Intrinsic Value

Intrinsic value is generally defined as the inherent worth of something, independent of its value to anyone or anything else. One way to think about intrinsic value is to view it as similar to an inalienable right to life. The Endangered Species Act in the United States protects many species that are not "valuable" to humans in any readily definable way (for instance, the dwarf wedge mussel [Alasmidonta heterodon] or the swamp pink [Helonias bullata]). These species are protected based on the idea that they have a right to life, just as all humans do. Conservationist Aldo Leopold is one of the most famous supporters of the idea that wildlife and wildlands hold value in and of themselves (Lorbiecki, 1996).

Intrinsic value is a frequently misused term. Some believe that values not easily defined, such as aesthetic values, are intrinsic values. As discussed earlier, aesthetic value is a kind of extrinsic/utilitarian value. Others believe that the value of a species to the structure and function of an ecosystem (such as an invertebrate decomposer's ability to cycle nutrients) is its intrinsic value, because it does not have any obvious value to humans. But here intrinsic value is incorrectly defined as one organism's usefulness to another organism.

The concept of intrinsic value is one of the most difficult to understand, as it is heavily philosophical. Many economists and some ethicists believe that intrinsic value does not exist, arguing that all values are human-centered. Generally, two contrasting ideologies frame a continuum along which our beliefs fall. On one extreme is the idea that humans are the center of the universe and that nature exists (and is used) for human benefit (a view called anthropocentrism); at the other is the notion that life is the center of the universe and that humans are a separate but equal part of nature (biocentrism, or ecocentrism). The latter viewpoint, forwarded by the deep ecology movement (Naess, 1989), holds that all species have intrinsic value and that humans are no more important than other species.

That humans have no right to wantonly destroy biodiversity is an assertion justifiable from certain religious standpoints. If God or some other deity or sacred process created the natural world alongside humans, then all creatures are imbued with sacredness: all have intrinsic value. This "most fundamental" postulate of all—that biotic diversity has intrinsic value, irrespective of its utilitarian value— is key to many motivations for biodiversity conservation. If one accepts the idea that biodiversity has intrinsic value, then species conservation requires less justification.

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