Response to Week 2, Prompt 1: Norton’s Intrinsic Value

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At first glance, Bryan Norton’s argument for weak anthropocentrism comes off as quite weak itself. He is also careful to point out the very narrow scope of his argument. But upon reflection, one can see how a weakly anthropocentric view of environmental ethics could be used to argue convincingly for the health and preservation of the natural world.

A fact that Norton does not explicitly acknowledge is that the environment is overwhelmingly understood to be a stockpile of resources for humanity. Stated generally, the natural world exists for human benefit. If this is a common understanding of the natural world and humanity’s place within it, then it may be more useful to continue to argue from this viewpoint of human benefit. With Norton’s argument, we do not have to move far away from common conceptions of the human-nature relationship in order to argue strongly for more environmental concern. We must only begin to understand that the health of the human species is dependent upon the health of the environment, and that if we value our existence then we must also value the health of the environment.

It takes no great leap of understanding, no radical change in thought. It isn’t even a widening of the moral scope. Intrinsic value is still only a human characteristic. Norton’s ethic fits with the way that many people already see the world, but it turns that arguably problematic view into a positive one for the natural world. It does not try to stop people from valuing the environment instrumentally, but it can still be used to make strong arguments for the importance of the health of ecosystems. As Norton states, “within the limits set by weak anthropocentrism… there exists a framework for developing powerful reasons for protecting nature.” In this sense, the natural world does not need to be valued intrinsically in order for compelling arguments to be made in support of it. In terms of practicality, Norton’s understanding of environmental ethics could have much more of a positive effect than radical approaches to ethical issues surrounding the environment.

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