Convergence in environmental values: An empirical and conceptual defense

Ben Minteer, Robert E. Manning

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Scopus citations


Must our disagreements about the moral status of nature prevent us from supporting the same environmental policies? This question is at the core of Bryan Norton's convergence hypothesis, first discussed in an early paper in Environmental Ethics and later developed in his book Toward Unity among Environmentalists as well as in several more recent publications.1 Stated simply, Norton's claim is that individuals who rely on a sufficiently broad and temporally extended range of human values (a position he originally termed "weak anthropocentrism") and nonanthropocentrists who embrace a consistent notion of the intrinsic value of nature will both tend to endorse similar policies in par tic u lar situations. This overlapping of human and nonhuman concerns is to be expected, since in order to adequately sustain a broad range of human values over time, the ecological contexts on which these goods depend must also be sustained-a goal accomplished through the formulation of long-sighted, multivalue environmental policy. If this sort of common ground exists among individuals of varying ethical stripes, then Norton believes environmental phi los o phers (and environmentalists generally) might consequently agree to set aside many of our increasingly worn contests over the philosophical bearing of various environmental commitments. Once this happens, attention could be turned toward more concrete (and therefore more useful) analyses of the location and character of environmental values in actual policy discussions. The theory of convergence thus comports well with Norton's general pragmatic approach to environmental ethics, a stance that has found him calling for a practical environmental philosophy focused not on speculative metaphysical arguments about nonhuman nature, but on the complex and interpenetrating moral underpinnings of actual environmental policies and practices.2 Given the traditional emphasis of environmental philos o phers on the founding and vigorous defense of general and universal moral principles (the very habits that Norton is attempting to leave behind), the convergence hypothesis has, not surprisingly, met with less than universal support in environmental ethical circles. In par tic u lar, J. Baird Callicott, Laura Westra, and Brian Steverson have come out in strong opposition to Norton's thesis.3 As we explain below, we take it to be significant that none of these critics attempt to engage the convergence hypothesis at an empirical level-the realm in which Norton clearly believes his thesis is to be either validated or rejected. Elsewhere we have argued that environmental phi los o phers can learn much from such experimental approaches toward environmental values.4 This need is especially great with respect to notions like convergence because, in their objections, Norton's critics have tended to revert to their own precast environmental ideologies, taking issue with Norton's own philosophical proclivities rather than considering the practical questions he raises about the relationship between concrete public environmental values and policy judgments. Of course, Norton's epistemological and ontological claims are fair game, and we do not seek to discourage critical analyses of the serious philosophical concerns at stake here. We simply suggest that more attention needs to be paid to the examination of the idea of value convergence on environmental policy from an empirical standpoint. This sort of analysis could provide a useful ser vice for environmental philosophical discussions, and might contribute to the ongoing development of a more practical and effective style of environmental ethical inquiry. If it can be demonstrated that public ethical diversity toward the natural world does not preclude a high level of agreement on common policy goals (at least in par tic u lar cases), then we would argue that environmental phi los o phers should refrain from dismissing arguments like the convergence hypothesis out of hand, especially if such dismissals are made simply because the convergence model refuses to be blindly monistic in its countenance of a range of moral programs. In this chapter, we therefore attempt to provide an empirical exploration and defense of a general convergence framework. First, we briefly rehearse and consider the various critiques of convergence, and show that while his critics attempt to draw out perceived philosophical flaws in Norton's thesis, they do indeed avoid the important practical question about convergence on real matters of environmental policy. We then present and discuss an empirical study of environmental ethics, values, and attitudes toward forest policy (carried out in the context of Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest) that leads us to endorse a reading of Norton's thesis as an accurate model of public en-vironmentalism, at least in the Vermont case. We conclude by discussing how these data lead us to question a number of the dispositions and the practices of environmental philosophy. In par tic u lar, we suggest that the unmistakable pessimism in the attitudes of Norton's critics toward the ability of the public to arrive at sound environmental policy without sole recourse to a nonanthro-pocentric foundation is unwarranted. Further, we propose that this stance is detrimental to the development of a more inclusive public environmental philosophy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationNature in Common?
Subtitle of host publicationEnvironmental Ethics and the Contested Foundations of Environmental Policy
PublisherTemple University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)9781592137039
StatePublished - Dec 1 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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