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.

 

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33 Responses to Guest Post: What (if anything) makes extinction bad?

  • cero says:

    Very interesting thoughts. It’s a quite difficult question why the destruction of ecosystems would be wrong. Even if the whole earth would be transformed into nothing more than a silent rock without life, what would be the harm to the universe (and why should the universe be preserved at all)?

    So there can’t be an objective reason against the extinction of species. What about reasons regarding the human population? If humans find a way to live on that silent rock, would that be harmful to us? Not directly.

    BUT, it would be far more boring for us human indivuals to live on that homogeneous rock. Diversity of species and of ecosystems adds pleasure and well-being to human lives. And I think that’s the reason, why, intuitively, almost everyone agrees, that extinction of species is bad.

    The problem with extinction by human influences is that it is far more rapid than extinction by “natural” evolution. So it leads to an imbalance between the number of extincted species and the number of emerging species.

    So, yes, extinction is not bad by itself (although it is far easier to study animals if they are not extinct yet). But loss of diversity is bad, since it negatively affects the amount of human well-being.

    • nobody says:

      Right. I would add that I think natural ecosystems, as they existed before human civilization, are especially important to maintain (as opposed to, e.g., animals in zoos). It would be interesting to see a poll on whether most folks agree.

      By the way, I have also heard arguments that loss of biodiversity could lead to some kind of environmental catastrophe that threatens human existence or at least prosperity. But I have never heard of anything remotely similar happening and can’t figure out how this would.

      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.

      It might have a positive effect on humans who get to observe the lions on vacation!

      • catia faria says:

        Hi cero and nobody. Thanks for your comments.

        You’re both right in that there is a component of aesthetic value in our judgments about the badness of species extinction. And that in many cases a loss in aesthetic value amounts to a reduction of human well-being. My thesis is that even if that is the case, that value doesn’t override the value of nonhuman well-being, which is often threatened by environmental practices aimed at species conservation.

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      The argument from human boredom is the silliest of all- wait, second silliest, right after the “intrinsically bad” argument.

      Technology gets rapidly better at providing interesting experiences, at an even faster pace than species go extinct. In a short few decades, virtual reality will be all but perfect. We’ll have more virtual species, all more interesting, than all actual species combined.

      I could perhaps buy the argument from ecosystem services as life support for human civilization. But civilization is itself not valuable, in fact it is so structually violent and torturous that it will always cause more suffering than any redeeming quality. And it even if it were desirable to sustain, it could probably run on robust technological resource cycles with a few key innovations, without requiring much input from ecosystems. It would probably be more efficient even.

      So what’s the true motivation for environmentalists? Nothing but infantile sentimentality. For that they should neither be praised nor supported.

      • Catia Faria says:

        Hi Hedonic Trader. I absolutely agree that the celebration of natural processes which are harmful for sentient individuals should neither be “praised nor supported”

  • Lukas Tank says:

    Two thoughts on your line of reasoning against “(i) Species extinction is intrinsically bad”.

    I think it would be helpful to put more emphasis on the distinction between extinction caused by natural processes and extinction caused by human agency. My guess is that far fewer people are willing to subscribe to (i) if this also covers cases of extinction caused by natural processes. I, for example, tend to think that species extinction by natural causes isn’t intrinically bad, while extinction caused by human agency is. More precisely, I think species extinction caused by human agency today and in the more recent past is intrinsically bad. When some cave men caused the extinction of a giant sloth or sth like that, this seems to me much closer to what one could call ‘a natural process’. Back then, mankind was very much part of nature. Today, of course, humans are in some way still a part of nature, but now there also seems to be an intelligible sense in which they no longer are. In light of these considerations, the case of the European lion is a bit tricky and possibly a borderline case. The people living in the antiquity were far from being cave men (well, at least some were), but they’re equally far removed from modern human beings (not in a biological sense, obviously). For people like me, who are willing to subscribe to (i) in cases of extinction caused by ‘modern’ human agency, the example of the European lion might not work well.

    Secondly: I think the link between (i) and us having reasons to reintroduce species that went extinct is less direct than you assume. It’s possible to lament the extinction of a species that is bad for no one without having any reason whatsoever to reintroduce it. If I value species as part of the ‘wild’ natural world, something that exists somewhat indepently of man, I can regret their extinction without wanting to artifically reintroduce them into nature. Because that wouldn’t succeed in bringing back the original state of affairs. If anything, doing so would mean to increase man’s dominane over nature.

