Moralische Signifikanz des Artensterbens: eine Diskussion

Ich komme in letzter Zeit nicht wirklich dazu, hier etwas neues zu schreiben; möchte aber zumindest eine sehr interessante Diskussion wiedergeben, die ich gestern auf Facebook hatte, die sich um die Frage der moralischen Signifikanz des Artensterbens drehte. Ausgelöst wurde sie durch den Washington-Post-Beitrag von R. Alexander Pyron, We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution, den ich unterstützend geteilt habe. Hier eine anonymisierte und leicht bearbeitete Wiedergabe der Diskussion:

Ursprünglicher Post von mir: I have lots of colleagues and friends who won’t like this text; but I think that the author is perfectly right. I would add another argument: I can somehow understand if one feels remorse because of the extinction of particular populations or individuals; but species? This is just a human-created category, nothing else. And there does not even exist a consistent definition for what actually constitutes a species.

Thread 1:

X: I don’t think I agree. He writes: „extinction does not carry moral significance, even when we have caused it. […] Our concern, in other words, should not be protecting the animal kingdom, which will be just fine. […] But both the planet and humanity can probably survive or even thrive in a world with fewer species. […] If this means fewer dazzling species, fewer unspoiled forests, less untamed wilderness, so be it.“ Strong stuff that sounds pretty much like: Why the f* should we even dare to care about biodiversity. I mean he also says „We should do this [conservation] to create a stable, equitable future for the coming billions of people, not for the vanishing northern river shark. Conservation is needed for ourselves and only ourselves. We cannot thrive without crops or pollinators, or along coastlines as sea levels rise and as storms and flooding intensify.“ So, he is not against conservation but against alarmist calls to halt biodiversity loss. I think, however, that his framing is downgrading the (yet under-explored) risk of damaging important ecological life-support function – even if this is only seen from an anthropocentric instrumental service perspective. In my view we do need to understand that risk better, and that some people might actually want to conserve biodiversity is enough reason trying to do something about it. Regarding your argument: Conceptualizing and sorting our environment into graspable categories is a very human trait – whether there exists a „species“ outside of human perception is like the „is there sound when no one hears it?“ question. There might be a slim chance that there is a biophysical world out there. We grasp it in our concepts (more or less precisely). That is no reason not to create / preserve / restore some of what we like. Personally, I prefer walking in a diverse forest to a mono-culture plantation. Whether that is for my own (society’s) or the forest sake – I do not really mind. Might be both.

BB: I agree with you, by and large – and I think he would agree, too. As I understand it, it’s mainly an argument against saving species only for their own sake, which does indeed sometimes ignore the fact that extinction events are completely natural.

I do not agree with your analogy between species and sound. The problem with species is that they are not as clear cut a category as sound or individual organisms and the like – sometimes they are defined based on genetical differences, sometimes mainly based on phenotypical differences… I don’t argue against the use of the species concept – but we attach too much importance to it given that it is actually a rather vague construct.

X: well „natural“ extinction in the anthropocene (another contested concept) is somewhat fuzzy, isn’t it? Also, only because concepts are not clearly defined (say boundary objects), I do not see reasons not to use them in a clear and understandable way. Importance is also a value judgement: what is „too“ important? I am by no means an expert but I would tend to think the concept of species is actually crucial for understanding ecosystems, like in keystone species.

Y: Philosophische Preisfrage: Wie heißt noch mal der Fehlschluss, den der Autor begeht, wonach etwas, das natürlich ist, deshalb auch gleich gut sei? Zugegeben ist der Fall etwas verwickelt, da sich ja auch die Retter der Biodiversität oft auf „Natur“ berufen. Aber nicht alle und nicht immer.

BB: @X: this is exactly the problem: why is an extinction considered unnatural/bad if it is triggered by human beings? We are just another species, just another source of selective pressure upon other species. @Y: (I’m gonna stick to English): I am not sure which side of the debate you are referring to I’m not saying „because it’s natural it’s OK“ – I simply do not see a convincing reason why a species extinction triggered by humans is supposed to be morally significant per se. I see something related to the naturalistic fallacy on the other side – „natural“ extinctions are OK, but „unnatural“, human-induced ones are bad. I don’t buy this reasoning.

X: I actually think / hope that the survival of the fittest (fierce competition for survival) mentality / reality can somewhat be superseded by social-ecological institutions that allow „weaker“ species / companions to thrive as well.

