What is the value of a species?
If we hope to convince others to support conservation and help us save species, first we ought to be able to articulate why we believe animals have value at the taxonomic level. This is a more difficult proposition than many would imagine.
A prominent conservationist recently said, "saving individual animals should always come second to saving species". This a common position in conservation, but few of us can adequately explain why. Intuitively I, and I am sure most other conservationists, feel that species are valuable. We ought to protect them, and indeed that is our life’s work. But if we are going to dedicate thousands of manhours and pounds to saving species, surely we should be able to articulate our reasoning beyond instinctive feelings?
I would like to preface this article by acknowledging that we can of course value nature (from individuals up to ecosystems) for instrumental reasons. We benefit from a whole range of ecosystem services, including provisioning (food, timber medicine, etc) and regulating (e.g., carbon storage and sequestration). These are not absolute reasons for conserving species however. Not all species are useful to us, or irreplaceable (1). There are threatened species that are non-resources. An anthropocentric focus on the certain species that benefit us feels morally empty to me and are ultimately piecemeal. There must be a logical, practical reason for saving each part of nature, and for many these don’t exist. They don’t address the urge to defend biodiversity generally, or rare species specifically. Instead, I turn to intrinsic reasons.
There are two questions I challenge you to answer:
Why is it worse to kill an individual member of an endangered species than an individual member of a common one?
What value does a species have outside of the value of the individual animals that comprise it?
As so many answers to the first question come down to rarity, we should start by establishing conceptual clarity. Despite how it is often used, rarity is not a property characteristic of a species. One species cannot be rarer than another – there is only one of each of them (2). Rarity is also not a characteristic that belongs to an individual animal, unlike number of legs or diet. The classification of an animal as a Saiga antelope or an oryx does not change depending on how many other animals are similar. Instead rarity is a descriptor of the world, rather than the animal/species itself. It is also important to note that we do not value rarity in itself. Instead rarity is an intensifier of value. We consider ourselves lucky to see a rare bird, but unlucky to catch a rare disease.
So why does trophy hunting an elephant feel worse than hunting deer? Support for sentientism is well-established, but that doesn't necessarily lead to support for species (endangered or otherwise). If it was wrong to kill a helmeted hornbill, it might not be any less wrong to kill a crow. To the crow the number of his flockmates around the world has no bearing on the pain of his death.
We treat 'species' as some sort of superentity, but how can you talk about the interests of a species in the absence of desires, purposeful actions, or capacity to suffer? As having interests is generally accepted as a necessary condition for having rights, arguments based on the duties we have to animals (due to their interests) will not apply to species.
And this general desire to "save" species doesn't always hold up. Consider these case studies (3):
A common willingness to eradicate disease-carrying mosquitoes
Strains of lab rats bred for specific research purposes frequently being killed off
Little concern about purposefully breeding new species or reclassification of existing ones
If we valued the sheer diversity or number of species, then the above examples wouldn’t occur. So what makes a group of animals "special” enough to warrant concern, over and above the individuals within it?
One argument from environmental philosophers which is well-supported but feels unsatisfactory rests on aesthetic value. Seems to be what we really value is the continued existence of individuals that may or may not have some distinctive characteristics. But is conservation really just down to aesthetic value? (Again, outside of any instrumental value).
Aesthetic value isn't a moral absolute, and when applied to nature we are essentially saying that certain individual animals have value. For example, we admire the grace and beauty of individual Bengal tigers that we may encounter. Rarity matters because when there are few members of the species we encounter them less, so value them more. So is (moral) conservation just down to a duty we have to protect individual animals (that aesthetically matter) and to ensure that there will continue to be animals of this sort?
If this is all true, then how can you morally justify common conservation actions like killing deer to protect plant biodiversity? Surely the lives of the individual sentient animals would be worth more than the aesthetic value of a collection of plants. Or how about keeping animals in zoos to fund in situ conservation work? It is of no relevance to a captive elephant whether visitor funds will help save others like him.
Some people escape the philosophical murk by embracing their anthropoentric viewpoint, and only work to save species that have instrumental value. They are a conservationist in the traditional sense. 30 years ago, Alastair Gunn defined conservation as the saving of resources for our later consumption. To conserve a species is to use it in such a way that we can keep using it for the indefinite future (e.g. sustainable wildlife trade). He contrasted this with preservation, the saving of species and wilderness from damage and destruction. To a preservationist the very conception and treatment of animals as a resource is illegitimate.
Intuitively a traditional anthropocentric definition of conservation feels "wrong" to me. I feel like species should matter in their own right - but I have no idea how to articulate why. And this is a problem. So many of our moral positions seem to come from intuitionism, and that makes it very hard to convince other people why they should act as we want them to. We try to appeal to them from the values that we hold, but struggle to connect on the values that they hold (4).
I apologise for not providing any satisfactory answers in this post, but I hope I may have started a conversation. Please let me know your thoughts at @LauraThoWal on twitter.
1. Newman JA, Varner G, Linquist S. Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2017.
2. Gunn AS. Preserving rare species. In: Regan T, ed. Earthbound: New Introductory Essays in Environmental Ethics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press; 1984:289-335.
3. Russow L-M. Why Do Species Matter? Environ Ethics. 1981;3(2):101-112.
4. Feinberg M, Willer R. The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes. Psychol Sci. 2013;24(1):56-62. doi:10.1177/0956797612449177.