Are values and conservation inseparable?

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.

Aldo Leopold and Bernie Madoff have different values.

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, Applications1 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


3 thoughts on “Are values and conservation inseparable?

  1. Hi Marcus,
    You present an interesting conundrum which is relevant to my current experiences in PNG. Conservation on the ground here from a villagers perspective has almost nothing to do with biodiversity. Yes, the mostly Western sponsors have motivations related to intrinsic and utilitarian motives and the local people have innumerable values linked to the forest, utilitarian and spiritual, but the motivation on the ground is related to power and attaining development. Having a connection to a conservation NGO is a source of power and a conservation agreement demonstrates power over land. The social relationship entered into with an NGO (under the name of conservation) brings development, not biodiversity, which the community had all along.
    So you ask what is a rationale for conservation- can to exercise power be a rationale? Are social relationships utilitarian?

  2. To move beyond utility and implicit value, you will have to abandon notions of meaning and purpose.

    Just tell your committee you are going with the flow.

    Cells have many mechanisms, enzymes, other molecules, for repairing damaged DNA, and they are doing this all the time.

    Wetlands filter toxins and other pollution, from water, purifying it better than any sewage treatment plant.

    When the walleye eats the minnow, he/she is improving the genetic composition of the minnow population by weeding out the weak ones.

    Are these things all happening for a paycheck? Is it some kind of performance art?

    … but you may want to go back to utility and value when talking to funding agencies.!

  3. Hi Marcus,

    I enjoyed your musings and reflections. Here are my three cents.

    First, I would say that “no” you cannot provide rationale for conservation without relying on either utilitarian value (a means to an end), intrinsic value (an end in itself), or both.

    For, if something is neither a means to an end nor an end, then it is value-less, and to work to preserve something that is value-less is illogical (unless there is value in the work itself, such as if there were intellectual value in the effort to preserve biodiversity).

    Many people will readily accept utilitarian value in some components of nature For example, food and fiber are common examples of valuable items that nature provides for us. Additionally, nature’s services, including water purification, climate regulation, etc., are valuable to us in a utilitarian way, as a means to an end – the end being our continued survival on earth. Even something like a beautiful cheetah could be said to be appreciated for it’s utilitarian value, which is to say that a cheetah may be appreciated not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end – the cheetah is powerful and graceful and watching such power and grace leads to my happiness, which is the end.

    Whether or not to ascribe intrinsic value to nature is a matter of personal preference – it is subjective. Nature has intrinsic value to a person if that person sees nature as good in its own right. Consider this: you come across a snail somewhere and this snail does not do anything for you aesthetically. You are utterly indifferent to the snail. But, you recognize the snail as a life form with it’s own desires and needs and life and story, and you have a respect for life that compels you to not destroy other life whenever possible. Which is to say, your recognize intrinsic value in the snail – it is an end in itself.

    A big challenge for conservation, I believe, is for conservationists to communicate an ethic that recognizes intrinsic value in more and more species. We are not Jainists, of course, so we cannot go around sweeping the floor in front of us to prevent us from squashing little bugs, and we can’t refuse to light candles for fear of singeing the wings of moths. It would be impossible to live without occasionally killing some small forms of life.

    But conservation will certainly benefit, it seems to me, from celebrating humanity’s place as one species in a fabulously rich community of species. Many of these species will delight us (utilitarian value) with their behaviors and appearances, but others will not.

    I suspect the strongest argument for conservation ultimately comes from nature’s utilitarian values. In addition to food, fiber, and services, nature quite simply just makes people happier, less stressed, and more at peace, and that I think may be its biggest value.


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