Why we need an “ecological ethics” Ben A Minteer and James P Collins Research ecologists and biodiversity managers frequently have to contend with difficult ethical questions during the course of their work. Yet there is no established approach or field within professional or practical ethics devoted to helping researchers and managers identify and reason through these complex ethical and philosophical issues. Unlike biomedical scientists and clinicians, ecologists and biodiversity managers lack an explicit scholarly forum such as bioethics, that can help them to analyze the complicated ethical situations they encounter in the field, the laboratory, or the conservation facility. Here we present a series of real world cases to illustrate some of the current ethical challenges faced by research ecologists and managers. We call for a new integrated and interdisciplinary field of concrete ethical inquiry – “ecological ethics” – that will fill an important gap in the practical and professional ethics literature, as well as provide ecological researchers and managers with a critical support network and resource base to improve ethical decision making. Front Ecol Environ 2005; 3(6): 332–337


cience has a familiar and often provocative history of raising ethical questions with broad social implications. From iconic cases of scientific misconduct, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, to the debates over developing nuclear technology in the 1950s and 1960s, to ongoing and emerging concerns about the morality of cloning and stem cell technology, the public and scientists alike often question the practices, motives, and social impacts of scientific research. The rise of bioethics, engineering ethics, and research ethics as distinct subfields in applied ethics indicates a longstanding interest in, and professional concern about, the moral implications of the biomedical and technical sciences. Ecological research seems to be an exception to this pattern within the larger “science ethics” community. To date, there is no established area within applied or practical ethics, and no academic journal devoted specifically to exploring the ethical dimensions of ecological field and laboratory research. The absence of such a field or forum is all the more telling when we consider the professional profile and nearly ubiquitous institutional presence of bioethics. As the branch of applied ethics that addresses questions within the biomedical science, clinical research,

In a nutshell: • Ecologists and biodiversity managers often encounter complex ethical situations in their research and professional activities • These situations can involve questions about duties and obligations to research animals, species, and ecological systems, as well as to science and the public welfare • There is currently no field within professional or practical ethics that specifically addresses the unique and multidimensional ethical concerns of practicing ecologists and resource managers • A new approach – “ecological ethics” – is needed

School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-4501 ([email protected])

and physician communities, bioethics is thoroughly embedded in these environments. It has produced an extensive and impressive scholarly literature that covers a range of moral issues and ethically problematic cases arising within biomedicine and clinical practice (eg Crigger 1998; Kuhse and Singer 1999; Murphy 2004). Ecologists and biodiversity managers need a comparable forum – that is, a new scholarly and professional field – for identifying and clarifying ethical issues in a systematic fashion and for debating and exchanging ideas about how to resolve the ethical questions raised by their work. Although some have advocated the expansion of the conceptual and institutional boundaries of bioethics to include the ethical issues raised by human–environment relations (eg Ehrlich 2003), we believe that the ethical issues faced by ecologists and biodiversity managers are sufficiently distinct and complex to require their own intellectual and professional forum. The established field of environmental ethics (Figure 1) offers an important perspective on some of the values of and duties towards nonhuman individuals, species, and ecological systems (eg Taylor 1986; Rolston 1988, 1994; Callicott 1989, 1999), but it cannot be stretched far enough to cover all of the ethical concerns generated by specific problems and decisions in ecological research and conservation practice. As we discuss below, the moral questions confronting these research and management communities require a more practical and targeted philosophical focus, and a more integrative ethical framework, than environmental ethics or bioethics (even liberally construed) can currently provide. Why call for a new field now? It is becoming increasingly clear that the quest for ecological knowledge, which is so critical for informing efforts to understand and conserve Earth’s biodiversity along with valued ecosystem goods and services, frequently raises complex ethical questions (Farnsworth and Rosovsky 1993; Potvin et al. 2001; Marsh and Kenchington 2004). Furthermore, biodiversity managers increasingly have to navigate a difficult moral © The Ecological Society of America

BA Minteer and JP Collins

Ecological ethics

terrain as they carry out their work in a variety of contexts, including public and private conservation facilities (eg zoos, aquaria, botanical gardens), parks and natural areas, and local communities (eg Norton et al. 1995; Sharpe et al. 2000; Guerrant Jr et al. 2004). Consider the following cases, each of which presents multiple ethical conundrums for the ecologist and/or biodiversity manager.


Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation Archives

 Case studies Justifying conservation targets

Recent research suggests that Preble’s meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius preblei; Figure 2), which is listed as an endangered species, is in fact not taxonomically different from the common Bear Lodge meadow jumping mouse (Johnson 2004). The US Fish and Wildlife Service will propose removing the mouse from the endangered species list in 2006 ( However, some environmentalists say that Preble’s mouse should remain listed because doing so protects the distinctive prairie habitat where the mouse lives. How should we decide whether the differences between species in such a case are sufficient to warrant recognizing two taxa or not? Is it an abuse of the US Endangered Species Act to leave the taxonomic distinction in place to protect the habitat? What do we need to know to resolve the value disputes between the taxonomic and environmental communities? Control of research resources

Several exotic frog species are established in Hawaii. The coqui frog (Eleutherodactylus coqui; Figure 3) is now so common that the noise produced by its nocturnal singing reduces home resale values and forces hotels to avoid using some rooms that look out on nearby forest. Hawaiians would like to eliminate the frog, and some wildlife managers have considered releasing an amphibian pathogen to kill the introduced species. What are the environmental risks of releasing the pathogen and how should such risks be weighed against the benefits of using it as a population control measure? How long should a researcher with the original pathogenic cultures control access to collections, since there is no guarantee that another investigator would not give away the cultures? Should a condition of archiving specimens in a type culture collection be that they cannot be released for management purposes? Should publishing results be delayed to avoid placing a culture in a collection without such assurances? Managing exotic species

In 1993, a breeding pair of non-native mute swans (Cygnus olor; Figure 4) established themselves at Arrowhead Mountain Lake in northwestern Vermont. Mute swans are highly territorial; a single male will defend a range of up to 10 ha, driving out and often killing native bird species. Their feeding activities also disrupt the lake’s substrate, © The Ecological Society of America

Figure 1. Aldo Leopold. Widely recognized as the father of environmental ethics, Leopold also pointed the way toward a new and more practical ethics for ecologists and biodiversity managers.

which degrades water quality. The Arrowhead Lake swan population expanded to eight birds in the late 1990s, at which point the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, charged with the management of the state’s native species and their habitats, decided to kill the swans to control their ecological impact. Two of the swans were eventually destroyed, an action which angered animal welfare organizations and many lake homeowners, who had grown accustomed to the swans’ presence (Minteer 2003). Was the managers’ decision to kill the swans the best decision in this case? Does it reflect more of a value judgment, informed by a desire to maintain what are perceived as “natural” environmental conditions, than a scientific argument based on ecological evidence? Were there any feasible non-lethal alternatives for controlling swan numbers? How should managers balance animal welfare concerns and considerations of ecological integrity where the promotion of one goal threatens to undercut the other? The ethics of bioprospecting

In 2003, 1800 microbial species, including 148 bacterial species new to science, were collected from Bermuda’s territorial waters (Dalton 2004; Figure 5). The DNA sequences will be publicly accessible in GenBank. The Bermuda Biological Station for Research granted permission for the making of the collections. The Government of Bermuda, however, did not give permission, and is unhappy about the fact that something with potential value (gene sequences) is now in the public domain and of no direct value to the Bermudan people. Some research projects were also temporarily shut down until Bermuda’s regulations on bioprospecting are strengthened. What was the right thing for the researchers to do

Ecological ethics

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Courtesy of A Ruggles, Bear Canyon Consulting


