Monday, October 12, 2009

Epistemic Contextualism: Entirely Unjustified

Contextualism is the epistemic theory that defines our knowledge as context-dependent. We are quite familiar with this idea of context-dependency in regular life. Consider, for example, the word “tall.” When we apply the word tall, our correctness is entirely dependent upon the context of our using it – i.e. about whom we are talking, and whom we are comparing. In the context of a second-grade class, we might find that five feet would be a very tall height among the students. In the context of the NBA, we would find that only someone with a height of seven feet or more could accurately be considered tall. Thus, what is tall in the context of second grade (five feet) would not be tall in the context of the NBA. As we can intuitively see, the veracity of the ascription of tall depends upon the context in which it is being used.

Contextualists explain that our ascription of the term knowledge can be understood to work in this same context-dependant way. Basically, the Contextualist believes that different situations have different standards for what counts as our knowing something; as a consequence, what counts as knowledge in one context, may not hold up to the standards of knowledge in another context (just as our tall second-grader could clearly not be considered tall in the context of the NBA). This is a very novel way of understanding knowledge, for the Contextualist abandons the commonly held intuition that knowledge is something invariable that someone either does or does not have.

The Contextualist theory of knowledge holds a strong appeal for many epistemologists, as Stewart Cohen describes, because the theory presents “a way to resolve stubborn epistemological paradoxes” (“Contextualism Defended” SS 56). Cohen presents the most fundamental epistemological paradox with the following propositions: (1) I know some common-sense proposition P, (2) I do not know not-H (where H is some skeptical hypothesis), and (3) I know P only if I know not-H. With regard to these propositions, we often start out trusting our common-sense beliefs. However, upon reflection, we find that we cannot really eliminate the skeptical hypothesis, and our common-sense beliefs become nullified by the logical requirements of (3). Alternatively, however, insofar as we do want to hang onto our common-sense beliefs, we use (3) to suggest that we can eliminate the skeptical hypothesis. We find ourselves vacillating between these two intuitive frames of mind – where we maintain our common sense beliefs at one moment, but feel obligated to reject them at the next. So how are we to resolve this conflict of knowledge?

Other theories of knowledge choose to explain the paradox by showing it to result from some fundamental mistake we make in our determinations about knowledge. For the invariantist, who believes in a permanent standard of knowledge, (1) and (2) simply cannot both be true at the same time (because of (3)). As a consequence, the fact that we do seem to believe both (1) and (2) suggests that somewhere along the way we have erred in our ascription of knowledge. Either our common sense beliefs are right, or the skeptical hypothesis is true and we know nothing. It cannot be both. Earl Conee champions this invariantist view, and claims to offer a better explanation as to why we falsely tend to maintain both (1) and (2): “although the standards that we apply to (1) and (2) may include ones we are taught in learning “know,” they are not therefore semantically guaranteed to be necessary or sufficient conditions for the application of the term” (“Contextualism Contested Some More” SS 64). In other words, just because we have learned certain rules for when we feel comfortable calling something knowledge, does not necessarily mean that these standards and ascriptions are fundamentally accurate. He explains that these standards are merely “stereotypes” or “rules of thumb” that usually work to satisfy knowledge; but may lack the invariable standards necessary for the proper ascription of knowledge. Conee claims that his approach is the most tenable, in that it can explain the existence of the apparent paradox while still maintaining the strict accuracy of invariable knowledge.

Whereas the invariantist describes the skeptical paradox by showing our intuitions to be mistaken, Cohen explains that Contextualism is ultimately more favorable in that it succeeds in “explain[ing] away the apparent inconsistency of our intuitions by arguing that they reflect the contextually varying truth-conditions for knowledge ascriptions” (SS 57). In other words, we do not have to reject one of our intuitions after all, but instead, both are right according to the different contextual standards of knowledge in different situations. The apparent contradiction comes from the fact that we have merely confused which context we are in. As it really turns out, when we separate the two contexts, we can keep our common sense beliefs (in everyday contexts), and maintain the skeptical possibility (in skeptical contexts). Cohen highlights the superior explanatory capability of this approach when he describes that the Contextualist explanation “resolves the apparent inconsistency of (1) to (3) in a way that accounts for [both intuitions to be maintained]… While the invariantist explanations do not, in themselves resolve the conflict… [but concede that] there is a genuine conflict between our common-sense judgment that (1) is true, and our skeptical judgment that (2) is true” (SS 70). This resolution of the paradox, that allows us to maintain both our basic knowledge and skeptical doubt, makes Contextualism a much more appealing theory.

In his essay, “Elusive Knowledge,” David Lewis more thoroughly explains the details of our context-dependent ascriptions of knowledge. He begins the explanation by first defining the conditions under which we do have knowledge: “Subject S knows proposition P iff P holds in every possibility left uneliminated by S’s evidence; equivalently, if S’s evidence eliminates every possibility in which not-P” (BD 368-369). To put this more simply, any belief that conflicts with one’s evidence (be that sensory, memory, or from some other source), cannot count as knowledge; we do not know a proposition if there is any reason for doubting it. This seems like a fairly straightforward and sensible requirement. For example, the proposition “there is a large spot on this page” would be eliminated as a possible known fact when we assess our visual evidence and realize that we do not see a large spot on this page. Now consider, proposition Q: I am a brain in a vat. In this case, we intuitively want to eliminate Q and conclude that we actually are not brains in vats; but we have no evidence that can eliminate the possibility of Q being true (for we might just be elaborately deceived by some scientist). Thus Q might be true – and it turns out that we do not really know that we exist on this earth. All of a sudden, this formulation of knowledge seems very demanding, in that it permits such an intuitively discomforting possibility to remain uneliminated; furthermore, if Q might be true, then it might also turn out that we really do not have any knowledge!

Faced with this classic skeptical problem, Lewis turns to Contextualism in an attempt to explain away this apparent difficulty and ultimately preserve our knowledge. He begins his investigation by returning to our original definition of knowledge, and making one key observation, “we must attend to the word ‘every.’ What does it mean to say that every possibility in which not-P is eliminated?” (BD 370-371). Similar to our “tall” example above, Lewis explains that the word “every” is one that depends entirely upon context. For example, consider a teacher who asks the class if every student is present. Clearly she does not mean every student in the world; instead she is using every in the limited context of her classroom to mean her students. Lewis understands “every” to function in the same way within the definition of knowledge. The application of this idea results in the following outcome: in certain contexts of knowledge, literally every single possibility must be eliminated (i.e. skeptical contexts); but there are other contexts – just as within the teacher’s classroom – where “every” only really refers to some, and the remaining uneliminated possibilities can simply be excluded from consideration or ignored as irrelevant (i.e. everyday contexts). Thus, under different contexts “I may properly ignore some uneliminated possibilities; [and] I may not properly ignore others” (BD 371). According to this clarification, Lewis goes on to modify his standard of knowledge: “S knows that P iff S’s evidence eliminates every possibility in which not-P – psst! – except for those possibilities that we are properly ignoring” (BD 371).

