Endangered Species Philosophy
In this project, I decided to investigate the notion that we commonly hear that endangered species of animals ought to be protected and saved. This notion is often taken to be true at face, but why? What is the actual value in saving such animals? I decided to investigate this claim from a philosophical angle, and after researching various arguments for and against saving endangered species, I ultimately was able to narrow the reasoning down to five main reasons; subjective value to humans, utility to humans, moral duty to animals, duty to preserve species legacy and protection of environmental stability. Ultimately, while many of these reasons fail to adequately justify why we should protect endangered species, there are few that do make sense. Ultimately, I conclude that we ought to focus on saving the animals that play a key role in the balancing the earth’s ecosystem, rather than those that are simply liked by humans.
Methods and Results
Being a student of Zoology, a student in a class about the environment and just a person in general, I often hear about various efforts and campaigns to protect endangered species of animals. Typically, verbal support for these sorts of efforts in nearly unanimous, even if not everyone is willing to donate time or money. However, hearing about it so often brought to question to my mind; why should we actually care about protecting endangered species? Actual reasons for doing so are rarely given, as it is generally just assumed that people with just agree with the notion of saving animals as an action of moral importance at face value. But why? What good actually comes from saving these animals? I decided to investigate this claim for my project, reading through various books and articles on the ethics and reasoning behind protection of endangered animals, both from a scientific and philosophical perspective (the full list of resources is at the end). Below are my findings.
After looking through the various forms and examples of arguments used in the various readings, I was ultimately able to boil down the main arguments into five major categories, based on the reasoning used by each one. Then, I broke apart each of the major argument types, and analyzed to what extent, if any, the reasoning behind them is valid logical reasoning. Ultimately, I would come to a conclusion on the ethics of endangered species and decide how best to address the issue, in my view.
The first major argument for saving endangered species is subjective value of the species. What is meant by this is that we apply some ‘value’ on animals that isn’t a value based on utility to humans, nor is it some inherent moral value like we might apply to a human life. This might manifest as cultural value, historical value, ‘natural’ value or simply a fondness for such animals. For instance, protection of bald eagles is important to many Americans because the bald eagle is an American symbol, and as such it has some cultural value. The eagle may not give anything tangible to humans, but we still value it nonetheless. Or perhaps think of preserving panda bears; humans consider them to be ‘charismatic’ animals, and when asked why we should protect them will often appeal to the fact that they are a part of a ‘natural’ environment, or perhaps that their death would be ‘unnatural’.
Here is where the argument falls apart. For one, there is no real way of defining what ‘natural’ is, as we have already discussed at length in class, nor is there any reason to believe that something has value simply because it is ‘natural’. The same can be said about ‘cultural value’. Ultimately, all of these subjective values boil down to nothing more than a general ‘liking’ of the animals we seek to protect. Is protecting something simply because we like it and it brings us happiness legitimate? Perhaps to some extent. But when it comes to the protection of endangered species, an industry which uses up incredible amounts of funds, we are better off focusing on projects that have more meaningful value behind them. As such, ‘subjective value’ is not a legitimate reason.
The second main argument is the appeal to utility. Under this argument, we ought to protect endangered species because they have some potential tangible value to humans. Think, for instance, of the many ways humans rely on animals, for farming, companionship, medical research or scientific study. We ought to protect endangered animals, this argument states, because even if they aren’t necessarily valuable to us now, they might be valuable at some point in the future. If we let the go extinct, we will never be able to gain that value back. This is indeed true; who knows what value some of those animals may have? However, to believe that all animals have some important value to humans is to grossly overstate the issue. For animals that are currently valuable to humans, naturally we would want to protect them (although if they really are so valuable, they may already be high in numbers). However, many of the endangered animals people seek to protect are not currently valuable, and likely never will be. We cannot willy-nilly assume that research of every single animal will result in some incredible scientific breakthrough; there have been many animals researched that bring us nothing of value except information about the animal itself that has no outside application. If someone suspects that an endangered animal might have such utility value, they ought to put effort into researching it first and foremost, and only then decide if it is worth saving, rather than automatically (falsely) assume that all animals have some incredible untapped scientific value to them. As such, the utility argument is largely false.