BA Minteer and JP Collins

sumably compromising ecological researchers’ main objectives. The animal welfare concern raised by toe clipping is the most obvious ethical issue (May 2004; Funk et al. 2005), but the McCarthy and Parris (2004) study also provokes other ethical questions that lie at the intersection of animal welfare, research design, and wider conservation concerns. For example, is the pain and suffering endured by the animal justifiable on “advance of scientific knowledge” grounds if toe clipping negatively affects animal survival rates, ultimately Figure 2. Preble's meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius preblei). The undercutting the research findings? Is it mouse is at the center of a controversy over the role of science and values in the morally worse to practice this marking techprotection of endangered species and their habitats. Should a taxonomic nique on an endangered amphibian species? judgement that results in the delisting of a species be supported if it jeopardizes Are concerns about the potentially harmful important conservation goals? effects of toe clipping on individual animals ultimately “trumped” by the value of the in this case? Even without clear rules on bioprospecting, research for informing preservation strategies for larger is it acceptable to still make collections? Should the reac- species as well as habitat conservation agendas? tion of the Government of Bermuda have been anticipated, and should greater clarity on appropriate use of a  The need for a new approach country’s natural legacy have been sought before collecting began? What obligations, if any, are there to Challenging cases like these raise many kinds of moral questions for the ecological researcher or biodiversity researchers whose projects have been halted? manager, involving obligations to the scientific and/or the conservation community, duty to the general public, and Animal welfare considerations in field research the scientists’ and managers’ responsibilities to research Toe clipping is an established technique for identifying animals, species, and ecosystems. Given the diversity and amphibians in mark–recapture field studies. Yet this prac- multi-dimensional nature of these sorts of ethical issues, tice, which involves the removal of a distinctive combina- no single tradition in ethical theory or applied ethics can tion of digits (or parts of them), has been reported to result address adequately the multiple responsibilities and duties in a number of adverse effects on the animals, including that must be considered in such morally and scientifically inflammation and infection of the feet and limbs (eg complicated decision-making situations. This point may Reaser and Dexter 1996). Results of a recent study by appear self-evident, but we believe the complexity of McCarthy and Parris (2004) suggest that toe clipping may these cases poses a challenge to many of the conventional also negatively affect the return rate of marked frogs, pre- approaches within ethical theory and applied ethics. This is especially true for those projects in which a single moral principle or underlying moral philosophy is defended as being universally applicable, a stance referred to as “moral monism” (eg Stone 1987; Norton 1995). Ecological researchers and managers, however, may face situations that stretch any single “off-the-rack” ethical theory (and even the Western philosophical tradition as a whole) beyond the breaking point. For example, traditional (ie human-centered) ethical theory is premised on the experiences or attributes of the individual human, whether focused on promoting good consequences for all those affected by an act or rule (utilitarianFigure 3. An exotic species to the islands of Hawaii, the coqui frog (Eleu- ism), or on recognizing duties or obligations to therodactylus coqui) has become a great nuisance to many Hawaiian respect certain values and/or rights indepenresidents and hoteliers. Should an amphibian pathogen be released to kill the dent of the consequences (a “deontological” species? What restrictions, if any, should be placed on the use of this pathogen ethic). As a result, these principles are not by the ecological research community? easily or coherently extended to maintaining

