The Handbook of Conservation & Sustainability EthicsThe Handbook of Conservation & Sustainability Ethics by John A. Vucetich
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We shouldn’t be dissuaded from engaging in a conservation ethical discourse for fear that it might not be adequately effective. We should rather embrace it because thinking carefully about how we ought to behave is simply the right thing to do.

“Conservation ethics is not just another method for involving stakeholders and their concerns, nor is it just another decision-making process. Conservation ethics is distinguished by its rules. They are the rules of argument analysis, and the subject of every textbook on critical thinking. Knowledge of and facility in using these rules – rules that are the foundation of Western thought – have tragically waned in recent years, often in favor of political hyperbole.”

Ethical discourse “demands that we explain ourselves in a fully transparent manner. Transparency is not in the interest of leaders who join intellectual dishonesty with political power to effectively promote their views.” Then Conservation ethics gives us the opportunity to ask questions about intellectual dishonesty or jaded commitments to Consequentialism.

The Handbook of Conservation & Sustainability Ethics is a short intelligent pamphlet encouraging us to think and discuss logically, rationally and with empathy about conservation for the benefit of an efficient and relevant form of conservation and therefore for the benefit of us all.

Next time your stand your ground vehemently, think about what you are trying to achieve (other than antagonizing in effect your conversation partner). If you want to make progress on the issue then cool down and bring the discourse back on the right track using some of the tools that this discourse method provides…


“The commitment to ethics is a commitment to the principles of argument analysis and impartiality about the outcome to which it leads. Put succinctly, conservation ethics require intellectual honesty. Sadly, intellectual honesty, especially over matters of ethics, is a rare trait in today’s society. And that rarity is a serious obstacle to ethical discourse. Ethical discourse also requires empathy for those with whom  you disagree. Empathy is essential for developing arguments that are robust to perspectives that are disparate but also legitimate.”

“Judging or reconciling competing values require considerable empathy. Sadly, empathy is an undervalued and under practiced skill in our society. This is a serious obstacle to ethical discourse.”

“Most engaged stakeholders are familiar with political discourse. They are exposed to it through the news and social media. Many participate in political discourse at various level. Political discourse is about getting others to do what you think they should do. It is about winning, losing, and making concessions. This orientation encourages (sadly) intellectual dishonesty, because winning is more important than understanding the extent to which you might be wrong and your opponent might be right.”

“Participants must understand how ethical discourse is very different from political discourse. Ethical discourse is about better understanding what attitudes and behaviors we should embrace, and everyone’s understanding can (and typically should) be bettered. Almost everyone has an intuition or preconceived notion about how we ought to behave. Nevertheless, every participant (including and especially you) should be prepared to change your mind about how we ought to behave. Ethical discourse has little value if you believe you already know what we should do.”

When conducted effectively, conservation ethics can:

1) Reduce the set of potentially appropriate actions. Ethics is routinely able to show how a certain set of actions would be inappropriate. However, in some cases, one is faced with what seem to be two very different options, and argument analysis will suggest that either is permissible. This irresolvability is sometimes the nature of the circumstance – sometimes there simply is no single correct answer – while other times it reflects a limited ability to construct suitably critical arguments. In this way, ethics is like science, which is sometimes unable to distinguish between two very different hypotheses.

2) Identify the most important gaps in scientific knowledge.

3) Inspire humility among stakeholders. Participating in argument analysis is an reliable way to learn how very difficult argument analysis is. Participants routinely discover how unable they are to effectively defend their own views about what is right and wrong with respect to complex issues in conservation. These discoveries usually lead to the kind of humility necessary for civil discourse and appropriately cautious decision-making.

4) Generate common ground and transcendent perspectives. Challenges in conservation can generally be traced to a conflict between basic values, for example, endangered species conservation versus animal welfare, ecosystem health versus economic well-being, clean air and water versus individual liberty. These challenges become destructive conflicts when stakeholders totally and completely deny a basic, self-evident value espoused by another stakeholder. The discourse becomes hyperbolic. This occurrence is so tragically common that incommensurable worldviews seem to be the fundamental nature of society.

[Few Conservation Ethics- related References]

Human natures, nature conservation, and environmental ethics by P.R., Ehrlich in Bioscience [Bioscience]. Vol. 52, no. 1, pp. 31-43. Jan 2002.

Thinking Ethically About the Environment – An Introduction to the Twelve Part Short Course in Environmental Ethics by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

What are the Ethics of Tourism? Sept 2011 “Ethical Inquiry” installment (Brandeis University Ethics Center Leadership Council)

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