Wolves and Intrinsic Value: Frequently Asked Questions

Michael Paul Nelson, Ph.D.
Professor of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy
Oregon State University

Suggesting that wolves and other wildlife1 ought to be protected because they possess intrinsic value might be a new, and perhaps uncomfortable, approach for some of us. While the suggestion that nature or some part of nature should be considered intrinsically valuable has a long history in environmental philosophy and ethics, some branches of western conservation (e.g., Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic), and perhaps all Indigenous cultures, it might be new to you. This FAQ is offered as a way to help you become more familiar and comfortable with the notion of intrinsic value.

Q: What is intrinsic value?
A: When we suggest that we should respect something’s intrinsic value, we are suggesting that it should be considered valuable beyond its use (or instrumental) value. So, to say that wolves and other wildlife possess intrinsic value is to say that they have value even beyond what they can provide as ecosystem engineers or eco-tourism revenue generators – that they have value in their own right.

Q: What does the attribution of intrinsic value do for us?
A: First, it is an honest and genuine expression of our feelings. But more pragmatically, it shifts the burden of proof. If something like wolves possess intrinsic value then they are “innocent until proven guilty,” to express it in more legal terms. While instrumental value arguments for saving wolves are contingent (subject to being overridden), overriding something’s intrinsic value is difficult. It would mean, for instance, that if someone wished to kill wolves for some reason that they would have the burden of proof to justify that killing.

Q: Does anyone but us think that wolves and other wildlife should be attributed intrinsic value?
A: Actually, yes. A study published in 2015 in the peer-reviewed journal Conservation Biology showed that more than 80% of the general public in Ohio, and repeated nationwide, were willing to attribute intrinsic value to wildlife. Moreover, this high rate of intrinsic value attribution crossed all demographic variables. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is the legal codification of the notion that species ought to be attributed intrinsic value, consistently has a ~90% approval rating with the general public.

Q: If we say wolves and other wildlife possess intrinsic value, are we saying that they can’t possess instrumental value. Does this mean that we shouldn’t also use instrumental value arguments for wolves; or, to put it the other way around, if I say people like to view wolves (an instrumental value) and therefore they are of value, does that negate that wolves possess intrinsic value?
A: No, intrinsic value is an “accretion” (to use Aldo Leopold’s word), not a negation of instrumental or use value. For example, we believe our children are intrinsically valuable, yet there is nothing wrong with taking the tax deduction for them or having them mow the lawn. It’s critical to note that intrinsic value is value beyond, or in addition to, use or instrumental value.

Q: If I say wolves ought to be attributed intrinsic value, aren’t I demeaning the value of humans; that is, aren’t I being misanthropic?
A: No, attributing intrinsic value to wolves, (that is, being non-anthropocentric or non-human centered) is different than being misanthropic (against humans), and the later does not follow from the former. Actually, attributing intrinsic value to wolves means that you are being morally inclusive.

Q: But isn’t it really the facts from science that are going to win the day for wolves and other wildlife? Can ethical arguments about intrinsic value really sway people?
A: Arguably, huge social changes (the abolition of slavery, the end of wars like Vietnam) were the result of an ethical change of heart. Social science research on persuasion and messaging over the past 50 years has demonstrated repeatedly that providing people with ostensibly objective facts typically fails to elicit behavioral change. By contrast, appeals that engage ethical reasoning can have lasting effects. If what we ultimately want are changes in behavior toward wolves and other wildlife, then facts alone cannot logically lead us to that end. In short this is because prescriptions for action cannot logically be derived from facts of the matter alone. Prescriptive conclusions require a statement about the value that something possesses, and a statement of intrinsic value provides that value statement.

Q: Isn’t the attribution of intrinsic value to wolves and other wildlife kind of arbitrary, why should someone attribute intrinsic value to wolves?
A: No, it’s not arbitrary, it’s ultimately rooted in the reason why we attribute intrinsic value to other humans. Often, we consider traits like the ability to flourish or the ability to experience pleasure and pain (sentience) to be important moral considerations for humans. The simple application of consistency would tell us that it is easy to see that these qualities also apply to wolves (and many other living things), so we ought to treat them as ethically important in their own right.

Some resources:

Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, edited by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael Paul Nelson (2010/2021). This book collects nearly 100 short essays from some of the world’s moral leaders who answer the question, is it wrong to wreck the world, and why? These essays fell into 14 different reasons to care about the world, many of them would apply to wolves specifically, and some essays are specifically about wolves.

“Wolf Hunting and the Ethics of Predator Control” by John A. Vucetich and Michael Paul Nelson (2017). Here. This essay shows how to use critical thinking to analyze arguments in favor of hunting wolves. It also discussed and demonstrates the role of intrinsic value in this debate.

“Evaluating whether nature’s intrinsic value is an axiom of or anathema to conservation” by John A. Vucetich, Jeremy T. Bruskotter, and Michael Paul Nelson (2015). Here. This is the essay mentioned above that demonstrates the widespread support for intrinsic value. This essay also traces some common objections to intrinsic value and how to respond.

“For Goodness Sake! What is Intrinsic Value and Why Should We Care?” by Chelsea Batavia and Michael Paul Nelson. Here. This article provides an overview on what intrinsic value is and why it is important in conservation generally. It was written explicitly for a more skeptical conservation audience.

1. Throughout this FAQ I use both “wolves” and “wolves and other wildlife” to refer to the object of intrinsic value. While it certainly can be argued that all wildlife should be attributed intrinsic value, given that wolves have been especially persecuted – to the point of near eradication – and are so readily persecuted, there is an important need to acknowledge their intrinsic value specifically.

Wolf in Yellowstone in snowy environment with forested background
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