    • Catia Faria says:

      Hi Lukas, thanks for your comment.

      First, people tend to think that there’s a difference between extinction caused by natural processes and extinction caused by human agents. Yet I fail to see any morally relevant difference in that distinction. On my view the badness of an event depends on how it affects sentient individuals. Thus, extinction is bad iff it is bad for someone, independently of who or what caused it. My point, though, was to show that if you think that species extinction is intrinsically bad, you’ll run into highly counterintuitive scenarios regarding the human case. The lion case may be tricky, since many people have feelings for large carnivores. But think, for instance, in a parasite on the extinction of which the flourishing of a human population depended. Wouldn’t it be weird to claim that regardless of its impact on human well-being we had reasons to prevent that extinction from taking place?

      Second, I think you’re probably right in that regretting the extinction of a species does not automatically leads to supporting its reintroduction, even though, as a matter of fact, most people that claim (i) support the latter. At any rate, this only shows that the losses cannot always be compensated for. In sum, that the alleged intrinsic value of species cannot ground conservation efforts—precisely my point.

      • Lukas Tank says:

        Thanks for your reply, Catia.

        “Wouldn’t it be weird to claim that regardless of its impact on human well-being we had reasons to prevent that extinction from taking place?” Not weird at all. Since those reasons could very well be massively outweighed, I fail to see the counterintuitive implications of that statement.

        “First, people tend to think that there’s a difference between extinction caused by natural processes and extinction caused by human agents. Yet I fail to see any morally relevant difference in that distinction. On my view the badness of an event depends on how it affects sentient individuals.” So you’re advocating some form of consequentialism, maybe even utilitarianism, also in regards to natural processes? Because if you do, I’d be interested to hear whether you think you are committed to welcome some kind of ‘gobal zoo’ scenario. A “natural” world managed by man with the sole aim to maximise utility.

        “At any rate, this only shows that the losses cannot always be compensated for. In sum, that the alleged intrinsic value of species cannot ground conservation efforts—precisely my point.” Well, I don’t know the statistics, but my guess would be that most conservation efforts are really that: conservation, rather than reintruduction. These efforts aren’t undermined by the fact that regretting the extinction of a species doesn’t automatically imply wanting to reintroduce them. And even some cases of “reintroducing” locally extinct animal species are cases of, what one could call, ‘passive reintroduction’. Take the return of the wolf to Germany, for example. The German government has a programm designed to aid the return of the wolfs by educating the public, reimbursing farmers and so on. But the point is: the wolf returned to Germany without outside help. Similar cases of reintroducing locally extinct animal species could very well find the support of someone valuing species as part of the natural world.

        • Catia Faria says:

          Hi Lukas,

          Yes, I am advocating some form of consequentialism, though not necessarily utilitarianism. And yes, I am committed to welcome some kind of stewardship over nature with the aim of preventing or alleviating the natural harms suffered by animals living in the wild (“global zoo” is too negatively loaded).

          I don’t see how your last point on reintroduction connects with the fragment of my comment you quote.
          Regarding your first point, perhaps there’s just a clash of intuitions. What I see counterintuitive is not the all things considered judgment that we would have reasons to prevent the extinction of the parasite but also the claim that there would be some reasons to do that based on the impersonal value of species.

        • Catia Faria says:

          Hi Lukas,

          Yes, I am advocating some form of consequentialism, though not necessarily utilitarianism. And yes, I am committed to welcome some kind of stewardship over nature with the aim of preventing or alleviating the natural harms suffered by animals living in the wild (“global zoo” is too negatively loaded).

          I don’t see how your last point on reintroduction connects with the fragment of my comment you quote.

          Regarding your first point, perhaps there’s just a clash of intuitions. What I see counterintuitive is not the all things considered judgment that we would have reasons to prevent the extinction of the parasite but also the claim that there would be some reasons to do that based on the impersonal value of species.

  • KCSaff says:

    How about an argument from information destruction? A species encodes considerable information in its genetic pool. Its preserved genes have all proved to be useful in the ancestral environment of the species, and may be unique and useful in the future of sapient species. Even if the genomes of lost species can be recovered, the interpretation of the genome is only possible by the observation of how extant creatures use those genes. With our current level of understanding, when a species goes extinct, we simply have no way to measure the value of that lost information, which could be important for future medical or esoteric technological breakthroughs. So our moral calculus can only be done in ignorance: a lost species could be completely inconsequential, but it could be tantamount to the burning of the library at Alexandria.

