Instrumentalist Interpretations of Hindu Environmental Ethics
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Many environmental ethicists believe that any adequate environmental ethic should attribute ‘direct moral standing’ (often glossed in terms of intrinsic value) to plants, animals, and the rest of nature. But certain interpretations of Hindu environmental ethics apparently attribute only instrumental value to nature. This places them in direct conflict with the purported adequacy condition on an environmental ethic. So, is such a Hindu ethical view really inadequate? In his recent book Hinduism and Environmental Ethics, Christopher Framarin claims that it is because Hindu instrumentalism about nature is either viciously circular or unacceptably arbitrary. I argue, however, that Framarin’s claim founders in virtue of his misconstruing the logical structure of instrumental value.
KeywordsHindu ethics Environmental ethics Instrumental value
Many environmental ethicists believe that any adequate environmental ethic should attribute ‘direct moral standing’ to plants, animals, and the rest of nature. One popular way to understand this claim is in terms of intrinsic value: if the environment has intrinsic value, then it has direct moral standing. But arguably certain Hindu texts and traditions apparently attribute only instrumental value to nature. This seems to place them in direct conflict with the purported adequacy condition on an environmental ethic. So, are such instrumentalist interpretations of Hindu ethical views really inadequate? In his very interesting recent book Hinduism and Environmental Ethics (Framarin 2014), Christopher Framarin argues that they are.
Of course, an instrumentalist interpretation of Hindu views of the value of nature might be judged ‘inadequate’ in two rather different senses: exegetically or philosophically. The interpretation would be exegetically inadequate if it failed to be supported by appropriate textual evidence showing that this view was significantly present in Hinduism. Now since the Hindu ethical tradition is by no means monolithic, perhaps an instrumentalist interpretation does arguably represent at least one strand within that tradition. But with a tradition as rich as Hinduism, it can still be true that there are also other—perhaps more influential—strands that apparently do believe that the environment has intrinsic value. So it is that in the second half of his book Framarin argues that this is true of such authoritative Hindu texts as the Manusmṛti, the Mahābhārata and the Yogasūtra, all of which do attribute direct moral standing to animals and plants.
But it is the philosophical inadequacy of the instrumentalist interpretation that Framarin is most concerned to argue for in the second chapter of his book. There his central claim is that the instrumentalist interpretation is philosophically inadequate because further examination shows it to collapse into either vicious circularity or unacceptable arbitrariness. In other words, Framarin believes that (i) Hindu environmental ethics is not best represented exegetically as being instrumentalist; and (ii) this is just as well, since the instrumentalist interpretation is philosophically inadequate. It seems to me, however, that Framarin’s arguments for his second claim founder in virtue of his misconstruing the logical structure of instrumental value.
There has been much discussion by philosophers of both the notion of instrumental value and the correlative notion of intrinsic value (see further Zimmerman 2014; 2001; Rønnow-Rasmussen and Zimmerman 2005). Hence, a few preliminary remarks are in order so as to sidestep any unnecessary controversies. Framarin defines intrinsic value as ‘the value that something has as an end, independent of the value of further ends to which it is a means’ (p. 6). While this may be okay insofar it goes, we will need a more nuanced account in hand for what I want to say later.
Let us begin with a familiar type of first pass at a characterization of the relevant notions: something is intrinsically valuable if it is valuable for its own sake, and instrumentally valuable if it is valuable not in itself but because it leads to something intrinsically valuable. Typical sorts of examples then offered to illustrate the distinction are that goods like food, medicine, and money are not valuable in themselves, but only instrumentally valuable insofar as they promote intrinsically valuable goods like pleasure or well-being. After this, however, things become more controversial.
Take first the notion of intrinsic value, arguably the central notion of value theory. A strict view of intrinsic value takes a state’s intrinsic value to depend only on its intrinsic or non-relational properties (Moore 1922; 1903), whereas a less strict view allows that a state’s intrinsic value can in principle depend upon its relations. For our present purposes, this quarrel can be put aside, for both views still agree to distinguish intrinsic from instrumental goodness, i.e., goodness as a means to something else that is good in itself.
