Why we should give moral consideration to individuals rather than species

This article from animal-ethics.org, supports Natalia Doran’s paper given at our session on Animal Suffering at the recent IOTA conference in Romania entitled: ‘Dominion, Stewardship, Priesthood – The theological models of how humans relate to animals.’

It is often believed that species should be considered and preserved because they have some sort of value in themselves, a value unrelated to what’s in the best interests of the individuals who are members of the species. It may be reasoned that species preservation should be supported because defending species means defending all the members of the species. But if we were to give moral consideration to the interests of animals, then we would reject the rights of species as a whole and give respect only to individual sentient beings.

A species is an abstract entity that cannot have experiences and therefore cannot be wronged in the way that sentient individuals can. Only individual beings can have positive and negative experiences, and therefore they are the ones we should respect, as explained in the argument from relevance. Attempting to preserve a species wouldn’t be bad if doing so didn’t harm anyone. A problem arises only when respect for a species entails disrespecting sentient individuals. This problem can be observed in common ecological interventions that aim to preserve a species with a particular set of traits at the expense of sentient individuals who do not exhibit the desired traits.

For example, the white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala) is considered a threatened species in Southern Europe. Their interbreeding with ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis), a common species of duck that is not native to Europe, results in hybrid ducks. The white-headed trait has become less prevalent in the new hybrid duck. Ecological interventions have been undertaken to preserve white-headed ducks by killing ruddy and hybrid ducks.

The prevalence of the ruddy duck poses no threat to ecosystems because the ecological function of both ruddy and white-headed ducks is identical. The aim of this measure has been to promote biodiversity itself regardless of the negative impact the intervention has on the lives of the sentient individuals who are affected by it. It may seem at first that this measure actually reduces biodiversity by killing all the ruddy ducks in the region, but the aim is to preserve the existence in the world of endangered white-headed ducks. Ruddy ducks are plentiful elsewhere, particularly in their native habitats in North and South America.

Another example of killing one species in a particular area in order to preserve a threatened species is that of grey squirrels who are killed in the UK in order to conserve red squirrels. Due to their greater adaptability and higher survival rates, the grey squirrels (who were introduced by humans there) may have contributed to the disappearance of the less hardy red squirrels in some areas. If what we care about is the wellbeing of sentient individuals, and because sentient beings are harmed by being killed, then killing sentient individuals in order to increase the number of members of a different species is not acceptable. A scenario in which there are few or no white-headed ducks or red squirrels cannot be said to be morally worse than a scenario in which they are just as common as ruddy ducks and grey squirrels. A species does not have a wellbeing, so preserving a species at the expense of sentient individuals belonging to another species is not a moral choice according to a non-speciesist view.

Speciesist views

Other defenses of species preservation include that if species disappear then empirical knowledge will be lost, that future generations will not be able to have contact with these species, and that the beauty of biodiversity will no longer be available to be experienced. These are all weak defenses. If biodiversity is intrinsically valuable, then it must be valuable independently of its benefits to humans or other beings, and these are all reasons that relate to human benefits of species preservation. That makes these defenses anthropocentric.

At first, there may seem to be nothing wrong with these reasons. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with appreciating the beauty of nature, in wanting to expand the scientific knowledge that biodiversity provides us with, and in wanting to preserve these things for future human generations. That is, unless doing so is harmful to nonhuman animals; then it is not acceptable. If we accept an anthropocentric view we will likely consider it acceptable to preserve biodiversity at any cost to nonhuman animals, believing that human interests (aesthetic, scientific, cultural, etc.) should take precedence over nonhuman animal interests. This is a speciesist view and should be rejected since there are no sound reasons to justify this discrimination against nonhuman animals.

Another problem with this view is the moral arbitrariness of decisions to preserve certain species. A common assumption is that the value of a species is inversely proportional to its population size, which would mean that members of endangered or rare species should have special consideration relative to members of those species with greater population sizes. But the sympathies of a significant portion of the public, including many environmentalists, go in a different direction. In practice it is often assumed that we should try to preserve the existence of some species while disregarding others, even if they are endangered. Defenders of the conservation of (some) species often value different species differently. Often some species are considered more valuable than others simply because humans like them more, and not because they exhibit some morally relevant characteristic. The reasons humans prefer some species over others are diverse: their members are big (e.g. elephants), or beautiful (e.g. giraffes), or are very similar to humans (e.g. chimpanzees). Accordingly, the preservation of animals that do not interest humans much, such as some small invertebrates like insects and spiders, are not seriously taken into account. Exceptions are sometimes made for invertebrates that are particularly appealing to humans, such as butterflies.

However, size, beauty, and similarity to humans are equally irrelevant in moral terms. All of these beings are sentient and therefore can be affected by what happens to them in morally significant ways: they can be harmed or benefited, regardless of their physical appearance or similarity to human beings. If there are any sound reasons to preserve species they will have to be reasons related to the wellbeing of individuals.

Species are not individuals

Some arguments have been made for respect for species on different grounds. Some theorists have argued that species are not mere aggregates of individuals but, rather, are life processes in themselves.1 According to this argument, species must be preserved, just like all other living things or processes, independently of the interests of their members. There are strong reasons to dispute this position. One is that it is very questionable to view species as a life process. In order for an entity to be alive it needs to exemplify, at least in principle, some biological phenomena such as growth, reproduction, response to stimuli, etc.; it needs to perform some vital functions. Individual organisms have the capacity to carry out such functions. However, species, as a whole, do not. So, unless we are thinking in purely metaphorical terms, species cannot be claimed to be life processes. Most importantly, even if it were true that species were life processes, we still must question the moral relevance of simply being alive as a criterion.