    In concrete terms: how do we know the European lion did not have a key to curing cancer?

    • Catia Faria says:

      Thanks KCSaff,

      Indeed, we don’t know. What we *do* know, however, is that some interventions carried out for the sake of species or ecosystems (e.g., restoration programs) cannot be justified given the harm they impose on currently existing sentient individuals.

  • Dave Frame says:

    Thanks for this post, Catia. I think there’s an aesthetic component to value which matters here. I don’t see any inherent ethical value to diversity if ethics is about welfare. If ethics is about welfare then I think sentience/suffering are the things that matter, not diversity. (Efficiency might matter, because if resources are wasted then they cannot enhance welfare. But diversity? I don’t see it.) But as you say, it’s unconvincing to give diversity an inherent value. So I think its value is real, but aesthetic.

    The case for maintaining diversity in anything strikes me as basically about making living in the world a richer experience. Consider language – it would be far more efficient if everyone spoke English (or Mandarin. or Spanish – anything with enough words to describe everything). Then we could all understand each other better, and this would lower transaction costs and make business easier (the very poorest might be expected to benefit most, since many of these folks would be changing languages, and could now compete in service industries on labour costs). It would simplify life if everyone had the same religion, too – then there would be a common set of beliefs around which to base international norms and institutions. That would be a big step forward, politically. But in both cases something would be lost, just as something is lost when you flatten some ecosystem and farm there instead (reducing biodiversity). I think that thing is aesthetic. Its value is real, occasionally monetisable, but not related to welfare, and so not readily worked in to a lot of treatments of ethics/policy.

    • Catia Faria says:

      Thanks Dave,

      I’m not denying that people may have an attitude of regret towards losses in biodiversity. My claim is that either they have no reasons for it based on the impersonal value of biodiversity or that the alleged person-affecting value of biodiversity (more accurately disvalue) does not outweigh the person-affecting value of human and nonhuman well-being.

      The analogy with languages is very good indeed, though I believe it leads to a different conclusion. Imagine that the existence of a certain native language is being preserved through the massive killing of invasive foreign language speakers. Certainly, the reasons given by the interests of those speakers would outweigh the alleged value of language diversity. The same is true when nonhuman interests are at stake. For example, the interests of hybrid wolves in the Iberian Peninsula (being now killed for conservation purposes) outweigh the alleged value of preserving the Iberian wolf.

      • Dave Frame says:

        “Imagine that the existence of a certain native language is being preserved through the massive killing of invasive foreign language speakers. Certainly, the reasons given by the interests of those speakers would outweigh the alleged value of language diversity.”

        I think everybody, even the Academie Francaise, would agree with you on this point.

        “The same is true when nonhuman interests are at stake.”

        But not necessarily this one. For one thing, most people remain unconvinced that nonhuman interests are fungible with human interests. The second thing I struggle with is that I find the line of argument you make completely compelling if welfare/suffering/sentience are the only considerations. But they are not. Aesthetic considerations are part of value, and they do matter. Imagine a trolley problem with one line leading to the death of a single person*, and the other line leading to the destruction of the Louvre or Taj Mahal or Manchu Pichu, and a third line leading to the destruction of Yosemite’s Half-Dome or Uluru or even Chomolungma. You may add up value such that either of the second lines is fine with you (or you may have a preference over the latter two lines). But many people would disagree – strikingly so in the noble, brave and heart-breakingly sad case of Khalid Al-Asaad. His is an example of why considerations of welfare/suffering/sentience are not the only things that contribute to value.

        *Of whatever species springs to mind.

        • Catia Faria says:

          Hi Dave,

          I’m well aware that “most people remain unconvinced that nonhuman interests are fungible with human interests”. However, I believe there’s no sound justification for that (as I have tried to show in several previous posts).

          Regarding your trolley case, I totally fail to see how aesthetic considerations might ever override human (or nonhuman) interests in being alive. As I said, if there’s such a thing as aesthetic value it can only be person-affecting.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    Extinction and re-introduction seem to be different issues. Caria Faria implies that re-introduction is motivated by ethical concerns about loss of diversity, intrinsic value, harm to sentient beings and so on. In reality it is primarily about tourism. If someone finds a viable way to clone the Woolly Mammoth, then local governments and investors will fall over themselves, to be the first with a ‘Woolly Mammoth Safari Park’. They will then build apartments and hotels next to the safari park – ‘Mammoth View Hotel’ – and so on. Money is the the motive, as it was in ’Jurassic Park’.

