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Threatened species: we’re failing on morality and policy

Extinction is a diminution of the natural legacy that we have inherited. It is a breach of the duty we have for inter-generational equity – that we should pass to our descendants a world as rich, intact…

We need to change the moral system that lets us off the hook for species extinction. Kelly Garbato

Extinction is a diminution of the natural legacy that we have inherited. It is a breach of the duty we have for inter-generational equity – that we should pass to our descendants a world as rich, intact and functional as that we were given.

In his Quarterly Review essay, Tim Flannery notes that extinction is also an irredeemable stain on our soul. But souls have little currency in a largely selfish society, structured by economics and law; and Tim’s argument about soul, regrettably, has too little moral impetus.

Should we have and accept a responsibility for the maintenance of all species? Unhappily, the basis in western ethics and religion for such a proposition is weak.

Some Christian philosophers, such as Henry More, recognised that God “takes pleasure that all his creatures enjoy themselves, that have life and sense.” Thomas Aquinas thought that, regardless of man’s treatment of the individuals of any species, God would ensure that the species as a whole would not be destroyed.

Aquinas liked the idea of life’s diversity: “Although an angel, considered absolutely, is better than a stone, nevertheless two natures are better than one only; and therefore a Universe containing angels and other things is better than one containing angels only.” And then, of course, there was Noah.

But such arguments amount to a weak and subordinate historical thread. In his 1974 book, Man’s Responsibility for Nature, John Passmore reviewed historical attitudes to the natural world. He concluded that there was a long-established unconcern for other species. Instead, there is a pervasive historical current that humanity stands apart from, and is superior to, other species; that non-human forms of life are purposed for our use and have no established rights.

This argument is in Plato’s Scala Naturae, with humans alone in perfection on the top rung of the ladder of life. It is in Descartes’ conception that nature is nothing but matter, and that our thinking alone elevates us beyond that matter. It is in Moses’ framework that restricts moral concerns only to dealings amongst humans and their property.

Aristotle claimed that “plants are created for the sake of animals, and the animals for the sake of men”. From at least the Stoic philosophers onwards, there has also been a belief that to accord other species some rights would be to undermine our civilisation: “human life would become quite impossible if men thought of themselves as governed in their relationships with animals by moral considerations".

Marx considered the “great civilising influence of capital” lay in its rejection of the “deification of nature”, happily allowing “nature (to become) simply an object for mankind, purely a matter for utility".

From such a pervasive and enduring premise, our primary responsibility is seen to focus on our own species’ immediate well-being. Interest in or care for other species is a far more peripheral indulgence mediated in part by the extent to which such species may be of use or attractive to us. Extinctions of “inconsequential” species are an inevitable and little-mourned consequence of such a world view.

So, there is little in our inherited moral framework that ordains a responsibility to prevent extinction. The legal and policy basis is also insecure.

The key international conservation strategy (Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Targets) includes the target “By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented”. The South Australian conservation strategy is boldly titled “No species loss …”. But there is no comparable commitment to maintain all native plants and animals in the Australian constitution, national environmental legislation, or national biodiversity conservation strategy.

Without such an over-riding objective, further extinctions will be tolerated meekly; they will not be seen as they should be, as policy or management failures.

The exclusion of such commitment in Australia’s biodiversity strategy reflects the application of a zealous change in government policy: that attention to “losers” is an unprofitable diversion from the main game of broad-scale landscape conservation. It is a naïve polarity; for both approaches are necessary.

Under a policy umbrella that obviates the need to seek resolutely to prevent extinctions, many conservation scientists have embraced triage - that limited resources should be directed to only those species that will most economically repay investment. Others have devised elaborate algorithms to measure the relative worth of species, arguing that in a staged environmental retreat, low priority species are the most expendable.

All such filtering mechanisms amount to abrogation of responsibility. We should have the resources, skill and obligation to conserve all components of biodiversity. Furthermore, once we start sacrificing the least-wanted species, we start on a gradational scale of irresponsibility that will inevitably compound. It is a fatal compromise; a weakening of our moral fabric. We will increasingly lose the ethical integrity to fight for and secure the remaining species. It is like the dirty war:

First, we must kill all subversives; then their sympathizers; then those who are indifferent; and finally, we must kill all those who are timid.

