Guest Post: What (if anything) makes extinction bad?
Catia Faria, Pompeu Fabra University
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Throughout history, countless species have come into existence only to later become extinct. Whether extinction is caused by natural processes or human agency, environmental scientists and the general public seem to agree that extinction is a bad thing and that, therefore, conservation efforts should be made to counteract, and perhaps revert, the losses. Resources are often devoted to the reintroduction of endangered species into ecosystems in which they have long been absent. In other cases, states implement measures to protect autochthonous species (that is, species which are native to a certain natural environment, as opposed to introduced as a result of human activity) which are threatened by the presence of a foreign species by eradicating the members of the latter. There are entire organisations dedicated simply to the aim of preventing the extinction of species whose continued existence is at risk. However, these practices rely on rather controversial assumptions.
Sometimes it is claimed that:
(i) Species extinction is intrinsically bad
On this view, species are thought to have intrinsic value not in a person-affecting way, but impersonally. The idea behind this is that the existence of some things can be good or bad even if it is good or bad “for” no one. Species, some claim, are that kind of thing. When a species becomes extinct, it is argued, there is an irreplaceable loss of value such that the world becomes a worse place than it was before. That is, there is a decrease in the world’s overall value. This is what it means that the extinction of a species is bad, even if it is bad for no one. Here, “no one” refers to any being that can have a well-being her own, whether she is human or nonhuman. If species can be valuable in this way, then we have impersonal reasons to preserve them. Suppose it were plausible that species possess high intrinsic value. Then intense conservation and restoration efforts should be made for their sake, even if that implied imposing high costs on other individuals.
The implausibility of this view, however, becomes apparent when one considers the consequences that embracing it would have for the consideration of human interests. For example, the European lion populated a wide range of Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula to Greece and the Caucasus. So as to prevent the lions’ negative impact on human populations either by directly attacking them or by feeding on livestock, human activity caused its extinction in the region around AD 80-100. Nevertheless, according to this view, despite being good for human populations, the extinction of the European lion was in one way bad, since it involved a loss of impersonal value.
There are two possibilities here —either this value matters more than human well-being or it does not. In the first case we would have compelling reasons to reintroduce the lion as a component of European fauna, if it ever became feasible, even if that had a tremendous negative impact on the well-being of human populations. For most people, that is hardly acceptable. Assuming we had such reasons to reintroduce the lion, they would be outweighed by the reasons given by human well-being. But even on this watered-down version of the view, there are odd implications. If species have intrinsic value, then we have reasons to regret that the European lion became extinct. Moreover, it entails that there are conceivable scenarios in which we would have compelling reasons to reintroduce it, even if that had no positive effect on any sentient being. Hence there is little ground for the view that species have impersonal value.
Another claim often appealed to is that:
(ii) Species extinction is bad because it harms sentient individuals
There are two ways of understanding this claim. On the first one, the extinction of a species is bad because it harms its individual members. However, this can hardly be the case, since extinction does not affect individuals. Sentient beings do not lose their lives, and therefore are not harmed, by extinction, but only by death. It is the death of its last individual member that produces the extinction of a species, and not the other way around. Thus, if the extinction of a species is bad, it cannot be bad because it harms someone belonging to such species. Moreover, death harms animals individually. The badness of death for an individual obtains independently of the number of them that belong to a certain species. The last specimen to die is no more harmed by death than the million individuals who died before her.
On a second view, the extinction of a species is bad because it negatively affects the balance of ecosystems, thereby harming other sentient beings who belong to different species. This presupposes, of course, that ecosystemic balance is a source of well-being for animals. Far from that, however, existing ecosystems are rather a source of intense misery for most of the animals that inhabit them, as it was explained in more detail in a previous post. Data from population dynamics shows that, due to the reproductive strategy followed by the majority of wild animals, their average situation is actually analogous to a case of massive extinction. A population becomes extinct when all its members die. Often, all of its members experience tremendously painful deaths. This scenario is quite similar to the one that takes place when populations thrive, which does not imply that its members do flourish, but rather that most of its members have short lives full of suffering, only to end in an agonising death.
What rings true about the previous assumption is that what matters is how sentient individuals fare. But then the implication is that the prevention of extinction is not something to be pursued for its own sake. Efforts against extinction cannot be justified at the expense of imposing greater harms to sentient individuals. Furthermore, the fact that an individual does not belong to an endangered species does not make her life matter less. Acknowledging this should produce major changes in the practices of environmental management presently carried out, either by states or by private organisations. These should no longer involve interventions which are, all things considered, bad for nonhuman animals living in the wild.