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Ecological ethics

the health or integrity of natural collectives such as whole ecological systems. On the other hand, even though environmental ethics has occasionally focused on philosophical issues and practical conflicts within ecological research and/or conservation practice (eg Rolston 1994, 2004; Norton et al. 1995; Shrader-Frechette and McCoy 1999; Light 2000; Sagoff 2003; Frodeman 2003), it has in general been more preoccupied with abstract discussions of environmental value theory. The field’s strong theoretical orientation, in other words, has rendered it incapable of offering Figure 4. Mute swan (Cygnus olor). In Vermont, exotic mute swans exposed much practical assistance to scientists and some of the ethical conflicts between a concern for animal welfare and the managers in their deliberations and deci- protection of ecosystem integrity. Did the wildlife managers do the right thing in sion-making in the ethical dilemmas this case? Is the preference for native species and ecosystems ultimately a value encountered in their work. Indeed, the judgment rather than a scientific one? field’s primary journal, Environmental Ethics, rarely publishes papers devoted to exploring the ethics and relates in a concrete and direct way to ecologiconcrete ethical dimensions of specific research and man- cal research and management. While this approach will agement practices. The theoretical mission of environ- quite naturally draw much of its substance from the moral mental ethics is of course important, but it does not reach theories and principles advanced within the theoretical far enough into ecological research and management (or normative), research, animal, and environmental practices to be useful to most scientists and managers. ethics traditions, it will ultimately be considerably more The increasing number of pleas within environmental wide-ranging and integrative than any of these single ethics for philosophers to become more engaged with approaches. This new research agenda will be interdiscimatters of policy (eg Norton 1991; Light and Katz 1996; plinary rather than provincial in nature; indeed, it will be Frodeman 2004; Minteer 2005), however, is an indica- best informed and most effective if it is the product of an tion that the field may be evolving towards a more practi- organized and on-going series of discussions held across cal and problem-solving stance. Still, this has been a slow the natural sciences, social sciences, the humanities, and process. Moreover, the ecological research and biodiver- the conservation professions. In other words, it cannot be sity management communities have also not been singled the purview only of philosophers or scientists. It will be at out by environmental ethicists as requiring any special or the cutting edge of practical and professional ethical inquiry, poised to make tangible rather than purely conexplicit philosophical attention. Furthermore, environmental ethicists have traditionally ceptual contributions to the resolution of ethical issues in been most concerned with ecological wholes (ie wild ecology and biodiversity management. The new field we envision should include a comprehenspecies and ecosystems) in their work, a philosophical bias that has led many in the field to ignore issues having to do sive ethical framework that would help ecologists and primarily with the welfare of individual animals (see managers identify and reason through the value dimenHargrove 1992; Varner 1998; Minteer 2004). Environ- sions of problematic situations, and resolve the moral mental ethicists have also shown little interest in the claims placed upon them in the course of their research or human or “anthropocentric” dimensions of environmental conservation work. Elsewhere (Minteer and Collins in attitudes and practices, preferring instead to defend a press), we have proposed the creation of an extensive case nature-centered or “non-anthropocentric” ethical stance database, a tool that can help students, scientists, and (Minteer 2005). As a result, we believe that the field of managers learn from the problems and solutions of others environmental ethics – at least as it is currently configured and improve their critical thinking and moral reasoning – does not provide the kind of inclusive ethical accounting abilities within a research or management setting. Such we are proposing here, namely the identification and an integrated ethical framework and case library are, we appraisal of the environmental, animal, and human (pro- believe, two key elements of this new interdisciplinary fessional and welfare-regarding) values at play in problem- domain within practical ethics. The Ecological Society of America (ESA) could build atic research and management situations. Consequently, we need a more philosophically pluralistic, interdiscipli- into its annual meetings a regular interdisciplinary panel series (comprised of ethicists, scientists, and managers) nary, and integrative practical ethical approach. We propose a new field in professional and practical focused on core questions and topical issues in the ethics ethics, with a far-reaching research agenda that cuts of ecological research. A new section could be created in across the established domains in theoretical and applied one of the ESA journals, expressly for discussing and ana© The Ecological Society of America


