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Against Absolute Goodness$

Richard Kraut

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199844463

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199844463.001.0001

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Biodiversity

Biodiversity

Chapter:
(p.136) Chapter 23 Biodiversity
Source:
Against Absolute Goodness
Author(s):

Richard Kraut

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199844463.003.0023

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the concept of biodiversity. It argues that the more confident we are that the extinction of a species would or might involve a loss of what is good for someone—especially for humans but also for other living things—the more our confidence should grow that there is reason to prevent that loss. Variety for its own sake should not be our concern. In fact, we would have reason to be glad about the extinction of a species, if we could be confident that the members of that species would otherwise have had painful lives in which nothing good for them could be experienced. (Suppose a mad scientist has created a new form of life in order to torture the members of that new species. It would be best for those new creatures were their species to become extinct.) So we should reject the attempt to show that we need to think in terms of absolute goodness. It is not true that biodiversity is, quite simply, a good thing.

Keywords:   biodiversity, species, good, absolute goodness

The existence of a great diversity of species seems to be a desirable thing. How much diversity? Perhaps the greater, the better. But it looks as though there is no creature, human or nonhuman, for whom this diversity is good. The cardinal I see in my garden is not benefited, instrumentally or noninstrumentally, by the fact that the number of biological kinds scattered around the globe and the differences among them are vast. Nor is any other creature. Animals, plants, and organisms are instrumentally benefited or harmed only by the specific features of the local environment they happen to occupy, not by general facts about the diversity of biological kinds throughout the world. Yet the diminution that has taken place in recent decades of the world's variety of living things is widely regarded as a matter of concern. Why so? One reason among others might be that the universe is simply a better place for having within it a great diversity of living kinds, even if there is no one for whom that diversity is (p.137) beneficial. It is a better place because biodiversity is, quite simply, a good thing.1

So it might be said, but I suggest that skepticism about this thesis is in order. One problem is that biodiversity might have instrumental value for human beings, and it is difficult to be confident that we can bracket our awareness of those potential benefits and still maintain our conviction that biodiversity is noninstrumentally good. Medical advances often come in the wake of our investigation of biological kinds, and the wider array of natural laboratories there are in the world, the better our chances will be of using plants and animals to provide medical, nutritional and other sorts of benefits to human beings.

Even from the point of view of theoretical knowledge pursued for its own sake, we have reason to regret that a smaller variety of subjects is available for students of the natural world to study. If scientific knowledge is good for human beings, the diminution of objects for us to study is bad for us. Students of the ancient Greek world lament the fact that so many texts have been lost to us, and in the same way, we are reasonably concerned that there are so many fewer species of living things to which our intellectual curiosity might lead us. Future generations of human beings who will, we hope and reasonably expect, take a direct interest in studying other species will have a smaller array of fascinating things to learn about.

Furthermore, we should not lose sight of the obvious fact that the lives of animals and plants can be (and in favorable circumstances are) good for those plants and animals. When a species reproduces itself, it brings into existence new individuals who are (p.138) benefited (instrumentally and noninstrumentally) in many ways. And of course, when those offspring have more offspring, who in turn reproduce, and so on, the chain of creatures who are benefited goes on and on. All that comes to an end when a whole species dies out. There is nothing incoherent in the thought that this is regrettable. As I argued in the previous chapter, if a couple decides not to have children, it is not meaningless to say, “That is a shame, because the lives of any children they had would have been very good for them.” Similarly, it is intelligible to say that the extinction of a species is regrettable on the same grounds: never again will there be creatures of this type, and so never again will good lives of this sort—lives good for those creatures—exist. We may express this idea by saying that the world will be a more impoverished place, because it contains within it less of what is good for its creatures. That thought uses the concept of what is good for someone, not the concept of absolute goodness. This is a reason to be worried about the extinction of a species that has nothing to do with diversity. But it is a reason to hope that a species will not become extinct and to take measures to keep that from happening. (All of this is compatible with the obvious thesis that some missed opportunities are more regrettable than others. For example, someone's refusal to benefit a large number of already existing creatures might be more regrettable—and more blameworthy—than his refusal to stop a chain of events that will keep a much larger number of creatures from coming into being.)

Someone might nonetheless say that he does not care whether an endangered species contains individuals whose lives are good or bad for them. He does not care whether any human being benefits from the existence of those individuals. He does not care whether anyone enjoys studying that species because it is fascinating. Rather, (p.139) he believes that the species should remain in existence for this reason alone: there should be many different kinds of living things, the more, the better.

I find that an unappealing thesis. After all, we cannot plausibly say that the universe is a better place because it contains a variety of metals, inert gases, or semiconductors. If all the boron in the world were destroyed, that would not matter—unless boron has some instrumental value for some creature or other or is a fascinating object of human study. It would not be a matter for concern that because there is no more boron, the world contains a smaller variety of semiconductors. Variety in all its manifestations is not something that ought to exist. It would be arbitrary, then, to say that biodiversity should exist but semiconductor diversity should not, unless there is some reason why biological kinds, but not other kinds, should be various.

The more confident we are that the extinction of a species would or might involve a loss of what is good for someone—especially for humans but also for other living things—the more our confidence should grow that there is reason to prevent that loss. Variety for its own sake should not be our concern. In fact, we would have reason to be glad about the extinction of a species, if we could be confident that the members of that species would otherwise have had painful lives in which nothing good for them could be experienced. (Suppose a mad scientist has created a new form of life in order to torture the members of that new species. It would be best for those new creatures were their species to become extinct.) So we should reject this attempt to show that we need to think in terms of absolute goodness. It is not true that biodiversity is, quite simply, a good thing.

Notes:

(1.) See Dworkin, Life's Dominion, p. 75, on the intrinsic disvalue of the extinction of a species. He does not claim that the value of diversity explains why such extinction is to be avoided and regretted. But if one asks what is intrinsically bad about the death of an entire species, the distinctiveness of each species seems to have some bearing on the answer.