Lewis proceeds to offer a list of commonsensical rules that help us to determine which possibilities may or may not properly be ignored in any given context. His first is the Rule of Actuality, which simply says that we may not ignore any possibility that is actually a condition (for example, if there actually were a large spot on the page, we may not properly ignore it when forming beliefs about the presence or absence of such a spot). Similarly straightforward in forbidding our ignoring of possibilities are the Rule of Belief, and the Rule of Resemblance. These say that if we have some reason for believing a possibility to hold, or if some possibility closely resembles an actual possibility, we cannot ignore it for it is still relevant to our knowledge. Lewis offers three more rules, which describe conditions under which we may ignore possibilities: the Rule of Reliability, the Rule of Method, and the Rule of Conservatism. The first two explain that if our usual reliable methods of gathering information (e.g. sense perception, or logical induction, or others) contradict a possibility, we may reasonably ignore its applicability; while the third says that if we usually ignore some possibility, then we may continue to ignore it. His last rule, the Rule of Attention, is an important final condition insofar as it stipulates that as soon as a possibility is brought to our attention, we may no longer ignore it. Thus as soon as some skeptical hypothesis of elaborate deception is mentioned, we may no longer ignore its possibility.

Now that we have considered the appeal of Contextualism and established its processes and results, we must address one final question: does it work? Having considered many other epistemological theories, and having seen them all crumble under detailed scrutiny, we must do a bit more work before deciding to accept this theory. Are there any problems we have not yet considered that might ultimately undermine the Contextualist approach? Or have we found a theory so unique that it avoids the problems of all other failed attempts?

Contextualism ultimately fails because it lacks sufficient justification: the foundation of the entire theory depends upon the inarguably weak basis of explanatory capability (i.e. its success in accurately describing the way we do treat our ascriptions of knowledge). Essentially, Contextualists hope to lure people into adopting their program by offering an explanation of knowledge that does not require them to change our treatment of knowledge in any way. It allows us to have our cake and eat it too – to safely maintain our coveted everyday beliefs as knowledge, and to guiltlessly abandon them at the slightest hint of skeptical trouble.

It is important to note that the Contextualist’s dependency upon descriptive reasoning does not in itself fail. The problem arises in this case from the fact that the theory’s champions present no justification as to why this dependency upon observation is a valid foundation; no explanation as to why their move from simple observation to fundamental theory of knowledge is epistemically sound. Sure, maybe it works, maybe they are very good at explaining the way we do treat knowledge; but not once do they provide evidence supporting their conclusion that this is how we should treat knowledge. To draw conclusions of ought from mere empirical observation without any justification is impermissible, for such a conclusion is by no means a self-evident or obvious fact. To put it simply, any philosophical theory derived entirely from practice merits serious concern, for the simple reason that our practices are often so wrong! Just because we do behave a certain way does not mean that that is the correct way. Thus, just because we often seem to treat knowledge as something context-dependant, certainly does not mean that it actually is context-dependant! In fact, our philosophical intuitions suggest just the opposite: that it is at the very least possible (if not highly probable or necessary) that knowledge is in fact an objective and invariable category!

Earl Conee takes up this argument in his “Contextualism Contested,” by presenting a simple example. Consider again the case where a teacher announces to her class that everyone is present. A student, Stickler, raises his hand and corrects his teacher, saying “No, what you said is not true, because not everyone is here. The Pope is not here” (SS 49). So who is right – the teacher, or Stickler? Conee explains that the fundamental problem with Contextualism is that it “finds a truth in the claim made by [the teacher] and it finds a truth in the claim made by Stickler” (SS 49). The Contextualist would explain that in the intended context of the classroom, the teacher is right in her use of the word “every,” and Stickler is wrong. But isn’t Stickler clearly correct, and the teacher incorrect? Sure, this may be an annoying semantic fact, but surely, at the most denotative level, Stickler simply is right. With the conclusion, “Contextualism finds truth at the expense of contradiction” (SS 50), Conee emphasizes the inherent failure associated with the Contextualists’ use of relational knowledge: what we gain in explanatory range does not compensate for what we lose in epistemological accuracy.

Conee goes on to develop three fundamental reasons why Contextualism fails – all stemming from the ill-supported conception of knowledge as a relational property. Firstly, Conee explains that what the Contextualist describes as our contextual distinctions regarding knowledge, are really just instances of loose talk – i.e. careless ascriptions of knowledge that we inevitably concede to be actually false when pressed for epistemic proof. Secondly, Conee takes issue with the Contextualist for too easily accepting that the strict epistemic standards of truth necessarily destroy our basic knowledge. Isn’t at least possible that the actual standards of knowledge really do allow us to maintain some knowledge in the face of this skepticism? Thirdly, Contextualism assumes in us a specific knowledge about these supposed changing standards and contexts that we do not at all obviously have. Basically, Conee’s challenges reiterate the cry for more proof; the Contextualist has presented his explanation, without presenting any fundamental evidence justifying why we rightfully can or should accept this theory over any other.

Due to the very nature of the theory’s unsteady foundations, the Contextualist’s only possible responses to Conee’s objections are to reiterate the weak argument that the theory deserves recognition simply because it works. These attempts will inevitably prove futile. Cohen responds to Conee’s first objection of loose talk by simply repeating the idea that these shifts in truth are really just shifts in contextual requirements of knowledge; as soon as we apply the “really and truly test” we are forced into a skeptical context and thus lose our basic knowledge to stricter standards. This is clearly a descriptive explanation, lacking any reasoning that we ought to consider knowledge in this way. In response to Conee’s second objection, that skeptical requirements do not necessarily undermine our knowledge, Cohen describes that people have a basic intuition that skeptical contexts eliminate our knowledge. If anything, Cohen would argue, the Contextualist argument is made stronger by accounting for the fact of this intuition. Again Cohen presents a fact of our behavior as some sort of justification for his theory, but we still find no reason as to why we should lend value to this intuition that we happen to have. Finally, in response to the last objection, Cohen describes that the fact that we do ascribe knowledge according to contexts, proves that we clearly do have an understanding of these contexts. He goes on to explain that any miscommunications about knowledge simply result when two people do not realize they were operating in different contexts; and as soon as they do realize, they understand each other. Thus, we do have a knowledge of these contexts because we do operate in them. Here again, Cohen has simply reiterated the fundamentally flawed logical leap of Contextualism from description to epistemic category, with no justification as to why this leap of logic is permissible or accurate.

Insofar as they continue to depend upon merely observational descriptions, Cohen’s defenses perpetuate the fundamental issue lurking behind the entire theory of Contextualism: in its preoccupation with accounting for the way we actually do consider knowledge, it has ignored even the possibility that we often do consider knowledge improperly. Thus, while Cohen’s responses may superficially seem to explain away Conee’s issues (though even that is debatable), he has still failed to significantly justify his use of description as a basis for epistemic conclusions, and to that end, he has failed to save his theory from its fundamental failure.

We can learn a lot about what an ideal epistemological theory might look like based upon the failures of Contextualism. First and foremost, the theory must be supported by much more justification than a mere explanation of our actual behavior. In fact, explanatory power does not seem to be a requirement of this ideal theory at all, for as we have seen, our treatment of and intuitions about knowledge are so often irrational, inconsistent, and inaccurate. To that end, it also seems that a sound theory will incorporate the idea of knowledge as invariant. While we still have not proved invariance in this paper, we have seen enough significant problems with the concept of relational knowledge to exclude any form of it from any substantial consideration. Very few people will take issue with this, for at the most basic rational level, the fact of invariant knowledge seems undeniable (as seen by all loose talkers who inevitably retract their claims).