The notion of intrinsic value does need to be understood, however, as independent of Moore’s own claim that if a kind of value is intrinsic, then it must be objective (Moore 1922: 255). Whatever the truth about the objectivity of value, ethical subjectivists too will want to allow for a distinction between things valued for themselves and things valued only as a means to other things, and hence for intrinsic value.
At least some things must be intrinsically valuable, it is often argued, because admitting only instrumental values would generate a vicious regress of explanations: A is instrumentally valuable because it derives its value from B, but B is only valuable because it derives its value from C, and C is only valuable because it derives its value from D, and so on… To explain why things are derivatively valuable, we will eventually have to appeal to something that is non-derivatively valuable, i.e., something that is intrinsically valuable.
Intrinsic value is usually contrasted with extrinsic value. Often extrinsic value is just taken to be identical with instrumental value (Frankena 1973: 81), but this identification is controversial. Thus, some argue instead that instrumental value is only one sort of extrinsic value and that something might instead be extrinsically valuable as a part, or as a sign, rather than just as a means (Bradley 1998).
Some contend instead that instrumental value is more properly to be contrasted with final value, i.e., the non-derivative value that something has as an end or for its own sake (Korsgaard 1983). According to such an account, intrinsic value is instead better understood as the value that something has in itself just in virtue of its intrinsic, non-relational properties. This is to be contrasted with a different sense of extrinsic value (namely, the value that something has in virtue of its extrinsic or relational properties). In what follows, however, I shall follow Framarin in using ‘intrinsic value’ for the non-derivative value that something has as an end or for its own sake, and maintain neutrality on the question of whether intrinsic value supervenes only on intrinsic properties.
Finally, some have expressed scepticism about whether instrumental value really is any kind of value at all (Rønnow-Rasmussen 2002). After all, the bare assertion that something is instrumentally valuable does not by itself settle whether that thing is a bearer of value, or merely somehow related to a bearer of value. Might it not be that the only sort of value is intrinsic or final value and other things may merely be called ‘valuable’ by courtesy, because leading to other genuinely valuable things?
Now it is certainly true that insofar as the moral status of an act depends on its outcome, it is the intrinsic value of that outcome that matters. Otherwise, we should always choose the most complicated routes to achieve our ends so as to maximize instrumental value along the way. Instrumental goods matter only because they produce intrinsic goods.
But it is also true that much of what people in fact believe to be valuable—money, food, property, health, education, friendship, political liberty, and so on—would usually be agreed by them to be of only instrumental value. To be sure, some of these things might also be intrinsically valuable, but for most of them that claim would be controversial. So the suggestion that intrinsic value is not really value amounts to a very radical revision of our ordinary conception of what is valuable. Accordingly, in what follows I shall assume instead that instrumental value is indeed a kind of value, even if intrinsic value is the more fundamental kind of value.
A Dilemma for Instrumentalist Interpretations?
As already explained, an instrumentalist interpretation of Hindu environmental ethics is one that holds that the tradition attributes only instrumental value to plants, animals, and the rest of nature. What Framarin argues is that such an instrumentalist view is in fact philosophically inadequate because it is either viciously circular or unacceptably arbitrary. Let me explain further.
The Hindu recommendation to cultivate a particular kind of attitude [namely, ahiṃsā] towards animals is based not on considerations about the animal as such but on considerations about how the development of this attitude is part of the purificatory steps that lead men to the path of mokṣa.
(Lal 1986: 200)
Only the attainment or realization of mokṣa has intrinsic value.
Animals and plants have only instrumental value, in virtue of their relations to mokṣa, and hence lack direct moral standing.
ahiṃsā → mokṣa.
hiṃsā → postponement of mokṣa.
ahiṃsā → merit
hiṃsā → demerit.
