Endangered species: Yes, we should care – but why?

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The IUCN and the Zoological Society of London have just released a list of the ‘100 most endangered species’, in a bid to raise awareness of the importance of conservation and the possible consequences of species loss through extinction.  Ellen Butcher, of the ZSL, says: “All of the species listed are unique and irreplaceable. If they vanish, no amount of money can bring them back. If we take immediate action we can give them a fighting chance for survival. But this requires society to support the moral and ethical position that all species have an inherent right to exist.”

Now, there is no denying that conservation is a very important issue, that we should certainly be doing more to preserve the environment, habitats, ecosystems and in some cases individual species.  But the idea that “all species have an inherent right to exist” is difficult to defend in a consistent way.  Let’s think about this carefully:

1)      If we are going to support the moral position that all species have an equal right to exist, why should that right, and our consequent concerns, be limited to the species that just happen to be present today – and not the species that became extinct yesterday?  That being the case, however, we should have an equal obligation to resurrect extinct species, to bring back dinosaurs and dodos, as to preserve existing ones.  Furthermore, what about the future species that might be prevented from coming into existence by our actions?  Species become extinct and new species evolve to fill their ecological niche; this is part of the natural evolutionary process.  By saving one species from extinction, we prevent the existence of other species that might otherwise have evolved in its place.

Attempting to establish an objective account of the intrinsic value of species seems, therefore, doomed to failure.  We cannot commit ourselves to preserving the world and the biosphere in its natural, unspoilt state without constructing some sort of subjective notion as to which ideal world – of the many possible worlds that have existed and might exist – we are trying to preserve.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t or that we are not entitled to do so, to decide for ourselves what sort of world and which species we think should be preserved, and act to bring it about.  But we need good reasons for our decision – more on this later.

2)      We clearly don’t treat all species as if they are of equal, inherent value.  Conservation efforts to save endangered species usually include attempts to preserve the species in the wild, and to re-establish wild populations via captive breeding and reintroduction if necessary.  But one species that we have caused, quite deliberately, to become ‘extinct in the wild’, and that nobody (or at least no sane person) suggests should be reintroduced, is the smallpox virus.

3)      The species concept, what constitutes ‘a species’, is itself something that humans have determined – and on which we don’t always agree!  There are numerous different ways of determining what makes a given population of living beings ‘a species’, and these do not always give the same answer.  On numerous occasions, species have been reclassified on the basis of new biological evidence, or even just a new way of thinking about ‘species’: one species becomes two, or two species previously thought to be separate become one.  In these circumstances, where ‘species’ itself is a changing, uncertain and above all human-defined concept, it is difficult to say that species in themselves can have rights.  In fact, we might regard it as the height of anthropocentric arrogance to say that the natural world ought to persist exactly and only as we have classified and defined it.

Species, therefore, are not entities; ‘species’ denotes a somewhat arbitrary classification that we have imposed on the world.  In this context it doesn’t make sense to say that species have rights.  Of course individual animals within species – non-human as well as human – can have rights, or at least morally significant interests that we should take into consideration, but the species itself, the grouping or category in itself, cannot.

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Where does all this leave us, then?  I’ve argued that the intrinsic moral value of species is a problematic notion to defend.  But that is, ultimately, still no reason to continue to allow the wanton destruction of habitats, extinction of species and degradation of the environment that is currently taking place over much of the world.  There are so many good reasons to act to prevent this, and in many cases it would require so little effort to do so, that it is indeed a moral obligation and one which we should take very seriously.  But we should be clearer about what those reasons are.  We need a better account of why we value – why we should value – species, the environment and the world around us.  We need to think carefully about the (numerous) good moral reasons there are for conservation, and why conservation is important, in order to prioritise our efforts and set the best and most ethical policies in this area.  If this new list prompts us to do this, then so much the better.

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Sarah Chan

Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation

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