International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  17:30 - 19:00  /  DS-R520
Individual papers
Perspectives on the Environment: Politics, Economics and Philosophy

Environment, ethics and politics: The planetary oligarchic caste and its instrumental use of the sustainable development model

Donato Bergandi (Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, France)

Sustainable development is rooted in the history of two divergent movements – for the preservation of nature, and for the conservation of natural resources – and of their relationship with the natural sciences. Ecology has played a central role in this history. As a societal paradigm that is at once ecological, political, and economic, sustainable development is supposed to embody ideal policy for all societies, and to overcome the opposition between these two diverging views of man nature relationships. An analysis of international texts devoted to sustainable development emphasizes certain fundamental, interdependent principles: true democracy, social sustainability, and respect for the resilience of ecological systems. Despite formal concessions to preservationists with the recognition of the intrinsic value of biodiversity, the sustainable development concept is clearly anthropocentric, and is in direct line of descent from conservationism. As its fundamental principles are not implemented in an integrated way, its ritual evocation fail to hide strong ethical and political contradictions, rendering it merely an impotent utopia. Besides, environmental public policies are suffering the harmful effects of a tacit agreement between political and economical elites. Heedless of philosophical-political references, an international politico-economical oligarchic caste is largely united around dealing with environmental issues based on the sustainable development model, which is an expression of a utilitarian, anthropocentric perspective. Moreover, for this model biodiversity is in the main merely a reservoir of natural resources for human use. A dual transition – both ethical and political – is thus urgently needed to preserve the integrity of natural systems and support the development of human societies.

The levels of selection and the instability of individualism in environmental philosophy

John Basl (Northeastern University, United States)

Environmental ethicists have defended various views about which beings are morally considerable. Those that think welfare requires consciousness think that the scope of moral considerability, at best, includes only sentient beings. Others, with more permissive notions of welfare, argue that there is a perfectly reasonable sense in which non-sentient organisms such as plants, have a welfare and so are, at least potentially, morally considerable. However, there has emerged a near consensus that Individualism is true; that the scope of entities that have a welfare extends, at most, only as far individual organisms but not to groups, collectives or communities. In this paper, I challenge individualism by arguing that it rests on a false view about the levels of selection. Any defense of individualism requires an argument that non-sentient organisms have a welfare, but that non-individuals such as groups or communities do not have a welfare. The standard argument starts from the idea that organisms, but not non-individuals, are teleologically organized, or goal-directed, entities. In virtue of being teleologically organized, the welfare of organisms can be understood, non-arbitrarily, in terms of what promotes or frustrates the organisms’ ends. Individualists rely on an etiological conception of teleology (similar to the etiological account of function) to ground teleology in non-sentient organisms; it is because organisms are subject to natural selection that it is possible to identify them as teleologically organized, to specify their ends in a naturalistic, and non-arbitrary way. It is then argued, or, most often, just assumed, that since an appeal to selection is required to ground the interests of non-sentient entities, that this notion of welfare only applies to organisms. Since selection only acts at the level of the organism, it is only organisms, and not collectives, that can have a welfare. Despite the near consensus, Individualists are mistaken. Individualism carries with it a concomitant commitment to a view about the levels of selection, but no plausible view about the levels of selection can justify Individualism. In this paper I present a trilemma for the Individualist to argue that Individualism is unstable. The Individualist must endorse either reductionism, anti-realism, or multi-level realism about the levels of selection. Reductionism is both implausible and best supports the view that genes but not individuals are units of selection. Anti-realism both fails to recognize individuals as the sole unit of selection, allowing that non-individuals might be units of selection, and fails to ground a conception of welfare that will be at home in an Individualist view. Finally, multi-level realism, perhaps the most plausible view, fails to discriminate against non-individuals. After developing this objection to the stability of Individualist views, I assess their best prospects going forward, arguing that they are forced to accept multi-level realism and hang the case for Individualism on empirical details about how likely non-individuals are to be units of selection.

The most dismal part of the dismal science: The role of environmental economics in conservation planning

Carlos Santana (University of Pennsylvania, United States)

Environmental economics has yet to find a paradigm which would allow it to be a satisfactory guide to conservation planning and environmental policy-making. Ecological planning requires methods of comparative valuation, which would allow us to make decisions in the face of value tradeoffs. We need to make decisions in the face of not only tradeoffs between environmental and non-environmental values, but also between the competing values of different groups of individuals. I review the extant methods of systematic environmental decision-making and show how none reliably accomplish comparative valuation. The most popular methods of environmental valuation focus on features, like biodiversity or sustainability, which are endogenous to the system in question. But much of the value of environmental systems comes from exogenous sources: the needs and goals of organisms who benefit from the ecosystem’s services. This means that endogenous methods are unlikely to reliably capture comparative value. Unfortunately, extant exogenous methods of valuation do little better. Contingent valuation and revealed preference methods both rely on treating environmental values as isomorphic to market values, but research on the psychology of valuation shows that this assumption is false. And without the data from these exogenous methods, game- and decision-theoretic approaches to decision-making can’t get off the ground. Given these facts, I explore two possibilities: (1) a reliable environmental economics is impossible, and we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got, and (2) environmental economics will need to involve tools not traditionally used in economics. I briefly sketch the consequences of each possibility.