Y: Eigentlich ist das was der Autor fordert das was Umweltökonomen mit KNA ohnehin schon lange machen. Und auf einer rationalen und prinzipiellen Ebene ist dem auch schwer etwas entgegenzusetzen. Aber trotzdem: auch alte Kulturgüter haben häufig keinen direkten Nutzen, aber es würde einem Leid tun und wäre auch irgendwie anmaßend sie für überflüssig zu erklären.
Vielleicht reicht mir das auch schon an „Rationalität“. Es zeugt von Anmaßung und Dummheit, ohne überragend wichtigen Grund Dinge zu zerstören, die komplex sind, lange brauchten, sich zu entwickeln und unwiederbringlich verloren. Bei Pest oder HIV würde ich eine Ausnahme machen.
Du kannst das einen demütigen Konservatismus nennen

X: also what about „murder“, does that lack a moral implication as well, because people also die due to natural reasons?

BB: I think the keystone species argument doesn’t work because it is clearly about the functional importance of a group of organisms (which happen to be defined as one species). Regarding murder: well, that’s a good question, but murder refers to individuals, not species. I am not sure that extinguishing humanity would have any moral significance beyond the suffering of the individuals actually dying. Whether „murdering“ an individual animal or plant has moral significance, is indeed a good question. But I still don’t see a link to species.

X: so, what about genocide?

Y: Actually, I didn‘ t say natural extinctions are ok. But they are not my business. But that may be hard to understand for a consequentialist.

BB: @Y: wenn es dir leid tut, hat es instrumentelle Bedeutung Instrumentell heißt nicht „nur auf objektive Bedürfnisse bezogen“. Ich verstehe den Autor auch nicht so, dass man sich gar nicht um andere Lebewesen scheren sollte. Aber vielleicht machen wir doch ein bisschen zu viel Aufstand nur weil ein Lonesome George oder eine anonyme Art irgendwo im Dickicht ihre Gene nicht mehr weitergeben können.

By the way: ich definiere mich nicht als Konsequentialisten.

Y: Does sterilizing an organism or a human have a moral significace for yot, then?

X: Hoping that you do not neglect moral implications of effects of (collective) human action (whether that refers to individual members or entire species) – I think we might just disagree about how important conservation of species is. For me, diversity is a treasure, and treasures are rather to be treasured than to be spent. Some can well be invested in order to even augment richness but we are just spending it for the short term „gain“ …

Y: Nenn es wie Du willst. Vielleicht gibt es sogar einen panpsychischen Weltgeist a la Whitehead, dem es leid tut (bzw der sich leid tut).

BB: Let me put it this way as a final (I hope statement): 1. I would preserve biodiversity mainly for instrumental reasons (options for the future, insurance/stability, aesthetics…). 2. I don’t think it’s OK to end the life of any living organism „simply because“; but as soon as trade-offs arise between human well-being and the lives of other organisms (individuals or spatially deliminated collectives/populations), I think sentient animals count a lot (though less than people), non-sentient animals count a little and plants count very little; „species“ as such are insignificant – even from a deontological point of view, I recognise arguments telling me not to hurt individual living organisms, but I don’t see any convincing arguments translating this to species survival. Therefore I am a vegetarian – because I think that there is little to gain from eating meat while doing it involves some suffering of quite intelligent vertebrates, but I still think that trying to save Lonesome George was plain nonsense.

X: except that I don’t share your negligence of the importance of species survival, this seems fair enough to me, thanks for the clarification

Thread 2:

Z: I had wanted to respond earlier, but it seems things have gone in a fully different direction while I was away. You raise some good, yet tough points… though to be honest I am less clear regarding how I feel about the author’s arguments. In general, his whole attempt almost strikes me as either an attempt to be provocative for the sake of being provocative; after all, he never provides a solution but just points to why we should care less about something. Or, in a similar vein, he seems to be taking his narrow field of expertise and attempting to use it to colonize a quite vast and complex amalgam of literature and thought. This kind of evolutionary ‚colonialism‘ tends to pop up from time to time, for instance, in efforts to establish a *truly* evolutionary economics along Darwinian lines and, more generally, the belief that all things, including cultural evolution, should adhere to the principles of variation, selection, and retention. It is not clear, however, why this should be true. And, to my mind, if he does not establish why evolutionary principles are inherently relevant, then I am not really that willing to assume we should dismiss all the foregoing discussion about biodiversity because, paraphrasing, some species die in order for some species to live.

