Environment, Philosophy

The Ethical Case for Conservation

The conservation of nature is an ethical imperative. Every sentient being’s welfare – human or non-human – should be taken into account in our moral considerations. As a young conservationist enthralled by the natural world throughout my life, it is thrilling to see these ideas becoming commonplace. It is now easy to hear them voiced in one form or another in almost every discussion regarding the use of natural resources, deforestation, meat consumption, trophy hunting, or any other topic that touches animal welfare or environmental issues. In spite of the immense challenges conservation still faces, this development is evidence of a positive cultural revolution, and heralds the moral advancement of our global society.

However, part of the reason these ideas spread so quickly is that they proliferate like memes. That means that while they run fast, they often run shallow. When asked if a given forest should become a reserve, or if we ought to gather resources to aid an endangered species, many people fall back on assertions about the intrinsic value of the entity in question. I would be the first to defend this sort of moral intuition, but it is generally offered as a single and final argument, something vaguely akin to a dogma. When someone objects that, for example, resources could be used to save many human lives, constructive discussion can break down into an intemperate exchange of slogans and accusations. Environmentalists often assume ill intentions on the part of our opponents and dismiss the values they stand for. This is profoundly counterproductive. Yelling “nature is important and you are an idiot” will not win any hearts or minds among our opponents or undecided bystanders. Calm and logical debate, however, might actually help move our ethical enterprise forward.

Before going on, it should be acknowledged that there are many good reasons to care for wildlands and its inhabitants. Yellowstone, one of the most famous national parks of the world, was initially protected for its aesthetics and the sentiment its ‘untamed’ beauty evoked. Experiencing and contemplating nature are important parts of many religious doctrines. There are also a number of utilitarian considerations that can be made in favour of preserving at least some of the species that coexist with us. But here I want to focus on the ethical arguments for nature conservation by addressing some common objections.

There are actually only a few of these, but they appear in different guises depending on the context. A recurring category of objection emerges from an apparent misinterpretation of biology itself, or from a persistent confusion between what is natural and what is moral. These include statements such as “extinction is a natural process and all species will disappear someday” and “Homo sapiens’ imposition upon other species is a simple matter of survival of the fittest.”

This kind of argument is easily answered. Even if we set aside the fact that there is nothing natural about current rates of extinction – estimates range from hundreds to thousand times faster than background rates for some groups1 – to argue that something does not deserve protection because it will inevitably die out someday is senseless, and the reason should be immediately obvious. Under this premise, life of any kind and in any quantity would be worthless. The death of a hundred people in a flood would be unimportant, because they would eventually die anyway, and thousands more would be born to replace them. The ‘survival of the fittest’ argument – an expression that is carelessly misused – is no more persuasive. It rests on a misunderstanding of evolution that fails to recognise two crucial facts: that the process of differential reproduction, the actual evolutionary engine, is more nuanced than the implied image of struggle can communicate; and that this process happens between individuals in a population, not between species. More importantly, both arguments trip over the naturalistic fallacy. They establish a false connection between ethics and nature, and in doing so, miss the point of the discussion by a mile.

Other criticisms of conservation actions, however, merit more careful consideration. Most people feel – quite understandably – that human lives are worth more than animal lives. This leads many to consider any kind of environmental investment a waste of time, money, and effort. This claim seems to be even more convincing when we jump from caring about other species to protecting whole ecosystems. We know by now that these very systems are not static, and that they change and rearrange over time. So what could be the point of keeping them unaltered by our civilisation’s activities? The counterarguments are a bit harder to unpack, but they are nevertheless solid, and derive from a similar moral intuition: that human life is valuable.

The primacy of human life is taken for granted by most people as an ethical bedrock. But if we inspect people’s beliefs a little more closely, a more nuanced story of our moral intuitions emerges. Our societies, by and large, have passed laws that allow families to withdraw life support from loved ones who have suffered brain death. Several polls taken in developed nations in a variety of contexts show that large majorities approve of voluntary euthanasia for terminal patients in pain. These findings suggest that we see fundamental importance in something other than a beating human heart. It seems that our capacity to experience our surroundings, to live thriving emotional and mental lives, carries at least as much weight. Once we accept that premise, the need to incorporate other species into our ethical considerations follows as a matter of logical consistency.