A proper theory will also have to somehow deal successfully with the skeptical hypothesis. Interestingly, Contextualism’s goal of resolving the paradox does seem to be ideal; but the task of proving such a resolution under an invariant definition of knowledge will likely prove quite difficult, if not impossible. Instead, we will probably be left with an account for the paradox similar to Conee’s: an explanation describing our fundamental mistake in believing both common-sense knowledge and skeptical doubt to be true. Does this mean that, after applying the invariant standards of knowledge to our beliefs, we will be left only with (2), an inability to deny the skeptical hypothesis? Most likely. Does this mean we will lose all of our knowledge? Not necessarily. Conee maintains the possibility of saving some of our knowledge even in the face of the skeptical hypothesis (though he does not prove how it would be possible). Thus it seems that the ideal theory would somehow allow us to keep at least some of our basic knowledge. Most likely, this will be achieved through some combination of the two following approaches: by carefully and deliberately formulating the invariable definition of knowledge such that all is not lost in the face of skepticism, and by somehow undermining the foundations of the skeptic’s seemingly infinite denial of knowledge.

Clearly these requirements comprise the most fundamental challenges of all Epistemological thought, but it is interesting to note that we have come upon these basic ideals through examining the opposite of Contextualism. Can this give us some sort of hint as to which epistemological theory might be the closest approximation of this ideal? Is there some already-existing theory that seems to oppose the strategy of Contextualism in every way? The closest approach I can think of is the Foundationalist theory of knowledge, which holds that we do have some fundamental basic beliefs that permanently qualify as knowledge. This theory gives zero credence to our actual treatment of knowledge and strives to formulate a completely invariant and theoretical definition of knowledge. This definition is not at all practical for everyday life, mostly because of its very strict ought requirement built into the invariant definition of knowledge. In addition, the Foundationalist abhors the skeptical hypothesis and both aims for a characterization of knowledge that will ultimately maintain value in the face of any skeptical denial, and tries to undermine the skeptic’s tedious opposition. While there are of course many objections to this approach (most notably the Coherentist theory), it seems to me that the closest approximation of this ideal, anti-Contextualist theory is to be found in the overall approach of the Foundationalists.

The Problem of Value in an Ethics of Speices

One particularly difficult issue within the study of environmental ethics pertains to the moral significance of species. Can species as wholes have moral significance? How would this significance differ from that of individual organisms? This moral sticking point is only made more difficult by the very strong intuitions that many of us feel about protecting species, especially endangered ones. Many environmental ethicists have addressed this problem of species, composing moral theories that morally require us to protect species because they are valuable in some way; ultimately, however, these traditional approaches fail, and we are left searching for a more plausible explanation to account for our moral duties to species.

In “Why Do Species Matter,” Lily-Marlene Russow develops a theory that ultimately grants rights to species by determining that they derive intrinsic value from their aesthetic value. Intrinsic value is that value which species possess in and of themselves, regardless of their usefulness to humans, and Russow explains its importance to her theory when she says, “The notion that species have an intrinsic value, if established, would allow us to defend much stronger claims about human obligations toward threatened species” (274). Russow goes on to conclude that the intrinsic value of species ultimately stems from their aesthetic value.

It is important to note that Russow’s aesthetic value includes much more than the mere beauty of a species; instead, aesthetic value incorporates a variety of characteristics such as beauty, historical significance, uniqueness, evolutionary significance, and many others. This broad definition is important in that it spans a very wide range of species; at the same time, however, it does not prevent us from properly attributing more value to some species than to others. In addition, Russow favors the idea of aesthetic value because it successfully satisfies both our intuition that species do have significant aesthetic value, and our intuition that diversity is important and valuable.

Russow closes with an important remark about the exact location of this aesthetic value. She explains that the aesthetic value of any species is manifested in the individuals of that species, and not in the species itself. This distinction is necessary in that it provides two explanations as to why endangered species should be more valuable. Firstly, the rarity of encountering individuals of an endangered species increases the value of each of those encounters. Secondly, our interest in the aesthetic value of these individuals rouses in us a desire to see individuals of the same aesthetic type and value again in the future, and thus inspires us to afford protection to that endangered species. In this way, Russow’s theory of intrinsic aesthetic value grants higher value to endangered species.

Somewhat like Russow, Holmes Rolston III begins his discussion of environmental ethics in “Why Species Matter” by explaining the difficulty of an ethic concerning species. Rolston explicates this challenge when he describes, “A species lacks moral agency, reflective self-awareness, sentience, or organic individuality. [Thus] The older, conservative ethic will be tempted to say that specific-level processes cannot count morally” (477). So where are we to look, if traditional approaches to intrinsic value fail?

Interestingly, Rolston opts to argue that we can in fact use traditional ethical considerations to attribute value to species as a whole. He begins to consider species as analogous to individuals, and comes to conclude that we do find the most necessary prerequisite processes of value in species after all: “defending a particular form of life, pursuing a pathway through the world, resisting death (extinction), regenerating, maintaining a normative identity over time, expressing creative resilience by discovering survival skills” (478). By arguing that we do find some of the individual’s most morally relevant traits at the level of species, Rolston concludes that species as such must also share in the same moral rights as the individual.

The fact that we find this intrinsic value in species has important implications regarding extinction. Continuing the analogy between individual and species, Rolston explains that we ought to consider the extinction of a species in similar terms to the death of an individual. However, Rolston takes this idea further and concludes that the extinction of a species is even worse than the death of an individual in that the loss of a species represents a superkilling. He coins this term to emphasize the idea that the loss of a species is more than just the loss of some individuals, it is the loss of an entire type of individual. As he puts it, “a lost individual is always reproducible; [but] a lost species is never reproducible” (478). Thus any endangered species deserves significant protection, and extinction must be considered a tragedy and moral failure. Rolston reinforces our duty to protect animals by characterizing human beings as the “sole moral species,” and the only species capable of understanding the world and predicting consequences. Rolston concludes, “The duties that such power and vision generate no longer attach simply to individuals or persons but are emerging duties to specific forms of life” (478). Thus, species have value, and therefore deserve rights of protection; and furthermore, humans have a moral duty to defend those rights and protect species from extinction.

Ben Bradley also begins his theory with a debate over the nature of value to be found in species, and he defines the two fundamental human approaches to the issue: Conservationism, and Preservationism. As seen in cases before, Bradley quickly dismisses Conservationism for its belief merely in the extrinsic value or usefulness of species. Instead, Bradley idealizes the Preservationists for their belief that animals deserve protection for some reason independent of their relation to humans. Interestingly, Bradley abandons the intrinsic-value approaches of Russow and Rolston, but explains that there are more possible types of value than simply intrinsic or instrumental. Instead Bradley bases his Preservationist approach upon a set of new extrinsic relations, which locate a different type of value in species (though ultimately the same moral rights to protection).

Bradley’s justification of Preservationism results from the combination of two sources of value: Contributory Value, and the principle of bonum variationis (44). Bradley’s idea of Contributory Value can be best explained through an analogy. Consider a masterpiece work of art. An individual dab of paint from the work might have very little or even no value in itself (it might be an ugly color, for example). However, it is easy to see that this relatively valueless part, when combined with all the other dabs of color, contributes to a greater whole that is more valuable than the sum of its parts. It is this sort of part-whole relationship that Bradley attributes to species and the larger world, where each species’ existence contributes to the greater overall value of the world.

The second aspect of Bradley’s view explains how exactly species contribute to the overall world value. Brentano’s bonum variationis, states that all else being equal, it is better to have a combination of different things, than a combination of similar things. Intuitively this makes sense in everyday contexts. Bradley explains how this principle can apply equally as strongly to the context of species in the world in terms of diversity, and he concludes that it is better to have a specifically diverse world, than a world with a high degree of homogeneity.

