The Conflict Within Us

If an environmentalist wants to preserve parts of the natural environment for their own sake, he might do well to concede that this is his intention. The environmentalist must then argue that the principles of justice, fairness, and efficiency that may apply to the distribution of income in our society need not apply to the protection or preservation of the natural environment. The reason is that the conflict involved, for example, over Mineral King is not primarily a distributional one. It does not simply pit the skiers against the hikers. The skiers themselves may believe, on aesthetic grounds, that the wilderness should be preserved, even if that belief conflicts with their own consumer preferences. Thus, this conflict pits the consumer against himself as a citizen or as a member of a moral community.

The conflict, in other words, arises not only among us but also within us. It confronts what I want as an individual with what I believe as a citizen. This is a well-known problem. It is the conflict Pogo describes: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

The conflict is an ethical one. It is not ethical only because it raises a question about the distribution of goods to the rich or the poor, to the present or the future. The ethical question is not simply the distributional question. It concerns, rather, how we satisfy our interests and how we live by our beliefs. This sort of question could never arise in a society that made its only goals efficiency and equity in the satisfaction of consumer demand. That sort of society could deal only with the opposition between the hikers and the skiers. It could never respond to, act upon, or resolve the opposition between the skiers and themselves.

I do not want to comment on the ethical position my students, like many Americans, hold with respect to preserving the natural environment. I merely want to point out that it is an ethical position. It is also an opinion that is widely shared, deeply held, and embodied in legislation. I imagine that if the law were changed and the Disney resort were built, more than half the skiers in the lift line would agree, in principle, with my students. They might condemn the resort on ethical grounds. But money is money, and only money talks. The skiers would have paid a lot of money and gone to a lot of trouble to use the facilities. There could be no question - could there? - about what they want or what they believe.

The problem is a general one. It arises not just because of our high regard for wilderness areas, such as Mineral King, but because of broad values we share about nature, the environment, health, safety, and the quality and meaning of life. Many of us are concerned, for example, that the workplace be safe and free of carcinogens; we may share this conviction even if we are not workers. And so we might favor laws that require very high air-quality standards in petrochemical plants. But as consumers, we may find no way to support the cause of workplace safety. Indeed, if we buy the cheapest products, we may defeat it.

We may be concerned as citizens, or as members of a moral and political community, with all sorts of values - sentimental, historical, ideological, cultural, aesthetic, and ethical - that conflict with the interests we reveal as consumers, buying shoes or choosing tomatoes. The conflict within individuals, rather than between them, may be a very common conflict. The individual as a self-interested consumer opposes himself as a moral agent and a concerned citizen.

What kind of society are we? Do we admit into public consideration values of only two kinds: personal preferences and distributive norms? Do we insist that the only political decisions we can make are intended to distribute wealth, for example, by making market participation more equitable, while every other choice - every allocative decision about the environment - should be left, if possible, for those markets to decide? Since markets can always be construed to fail, does this mean that allocation should be left to the experts to decide? Should we leave allocative choices to the tourist listening to his John Denver cassette as he pulls his recreational vehicle into the Automobile Reception Center at the Disney resort? Is this fellow the appropriate legislator of our common will?

Suppose he opens his mouth to express an ethical opinion - horribile dictu - about the use of the environment. Suppose he tells us that we should have kept Mickey Mouse out of the mountains. Must we shut our ears to him? Is that the kind of society we are? Is aggregation of WTP the goal? When markets fail, which is to say, always, shall experts base allocation on WTP instead?

I suspect that most people may be resigned, by now, to an affirmative answer to these questions. Nobody can appear to be soft or unscientific, that is, by speaking in ethical, aesthetic, or spiritual terms. Every debate is cast in the language of economics however irrelevant or misleading that vocabulary really is. How else can one explain the reluctance of environmentalists to argue on openly moral or political grounds? Why do they prefer to tell stories about the possible benefits of the furbish lousewort rather than offer moral reasons for supporting the Endangered Species Act? That law is plainly ethical; it is hardly to be excused on economic grounds. Why do environmentalists look for interests to defend, costs to price, benefits to enter - even if they have to go to the ludicrous extreme of counting the interests of the trees?28

Americans, no matter how they shop, generally share the ideology of the environmentalists.29 Indeed, most Americans claim that they are environmentalists.30 Why, then, are we reluctant to confess that we make environmental law on the basis of shared ideals rather than on the basis of individual utilities? Why do we find it hard to concede that society is more than a collective action problem or a maximization exercise and that allocative efficiency and distributional equity do not exhaust the repertoire of public values? Why is it so difficult for us to say that one may allocate resources not to maximize aggregate WTP but on substantive, normative, and frankly ethical grounds?

I think the answers have something to do with the insecurity many of us feel when we find ourselves without "neutral" theories and criteria against which to evaluate political, ethical, and aesthetic positions. It's scary to think about problems on their own terms; it's easier to apply a methodology; it's even more tempting to think about the problems raised by the methodology or to investigate the theory itself. Besides, if one side has numbers, the other side needs numbers as well. Developers can justify their projects in terms of profits - the prices they can charge -and therefore they can say that these projects create jobs and are productive from the perspective of the economy as a whole. Unfortunately, environmentalists too often accept the assumption that the important values are economic; environmentalists believe they have to argue in economic rather than in ethical, political, or cultural terms. This strategic mistake leads environmentalists to endorse WTP as a way to measure "non-use" values, "existence" values, "option" values or "intangible" variables - in other words, to measure the validity of their own beliefs.

As a result, both the public and its officials are bamboozled into expressing moral principles and aesthetic judgments about the natural environment - beliefs that have often carried the day politically -in terms of WTP, that is, terms that are appropriate to personal consumption. A principal purpose of an environmental ethic may be to help public officials understand that it is legitimate to think in terms of public values and to make political choices. They do not have to pretend these choices are dictated by a value-neutral policy science.

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