Animal sentience is no longer a matter of reasonable doubt. Evolution and neurobiology have done much in the past few decades to show how qualitatively similar the brains of our close relatives are to our own. Humans might have developed more advanced capabilities than our wild kin in some respects, but the bits of the machinery responsible for cognition and emotion are remarkably similar. We have no reason to suppose that when we suffer, we do so more intensely than a chimp, an elephant, or a crow, or that our sense of the sublime is more sublime than that of other mammals. Even if we are to prioritise the well-being of our own species, we still need to grant other sentient beings some value. Any human endeavour, however inconsequential to people’s actual welfare, cannot automatically take precedence over the rest of the natural world. The utilitarian ideal of creating an environment where the greatest amount of sentient beings possible will experience the greatest amount of well-being possible must remain a parameter in our moral judgement.

So far I’ve focussed on the need for humans to take account of the interests of other kinds of sentient life. But conservation also involves the protection of lifeforms lacking sentience and even entire ecosystems. Concern for these entities can be justified by observing that animals depend on them in ways that go beyond ecology. A species must evolve in accordance with the conditions that surround it, and including the ways in which it modulates subjective experiences, which often have a practical function in an animal’s life history. Fear warns of danger, discomfort accompanies the unfamiliar or strange, joy rewards actions that are favourable to flourishing. These sensations and their intensity will in large part be dictated by the environment a species inhabits. That is why taking an animal out of its native environment induces stress. It is not by accident or on an aesthetic whim that enclosures in well-structured zoos are fashioned to resemble the occupant’s original habitat.

The constraints of evolution grant that an animal’s native environment is much more likely to favour its welfare than any other taken at random. It is true that ecosystems per se are incredibly adaptable to change. Decades of clearing and regrowth, unnatural fires, and the extinction of large fauna may not cause a forest to cease to be a forest. They will, however, make it a different forest in important and consequential ways. This is part of the painful history of the remaining fragments of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, for example. Instead of a tall canopy held by thirty meter trees, most of these fragments now maintain a thick low vegetation, and piles of large seeds and fruits rot on the ground due to an absence of consumers and dispersers. Aside from the direct impact on the animals that have consequently become extinct, the lives of every creature that inhabits the forest are necessarily reshaped along with it. Such rapid changes provide no time for evolutionary adaptation. Their world simply reforms around them, and usually not for the better. Whenever we alter a landscape, we usually do so with no respect to its inhabitants’ needs, and therefore usually cause damage.

All the arguments for conservation made here can be derived from the simple proposition that human life is valuable. That provides a solid foundation for ethical discussions that go beyond a superficial exchange of personal – and often conflicting – ‘truths.’ We may not see the outcome of our efforts materialised, but the energy we invest now can really make a difference to the welfare of other creatures in the long term. The more we devote now, and the more efficiently we do it, the more suffering we are likely to prevent in the future. Dealing with constant opposition and stubborn indifference can be frustrating, but that is no reason to let our voices become angry and misguided.

On the contrary, there are grounds for optimism. Our concern for other species has never been greater, and this consciousness-raising was achieved by the tireless, patient work of generations of environmentalists, scientists, and ethicists, and by those that echoed their thoughts and followed their lead. Where ideas are concerned, time appears to march in our favour. What we must do now is build on these foundations with the same commitment to eloquence and clear thinking. Reason is on our side.


Bernardo Araujo is a paleoecologist, conservationist, and a science communication writer on matters of ecology and nature conservation.


1 De Vos, J.M., Joppa, L.N., Gittleman, J.L., Stephens, P.R., Pimm, S.L. 2015. Estimating the normal background rate of species extinction. Conservation Biology 29: 452–462. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12380/abstract


  1. There is no moral saliency to the state of the world 200, 2,000, 20,000, or any other number of years ago; whichever any particular environmentalist thinks is the ‘right’ time to preserve. The natural world is in a constant state of change, surely trying to stop that change and hold the environment as it was at a single point in history is as great a moral transgression as the accelerated changes bemoaned by Bernardo.

    But then again, what is ‘natural’? Assuming we don’t accept a *literally* supernatural genesis of the human species (i.e. separate from the genesis of the rest of nature) humans must be but a part of nature, and therefore human activity cannot be regarded as anything besides “natural”. It can be neither more nor less moral than a beaver’s damn flooding surrounding low-lands to create the beaver-pond, driving out, or drowning the former inhabitants in the process.

    Presumably Dr. Araujo would object as strenuously to stromatolites. They released so much of their biological byproduct a few billion years ago, it permeated the entire globe completely transforming the environment, killing off the majority of existing species. Today we call that byproduct “oxygen”.

    If a species’ evenual doom is no bulwark against the obligation to preserve it, why draw the line there? How can a species’ past extinction release us from the imperative to save it? Certainly if we accept Bernardo’s reasoning we are ethically forced to revive and care for all extinct species as well.