The combination of these two value systems founds Bradley’s theory: Individual species are valuable for their contribution to diversity, and thus their contribution to the greater overall value of the world. This formulation represents a sound justification for a Preservationist attitude, and yields some important results. Firstly, this view allows for the higher valuation of endangered species, in that the loss of a species would represent a loss of valuable diversity. Second, this theory accounts for the intuition that it would be even worse to lose the last alligator, for example, if it were also the last reptile, because of the resulting loss of an even higher level of diversity. Finally, the extinction of a species, even if eventually replaced by a new species, would lead to an overall loss in value of the world during the interim time period.

We now have three theories, each claiming to be the proper way of attributing value and rights to species, and protection to endangered species. But each theory is different. Could they all be right? Are any of them right? In order to come to some final conclusions about whether species deserve protection, we must begin looking at the problems of each of the theories above, and also consider any larger potential problems with their shared approach of deriving moral rights from species-value.

The most evident problem with Russow’s theory lies in her use of aesthetics to ascribe value. Basically, aesthetics is just far too subjective of a source of value to bear any enduring or objective moral weight. Clearly every person would ascribe a different aesthetic value to different species based on their own personal experiences or preferences. How can we compose moral categories about the proper treatment of species if the basis of this morality changes with every different opinion? Russow might argue that there are in fact objective standards of aesthetic value (like symmetry, or other features of cuteness, etc.); but we can hardly be expected to calculate these in every circumstance. Furthermore, it still seems that people would often disagree over the accuracy of these “objective” aesthetic principles. Another issue is that aesthetics too readily excludes species that are considered common or ugly. The fact that her theory blatantly leaves room for some species to be categorized as aesthetically valueless (and therefore excluded from any protection) chafes at our intuitions that every species deserves a certain amount of protection – even if it is boring, common, or ugly.

Rolston’s theory fails by not strongly enough connecting ethics of individuals to the ethics of species. He uses a number of convincing analogies to make us feel a sort of similarity between the functioning of individuals and the functioning of a species; but analogy is surely too weak of a connection to justify transferring an entire ethical system from one category to another. Put differently, it may seem to us that a species does in fact behave like an individual, but do species really behave at all? Upon further reflection, it seems that species are not really a functioning entity at all, but instead merely a form of categorization, or a property shared by a collection of individuals. Along this vein, it would also turn out that by simply reclassifying species, we would be able to change the intrinsic value of the world, which should not be permissible under any serious ethical standard.

Bradley’s theory seems to circumvent some of the problems present in Russow’s and Rolston’s ethics by avoiding the issue of intrinsic value. Bradley opts out of intrinsic value, and describes a new source of value – the contribution of each species to the overall world-value through diversity. This source of value possesses objectivity in that we can clearly define what we mean by diversity; and this view does not confuse the fact that a species is ultimately just a category that describes a collection of individual organisms.

Bradley’s theory however, is not without fault. The contributory value of species hinges upon the fact that diversity really is a significant aspect of overall world-value. Yet he provides practically no justification for our maintaining this fact, other than to explain its intuitive appeal! Clearly the issue is debatable: couldn’t we imagine a more homogenous other-world that functions equally as well as, if not more efficiently than ours? In this case, species would have no value, because diversity would not be a significant factor in the overall world-value. Bradley might contest this hypothetical musing, and explain that in our actual world diversity is valuable. But where is his justification? His explanation of bonum variationis is so simplified that it almost seems like the value of diversity comes merely from our own preferences. This subjectivity would bring us back to the problems of Russow’s theory. Until Bradley provides more justification, his theory does not hold necessarily (as he seems to assume).

Ultimately the problems with each of these theories stem from the same issue: value. Each of the authors approaches the issue of species-rights in the same way: by trying to unearth the real value of species in an attempt to point to their moral significance and rights to protection. Instinctively, however, it seems that there is a fundamental problem with a type of approach that requires such effort and results in such confusion with each different attempt. Does this mean that species do not deserve protection, since we cannot seem to come up with a flawless moral category about them? Certainly not, but we clearly need to change our approach.

It seems that we must abandon the search for ethical proofs, and instead focus on a new way of thinking. Interestingly, others have come to this same conclusion and formulated the notion of Deep Ecology. Deep Ecology’s ideal is a process of self-realization through which the individual comes to understand himself as a part of a much broader Self, in which all other members of the biosphere are united. Arne Ness defines this process as identification: “a spontaneous, non-rational, but not irrational, process through which the interests or interests of another being are reacted to as our own interest or interests” (222). The natural outcome of this Self-realization consists in what deep ecologists call Biocentric Equality – the idea that all organisms, as parts of an interrelated whole, are equal in intrinsic worth.

Thus, we suddenly discover in Deep Ecology the same intrinsic value that formerly proved so elusive! As Naess explains, “Insofar as we consider ourselves… to have an intrinsic value, the widening identification inevitably leads to the attribution of… intrinsic value to all living beings” (225). The fundamental difference between these approaches, is that Deep Ecology sets no requirements of value other than the fact of an animals’ existence (this is called autotelic value). There is no specific source of value in animals, as the above theories struggled to prove; but instead, all possible sources of value help to explain the simple fact that all animals do have intrinsic value. Significantly, we now find in Deep Ecology that a genuine desire to protect other members of the greater Self has replaced our former feeling of moral obligation to protect a species (this difference is explained explicitly by Deep Ecologists as the difference between true identification and its opposite, alienation, respectively).

An objector might argue, however, that the Deep Ecologist has accounted for value in individual organisms only, and has neglected to prove that value exists at the level of species (our original concern). In other words, the Deep Ecologist’s conclusion that individual living organisms have intrinsic value and deserve protection does not clearly necessitate our protection of endangered species. Instinctively, it seems obvious that the Deep Ecologist would argue for the protection of species, but where specifically in the theory can we find his justification? Impressively, Deep Ecologists have built into their theory a way of resolving situations where conflicts of interest inevitably occur (such as a situation where we must choose between saving lives of members of a common species, or of an endangered one). Naess explains that there are two considerations we must take into account when forced to choose between conflicting interests: vitalness, and nearness. The way these considerations work is fairly self-evident, with the more vital and/or the nearer interest having priority over the less vital and/or farther interest (225). As Naess explains, “the importance of nearness is, to a large degree, dependent upon vital interests of communities rather than individuals” (226). Purposefully vague, these concepts allow for the inclusion of species within this idea of a community. Naess confirms this inclusion when he concludes, “If the nonvital interests of… a species, conflict with the vital interests of… other species, the rules give priority to the [other] species” (226). Thus, while species as such may not have value, species do have a vital interest in continuing to exist. The extreme vitalness of this interest within every species will almost always result in our decision to ensure that species’ preservation (though the theory still maintains the possibility of even more extreme circumstances in which extinction might be justified, which seems a prudent precaution).

Deep Ecology not only successfully accounts for the protection of species, but also easily incorporates the most positive aspects from all of the failed theories above. Russow’s aesthetic value can certainly be a factor in our respect for other beings. Rolston’s notion of superkilling emphasizes the vitalness of a species’ interest in survival. And we can easily understand Bradley’s idea of diversity-value as a definite component in the overall value of the Self. By rejecting strict moral category, and promoting a holistic mode of relation to the larger world, Deep Ecology offers us a fundamental flexibility in our environmental concerns that ultimately enables our successful valuation and protection of both individuals and species.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Value of Knowledge and Its Study

From ancient to modern times, philosophers have continuously wrestled with the issue of knowledge – what it is, whether we have it, and what its value is. Jonathon Kvanvig frames an important question that seems to incorporate all of these concerns, with the title of his article, “Why should inquiring minds want to know?” Why has an entire philosophical discipline arisen to address this very question? Clearly the issue of the value of knowledge is central to Epistemology, and unless we can prove that knowledge does have some sort of value, it seems that we might as well stop wasting our time with inquiries into the specifics of knowledge.