Tim Flannery’s article considers a range of management and resourcing measures that may reduce the incidence of extinctions. But the problem is far more deep-rooted. We must change a moral system that constrains acceptance of the rights of other species and fails to accept a responsibility for the maintenance of life’s diversity; and we must re-calibrate environmental legislation and policy to match that responsibility.

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21 Comments sorted by

  1. Geoffrey Edwards

    logged in via email

    This is an odd piece.

    You open with the claim that we have failed in our moral responsibility, yet spend the rest of the article decrying the absence of this responsibility in current moral norms.

    As it seems to be the case that at the popular and political level not many agree with your position - indeed, you call for change in prevailing norms - certainly time would have been better spent arguing your ethical claim.

    How does one breach a moral framework, of fail in a responsbility, that even you consider does not currently exist?

  2. Fred Pribac

    logged in via email

    Our climate change mitigation efforts also fails from the above point of view of having an ethical responsibility to husbandry of biodiversity and ecosystems.

    We had "some" hope that natural, and managed, resiliance might have seen much of our biodiversity maintained in the face of our expected 2 degrees of climate change. However under the recent recognition that without unprecedented global mitigation efforts that we are likely to see 3 to 5 degrees, and as much as 6 degrees, of climate change by 2100 we can kiss most of our ecosystems and loads of unique species goodbye!

    Since we can't get serious about reducing our GHG emissions we now face the situation that our children will be left with a much impoverished world with very few, if any, near pristine and highly biodiverse ecosystems. Mostly they'll have to deal with a dogs breakfast of remnant ecosystems made up of only the hardiest endemic survivors and most adaptable weed species.


  3. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    "God would ensure that the species as a whole would not be destroyed."
    Some huge percentage (99?) of all species that have ever lived on earth are extinct. It's the way of the world.
    If it's not, where was god?
    And if Mr Flannery is to be believed, whose soul was irredeemably stained?

  4. Mark King

    Senior Lecturer, Psychology and Counselling and Researcher, CARRSQ at Queensland University of Technology

    I agree that there has been an increasing move towards "management" as the approach to preserving species, ecosystems, etc. which has been generally endorsed, but which has its own moral undertones. Management is about organisation and efficiency, and often does not deal well with complex and chaotic systems, and "efficiency" is often interpreted in neoliberal terms (i.e. our invisible cultural value system) as a form of "value for money". This fits very well with the rationalism underlying science, whereas injunctions about moral values do not, which is unfortunate. David Suzuki has been active in promoting a moral view, as have others, but I suspect only familiar moral values will have widespread appeal. In the Western world and the expanding middle classes of the developing world this means the rights of the individual within a neoliberal framework, while for the disadvantaged developing world the very localised need for families and communities to survive is overriding.

  5. Whyn Carnie

    Retired Engineer

    What arrogant conservationist claptrap! First we set out to control the climate by manipulating science. Now we are being led up this garden path of evolution control. Next we will expect some politician to say "Sorry" to the extinct species and our unborn next generations because they can only read about the dead.
    Life will go on but not the Flannery way.

    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Whyn Carnie

      You are correct about the claptrap, but not in the way you are suggesting. And you might want to take a look at the claptrap you have written.

      Species extinction (and climate change) are not just moral problems, they are existential problems. We are fundamentally changing the ecosystem we rely upon to survive, by altering the composition of the atmosphere, ocean and destroying the habitat that other species rely upon. None of that is in any doubt.

      If we do not cease doing so, then our whole…

      Read more
    2. Mark Carter

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Whyn Carnie

      Wildlife conservation is 'evolution control'? That most bonkers thing I've heard all week!

  6. Whyn Carnie

    Retired Engineer

    Mike Swinbourne, a couple of comments. "We are fundamentally changing..... the composition of the atmosphere, ocean and destroying the habitat that other species rely upon. None of that is in any doubt." You should be aware that there are many who hold serious doubt.
    And when you say, "But it will be fundamentally different to what it is now - for both other species and for humans." It was ever thus, and ever will be.

    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Whyn Carnie

      " You should be aware that there are many who hold serious doubt."

      So what Whyn. There are many who believe the world is flat, or that vaccines cause autism, or that the world is 6,000 years old, or that evolution does not happen.

      Just because some ignorant people think that way does not make it true. My statement was a statement of fact, not opinion.

