A bike, a house or a family heirloom. Each possesses an assigned value that influences how we treat them. Understanding the value of the objects in our world comes naturally to humans, however, assigning value to living organisms is a more complicated task. How do we assign value to the trees in our yards or the bees that pollinate our gardens? Although the question seems purely philosophical, it has huge implications for our future.
With the growing threat of climate change and continuing destruction of nature, it becomes pertinent to ask, how do we value nature? As a postdoc on the Biological Purpose Project, Juliomar Marques Silva grapples with this question daily and believes that the answer will have positive impacts on the world’s conservation efforts.
After graduating with his doctorate in philosophy from the Federal University of Bahia in 2022, Juliomar saw the call for postdoc positions on the Purpose Project. Although he began his career as a philosopher, the field of biology had always fascinated him, so he jumped at the opportunity to work at the interface of philosophy and ecology. In this conversation, Juliomar discusses how humans assign values to nature and how understanding these values can reframe society’s perspective of nature.
What are the different types of values that humans assign to the world around them?
Overall, there are intrinsic values, instrumental values and relational values. Intrinsic value describes anything that has value by itself. It's common to say that human beings have intrinsic value, because they have inherent characteristics such as consciousness or the ability to think rationally.
Instrumental values can be assigned to objects that help someone reach a particular goal. An object like a bike can have this value as I can use it to travel from one place to another or I can sell it to gain money. Relational values occur when someone forms a relationship with an object. For example, a house. My house doesn’t just provide for safety or shelter for me; I have a specific relationship with it. I have memories surrounding it from when I was a child and lived there with my parents. When you have a relationship with an object, it has both instrumental value and relational value because these objects are part of you as a person.
Just as we can ask whether these values apply to objects around us, we can ask whether they apply to ecosystems around us. Does an ecosystem have only instrumental value? Since it provides us with water, food and shelter? Or does nature also have relational value? Because the specific environment or ecosystem that you live in is part of you as a person or a part of your future.
Lastly, we can also ask if nature has intrinsic value, which is the focus of my work. Since the 1970s, it's become common to ascribe intrinsic value to humans and certain species that have been deemed sentient beings. Animals that have the capacity to feel pain, pleasure and suffering possess intrinsic value as these emotions are inherent characteristics of value. Because we’ve assigned this type of value to some animals, we can say that not only humans, but other aspects of nature also have intrinsic value.
What is the main question that encompasses your work?
My work revolves around defining the value of nature. As humans, we assign different types of value to objects around us depending on our relationship with them. Intrinsic value, for example, is assigned to anything that has value purely on its own, and therefore, harming it would be deemed unethical. My work deals with defending the idea that nature and ecosystems have their own intrinsic value. Because humans don’t view the destruction of nature as unethical, we don’t perceive nature as having intrinsic value. This issue definitely keeps me up at night, however, I think that if we can change how people perceive nature, we can begin to focus on conservation efforts.
How does your work advance this goal?
I’m constructing a theory which implies that nature has a specific causal system that gives it intrinsic value. This “causal” system means that the ecosystem has specific goals. In order to produce these goals, it orders itself into a cyclic system that utilizes feedback loops.
In this cyclic system, some parts of an ecosystem are needed for other parts of the ecosystem to function correctly. Species can create a healthy environment for each other through their activity and so, every species can work to construct a good environment for another in a kind of closed cycle. Through these systems, the ecosystem can reach its goals like recovering from destruction. From this perspective, we can say that nature does have intrinsic value beyond other types of value like instrumental and relational values.
With the idea that nature has intrinsic value, are there implications for the future of conservation efforts and changing how we treat the Earth?
Yes, this idea of conservation is the main implication of my work and one of the main reasons I joined this project. We know that climate change and global warming is happening and we can see the direct effects of these changes in nature. I believe the first step of positive change is to look at nature in a different way, and see nature’s intrinsic value. If we can value nature in the same way we value other humans and see it as our brother or sister, we will focus on the protection of nature rather than its destruction. This direct application of my work is my favorite part of the Purpose Project so far.
Coming from a philosophy background, what’s your experience of working with biologists been like so far?
It's been interesting because we differ in the way we conduct research. As a philosopher, I deal with theoretical questions, concepts and arguments. The scientists, ecologists and biologists; they deal with empirical questions about things we can experience, and how they can reproduce these things in an experiment. But, overall, I think it's been great so far because we’ve been using our differences to help each other. The philosophical side of this project can help the biologists refine their concepts and their arguments.
For someone with an interest in your subject of work, what are three books that can help them learn about the topic?
The first book that I read that changed my perspective was A Biological Autonomy by Alvero Moreno and Matteo Mossio. This book talks about how Moreno and Mossio are working on constructing a whole biological theory on the autonomy of nature. It also discusses philosophical questions revolving around these concepts of biology and ecology in general. Some other books that touch on my research are Ethics and the Environment by Dave Jamieson and Respect for Nature by Paul Taylor. They both concern ethical and environmental questions in general.
Lightly edited for clarity.