Is the Biosphere Priceless?
The German nineteenth century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, wrote that there are two kinds of things: things that have a price and those that have a dignity. For Kant, only human beings have a dignity because they alone have autonomy. I would like to suggest that we should add to Kant’s list of those things that have a dignity the biosphere in which we live, or to say it in other words, the biosphere is priceless.
From the perspective of a Smithian economics of property, if something has a dignity (priceless), then it is not part of economics. Economics is about trading properties in the market. The consequences of treating people and the planet as properties are considered externalities—external to an economists field of vision, just as the misery of slavery was external to Smith’s “economic” field of vision.
A civic economics of provision offers another perspective. The providers of wealth—people and the planet—belong to and actually provide the foundation for economic thinking. This means that economics is just as much about protecting providers as it is about making and distributing provisions.
To have a dignity is to be seen as worthwhile, not only in terms of benefits, but also in terms of existence. The planet is life giving for us and for all of life. If our children and grandchildren have a dignity, then surely their source of life on the planet deserves respect as well. In other words, sustainability is not just a matter of cost-benefit analysis; it is also a moral challenge.