Intrinsic and Instrumental Value

I remarked to my friend Nick Govas that I recommended that we refrain from buying tuna products–at least until the species stabilizes its populations–so as not to exterminate the species, which is on the verge of extinction and is desperately endangered.

His reply was typical of many lines of thinking in our society; he said: “What’s the point of preserving the species if we are not going to consume its products? Strong logic there, Adam.”

I have heard this before and  countered it with a line of reasoning based on the argument for intrinsic value and the argument that overexploitation is self-defeating to instrumentalist logics:

“The problem with the statement you just made is that it assumes that value (and hence purpose — your “point”) is purely and solely instrumental. You assume that tuna and other species have value only insofar as they are useful to human beings for the purpose of consuming their products.

However, there is more than instrumental value; there is also instrinsic value, the value of richness, which is defined as the sum of harmony and diversity. A forest with four kinds of trees is more valuable than a forest of only one kind of tree in this sense, even if all types are equally useful to humankind; the diversity, the richness of the four-tree forest is much higher than that of the 1-tree forest.

This makes it the more valuable of the two. The same is true of our ecosystems, like the ocean; an ocean of 3 million different species is more valuable than one of 10,000 after we have killed off the others for the sake of “consuming their products.” A richer world is more valuable than a barren world. This is precisely the point of intrinsic value and the added thrust of arguments for conservation; they maintain the intrinsic value of the world, whereas overexploitation decreases it, makes the world less valuable.

Therefore, there is a point to preserving the species of tuna even if we do not consume its products. We might also consider that humans are not the only beings with rights, and that the ecosystem of which tuna is part should at least have the right to flourish and to exist. If there was another species more powerful than us on the planet, with more advanced technology, who could survive without exterminating us in order to consume our products, then they would not be justified in wiping us out. The same is true of us in relation to tuna.

Finally, even if we *do* claim that tuna have instrumental value for human beings, that their products are valuable to us and worth consuming, we must *still* take action to preserve the species for one simple reason. This reason is that if we exterminate the species, we will wipe out this source of instrumental value; if there are no more tuna, then there are no more products we can derive from tuna. Therefore, even according to this instrumentalist logic, it makes perfect sense to conserve the species and is totally irrational not to do so.

This is the basis of the ‘strong logic’ at which you scoffed.”


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