While I think causing species extinction is a moral wrong, it is difficult for me to come up with a positive justification for this intuition. The most direct approach is perhaps through biodiversity. But I haven't come across a compelling argument for biodiversity as a moral good either. In fact my intuition appears very fragile on reflection (for instance not all species seem to be on a par, and the extinction of some may seem more devastating than the distinction of others). Any literature reference would be deeply appreciated.

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    If one doesn't find it morally wrong to kill a single lifeform for no reason other then the sole purpose of ending a life then I can't possibly see how one would be troubled with exterminating an entire species for no reason so that might be a good place to start with your argument. – Cell Aug 27 '18 at 16:28
  • If there were a non-sentient species that was commonplace and dangerous to man (like a certain strain of bacteria for example), I don't see that it would be immoral to drive it to extinction (like we presumably did with polio, although that's a virus, so maybe technically not "living"). – user935 Aug 27 '18 at 18:33
  • "I think causing species extinction is a moral wrong" - well, I wish mosquitos and bed bugs to die. I wish dangerous bacteria to die. Do you find these wishes immoral? Exactly the argument can be constructed that bacteria are causing deaths of animals and species extinction, so biodiversity does not work then. – rus9384 Aug 27 '18 at 19:43
  • @Cell, well, there is no "no reason". Explanation always exists: maybe just because someone likes it - killing animals. The real thing is how acceptable that reason is. Almost no one finds it normal for a serial killer being able to follow his killing wishes. – rus9384 Aug 27 '18 at 21:46
  • @rus9384 I disagree. You are using a different definition of reason than I used. I intended "no reason" to mean "lack of reasoning" i.e emotional. Not the more colloquial and trivial synonym for "explain". Animals, and generally all living things don't kill other living things merely for satisfication rather they kill for survival. I would consider the latter a reason for killing. – Cell Aug 27 '18 at 22:02

In terms of the morality, it's going to depend how you ground that. Suffering, systemic risk & systemic resiliance, irreversibility, are all specific things to consider. Is all, or some life 'sacred'? Or do we only judge by consequences?

Peter Singer argues that morality is the result of an expanding circle of concern, that we choose not to be gene-machines by expanding our concern from progeny, to family group, to tribe, nation, humanity, to non-humans, to ecologies. Each expansion dignifies us, makes us more fully developed and moral beings.

A case people talk about of extinction being maybe ok, or even good, is malaria/dengue/zika vector mosquitos. It's a good case to consider on 'pro extinction'. Male mosquitoes don't ever bite humans, they pollinate flowers. Mosquitoes are a key prey species for aerial & aquatic ecologies, and by supporting predators, other pest outbreaks are less likely to go to extremes - see the consequences of China's https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Pests_Campaign Wider issues of mosquito extermination discussed here: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35408835 How malaria also harms mosquitoes: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2010/09/how-mosquitoes-fight-malaria Which seems to point toward win-win solutions..

Morals are more-or-less rules-of-thumb, which we allocate consequences to breaking based on a wide range of factors, though mainly risks & harms. It used to be that egg-collectors & other trophy hunters drove the most endangered large predators further towards extinction, and many countries got together to create https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/CITES#Background_and_operation to deal with prosecuting these & other issues. The risks & harms to humans, and even ecosystems, of loss of large predators may be minimal. Yet 'charismatic megafauna', black rhinos, pandas, whales, polar bears, have recieved among the most enthusiasm to save. Many want a world with wild, that these symbolise. But reintroduction of lynx, wolves, bears & wild boar, & even beavers, to areas that lost them is invariably problematic. Many farmers & rural people don't want actual wild, actual physical threats, or even just ecological change (beavers).

David Attenborough talked about the importance he felt of preserving parasitic wasp species. Their macabre life cycles make us feel a bit quesy. Sometimes they have an ecological role, preventing too large or concentrated a population of some prey. Ethically though, conserving them is conserving that prey-hosts suffering. Attenborough argues we need to value and conserve as much complexity & dynamism as we reasonably can, out of wonder, in humbleness, and for posterity.

It is hard to take any argument for preserving smallpox seriously, now eradicated in the wild. Or ebola. Or viruses and their biodiversity. Though, viruses may hold keys to understanding life, and recently gave us CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology.

A final point is, biodiverse ecologies are generally more resilient. Long term studies of grasslands show the more species, the better range of climate they thrive in. Beavers & many other ecological elements slow water through landscapes, reducing flooding and drought. Small wildfires are part of many ecologies, and prevent huge fires. Coastal wetlands may be able to produce more food than conventional farming, while feeding masses of wildlife: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EUAMe2ixCI Climax ecologies often maximise biomass for minimum inputs, & do so resiliantly. We should learn from them, before they are all gone. Potato & banana narrowed-genepool monocultures further highlight systemic risks of losing wild crop ancestors & diversity.