    Certainly in Europe, mammalian re-introduction programmes are embedded in larger schemes for rural and regional development, often with EU funding. Far from being angry at a waste of money, the general public likes these policies. Culturally, we can place them in the long European tradition of ‘arcadian’ parks. Many rural communities in southern Europe would be therefore be quite happy to see the European Lion return, for the tourism. Many already accepted the return of the wolf, to areas where it was extinct. Typically, only farmers object, and they can be bought off with subsidies, and compensation for dead livestock. This has very little to do with the wider issues cited by Caria Faria, so I suggest re-introduction should be left out of the discussion.

    • Catia Faria says:

      Thanks Paul,

      Economic interests play a role in the explanation of certain environmentalist practices, though they do not shed light on the moral justification of those practices—my goal here.

  • Ben Davies says:

    Let me preface this by saying that I agree with the conclusion that species (including the human species) have no value. Still:

    If species have intrinsic value, but less value than a single human life (the life that was saved by, say, killing the last mountain lion in Europe), we would “have reason to regret that the European lion became extinct”. If I’m reading this right, this is presented as obviously false, but I don’t really see why. It could surely be that we have reason to regret that we *had* to kill the last lion, even if we had to in order to preserve something more valuable (a human life). Surely we could say that species has some intrinsic value. That ‘some’ is not enough to override the value of protecting a human being, but it might be enough to make us feel some regret that we ended a species, or to make us prefer a policy of protected enclosure over killing.

    It’s also not obvious that if species have intrinsic value, we would necessarily have reason to reintroduce mountain lions despite that act having no positive effect. Perhaps the value of species has a modulating influence rather than an additive one. So, rather than saying that reintroducing a species can be a good thing even if good for no being, we might say instead that the value of a creature’s life *so long as it is positive* increases as that creature’s species approaches extinction.

    • Catia Faria says:

      Hi Ben, thanks for your comment.

      First, let me clarify that my claim is not that there is no reason to regret having to kill the last lion. Insofar as she would have had a live worth living, there is one respect in which our decision would be regrettable even if, all things considered, it is not. My claim is that there is no reason to regret that the species became extinct. That is, that species have some value (distinct from the well-being of their last member) that give us reasons for such regret.

      Here my point is that accepting that species have impersonal value implies accepting the claim that there are scenarios in which reintroducing a species would add positive value to the world, even if doing so increased no-one’s well-being (thus, already accounting for aesthetic value). And that in some of those scenarios, when no countervailing reasons existed, reintroducing that species would be morally required. I find this very implausible, and I think it gives us reason to refuse the claim from which it follows, namely, that species have impersonal value.

      Second, I understand that your proposal is that an individual’s net positive well-being has greater moral value the fewer members of her species there are. It is hard for me to see how that could be so, or how to argue for that. In any case, though, that would be part of a discussion about the alleged person-affecting value of species. In the passage you are commenting on, I am attacking the position that the value of species is impersonal. So that assumption underlies the whole discussion.

  • Phil H says:

    In his book Feral, George Monbiot gives one possible argument. He calls for “rewilding”, which he defines as the ongoing effort to increase “trophic diversity” – expanding food chains and food webs by increasing the number of participants in them. He claims that this has all sorts of benefits for people, so that could form one justification for avoiding extinctions.

    Another possibility is that natural diversity has value in that it creates more niches in which evolution can happen, and that is the only process which is proven to produce intelligent, moral beings.

    I think there probably is a good aesthetic argument as well. Beauty is good, and more diversity creates more kinds of beauty, pretty much whatever your conception of beauty is. A related argument would be that every living species is an opportunity for us to learn. The history of zoology is a catalogue of expansions of the tree of life, with every species potentially being not just one more twig, but the key that shows us whole new branches and even trunks.

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      Evolution didn’t create intelligent moral beings. Humans are no more good than evil. Evolution doesn’t optimize for anything positive, it’s just an algorithm that runs on replicator fitness maximization.

      You can glorify it if you don’t care about truth, but only then.

