« Another voice for Our Conversation | Main | Commonsense Ethical Thinking v. Utilitarianism, Consequentalism, etc. »

June 17, 2007



Welcome Seth! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on these important questions.



Thank you for posting. I'm also new here, and I appreciate your attempts to provoke thought. I've had many hazy and hurried thoughts around the questions you ask, and I'd like to take the opportunity to attempt to articulate them to myself as well as to others. My background is also in engineering; I'm pursuing master's degrees in aerospace engineering and technical policy right now. Lots of thinking and conversations with some amazing people over the last year (none of whom were engineers) have led me to where I am now, even on this very page. I came to a number of big epiphanies, like: engineers should consider how their work affects humanity; engineering and design are expressions of human values; the question of "what ought to be" is not a scientific question; ecosystems use their waste as food. I really don't know how I got here; I guess I uncovered a deep-seated interest in how human systems and natural systems relate. Feeding that interest has led me all sorts of places. All of these things are rolling around in my head and will continue to do so, so I'm writing as someone who's very unsure and has only done a little bit of homework.

*** What recommendations we make for handling climate change or biodiversity or any other ecological issue (or any other issue) depend entirely on what our ethical views are. ***

You wouldn't believe how long it took me to realize this; it's not something that was ever discussed in my core engineering courses. In fact, I wasn't exposed to it in class at all until I took an excellent political economy course last fall. The course, combined with thinking I'd started doing through my work with the local chapter of Student Pugwash, blew the doors open for me. Now, I might agree with those who would say that a discussion of ethics has less of a place in a differential equations class than in an aircraft design class, for instance. I'll tell you, however, one -other- place in my schooling where ethics wasn't discussed: my graduate microeconomics course. I think it's highly likely that technical people looking at big world problems are not thinking about ethics as a core. They're not asking: "what is our intention, where does it come from, and what -should- it be?" Or, maybe that's just a stereotype I have of engineers (which probably comes from a self-critique of my own social ineptitude). I'll always be an analyst at heart, I think, which causes tension with my sinking realization that maybe humans really can't be described very well numerically. I think the critique of Homo economicus with respect to nature is what drew me to ecological economics; the truth is, though, that part of me wants a numerical theory-of-everything. Anyway, back to your questions.

*** Future discounting. Should we do so, and if so, how? ***

I think it's important to draw a clear distinction between what -is- and what -should be- here. First, what is: I think that people -generally- would rather have $100 today than $100 a year from now. That qualitative perspective on discounting seems sound to me. (Whether people would equally prefer $100 today vs. $100*(1 + r) next year is more of an unknown to me; I might imagine that a survey of a hundred people would produce a hundred different discount rates.) People also often use discounting as a catch-all way of incorporating risk and uncertainty. I'm not convinced that the concept of discounting is really applicable here. I'm certain that discounting is used in many other areas that I'm not versed in.

And now, for what ought to be: if we pick a zero or negative discount rate, is it our way of saying that humans -should- value the future as much as or more than the present? Such a question is not a scientific question, and it really does get at the nature of human behavior. Some people would rather use their money to get high than to pay rent. Some people may want to invest in the stock market. This can be muddled up, too: two parents may want $100 now rather than $102 later so that they can start saving up for their unborn child's future college expenses. I don't think I answered your question!

*** Valuing non-human animals. Do they count for anything, and if so, how do we figure out how much? ***

This is a hard question. I believe that non-human animals... indeed, all non-human life forms have value in the sense that their interactions brought the world to where it is now. We came from those life forms (assuming a belief in evolution, of course). In that sense, I observe our primate and avian and marine relatives and am grateful for their histories. But would I, say, save the cows and starve the villagers? I don't think that I would. So how much do I value the cows? I'm highly skeptical of contingent studies that i.e. ask people how much they would pay to experience the birds in order to arrive at a "valuation" of bird life. But your question calls forth a deeper question that I may as well state here: does the value of a thing exist separately from the entity that gives it value? The dictionary defines value in a number of different ways, some of which lead to different answers. The soil is important to the tree living on it, so the soil has value by one definition whether or not I'm there to say so. But I don't want to buy that soil... is it then valueless to me? Of course, this is a philosophical question that goes beyond dictionary definitions. It's a shame I didn't take much philosophy; it seems necessary in discussions like this.