So what is the value of knowledge? Where should we begin to look? John Greco, in his “Knowledge as Credit for True Belief,” proposes two essential questions that are helpful in framing our approach to this value: “The first is the ‘What is knowledge’ question. This question asks what conditions a person must satisfy to count as knowing. The second is the ‘What are we doing?’ question. This question asks what illocutionary act is being performed when we say that someone knows” (116). It seems that epistemologists have, for the most part, accepted a common answer to the first question, where knowledge is Justified, True, Un-Gettiered Belief (JTB+). The second question, however, is a much more interesting and potentially illuminating one. What are we doing when we attribute knowledge? What is accomplished by this distinction? What is the purpose of distinguishing and categorizing a belief as knowledge? By characterizing knowledge attribution as an active doing, Greco offers a simple framework through which we may begin approaching the value of knowledge. If we can figure out what we are doing, we can more effectively determine the purposes motivating that action; and if we can determine our purposes, we can more effectively uncover the underlying value of knowledge that inspires this behavior.

Greco provides a very interesting answer to the “What are we doing” question. Ultimately, he concludes that what we are doing when we attribute knowledge to a person is “to give credit [to a person S] for true belief… we imply that it is not just an accident that S believes the truth… we mean to say that S gets things right with respect to p because S has reasoned in an appropriate way, or perceived things accurately, etc.” (116). In other words, our attribution of knowledge represents a commendation of sorts to a person for their exemplary process; to distinguish both that person and his belief as sound, safe, and responsible. The knower has earned and deserves special credit for the conscientious beliefs that he holds. We award this credit by distinguishing the knower's conclusions as something more than mere beliefs, as some elevated or special type of belief that is epistemically sound not only in its content, but also in its process of conception. This idea of “intellectual credit attribution” (123), is intuitively very appealing: it offers a straightforward and accurate description of what we really are doing when we distinguish beliefs as knowledge, and it also maintains a broad enough characterization that any form of epistemic approach can be understood as accomplishing this same type of action.

Having accepted Greco’s explanation of knowledge attribution as an ascription of intellectual credit, we may now begin asking questions that might lead us closer to the value of knowledge. Why do we acknowledge intellectual credit? What are our purposes in doing so? Why do we want or feel the need to determine whether a person has appropriately come to his conclusions? Initially, one might begin to see a sort of functional value behind these attributions; by designating which beliefs are sound enough to be trusted, or by identifying certain people as having knowledge, we may have a better idea of which will be the most useful beliefs for people to rely upon as they operate in the world. But Greco’s idea of credit surpasses a merely functional value to knowledge. For in that case, there would really be no distinction at all between knowledge and true belief – both could be used with equal effectiveness. Instead, Greco’s intellectual credit attaches a fundamental significance to the person and his process used in forming the beliefs. Put simply, there is more motivating our ascriptions of knowledge than a mere acknowledgement of a belief’s accuracy. We can see this clearly in his final definition of knowledge, “S knows p only if believing the truth regarding p reveals S’s reliable cognitive character. Alternatively: only if S’s reliable cognitive character is an important necessary part of the total set of causal factors that give rise to S’s believing the truth regarding p” (123). Thus to limit the value of knowledge to mere functionality, and to conclude (as Kvanvig seems to do) that there is no need to distinguish knowledge from true belief, would be far too reductive a characterization of Greco’s conception of knowledge. Instead, our attributions of knowledge are motivated by more than mere functionality; instead, our purposes behind ascriptions of intellectual credit are primarily characterized by a respect for the character of the person, and for the responsibility of his intellectual process.

Having clarified the general nature of our purposes in attributing intellectual credit, we may now begin to approach the value of knowledge more effectively. We have established a general idea of what we are doing, and, given this starting point, we begin to determine why it is valuable to attribute this intellectual credit and to designate certain beliefs as knowledge. At this point, we must begin to draw upon previous studies of knowledge. Thus we enter the arena of Epistemology, for where else would we expect to find clues about the value of knowledge than in the discipline dedicated to the study of this subject. What we must now do is survey the entire discipline and try to determine whether there is some sort of common goal that persists throughout all of the various approaches to knowledge. To that end, the most effective strategy for finding some sort of common goal or value would seem to be a comparison of two rivaling approaches to knowledge; if we can find some shared motivation between two fundamentally opposite formulations of knowledge, we will have found a strong indicator of what the value of knowledge might be. So where might we find two such rivaling theories? The most fundamental divide in epistemological thought is the distinction between the Internalist and the Externalist approaches to knowledge. Each of these theories maintains the same definition of knowledge as JTB+, but each proposes entirely different requirements for which beliefs actually count as knowledge. Bearing Greco’s credit in mind, we must now continue our search by analyzing the differences of these two approaches, in the hopes of discovering some fundamental, common aim.

Internalist approaches to knowledge emphasize the epistemic responsibility of the knower, where a person is responsible only if he has some sort of understanding as to why his belief is JTB+. Kent Bach summarizes this approach most precisely when he says, “Internalism requires that a person have a ‘cognitive grasp’ of whatever makes his belief justified” (BD 201). He must be rational in his conclusions about the belief, and he must be able to identify the evidence that supports his belief; he must be able to explain his cognitive process, and be able to defend the use of that cognitive process.

The Externalist approach is essentially the negation of the Internalist’s requirements. Where the Internalist requires a cognitive grasp of a belief, or an ability to explain why the belief is justified, the Externalist theory, as Bach explains, “allows that the source of justification can be ‘external to the person’s subjective conception of the situation’” (BD 201). Bach goes on to conclude that epistemic responsibility is “neither sufficient nor even necessary for justified belief. Since a believer can reasonably and responsibly rely on false principles it is not sufficient. It is not necessary because certain beliefs, such as perceptual beliefs, can be justified… [without] the question of rationality/responsibility [arising]” (BD 201). For the Externalist, all that matters for a belief to qualify as knowledge is that it be tied to the way the world actually is. Another way to explain the intuition behind the Externalist is to rename this approach as Reliabilism. As long as the person reliably produces a belief (i.e. as long as the belief turns out to be true), it does not matter whether or not he can explain why or how the belief ought to be maintained; the belief simply is knowledge.

So what do we see in these two approaches? The Internalist requirement of epistemic responsibility clearly coincides with Greco’s idea of awarding intellectual credit, for if the person has processed his JTB+ in a way that he can describe and defend, the Internalist rewards him with knowledge. Thus we have a theory whose most fundamental purpose is to attribute intellectual credit to a person for their epistemic merit. But what of the Externalist approach, which Bach argues fails to require any epistemic responsibility? Is there then no credit attribution? If not, then we have reached a wall in our search for the value of knowledge. If the Externalist approach does not coincide with the idea of knowledge as credit, we must start all over in determining the Externalist’s purposes in defining knowledge; and if we do not know their general purposes, we will surely have a nearly impossible time of uncovering the value of knowledge that inspires those purposes.

