Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Meditations on Values and Priorities

At the moment, I’m working on a paper that constitutes my last course requirement for my doctorate, an application of John Dewey’s thought to environmental ethics. Then again, perhaps I should better call it a demonstration that Dewey’s thought can be applied to environmental ethics. The concept of the intrinsic value of nature and an enmity to anthropocentrism seems pretty alien to a pragmatist viewpoint, and most environmental ethicists agree that pragmatism can’t help them.

Of course, my essay takes a completely left-field attack on this point of view. My reasoning isn’t so much that environmental ethics actually can work by understanding value as inevitably reflecting human priorities. That’s an obvious frontal attack on environmentalist hostility to pragmatism that just won’t work. Instead, I’m looking at Dewey’s metaphysical principles - ideas about the world as being contingent; understanding that a species only survives when it is able to adapt mindfully of its surroundings, making environmental mindfulness a key factor in any evolutionary success. Immediate practical values of staying alive are integrated with understanding how you’re interdependent with a huge multiplicity of things that are not you.

Of course, this brief summary doesn’t do the idea any justice in its details, and is only meant to be an overview of what I’m currently working on. And any commentary should reflect the provisional and summary nature of what I’ve said in the last two paragraphs, not flippantly attempt a total refutation based on a few ambiguities in the account (I’m talking about you, Benny Wald). This is a method that’s been fairly common for me, and quite successful: ignoring the obvious set of philosophical debates (in this case, all Dewey’s ethical projects) and seeing how the central concepts can be informed by other elements of philosophy.

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