December 27, 2012

Ecosystem services, environmental ethics, preferences and words

Susan says she prefers to measure things in yards. John says he prefers to use meters. Peter says he doesn't like to measure things at all. Mary watches the actions of Susan, John and Peter and concludes that they are not truthful about their preferences. So, Susan prefers to use yards instead of meters but prefers to say otherwise. One can call this preference falsification.

Susan says she is worried about the ethical implications of measuring things in meters; John, about using yards; and Peter, about measuring things at all. Then Gary W. Luck and coauthors come along and say (in Ethical considerations in on-ground applications of the ecosystem services concept, also available here) that a) the way we measure things or the possibility of measuring things at all or the use of the ecosystem services concept raise ethical concerns simply because Susan, John and Peter say they are ethically concerned, and b) these purported ethical concerns should guide environmental policy. The apparent naivete of their philosophy is funny, but a) "it has been suggested" that the paper is written in vague, insipid and verbose language, making for a less than pleasurable experience; b) "concerns have been raised" about the journal Bioscience publishing "what some authors interpret as" funny ideas instead of proper science; and c) this is how policy is actually carried out.

The fact that people "raise ethical concerns" about self-interest, using nature to fulfill one's desires, comparing the costs and benefits of different options to make decisions, or the existence of disparities between rich and poor is something worth of study. But such purported concerns alone do not justify or proscribe any particular policy. If one is interested in the truth one should point out that those concerns are inconsistent with nearly all human behavior and therefore the result of sloppy thinking or downright hypocrisy. If one believes that in order to promote human (or universal, for that matter) well-being one should conceal or confound the truth then I insist that a scientific journal is not the right place for doing it and I, so to speak, raise ethical concerns.

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