William Baxter, People or Penguins

The Case for Optimal Pollution



         a.      "Recently scientists have informed us that use of DDT in food production is causing damage to the penguin population. . . The scientific fact is often asserted as if the correct implication--that we must stop agricultural use of DDT--followed from the mere statement of the fact of penguin damage. But plainly it does not follow if my criteria are employed. My criteria are oriented to people, not penguins. Damage to penguins, or sugar pines, or geological marvels is, without more, simply irrelevant. . . Penguins are important because people enjoy seeing then walk about rocks; and furthermore, the well-being of people would be less impaired by halting use of DDT than by giving up penguins. In short, my observations about environmental problems will be people oriented. . . I have no interest in preserving penguins for their own sake."

         b.      Criteria oriented to people, not penguins; no interest in preserving penguins for their own sake

         c.      Damage to nonhuman nature by itself is morally irrelevant (denial of moral standing of nonhumans)

         d.      Penguins (nonhumans) are important only in so far as they benefit people (their value is solely anthropocentric instrumental)

         e.      Each person represents one unit of importance and nothing else is of any importance (in itself)


3.      First: No other position corresponds to the way most people really think and act: Only anthropocentrism corresponds to reality

         a.      But that people think/act a certain way doesn’t mean it is the right way to think/act

         b.      Is it true that people think only humans count?

4.      Second: Anthropocentrism won’t lead to massive destruction of nonhuman nature, because people depend on nature in various ways and nature will be protected to the extent doing so is advantageous to people

         a.      A very important point. Anthropocentrism can lead to a (type of) environmental ethic: Take care of nature because it benefits humans to do so (and only to the extent that it does so)

5.      Third: Humans as surrogates for nonhumans: What is good for us, is also good for nonhumans (anthropocentrism also indirectly protects nature)

6.      Fourth: Anthropocentrism is the only position that can be practically administered

         a.      People are free privately to sacrifice their own self interest for nonhumans (feed birds and bears; vote for the interests of nonhumans)

         b.      People should not be free to force others to sacrifice their self-interest for the sake of nonhumans

                   i.       E.g., My (or the community) prohibiting you from building on your wetlands for the sake of the animals and plants who live there...

         c.      Why is it permissible for people to force others to respect the interests of other people but not to force them to protect the interests of nonhumans?

7.      Fifth: Claiming that nonhumans are to be counted as ends rather than means (=that they have intrinsic value/moral standing) can’t be fairly operationalized

         a.      Problems include:

         b.      How much are they to count (should a sugar pine count as much as person? ½ as much? How many congressional representatives should they have? Should a species count more than an individual person?)

                   i.       Are these problems any more severe than deciding how to weigh competing human interests? Child health care versus social safety net for older Americans?

         c.      How are nonhumans to express their preferences?

                   i.       Since nonhumans can’t vote, they can’t participate in collective decision making or tell us what they want or what is good for them.

                   ii.      Reply: But it is often quite clear what is good or bad for the environment and some humans can represent the interests of nonhumans (“can hold their proxies”).

                   iii.     E.g., we have established the Endangered Species Act and set up the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to administer it

         d.      How are we to select the humans who get to represent nature’s interests?

                   i.       Self-appointment by environmentalists to represent nonhuman nature is unacceptable

                            (1)    For it lets them undemocratically increase their political power and impose their values on others

                   ii.      Unfair to count environmentalists preferences toward nature as more important than the preferences of other humans about what happens to nature

                   iii.     This (falsely) assumes that environmentalists are simply self-interested users of the environment just like industry and business groups.

                   iv.     We need distinguish between environmentalists representing their own interests (say in backpacking and having parks to visit) and environmentalists representing nature’s interests by arguing for species preservation and protecting places they may/will never visit

8.      Sixth: Questions of ought and right/wrong are unique to the human world and are meaningless when applied to nature (apart from human preferences towards nature)

                   i.       That only humans can ask questions about right/wrong does not show that nonhumans can’t be treated rightly/wrongly

         b.      The claim that we ought to preserve the environment or “the balance of nature” makes no sense unless the reason for so doing is to benefit man (is anthropocentric)

                   i.       Why does it not make sense to protect the environment for the sake of nonhumans? Might they not have a good of their own that we can (and should) consider?

         c.      No right or morally correct state of nature to which we should return

         d.      No right or wrong in nature without humans (not right or wrong for mountains to form or for wolves to kill deer)

                   i.       True: But once humans are present, they can ask if their treatment of nature is right or wrong.

                   ii.      While there may well be no right/wrong in nature absent moral agents like humans, there could be positive and negative value (good and bad) in nature w/o humans (e.g., pleasure & pain of sentient creatures)

         e.      Only way to distinguish right/wrong ways to act toward nature (wrong to kill penguins with DDT, right to slaughter cattle for food; wrong to kill trees with pollution, right to kill them for houses for poor) is in terms of how it benefits/harms humans

                   i.       Why can’t the affects of our act on nonhumans also figure into determining right and wrong behavior toward nature?

9.      Conclusions about pollution: The right amount of pollution is the amount that best satisfies human interests (“The optimal state of pollution”)

         a.      This is unlikely to be zero pollution, because preventing and cleaning up pollution has significant costs and at some point human interests are likely to be better served using those resources for other things people care about (hospitals, can openers, homes for the poor, symphonies)

         b.      There is a tradeoff between a clean/pristine environment and other things people care about

         c.      We should clean up/prevent pollution (and give up other things people care about to do this) only until people begin to value these other things more than they value a clean environment.

         d.      Shall society spend 10 million dollars cleaning up a abandoned toxic waste site or use the $ to provide health care for uninsured children?

         e.      Should a business spend 10 million dollars to prevent/reduce its pollution (a costs that is passed on to its consumers & employees & shareholders) or should it be allowed to pollute and potentially harm the health and welfare of humans and nonhumans?

                   i.       Forcing it to internalize these pollution prevention costs (include them in the price of its products, rather than to externalize them onto others) will allow economy to shift toward more env. friendly businesses that don’t have such high pollution costs

                   ii.      Baxter might use cost/benefit analysis and say that if the costs of repairing the health of those harmed by the pollution is less than the $10 million needed to prevent it, then we should not clean up the pollution (but rather–perhaps?--have the company pay the people made sick).

                            (1)    This ignores fairness/justice/rights: Why should one be allowed to make others sick because it costs him more to prevent this than others benefit from not being harmed?

Study questions for Baxter

1.         Define and explain the concept of “anthropocentrism” and give an example. What makes an ethic “non-anthropocentric”?

2.         Does Baxter think penguins are important? Does he think they are important for their own sake? Explain how they might be indirectly important, but not important for their own sake.

3.         Explain William Baxter’s response to the claim that anthropocentrism will lead to destruction of the environment.

4.         What are Baxter’s arguments for thinking nonanthropocentric ethics are unworkable in practice. Is he right?

5.         Is Baxter right that environmental groups are self-interested users of the environment on a moral par with business/industry groups who also want to use the environment but for different purposes?

6.         Explain (in some detail) what Baxter thinks the optimal state of pollution is.