In contemplating the ‘crisis’ in youth voting and the abject failure of Canada’s political system to engage with young people, I’ve been drawn back to political philosophy and the ‘big questions’ of political life, freedom, and rights. Remembering my own university days, I recall with fondness and even excitement the mass mobilization of workers, young people, and politicos against BC’s program of Restraint (we’d call it austerity today) in the 1980s. The Solidarity movement in the province took its cue from Polish workers’ unions’ resistance against communist domination, and the coalition formed in opposition to right-wing restructuring in BC culminated in a series of strikes and actions that potentially would have affected all sectors of the province.
It’s hard to imagine such a movement today. The causes that appeal to young people today, including diversity and identity acceptance, marijuana, GMOs, and a free and open internet, are not trivial or unimportant, but they don’t lend themselves to mass action, and maybe that’s on purpose.
In Western liberal culture, people tend to be predisposed to individualism. Individualism is an idea or approach to political life in which each person is deemed to be rational and free to make their own choices. In taking on board issues like marriage equality and GMO labeling, young people are following this individualistic script.
The idea of the rational and free ‘masterless man’ (and to the extent that rationality was associated with masculinity, a man it most likely was) emerged as an icon during the European Enlightenment, where it was a revolutionary idea. Medieval thinking drew upon an organic and hierarchical vision of social life, in which the focus was on individual responsibilities to the social order. Identities and consummate freedoms, both of nobility and commoners, were always circumscribed by the demands of prescribed social roles.
Since the Enlightenment, almost all political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle, with ‘freedom’ almost always associated with individual choices, and restrictions on freedom seen to emanate most centrally from the state.
The arguments of those on the side of the common or social good almost always had to concede that some (individual) freedoms had to be curtailed to be able to fulfill the larger social goals. Rather than being able to make a positive case for the social good,claims for group rights had the onus of proving the necessity of deviating from the default of individualism.
Even worse has been the tendency to associate rationality with individuals, and irrationality, or emotion, with the mass and the group (or the mob). People who follow groups, by extension, are irrational or driven by emotion. Our tendency is to re-imagine all social relationships in terms of the individual vs. group battle which shaped Western perceptions since the Enlightenment. But what if the individual vs. group tension is less of a battle of opposites and more of a continuum?
Today, young people emerge into Western culture with an elemental awareness of the importance of individualism in their lives. Parents prepare their children to be rational, self-governing individuals, conscious of their power and freedoms and willing to take on the group in the name of justice and individual freedom. It is necessary to equip young people with the words and ideas of individualism not just to protect them in an individualistic culture, but also to protect individualism as a value in and of itself. Without the inculcation of individualism into young people, the fear is that freedom will be lost to future generations, and the oppression and irrationality of the group will win out. In Western culture, we believe that young people need individualism to understand themselves as free people.
But individualism fails to deliver the freedom it promises. By understanding only the individual as the free unit, and not the group, we fail to protect and preserve freedoms for everyone. Having been told all of their lives that their fates are their own, that responsible and committed people will be able to succeed, and that protecting one’s own freedom of choice is paramount, young people eventually discover that their lives are largely determined by hierarchies, that responsibility and commitment do not necessarily create success and may even be punished, and that exercising their own freedom of choice individually is a limited and essentially hollow way to find fulfillment.
Psychologically isolating and materially disempowering, individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty. It impoverishes democracy by discouraging social action, it reduces political life by disparaging the community, and it enables and empowers the abuses by the powerful by attributing success to individual rather than social factors. In addition to doing all of this, individualism also leaves young people vulnerable to attacks by the state. The Harper government’s efforts to impose stricter penalties on young offenders, to impose mandatory minimums in criminal law, and provincial governments’ efforts to defund education have been met with almost no active resistance by the youth demographic.
