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Should we protect endangered species?

Christopher Glueck | Sunday, September 8, 2013

I can hear our ancestors turning over in their graves. No, I am not talking about our human ancestors. Or even our near-human ancestors. Evolutionary theory has reframed our understanding of deep family history, connecting all the lines of life. Yet our inter-species ethics remain inchoate. The ethical debate of centuries past has centered on questions of the correct relations among humans and only recently has the discussion expanded to include nonhumans.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) offers a prefect example of the questionable foundation of environmental ethics and pursuant policy. The bill was promulgated in the early 1970s as a means to protect the natural symbols of America, such as the bald eagle and the grizzly bear, and passed nearly unanimously. Not long after, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) halted construction of a dam in Tennessee to preserve a little-known and less cared for species of fish, making politicians realize the ubiquitous value that the Act had assigned to any vulnerable species.
Much of the American public remains confused. For instance, the Californian town of Colton found itself beset by red tape from protective land acquisitions aimed at preserving the ESA-listed Delhi Sand flower-loving fly. Accordingly, the citizenry protested that people were more important than flies. Economic development – much needed in the poor, 78 percent minority and polluted town – would offer opportunity to Colton’s human residents. And for the flies? Let them be damned.
FWS later lamented that it had failed to show the core ethical question at stake: The value of endangered species. In the following paragraphs, I present four reasons – scientific interest, ecological health, a sense of justice and the works of mercy – that might move people to care about protecting threatened nonhuman animals.
Scientists and naturalists marvel at the phenomena of the world. The awe that leaves a researcher agape at the complex reproductive strategy of ducks or the intrinsic beauty of a fly might compel that scientist to advocate for species listing, as was the case in Colton. Intellectual worth, however, is difficult to argue on the political stage with such strong competing interests. This difficulty results because intellectual fascination can sound a lot like aesthetic interest. And while we can argue for preserving beauty, deciding what is beautiful is much more difficult.
Alternatively, scientists such as Aldo Leopold have argued that the preservation of species increases the integrity or stability of an ecosystem: The fly and its neighbors were surviving just fine until developers arrived. Ever since, the whole system has been thrown into a detrimental flux. Both integrity and stability, however, are premised upon a static picture of the natural world, portraying a good ecosystem as one that does not change. The more ecologically accurate understanding of the world is much more dynamic. Climate, for instance, is a constant source of variation to which living systems must constantly adapt. To propose a baseline, in many cases, can border on antiquarianism which again faces the problem of any aesthetic argument.
Next, we have the argument based on justice for compensation in cases of harm. If one’s activities harm neighbors, then out of a sense of fairness, the perpetrator ought to mend the injury. Some claim that this debt holds true regardless of the neighbor’s species, so that a developer’s expatriation of threatened species warrants some protection as recompense. Two problems follow. First, rights are typically held by individuals rather than groups. We might liken an extinct species to a truncated family line, but it is questionable that such collective entities have the same rights to perpetuity as do individuals. In addition, compensation is premised upon a right not to be harmed or a right to life, and bearing rights presupposes inviolable worth. Problematically, this extension of moral worth to the entire natural world leads to paradoxes. Life necessitates death, so is it unethical to kill for food? Do disease-causing organisms have a right to life? If ought implies can, then universal rights for the living seem out of the question, at least rights at the same level of inviolability as human rights.
In order to minimize suffering, one might advocate for a merciful approach to inter-species relations. Sentient beings – even flies – are capable of pain and, presuming one should avoid causing pain, humans should thus avoid harming all sentient beings. This presumption against causing pain is one of the most basic ethical principles that nearly all ethicists accept. Moreover, the compassion extended to other species might even bolster one’s own capacity for mercy within our species. Uninhibited compassion, however, is likely to break down for reasons aforementioned and the problem of collective entities versus individuals likewise arises.
Personally, I find the third and fourth arguments at least worth pursuing despite their foibles. Alas, many would disagree. Especially those who, like the residents of Colton, are forced to balance human and nonhuman interests. They are likely to continue defending the “home team” unless a clear connection between ecological and human health is made or some other economic factor changes. While this may be somewhat reasonable, I find a complete lack of concern for other species deplorable, especially given our great capacity to do otherwise.

Christopher Glueck is a senior studying environmental science and philosophy. He can be contacted at cglueck@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.