Looking at the Externalist approach in general, it does seem that there is in fact some sort of credit attribution going on. The very act of distinguishing certain beliefs and not others as knowledge seems to be a form of credit ascription. Let us return to Greco’s proposed definition of credit in general: “A person S deserves credit of kind K for action A only if (a) A has value of kind K, (b) A can be ascribed to S, and (c)… S’s K-relevant character is an important necessary part of the total set of causal factors that give rise to S’s doing A” (121). Is something like this going on in the Externalist approach to knowledge? (a) is certainly satisfied, for the action (i.e. forming a belief) concerns intellectual value. (b) is satisfied, because S is the person who maintains the belief. (c) seems to be the distinction we must really focus on. As far as I can tell, (c) is satisfied if you read it as the following: S’s intellectual character is an important necessary part of the total set of causal factors that give rise to S’s concluding a belief. According to the Externalist, the person must be using a reliable process in forming the belief. Thus, even though the Externalist allows that the reliability of the process could be entirely beyond S’s cognitive grasp, it still seems that S is responsible for developing the belief in the first place. So long as the belief is JTB+, the person has acted reliably and therefore intellectually responsibly and deserves credit. Bach’s characterization of there being no epistemic responsibility involved in Externalist approaches is therefore misleading, for the Externalist does turn out to require a sort of responsibility in intellectual action; the two systems simply have different definitions of and requirements for responsibility.

With intellectual credit now located in the Externalist approach, we are able to continue comparing Internalism to Externalism under the framework of Greco’s theory of knowledge as credit attribution. Again, by analyzing the differences in their approaches to knowledge, we hope to find some sort of fundamental goal shared by the two theories, which will ideally lead us to the overall value of knowledge. So what are the overarching differences? From what we have investigated above, it turns out that Internalism awards intellectual credit for responsible conduct; while Externalism awards intellectual credit for reliable accuracy. What does this difference suggest?

Upon first glance, this characterization seems to suggest a difference in the very conception of knowledge. Internalism considers knowledge as something one can produce through his own efforts; whereas Externalism considers knowledge as some independently existing unit that one comes to possess. Here, it seems we have found a fundamental difference between these two approaches (as well as the source of their titles). For the Internalist, knowledge is an internal development; and for the Externalist, knowledge is an external object. While we do seem to have arrived at an essential difference between the two approaches, we also seem to have stumbled into a potential problem for our investigation. If these theories are not trying to explain the same thing after all, but instead are operating under entirely different definitions of knowledge, we have no real basis for comparison. In that case, each theory will likely turn out to be motivated by different values of knowledge, based on their different definitions of knowledge. Any hope of finding a fundamental value of Knowledge will not be achieved for we will be comparing entirely different ideals.

Do these different approaches really refer to entirely different ideals? How could they be describing for the same Knowledge, when in one approach knowledge is something that we earn or produce, and in the other approach it is something that we uncover or attain? Let us turn to Bach once again for an answer. He explains that the real issue here does not concern the definition of Knowledge, but only the definition of Justification. So what is the nature of this difference in Justification? How could this be relevant to each theory’s approach to knowledge? As it turns out, this distinction is the source of the fundamental difference between these two approaches.

Let us turn to Bach, who provides insight into this very issue: “I propose that we distinguish between a person being justified in holding a belief and the belief itself being justified… a person is justified in believing something to the extent that he holds the belief rationally and responsibly. However a belief can be justified even in the absence of any action on the part of the believer” (BD 205). This distinction provides a remarkably intuitive and simple resolution to the apparent difficulty of different definitions of Justification. Not only does this distinction maintain the definition of knowledge as JTB+ by locating a form justification in both cases, but also it identifies Justification as the fundamental difference in the ways that Internalism and Externalism approach knowledge. Knowledge itself is the same in each approach, but the source of that knowledge is to be found in entirely different locations – in the person for the Internalist, and in the belief itself for the Externalist.

Having spent much of this paper analyzing the various differences between these two epistemic approaches, we have finally identified the fundamental source of these disparities. By pinpointing the J of JTB+ in two different locations, these approaches attempt to approach the same goal of Knowledge by different means. Thus, we have finally established both the common epistemological purpose behind these two approaches, that of crediting a person with knowledge, and the fundamental way in which these approaches differ, their locations of justification. We are now in a position to begin determining the value of knowledge that has motivated the development of these different approaches.

To locate this common value, we must now explore more thoroughly the fundamental similarity between the approaches. For this, we must look at the idea of credit, which we have seen to exist in all theories of knowledge attribution. What is the value in crediting a person as responsible for his JTB+? Why do we want to attribute intellectual credit to ourselves and to others? What does this intellectual credit provide us? Perhaps the most straightforward answer to this last question is simply security. By designating a person as deserving of credit, and by designating standards by which all people can earn this intellectual credit, it seems that what we are really doing is securing or affirming both the existence and the attainability of knowledge. Why is such affirmation necessary? What does knowledge really provide us with? What is the value of knowledge?

Let us consider the negation of knowledge: Skepticism. The Skeptic says that we have no knowledge. That we cannot be certain of any belief as JTB+, for we could actually be a brain in a vat, or the victim of some evil demon who has composed for us an elaborate and all-encompassing deception. Why does this skeptical possibility make us uncomfortable? Because it denies the value of our existence! It says that our lives are not as they seem, and indeed, we are incapable of determining what our lives might actually be. Essentially, Skepticism is a form of Nihilism, where nothing has value because we do not know anything about our existence with any certainty. The Skeptical argument undermines the value of our very lives.

By considering its opposite, we now begin to see what the value of Knowledge consists in. The value of knowledge comes from its affirmation of our existence. It preserves value in our lives. We are not just brains in vats, and we are not just blindly deceived and unwitting instruments. We exist. We are valuable. And most importantly, we know that we exist, and we know that we are valuable. Knowledge offers us an escape from Skepticism, and a way of denying even the possibility that our lives are pointless. It is an escape from nihilism. If there were no knowledge, then there would be no value to any aspect of our lives. For why would we care about our existence if we did not know it to be real? It is because of this value that we want and need knowledge. And every single belief that qualifies as JTB+ reaffirms for us the fact that our lives are as we believe them to be.

Having established a general idea of the value of knowledge, we may now return to our comparison on Internalist and Externalism. What is the value of these epistemological approaches? We can now understand that Internalism and Externalism are two epistemological theories that offer us different ways of preserving knowledge and maintaining value in our lives. Essentially, these approaches are valuable for their ability to respond to the skeptical challenge of “How do you know that you know?” The Internalist says you can earn knowledge; any time you have a cognitive grasp of a JTB+, any time you can explain why you hold a belief, why it is right, and why your process was responsible, then you can rest assured that you have knowledge, and that your understanding of the world and your life is safe. The Externalist defends the existence of knowledge based on the reliable conclusion that the world is actually what it seems to be; any time you come to have a JTB+ through some reliable process, then you have accurately come to understand something about the world, and you can rest assured that you have knowledge as long as the belief is correct. Essentially, the Internalist offers a way of preserving knowledge by explaining away Skepticism; while the Externalist offers a way of preserving knowledge by reliably rejecting any relevance of Skepticism. Internalists deny skepticism; Externalists ignore skepticism.

