Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


Why should we conserve rhinos?

The question of why we should conserve rhinos popped up on Twitter earlier today. We tend to assume that it’s bad when a species is under threat of extinction, but it’s rare to see any defence of such claims. So what reasons might we have for thinking that poaching rhinos to extinction is bad? Below are five potential reasons why we should preserve a species, using rhinos as an example:

1. Because then there would be no more rhinos for us to enjoy

This reason sees rhinos as instrumentally valuable – they are the means by which we gain enjoyment, much as we would from viewing an aesthetically pleasing artwork or a beautiful sunset. If the loss of rhinos were a bad thing on this ground then we would have to show that there is a particular type of enjoyment that we can only gain from rhinos and which cannot be compensated for from other sources. Maybe there’s a special quality to the enjoyment of watching rhinos that we cannot gain from watching elephants or hippos, but it seems unlikely to me. Not a very strong reason then.

2. Because rhinos fulfil an important role in the ecosystem

Again, this reason views rhinos as instrumentally valuable insofar as they help preserve an ecosystem. Why we might want to preserve an ecosystem may be because we see ecosystems as valuable for their own sake (although I’m not sure what features of an ecosystem we could pick out to that would make it so), or because we judge ecosystems to be important in meeting human (or potentially other animal) needs. If we think the preservation of rhinos is important for ecological reasons, then that importance is contingent on no other animal being able to fulfil the same role in the ecosystem and the ecosystem being unable to adapt to the loss of rhinos. In other words the rhino must be a necessary component of the ecosystem for it’s extinction to be a matter of concern under this reason. Ecosystems are often quite resilient and adaptable, so whether rhinos are necessary in this way is something I’m sceptical of.

Edit: thanks to @AGBear for pointing out that the precautionary principle might apply here. Perhaps we cannot know what the negative consequences of the loss of a species on an ecosystem will be. Because those potential negative consequences might be very high – ecosystems are very complex beasts – we should do our best to preserve endangered species such as the rhino. This argument still doesn’t value rhinos for their own sakes though. Furthermore, the value of the species is also (as above) derived from the role played by individual non-human animals in the ecosystem. I’m also inclined to think that whilst we might not know the precise risks to an ecosystem that the loss of a species carries, we can know with greater or lesser degrees of certainty, and the accuracy of our predictions is likely to increase as numbers of a species decrease and we can see the effects of this decrease. In other words, our lack of perfect knowledge doesn’t provide a knock-down reason for saving a species.

3. Because rhinos fulfil an important economic role in a community

It’s not uncommon to see reference made to the valuable contribution certain wild animals make to poor communities through the attraction of tourists. Here again the reason to preserve a species is instrumental and contingent, this time upon the species being an irreplaceable source of income. That rhinos are the only way a poor community can gain wealth is a pretty strong claim – not one that I’m sure can succeed, so I think that this reason ultimately fails too.

4. Because the destruction of the species involves the destruction of individual members rhinos

Here we come to what I think is a much more plausible claim: the reason to save rhinos from extinction is that extinction involves the death and probable suffering of individual rhinos who are worthy of moral concern for their own sakes. This, of course, is where the argument for animal rights comes in – I’m not going to defend it here, but I think it offers the only truly convincing reason for saving a species, a reason that is derived from the moral status of the individual non-human animals making up that species. Thus, we care about saving rhinos not because we care about whether there are rhinos in the world or not, but because we care about the individual rhinos that do presently exist.

5. Because the species is valuable to individual rhinos

This fifth reason hangs of the fourth: the thought is that if an individual being is worthy of moral consideration for its own sake, and it values its own species, then that species might form part of the individual being’s good. Although I can see how we might see the preservation of a community or a family as important for the reason it plays in a creature’s life, I don’t see how the species can be analogous to the family in a way that is makes sense in this kind of argument. Furthermore, I suspect it will only be a subset of non-human animals that it can be convincingly claimed of that they value their communities. Perhaps the higher apes, dolphins, perhaps elephants etc. So, this reason also looks like it too fails.

The weird thing about the reasons I’ve given above is that the claim about the badness of a loss of a species usually appears to rest not on them, but on an implication that species are intrinsically valuable. That is to say that species are valuable for their own sake and not because of the individual members of the species that make them up. But that claim is very different from the potential arguments I’ve listed above. It seems like we have an intuition that species are intrinsically valuable, but I can’t think of how you might defend this claim convincingly.

Ultimately then, I’m not sure why the destruction of a species counts as a bad thing separate from the loss of the individual members of that species, so I’m minded to conclude that we should focus instead on the plight of individual non-human animals and on their communities.

Anyone got a good argument for the intrinsic value of species?

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Humanitarian intervention: humane not human

I’m on a train travelling down to Oxford. Tomorrow I’m presenting a paper to the Society for Applied Philosophy‘s annual conference. I’m a little nervous about this paper, as involves me dipping my toes into international ethics and law, and I’ve not really touched that since I did my MA. Plus, it’s pretty controversial, and my chair-commentator, who will respond to the paper before questions, is the fiercely sharp Zofia Stemplowska of the University of Warwick.

The argument I make is that principles of humanitarian intervention should extend to non-human animals, and I use the critically endangered orangutans of Sumatra as my case study. Just to give you a picture of how dire the situation for those orangutans is, and why I think something more drastic than traditional conservation approaches is needed, I’ve listed some potted facts below (apologies for the lack of references – my Internet connection is a bit too shaky to drag them up).

Orangutans have been protected under Indonesian law since 1931 and also have a protected status under international law. Conservationists have expended enormous efforts to save them from extinction. However:

  • Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered and decreasing in numbers.
  • In total there remained only 7,300 in 2004.
  • Only three populations of over 500 (the minimum size needed for genetic viability) remain.
  • Orangutan numbers have declined by 80% in the last 75 years.
  • Orangutans are frequently hunted for pets, and killed as pests or for food.
  • The greatest threat to them comes from the destruction of their habitat through both legal and illegal logging and forest clearance.

Orangutan communities possess cultures of their own, they use and produce tools, have a theory of mind, have been taught to use sign-language creatively, and to understand abstract symbols, and the Sumatran orangutans constitute a distinct racial group from those living in Borneo.

With this in mind, I argue in my paper that a species-blind principle of humanitarian intervention provides the international community with a duty to take action in defence of the orangutans. This is because Sumatran orangutans are under threat of extinction as a result of the deliberate acts of human beings. The consequences of these acts are known to the Indonesian state, and preventable by them. Furthermore, by licensing deforestation for palm oil production, the Indonesian government has become complicit in what amounts to the destruction of an ethnic or racial group. Conventional conservation methods and legal protections have been unsuccessful and it is likely that the Orangutans will soon become the first of the Great Apes to become extinct.

Obviously, there’s a fair bit of argument to get through for the underlying case for a non-speciesist account of positive duties of aid before the above argument can succeed. I’m not going to fill in the gap here (mainly because I want to read through my paper a few more times before I get to the conference). However, a good place to start for the sorts of issues at stake and arguments to be made is John Hadley’s lovely little paper The Duty to Aid Nonhuman Animals in Dire Need. Incidentally, reading John’s short paper was one of the main sources of inspiration for my PhD thesis (thanks John) – it’s definitely worth a gander.