It was not so terribly long ago that nature stood as an imposing reminder of an external world over which humans had little control. In recent years, environmental ethicists have sought to better understand the nature of nature, carving it up into cultural constructs, metaphysical states, ontological furniture, and even, at times, an interactive subject. Yet with all of this theoretical exploration, philosophers have come to no agreement about what nature is, and many have made minor legacies for themselves by explaining what nature is not. Steven Vogel and Kate Soper, in particular, have each offered trenchant and valuable critiques of many of the central and important views on the nature of nature.
Amazingly, this unsolved problem about the definition of nature is considered fundamental to environmental ethics, since it involves the very subject matter of the discipline. Indeed, it has particular salience among those who hope to address the value of nature, as it appears that in order to understand what is valuable, one must understand what one is valuing. With a null answer to the question of what nature is, it would appear that any environmental ethics is for naught. But I do not believe this to be the case. How then might we to come to a sense of what to do with regard to nature if we have no clear sense of what nature is?
In this paper I take a different, and somewhat divergent, tack on the nature of nature. I argue that determinations of naturalness ought not to be tied to the ontological status (or lack thereof) of the surrounding environment. I argue instead that talk of the naturalness of things is talk, in the end, about what we humans are responsible for. Acknowledging this, I believe, can bear the right sort of fruit for an environmental ethics. If nature is viewed not so much as some real object or metaphysical construct, as much as a component of the question of what we should do, then questions about the value of nature fall into place without the cumbers of ontology.
This argument finds its footing in the neo-Kantian literature on morality, and specifically in the literature on culpability and responsibility stemming from the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas. Where many neo-Kantian writers object to the standard subject-object value dichotomies implicit in contemporary value theory—viewing value as less a matter of intrinsic attributes and more a matter of intersubjective valuing—so too can the observations of the neo-Kantians be fruitful for an environmental ethics that hopes to specify the nature of nature. Nature’s fury and beauty must be understood as capricious, yet law-bound—distinct from the guidance of a self-legislating force—in order that we self-legislators make sense of our own actions as uniquely motivated by practical principle and law. In other words, if nature is construed neither as an ontological entity separate from or tied up in human experiences, nor as an interactive subject, but more as a shared conception of the heteronomous and external, then valuing (and consequently, the value of nature) can be understood as arising out of, and at the same time, inextricably bound to, human responsibility.
Further, the paper suggests that this conception of nature is vital to understanding our own autonomous possibilities. Conceiving of nature according to matters of culpability and responsibility is necessary to distinguish human actions from the actions of a world over which humans have little control. The valence of causes and consequences—for instance, whether anthropogenic or wrought by nature—has implications for our valuations of nature and our moral evaluations of human actions. This holds true regardless of the degree to which a consequence can be said to be good or bad.
Despite appearances, this position is distinct from the neo-Kantian constructivist view that proposes that humans attribute a value to nature. On the position I advocate, natural value is a matter of valuing, caught up in the discursive commitments of communicative interactants and informed by the background of an experienced lifeworld. Finding value in nature, and understanding the nature of nature in general, means uncovering, through discursive practices, what we are and are not responsible for. In short, it involves understanding nature from the perspective of the performative attitude, and not from the perspective of the objectivating attitude. Moreover, such a view stands in sharp contrast with variant pragmatist answers to the nature of nature that propose, as Eric Katz has proposed, that we view nature as an interactive subject. On the picture presented in this paper, discursive subjects must regard nature from the performative attitude, but nevertheless distinguish non-human events from human actions by way of ascertaining responsibility for these events. In this respect, the value of nature maintains a status as pluralist, pragmatic, and intersubjectively established—it is anthropogenic, though not anthropocentric—but avoids the difficulties of metaphysical, real, or lay conceptions of nature.