Academic journal article Philosophy Today

A Mystical Response to Disvalue in Nature

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

A Mystical Response to Disvalue in Nature

Article excerpt

Holmes Rolston III has argued for the existence of intrinsic value in nature.1 As a result, he must give some account of its flip side: intrinsic disvalue in nature. The problem of disvalue in nature is similar to the traditional problem of evil, as Allen Carlson pointed out in his review of Rolston's book, Philosophy Gone Wild.2 Carlson and others3 have pointed out in detail the similarities between Rolston's solution to his "new problem of evil" and a solution to the traditional problem, which we find conclusively stated by John Hick.4 In this essay I shall show that, unsurprisingly, we can also discover parallels between weaknesses in this solution and weaknesses in Rolston's theory. In particular, Rolston, like Hick, cannot answer the forceful indictment of rationalist theodicies made by Dostoevsky through the character of Ivan Karamazov.5 Finally, I shall argue that a mystical response to the problem of evil can be adapted to the new problem of evil, thereby highlighting the need to accept a broader range of human means to grasping, valuing, and acting in the natural world.


Rolston argues for intrinsic value in nature as a foundation for environmental ethics: environmentally harmful human activities are wrong because non-human individuals, and the ecosystem as a whole, are intrinsically valuable. According to Rolston, value and hence disvalue are objectively present in the world. He says that value is not centred on humans: criteria for desirable actions go beyond resultant outcomes that satisfy human desires and utility. Nor is human regard the source of values, since values are present for non-human, and even non-sentient, individuals.

One difficulty with basing any human moral behaviour on the existence of natural values is this: if value is intrinsically present, so is disvalue. Food, shelter, and sex are valuable and natural; disease, death, and pain are disvaluable and just as natural. As Carlson pointed out, just as the existence of evil and suffering in the world appears to be evidence against the hypothesis of creation by a good God, similarly the existence of circumstances like pain, suffering, and death appears to argue against assigning value to the natural as such.

Rolston's answer to this is that it is not altogether wrong to say that there is disvalue in nature, but any view that sees nature as a whole as disvaluable is myopic. If a long or systematic view is taken, disvalue is "transmuted" into value. In fact any disvalue is localized, and a description of the systemic whole ought to emphasize the value that grows out of disvalue.

Predation is one example Rolston gives. Many individuals survive only by depriving other individuals of life. As Rolston says, "for a prey animal, it is bad to be eaten; death results."6 However, the prey's death results in value, pleasure, and life for the predator. Rolston argues that greater values, overall, result from predation. Both predator and prey species must become faster, more observant, more intelligent. Moreover, although the individual prey animal suffers, the species as a whole may benefit, since, for instance, the prey species' population is regulated. Also, humans were able to evolve as a result of predation since we are omnivores who have relied partly on hunting for survival; thus without predation-in a world of only plants, for instance"there would be no one to think."7 In general, predation is a disvalue only locally; the system as a whole requires predators in order to create the value that it does.

Nature's apparent indifference is another example. Unseasonably cold or warm temperatures can kill many animals, either outright or because the unseasonable weather coincides with their breeding season. Individual animals suffer. According to Rolston, however, the fact that these cases are anomalies shows that the animals are "satisfactory fits," and that nature is not indifferent but is usually nurturing. …

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