The third argument is the argument from the moral duty to animals. This argument states that although animals might not have the same consciousness or awareness as humans, they are still capable of feeling pain. As such, it is our moral duty to help and protect them, caring for the life of every animal like we would care for the life of every human, especially since the danger to many animals is human-caused. Therefore, we ought to put effort into protection of endangered species. Now, even if assume that all animals do indeed suffer just as humans do, this argument still falls apart for one big reason; there is no reason to privilege the lives of endangered animals over the lives of non-endangered animals. If we indeed should care for the lives of animals, our directive should be preserving the lives of as many animals as possible, not protecting the animals that are endangered. Therefore, our duty would likely end up with us putting money into protecting many non-endangered animals, likely because we have the resources to preserve their lives more easily. Therefore, this argument gives us no reason to treat animals that are endangered in any special way, and thus falls apart.
Going off of the previous argument is the fourth argument, the argument from the duty to preserve species legacy. This argument states that we ought to privilege the lives of endangered animals more because it is not just about keeping the singular animal alive, it is about keeping their whole species alive; if we let all of an endangered species die off, we have not just let a couple animals die, we have let an entire lifetime and legacy of a species die off; in this way, it is worth than ordinary killing to let this happen. Therefore, we ought to protect endangered species in order to preserve the legacy of such animals.
This argument holds no water, however, because it offers us no reasoning for why ‘legacy’ has any intrinsic value to it. Instead, we are just made to naturally assume that an animals legacy is good because it has been around for so long. To say that we ought to preserve animal legacies because they have been around for so long is like saying we ought to keep a tradition alive simple because it is ‘traditional’ regardless of whether or not the tradition has any intrinsic value. Ultimately, this argument falls back upon legacy as a subjective value and as such, as stated in the first argument, is not valid.
The final argument is the appeal to preservation of environmental stability. According to this argument, we ought to protect endangered species because every species plays a key role in their local ecosystem. If we let the species die, the ecosystem will have serious damage, which can result in all sorts of negative effects, both on the lives of humans and animals. This is certainly a fair point, and I won’t argue that keeping ecosystems in balance isn’t important. However, the role of many endangered species in their environment is overplayed. There are indeed some species that are incredibly key and also endangered, such as coral; ocean pollution can cause serious damage to the coral, which plays an incredibly essential role as one of the bases of many ocean food webs. Its extinction would have serious consequences on the environment.
However, this is not the case for every species. Many endangered species occupy niches in the environment which can easily be filled by similar animals, especially given the fact that the animals impact is already quite small given their small size. For many species, their death simply means a new niche for an already existing species to occupy and thrive in. This is especially common when considering endangered subspecies or sister species; if they go extinct, there is an already existing almost identical animal that can take its place and the damage to the ecosystem will be minor, if any.
Ultimately, there are some valid reasons for protection of endangered animals, most notably out of utility for humans and out of protection for the local ecosystem. However, it is important to investigate whether or not this is truly the case for the animal in question , rather than just assume that all animals have some inherent value and are worth saving. Doing so will allow people to allocate money to what is going to have an actual impact, rather than supporting something simply because it has charismatic animals that appeal to them.
- Rolston, Holmes. “Duties to Endangered Species.” BioScience 35.11 (1985): 718-26. American Institute of Biological Sciences. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.
- Sandler, Ronald L. The Ethics of Species. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- “The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.” The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Web. 18 Feb. 2015. <http://www.iucnredlist.org/>.
- Vinzant, Carol. “Animals & Money: How Much Does the Endangered Species Act Cost?” Daily Finance 9 Mar. 2009. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <http://www.dailyfinance.com/2009/03/09/animals-and-money-how-much-does-the-endangered-species-act-cost/>.
- “What Is the Point in Preserving Endangered Species That Have No Practical Use to Humans, Apart from Their Aesthetic Appeal or Their Intellectual Interest to Biologists?” Scientific American 21 Oct. 1999. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-point-in-pres/>.
- DesJardins, Joseph R. Environmental Ethics: An Introduction to Environmental Philosophy. Boston, MA; Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013.