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Intrinsic Value

Module by: Melina Laverty, Eleanor Sterling. E-mail the authors

How Do We Define Intrinsic Value?

Intrinsic value is generally defined as the inherent worth of something, independent of its value to anyone or anything else. One way to think about intrinsic value is to view it as similar to the inalienable right to exist. The Endangered Species Act in the United States protects many species that are not "valuable" to humans in any readily definable way (for instance, the dwarf wedge mussel [Alasmidonta heterodon] or the swamp pink [Helonias bullata]). These species are protected based on the idea that they have a right to exist, just as all humans do. The United Nations Charter for Nation (1982) also notes biodiversity's intrinsic value: "Every form of life is unique, warranting respect regardless of its worth to man."

Intrinsic value is a frequently misused term as some consider values that are not easily defined, such as aesthetic values, to be intrinsic values. However, as discussed earlier, aesthetic values are a kind of extrinsic value, because aesthetic values provide humans with a service of sorts -- our own satisfaction. Others consider a species' value to the structure and function of an ecosystem (such as an invertebrate decomposer's ability to cycle nutrients) as its intrinsic value because it does not have any obvious value to humans. However, this ecosystem values is still utilitarian value except it focuses on one organism's usefulness to another organism, rather than to humans.

The concept of intrinsic value is highly philosophical. Many economists and some ethicists believe that intrinsic value does not exist, arguing that all values are human-centered, that a value cannot exist without an evaluator.

Generally, two contrasting beliefs frame a continuum along which our beliefs fall:

  • On one end is the idea that humans are the center of the universe and the nature exists (and is used) for human benefit (a view called anthropocentrism
  • At the other end is the notion that life is the center of the universe and humans are a separate but equal part of nature (biocentrism, or ecocentrism
The biocentric view, forwarded by the deep ecology movement (Naess 1989, Devall and Sessions 1985), holds that all species have intrinsic value and that humans are no more important than other species. Thus everything has an equal right to exist simply because it already exists. Having this right will result in also having a "right" to have ones future survival guaranteed to an extent equal to any and all other species. If one accepts the idea that biodiversity has intrinsic value, then species conservation requires less justification. In other words, if a species is intrinsically valuable, regardless of its use to humans or to other species, it should be conserved, and then the onus is on those who do not want to conserve the species to provide a justification for its removal. Intrinsic value is a central tenet of many religions. Many religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Baha'i, Taoism, Hinduism) consider everything on earth to be inherently sacred, or sacred as a result of being created by a divine being, and thus, intrinsically valuable, and humans are responsible to care for and respect these creations (Callicott 1997).

Glossary

intrinsic value:
generally defined as the inherent worth of something, independent of its value to anyone or anything else
anthropocentrism:
: the notion that humans are the center of the universe and that nature exists (and is used) for human benefit
biocentrism or ecocentrism:
the notion that life is the center of the universe and humans are a separate but equal part of nature

References

  1. United Nations Charter for Nature. (1982). [Available from: http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/37/a37/r007.htm (Accessed on April 18, 2003)].
  2. Naess, A. (1989). Ecology, community, and lifestyle: Outline of an ecosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Devall, B. and G. Sessions. (1985). Deep Ecology. Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.A.: Gibbs Smith Publisher.
  4. Calicott, J.B. (1999). Values and Ethics in Conservation. In Meffe G.K and C.R. Carroll (Eds.), Principles of Conservation Biology. (Second Edition, pp. 29-56). Sunderland, Massachusetts, U.S.A.: Sinauer Associates.

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