Ethics are the rules or standards governing the conduct of a person, or members of a particular society or profession. Ethics are based on values, or the worth that is attributed to something. Doctors are governed by medical ethics—the standards of their profession. We may consider it ethical to tell the truth, believing that honesty is beneficial to our interpersonal relationships and to society. We learn ethics from our parents, teachers, religious leaders, and friends, as well as through experience, study, reading, and thinking. Ethics are the underpinning of many of our decisions.
Environmental ethics are the standards that govern human behavior toward the nonhuman natural world. The ethics of biodiversity conservation are influenced and shaped by the value we place on biodiversity in relation to other human values. Biodiversity has instrumental value based on its worth as a source of goods, services, and information, as well as aesthetic and spiritual value. Some of these values can be quantified in economic terms, providing economic justification for conservation. Other values, such as a scenic vista or inspiration for human inventions (for instance, Velcro, inspired by the cocklebur), may be difficult to measure monetarily (although proxies do exist for valuing them); they nevertheless provide some recognized direct or indirect benefit to humans. It is widely held that human beings possess intrinsic value, meaning that they have worth in and of themselves, independent of any external evaluator. As a result, we also have duties to others, specifying how we should treat one another. Many conservationists also believe that like humans, other living things possess intrinsic value. The view that attributes intrinsic value only to humans is anthropocentrism, while a biocentric view attributes intrinsic value to both human and nonhuman life forms.
Extensive discussion has revolved around the question of what qualities confer intrinsic value. If humans have intrinsic value, what qualities give them this value, and do other beings possess those qualities as well? Prior to the rise of environmental ethics, philosophers tended to confer ethical standing on humans and not on other living beings. Because people can reason or speak (are rational), they alone were deemed worthy of moral consideration. Contemporary philosophers have objected to this justification, however, on the grounds that these criteria would exclude human infants, the mentally handicapped, and the profoundly senile. At the same time, some primates such as gorillas exhibit rudimentary capacities for communication.
One argument is that ethical consideration should be extended to all individuals that have sentience, or the capacity to suffer. Proponents of animal welfare such as Peter Singer (1975) and Tom Regan (1983) argue that ethical conduct toward animals requires that we avoid inflicting pain unnecessarily. However, Regan's conception of sentience includes a capacity to feel pleasure or pain but limits moral consideration to individuals that are self-aware. Kenneth Goodpaster (1978) argues for the moral considerability of all living things, based on the reasoning that sentience is not an end to itself but a means to any animal's survival: life itself is what sentience evolved to serve, so all living things should have ethical standing. Paul Taylor (1981) takes the view that all living things merit ethical standing and are of equal inherent worth.
Holmes Rolston (1988) agrees with Taylor that all living things have intrinsic value based on interests and a good (or worth) of their own, but he modifies Taylor's more extreme bio-centric view by arguing that all are not equal. Those that are sentient, rational, and self-aware have greater intrinsic value than those that are not. This understanding gives greater value to humans and other "higher" animals than it does to invertebrates and plants, for example (but all are still valued according to the role they play). Rolston's view can be characterized as holistic: relative value is based on the good a thing provides to the whole. Species have value for their role in maintaining the integrity of an ecosystem. This emphasis on species value rather than individual value is most in line with conservation goals, because species continue and evolve, while individuals are temporary representatives of the species in each new generation.
Bryan Norton (1991) argues that whether instrumental or intrinsic value is attributed to nonhuman biodiversity, the same conclusion will be reached—that we should conserve it. Baird Callicott (1997) proposes that if the intrinsic value of biodiversity were widely recognized, the burden of proof in making conservation decisions would be shifted; sufficient justification would be required in order to put biodiversity at risk, rather than needing to justify why it should be conserved.
Although the basis for conferring intrinsic value on nonhuman biodiversity is a continuing subject of debate, there are ethical arguments for conservation with foundations in cultural and religious beliefs to which much of the world's population adhere. Traditionally, Western religion and philosophy have taken an anthropocentric view, according ethical consideration only to humans, with other beings regarded as means to human ends. However, with a knowledge of ecology and the
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