So given our desire for knowledge, and our understanding of what its value is, we may now ask a final, practical question: Which approach is more successful in preserving our knowledge in the face of Skepticism? This is a difficult problem to address, and my intuition leads me to initially conclude that some sort of contextualism might be involved –in some cases you would rather just ignore the skeptic, but in other cases you might need to explain away the skeptical argument. For example, whenever we are asked how we know that we are not being deceived by an evil demon… our only way to preserve knowledge might be simply to ignore the issue and trust the reliability of the fact that things simply are as they appear to be, according the Externalist model. With a different example we find the Internalist model most useful. For example, if someone were to call into doubt a person’s belief concerning their precise whereabouts… we may be able to preserve that knowledge by pointing to a map, or explaining how you have been there before, or showing him your GPS device. Intuitively, it seems that there are a wide variety of cases where one approach might more effectively preserve knowledge then the other.

I do not want to spend time trying to categorize these different contexts, but I instead want to emphasize what each of these approaches offers. These Epistemological systems define knowledge, tell us how we might produce or attain it, and leave us with a steady foundation upon which we might reasonably conclude that we do have knowledge. As we have seen above, the possibility of knowledge saves us from the skeptical and ultimately nihilistic conclusion that we know nothing about our lives, and that our lives therefore have no value. Thus we find Epistemology to be more than simply the study of knowledge, or some series of logical or semantic debates. Instead it seems that Epistemology provides a fundamental service to humanity by preserving value in our lives through establishing foundations upon which we can reasonably hope and even conclude that we do have knowledge, that we do exist in the ways we believe ourselves to exist, and that our lives do have value.


Monday, May 4, 2009

Long Run Sustainability through Omnilateral Action

There have been many recent philosophical attempts to limit our reckless treatment of the environment. Generally, philosophers opt for one of two different approaches to this issue: an appeal to the ideal ethical behavior of individuals, or an appeal to the duties of society. The individual level encourages people to reevaluate their consumption-driven behavior, and to recognize that a better and more satisfying life is one lived more simply. The consequence of many individuals reducing consumption, these philosophers say, will be a more sustainable overall relationship with the environment. Philosophers who focus on the societal level argue that multilateral, cooperative efforts are the only effective means of reducing our negative impacts on the environment. They conclude that we have a collective duty to establish global cooperative agreements where better treatment of the earth will be enforced.

In his “Economic Consumption, Pleasure, and the Good Life,” Phillip Cafaro adopts an approach based on the individual. He indirectly approaches the issue of human beings’ negative impact on the climate through an ethical investigation of the ideal life. Cafaro begins by comparing our modern lives (as determined by economics), to the good life (as formulated by ancient virtue-ethicists). Cafaro characterizes modern economics as a system that “generally equate[s] increased consumption and wealth with a better life” (476). At the individual level, Cafaro explains, economics is a problematically “preference neutral” theory, where no one person’s desires are any better or worse than anyone else’s. At the broader social level, economics promotes growth and development, with “a strong bias in favor of ‘more is better’” (478). Thus, Cafaro sums up the overall consequence of modern economics’ values where “Increased consumption… literally cannot be bad” (478).

Ultimately, Cafaro takes issue with this modern society and claims, “such preference neutrality, however, is certainly mistaken” (476), for there are higher values which ought to be taken into consideration on top of one’s own personal preferences. As an alternative, Cafaro presents the Aristotelian model of the good life. For Aristotle and other virtue-ethicists, “a human being has capacities and is capable of achievements that far outstrip those of the other animals. To ignore these possibilities and, for example, to focus solely on consuming, is to sell ourselves short” (475). Additionally, Cafaro notes a number of studies that have quantified the fact that lives directed entirely towards gaining wealth and pleasure “are not the key to happiness or personal development” (480). Cafaro does grant that “the good life includes pleasure” (475), but he goes on immediately to explain that pleasure is only one contributing factor to a good life. Instead, human beings are capable of much higher values and more fulfilling lives: “Lives devoted to personal excellence and to the pursuit of knowledge are better than lives devoted primarily to pleasure” (475).

Intuitively, there are many reasons for adopting individual actions that indirectly promote a better relationship with the environment. Firstly, Cafaro endorses decreased personal consumption as valuable in itself – i.e. an action that contributes directly to one’s own happiness and well-being. Secondly, Mark A. Burch emphasizes the instrumental value of decreased consumption when he suggests, “If voluntary simplicity were adopted by all the world’s people, it would at least be plausible to foresee a sustainable, healthy, and reasonably peaceable future for all humanity” (35). A third benefit to voluntary simplicity that Burch notes consists in the fact that individual actions can be completed immediately: “The critical decision before us is whether we voluntarily embrace the practice of simplicity now or see it involuntarily imposed by circumstances which, through neglect or denial, become self-stoking transnational emergencies that no longer allow for choice” (35). Implicitly, this value suggests that this immediacy makes the focus on the individual a better approach than an emphasis on the societal level of action.

I disagree with the above arguments as they relate to sustainability. Cafaro’s first point is of course legitimate: there is much value to be had not only from decreasing consumption, but also from reevaluating our economic society in general. Nevertheless, he seems to be prioritizing a semantic moral dilemma over an environmental crisis; this does not seem to me a very ethical prioritization. Secondly, Burch’s argument that decreased individual consumption on a massive scale will provide us the sustainability we need does not seem strong enough to me. Individuals can buy less and less, but what about massive manufacturing plants that are contributing so significantly to the pollution of the atmosphere. Additionally, it seems unlikely that any significant amount of people would voluntarily opt for this lifestyle at all. I also take issue with Burch’s third assumption that social programs will take up the environmental cause far too late, and only after a series of natural calamities. Yes, unilateral actions can be taken immediately, but I am not yet convinced that our time would not be better spent in the long run by pressing for societal, governmental change, which would affect more large-scale destructive behaviors.

My more overarching qualm with theories that focus only on individual actions is that they approach the issue of climate change indirectly. Their leading priority is that of changing peoples’ behavior on ethical grounds. According to these theorists, it is merely a fortunate bonus that we gain increased sustainability. What we really need instead is an approach that will directly address our poor treatment of the environment.

Given these issues with purely individual approaches to ethical environmental behavior, we may now examine a societal approach. Baylor Johnson likens our present treatment of the world to a Tragedy of the Commons in his essay, “Ethical Obligations in a Tragedy of the Commons.” The Tragedy of the Commons is a unique situation where many people are using up a given resource. There are three unique conditions about the ToC situation that Johnson lays out: (1) Each individual benefits from use of the commons and loses from refraining, (2) One individual’s reduced use will encourage others to increase their use, (3) There is no communication possible that might prevent aggregate harm to the resource by organizing multiple individual acts of restraint (279). These conditions do seem to hold to a certain extent in our current relationship with the environment. Thus it is clear how Johnson concludes that because there is no guarantee that others will do the same, “no one has a moral obligation to reduce use of the commons unilaterally” (282). For why would one person reduce consumption if his action will both lessen his own utility, and have none of the intended effects?

Johnson does not give up hope, but instead emphasizes a different moral obligation for individuals: “to work for a collective agreement that could avert a potential ToC” (283). By creating a formal agreement, whereby all individuals will cooperate to reduce use of the environment at the same time, society will be able to enforce and regulate an improved treatment of the earth. Only once society has adopted such a contract will individuals’ actions have any real effect – for one will then be able to reduce consumption and accept some loss in utility, in the knowledge that he has contributed to improving the environment. Thus the most pressing moral duty is for society to create such a contract.

