Who We Are And What We Want

Public policy for the environment, workplace safety, and public health is and ought to be grounded in what Richard Andrews calls the "philosophy of normative constraints." He explains:

In this conceptual framework, government is not simply a corrective instrument at the margins of economic markets but [a] central arena in which the members of society choose and legitimize... their collective values. The principal purposes of legislative action are to weigh and affirm social values and to define and enforce the rights and duties of members of the society, through representative democracy. The purpose of administrative action is to put into effect these affirmations by the legislature, not to rebalance them by the criteria of economic theory.5

In this paragraph, Andrews distinguishes between two kinds of criteria by which we may formulate and assess environmental policy. The first approach attempts to "weigh and affirm social values and to define the rights and duties of members of the society." The second approach applies "the criteria of economic theory." In the introductory chapter, I argued that if "the criteria of economic theory" are construed in terms of economic performance - for example, "gd jbs w hi pa" -each of these two approaches is legitimate. The challenge for society lies in being able to function while it keeps both of these separate ideas in mind.

Our environmental goals rest on views or beliefs that find their way, as ethical principles and intuitions, into legislation and common-law adjudication. These goals - cleaner air and water, the preservation of wilderness and wildlife, and the like - should not be construed as personal wants or preferences to be "valued" by the criteria of economic theory. These goals represent not goods we choose but values we recognize - not what we want but who we are.

To some extent environmental statutes - particularly laws that control pollution and minimize risk - express a broad moral consensus about the rights of person and property. In other matters, for example, the maintenance of "natural" objects and areas, society establishes councils, stakeholder groups, representative regional authorities, zoning boards, and other committees in which citizens with a variety of values and beliefs can share information and work out their differences in peaceful ways.6 To resolve disagreements over social commitments, standards, and values, we rely on deliberative processes that are associated with representative democracy, through which society enacts rules that reflect its identity and establish its aspirations. In this democratic process, society takes economic factors into account, of course, since to will a particular outcome one must also will the means to achieve it. Economic analysis may also help society achieve most effectively and at the lowest cost whatever goals it sets.

We debate social policies on the basis of their moral qualities and objective merits; it is not a question of personal benefit, although we take economic factors into account. Consumers who have to pay higher prices as a result, for example, may nevertheless favor safety regulations in the workplace as a matter of national pride and collective self-respect, not self-interest. Environmental goals derive less from self-interest than from national purpose and from a memory even newcomers adopt of our long historical relationship to a magnificent natural heritage. In a later chapter, I shall try to describe that heritage. When people support these goals they are not trying to improve the economy but to protect the environment.

The possibility that people act politically to protect the environment (rather than just individually to satisfy their preferences) presupposes the reality of public values we can recognize together, values that are discussed as shared intentions and are not to be confused with personal wants or satisfactions. Through public conversation we are able to assess goals we attribute to ourselves as a community - as opposed to preferences we might pursue privately. Our system of political representation may be the best available device for deciding on shared values, for "filtering the persuasive from the unpersuasive, the right from wrong, and the good from bad."7 Political decisions constitute compromises formed by give-and-take and by persuasion, by deliberation, and by the force of the better argument.

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