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.