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Katherine Elliot

Environmental Policy and Ethics


Professor Stephens
23 February 2018

Questioning the Relevance of William Baxter


William Baxter was a lawyer known for his widely criticized and reviewed book People

of Penguins: The Case for Optimal Pollution. Although the book intended audience was

economically and legally inclined people, the book is popularly used in philosophical

discussions; specifically those focused on animal rights (Wikipedia). In his book he asserts that

humans are the only beings that are morally significant. Baxter states that “human beings should

be regarded as an end not as a means,” which is consistent with Kantian philosophy (Baxter

381). Furthermore, Baxter declares that since other animals do not have a position that

corresponds to how humanity act and think, they do not have the same moral standing as

humanity(383). Because of this idea, animals and nature are merely means to a human-end. In

other words, animal welfare should only be considered if the welfare of humanity is somewhat

dependent on that species.

Baxter uses the example of penguins and DDT to demonstrate this principle. He states

that if the only reason why we are stopping the use of DDT is because it negatively impacts

penguin populations, then we should not stop using the pesticide. This is because penguins serve

little purpose to humanity besides that people like to watch penguins for personal enjoyment

(382). Baxter states that humanity should do what it can to maximize human welfare. Especially

because of our always scarce amount of resources, we should combine our resources to produce

goods and services that will maximally assist the welfare of humanity. Baxter furthers this line of

thinking by stating that we should not prioritize combating pollution over building other human-

centered goods. This is the nature of a trade-off, but making the decision that will promote
maximum welfare (384). Specifically with the case of pollution, according to Baxter, allocating

resources to combat pollution will only prevent some health problems. Instead we should

allocate those resources to building services such as a hospital, which would help more people.

In modern times, some of Baxter’s moral propositions and the examples he uses to prove

them no longer have merit. This is because of our increased knowledge on the connectedness

between the environment and the fate of humanity. While the beginning of Baxter’s argument

still has logical merit, his understanding of the connectedness between nature and human welfare

does not. Baxter’s misrepresentations are not entirely his fault; as he did not have access to the

knowledge in regards to the environment that we have now. Baxter’s faults reveal themselves

when applying his principles to a modern case study. Using Baxter’s example of air pollution, a

recent study in Utah demonstrates the links between bad health and bad air quality.

According the case study in Utah, bad air quality links to asthma, heart disease, stroke,

and birth difficulties. The primary pollutant, PM2.5 “passes through the nose and throat, lodges

deeply in the lungs...acting like sandpaper on our airway and blood vessels” (Graham). So, if air

pollution causes such widespread damage to human-health, wouldn’t it be in humanity’s best

interest to stop air pollution from furthering? This could prevent the need for as many medical

resources; it would stop the need for certain medical resources in the first place. Again, this flaw

is not entirely Baxter’s fault, as he certainly did not know the severe impacts air pollution had on

human health in the 1970s, when Baxter wrote the piece. However, this inadequacy in Baxter’s

application of his principles makes one question the relevance of his ideas in light of our modern

environmental knowledge. Many will considered the question of if nature is as an end in itself

for long periods of time. However, with what we know now it is not morally permissible to
solely allocate resources to anthropocentric causes, when there are stronger examples of the

linkage between the natural world and human welfare.

Word Count: 650

Question: Is there anything we can take from Baxter’s approach, even though is way of thinking

is considered antiquated in light of the modern environmental crisis?

Works Cited

Baxter, William F., and William F. Baxter. People or penguins: the case for optimal pollution.

New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.


Graham, Brooke. "A Doctor Explains the Effects of Utahs Bad Air Quality." Fox13now.com.

February 05, 2018. Accessed February 23, 2018.

http://fox13now.com/2018/02/05/586799/.

"William Baxter (law professor)." Wikipedia. February 22, 2018. Accessed February 23, 2018.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Baxter_(law_professor).