Published October 14, 2021
Invested in the study of the political and ethical implications of values for environmental sciences, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow David Frank has been teaching courses on philosophy of biology and environmental philosophy while writing on controversies about the concept of invasive species in environmental sciences, the ethics and economics of the Green New Deal, and the ethics of environmental health research. Before joining Brown’s department of philosophy and the Cogut Institute, he held postdoctoral positions at New York University, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Tennessee. His article “Ethics of the Scientist qua Policy Advisor: Inductive Risk, Uncertainty, and Catastrophe in Climate Economics” was awarded the American Philosophical Association’s 2018 Routledge, Taylor & Francis Prize.
By bringing together questions concerning the environment, democracy, and ethical values, your research addresses with extraordinary timeliness some of the greatest challenges for humanity today. What led you on this path? Can you recall a circumstance that triggered you to study these topics?
My earliest memories of politics were seeing events surrounding the first Gulf War, and then the LA rebellion a year later, on television, and being horrified. Like some others in my generation I’m probably an environmentalist in part because of the animated film FernGully: The Last Rainforest . By the time I was a teenager I saw myself as a committed leftist and environmentalist, and I marched against the second Iraq War in high school. I was fortunate to be able to study environmental issues, including climate change, as an undergraduate taking an interdisciplinary course with Gus Speth. His lectures, along with his combination of scholarship and political engagement, captivated me.
Assisting my dissertation advisor Sahotra Sarkar’s course in environmental philosophy, as well as working in his conservation biology laboratory, solidified my interests in the field in graduate school. The conceptualization of problems like climate change and biodiversity loss involves weaving science, ethics, and politics, which seemed at the time like something a philosopher with some interdisciplinary training could do well, so I tried to do this in my dissertation on philosophy of conservation biology. My interest in environmental health justice issues came a bit later, in collaborating on teaching with the environmental health researcher Michael Weitzman and teaching courses on environmental health and justice at NYU.
I see my work as attempting to engage both philosophical discussions and issues of public concern by analyzing values in environmental sciences that bear on policy. I try to aim at clarity without sacrificing complexity, synthesizing insights across disciplines along with ethical and political commitments.
How do you see the relationship between ethical values and scientific practice today?
The traditional “value-free ideal” of science has become increasingly untenable. On the one hand, many empirical studies from science studies scholars have demonstrated how social values and other so-called “external factors” have in fact deeply affected the construction and development of scientific knowledge. On the other hand, philosophers like Helen Longino and Heather Douglas argue that, as an ethical matter, we ought to take values as central to scientific practice.
The simplest way in which the value-free ideal is untenable at a normative level is in the area of research with human or more-than-human participants. But beyond restricting what we can permissibly do to people (or rats, or monkeys, etc.) in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, I would argue that ethical values ought to be recognized as central throughout the research process, from problem selection, concept formation, and operationalization/measurement, to the interpretation of data, statistical analysis, and the communication of results. At the very least, as Douglas and others argue, many of these methodological and interpretive decisions have ethically important downstream consequences, most obviously in fields like economics, biomedicine, and public health, or conservation biology.
ethical values ought to be recognized as central throughout the research process, from problem selection, concept formation, and operationalization/measurement, to the interpretation of data, statistical analysis, and the communication of results.
Additionally, like many other philosophers and ethicists of science I worry about how the majority of research today is privately funded, and so takes on the value judgments of funders who often care more about private profit than the public good.
As the recent pandemic has taught us, the relation between ethical values and scientific evidence can sometimes be viewed as either inherently political or too easily politicized. How do you approach this aspect of contemporary debates about values and science?
There are no easy answers here, but I’ll start by noting a relevant pet peeve, which is when folks claim that “the science says we need to do X.”
