrived for the sake of casuistry the threat it represents is not acute. If I have the technology and capability in play to know, then I have reasonable options other than killing it available to me.

But when we get to the rancher and an endangered (rather than literally the last specimin of a) species it becomes inevitably a prudential evaluation of various goods in conflict. "Rancher" and "endangered species" cover a very wide variety of particular circumstances, and I don't really see that either side carries a moral trump card which covers all of those possible circumstances.

I am not sure what to call it, but is there such a thing as a conflict of ends? A virus exist to infect its host, but human beings, when infected, do not function properly and can even die. It appears that humans can interfere with the natural ends of all other beings if it helps humans acheive their natural ends. I think this is what Zippy was getting at as well.

I think this view fits well with the Biblical view, which states that "“God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

—Genesis 1:26

I think Paul Cella makes a good point in mentioning the anti-human aspects of environmentalism, the flip side or counter to any thoughtless depredation on the part of humans. It's fair to say that we've reached the stage where protectionist measures don't even serve utilitarian ends, where a different kind of vanity exists, to be found in the bowels of a government building. There ontology and teleological questions are subsumed, if they were ever thought of, to the Federal Register, a book of far greater size and far less sense than the Bible.

That aside, a good post Maximos, touching as it does on that aspect of human conduct that not even Solomon's wise men could answer, one thing that doesn't pass, the unrestrained Will.

I may add that you lack the qualifications for poseur, neither stalwart nor feeble.

It's important to bear in mind that the fact that something is valuable in itself doesn't mean that its preservation can trump even human material well-being. Example: A beautiful and unique fresco, where the only way to preserve it is to tax an entire town into poverty. Even if you had reason to believe no one would _die_ as a direct result of the heavy taxation needed to create the special air-filtering, temperature control, and stuff to preserve the fresco, this would be immoral.

I'm not convinced that all things valuable in themselves are created equal. For one thing, a fresco is a human artifact, a product of human creativity and genius, while an animal or species of animal is an organic participant in the chain of being. I'm inclined to perceive these things as incommensurable, and disinclined to perceive much of an analogy. For that matter, there are surely gradations of value even within the respective categories: leaving painting aside for the moment, as it is not a field of expertise for me, the artifacts produced by Telemann are of lesser greatness, shall we say, than those of Bach; and I suspect that we all value the cow more highly than the rat.

Beyond the fact that I perceive strong grounds for viewing these things as incommensurable, such that I'd not be comfortable transitioning from a conclusion drawn in the case of a piece of art to the case of massive, industrial-scale feedlots, there is the circumstantial disanalogy: one might argue against taxing the village to provide for the preservation of this artifact, on grounds that sufficient funding for that end would impoverish them, but nothing even remotely similar would obtain in the case of beef production were industrial feedlots recognized as immoral. Our material well-being would be reduced marginally, but hardly dramatically, as we would either pay somewhat more for beef, or consume less of it. Or, perhaps, smaller-scale, localized farming would become more prevalent, and much of the cost/availability problem would be mitigated. But when I say that it is illicit to treat features of the natural world as purely utilitarian functions, disregarding their inherent ends, I'm quite serious: it is wrong to violate the telos of cattle in order to make meat a little cheaper.

I completely agree that things valuable in themselves are not all created equal.

But one thing this means is that we can't really get much information about the morality of policies and activities from the statement that some animal or other entity has non-utilitarian value. After all, if we're going to talk about things of value in themselves, why restrict ourselves to talking about species? *One single common wild violet* has a non-utilitarian value and would glorify God by its beauty if no humans existed. But I would assume you would agree that it's okay to dig up some violets in the course of our economic activities. One single red squirrel of the sort that are everywhere in my neighborhood is a thing of beauty in itself and tells God's glory in the flick of its tail. (I put this in here for Paul Cella, who I happen to know dislikes squirrels.) But this doesn't mean that it wouldn't be okay to engage in some ordinary human economic activity that would mean less habitat for the common red squirrel. And so forth.

The point being simply that saying that some item, creature, etc., has value in itself doesn't imply that we have to have a super-heavy, overwhelming reason for doing anything that is going to mean the death of that entity. This is a limited argumentative point, but it's worth bearing in mind. I tend to think that some of the conclusions you want to draw are going to be more or less surds: "It just isn't right to exterminate the bison merely for target practice." Well, okay, I agree with that one. "It just isn't right to exterminate wolves for economic reasons." I'm not sure about that one. And so forth. And the fact that the individual bison, wolf, or the bison or wolf species has a value in itself in relation to God is just not going to decide the questions one way or another.

No. We may possess, in any given particular set of circumstances, prudential reasons for undertaking actions which will entail the death of some limited number of violets, wolves, squirrels, or what have you. What we do not possess are prudential reasons for exterminating the violets, wolves and squirrels; to do so is to postulate that these things as species possess merely instrumental value, to declare that we alone pronounce upon their value and the goodness of their being. I'm sorry, but I do not perceive that the marginal economic utility of the rancher - who I believe does possess the 'right' to defend his flocks and herds - affords a prudential reason to countenance the extinction of the wolf, the being of which God pronounced good. The evaluation of any of these sets of circumstances belongs to prudence, which concerns particular circumstances by its nature; there is no prudential reason to privilege an instrumental good - marginal economic utility - over the intrinsic goods of created being.

