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Environmental Values

Contents of Volume 15

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Environmental Values

Editorial, Vol.3 No.1

"One wants and one wants not to want."

In his contribution to this issue, Guy Claxton provides new work for an insight which reaches back, in the philosophical tradition at any rate, at least as far as Plato. In a memorable episode of his Republic Plato bids us reflect on the case of one, Leontius, who comes by the place of a recent execution, and is seized with a desire to see the corpses - but at the same time with a disgust at himself for having such a desire. In the end he cannot resist and runs up to take a look, cursing himself the while. It is not simply that he wants to look and wants not to look; he wishes he did not have the desire in the first place. His desires, we might say, are 'internally related' - in the sense that one stands as commentary upon the other. Now it is not Plato's view that such potential sources of conflict are aberrations which should be cleansed from a properly run psyche. Far from it. His view, summed up in his famous 'tripartite analysis', is that these contrasting springs of motivation - crudely, 'appetite' (or desire), 'spirit' (or sense of honour and self respect) and 'reason' - are constitutive of human nature. A properly run soul is simply one in which these potential sources of tension are 'harmonised'. Elsewhere, Plato shows us the regrettable consequences which ensue if one or other of these motivations is inoperative. For example, in a type of character whom he labels 'oligargarchic' he depicts someone who has been entirely taken over by the love of money. Their sense of self-respect, in particular, has been 'dethroned'. As a consequence they pursue their primary desire with little heed of how demeaning a life-style it brings in its train.

Claxton presents an interesting version of the thesis of internally related motivations in his analysis of why we find it so difficult to give up 'dysfunctional habits' and gain for ourselves a healthier lifestyle. But perhaps this is not the only relevance which the phenomenon has in the context of the current environmental debate. I am thinking here of the debate over incommensurable values, touched on in this issue by Andrew Brennan, and more fully discussed by him in an earlier paper published in this journal. Readers will no doubt be familiar with the hopes of some, who have environmental concerns at heart, that modified forms of cost-benefit analysis may be used to secure a greater recognition of the importance of environmental factors in public policy formation and decision-making. In particular it is hoped that through the device of hypothetical markets and the recognition of non-use values less tangible concerns might receive full expression. At the same time readers will be familiar with the misgivings of others, that in representing environmental concerns within the framework of cost-benefit analysis, we risk seriously distorting and misrepresenting those concerns. They highlight the distinction between values and preferences and insist on questioning what Brennan calls the 'single framework' assumption behind cost-benefit analysis - the assumption that all environmental concerns are 'commensurable' and can be adequately addressed in terms of a single set of concepts. Whilst acknowledging the crudity in so doing, let us label the two camps - for convenience only - the 'economists' and the 'philosophers'.

The economists, for their part, seem not to see what all the fuss is about. Choices have to be made - even 'impossible' ones. The distinction between values and preferences is valid, but irrelevant, since the economists' concept of a 'preference' is simply a technical term to denote the antecedent of choice, whatever its basis. Moreover, fears about the demise of the citizen's deliberative role are misplaced because cost-benefit analysis may be seen not as a substitute for deliberation but simply as a record of its outcome.

Whatever the merits of the philosophers' case, it seems clear that they have not yet been made evident (to economists at any rate). It is here that reference to the phenomenon of internally related preferences may have a role to play, for it seems to illustrate a certain formal kind of incommensurability. Certainly, choices have to be made. But it has been well observed that the making of a choice does not entail the making of a comparative judgement (John O'Neill, Ecology, Policy and Politics ch.7); and the establishing of comparisons is crucial to the cost-benefit exercise. But the question might be asked: are not any two items comparable, in the minimal sense that they are capable of appearing in judgements of the form 'I prefer x to y'? It is not obvious that this is true of internally related preferences: it is not obvious, in short, that it even makes sense to declare a preference for satisfying a desire for x over a preference not to have such a desire. So when difficulties are experienced over conducting a cost-benefit exercise, the problem may be not that people are unreliable, eccentric or irrational, but that the questions are not sensible ones.

It is hoped that contributors to our planned special issue on 'Values and Preferences' might be able to shed further light on these difficult problems.


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