Is the natural world, all by itself, a good thing? You might find yourself saying ‘Of course!’, immediately thinking of all the benefits that come from nature that human beings enjoy, ranging from the materials for our basic physical sustenance to those that, with our tinkering, enable us to do things like fly to the moon. Or you might find yourself inclined to the opposite position, that nature is in fact a bad thing, citing the violent history of evolutionary development that includes the sacrifice of an exorbitant number of organisms, ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’, or the havoc wreaked upon human beings from ‘natural disasters’ like earthquakes or hurricanes. Or you might find yourself thinking that this question is misguided, that nature isn’t good or bad, but morally neutral. My primary aim in this essay is to explore what kind of resources there might be for affirming that the natural world is indeed good, but for reasons other than those that appeal to the material benefits that we harvest from nature.

Harvard University Archives, HUP Emerson, R.W. (15a)Harvard University Archives, HUP Emerson, R.W. (15a)This distinctive answer to the question of whether nature is good arises from focusing a bit more on the ‘all by itself’ part of the question with which I began. What we’re interested in here is whether there is value in nature, moral value, in itself, rather than being valuable merely for something else. Another way to put this distinction is whether nature is merely instrumentally valuable, only valuable as a means to the achievement of some other good, or whether it is what philosophers call intrinsically valuable, valuable in itself. If you think there’s any value in the world at all, you’re likely to think that there’s intrinsic value floating around somewhere – it would be quite odd to think that everything that’s good is only good as a means to something else, but that this chain of instrumental goods doesn’t reach an endpoint where we can find the intrinsic goods. Potential candidates for these intrinsic goods could be things like the bare existence of human persons, or certain human activities, such as compassion or artistic creation, or certain experiences, such as pleasure or awe. Focusing on the last candidate, and on pleasure in particular, has led many to extend the circle of beings worthy of moral consideration beyond our own species to other animals that can experience things like pleasure and pain. In a way, the question of intrinsic value is a question about how far to extend the circle of moral consideration – to all human beings?  to all sentient creatures?  to all animals, all living things, or even to ‘things’ we don’t normally think of as individuals, such as ecosystems?

Emerson seems to have alighted upon this distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goodness in the natural world long before it became the central point of debate that it is today. Regarding commodity derived from nature, which is Emerson’s correlate for instrumental value, he says that it is “the only use of nature which all men apprehend”. This focus on utility, or the usefulness of nature for some further end, is met with disapproval from Emerson, illustrated by his claim that with such an exclusive focus

nature is debased, as if one looking at the ocean can remember only the price of fish.

So if Emerson seems to think that there is more to nature morally than mere instrumental value, what kind of positive account of intrinsic value might he have the resources to offer? Somewhat cryptically, he writes that

the idealism of Jesus…is a crude statement of the fact, that all nature is the rapid efflux of goodness executing and organizing itself.

Putting aside the interesting reference to the teachings of Jesus, and how that might tie into his philosophy of nature, what we see here, I think, is a connection between goodness and truth in nature. Why does nature possess intrinsic value? Because it is intelligible, organized in accordance with rational principles, and this intuitively strikes us as a better state of affairs than complete and utter chaos, randomness, and disorder. And this value doesn’t rest on the fact that this characteristic of nature enables us to understand it – that would make it just another kind of instrumental value.  Instead the intrinsic value of nature rests on the fact that its intelligible structure enables the existence of organisms that posses an internal principle of development toward higher forms of complexity, and that can therefore flourish in their particular ways. So what is intrinsically valuable are things that can undergo this kind of development, that can flourish, that can become good or excellent things of their kind. And this supports the extension of that circle of moral consideration beyond just the sentient creatures – the creatures whose flourishing is closest in kind to ours – to things whose flourishing might be radically different, such as plants, a species, or an ecosystem.

Drawing by Jonathan PopejoyDrawing by Jonathan Popejoy

If this is too abstract to get the intuition going that nature possesses intrinsic value, consider a scenario in which you have the power to completely destroy an ecosystem and all the living things in it, some of which are unique to that area, but it doesn’t contain any sentient beings, and you can somehow be sure that its destruction won’t have any negative consequences on any sentient beings, including yourself. Would there be anything wrong with going ahead and destroying it, just for the heck of it?  Intuitively, most of us think that there would be.  And perhaps the best explanation for this intuition is that we think there is some intrinsic value in that ecosystem, one that goes beyond any economic value that it might have. The act would unnecessarily destroy swaths of encoded biological information that is the result of a long evolutionary history, in addition to ending the potential of individual living organisms to flourish, and for their descendants to continue to do so indefinitely.  And that seems wrong – morally wrong.

Although my emphasis so far has been on the issue of intrinsic value in nature, I’d like to finish by talking about one of nature’s instrumental goods, but one that is of great value to us: what we can learn from nature that can enable us to become better people.  Emerson seems to think that this fruit is ripe for the picking from nature’s bounty. He writes:

Every moment instructs, and every object:  for wisdom is infused into every form.

So what kinds of things might we learn from nature about what kind of a person to be, or about what kind of character to nurture?  Emerson provides us with the following brilliant example:

Who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fisherman?

Maybe you’re not a fisherman, and maybe firmness isn’t the lesson you need.  But ask what it is from your experience of nature that you can learn from, that speaks to you, that might help you to flourish in your distinctively human way.  Nature can offer us wisdom on how best to live, on how to be virtuous, if only we will do our part by reflecting upon it.

Reflection upon nature, both upon its intrinsic value and what it might have to offer us by way of moral instruction, makes the conservation of nature imperative for the well-being and flourishing of all living things, ourselves included.  This reflection allows us to combine the two emphases of traditional moral philosophy – doing moral actions, and developing a moral character.  If we don’t value nature, if we continue to be species-selfish, we’re almost sure to deprive future generations, and likely even our future selves, of a great good; and that good is not merely the commodity use of nature, but includes practical goods like virtue, as well as the experiences of awe and wonder arising from interacting with nature.  It is this experience of beauty in nature that we take up in the final essay.


Michael welcomes correspondence, and can be reached at mpopejoy@fas.harvard.edu. His series "Emerson and the Environment" is part of a larger project which was awarded a Student Sustainability Grant. Quotations taken from Emerson’s first book, Nature, and his essays "Method of Nautre," "Circles," and "Nature." He is happy to provide more specific source information for the quotations.