The point is not to return to an organic and stable view of social order as the highest value, as it was practiced in the Medieval era, but to reject the false dichotomy of individuals vs. groups, and to recognize that communities are the source of both individual freedom and the pursuit of the common good. To advance a notion of free societies, it is sometimes necessary to question the idea that individual choices are the only way in which freedom can be exercised. Freedom is also exercised when communities choose together, deliberately, to pursue common goals and purposes. Indeed, similiar things have been said by many ancient philosophers to be the truest expression of freedom.
Since 9/11, the wars on terror, economic crises, climate change, and humanitarian emergencies have led decision makers to institute new measures to maintain security. Foreign policy analysts tend to view these decisions as being divorced from ethics, but Unsettled Balance shows that arguments about rights, obligations, norms, and values have played a profound role in Canadian foreign policy and international relations.
Examining a wide range of events in Canada and abroad, the contributors to this volume collectively explore three key questions. What is the meaning of ethics and security, and how are they linked? To what extent have considerations of ethics and security changed in the twenty-first century? And what are the implications of a shifting historical context for Canada’s international relations?
Whether probing how Canada handles the tension between ethics and security when hosting large-scale international events, engaging in humanitarian aid initiatives, or entering into military operations, each chapter provides insight into key decisions in recent Canadian history. In a time of rapid change, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how Canada responds to the challenges of an increasingly volatile world and why it responds the way it does.
Social science is telling us that morality and generosity decline among the most well-off. Ever since I heard about this study at UC Berkeley I’ve been curious to imagine how these findings might apply to political systems. It seems that material wealth, or even the feeling of wealth, has a greater impact on one’s attitudes towards others than previously believed; possibly even a greater impact than previous political ideology, upbringing, or education! Studies have shown for some time already that generosity is more marked among those who have fewer resources compared to those with more, but now it seems we’re starting to get results that reveal even more about the nature of these differences. There are intriguing hints at the sources of these really surprising findings.
Nick Powdthavee, an author of a study of the effect of lottery winnings, found that greater wins tend to make people more right-wing and inegalitarian. He declared:
“We are not sure exactly what goes on inside people’s brains but it seems that having money causes people to favour conservative right-wing ideas. Humans are creatures of flexible ethics.”
Also in this study, the authors speculate about the effect on democracy, arguing that self-interest trumps morality in decision making.
This last point is where I depart a bit in interpreting the meaning of these studies. Moving to the right may mean supporting an effort to protect one’s own ‘hoard’, but it is only ‘self-interested’ on an individual level, not necessarily on a social level. Democracy is to some degree about keeping these tendencies in check and allowing a public good to emerge from the apparent conflict of interest created between the rich and the poor. The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so (due to their wealth, apparently). As the wealthy opt out of the social contract that makes things better for everyone, they undermine themselves by eroding the means by which the social fabric is maintained.
The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so…
I assume, of course, that the wealthy are still in some way part of that social fabric. Wealth seems to offer a way out of social obligations and norms [for example, by letting people think they can drive faster with a more expensive car, even if they end up paying a ticket]. But why do people choose to opt out, even if it becomes more expensive, and actually less rational, for them to do so? Why send your kids to private school, pay your taxes to another country, or get your healthcare from a boutique provider, when comparable services can be obtained much more cheaply by paying your fair share to the common pool? It’s not exactly self-interested in the rational, economic sense, to do this.
I’m wondering if the answer has to do with the psychological need to control the environment, something that money provides unequivocally in a capitalist society. What one loses in material cost [private school is more expensive than public, paying a ticket is more expensive than driving according to the rules, for example] is made up for in control over the process. If it is about control rather than about wealth, it has implications not only for what the rich do individually, but how they act toward the political system as a group. For if the tendency to protect one’s own extends to the effort to control the society as a whole, it means the wealthy will make social laws and rules for everyone else that reflect their particular interests.
