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.