*** Valuing the environment. Does it have any intrinsic value, or is it only valuable as a means of supporting/improving our lives? ***

This is a broadening of your previous question, I feel. In some sense, I take from The Death of Environmentalism when I oppose the concept of "the environment" as something that's separate from humans. We are intertwined, in my view. On that note, I'm still struggling to decide whether human activity is "natural" or not, and this is another question of philosophy. It's so easy and common to talk about "the environment" as a separate thing that I haven't even come up with new terms to converse about their integration. To tiptoe around your question yet again and sum up my feelings, I'll state just a few things:

* Damning future generations of humanity is, -to me-, unjust. This is perhaps a particular take on Rawls' original position. I care about things like pollution because I don't want the next generation poisoned.
* Humans ultimately take their sustenance from living materials outside of themselves. People can't eat petroleum or silicon. More generally, all life is supported by other life forms. This, to me, is reason enough to desire the abundance of non-human life.
* All life forms are programmed to do two things: consume, and propagate. It's the interaction of life forms that does or does not lead to sustainable abundance.

I don't yet know how these inform my relative valuations of life. All humans make mental models to understand and predict, and those models are often incorrect. I've written way too much, however, and I'm sure you'll be addressing all of these things in the weeks to come. I'm just hoping I gave you and others even -more- to think about!

Seth Baum

Hi C!, interesting comments. Let me briefly respond, but first, if at any point you'd like to contact me privately, my email is sethbaum *** gmail. Also, I think you and I have had a lot of the same epiphanies. Any idea of where you're thinking of going with the aerospace engineering and technical policy? Sounds like you could help save humanity by assisting space colonization programs. Space colonization can be seen as (among other things) an insurance policy against very bad things happening on Earth. See for example
Or you could help analyze whether such a program was an efficient means of such insurance. I'm just thinking off the top of my head here though.

"maybe humans really can't be described very well numerically"
We often can't, but to make decisions, we often need to anyways. See
Recognizing what uncertainty exists when quantifying fuzzy things like "wellbeing" is important.

I'll discuss these more in a later post, but some good reads on discounting are
You're right- the results of the surveys of how impatient people are are all over the place. The third link there reviews these surveys.

"does the value of a thing exist separately from the entity that gives it value?"
A common theme I've seen in discussions like this is people using different definitions of the same word, so it's very good to ask for definitions of even simple words like "value" whenever you're not sure. Here, by the "value" of an entity, I mean "how much does it count for?". For example, in our public elections, each voter's vote counts the same, but in corporate shareholder meetings, often each voter's vote counts for how much stock they own.
I may have been a bit biased in my wording of the original question. Within ethics, I'm a consequentialist, so I naturally see things in terms of their value. However, deontologists, for example, see things very differently.
Does that help?

I was using the word "environment" very loosely there, and you're right to question my definition. Part of this gets into metaphysics- are we just some arrangement of atoms and molecules like everything else, or are we intrinsically different? See for example
Perhaps a more specific question would be, "Does a tree have value, and if so, how much?", using the same definition of "value" as above.

"I care about things like pollution because I don't want the next generation poisoned."
If I may: Does your concern for the next generation go beyond what satisfaction you may get from helping it? (I'm guessing here that you're like me and enjoy helping others.)

Dave Iverson

C!: "I oppose the concept of 'the environment' as something that's separate from humans. We are intertwined, in my view. On that note, I'm still struggling to decide whether human activity is 'natural' or not, and this is another question of philosophy."