    2. Mark Carter

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Whyn Carnie

      "You should be aware that there are many who hold serious doubt."- hardly. I think John meant to write 'none of that is in doubt by anyone who matters'. The theological opinions of a crew of amateur deniers doesn't matter much to the reality of the situation.

  7. Clifford Chapman

    Retired English Teacher

    Mike Swinbourne

    I'm afraid your words will fall on deaf ears, because man is so in love with himself, he can do no wrong.

    No matter what, if it's a question of morality, he'll make up a creator and a religion to make it all better, and if it's a question of screwing up the environment, and even making animals extinct, don't worry, Nature will fix it, didn't you know, it has before.

    Intelligent life on Earth? - chance will be a fine thing!

  8. Murray Webster

    Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

    Well I for one agree with the author. We did not have to stand by and do nothing while our most recent mammalian extinction - the Christmas Island Pipistrelle - became extinct due to our activities.

    Whilst the vast majority of species throughout evolution have become extinct that is not an excuse for us to cause extinction either knowingly or ignorantly.

    I have read, though I'm not sure where, that as human society evolved we went from having all sorts of gods and spirits in other forms of…

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  9. Boozybazz

    logged in via Twitter

    Instead of "arguing that in a staged environmental retreat, low priority species are the most expendable." maybe we should argue that the most destructive species are the most expendable. The planet would be a hell of a lot healthier now if man had never evolved in the first place.

    1. Clifford Chapman

      Retired English Teacher

      In reply to Boozybazz

      Well said, Boozybaz, and, yes, I really did just type that name.

      I often think of Wilfred Owen's great poem 'Futility' and its great and powerful last two lines:

      'O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
      To break Earth's sleep at all?'

      I know that he was talking about the futility of war, and the apparently endless killing that we seem to need as never any addict needed a drug, but his words strike a strong and resonant chord, in my view, in the face of the skepticism and cynicism of those who seem to think that man is incapable of doing wrong.

      It's a good point you've made here, and it will probably be met, if at all, with some asinine chorus that basicially says: 'Man Is God.'

  10. Chris Owens


    Wonder if Plato, Aristotle and Descartes attitudes would be so arrogant if there was a superior species to humans. Bet they would be arguing a different line - for diversity.

    No need for consideration and empathy when you are dominant.

    I would like to think that human perceptions of nature and our relationship with it has evolved a bit since their day. Then again looking at the inane comments posted here by Whyn, perhaps its only true for some of us.

    1. Clifford Chapman

      Retired English Teacher

      In reply to Chris Owens

      Well said indeed, Chris Owens.

      I've often thought that, while we do seem to have freedom, in many ways our history and the events of time had to be, because never once do I think we have ever seen ourselves as doing wrong. At university, in meaningless and cosy discussions in my Ethics seminars years' ago, I often thought inwardly how revealing the 'ought implies can' debate was as to its implicit recognition of what a sick piece of work we are.

      If you invert that into 'ought not to implies…

      Read more
  11. Whyn Carnie

    Retired Engineer

    Gentlemen, Gentlemen, retired or professional, if my comments seem inane it is probably because I don't see man at the top rung on the ladder of evolutionary development. There may just be a few rungsleft to go. It is hubris to believe homo erectus has been granted a moral duty to inter-generational equity, whatever that really is. Curerent dominance on this Earth is transitory. When standing at the first day of the rest of our lives we need to see just how insignificant we may be and, while important to the future, our activities must be well considered as well as viable.

  12. Comment removed by moderator.

  13. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

    "It is in Moses’ framework that restricts moral concerns only to dealings amongst humans and their property."

    Not true. Putting aside the question of Mosaic authorship, the Pentateuch has numerous regulations expressing concern for species other than humans and their livestock. To pick just a couple of examples:

    Exodus 23 offers a system of crop rotation that leaves fields fallow at regular intervals "so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat."

    Genesis 1.29-30 also notes that plants for not simply for human consumption:
    "And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." (NRSV)

    I'm not saying that much of the Pentateuch is not in a certain sense anthropocentric, simply that the sphere of moral concern is frequently wider than humans and their property.

  14. Tom James


    This article has failed to recognise the moral beliefs and systems of indigenous cultures around the globe. Of which many have been destroyed by the basal morals you decribe above, and continues to occur today.

    The Australian Indigenous culture is a good example.