Whatever “X” is, this is either fundamentally mistaken or a shorthand for a more complicated argument. Science can’t tell us what to do, since science can’t tell us what to value, or how to prioritize our values, which are as important for good decisions as reliable scientific knowledge. So the idea that the recommendations of public health or climate scientists shouldn’t be “politicized” either misrepresents the science as value-free or misrepresents the clearly political context of making policy recommendations.
the idea that the recommendations of public health or climate scientists shouldn’t be “politicized” either misrepresents the science as value-free or misrepresents the clearly political context of making policy recommendations.
On the other hand, science denialism is a real problem, and while these movements are often associated with particular political, religious, or ethical commitments, I am skeptical of any argument that the solution is value-free or apolitical science. After all, there are many other cases where value-laden critique has straightforwardly advanced scientific understanding, for example feminist critiques of the mid-20th century understanding of zygote formation, or the plausible idea that Darwin’s hypothesis of common descent was partly inspired by his liberal abolitionist politics.
The partisan political environment in the U.S. is particularly toxic in this regard, and so I think scientists and science communicators have to take special care to communicate clearly and honestly, in a way that makes explicit the ethical and evaluative assumptions behind policy recommendations.
Environmentalism is a concept that escapes rigid political labels. Calling into question the anthropocentric framework of 19th-century political ideologies, environmentalism also might be seen to challenge traditional definitions of what is progressive and what is conservative. Do you think this dichotomy is still relevant for us?
I agree: environmentalism is associated with progressivism and the left in the current political environment, but also has roots in more (small-c) conservative, especially romantic anti-modern traditions. More recently in the U.S., the passage of consequential late-20th century environmental legislation—including a law as strong and potentially restrictive of land “development” as the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA)—was supported by bipartisan majorities.
While the ESA was not explicitly non-anthropocentric—the text of the law says it is for citizens and future citizens of the U.S.—the law’s rationale also arguably hinted at non-anthropocentric ethical justifications. The rejection of anthropocentrism can go a few different ways in practice. It can be a misanthropic disaster for social justice, for example in policies that dispossess rural and Indigenous people for biodiversity conservation, creating “conservation refugees.” In other cases, it may lead us toward policies that treat both human and more-than-human beings with greater respect and care.
The important insight of non-anthropocentrism is not that humans aren’t important—it’s that they aren’t everything that’s important.
The important insight of non-anthropocentrism is not that humans aren’t important—it’s that they aren’t everything that’s important. Despite all these complications I do think that the progressive vs. conservative or left vs. right dichotomy is helpful in certain contexts, even if winning political coalitions for some environmental policies can make strange bedfellows.
In your writings you propose an integration between democratic and environmentalist stances. How do you see this integration? Is it a one- or a two-way process?
In my recent work in progress on ecosocialism, I make two relevant moves here. One is to argue (on the basis of Elizabeth Anderson’s egalitarian theory of democratic equality) for democratic ecosocialist climate policies that address both social injustice and the climate crisis. This integrates environmentalism and democracy by moving from a philosophical ideal of democratic equality to a largely anthropocentric justice-focused environmentalism.
The second, related move is that I take democratic legitimacy to be a normative constraint on enacting policies that aim at reducing the aggregate growth of the material throughput of human economies—one goal of the “degrowth” movement and some ecological economists and environmental ethicists. The justification for such policies is often at least partly non-anthropocentric: a concern for the broader biota. The thought is that even if humans could survive on a fully “domesticated” planet, this would be ethically undesirable, and so we ought to want some limits.
even if humans could survive on a fully “domesticated” planet, this would be ethically undesirable, and so we ought to want some limits.
One argument for democratic constraint is that such policies wouldn’t be effective without democratic legitimacy, but there are also important in-principle ethical objections to such policies if instituted through non-democratic, authoritarian, or technocratic means. These decisions involve massively consequential tradeoffs that affect everyone, and so everyone should have some say.
Democracy has its exclusions, however, especially non-humans, children, future humans, and those outside a state’s borders. For at least this reason I think this must be a “two-way process” as you suggest: environmentalist and non-anthropocentric goals and values should inform and be informed by democratic deliberation and decision-making.