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The feeling that it's "sad" if a species dies out seems to be coming from an aesthetic point of view how the world should be. But is there a rationality behind it?

The only rational reason I was able to come up with is that more variety gives more possibilities for study. But this is only a weak argument I think and I hardly believe that this is the reason why most people would like to see these almost extinct animals protected.

And I don't even talk about killings here, or animals in physical pain. Take, for example, George, who died a few weeks ago. It makes me feel that people don't like these creatures to die because they don't want to die alone when they're old.

  • 4
    Not sure why the downvote, maybe for the somewhat unclear question, not citing or asking for specific references, perhaps because it's not a readily recognized topic in philosophy. But this does fall under social ethics and (animal) rights, so I'd say it's topical, and specific enough to be answered, albeit kind of a list-y question. This is a good example of a question that might be borderline but it easily fixable to be fine. *hint hint* *pushes community to edit to improve rather than close/downvote ;)* – stoicfury Aug 2 '12 at 19:21
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    there is an ecological concern, in the sense that biological diversity is important to keep a certain stability in the system, extinction of certain species could cause a massive chain reaction of other extincions (just think about the disruption of food chain). As such, fighting extinction is about keeping life (other species and ours as a consequence). If there is a philosophical point to this, it would be about "right to life", why is life a value? As I see it, this question could be improved by focusing this point, otherwise it still sounds very biology oriented. – Tames Aug 3 '12 at 14:59
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    take a look at this en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biocentrism_(ethics) – Tames Aug 3 '12 at 15:04
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There are multiple reasons one might want to preserve animals from going extinct, not all philosophically based.

Psychological

  1. People tend to value what is scarce. (Whole books have been written on this.) A nearly-extinct animal is as scarce as you can get without being nonexistent: not only are there extremely few, but there is little hope of getting it back once it's lost. This is especially important if the animal is particularly cute or impressive (tigers, spotted owls, etc.).

  2. Many people and much of popular culture lauds the protection of the weak and helpless. Although this does not appear to be as well-studied of a phenomenon, it seems to me to be fairly widespread.

Philosophical

  1. This is simply a case of animal rights. The standard arguments apply.

  2. An essential aspect of life is reproduction--leaving progeny much like yourself is in some sense what life is for (it is certainly why it is so abundant). In the absence of stated goals, one can thus identify survival of offspring as the most central goal of animals (possibly including us). Given the similarity between members of a species and the relative differences of other species, typically, survival of the species is a good proxy for survival of offspring since other members are pretty close. Thus, to the extent that we base our morality on mutually attainable interests, extinction is pretty much the worst thing that can possibly happen from the perspective of members of that species (well, except for extinction of the genus, family, order, etc..). Thus, if we are either empathic or non-speciesist, extinction of species scores very low on utility maximization and badly violates general rules, thus covering most frameworks for ethical behavior. (If we are speciesist and not empathic, there is no particular reason to care.)

Scientific

  1. Individual species don't matter so terribly much, but ecosystems do; if you can identify an individual species going extinct, there are probably many more also going extinct. If you can save the ones you notice, you are almost certain to also save adequate habitat for a bunch of species you don't notice. (This is the concept of flagship species.)

  2. Biodiversity provides robustness and richness; the former is valuable if conditions change (in a different way than what was causing the extinction, obviously), while the latter provides more opportunities for us to learn, study, enjoy interactions, find drug targets, etc..

4

This isn't really an "answer"—just some contributing thoughts.

  1. If psychological circumstance counts as "rational," then maybe it's that some of us feel a kind of respect for (or fear of) permanent change. For example, people die, but people are born; you may lose someone you love, but you may also gain another in time. This isn't the case with extinction. Maybe we, at some level in our brains, see extinction as a "more permanent" death than literal death itself, extinction being the death of a type and template, instead of a "mere" instance and copy. Therefore in the absence of compelling reason (whether to let perish or to save), we err on the side of caution and prefer to preserve what might never exist again.

