Ethics of Conservation Triage

Conservation triage is hard. The fact conservation decisions are made everyday doesn’t make it easier to face decisions to potentially sacrifice hope for highly threatened species in order to better protect the ‘greater good’. In our new paper, “Ethics of conservation triage”, we argue that triage should be hard: conservation triage is far from ‘just’ decision-making, rather it involves complex ethical dilemmas.

We argue that ethics of conservation triage has been treated superficially. While triage contexts – where there are not enough resources to save all species – may be largely inevitable, decision theory itself does not inform what objective ought to be maximized, for whom, or how. These choices are value laden, and therefore incumbent with ethical dilemmas. Unfortunately, current conservation triage is often framed solely as a utilitarian maximization problem, a framing that often sits at odds with the broader conservation ethic of preservation of all species, and also doesn’t align with society preferences and moral ideals.

We looked to emergency medicine, where triage decisions are more common, to ask why triage is much more acceptable in medicine than conservation. We show how conservation triage can be more acceptable, by addressing distributive justice, respecting autonomy, placing triage in a broader system of care, explicitly dealing with risk and risk preferences, and questioning whether these normative ideals are delivered in practice.

We also identify substantial differences distinguishing conservation and emergency medicine contexts, however. These differences mean that conservation triage – at least in some cases – may be more akin to disaster and pandemic scenarios, where resources are more severely constrained, allocated at a population level, and harder decisions need to be faced. Such decisions are often far from optimal, and remain highly controversial: clear indication of the ethical complexity of these problems.

The lesson here is that if you are involved in conservation, as a researcher or practitioner, you really ought to have at least a basic understanding of ethics. Fortunately, our paper provides this, outlining the main ethical frameworks of western philosophy, and how this translates to different perspectives on conservation triage. So if you only ever read one paper on ethics, then let it be this one!