By current PhD student Marcus Beck
Values define who we are and affect almost every aspect of our lives. Consequently,
Conservation Biology is defined as a ‘value-laden’ or ‘value-driven’ discipline that necessarily makes explicit statements of value as a means to conserve, protect, and restore. The connection between applied science and the need to assert values as a means for action is a fundamental linkage that enables us to practice conservation.
While many of you are likely familiar with this definition, I rekindled my relationship with this basic concept when I began the arduous task of preparing for my oral preliminary exam last spring. I was thumbing through the initial chapters of ‘Conservation Biology: Foundations, Concepts, Applications’1 hoping to review some basic concepts that might be asked about during my exam. I began thinking about some of the fundamental tenets and their associated caveats surrounding the basic principles of Conservation Biology. Specifically, I was curious about some of the so-called essential assumptions that are required for one to practically or even ethically practice conservation. At the very least, some level of subjectivity in the form of a ‘value-statement’ seemed necessary to bolster the argument for conservation. For example, statements like ‘diversity of organisms is good’ or ‘ecological complexity is good’ are normative postulates that guide our behavior in the discipline. Without such statements, our actions and ultimate objectives would arguably be misguided.
Is it possible to provide a justification for conservation without any assumptions as to the value of the natural world? Is it possible to provide rationale for conservation without first asserting the utilitarian or intrinsic worth of biodiversity? The concept of intrinsic worth bothers me the most as I don’t think too highly of statements that require certain amounts of faith in assuming they are true. However, I do believe that every human being possesses a degree of subjectivity and I am not above the idea of explicitly acknowledging the role my own opinions and personal beliefs have had in guiding my career goals (although my inner scientist would not be happy). For example, I truly think biodiversity is good for many reasons that I could list here, but I don’t believe any concept or item has inherent value in and of itself. I don’t think anything has worth just for the sake of being. Perhaps I don’t understand the concept of intrinsic value; is the idea simply a means to an end or is it something more tangible?
I couldn’t on my own think of sufficient rationale for conservation without at least making some leap of faith where I had to acknowledge that a declaration of value was necessary before conservation could be practically or ethically pursued. I suppose one could simply practice conservation for the sake of conservation but it seems silly to pursue an activity for no reason. Why not just watch television all day for the sake of watching television? This essential leap from the subjective to the objective was causing much distress so I searched for an answer to my dilemma in the most logical place I could think of. I posed the following question as a status update on the world’s most popular social networking website:
Is it possible to provide rationale for conservation without using ‘utilitarian’ or ‘intrinsic value’?
Here are the responses I got (verbatim):
Response 1: You could try scare tactics… Doom and Gloom! Muhahaha
Response 2: how about “it’s just cool” or “pretty!” Those are rather aesthetic justifications.
Response 3: personal gain. people like more money in their pocket.
Response 4: Conservation: because you don’t want your grandchildren to end up drinking piss.
Response 5: Conservation: because the world will be around long after you return to dust.
Although some of the responses were tragically comical (like a dying clown), they didn’t even come close to a sufficient answer I was naively hoping for. Most of the responses could be boiled down to either utilitarian (what practical use is it for me?) or intrinsic (good in and of itself) justifications. For example, response three is clearly a utilitarian argument. Response two suggests we should preserve biodiversity for its beauty or aesthetic qualities, which is arguably still a statement of intrinsic worth. Beauty benefits the individual because he or she, at some point in time, has made an internal declaration that they like biodiversity. I believe that in order to ‘like’ something you have to make an assertion about intrinsic value. My favorite was the fifth response because it seemed the most socially responsible rationale for conservation, although it still required a statement of value with ethical undertones (check out Socrates or Aristotle if you don’t get me). This value differed from all the other responses in that it was the least selfish form of value, some might even say altruistic. Does the argument then boil down to what is altruism and does it really exist? Is this a question that the great philosophical thinkers of our time have been debating for centuries? Is there even an answer to this question?
I love Conservation Biology and the idea that biodiversity is an asset that we must preserve for future generations. Please don’t confuse this blog with a lack of caring or a healthy dose of apathy. I am simply curious regarding the role values may have in a discipline that has roots in pure empirical and objective science. To you, the blog reader, I pose the same question. Is it possible to provide rationale for conservation without using ‘utilitarian’ or ‘intrinsic value’?
1 Van Dyke, F. 2010. Conservation Biology: Foundations, Concepts, and Applications, 2nd ed. Springer, Heidelberg, Berlin, New York.
About the author: Marcus Beck is a 3rd year PhD student and fifth year graduate student in the Conservation Biology program, Fisheries and Aquatic Biology track, with a minor in Statistics. He is co-advised by Dr. Bruce Vondracek and Dr. Lorin Hatch. His dissertation project is on developing quantitative tools to facilitate the use of biological indices in water quality programs, with a focus on ecological informatics.
PLEASE NOTE: Opinion blogs do not necessarily represent the unanimous opinion of those affiliated with the Conservation Biology Program at the University of Minnesota. Rather, they are meant to broaden and elevate the educational and scientific discourse related to various topics in conservation biology