Ecocentrists’ defense of species conservation

According to the environmentalist view called ecocentrism, the valuable elements of nature reside in ecosystems as wholes. We may think this means that proponents of ecocentrism believe species should be respected because they consider species to be holistic entities with intrinsic value. However, the leading figures of ecocentrism endorse a different position.2 They claim that species must be conserved because they have an indirect value for the preservation of that which is really valuable in their opinion, that is, ecosystems. This means that for ecocentrists, the value of a species will be relative to how they contribute to the stability of ecosystems, and the conservation of any individual must be favored or not in accordance with two different factors: population density and ecological function. Many problems arise from this position because it implies that species that perform certain ecological functions in the ecosystem should be given moral precedence over those that do not. But caring about animal wellbeing means we should care about those individuals who can have positive and negative experiences (sentient individuals), not just animals who serve their environment in a particular way. The ecocentrist view may not only imply that a particular individual should not be “conserved”, but also that their elimination is desirable if allowing this individual to live negatively affects the aims that ecocentrists want to further. This explains why ecocentrists can defend the killing of animals for the sake of re-creating particular ecosystems.

Accepting the ecocentrist view would lead us to support scenarios in which sentient individuals are killed in order to preserve a particular endangered nonsentient species (such as a plant species) or other features of an ecosystem.3

Certain typical ecological interventions that occur in the wild reflect ecocentric views. Some interventions aim to bring the population levels of certain species down by killing the animals that don’t “fit in” to the ecosystem,4 or by introducing other animals that reduce prey populations through predation and other related harms.5 Despite the suffering and death of sentient individuals associated with these interventions, the interventions are typically regarded by ecocentrists as something good, because they promote the stability of the current ecosystem, or of a desired type of ecosystem. This type of intervention should be rejected for the following reasons:

(a) sentient individuals have morally relevant interests in being alive and in not being harmed;

(b) the interests in being alive and in not being harmed do not vary according to the population density or ecological function of a species;

(c) the same position would imply that the eradication of human species for the sake of Baobab Trees would be acceptable. After all, the human species is overpopulated and has no beneficial ecological function, but is actually harmful to the aims environmentalists intend to further.

It can be assumed that most people would be appalled by the last point. This shows that the ecocentrist view that respect should be granted to species based on their ecological function and impact is dubious. In addition, it shows why such views are ultimately subordinated to anthropocentrism (humans and often their preferred domesticated animals are somehow exempted from the requirement to be ecologically useful) and why ecocentrists have a biased consideration not only of individuals, but also of the species they intend to preserve.

Further readings

Callicott, J. B. (1993) “On the intrinsic value of nonhuman species”, in Armstrong, S. & Botzler, R. (eds.) Environmental ethics: Divergence and convergence, New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 66-70.

Czech, B.; Devers, P. K. & Krausman, P. R. (2001) “The relationship of gender to species conservation attitudes”, Wildlife Society Bulletin, 29, pp. 187-194.

Eckersley, R. (1992) Environmentalism and political theory: Toward an ecocentric approach, Albany: State University of New York.

Gunnthorsdottir, A. (2001) “Physical attractiveness of an animal species as a decision factor for its preservation”, Anthrozoös, 14, pp. 204-215.

Kellert, S. R. (1985) “Social and perceptual factors in endangered species management”, Journal of Wildlife Management, 49, pp. 528-536.

Maftei, M. (2014) “What anti-speciesism isn’t”, medium.com, Jun. 26 [accessed on 1 July 2014].

Rolston, H., III (1986) Philosophy gone wild: Essays in environmental ethics, Buffalo: Prometheus.

Rolston, H., III (1987) Environmental ethics: Duties to and values in the natural world, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Rolston, H., III (1999) “Respect for life: Counting what Singer finds of no account”, in Jamieson, D. (ed.) Singer and his critics, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 247-268.

Rossow, L. M. (1981) “Why do species matter?”, Environmental Ethics, 3, pp. 101-102.

Vinding, M. (2014) A Copernican revolution in ethics, Los Gatos: Smashwords [pp. 25-26, accessed on 1 July 2014].

Warren, M. A. (2000) Moral status: Obligations to persons and other livings things, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1 Johnson, L. E. (1995) “Species: On their nature and moral standing”, Journal of Natural History, 29, pp. 843-849.

2 Callicott, J. B. (1980) “Animal liberation: A triangular affair”, Environmental Ethics, 2, pp. 311-338.

3 Some supporters of these position may be found in Johnson, L. (1991) A morally deep world: An essay on moral significance and environmental ethics, New York: Cambridge University Press; Rolston, H., III (1985) “Duties to endangered species”, BioScience, 35, pp. 718-726.

4 Shelton, J.-A. (2004) “Killing animals that don’t fit in: Moral dimensions of habitat restoration”, Between the Species, 13 (4) [accessed on 3 March 2013].

5 Horta, O. (2010) “The ethics of the ecology of fear against the nonspeciesist paradigm: A shift in the aims of intervention in nature”, Between the Species, 13 (10), pp. 163-187 [accessed on 13 March 2013].