    • Dave Frame says:

      “In his book Feral, George Monbiot gives one possible argument. He calls for “rewilding”, which he defines as the ongoing effort to increase “trophic diversity” – expanding food chains and food webs by increasing the number of participants in them. He claims that this has all sorts of benefits for people, so that could form one justification for avoiding extinctions.”

      You could make an argument that in some instances diversity is resilience – diversity (of some sorts) limits otherwise shared vulnerabilities. Genetic diversity within a species can be good for the species as a whole. Within an ecosystem, diversity can mean that if some species becomes extinct others in the food web can eat substitutes. But in these cases resilience, rather than diversity, is doing the work in support of welfare – so resilience, rather than diversity, would seem to be the thing with the moral value.

      I’m kind of intrigued at how diversity is discussed, ethically. It’s often described (sometimes implicitly) as though it were inherently a good thing, but then some socially relevant forms of diversity are very much frowned upon in polite society*: income diversity and political diversity, especially. People who otherwise advocate diversity as a wonderful seem to want as little diversity in income and in political views as they can get away with.

      *Among humanities professors, bicycle enthusiasts and other hipsters, for instance.

      • nobody says:

        I’m kind of intrigued at how diversity is discussed, ethically. It’s often described (sometimes implicitly) as though it were inherently a good thing, but then some socially relevant forms of diversity are very much frowned upon in polite society

        Diversity can be aesthetically pleasing to those comfortably observing it from afar. Of course, to the gazelle eaten by a lion, it’s not pleasant. Similarly, while economic inequality in human societies is nice for the rich, it’s annoying to the public and especially to, say, left-wing academics. Everything depends on your viewpoint.

        • Dave Frame says:

          nobody wrote: “Diversity can be aesthetically pleasing to those comfortably observing it from afar. Of course, to the gazelle eaten by a lion, it’s not pleasant. Similarly, while economic inequality in human societies is nice for the rich, it’s annoying to the public and especially to, say, left-wing academics. Everything depends on your viewpoint.”

          Actually the benefits of not eliminating diversity in income boil down to the fact that the more you flatten income distributions, the more you reduce the incentives to work hard and create value. Where diversity is not too restricted, societies grow wealthier and flourish. Where diversity is reduced too stringently, economies stagnate. So there are net benefits, not just benefits to some. But generally, I think you make my point for me – welfare-based objections to an unfettered market economy are powerful, and diversity per se isn’t doing much of the moral work in those debates: it’s just a property that is morally interesting to the extent it arises from more morally crucial properties (like resilience, or system flourishing or whatever).

    • Catia Faria says:

      Thanks Phil,

      I believe I have more or less addressed most of your concerns. Just a quick clarification regarding Monbiot’s reference. As I see it, increasing the diversity of trophic chains would actually be catastrophic in terms of maximization of nonhuman suffering (considering predominant wasteful reproductive strategies in nature, such as r-selection. see my previous post on intervention in nature), even if it could (trivially) benefit human populations. Rewilding is, thus, what we have least reason to do.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    The comments suggest that the discussion is misdirected, and that has to do with the way it was presented to start with. Catia Faria writes

    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.

    It is not correct that scientists agree that extinction is a bad thing, precisely because scientists know that extinction is normal and common. I don’t see any evidence that the general public sees extinction, as such, as reprehensible. The species bias in public concern has been well documented: the cuddlier it is, the more the public want it preserved. There is no general programme to counteract extinction as such, nor is there any political pressure for one.

    Resources for reintroduction are in fact marginal, even in the context of nature protection expenditure. As I pointed out, they are driven by economic motives and where these motives are absent, reintroduction would be very rare indeed. Specific protection of autochthonous species is also rare, in comparison with general conservation efforts. It is also not true that there are organisations which aim to generally prevent the extinction of species, they too are species-specific and at most specific to an identifiable ecosystem, and its associated landscape (e.g. delta wetlands).

    So we don’t actually know who makes the two main claims that she sets out, and what precisely they relate to. That’s important because there are related issues which could be relevant, where extinction and individual suffering also play a role. One is gay conversion therapy, and possible anti-gay pills which will prevent gays from being born. Do gays suffer if gays become extinct? Another is the question of ethnic diversity: what would be lost if all genetic and cultural ethnic diversity disappeared? Do we need black people, and would anyone suffer by not being black, or by being black instead of white?