Fostering empathy in the minds of the wealthy may not be the way to go, as this article in the Atlantic suggests. A considerable amount of energy is spent in encouraging charity among the wealthy, which has had little impact on the mindset. Indeed, what is interesting is that most Americans have experienced poverty in their lives, if only temporarily, at one time or another. This means a significant number of wealthy individuals, and yes, even members of Congress or Parliament, have also experienced poverty. If the above studies are correct, it seems unlikely that this experience can trump the psychological effects of wealth, and the tendency to be less egalitarian or generous, that goes with wealth. It doesn’t seem likely that human nature will change.
Bridging the psychology of the individual with the need for a public good means bolstering institutions that supercede and limit the tendencies of the wealthy to opt out and to control the process. Unfortunately, many democratic institutions have been put in place to do exactly the opposite: to control and limit the worst excesses of the general public [see the Canadian Senate].
Public education, public health care, parental leave, elder care, social services, and even sewers and parks have often been thought of as contingent on ‘affordability’ (Yes I’m looking at you, BC Liberals!) In fact, by highlighting the idea of the public good, these institutions remind us of the vulnerability of the social contract to the psychology of wealth. Now that we know more about the effects of wealth on our thinking (and by that I mean everybody’s thinking) social planners should be better equipped to make the case for the defence of that social contract. That defence should strongly state the need for everyone, but especially the wealthy, to be included in the social project from which we all benefit.
Recent comments about climate change policy from conservative world leaders Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott suggest an important shift in conservative thinking about climate, science, and the role of country governments in tackling the problems of climate change. Having lost the public relations fight about climate knowledge, conservatives now either vacate the field or adopt a discourse of what Stephen Colbert might call ‘truthiness’.
Like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the conservatives under Stephen Harper have ‘called out’ the world over inaction on climate change. This strategy has had some success. Harper stated recently that “no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that, but that is the approach that every country is seeking.”
In this way, conservatives can claim to be the real ‘truth tellers’ who can then freely take the low ground of inaction. By doing this, they make common cause with critics of climate politics while also maintaining a distance from the more extremist deniers [who quite frankly are starting to look rather foolish]. This discursive strategy is nothing new to the Harper conservatives, who have had some success in using it to justify pulling out of the international effort to negotiate a new agreement.
In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, a child is the only one who sees that the Emperor is not wearing rich clothes but is indeed wearing nothing. The child has done what none of the Emperor’s advisors dared to do, and so has credibility because of his/her relative freedom from social constraints. These constraints restrict what subordinates may say to the Emperor, and so make it difficult to oppose his views. The child, unrestricted by expectations, has the ability to speak their own mind without fear of the consequences.
Much is forgiven when a speaker can be said to be ignorant and unsophisticated, and the moral of the story is that wisdom and social value can come from the mouths of innocents not captured by the oppressive dictates of social expectations.
Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.
However, taking a ‘truth teller’ role in international relations has many more risks and is far more complicated. Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations. Norms are built in the space created by uncertain statements, blurry commitments and nondescript agreements.
Social expectations and norms in other settings can become a straightjacket of nakedness, as the moral of the Emperor’s New Clothes suggests. But international relations is different. In IR, social expectations and common norms are flimsy and weak. The risk of defection from any common enterprise is so high that the appearance alone of cooperation (nakedness) is often the only thing carrying the projects of climate change agreements forward, and making progress possible. Bravery means a willingness to be at least a little bit naked, and aware of one’s own vulnerability.
For this reason, Conservative ‘truth telling’ should be seen for what it is: first, it is an unabashed instrumental rationalist strategy for defecting from a common effort to address climate change. It is not a cowboy-esque statement of independence worthy of respect for its pluck and grit. It is not brave. It is not radical. It is not inspirational.
Second, using ‘truth telling’ as a political tactic obscures the fact that defection imposes costs on all of the other countries seeking a means of fairly distributing the disastrous effects of adaptation to climate change. Defection means cheating. Any common benefits that come from an agreement, such as a reduction in emissions, will be enjoyed by all, whether they have paid any part of the cost of adjustment.
Conservative ‘truth telling’ is not brave. It is not radical. It is not inspirational.
