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I wish to purchase a jar of red palm oil because I have read about the nutrients that it contains. However, I have also read about the incredible amount of deforestation that occurs because of palm oil farming, and that it is endangering the orangutans in Malayasia.

I consider myself to be an Objectivist on most issues, but I am finding it hard to justify purchasing something that seems to be so destructive, since other healthy oils (olive oil) are produced with a seemingly smaller impact on its environment.

So what would you guys do? I feel as if Objectivism would disagree with my position, but I cannot think of why.

asked Nov 06 '10 at 18:48

wolysoly's gravatar image


edited Nov 07 '10 at 01:41

jasoncrawford's gravatar image

jasoncrawford ♦

The way to approach this from an Objectivist point of view is to ask: What are your values?

Clearly the palm oil is a value to you here. However, you also seem to be weighing the value of:

  • A certain amount of forest
  • Certain orangutans
  • "The environment"

The key question to ask is: Why are these things a value to you? No part of nature is an intrinsic value. Nothing is a value in and of itself, apart from its relation to man and human life.

Why do you want there to be more forest? Why does it matter if there is a little less? Especially since it's not your forest, but belongs to other people, who have decided that they want to use it for palm oil?

Why does it matter to you if there are more or less orangutans—or none at all?

What exactly is "the environment", and what does it mean to "damage" it? That may sound bad, what what does it really mean?

The most important thing is to evaluate all these as selfish values in the context of your life, not as intrinsically good. If you do so you'll probably find that there's no reason not to buy whatever kind of oil you want.

answered Nov 07 '10 at 01:40

jasoncrawford's gravatar image

jasoncrawford ♦

I found your answer providing the words that I have been unable to find for defending my position on protection of environment right up to the final paragraph. I, for one, would find a world without orangutans to be less desirable as a place to live. Likewise, forests bring great enjoyment to me. I cannot imagine a more beautiful sight than a rhinocerous in the wild and am appalled by those who kill them in order to grind up the "horn" and use the resultant powder as a sexual stimulant.

(Nov 07 '10 at 08:35) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

Well, look, it's not as if you buy some oil and suddenly all the world's forests disappear, or orangutans go extinct, or whatever. In the case of the "deforestation", it's not as if we're even talking about a forest that you're actually going to go visit someday.

You need to be concrete and specific about the values here—not just that you like animals in general or forests in general. I mean, what if you like cows? Does that mean you don't eat steak? If you had a pet cow, you wouldn't kill it for steak. But that's different—it's a concrete, specific value you're trading off.

(Nov 07 '10 at 13:50) jasoncrawford ♦ jasoncrawford's gravatar image

Individualism is the foundation of ethical conduct. However, we, as individuals, are also part of that group known as humans. We have the capability of completely eliminating some species or habitats (e.g., carrier pigeons). Anything I do as a single individual is unlikely to do significant harm to our environment. Anything that several hundred million of we individuals do is likely to have significant impact on the world in which we live. Clearly, there are occasions in which we should all abstain from some activities. Not as a sacrifice but as selfish action to protect our future.

(Nov 07 '10 at 17:28) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

I for one would find a world without the orangutan to be no more or less desirable as a place to live. It does not trample my crops and it does not damage my health.

If some are worried about the loss of such species then they need to actively pursue free market and property rights solutions to such problems.

Rhinos for example are impressive but ugly creatures and their hunting would not be a problem if their private ownership had not been banned. This is the same thing we do with cows, bulls, sheep, alpacas and goats.

(Nov 07 '10 at 20:27) Michael Michael's gravatar image

I will give two other examples from NZ (where I live): whale hunting and weka farming.

I prefer to think of whales as marine cattle. Whales are endangered because no-one owns them or the seas in which they swim. the current situation is a mess because of the absence of property rights and the Japanese are having a field day as a result, slaughtering at will. As long as you treat the ocean and everything in it like a commons, then people will treat the ocean like a public bathroom.

Thats why I advocate commercial whale farming

(Nov 07 '10 at 21:07) Michael Michael's gravatar image

the second example pertains to weka meat farming. this was suggested by an entrepreneur who basically wants to save the endangered weka by farming them for meat; our department of conservation prefers they go extinct rather than be eaten.

The value of cows and lambs and chickens, and much else besides, is recognised and protected in law, and that protection is in favour of those to whom the animals are a real tangible value, and who own them.

In the end Environmental policy must recognize the the basic Aristotelian wisdom that that which nobody owns, nobody will care for.

(Nov 07 '10 at 21:26) Michael Michael's gravatar image

Michael, That sounds attractive. However, execution may prove difficult. Whales for example live their life cycles over thousands of miles most of which is outside territorial waters and the rest in multiple nations' territories. How will the whale farmer enforce his or her property rights?

(Nov 08 '10 at 07:45) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

take a look at this:


The solution to the out of control whale-harvesting is similar to the problem solved by 19th century cattlemen by the imperfect means of branding, and eventually by the invention of barbed wire. It is one of recognising and legally protecting the property rights in these animals.

(Nov 08 '10 at 08:58) Michael Michael's gravatar image

(cont'd) Branding and barbed wire were inventions that allowed the cattlemen to identify "their cattle" and to ask the law for its protection for them. The solution is the same for those who wish to protect "their whales" -- a technological advance that allows them to identify to themselves and others which whales are theirs, and which therefore have the full protection of law. Electronic branding? GPS-power 'barbed wire'? whale watchers might consider devising a similary moron-proof technology to allow legal protection to be afforded to their migrating species.

(Nov 08 '10 at 09:05) Michael Michael's gravatar image

as you might say if you're a Kaikoura whale tourism operator, 'Watch Them, Photograph Them & Save Them.' Pay your money and make your choice, and all that's needed then is a legal and a technological breakthrough so you can demonstrate which whales are yours, and a change in attitude. If you want to protect wildlife for people who value them, then those who live with the animals need to be able to extract some value.

(Nov 08 '10 at 09:18) Michael Michael's gravatar image

Regarding deforestation,that is a sign of government forces and nationalistic sentiment.

Governments responsible for the Amazon region, for example, have exacerbated the negative environmental externalities. Public subsidies and tax incentives to large cattle producers and loggers were responsible for more than 50 percent of the deforestation in the Amazon region in the 1970s and the 1980s (Binswanger 1991). Moreover, public investments in infrastructure into the frontier areas have magnified the externalities associated with the lack of well-defined property rights in such areas.

(Nov 08 '10 at 09:25) Michael Michael's gravatar image
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Asked: Nov 06 '10 at 18:48

Seen: 1,791 times

Last updated: Nov 08 '10 at 09:25