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Finland’s first doctoral dissertation on environmental philosophy
Nature has intrinsic values independent of man

from EVU News, Issue 2 /1997 - Italiano

Finland has got its first doctoral dissertation on environmental philosophy. Leena Vilkka believes that nature and animals have intrinsic values which are independent of human value. According to Vilkka, even entire ecosystems can have values.

Leena Vilkka’s interest in nature and animals is philosophical. This is rare, for philosophy is generally regarded as human-centred, and philosophers deal with questions relating to man. Those who are interested in nature and animals usually study biology, veterinary sciences, or forestry. Leena Vilkka too first studied to be a forestry foreman, but she wanted to find another approach to nature. She enrolled at the University of Helsinki to read philosophy, with environmental protection, ecology and zoology as her minor subjects.

Ever since her childhood, Vilkka has felt uncomfortable with the way biology describes nature. 'For me, the forest is primarily a place for aesthetic experiences. In a forest one can find a bearing for one’s relationship with nature and animals.`

As the topics of her advanced studies, Vilkka chose nature’s intrinsic value and animal consciousness, both subjects which have been shunned by Finnish philosophers. 'My starting point is a strong intuitive conception that the present concept of reality is erroneous. The idea prevailing in Finland is a conception created by the natural sciences, technology, the industrial society and the economy, according to which nature is only a raw material reserve at man’s disposal.' What this involves is, for Vilkka, a misconception: we treat nature and animals differently from what their real essence is. For instance a pig or a cow is seen only as a vehicle for production. 'What interests the modern society in a pig is its fat percentage, nutritional value and meat qualities. We are not interested in the pig as a feeling and conscious animal with a different soul.'

According to Vilkka, the human being’s relationship with nature is mistaken and distorted and mainly based on power and exploitation - not on a desire to understand what pigs, cows or the forest really are or what kind of communication could exist between people and the rest of nature.

‘Technological and economic power and different interest groups have been allowed to define what nature is. I believe that these definitions are far from reality.' 'The forest is marketed to us in the form of interesting books and nice furniture. The forest is no longer seen in the end-product, it has become alienated from its origin. This also relates to meat products in shops. We no longer buy pig, but chops, ham or steak,' Vilkka explains. ‘Inherent in both capitalism and communism is the basic assumption that natural resources are free,' Vilkka underlines. A natural resource is seen to become valuable only through human activity. Man has been able to obtain natural resources for refinement, and has never needed to compensate them in any way. The forest, rocks and animals have existed for man.

First moral experiences at the age of four
Leena Vilkka’s earliest moral experiences relating to nature date from the time when she was four. ‘My eldest brother studied medicine in the sixties. At that time medical students took cats with them as test animals. In this way our own pet cat ended up as a test animal in smoking experiments. 1 knew something very wrong had been done to our cat, although I could not blame my brother or parents for it - at that time it was common for pets to fall victims of animal testing.‘

This strong empathy with a creature was followed by another experience later, when Vilkka saw the natural environment in her home town being destroyed. Roads, markets and residential houses were being built in the nearby forests. I did not see any added value in asphalt and buildings. I saw this as impoverishment, for me the forest was more valuable than human constructions.'

For Vilkka, work with nature and animals was self-evident. The job of a forestry foreman is ideal for many nature-lovers, as it involves roaming in the woods, marking stands for felling and directing forestry workers. Vilkka did not, however, feel satisfied in her job, aware that the exploitation of forests had gone too far. ‘In Finland nearly all forests have been put to economic use.Clearly less than ten per cent of forests has been reserved for recreational use. In my opinion, the figures could be reversed: ten per cent could be harnessed for exploitation and the rest should be left for various other uses, recreational areas, and for nature itself as an environment for animals and plants.'

A Finnish pioneer
Leena Vilkka’s study 'The Varieties of Intrinsic Value in Nature - a Naturistic Approach to Environmental Philosophy' is the first doctoral dissertation to deal with environmental philosophy in Finland. For seven years Vilkka did pioneering work and encountered a pioneer’s problems: it is appropriate for a young woman researcher to question old traditional values. A book published by Vilkka in 1993, which dealt with international and Finnish philosophy of environmental research and nature preservation, initiated a Finnish debate on environmental ethics. In her book Leena Vilkka develops her idea of the intrinsic value of nature. ‘Earlier philosophers considered that the intrinsic value of nature is impossible, because nature belongs to the sphere of natural sciences and values are generated by human activity. Nature has been seen as a value void - only human beings can have values.'

Vilkka distinguishes between anthropocentric (human-centred) and naturocentric (nature-centred) intrinsic values. Both involve human values, but naturocentric intrinsic values are those assigned by human beings to nature, as being intrinsic to nature - nature is valuable in itself. We can give the forest either an instrumental value or an intrinsic value.'

A bigger problem arises when we ask where values come from. Vilkka speaks of 'anthropogenic` and 'naturogenic' values. Opposed are two conceptions: either values originate in human culture, or values were generated in the course of a long evolution, already before the human era. 'According to naturogenic thinking, values exist not only in man but in plants, animals and even in ecosystems. This, of course, is a very radical idea,' Vilkka admits.

The most natural point of departure for finding values is to look for them in animals. One central value found in animals is suffering, Vilkka thinks. 'Suffering has a definite purpose in nature. Suffering increases animals’ chances of survival, and on the reverse side of suffering there is well-being. The human being can measure animal well-being, yet it is not created by man; it is a question of the animal’s own suffering and well-being.'

Vilkka regards the idea that only human beings can have values as artificial. For a wolf, the elk has an instrumental value as prey which sustains the wolfs life and well-being. The same wolf can look upon the members of its own pack as animals with an intrinsic value and does not treat them as mere instruments. 'Animals create values independently of what the human being thinks of them.

Vilkka also contemplates plant values.The environmental philosopher Paul W.Taylor talks of ‘,the good of an organism’, which implies that all organisms have their own good. The human being can either promote or harm this quality, but it is still independent of man. 'Whether a house plant thrives or not depends on people, yet well-being or feeling poorly is the plant’s own quality.'

The problem arises from the alleged lack of self in plants. If a plant has no self, what is it that suffers or thrives? According to Vilkka, this requires totally new thinking. Despite the difficult philosophical problems, Vilkka wants to take her train of thought further. The most demanding level for Vilkka is ecogenic values: Could systems have values which cannot be traced back to the individual?’

The philosophical tradition relates values to individuals, and hence cannot comprehend that a mountain could have intrinsic value. Vilkka tosses us the question of whether nature as a whole could be a subject with a holistic consciousness and whether a mountain or a river could 'experience'. 'Here we are looking for a world of experiences which differs completely from our world of human experiences. Current research on consciousness and artificial intelligence could throw new light on this.`

Nina Korhonen