Courtesy of G Nieminen/USFWS

BA Minteer and JP Collins

Ecological ethics

Courtesy of A Venn, Bermuda Biological Station for Research


BA Minteer and JP Collins

debate regarding the social roles of scientists and the content and structure of our collective moral responsibilities. These ethical dilemmas are not going to go away by themselves. If anything, they will continue to grow with the development of more formidable tools and techniques to study and manage the planet’s ecosystems and its biological diversity. Finally, our proposal goes beyond the various codes of ethics adopted by professional societies. While important and well motivated, such codes almost by definition cannot capture the inherent complexity of specific moral dilemmas in the field, the laboFigure 5. Bermudan reefs. Can bioprospecting be morally wrong even if it does not ratory, and the conservation facility. break the law? There is a general tendency among scientific and professional societies to lyzing ethically problematic cases and their implications assume that the promulgation of a code of ethics settles the for ecological research design, publication protocols, and question of how to incorporate ethical considerations into the general ethical conduct of ecologists (eg Dudycha and institutional culture and professional practice. Codes of Geedey 2003). On the other side of the disciplinary fence, ethics certainly have a role to play in expressing profesthe major environmental ethics publications (eg sional values and providing the community with a regulaEnvironmental Ethics, Environmental Values, Ethics and the tory structure (Beier 2005). They also perform the imporEnvironment) might consider devoting special journal tant function of drawing scientists’ and managers’ issues to these kinds of discussions, encouraging co- attention to shared standards of professional conduct, and authored papers that reflect scientific, managerial, and to the existence of common value positions. But a code of philosophical contributions, and that bring real dilemmas ethics, however useful it may be in promoting these ends, is and issues from the field and laboratory into the philoso- a weak substitute for the serious and ongoing critical ethipher’s parlor. Given the increasing frequency of ethical cal inquiry and deliberation that we believe must be questions in ecology and biodiversity management, per- actively cultivated and supported within the scientific and haps we will even see the rise of a new professional society management communities. Ultimately, we need to merge and the establishment of a new interdisciplinary journal, the principles of environmental, animal, and research committed to exploring the practical and conceptual ethics with practical examples, to create a new area of dimensions of ethical decision making in ecological inquiry that will lead to more and different courses in research and management. ethics for students, and training programs for ecologists and There are a number of converging ethical arguments for biodiversity managers. Just as physicians, clinicians, and creating this new field, including its ability to facilitate biomedical researchers can draw from a developed body of the recognition of duties and obligations to promote or theory and case literature in bioethics, in addition to the protect environmental values, animal welfare, and the principles set down in their professional codes, so too public welfare. We should also point out that our proposal should ecologists and biodiversity managers be able to turn appeals directly to ecologists’ and resource managers’ to an organized scholarly field with the practical resources enlightened self-interest. This new forum for ethical dis- and intellectual depth to assist them in making informed cussion within the ecological research and management and sensitive decisions in ethically problematic situations. communities will, we believe, allow researchers and manWhile philosophical discussion about the exact nature of agers to respond more effectively to the ethical challenges our duties to environmental entities and systems remains encountered in their work. It will also help them to lead contested and unsettled in many quarters, centuries of discussions about proper research design and manage- reform in our moral thinking about the natural world and ment, rather than waiting for more slow-moving and nearly four decades of focused work in professional envioften ambiguous legal prescriptions to point the way (as ronmental ethical inquiry suggest that at the very least we well as avoiding situations in which they find themselves have some duties to non-humans and environmental syson the wrong side of a guideline or law; Angulo and tems. We may be unsure about the ultimate source of these Cooke 2002). As scientists and biodiversity managers duties, and it is not always clear how we should weigh them increasingly face ethical challenges in their work, we alongside our more established social and professional need to recognize and confront these issues, and lead the obligations in practice. However, it is no longer the case (if

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indeed it ever was) that a researcher in the field or laboratory, or a manager working in a conservation facility or natural area, can completely ignore the claims of nature in making decisions that may potentially impact animal welfare, species viability, or ecological integrity – however these are defined. As ecological research becomes increasingly technical and powerful, and as ecology becomes increasingly professionalized as a discipline, the day may come when the precautionary principle of the Rio Declaration from the 1992 Earth Summit – the proscription to prevent environmental degradation – is the basis for the equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath (to first do no harm) taken by ecologists and biodiversity managers. Ethicists, natural and social scientists, and biodiversity managers will all gain by coming together in a collaborative and targeted effort to study and develop methods of ethical analysis and problem solving in ecological research and management. But unless we organize ourselves and take the required steps to identify and reason through these issues – and create the intellectual framework necessary to the task – there is a danger that the ethical dimensions of ecological research and management will continue to fall through the institutional and scholarly cracks. A new approach is needed. It is time for an “ecological ethics”.


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ecological ethics

Science has a familiar and often provocative history of raising ethical questions with broad social implica- tions. ... tern within the larger “science ethics” community. To date, there is no established area within applied or practi- ... frequently have to contend with difficult ethical questions dur- ing the course of their work.

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