Canada and Australia, as wealthy developed economies, will be enjoying the benefits of the economic adjustments imposed on poorer, less developed economies. Canada is not the weak ‘child’ calling out the powerful Emperor, but rather, Canada is like the Emperor exploiting the helplessness of his subjects for his own vanity.
Any real effort to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change needs to demonstrate a willingness to pay a price for the achievement of real emissions reductions. No one is saying that countries aren’t reluctant to take on that price. To say so is not ‘truth telling’ but a recognition of the difficulty of achieving agreement.
To recognize the difficulty and then back away from it reveals a self-serving policy that celebrates weakness and apathy, not strength and independence. Conservatives are banking that their celebration of ‘do-nothing’ policies will play on peoples’ fatalism and fear about climate change. Let’s not let the Emperor succeed in this vain pretense.
Sometimes the language that we use as political scientists is regrettable in its implications. For example, the definition of ‘differentiated citizenship’ according to a leading introductory text to Canadian politics reads as follows: “The granting of special group-based legal or constitutional rights to national minorities and ethnic groups” (Mintz, Tossutti and Dunn 89). While accurate, the use of the term ‘special’ has many unintended implications. Who is ‘special’ and who is entitled to ‘different’ treatment by government?
For one thing, to say that a group or individual receives ‘special’ treatment is to imply that every other group is not special. Or, to put it another way, it is to imply that a group is singled out from the otherwise equal treatment that they might be entitled to receive by virtue of being equal members of the community. It assumes that the community at large includes other groups which may be equally entitled to special treatment were it not for the unique qualities which set the ‘special’ group apart. Equality before the law is both an operational concept and an aspirational standard.Using the term ‘special’ to describe a group singled out for differentiated treatment suggests that everyone else is already treated equally under the law, that equal legal treatment is in fact a reality, and not also an aspiration yet to be achieved. Under the assumption of equality, special treatment is, by definition, discriminatory. Discriminatory treatment technically only means the same as ‘special’ treatment, except for the fact that it implies a harmful result for the group being singled out. When the result of special treatment is discrimination, it is rightfully condemned. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity, for example, is condemned in a democracy not primarily because it constitutes special or differential treatment, but rather because of the negative effects of the judgments that tend to be made, most often based on involuntary or ascribed characteristics. The response to ‘special treatment’ is to question the basis for unequal treatment rather than to condemn all forms of harmful discrimination. Why the knee-jerk reaction to ‘special treatment’? After all, governments identify groups for a variety of special programs and services all the time. Groups are defined by age, income levels, geography, occupation, health status, and marital status. Many of these categories are based on involuntary characteristics, or at least, characteristics that are extremely difficult to change. Northerners or people who live in rural areas are entitled to unique job training or assistance for moving expenses. Fishers in the Maritimes are treated distinctly from other occupations with respect to qualification for EI benefits, young people are targeted for special job training and employment programs, and government services like healthcare are often offered in languages other than the two official languages.
In truth, as discussed in the last two blog posts, equal treatment is as elusive as the abstraction of ‘equality’ itself. One is tempted sometimes to ‘test’ equality by imagining a ‘reverse onus’. In other words, we might try to test the extent of equality by asking ourselves how a given situation might be if the positions were reversed. If a black woman and a white woman are ranked equally on a college entrance application, then ‘all else being equal’, the chances of success should be equally distributed (50/50). If this is indeed true, then the white woman and black woman are being equally treated. In reality, we can more effectively test the presumption of equality by looking at outcomes. If an equal chance of success really does exist, then the number of black successful women should be roughly proportional to the number of black women in the population as a whole, and the same with the number of white women. Success is clearly not distributed proportionally among these racial groups. Because the outcomes do not support the idea that such equal treatment exists, it is unfair to apply the ‘reverse racism’ test. Treatment that might be appropriate for one group would not be appropriate for the privileged group. The two situations are not comparable. Discrimination can still be shown to exist, as the story of Yolanda Spivey reveals. Spivey, a black woman, reportedly modified her online job profile to appear ‘white’, changing her name and racial identification, but keeping all of her other information the same, including qualifications,
experience, and work history. She received many more employment enquiries as a white woman than as a black woman. The experiences of black and white people are not comparable, and so these groups should not be considered as if they were treated equally. Of course, more study and data is needed to determine the extent, nature, and form of discrimination in society. Nevertheless, differential treatment, and even differentiated citizenship, is justifiable in order to move toward equality of opportunity for all. Until equality can be demonstrated in outcomes, it should be seen as an aspirational goal, and not assumed to be already in place.
