Ecological Intervention in Defense of Species (Online Exclusive)

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 21.3 (Fall 2007)

Ethics & International Affairs

In "Ecological Intervention: Prospects and Limits," Robyn Eckersley outlines three situations in which military intervention for broadly ecological reasons might be justified. These are: (i) environmental emergencies with transboundary spillover effects; (ii) cases of ecocide involving serious human rights violations; and (iii) ecocide, crimes against nature, and protection of biodiversity. Though there is much to engage with throughout the article, I shall only focus on one small part of it: possible military intervention or prosecution in an international criminal court in the cases Eckersley tentatively calls "crimes against nature."

These cases, Eckersley suggests, "may be understood as intentional and systematic acts that cause the extinction of a species." What is particularly interesting about this category is that these crimes are introduced in a non-anthropocentric and a non-instrumental context. The offenses—both of ecocide and crimes against nature—are, I think, understood to be offenses against elements of the non-human world directly, rather than offenses against humans carried out via the non-human world. Further, although "crime against nature" is intended as a potential legal term, it is clear from Eckersley's discussion that a legal duty in this respect would be founded on a moral duty. Thus, I will take a "crime against nature" to mean something like a "moral crime against a species," in particular by endangering the species or rendering it extinct. My suggestion here, though, will be that it is very difficult to defend the claim that there is a moral duty to protect species from extinction based on a non-anthropocentric, non-instrumental worry about the species itself.

There are, of course, a number of reasons why species extinction might be of moral concern. Many of these reasons are anthropocentric and instrumental (pharmaceutical and agricultural use; high cultural or aesthetic value; worries about "rivet-popping," cascading extinctions, and cumulative losses that ultimately might negatively affect human beings).1 A second group of reasons is not directly anthropocentric, but is still broadly instrumental. These reasons concern the well-being of sentient animals that might be affected by species endangerment, including the individual members of the threatened species itself if the species is sentient, as well as other sentient animals that might be dependent on a threatened species. The Rwandan mountain gorilla subspecies—one of the cases Eckersley considers—seems important for several of these reasons. First, it has high cultural value, comparable to that of a great historical monument or artwork. Destroying this subspecies could be compared, perhaps, to the Taliban's destruction of ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan. Second, mountain gorillas as individuals are thought to be sentient and highly intelligent; it is often argued that something approaching basic human rights should be extended to them (a path advocated by the Great Ape Project, as Eckersley notes). To value mountain gorillas on this basis would be to value the subspecies because of its valuable members; the destruction of the subspecies would be wrong because of the direct impact on the individual gorillas that constitute it, in particular (on some accounts) the infringement of the individual gorillas' right to life.

But Eckersley's class of "crimes against nature" seems to refer to extinctions of any species, including those that are neither of instrumental value to humans, nor composed from, or essential to, sentient individuals. It is the claim that species should be protected for non-anthropocentric, non-instrumental reasons that I find problematic. My concern is not primarily that this view would not gain cross-cultural consensus, as Eckersley mentions (although it is probably true that it would not) but because it is difficult to defend the view that species are the kinds of things that have non-instrumental value—or so I will suggest.

To say that a species has non-instrumental value is often taken to imply that it has some kind of moral status in its own right, a status that means the species deserves protection. Arguments to this effect usually compare a species to an individual organism, maintaining that a species resembles an individual organism in ways that make it morally relevant. So, what is it that gives an individual organism moral status? There is no general agreement here. Some argue that the relevant capacity is the ability to reason in particular kinds of ways; others the capacity to feel pain and pleasure, or to have desires; a few maintain that just being alive is sufficient for moral status.2 The possession of these kinds of capacities or states, it is argued, means that an organism has interests: for example, a being that can feel pain has an interest in avoiding it. Having interests is usually taken to mean that one can be harmed. Indeed, one frequently-cited definition of harm is the "thwarting, setting back, or defeating of a serious interest."3

For these kinds of ideas to transfer to a species, we would need to be able to argue that a species itself — not just the members that compose the species—can have interests. But this is very difficult to maintain. A species is a group, and as a group does not manifest any of the capacities thought to ground interests (even if its members do). Some philosophers have, nonetheless, tried to argue that a species is a quasi-individual, the kind of entity to which it is appropriate to attribute interests.4 Suppose, for now, we accept this problematic claim. Then we would need to make some sense of what would be in the interests of a species. This is not, in itself, straightforward: Would it be, for example, more in the interests of a species to have 500 members in international zoos or 50 struggling members in the wild? We can imagine situations where something like this choice might have to be made.