If that common violet is the last of its species, and it is possible to, for example, build a house elsewhere, the house can be built elsewhere. So also for the squirrels. My argument here has always concerned the species, and our general relationship to the natural realm; indeed, the individual of the species, considered in itself, and with respect to its intrinsic worth, does not provide a wealth of moral information absent concrete circumstances - in other words, absent additional information, which may be thought of as clarifying or multiplying the information provided by the individual - but the existence of the species does provide significant moral information, namely, that this natural kind is good because it exists. In other words, the prudential and circumstantial judgments do not specify the rule, such that, if in innumerable specific circumstances it is licit to kill an X, it is also licit to tally them up and arrive at the conclusion that it would be licit to exterminate the species, any more than the sum of private goods equates to the common good.

But the individual of the species does have a non-utilitarian value. The individual of the species, too, can be good just because it exists. I say that, even though I'm the big-time anti-environmentalist. I'm willing to grant that in many cases the species has in some sense a greater non-utilitarian value than the individual--that is, in the sense that you need a better reason to kill the last X than to kill "any old" X. But that still doesn't tell us a whole lot. How good a reason is a good enough reason? And so forth. I just don't think the instrumental/non-instrumental value distinction tells us anything here. To say that we can never have prudential reasons for killing off all the wolves is to make a moral statement, but it doesn't follow from the fact that the species of wolves has non-instrumental value. And to say that we can have such prudential reasons isn't to say that the wolf species has only instrumental value. It is just to say that we are not obligated to preserve that intrinsically valuable thing (the last wolf, the last wolf pack, the last pregnant female wolf, the last sustainable wolf community, or whatever) at such-and-such a cost or under such-and-such circumstances, even as one would say sometimes about an individual wolf.

I note too that, FWIW, we are almost always talking about preservation in the wild. There are always zoos where these creatures can be preserved from absolute extinction. The environmentalist's position is that there is so much extra intrinsic value to the survival of the species in the wild that we are justified in putting far greater burdens on man to maintain and preserve this as well. But at that point I become even more skeptical than ever.

If it is wrong to cause the extinction of a species, can the same be said of the various racial and ethnic subdivisions within the human species? This is relevant when we see the demographic changes being brought about throughout the West as a result of liberal immigration policies.

My own opinion is that it is wrong. Immigration rates should be reduced to about a tenth of what they are now.

Aquinas says in the Compendium of Theology that "the whole of corporeal creation exists for man." which seems to be opposed to your "third consequence", in particular that things have "existence for themselves".

The whole of corporeal creation exists for man as a gift, as a sign and symbol to lead him to knowledge, wisdom, and contemplation, and to provide for his legitimate material needs. The former characteristics - those that should serve to lead man to contemplation of the divine wisdom and the divine perfections - are where the bit about "existing for itself" comes in: corporeal creation exists for man not primarily as a utilitarian function, as means to privately supplied ends, but as a symbol (analogical and participatory) and material foundation of the divine gifts. We cannot appreciate the higher-order purposes of the created realm unless we can appreciate that realm, both as a whole and in its constituent parts, apart from human intentions; if we are incapable of accomplishing this, if we are incapable or unwilling to receive creation as a gift of God, we come to perceive it as an entitlement, something which we deserve because in its absence we could not fulfill our self-supplied ends. The gift, and the gift as symbol of the Giver, are for man in the sense of leading him towards his highest good; and this is prior to the gift being for man in the sense of existing for his lower-order needs and wants.

There is a difference between the intrinsic value/good of the existence of the species and the intrinsic value/good of the existence of the individual of the species, or the aggregate of the individuals of the species. The species represents, while the individuals instantiate, a divine reason or logos, a reflection-by-analogy of the perfect goodness, beauty, and love of the divine Being. The ontological reality of the species is more than the sum of the individuals of that species; it is a manifestation of divine reason in the world.

If we reject the notion that a willed extinction is intrinsically evil, we must still possess prudential, circumstantial reasons of sufficient gravity - we are, after all, referring to the deliberate destruction of a species, the removal of a symbol of divine wisdom and beauty from the universe. There are no prudential reasons comparable in moral gravity to killing-the-last-wolf-in-order-to-save-a-child, or eating-the-last-wolf-instead-of-starving-to-death; there are only, essentially, reasons of marginal utility: ranchers may lose some small percentage of their flocks and herds; we may have to pay in order to provide national parks, refuges, and wilderness areas; we may realize some small gain in economic efficiency; we may be able to perpetuate an (ultimately unsustainable) mode of suburban development in the Mountain West. These are not grave reasons, impinging upon the literal survival of human persons, let alone upon the survival of the human race. They are marginal, and given (what I consider to be, following my own theological tradition, which is not, on this matter, inconsistent with the Catholic tradition) the ontological significance of creation, no real reasons at all, in my judgment.