    I think the post is too short, and too simplified, to address the issues it raises, probably because they are not clearly delineated. If it stuck to specific cases of threatened species, it might be easier to understand.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    I thought some more about what would be necessary to generalise Catia Faria’s examples, in order to compare them with (for instance) the mass murder of Jews, the disappearance of the Jewish people by assimilation, the assimilation of ethnic minorities, and gay conversion therapies.

    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.

    Now a species is a category. By definition, its members share at least one quality, and other organisms possess qualities which the members of the species do not. If the species is to have intrinsic value as distinct from the value of any individual member, then that value must be derived from the quality which the species possesses. So the loss of value would then result from the loss of that quality from this planet. That seems intuitively to correspond to arguments against the disappearance of Jews by assimilation, which in turn can be extended to the case of genocide. The argument is that it is good to have Jews, because they contribute something by reason of being Jewish, and the world would be worse off without them. Comparable arguments were recently prominent in discussions in France, about the possible wholesale emigration of the Jewish minority. The European Commission took a similar position:

    … we have the moral duty, a duty of civility, a political duty to bring about the situation as soon as possible that not one Jew in Europe feels the urge to leave Europe because he or she sees no future for them on this continent. Taking away the Jews from Europe is taking away Europe’s soul. It has been done before.
    Commissioner Frans Timmermans

    Now there is no direct comparison with complete disappearance, the concern was that Jews would emigrate to Israel of the United States. Nevertheless, with that proviso, such analogies are useful because they help to clarify what we mean by extinction. If a species becomes ‘extinct’ that does not mean that there is nothing in its place. Extinction is a different matter from the death of the members of the category (species). Extinction means that the category is empty, not that animals and plants have disappeared from this planet. In fact the individual members of a species could live healthy lives and produce offspring, and still become extinct, if a genetic mutation means that their offspring are no longer members of the species. Animals and plants die all the time, but extinction can only apply to a category, even if it only has one last member.

    So the argument that Catia Faria wishes to oppose is, in a more general form, that if the members of a category possess any quality, then that category must be preserved by ensuring the continued existence of individual members of that category. She argues against that position from its consequences:

    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.

    She is generally right about the type consequences. In fact if all species have intrinsic value, then we might be obliged to recreate all extinct species. However, I also argue in that way, against policies designed to protect specific minorities. For instance, I argue that there is no reason to have gay men or lesbian women, and that therefore a potential anti-gay therapy which results in their disappearance should not be suppressed. The position of gay organisations is of course exactly the opposite: being gay has an intrinsic value, they say, therefore gays should be preserved. It is a pure conservationist position. And although emigration does not result in the disappearance of the Jews as category (or as individual members of the category), I also argued against the European Commission stance on Jews in Europe. If we took Timmermans’ position to its logical conclusion, then presumably the Commission must prevent not only another mass murder of Jews, but also the disappearance of the Jews by assimilation. That would conflict with individual autonomy, and indeed that is a recognised issue among the Jewish community: family pressure to choose a Jewish partner versus individual choice. If the quality of being Jewish has intrinsic value, and if its existence is threatened, then individuals might be obliged to modify their planned behaviour in order to retain the quality, or even to acquire it (conversion to Judaism).

    The reason I introduce these comparisons, which are offensive to some, is that I suspect that Catia Faria’s position is extremely inconsistent. I suspect that although she is happy to have a Europe without lions, she would be much less happy at a Europe without lesbians, for instance, even if no lesbian was harmed in the process. If we accept the position that “there is little ground for the view that species have impersonal value”, then it seems logical to take the generalised position, that there is little ground for the view that any category of individuals has impersonal value by reason of a quality, which distinguishes its members from members of other categories.

    More simply: if you think that Jews have value by reason of being Jewish, and gays by reason of being gays, then you cannot consistently take the position that sharks have no intrinsic value by reason of being sharks. At the very least, the apparent inconsistency ought to be explained.

    • nobody says:

      “In fact the individual members of a species could live healthy lives and produce offspring, and still become extinct, if a genetic mutation means that their offspring are no longer members of the species”

      This is known as pseudoextinction. Isn’t that a great word?

    • Catia Faria says:

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your comments.

      As a matter of fact, I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that diversity has no intrinsic value. That applies to Jews, gays, lesbians and sharks alike.