    If animal sentience is really not at question, then ipso-facto predators are all murderers. Would Bernardo be in favor of exterminating predatory species to protect the innocents? Or does he sanction violent acts of unimaginable cruelty against *sentient beings* by advocating for the preservation of predator species as well? Maybe I’m just missing some 3rd option; perhaps he favors putting predators on trial to answer for their crimes?

    The morality of conservation aside, in Dr. Araujo’s telling, it fails on the basic tests of logic.

    • Bernardo says

      Hi, Nicholas, thank you for your reply.

      My argument does not rest on the assumption that environments as they are now are more or less ‘morally salient’, as you put it, than any past or future one. Change is part of the natural game. Everything is changing all the time, in a sense. I was merely pointing out that there is a connection between the well-being of sentient creatures and the habitats they evolved in. Evolutionary adaption has its own tempo – which varies between groups of organisms – and too fast changes will likely be followed by local extinctions and a good deal of individual suffering for animals of many species.

      I am also not stating that humans are somehow unnatural. This is, as I mentioned in the article, completely beside the point. The differentiation between what is natural and what is not says nothing about what is moral or not. It is also senseless to demand moral behaviour from other species. The fact that they are sentient means only that they have capacity for subjective experience, and this capacity, for obvious reasons, does not come with ethical ties. Our capacity for rationality, however, does. We are the ones who can fully understand the consequences of our actions. So no, I wish no wolf to be hanged for predatory crimes. I can expand on this topic on another comment to make things more clear if you wish.

      Finally, again, my main concern is with sentient beings, and I focused on the suffering of individual creatures that belong to other species. Whole species, per se, were not my unit of analysis here. That is an interesting topic, one that would be interesting to talk about, but it is a different and perhaps much more complex discussion. I see no reason why we should bring back extinct species. In fact, I’m not that crazy about the initiatives that are trying to do just that right now. I could also talk a little bit more about that if you wish.

  2. Do you realize that the “drive to preserve” devolves to a call for war/genocide? In order to maintain state the human population must also maintain size and not grow. So, if we’re not willing to whole-sale kill off our excess population (by lottery? kill off the poor?) then the utopian notion of conservation is a facade. You either have to stop over-producing food in fertile areas (causing the world-wide “poor” to starve) or kill them off via war/genocide more “humanely.”

    The quirk in the argument is that most of the people chanting “conservation” are also anti-GMO — and the GMO is what allows greater food production density which forestalls starvation/famine/war over resources.

    • Do you have a source for your “conservation” and anti-GMO correlation? Or is that just an anecdote about how the world seems to you?

  3. jorod says

    The most ethical system for preserving the environment is capitalism accompanied by freedom of expression. It’s socialism that destroys the world.

    • Shaun says

      But without any environmental restrictions, what stops someone establishing a bore hole on their property or a badly designed hotel in a natural park? If it’s not profitable, it will be abandoned, but removing the building once it’s created is not a cheap or easy process, and draining an underground aquifer for your own benefit is a disaster.

      It might be profitable to make a road through Yellowstone, and someone could do so, but in the process destroy the natural beauty of the area. Unfettered capitalism and freedom of expression only works well when people share the same values. People will exploit nature for the short term without any regard for the future, and have done so for thousands of years. Open pit mining is a perfect example. Socialist mining is no more destructive than capitalist mining, and freedom of expression allows people to plant eyesores all over the land. Don’t be naive.

  4. augustine says

    Mr. Araujo,

    Thank you for bringing philosophy about the natural world to this website. I hope you can write for Quillette again to parse some of the issues within your broader essay. In particular, looking at the views of those who live close to nature vs. urban populations, as well as theological and secular arguments.

  5. Santoculto says

    Thanks for white trash and its eternal pariahsitoids now entire world is dancing its INSANITY and STUPIDITY…

  6. Santoculto says

    One of the most important issues any REAL and/OR SERIOUS conservatist or environmentalist must ”have in blood” is the

    super human population devastating entire world and surviving nature;

    INTELLECTUAL AND MORAL degradation of this population, increasing the taxa of destruction IF

    seems evidently better ”we have” 8 billion WISE//ideal humans than even 3 billion unwises [our current reality] AND with a standard living near to the [industrialized] developed world…

    In other words, near to 99% of self-called environmentalists NEVER will be in favor to even some eugenic model because MOST of them believe that ”ONLY-culture and education shape people”.

    Why the famous sentence: the hell is full of good intentions…”

    good intentions WITHOUT reason.

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