#1 #2 #3
ahiṃsā → merit → mokṣa
hiṃsā → demerit → postponement of mokṣa.
According to Framarin, however, there is ‘a fundamental problem’ with this instrumentalist view: while the connection between merit and mokṣa, #2 and #3, is (with certain minor qualifications) unproblematic, the connection between ahiṃsā and merit, #1 and #2, is unexplained.
[The instrumentalist] answers the question, “Why does ahiṃsā, #1, produce merit, #2?” by saying “because ahiṃsā, #1, leads to mokṣa, #3”. He then answers the question “Why does ahiṃsā, #1, lead to mokṣa, #3?”, by saying “because ahiṃsā, #1, produces merit, #2”. This leads full circle, obviously, to the original question “Why does ahiṃsā, #1, produce merit, #2?” (p.30)
The second horn of the purported dilemma is that the connection between ahiṃsā and merit (and hiṃsā and demerit) is unexplained because perfectly arbitrary: ‘it might as well have been that ahiṃsā produced demerit and hiṃsā produced merit’ (p. 31).
Obviously, if Framarin is right here then, even if the instrumentalist interpretation of Hindu environmental ethics is exegetically adequate as an account of at least one strand of thought within Hinduism, such an account is philosophically inadequate. This is because it fails to meet the fundamental requirements of non-circularity and non-arbitrariness that are necessary for a satisfactory explanation of why nature has value. I shall argue, however, that Framarin’s argument is far too swift a dismissal of the instrumentalist interpretation and rests on confusions about the logical structure of instrumental value.
The Dilemma Defused
Let us begin by asking what is the nature of the (purportedly unsatisfactory) explanation that the #1-#3 schema diagrams. Since the arrows were originally introduced as indicating ‘the source of the value of that which precedes it’ (p. 26), it would seem that what we are being offered is in the first place an account of the structure of the derivation of value. Thus ahiṃsā and merit are instrumentally or derivatively valuable, but mokṣa is intrinsically or non-derivatively valuable. So if we ask why ahiṃsā is a good thing, the answer is that it derives its goodness from its being productive of merit; and if we ask why merit is a good thing the answer is that it is conducive to the attainment of mokṣa; and if we ask why mokṣa is a good thing the answer is that it is just a good thing in itself.
Framarin, however, seems to construe the structure of the explanation involved here differently. He suggests that the explanation diagrammed in #1-#3 is circular because the instrumentalist supposedly first answers the question ‘Why does ahiṃsā produce merit?’ by saying that ahiṃsā is conducive to mokṣa, and then answers the question ‘Why is ahiṃsā conducive to mokṣa’ by saying that it is because ahiṃsā produces merit.
But this is confused. First of all, the diagrammed explanation in #1-#3 was originally introduced to answer a different question altogether: ‘Why is ahiṃsā a good thing?’ And the instrumentalist’s answer to that question is ‘Because it is an instrumental good that derives its value from being conducive to the intrinsic good of mokṣa’. The passage from #1 to #2 and #2 to #3 then just fills out some of the details of the indirect causal chain by means of which ahiṃsā is productive of mokṣa.
Secondly, if the instrumentalist is asked instead ‘Why does ahiṃsā produce merit?’ then the reply is just the standard Hindu answer: ‘Because they are causally connected as act and karmic consequence’. And clearly there is nothing circular about this answer, whatever the evidence for its truth. I conclude, therefore, that the first horn of the supposed dilemma for instrumentalism collapses.
But what of the other horn? Here, Framarin’s claim is that the instrumentalist’s explanation is of why ahiṃsā leads to mokṣa is unsatisfactorily arbitrary. This is because the connection between ahiṃsā and mokṣa is explained in terms of a causal chain via the production of merit: i.e., ahiṃsā produces merit and merit produces mokṣa. But this is ‘perfectly arbitrary … [for] it might just as well have been that ahiṃsā produced demerit, and that hiṃsā produced merit’.