We do not fulfill the mandate of responsible stewardship for the 'garden' by restricting that 'garden' to those living museums known as zoos, constructing an ever-more fully articulated artificial civilization; to my mind, the notion is reminiscent of kitschy 70's science-fiction fantasies of engineered sustenance and experience in an artificial world bereft of a biosphere, possessing only the mechanistic works of science and technology. I say this, not to attribute the view to anyone in particular, but to state that untouched, unspoilt regions of the world - wilderness - are positive goods, not least because they teach that the world was not intended to point towards the desires of man, but to his Creator.

The reason material things exist for man is because they are devoid of rationality. I see no dichotomy between contemplating a cow (as a gift from God revealing something of God; however, "Aquinas even goes so far as to speak of the imbecillitas intellectus nostri, of the stupidity of our minds, which are not adequate to the task of "reading off" in natural things what is naturally revealed in them about God. Pieper, Love of Wisdom) and eating it.

Nor do I. Nor do I.

The incompatibility, as I adjudge it, arises when we treat that cow as something other than what it is by nature, or when we attempt to exterminate them as obstacles to some utilitarian end.

For my part, I will contemplate the cow, then eat it, then contemplate it yet again, then contemplate eating more.

Maximos, I'm not comfortable with the second paragraph. How do you mean to speak of nature as an "end in itself" when its value is not contingent on itself? Or when it is intended for the desires of its Creator? Does the phrase "end in itself" have some specific meaning in relation to mankind? What does it mean? I've been taught that goodness is not goodness for being independent of the existence of mankind, but rather for being dependent on the source of goodness.

If I had world enough time I'd love to do a study of the Patristic view of nature as creation in comparison with the Stoic and Enlightenment views.

I should have used the word "meditation" rather than contemplation. As St. John of the Cross advises, "beginners" meditate on creation to help dispose themselves to a more advanced state. By "contemplation" I mean "a loving knowledge" (his definition) of God.

Your post is perhaps similar to a theme I have been thinking a bit about lately: the world as created by God, and the world as evil, for which "I do not pray". This latter world has to mean the world of artifacts, the world made by man. The question for me is: is anything made by man unqualifiedly good? Does every artifact or technology actually bring more harm in the long run than the seeming short term good? Can man add to the goodness that is in a thing in virtue of its existence? Perhaps he can - if the use made of things is in accord with the design of God in creating them. But maybe not.

And a related matter: the global economy, "scientific progress", tendencies to world government, secularization...all are symptoms of (and preparation for) the appearance of the anti-Christ. And all of these are of course, "artifacts", use made of things which to some at least seems good but in the long wrong brings catastrophe (but also the definitive victory of Christ as He rescues us one last time).

Just read this in Pieper's The End of Time. "Thus it is a distinguishing mark of the Christian martyr that in him 'no word is raised against God's creation.' This, says Erik Peterson, who has formulated this wonderful insight in his interpretation of the Apocalypse - this is something which distinguishes the Christian martyr: He does not revile natural mundane reality; he finds creation, in spite of everything, 'very good'; whereas it is characteristic of the gnostic, who shuns the blood-testimony, that he speaks ill of creation and of natural things.

"And the Antichrist. too, is hostile to creation."

My choice of the language "exists for itself" was perhaps not so felicitous as I had hoped. What I intended by it was that nature's existing as a object of utilitarian pursuits is subordinate to its existing as a symbol of God, as a signpost to the glories of its Creator. Even in receiving the bounties of nature as sustenance and support, we must receive them as gifts, which is to say, as signs of the Giver; ontologically, the utilitarian functions of the natural realm are secondary, and enjoyed licitly only as - seriously - tokens of eschatological fullness.

It would be preferable, then, to state that nature exists for the highest ends - for the Good and man's participation therein - before it exists to satisfy his temporal desires. To use and dispose of nature as we would a chocolate-bar wrapper is to dishonour its Creator.

Ah, science and technology. Modern science, by which I mean, most broadly, post-medieval science, is something of a poisoned fruit, bearing as it does the promise of knowledge and power without the precondition of virtue. In fact, the beginnings of modern science were, if anything, morally compromised, what with all that language about compelling nature to divulge her secrets, putting her to the test, refusing to be bound by limitations and by the whims of fate (some might say, instead, Providence). This, of course, is not to intimate that the works of science should be abolished; it is only to suggest that our powers have far excelled our virtues, and have often transmogrified our virtues into vices, and this precisely because the modern scientific enterprise was conceived as a positive undertaking: a value-neutral process directed toward the amelioration of man's estate, ie., towards the satisfaction of desires assumed to be licit. Many of them were, in fact, licit. But absent a teleological conception of both the natural world generally, and human nature specifically (which is to say the same thing as a conception of virtue), and thus, of the scientific enterprise also, we suffer a diminished capacity to impose limits upon the works of science.

When I consider some of those works, most especially those pertaining to alternative reproductive technologies, cloning, and stem-cell research, I cannot but be put in mind of apocalyptic evil.

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