Historical environmental values

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History and Philosophy


John O’Neill, Alan Holland, and Andrew Light usefully distinguish two ways of thinking about environmental values, namely, end-state and historical views. To value nature in an end-state way is to value it because it instantiates certain properties, such as complexity or diversity. In contrast, a historical view says that nature’s value is (partly) determined by its particular history. Three contemporary defenses of a historical view need to be clarified: (1) the normatively relevant history; (2) how historical considerations are supposed to instruct environmental decision making; and (3) the relative importance of historical and end-state considerations. There are multiple reasons for including historical considerations in an account of environmental values. For example, knowledge of a natural object’s history can add depth and texture to our appreciation of that object. Further, if we were blind to the relevant history, we could not adequately understand and defend environmental policy goals such as preserving the potentials of natural systems or maintaining ecological health, for these goals appear to have irreducibly historical aspects. While historical considerations are important, such considerations are insufficient to guide our normative thinking about nature and how it should be dealt with practically. But they succeed in broadening and deepening our understanding of the nature and sources of environmental value.


Winner of the 2012 Holmes Rolston III Early Career Essay Prize

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