Morality cannot be limited to considering only 'ground level' concerns. We must engage with what kind of world we hope for, wish to live in, make ourselves part of developing. Megafauna are majestic, though they may mean humans retreating from some landscapes. Ecologies are complex & sophisticated, our record of intentional interventions terrible, we must learn more, and that means conservation. Biophilia is the idea we are drawn towards environments with more varied and flamboyantly-present life in them. "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." (Edward Abbey). Maybe biophilia is an alternative master-ethic to growth ('progress'), one that places humans at the centre, as gardeners of what could be a new Eden. But the knowledge to do that, is dissappearing with rapid climate change, and total human alteration of landscapes and ecosystems, just as we are truly developing the means to understand them. How we feel about causing extinctions, is a microcosm of how we feel about the choice to become a kind of plague, or a kind of angels. So far our plague-nature is winning.

  • "Which seems to point toward win-win solutions.." - well, mosquitos still would suck blood causing pain to humans and other animals. Hardly win-win, especially if their amount will grow after curing them from malaria. And, btw, not only humans are causing extinctions. Other animals do it too. I'm not even sure that humans, taking their total mass (more than 200m tons) are causing more extinction than 200m tons of average animals. – rus9384 Aug 28 '18 at 0:41
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    Organisms are constantly evolving and becoming extinct. However, humans have greatly upset the balance. I think most biologists would agree that we're now experiencing a major "extinction event." In addition to extinction, there are countless more species that are ecologically extinct. That is, they survive only in a few refuges - or only in zoos. – David Blomstrom Aug 28 '18 at 2:18
  • Mosquitoes are hardly the only animals that cause pain. There are countless species of predators and parasites that cause pain. – David Blomstrom Aug 28 '18 at 2:21
  • Thanks so much for the reply! I was very much influenced by watching David Attenborough. I happened to sit in one of Singer's lectures whereby he defended the view that, from a utilitarian perspective (esp. minimization of pain), holding everything else equal it would have been a better world if there were no predators. That conclusion strikes me as absurd. But it was difficult for me to argue against my utilitarian friend, hence the original question. I wonder if cases like malaria should be evaluated based on separate moral considerations from ecological conservation. – discretizer Aug 28 '18 at 2:29
  • @rus9384 We humans are not just driving some of the extinctions, but causing the fastest & worst mass extinction the planet has ever seen en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene_extinction – CriglCragl Aug 28 '18 at 22:36

Biodiverse habitats are generally more stable than less diverse habitats. For example, the arctic is commonly associated with sudden population explosions and die offs (lemmings, snowshoe hares, etc.). The implications for a world headed towards corporate agriculture and monoculture are pretty serious.

Biodiversity could therefore be considered essential to our security - one of the most prominent psychological needs. It could even become an issue of survival.

Many people also have an aesthetic appreciation of biodiversity.

In addition, the preservation of life forms requires the preservation of their habitat, yet another aesthetic quality.

There's probably lots of literature on the subject, though I'm not familiar offhand with any papers written by philosophers. On the other hand, many natural history authors can be quite philosophical in the broad sense of the term (e.g. Rachel Carson, Carl Sandburg).

You can check out the link below. Also, are you familiar with the concept of Gaia (the idea that Earth itself is a living organism, or something similar)? If not, that might be a good lead.

Biodiversity Preservation (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


I might add that, for many people, the morality of not exterminating at least some species is intuitive. If it was suddenly revealed that elephants, giraffes or koalas were on the verge of extinction, there would probably be a global outcry for their protection.

  • "Koalas are in serious decline suffering from the effects of habitat destruction, domestic dog attacks, bushfires and road accidents." savethekoala.com/about-koalas/koala-endangered-or-not And giraffeconservation.org/programmes/giraffe-conservation-status And bagheera.com/inthewild/van_anim_elephant.htm All vulnersble, all with wild populations crashing. All losing landscape to humans, with no sign of reversal.. – CriglCragl Aug 27 '18 at 23:35
  • Yes, the populations of MANY wild animals are crashing dramatically. The danger is that people will just give up and conclude that trying to save them is hopeless. Nevertheless, none of those species are in imminent danger of extinction. Check recent news articles. When we see the headline "Elephants may be extinct before the end of the year," I would expect a public uproar, even if it's too late. – David Blomstrom Aug 28 '18 at 0:02
  • Thank you so much for the very helpful reply! I was weary about instrumental arguments like security or aesthetic preference, since that makes the value of biodiversity contingent on human needs (so it would cease to be valuable if, for instance, we live in a world like that portrayed in WALL-E). I was also wondering if there could be independent argument for preserving species (or even just certain species) that is not biodiversity-based, since biodiversity is a holistic concept and problematically vague. – discretizer Aug 28 '18 at 2:19
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    But thanks again and I have not heard of Gaia before - it is definitely something I would look up (I am always more in favor of a top-down approach of value-derivation, that is the earth is intrinsically valuable and the moral value of human activities are derivative from that assumption. So this idea is incredible!) – discretizer Aug 28 '18 at 2:21

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