When analyzing any phenomena, it helps to have a good idea what we want to achieve. In political science as in life, equality has great significance. Analysts tend to think quite differently from the general public, however, about what constitutes equality and how we should use the term. Let’s consider a thought experiment to sort out the difference between ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of condition’.
If we imagine that equality of opportunity and equality of condition are kinds of ideal types at opposite poles, with a spectrum of variations in between, then the picture might look something like this: under ‘equality of condition’ everyone would experience the same life outcomes: equal incomes, equal standards of living, and equal levels of education, health care, and work. How would things differ? Likely inequality would creep in through limited means: for example, some may work longer hours, have more or less education, spend more or less time skiing, etc.
What is wrong with this picture? The most common criticisms of this ‘absolute equality’ are:
It reduces the incentive to succeed, and 2. It distorts the value of things, leading to scarcities and gluts in supply.
But these are practical criticisms, not questions of justice. Would absolute equality actually be ‘just’? Assuming for the moment that such a system could be workable (and I’m not saying it is) then an argument could be made that it actually creates injustice by failing to differentiate among people with ascribed or inherent differences who deserve differential outcomes. Those who work harder or are more creative or who are disabled or ill should be treated differently. Some may deserve preferential access to resources either as a result of their extra effort, their accomplishment or contributions, or by virtue of need. Tellingly, the right more often argues for differential outcomes based on effort and accomplishment, while ‘need’ tends to take second place. It is sometimes said that such a system would be communistic. However, under Marx’s vision of communism, the ideal form of equality actually allowed for differential rewards focusing on need rather than accomplishment or contribution. Contrary to popular belief, Marx did not advocate absolute equality of condition. Indeed, nobody has, in all seriousness, ever really proposed that large-scale industrial societies impose absolute equality of condition. This is because serious thinkers would quickly realize that equality of condition, even in its ideal form, would inevitably raise both practical and fairness questions since there would still need to be some argument for different treatment of some people. Nobody is average.
Now, what about equality of opportunity? That sounds like something we can all get behind: everybody can try or fail equally well, and those with the greatest accomplishments and talents will rise to the top. This is kind of what Paul Summerville argues when he says:
Equality of opportunity is a virtue when it is twinned with unequal outcomes. It is meaningless without it. What is the point of equality opportunity if success is discouraged by custom, law, or taxation?
But, to respond to this, how can we be sure that everyone actually has an equal opportunity to try, and to win? Inequality all by itself is not evidence of equality of opportunity. What if the winners try to ‘kick the ladder out’ from behind them, blocking the upward advance of others? What if they use their newfound positions to favour their heirs and families and friends rather than allow their loved ones to fail? Perhaps when we see that some are able to climb up to the top from the very bottom of the social ladder without artificial assistance from the state, then we can say that equality of opportunity exists. But how many of these examples are sufficient to prove it? One? One in ten? One in a thousand? The fact is there is no natural or inevitable level of inequality that can tell us when everyone truly has an equal chance. We can point to clues: perhaps when the top 1% is as diverse and representative of the entire society, or when every member of the top group can claim to have climbed out of the gutter, but that seems as unlikely as the ideally equal society discussed above. The question of fairness rises again: even in a society in which opportunities are purely equally distributed, there will be unfairness due to the same factors mentioned above: What about those disadvantaged by illness or age or poor upbringing? What about highly talented or accomplished individuals who don’t manage to make it through no fault of their own? why value some talents more than others?
