Inclusive conservation?

By Joern Fischer

Following a letter in Nature by Heather Tallis and over 200 co-signatories, there is a petition you can sign if you also believe in “inclusive conservation”. This is the term chosen by Heather and colleagues for conservation that recognises that biodiversity conservation should recognise both intrinsic/moral and instrumental values.

At first glance, this seems a great idea. I have argued on this blog before that indeed, there need not be a choice between instrumental and moral or intrinsic values in terms of motivating conservation action (see also here) – all three (moral and intrinsic should not be conflated, I’d say) are important. So fundamentally, I agree with the end goal envisaged by Tallis and others: inclusive conservation based on a wide range of ethical arguments.

But to ask to put and “end to the fighting” (Tallis et al.) strikes me as a bit too simple. An early moment in this debate was that Marvier and Kareiva called for “conservation science” to replace a somewhat outdated “conservation biology”, suggesting in their BioScience paper that “normative postulates” (as Soulé had written about in 1985) could be replaced by pragmatism (see my longer discussion here). Basically, these authors implied that intrinsic or moral motivations to conserve nature were somewhat ineffective and outdated. This paper infuriated many, myself included – because its argument is short-sighted, and essentially disrespectful of some of the most important thinking in conservation to date.

The argument that Tallis et al. make is right, but I do believe there is plenty of reason to fight back against those who portray an overly narrow, instrumentalised version of conservation. The fundamental drivers of biodiversity decline relate back to an overly successful Homo sapiens, which greedily takes for itself with little concern for anything else. I do not believe that unless we also address fundamental values, there will be much of a chance of biodiversity conservation. Pragmatism is valuable to win the occasional battle, but to win the overall war against a possible sixth mass extinction we must go beyond pragmatism – something that (to my mind) has not sufficiently been acknowledged by those advocating for a “new conservation” that largely emphasises the instrumental values of nature.

So, while I agree with Tallis et al. that we should have an inclusive conservation, I differ in a few points: (1) I think those who originally contributed much wisdom to “the old kind” of conservation biology have a right to defend themselves (or be defended by others who agree with them); (2) while there is a place for pragmatism and instrumental values, ultimately, moral reasons to conserve biodiversity  will be important. Those emphasising instrumental values have typically not given enough credit to such concerns.

Inclusive conservation: yes. But moral concerns are at a different, deeper, and more fundamental level than instrumental concerns. While the two are complementary, one can’t simply replace the other — to me, that’s the message I would have liked to see in a piece such as this one.


10 thoughts on “Inclusive conservation?

  1. I don’t quite get what exactly you mean here by “moral values”, both in opposition to intrinsic and instrumental values. Actually, as soon as you are talking about values, you’ve entered the area of morality/ethics. Instrumental values are certainly not immoral (I don’t think that this is what you want to imply, but your choice of words is unfortunate, I think).

    Second, you seem to touch upon the old anthropocentrism vs. physiocentrism debate here when criticising Kareiva & Co. With all due respect to physiocentrists à la Michael Soulé – their position is largely inconsistent, as I tried to show here, and especially so when linked to “biodiversity” as the primary carrier of value, as impressively argued by Donald Maier in his What’s So Good About Biodiversity?.

    • Re: moral values — yes, that’s tautological, I meant moral reasons. I distinguish between moral values (our duty to care) versus intrinsic values (value that would exist even in the absence of humans).

      However, I see nothing inherently inconsistent in claiming we ought to care for species other than our own, which is essentially what motivated many conservation biologists some decades ago. As I said above, I don’t think that’s the only possible reason for conservation, but it is one of the “deep” motivations often observed; and it arises from a more encompassing ethic than anthropocentrism (i.e. its sphere of caring, see previous blog post, goes beyond our own species).

      • Hi Joern,
        I really struggle with the idea of intrinisc value as “values that would exist even in the absence of humans”. Values are human constructs,they are things we (humans) ascribe to ‘objects’. If intrinisc values were really to exist outside of human ascription what would they be? How could we know what they were? How could they be used to judge states of the world?

        I prefer Kant’s understanding of intrinisc as (and here I am horribly paraphrasing) unitimate ends, i.e. an object of value without regard to some other desired ends. This make sense to me in that then you have a consistent typology of values: instrumental (means to ends) and intrinisc (the ends themselves). Again these are classes of value not ethical frameworks. The notion of “duty of care” to me does relate to an ethical framework (deontological) in a way that niether instrumental or intrinsic does (i.e .you can judge both intrinisic and instrumental values within different ethical frameworks). In a sense I think anthropcenti and physicentric are more useful terms than instrumental and intrinic because you can only consider intrumental values with respect to the ultimate (intrinic) value to which they are instrumental.

