Marc Fleurbaey* and Christy Leppanen

This article was originally published in the September 2021 edition of the 5 papers…in 5 minutes.

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Social welfare analysis, as practiced by economists and related scholars and practitioners, is focused on human beings and derives the value of ecosystems solely from the services such systems provide to the human population. This anthropocentric approach may be able, in principle, to achieve good standards of stewardship for the environment, but its philosophical foundations are deeply questionable. What makes the human species so special that it is the only source of value?
Expert assessments of ecosystem services generally recognize non-anthropocentric values. For instance, the Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services (MAES) by the European Union mentions that “nature also has an intrinsic value beyond its utility to mankind”, although this idea has disappeared from its more recent documents. The IPBES, in its 2019 Report (1), does feature the intrinsic value of nature, alongside its contributions to people and to a good quality of life, but a framework to adjudicate the trade-offs between these various values, especially for better decision-making, remains elusive.

In this paper Marc Fleurbaey and Christy Leppanen set out to explore the possibility of abandoning anthropocentrism completely in welfare analysis. The main lesson from this exploration into uncharted territory is that inter-species comparisons of well-being are, actually, not of a different nature than intra-species comparisons. In both cases one must accommodate differences across individual organisms in terms of needs, abilities, personalities and preferences. But the much greater variability of these characteristics, across species, is certainly quite challenging.

More specifically, the authors argue against the principle, which appears popular in the literature, that well-being is the same for different organisms when they reach their full capacity. This is excessively accepting of inequalities in capacities (for instance, some species have a shorter normal lifespan than others, and this should be recognized as a disadvantage). Instead, they propose and defend two core ethical principles: first, the principle that an organism with lower capacities and lower achievements than another is unambiguously worse off – this is meant to recognize certain differences as true inequalities; second, the principle that, when an organism is specialized in certain functionings (such as mobility, cognition, emotions), it is better off the more it cares, in its preferences, for such functionings. This second principle implies that when two organisms are specialized in very different ways and have preferences that fit this specialization, they will tend to be considered rather well off.

The researchers hope this work will encourage the development of a research field at the intersection of biology, economics, and philosophy, which will articulate adequate concepts and design practical methods to assess and compare the well-being of different organisms, including human beings among them, in a unified framework. The separation of animal welfare studies and social (i.e., human) welfare analysis in academia is a form of intellectual Apartheid that cannot stand the test of ethics. Moreover, this separation is arguably counterproductive. Most theories of human welfare focus on people who have standard abilities and an extended access to the market, and are ill-suited for those who do not enjoy such conditions. More inclusive theories are needed.

(1) IPBES (2019): Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. 1148 pages.



Original title of the article: Toward a theory of ecosystem well-being

Published in: Journal of Bioeconomics (2021)

Available at

* PSE Member