Again, the argument to treat some people differently in order for equality of opportunity to be realized is present. But, the same question arises: what should be the basis for differential treatment? Here, the differences between the two poles start to disappear: the essential argument is not about equality at all, but about the basis and rationale for differences. Both sides work toward an ideal world that is impractical and unfair, yet both sides argue for ‘differential’ treatment on the basis of different individual characteristics. The right argues that differential treatment should be based on talents or contributions, while the left focuses on compensating for special needs and other (class) disadvantages.
The world we actually live in is of course far more complicated. Equality before the law, which is the dominant discourse of equality in Canada and other Western liberal democracies, is actually a fall-back position avoiding both of the options described above. It doesn’t guarantee equality of opportunity and it doesn’t mitigate inequalities of condition. At most, it provides a measure of our progress toward some compromise on fairness and practicality. It’s not irrelevant, far from it! The legal guarantees of the Voting Rights Act or protections for gay marriage or for equality between religious beliefs do matter, but not for the reasons we think. They matter less because they create equal opportunities, and more because they clarify the legitimate grounds for treating people differently. The fact that people are all, in some way, treated differently by society still needs to be acknowledged by all participants in the equality debate.
The next two blog posts will address the sources of present-day inequality in globalization, and the basis for differential treatment and its centrality to equality.
For those attending the Munk Debate livestream on May 30th:
David Miller responded:
It is easy to complain about public employees: are they not a privileged, elite, sheltered group? It seems that public employees and the cost of public payrolls are, yet again, in the sights of critics from the right. In particular, attacking the ‘burden’ on taxpayers of ‘excessive’ pensions, benefits, and salaries is an easy and simple way to short-circuit a serious political discussion. In Canada, such attacks do not tend to have the racist overtones they have in the US, where a growing segment of public employees come from black, Latino or other racial and ethnic minority groups. Nevertheless, such attacks can be scathing.
One thing about these criticisms is that they essentially miss the point. The purpose of government is not the same as that of business, nor would taxpayers truly want their government to be run like a private for-profit enterprise. Imagine peoples’ reaction if the prices of government services truly followed the laws of supply and demand: the price of healthcare, prescriptions, surgeries, education, road and infrastructure construction, and a whole host of other high-demand items and services would be so high that it would quickly render many private businesses uneconomic. Imagine if every individual had to pay directly for their own education, health care, road use, sewers, personal protection, water, etc.?
The whole idea of having government deliver these services is the general recognition that these common goods are most efficiently (and cheaply!) delivered at collective cost, and by extension, that their operation and administration should be overseen by publicly-appointed administrators who are accountable for the expenses that are taxpayer-funded. You only need to spend a short amount of time in a country with a broken or absent public service to realize the importance of it.
While there is room for debating the extent and scope of public administration, there should also be acknowledgement within the debate that public service is not only legitimate and necessary, but beneficial. In the interests of shifting the discussion and possibly even changing the paradigm for public service, here are some ideas for thinking differently about public service:
Outcomes matter more than efficiency
When patients get better, when special needs adults are able to live independently, and when kids master a new skill, real social goods have been accomplished that save taxpayers money in the long run. Such a calculation simply cannot be reduced to a yardstick that trades off today’s revenues and expenditures. When these outcomes are compromised by budget cuts, not only do individuals pay a price, but the social costs are borne by everyone in society.
Incentives erode the soul of motivation
Talk of ‘rewarding excellence’ and ‘reducing the redundant’ does NOT improve performance. Competition is not the point of public service. Trying to incentivize outcomes increases stress and makes people resistant to change. Companies are discovering this on their own in recent years, but they are also discovering that a decent level of compensation is a prerequisite to a motivated, creative, and productive employee in any enterprise.