Now the instrumentalist explanation of why ahiṃsā is a good is that it is an instrumental good that produces merit and merit produces mokṣa, which is an intrinsic good. Thus, according to the instrumentalist’s theory, the goodness of both ahiṃsā and merit are due to their being causally productive of mokṣa: indeed this is just what the instrumentalist means by describing ahiṃsā and merit as instrumental goods that derive their goodness from the intrinsic good of mokṣa. But all causal explanations are ‘arbitrary’ in the following sense: when we can explain the occurrence of something in terms of the operation of a causal law we do not thereby explain why that causal law and not another is an actual causal law. That A caused B is to be explained by reference to a causal law; that a causal law of that particular character obtains is just a ‘brute fact’, signifying the terminus of a series of explanations which is not itself further explicable.
According to the instrumentalist, there is a karmic causal law that connects ahiṃsā, merit and mokṣa. Such a law (like other causal laws) is not a matter of logical necessity: presumably it might have been that other causal laws obtained in the world, so that ahiṃsā produced demerit instead of merit. But this bare possibility does not in any way undermine the instrumentalist’s causal explanation by showing it to be unsatisfactorily arbitrary just because the existence and character of the causal law it invokes is itself just a brute fact.
The late Paul Grice is supposed to have once responded to an interlocutor’s objection by saying: ‘See here, that’s not an objection to my theory – that’s my theory!’ (Rachels 1986:145). The instrumentalist might justifiably reply to Framarin’s ‘objection’ in much the same way. Thus, the instrumentalist’s theory is that ahiṃsā is an instrumental good because it produces—via the production of another instrumental good (merit)—an intrinsic good (mokṣa). As is true of other instrumental goods, the link between these instrumental goods and the intrinsic good they produce is a causal one. So, like all causal explanations, it appeals to the presence of causal laws. Of course, these laws might have been otherwise, and so (in an entirely innocuous sense) the explanation offered is arbitrary in virtue of appealing to a brute fact. But this feature in no way undermines the legitimacy of the explanation type.
Framarin complains: ‘If animals and plants lack direct moral standing, why does ahiṃsā produce merit in the first place’ (p. 30). This just misconstrues the logical structure of instrumental value. Compare the case of food, which is plausibly an instrumental good in virtue of its conducing to the intrinsic good of well-being. It would be misguided to ask: ‘If food is only an instrumental good, then why does it produce well-being in the first place?’ The only answer would have to be that the ingestion of appropriate food is normally a cause of well-being. To then protest that this is an unsatisfactorily arbitrary answer because things might have been different in another possible world—so that, say, the ingestion of food instead normally produced diminished well-being—is irrelevant to food’s being an instrumental good in the actual world.
I have not, of course, offered any evidence in support of the truth of the causal claim that is a central part of the instrumentalist’s theory, but complaints about the absence of such evidence formed no part of Framarin’s case against the instrumentalist. His objection was instead that the instrumentalist view is philosophically inadequate because it fails to meet the basic requirements of non-circularity and non-arbitrariness that are necessary for a satisfactory explanation of why nature has value. My arguments show that this is not so. So if the instrumentalist view of Hindu environmental ethics is to be shown to be philosophically inadequate, arguments stronger than Framarin’s will need to be provided.
Earlier I described Christopher Framarin’s Hinduism and Environmental Ethics as ‘very interesting’, and it does seem to me that Framarin’s original arguments there for attributing direct moral standing to plants and animals within the Hindu tradition and his nuanced criticisms of rival interpretations should be of interest to environmental philosophers everywhere. For the reasons I have presented, however, I find his brisk dismissal of the philosophical adequacy of instrumentalist interpretations of Hindu environmental ethics in chapter 2 of that book far too swift to be convincing.
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