BB: Agreed; I don’t consider his argument in a positive sense (advocating some sort of Darwinism as a normative theory), just in the negative sense of rejecting some arguments foundational to traditional conservation biology because they don’t make sense.

And yes, he’s overdoing it a bit in order to be provocative

Z: In any case, I want to sink my teeth into this a bit further… and this seems like an apt comment for doing so: „Thirty to 40 percent of species may be threatened with extinction in the near future, and their loss may be inevitable. But both the planet and humanity can probably survive or even thrive in a world with fewer species. We don’t depend on polar bears for our survival, and even if their eradication has a domino effect that eventually affects us, we will find a way to adapt.“ Honestly, the logical flaws in this argument are confusing enough to make my head spin — though that could also be the cold But let’s take a look at this… There is a threat/challenge: the massive loss of species, with the unexpected knock-on effects for ecosystems and species survival, including humans. But we have a solution: humans can adapt, because we always do (so far). There is some admission of uncertainty, though this is readily dismissed because (1) things are kept very abstract (i.e. „fewer species“ (which raises the question how did „thirty to 40 percent“ become „fewer“?) and (2) we do not depend on one species (i.e. polar bears), ergo this must be true for all such species. Never mind, of course, that the loss of a single species such as bees would likely decimate our way of life as we currently know it. As one other overall comment, I would say that I admire his broad belief in the resilience of human ingenuity, but it seems to pop up over and over again — most recently in arguments in favor of geoengineering — not in order to propose another solution but rather to dismiss the need to concern oneself with, e.g., conserving biodiversity. It is a disingenuous kind of argument because it believes itself to be so convincing that we would be foolish to argue against or to be concerned in general.

X: wow, to the point man

BB: OK, he’s inconsistent; but if you take my interpretation of his article (ha ha), your arguments are consistent with it – the bees argument etc. are all about instrumental importance of species; but most conservation biologists I know want to save every single species simply because it is one. This is what I reject.

Z: One final point: I think we need to distinguish with the natural processes of extinction that occur and the tremendous, broad-scale impact that human beings are currently exercising. It is true that beavers are one of a few species to engage in niche construction, but the type of niche construction undertaken by human beings is orders of magnitude beyond anything that could be realized by a beaver. That is, it is a false equivalence. But there is a point here — and one I have been thinking about in relation to the demise of rural areas. Namely, it is in the nature of things for a specific city/region to rise and fall in the course of history. Why should we therefore concern ourselves with protecting these cities if all of this is more or less ’natural‘? After wrestling with this for some time, I think I would make the following distinction, hopefully to express why I think this matters… We should not concern ourselves with saving one given city and yet the plight of such towns can indeed be concerning, insofar as it expresses a broader problem (i.e. the widespread decline of rural areas), and insofar as such areas represent a crucial foundation (or even ‚good‘) of human societies. Forget saving the charismatic species (I agree with you there) but if some of these species are crucial to the functioning of environments and ecosystems, then we should damn well concern ourselves with them. OK, that’s that

BB: Again: this is the distinction between instrumental reasoning (too fast change is going to be a problem) and kind-of deontological reasoning (we simply should not let species go extinct). I have to admit that I ignored the flaws in his argument because I liked (I still do) the main premise

Z: Haha, I know how that goes… and sometimes I share things because I want to see how people respond. The premise is fine, but I caught a whiff of dickishness in his tone and that always sets me off Probably a point for another time, but I would not necessarily think of it as an ‚instrumental‘ thing, nor would I want to have some categorical imperative about not letting any species go extinct. For instance, if it were just instrumental, we might only worry about slowing down the demise of rural areas (to use my earlier example) but this would overlook how the loss of rural areas would forsake something crucial. Not sure what to call that…

„Thread“ 3:

M: Everything is just a human-created category.

BB: Yeah, right, I forgot Don’t know how this could happen, given that I’m currently reading Richard Rorty

M: I know that feeling: It seems a counter argument fitting for every discussion and than you notice that it’s invalid. Although … a human-created category is also just a human-created category!

Übrigens habe ich auf diesem Blog bereits mehrmals zu diesem breiten Thema geschrieben:

Falls jemand glaubt, die Anzahl der Likes sei ein Maß für die Sinnhaftigkeit eines Kommentars: meine Mitdiskutanten hatten eindeutig mehr.

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