  2. Or, maybe for others, there exists a feeling of duty to protect the species, for example due to a generalized form of the golden rule: to treat others (including animals, provided their "form" is similar enough to trigger our compassion) as we'd like to be treated were we in their shoes (skins). This could be one of, I'm sure, many, ethical arguments.

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    You're first comment is interesting. You say there is a kind of psychological impulse to protect endangered animals. I sit here and think how sad it would be if dogs went extinct. I don't like the thought, it feels bad. I value dogs' sustenance. Thus if someone did murderous things to dogs, they would be acting wrongly. But now we've returned to the OP: what grounds my "wrong"? What sense of "should" is operating in the OP? (I'm hinting that the "should" is empty -- it's a way to moralize our biological impulses and feelings) – pichael Aug 3 '12 at 2:02
  • I like this, but how can the golden rule apply to a species? Do we, as egoistic individuals, want our race/species to survive? – iphigenie Aug 21 '12 at 17:01
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If a species have faced competition from something else than humans and is about to go extinct we should not intervene, but most of the time we are to blame. We are also animals so in the long run we cannot be blamed for our faults, saving or not. Saving a species removes opportunity from another species.

If we were targeted by a pathogen that killed us like flies and spread like wild fire it would be an opportunity for lots of animals if we become extinct. We would not try to save it if we found a way to win no matter how much better that pathogen replicates than us.

  • We -- that is, scientists and public safety coordinators, virologists, etc. -- do end up "saving" dangerous pathogens, at least for further study (not of course for release back into the wild!) – Joseph Weissman Aug 7 '12 at 23:12
  • @JosephWeissmam Would we have done the same if there was a pathogen that targeted Lions or would we consider it fair game? – Sylwester Aug 8 '12 at 7:43
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I would argue if animals facing extinction should be protected at all, but the fact is that some are.I would say the most important reasons are these:

  • Personal/national interest which depends on how attractive animal is, how popular/likeable the animal is in the culture, what does it has to do with a history of human culture.
  • Scientific studies
  • You're the second person mentioning the balance of the eco system. I don't see how one would realize the ecosystem is in danger unless the species dies very very fast. – Nikolaj-K Aug 4 '12 at 0:13
  • Yeah my bad.If species is facing extinction, it means not much of them left, so they don't influence much.So scientific and personal reasons left :) – Tomas Aug 4 '12 at 9:42
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What a sad question.

The answer is obvious. One of the goals of sentient life is to work to correct the inherent unfairness of life itself. We were not given a utopia, we were given a puzzle. One aspect of the puzzle is unfairness. Most endangered species have become so by an unfairness.

We protect endangered species due to yet unaddressed unfairness in hopes that additional protections give us more time so that we can solve this bit of the puzzle before the lifeforms natural existance is terminated.

  • Thanks for the input, it's I think it's good to see someone taking the motherly stance. Although I don't think it's obvious, I don't think that any goal of people is agreed upon and specifically not one with such morals undertones. A priori, I think I'm fairly neutral with regards to the extinction of any earthly species, if no creature gets hurt. Hypothetically, if mankind would invent/create a new species which doesn't feel and we get rid of them the next day, I don't know how to argue that that would be doing bad. Ergo, how much effort should be put into making dying creatures not die? – Nikolaj-K Aug 7 '12 at 21:53
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    why do you say that unfairness is inherent to life? fair/unfair are ethical values, as I see it this is nothing inherent to life (there's nothing natural about it) – Tames Aug 7 '12 at 21:56
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    And we should be extremely grateful that no alien decided to start protecting endangered species on Earth a hundred million years ago. We are the direct beneficiaries of untold numbers of extinct species, and we need to keep that fact in mind when we decide to save a species that would otherwise go extinct; we are reducing the potential for future species to develop. In a sense, such a position contains the implicit assumption that the current species are more important than those of any future era. – kbelder Jan 24 '13 at 16:44

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