A quick thought: I frame the humans-nature puzzle this way: Humans are a part of nature. Humans are apart from nature in the sense the we have alienated ourselves from other members of the animal community in our culture-forming.

If we can look at oursleves in both senses I believe we get a better perspective as to who we are.

As for my views on discounting, I'll leave Einstein's thoughts: When asked what was humankind's greatest invention, Einstein is rumored to have replied without hesitation: "Compound interest."

Someone needs to tell me please, exactly what role disounting plays when dealing in matters of sustainability. I know too well what role discounting plays in contemporary culture (see, e.g. my Cost-Benefit Analysis category here) and/or my Econ Dreams - Nightmares blog via the sidebar.

Seth Baum

Dave, are you familiar with the difference between discounting money and discounting utility/wellbeing/etc?
Also, how would you define sustainability?
My guess for the answer to your discounting/sustainability question is that discounting devalues the world that occurs later on exclusively because it happens to occur later on, so it makes sustainability much, much less important.


Thanks, Dave and Seth. In response to what you two have written:

Interesting comment on space colonization. I'm certainly not against research concerning the far-in-the-future possibility of society leaving this planet en masse, but I'm much more interested in what humanity can do on this planet today. Funny you mention it, as Worldchanging referenced this thought just yesterday (http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/006915.html). The linked-in High Frontier article is filled with comments on the idea; could be worth reading.

Thanks for those articles on discounting... I'm short on time but have started on the first one, and it's very thought-provoking. I agree that quantification is an important part of decision-making. Answers to the question of how things "should" be quantified, I feel, will probably always provoke controversy. This is where I feel that the political arena is important. I eventually came to the decision that politics, far from being a dirty word, is just what emerges when people interact socially.

It's unclear to me at this moment how consequentialism vs. deontology comments on the value of things; the two articles you link to talk primarily to the ethics of actions. Are you linking the value of things to the way they fit into actions (i.e. it's okay to kill this animal because it is right to feed my children)?

I think my concern for future generations, in line with the Original Position, comes from the perspective of opportunities; I would want future generations to have the opportunity to live healthy and fulfilling lives. This implies many things: clean food, clean water, clean air, and a chance to seek fulfillment are a few of those implications.

Dave: your expression of how humans relate to nature resonates with me. It makes me think of how many people are unaware of their relationship to the earth because they don't see how food is grown or ore is mined or where things end up after they are thrown "away."

Seth Baum

Hi, C!,
"I'm much more interested in what humanity can do on this planet today"
To me, the question is, What can we do _most effectively_ today? We _can_ work on space colonization today; indeed, some do. In your statement, do you mean to argue that space colonization is not an effective use of our time/resources? Also, returning to our original ethics questions, we often face choices of helping today's individuals or helping those who do not yet exist. Philosophers have questioned what our obligations are to those who don't (yet) exist. Could it be wrong (or right) to, say, decide not to have children? Again, the answer depends on which ethics system we choose. (In my view, it can be wrong to decide not to have children, although in practice I suspect that would-be parents often make good decisions on this matter.)

Re consequentialism vs. deontology: Consequentialism generally recommends doing that which will maximize some sort of value, whether it's wellbeing or something else; deontology recommends doing those actions which are intrinsically good, regardless of outcome. I guess you could say that in deontology, the value is in the action.

...Original position is an interesting thought experiment, and different people have drawn different conclusions from it- see

The comments to this entry are closed.

Want Email Updates?

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz


  • This is a personal web site, reflecting only the opinions of its authors. It was built and is manitained in occasional spare moments. Statements on this site do not represent the views or policies of anyone other than the person offering up the views.


  • Our Ecological Economics web-log is designed to daylight and refine economists’ and ecologists' views, agreements, and disagreements on current environmental and natural resource issues. We also hope this blog will help ecological economics ideas gain traction in social and political discussion and policy making.


Ocassonal Contributors

Would-Be Contributors

Strategic Thinking Blogs

Blog powered by Typepad