Bureaucracy means fairness
This may be a hard sell, but next time you’re waiting in line for a drivers’ license or filling out a passport application, consider the effort and expense required to ensure that all of those who use public services are treated consistently and fairly. Then consider what happens when those services are cut or reduced. How much is fairness worth to you?
Cutting services is self-defeating
In the open market, fraud and deceit flourish because businesses lack the ability to police themselves and are highly motivated to abuse their power and superior knowledge. The cost to legitimate businesses in restoring confidence when violations occur is significant. A large part of what government provides is trust and confidence when the market fails, which allows businesses to be profitable. If business is less profitable, economic activity slows and tax revenue falls. Beyond the purely instrumental argument that austerity directly reduces economic growth, austerity is self-defeating because it increases the hidden costs of doing business in hard times.
Public servants create wealth, and create the conditions that enable private businesses to create wealth. Of course governments should be accountable for costs, especially since the disciplining competition of the market is less sharp and the high demand for public goods and services can tend to push prices up. However, the solution is not to heighten competition but to recognize and account for the benefits that public service provides, and not just to focus on its costs. A truly balanced account would show that taxpayers are investing their resources very efficiently indeed.
The news this year on the climate front continued to be alarming, especially the record low extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic. The anthropocentric case for doing more to combat climate change seems self-evident. A changing climate is very likely to be less hospitable to human needs than a stable one. Arguments solely from self-interest therefore appear fairly quickly in the discussion of what to do.
But what of arguments not based on self-interest? What place is there in the environmental discussion for a non-self-serving ethic, based on the idea that the natural world has intrinsic value, independent of human needs or human culture? In fact, these ideas have been elaborated since the early days of the movement by Arne Naess and many others. The notion of intrinsic value has seen its most prominent political expression in the discourses around parks and protected areas. Groups like the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society continue to be influential in establishing that ecological integrity should be a guiding principle of parks governance. Protected areas symbolize many things, but one of the impetuses for protection is the awareness and recognition of a natural world with its own logic, its own measures, and its own ethical integrity, independent of the human.
Arguments that go beyond human self-interest, however, have not made a huge impact in the climate debate. One problem is that an ecocentric ethic has been too closely associated with wilderness preservation. Wilderness preservation is a legitimate basis for political action, however, wildernesses today are too physically remote, too closely managed, and too narrowly defined to be a solid basis for elaborating a larger argument about intrinsic value. Biodiversity holds more promise, since natural biodiversity can be understood to operate from non-human principles.
But what if the biosphere changes radically in response to climate change, what then becomes of an ethic of static preservation and intrinsic value?
In fact, I would argue that the best way and most effective way to integrate an ethic of intrinsic value in political decision making is to use an expansive and embedded approach. Such an approach would first of all recognize that intrinsic value and use value are not mutually exclusive ideas, and that something can be valued both for its usefulness to humans, and for itself. Aristotle used the example of eyesight. We value our eyesight both for its usefulness (we can see things and interact with the world more effectively with sight) and for its intrinsic value (we can appreciate sunsets and see the faces of loved ones). The key test is not whether it would benefit humans to protect it, but would we miss it if it were suddenly taken away? We can all imagine the sense of loss we would feel if our eyesight were suddenly removed, and we can all imagine the sense of loss as species disappear from the tree of life and the biosphere becomes irrevocably changed and even degraded.
This is a basis for building political action because of its universality. Cultures may not agree on the value of any individual species but they can agree on the big picture of loss. Practically speaking, the notion of intrinsic value for Canadians can be easily compared to the language of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Just as rights require entrenchment and defence by government and ordinary citizens, so, too, does nature.
Let’s not be afraid of the language of intrinsic value. It is already all around us in political discourse. Arguing that nature should be protected for its own sake makes a more robust position in favour of protection possible. For example, it puts the onus on oil pipeline companies and developers to prove the worth of their activities, rather than on nature to prove its worth in human terms.