There are a number of aspects to this approach that seem to suggest that we should adopt the societal approach over the individual approach. Firstly, built into Johnson’s argument is the fact that individual acts are simply ineffectual when dealing with such a massive issue. Secondly, this approach promotes policies that will deal directly with the issue of environmental destruction. This lines up with the idea (also present in Kates’ article) that there is simply no time to wait for indirect effects to take place, which may take generations; the crisis is imminent and we must act directly. Thirdly, once this societal obligation is accomplished, individual reductions in consumption will follow as a necessary result.

Again, I find these arguments too weak to stand up to any realistic considerations. First of all, Johnson seems too quick in ruling out the possibility and potential impact of widespread individual changes in behavior. (Granted, above I argued against this very possibility, but neither side has shown any proof!) Secondly, it does not seem certain that just because a societal policy is aimed directly at accomplishing more sustainable human behaviors, that such sustainable behaviors will be achieved. Any policymaker knows that there are always unintended effects. Thirdly, and related to this second objection, it is not at all obvious that people will embrace this top-down social policy. It seems there could potentially be serious resistance against any laws requiring a change in peoples’ established ways of life. Thus societal policy may not work at all, or take longer to work than the natural adoption of simpler living.

Overall, the societal approach does initially seem to solve some of the problems of the individual approach; nevertheless, it intuitively seems that such a societal change could never happen without a change first occurring at the level of the individual. If there is no broad base of support, how could any legislation be passed that would require such reductions in environmental usage? By the very nature of our political system, we could never expect a law representing Johnson’s cooperative agreement to be passed without a large segment of the population embracing these values in the first place.

There seems to be a fundamental and inescapable problem with these approaches, and it is clearly seen in the broad objection I have just presented above. It seems that the distinction made between individual behavior and societal duties is an inappropriate and unnecessary split of two fundamentally united aspects. For there could be no society without individuals! And how impotent individuals would be without a society! Each of these two aspects establishes and empowers the other, and to that extent, they ought not to be separated in ethical considerations.

Additionally, by emphasizing only one of these two levels, these philosophers have apparently lost sight of the fact that our destruction of the environment is an urgent global crisis that must be dealt with immediately; time spent on excessively narrow and overly reductive ethical arguments is time wasted. We simply cannot hope that focusing on a single approach will be able effect the sort of massive global change that is required for achieving environmental sustainability. What we need right now is crisis management, and not some impeccably developed or perfectly consistent ethical model. What we need right now is not unilateral or multilateral decisions, but omnilateral action!

To that end, I propose that any effort to demarcate one of these approaches as right and the other as wrong (or less important) is ethically irresponsible; what we need instead is an ethical formula that integrates the individual level with the societal level. Such a unification of these two approaches into a single, integrated theory will result in the necessary widespread and immediate change in all of our behavior – at both the individual and societal levels. Not only will this theory be far more effective in preventing any further damage to our ecosphere; but also, this theory will be far more enduring and widely accepted for its appropriate integration of individuals and society.

Lester W. Milbraith begins to approach this ideal model in his essay, “ Redefining the Good Life in a Sustainable Society.” His primary approach concerns the individual level of behavior and the good life, as seen in the title of his work; yet he adopts a much more realistic and integrated approach than any of the ones we have seen thus far. He offers an example of an apparent tension between environmental concerns over the endangered spotted owl, and the livelihood of loggers who depend upon cutting down the owls’ home forests. Milbraith’s approach to this issue begins to clarify the sense of integration he finds between the individual, society, and the ecosphere: “The central question is not whether people or spotted owls are more important; they are both important. No one is suggesting that people must die for spotted owls to live. The question, rather, is what values should have the greatest priority as such policies are made?” (201). In other words, there is no one best or most important aspect; all three must be considered as important and the final policy must depend on what is best for all three as a collective whole.

Whereas other theorists have singled out only one aspect as the primary concern, Milbraith spells out a fundamental connection between the individual, society, and the environment:
"Individuals desiring quality of life must give top priority to protection and preservation of their biocommunity (their ecosystem). Second priority must go to preservation and protection of the good functioning of their social community. Only when people are careful to protect the viability of their two communities is it acceptable for individuals to pursue quality of life according to their own personal desires. (201)"
Thus Milbraith relates the three in a hierarchical fashion, where each depends upon the one above it in order for its own flourishing. The individual cannot flourish without a functioning society, and the society cannot function without a healthy environment.

Intuitively this makes sense, though it was not quite what I had in mind. It seems to me that even a hierarchical relationship between the three is unnecessarily reductive. Instead, I would argue that the three function simultaneously, as a single cohesive unit, where the damage of one directly damages the others, and the flourishing of all contribute to the flourishing of each. Nevertheless, Milbraith is on the right track, and perhaps his theory is the closest approximation of the ideal I have in mind.

I can imagine many objections to my proposed ideal. Firstly, this sort of integration of individuals and society is a nice theory, but it could be that things simply do not work like that. There are people, and there are societies, and there is nature; all three function at the same time and in the same place, but are independently operating entities. A second and more pragmatic objection would be that even if such an ideal were an accurate characterization of the world, the achievement of such a massive integration project, where individuals and society all hop on board the sustainability train simultaneously, seems impossible. Included in this objection would be the arguments that each approach had against the other: that it is highly unlikely or impossible that people will change unless society has formed some sort of agreement or enforcement, and that it is highly unlikely or impossible that society can change without some change first happening among individuals.

While these arguments are all certainly valid, I believe I can provide sufficient responses to each of them. First of all, to claim that individuals, society, and the environment are entirely polarized and independent entities is even more absurd than to claim that they are interrelated. Here we can return to Milbraith’s conclusions – people comprise society, and society necessarily functions within the environment (for where else could it operate? This is simply the condition of our existence on Earth). Thus, a theory that unifies these three aspects seems much more realistic and much more natural a characterization of the way things actually are. In other words, the burden of proof rests on those who object to this unification, to prove that there is not a fundamental relationship between them all.

The second claim, which attacks the plausibility of such a theory being adopted, is a much more serious concern. Essentially, it seems that any change is for some reason very difficult to achieve. People are not happy with consumption and ecogluttony, but no significant amount of the population seems willing to change their behavior. Additionally, societies, governments, and social policies have proven exceptionally sluggish in their efforts. Whether that is caused by the political system, or just a general apathy or laziness, societal change does not seem to be happening. The beauty of a theory that integrates the individual level with the societal level, is that these two formerly isolated and struggling aspects would become mutually reinforcing. Instead of individuals having no hope in the possibility of societal change, and instead of society waiting for individuals to require a change in policy, we would have individuals and society acting as one cohesive unit. People would be motivated by the changes in policy to change their own behavior; while social policy changes would be reinforced and strengthened by the population’s adoption of simpler lives. Put differently, this unified theory would simply bypass the chicken-egg paradox – where one side is simply waiting for the other to act first. Both would act at once, as one.

In the end, it would turn out that change would be accomplished more easily if it occurred at both levels simultaneously, than if it occurred at each level independently. If this seems overly optimistic about real-world possibilities, I disagree. The world is in an environmental crisis, and the urgency of the situation is (or will be) strong enough to motivate this kind of simultaneous, omnilateral change. Perhaps the best part of such a theory is its ability to adopt the positive ideals of both approaches. The ideals of simpler living and the good life would become a fundamental part of both individuals’ lives and the overall social fabric. Additionally, the ideals of cooperative agreement and mutual enforcement of the necessary policies would carry over into all societal issues, and benefit everyone in the end. Ultimately, by uniting the individuals with society, and both with the environment, we would end up with a permanently sustainable existence.