Whither the Western Grey Whales – might sacrificing a sub-species be justified?

This is part five of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.

In that poll I offered the option that: “Conservation and development should be balanced, but we’d be asking Russia and the local communities in Siberia to sacrifice a lot of money and this is just a sub-species.”

This statement is essentially asking us to explicitly weigh the value of this sub-species* population. Different people have different values and so will answer differently as to which side of the fence they sit on. Regardless as to which side you sit upon, I think it is important to acknowledge the different perspectives and not to assume that one or other is necessarily morally superior to the other. It may be that in the future such questions are resolved with the same clarity as other moral questions, in much the same way that slavery, once an accepted part of life, is now regarded as barbarous. But for now there is not such a universality of views, and basic pragmatism requires us to recognise that, however strongly held may be our views, we need to be able to talk to and engage with others who do not see things the same way.

Moreover if we are to properly answer this question we need to ground our arguments properly. Exactly how much biodiversity does a sub-species represent? Many other species and sub-species of beetles and microscopic organisms which we do not even know about are going extinct every day with destruction of precious, highly diverse habitats such as tropical rainforests. Just because the whales are mammals does that make them somehow more special?

Of course such arguments are in themselves not a reason to do nothing. If it was going to be easy or cheap to save the whales we might reasonably conclude that we should do it anyway. But it appears that saving these particular whales could be very expensive. Think of all the other sub-species we could potentially save with the money that it would cost to save these whales!

This all might seem a bit cold and calculating in comparison to the moral simplicity of other stances, but the reality is that we live in a resource-constrained world, and conservation organisations are having to determine their priorities in this way all the time. I just hope that when it comes time to weigh my soul such calculations will not feature on the negative side of the ledger.

* I am not sure whether, strictly speaking, the Western Grey Whale is a full sub-species or some other taxonomic category. Depending upon ones values, determination of such might be critical to answering the specific question this blog post poses, but is not relevant to the wider issues I raise.

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