What is valued in conservation? A framework to compare ethical perspectives.
Perspectives in conservation are based on a variety of value systems. Such differences in how people value nature and its components lead to different evaluations of the morality of conservation goals and approaches, and often underlie disagreements in the formulation and implementation of environmental management policies. Specifically, whether a conservation action (e.g. killing feral cats to reduce predation on bird species threatened with extinction) is viewed as appropriate or not can vary among people with different value systems. Here, we present a conceptual, mathematical framework intended as a tool to systematically explore and clarify core value statements in conservation approaches. Its purpose is to highlight how fundamental differences between these value systems can lead to different prioritizations of available management options and offer a common ground for discourse. The proposed equations decompose the question underlying many controversies around management decisions in conservation: what or who is valued, how, and to what extent? We compare how management decisions would likely be viewed under three idealised value systems: ecocentric conservation, which aims to preserve biodiversity; new conservation, which considers that biodiversity can only be preserved if it benefits humans; and sentientist conservation, which aims at minimising suffering for sentient beings. We illustrate the utility of the framework by applying it to case studies involving invasive alien species, rewilding, and trophy hunting. By making value systems and their consequences in practice explicit, the framework facilitates debates on contested conservation issues, and complements philosophical discursive approaches about moral reasoning. We believe dissecting the core value statements on which conservation decisions are based will provide an additional tool to understand and address conservation conflicts.