For this fortnight’s reading group we got together to discuss a recent paper in Conservation Letters by environmental ethicist, Michael Paul Nelson, and colleagues.
Emotions and the Ethics of Consequence in Conservation Decisions: Lessons from Cecil the Lion uses the controversy surrounding last year’s killing of a well-known lion in Zimbabwe to frame ways conservationists should think about the ethics of trophy hunting. Natasha Cadenhead picked the paper because a slew of academic articles have recently been published on the killing of Cecil (here, here, and here, for example) and because it covers an area that our group rarely works on, both research-wise and geographically.
Trophy hunting – the practice of hunting animals for recreation, rather than for sustenance, income or protection – is harnessed as a tool for conservation in some countries. It is an issue that causes heated debates in both the public sphere and within conservation circles. Below are some of the common arguments that we discussed both for and against using trophy hunting as a means of conservation:
Arguments for trophy hunting for conservation:
- Trophy hunting permits can bring in large amounts of money to often underfunded conservation efforts & can help run government wildlife programs.
- Animals often need to be culled by authorities, for example due to over-crowding in national parks, so why not make money off people who would like to do the shooting?
- The potential for private hunting reserves can lead to large areas being retained as natural ecosystems rather than converted to farmland or other land uses, benefitting multiple species beyond those being hunted.
- Adding an additional form of tourism to the sector creates jobs and income in places where these are often badly needed.
Arguments against trophy hunting for conservation:
- It is morally wrong to kill animals for sport/recreation, and it seems especially perverse when the purpose of conservation is to protect species.
- There is a history of corruption in many of the places where trophy hunting is practiced, and not enough evidence that the money from hunting permits directly benefits wildlife.
- Trophy hunting creates a market for pay-to-kill experiences that otherwise wouldn’t exist. This may lead to an increasing pressure to take more animals as well as potentially encouraging illegal trophy hunting operations.
- The money generated by trophy hunting isn’t enough to help significantly with many of the conservation issues in the areas it’s practiced.
- We aren’t good enough at predicting the outcomes of our actions to know that killing a certain number of individuals won’t endanger the population.
The paper itself takes a broader overview than most, and asks conservationists to think about the way they think about this issue. It introduces (to some of us!) the concept of consequentialist thinking in conservation. Consequentialism is the philosophical doctrine that the morality of an action is to be judged solely by its consequences. More simply put, it is the idea that the ends justify the means. As a group we discussed how this idea often guides our reasoning in conservation decision making without us explicitly identifying that that’s what we are doing. The paper highlights three shortcomings of consequentialism in this context:
- In some cases, as a society, we may decide that the ends do not justify the means. For example, even if we donated the money to charity, human-trafficking is considered an unacceptable revenue stream.
- Consequentialism undervalues the importance of motivation in determining right from wrong. This is highlighted in the difference in punishments between murder and manslaughter in the judicial system; certain motivations, for example self-defence, alter our perception of whether an action is more or less acceptable. The public outcry following Cecil’s killing indicates that hunting for recreation is far less acceptable a motivation in the public eye than hunting for food or protection.
- Consequentialism requires an accurate ability to know the consequences of our actions, which we have frequently proved we are incapable of doing (ahem, GFC), especially in natural systems (ahem, fishery collapse).
Nelson and colleagues then go on to caution against discarding, or disparaging emotionwhen making decisions. In science, emotion is often associated with an inability to be objective & opponents of trophy hunting are frequently criticised for being emotional and anthropomorphising animals or being unrealistic. The authors argue that emotions have an important role in decision-making (although their arguments stemming from experiments in neuroscience were hotly disputed in our discussion).
Taking a quick poll in our group, the overwhelming majority of us did not support trophy hunting as a way of supporting conservation (which came as a surprise to the picker of the paper!). Qaecologists seemed largely to feel that, sure, it makes some money, but the moral cost isn’t worth it; or, to misquote 2Pac, sure, you made a G today, but you made it in a sleazy way. However, after our discussion, there was some consensus that the issue is more complicated than most of us had thought. And I’d say any reading group that gets us to think in a more nuanced way about issues in our field (if somewhat outside of our experiences), is a successful one.