      What matter is how each of these individuals fare. If the disappearance of any of those groups is bad, it’s because it somehow negatively affects its individual members. But not because the existence of the group itself has any impersonal value. So, I don’t see any inconsistency in my view.

      But I agree with you that the question requires a longer treatment than a post can afford.

  • Phil H says:

    Here’s another argument which might work: extinction is operationally a bad idea.

    As your argument above shows, the moral value of an extinction event is contentious, so we might best say that we simply do not know whether a particular extinction matters or not. That’s true in both ecological terms, as we simply don’t know that much about many living environments; and in moral terms, as you illustrate. In a situation where you lack knowledge, a good heuristic for action is: don’t take actions with irreversible consequences. Extinction, unlike conservation, is irreversible. So a non-unreasonable conservative operating principle gives us good reason to avoid extinctions even before we make any kind of calculation of whether they are a good idea or not.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    In the second half of her post, Catia Faria makes some claims about the thinking behind ‘environmentalist’ policies. She claims:

    1. that environmental scientists and the general public advocate conservation efforts to counteract, and perhaps revert, extinction, out of concern for individual members of the species and individual members of other species.

    2. Resources are often devoted to the reintroduction of endangered species into ecosystems in which they have long been absent, out of concern for individual members of the species and individual members of other species.

    3. States implement measures to protect autochthonous species threatened by the presence of a foreign species, by eradicating the members of the latter, out of concern for individual members of the species and individual members of other species.

    4. Organisations campaign to prevent the extinction of threatened species, out of concern for individual members of the species and individual members of other species.

    None of this seems to be true. None of these policies are motivated or justified by concern for the welfare of individual animals, but are concerned with a species, by definition a category. The individual animals will all die anyway, and the general public, scientists, campaigners are well aware of that. Insofar as these attitudes, policies and campaigns are anti-extinctionist, they are correctly directed at the species. The public, the states, and organisations know the difference between conservation and animal welfare. That’s why there are separate organisations for animal welfare.

    Reintroduction is in any case not a contra-extinction measure, it is about extending the range of the species. If a species is indeed threatened, then officials would not move individual animals to an uncertain habitat, where they might die before they established themselves.

    It seems that Catia Faria is trying to defend a broadly pro-extinction position, against some possible objections. It would have been less confusing to do that directly. Clarity is also important because of the direct and indirect political implications. Although they don’t use biological terms, ‘contra-extinction’ policies do play a significant role in right-wing ideologies. Intrinsic value and conservation are major issues in conservative social and political discourse.

    I don’t know if there is even a name yet, for the pro-extinctionist position. Those who promote it probably started out as vegans, but that term is unhelpful, because to the general public it suggests a specific diet. The ideology has gone well beyond that by now. Perhaps ‘post-vegan’ is usable, until something better is available. It is also relevant that the pro-extinctionist, anti-nature, and anti-environmentalist position of the post-vegans may lead them to dubious political alliances with other anti-environmentalist groups, such as the fossil fuel industry lobby, the automobile lobby, and climate-change sceptics.

    Again the comparison with other anti-extinction positions is useful in exploring the political implications. The issue of individual welfare is for instance relevant to the gay therapy debate. It is generally undisputed that gay men experience stress when subjected to forcible conversion therapy, which at present is fraudulent anyway. But what if there is a drug that makes gay men straight, and the government surreptitiously puts it in the drinking water? Once the gay men are straight, they will presumably not want to be gay, and will not seek reconversion treatment. In that scenario, gays become extinct without harm to the individual. In fact the government has improved the welfare of every individual gay man, because he no longer suffers discrimination or persecution. Nevertheless it is predictable that gay organisations would reject such an idea.

    Now if consistent, post-vegan extinctionists should support such a policy, because they consider the post-extinction position to be morally preferable. If there are no animals of species x, then no animals of species x suffer harm, at least harm that is intrinsic to their membership of the species. My point is that such a pro-extinctionist position is generalisable to highly controversial policies about the disappearance and elimination of specific minorities, even by non-coercive and non-violent means. After the Second World War the Dutch government placed Jewish orphans with non-Jewish families, with the specific intent of erasing their identity and so protecting them against future anti-semitism. I don’t have to tell anyone that such reasoning is controversial. Nevertheless the generalised position of the post-vegan extinctionists, namely that extinction of an entire category is not wrong if the individual members of that category normally suffer harm, would apply to such cases as well.

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