        Right enough cod philosophizing (odd term… probably nothing to do Gadus morhua… perhaps it comes from “old codger”?)

      • In the blog post I linked I explain why I think that physiocentrism does not provide a consistent ethical framework (sorry, Dave;-) for justification of conservation. The main argument is that as soon as we ascribe intrinsic value (in Kantian sense, as sketched by Dave) to natural things, we face problems in non-arbitrarily defining a desired state to be conserved.

        I agree with Dave that your differentiation between moral and intrinsic values conflates deontology and consequentialism. Moreover, it is not clear what you mean by “value that would exist even in the absence of humans”. Do you mean value that is independent of human needs (i.e., non-instrumental) or do you mean that this is value that exists regardless of human existence and recognition (what is sometimes called non-anthropogeneity of values)?

    • Hi Bartosz,

      I agree it that is is important to acknowledge that instrumental value is still as much a moral concern as intrinsic value, where I guess we might disagree is how we think about these different moral concerns. For me there is no need to think of this as a dichotomous choice between anthropocentric and physiocentric values. My understanding is that anthropcentiric and physiocentic are essentially ‘classes of value’ not ethical frameworks for making judgements about the state of the world. I could (and in fact do) ascribe both classes of value to aspects of biodiversity. I then could use a consequentialist or deontological ethical framework to make judgements about the trade-offs between these values. So there is no need to choose between these classes of values when make judgements about biodiversity.

      Of course there is a problem with expressing and comparing instrumental and intrinisc values, or for that matter just comparing different intrinsic values. I guess this is the advantage of a purely instrumental approach, only one object of value (e.g. utility) and no issues with incomensurability, but the fact is some of us do ascribe intrinisic values to aspects of bioidversity and we should not ignore these ascibed values for the sake of a ‘tidy’ (or less messy) ethical framework.

      • I do not quite agree with your “classes of value” interpretation of anthropocentrism vs. physiocentrism. As they are commonly defined, this reduces to de facto physiocentrism, as this includes anthropocentric concerns. And I still believe that physiocentrism is not suited for providing a consistent justification of nature conservation (see here).

  2. Thanks for this interesting debate, which is already the one we have had in IPBES when we tried to create its conceptual framework and makes me to re-think about this issue recently (see Martín-López & Montes in press in Sustainability Science; doi: 10.1007/s11625-014-0283-3).
    From my point of view, this dichotomy of value (which has guided the conservation debate of modern Western societies in recent years-decades) obscures other value-types such as relational values (i.e. basic conditions for desirable relationships among people and between people and nature)(which are recognized in IPBES conceptual framework – to be published in the first volume of Current Opinion of Environmental Sustainability) or those called fundamental values (i.e., substantial conditions for life on earth, such as the human connection to the ‘land’) (Jax et al. 2013 in Ecological Economics; doi: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2013.06.008). In fact, the current antagonistic discourse of intrinsic vs. instrumental arguments may thwart the value-pluralism acknowledgment in the scientific debate and decision-making.

    By ignoring the idea of value-pluralism, scientists, practitioners and policymakers may cause that the myriad ways of understanding nature by multiple stakeholders may be excluded in decision-making and, therefore, we also neglect the value systems of those who benefit from biodiversity and are or may be affected by its use and management (Chan et al. 2012 in BioScience; doi:10.1525/bio.2012.62.8.7). Further, the way that humans relate to nature on the basis of these underlying value systems may have important implications for biodiversity conservation because these value systems can influence the rules and norms that society applies to its management.

    Consequently, ‘inclusive conservation’ means much more than acknowledging intrinsic vs. instrumental values (regardless the exact meaning and understanding of both concepts) and, as a scientists, we have the commitment to celebrate and acknowledge this diversity of values 🙂

    Certainly, a nice discussion for starting the New Year.

  3. Dear colleagues,

    Thanks for such an interesting discussion. I´d like to bring your attention to a couple of things. In principle, I find it hard to graft instrumental arguments into, what to me at least, entails the backbone of conservation science, i.e. the long-term survival of life-support systems. What troubles me is that I don’t see how a juggernaut rationale such as profit maximization or the reification of social relations could be consistent with a land ethic. Secondly, multilateral discourse normally stems from conjuncture-driven power correlations bringing about one-size-fits-all solutions seldom achieving tangible results but somehow strengthening market fundamentalism. I reckon that inclusive conservation still needs a firmly-rooted ethical framework immune to short-term effectiveness at the expense of perpetuating the business-as-usual scenario.



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