If we can say that a species has any interests, the most plausible candidate looks like an interest in not becoming extinct (and it is endangerment and extinction with which Eckersley is centrally concerned). But even if we concede this, we still need to ask why the interests of a species in not becoming extinct would be of direct moral significance. As O'Neill argues (in the context of "having a good" rather than "having interests," but the argument, I think, transfers): "That Y is a good of X does not entail that Y should be realized unless we have a prior reason for believing that X is the sort of thing whose good ought to be promoted."5 There are no obvious reasons for thinking, even if a species has interests, that there is some moral imperative to promote these interests or some moral wrong about seriously setting them back. That a species could be harmed would not mean that in being harmed it is being wronged. Though it is possible that some persuasive argument along these lines could be developed, as things stand this would be very precarious ground for military intervention.

Another possible account of non-instrumental reasons for protecting a species focuses on the idea of species endangerment and extinction as a special kind of group harm. This fits well with the general approach Eckersley adopts, drawing as it does on analogous forms of reasoning to those used in group harms in the human case (such as genocide). Rather than arguing that a species, as a whole, has interests, group harm accounts can maintain that endangering or rendering a species extinct harms its members in special kinds of "group-originating" ways.6 Claudia Card has developed one such account in the context of species. She suggests that we should see species endangerment or extinction as referring to "1) certain kinds of direct harms to individual organisms that embody processes definitive of …the species; and 2) cutting short the processes' future."7 An individual's species membership can thus expose it to special species-originating harms when the species is threatened—such as a reduction in the quality of the individual's life through its inability to interact with other members of the species.

Interesting though Card's account is (and I give a very abbreviated version of it here), it depends on the view that species members (including plants) are the kinds of things that can be harmed, that they can be harmed in particular ways relating to their species membership, and (if this is to be applied to Eckersley's account, at least) that this harm is of direct moral concern; that is, that the harm is a wrong. While something like this argument might work to suggest that individual mountain gorillas (whose experiential lives are likely to be negatively affected by lack of interaction with fellow species members in the case of endangerment) are prone to group harms qua membership in the species, it seems implausible to maintain this in the case, for example, of mangroves.8 In addition, it is not clear that the additional harms to individual species members brought about by their group membership, as opposed to other harms to which they might be exposed, are sufficiently substantial to underpin Eckersley's whole category of "crimes against nature."

To conclude, then: I do not want to deny that convincing arguments may yet be developed to defend the view that the extinction of any species is a worry for non-anthropocentric, non-instrumental reasons. At the moment, however, the arguments for this position do not seem very strong. Certainly, they seem insufficiently substantial as a basis on which, potentially, to ground military interventions. So, while "Ecological Intervention" is thought-provoking and engaging, at present the category of "crimes against nature" is, in my view, far from passing Eckersley's "stiff test" needed to justify "the military rescue of non-human species."


1.See Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Extinction (New York: Random House, 1981) on rivet-popping; see Bryan Norton , Why Preserve Natural Variety? (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) on cascading extinctions and transformative values. In Biodiversity and Environmental Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) Sahotra Sarkar rejects rivet-popping arguments against species extinction (as well as all non-anthropocentric arguments).

2.On being alive as the fundamental criterion for moral status, see Kenneth Goodpaster "On Being Morally Considerable," Journal of Philosophy 75 (1987), pp. 308-325, and Paul Taylor, Respect for Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).

3.Definition from Joel Feinberg, Harm to Others: the moral limits of the criminal law (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984). Feinberg discusses different senses of harm, but this is the most commonly cited one.

4.See, for instance, the account in Lawrence Johnston's A Morally Deep World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

5.See John O'Neill, Ecology, Policy, Politics (London: Routledge, 1983), p.23.

6.Although Card's account, outlined here, maintains that species extinction can be thought of as a group harm, most accounts of what 'genocide' or 'group injury' entails could not easily accommodate an application to species extinction. See, for instance, Stephen Winter (2006) "On the Possibility of Group Injury," Metaphilosophy 37/ 3-4 (2006), pp. 393-41.

7.See Claudia Card, "Environmental atrocities and non-sentient life," Ethics and the Environment 9/1 (2004), pp. 23-45

8.Card makes a distinction between "intolerable harm" and "wrong" in her article, maintaining that it is possible to harm intolerably without wronging. She argues that plants can be harmed in various ways, and that this harming can wrong, though she takes seriously the possibility that they could be harmed but not wronged.

Read More: Environment, Intervention, Environment/Sustainable Development

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