Rolston, Duties to Endangered Species (1985)


1.      Logic of duties to forms of life

2.      1980, predicted up to 20% loss of species within a few decades

         a.      Did it happen?

         b.      Most species are insects in rainforest?


3.      "The preservation of species are to be aimed at and commended only in so far as human beings are, or will be, emotionally and sentimentally interested." (Not Rolston)

4.       "We do have duties to protect threatened species, not duties to the species themselves as such, but rather duties to future human beings." (Not Rolston)

5.      Species as rivets in airplane of life

         a.      Driving species extinct is like popping rivets in spaceship earth

         b.      Pop enough and we’ll crash (undermine earth’s stability)

         c.      Problems

                  i.      But this only values the diversity that prevents the crash

                  ii.     Not care for particular species, but for the “sinking ark”

                  iii.    This is a reversal of Noah’s arc, built to preserve each species

                  iv.    Here species are preserved to keep ark from sinking

6.      Species as resources

         a.      For cancer cures, for agricultural genes, as biological models

         b.      For knowledge: Destroying species is like tearing pages out of an unread book, written in a language humans hardly know how to read, about the place where they live.

                  i.      Humans need understanding, insight into full text of ecosystem development.

7.      Rolston thinks these pragmatic (anthropocentric) arguments are impressive and moral, but “leaves deeper obligations untouched”

         a.      Anthropocentric justifications are submoral, as treat all other species as rivets, resources study materials or entertainment.

         b.      Ethics never very convincing when based on enlightened self-interest

         c.      To value other species only for human interests is like a nation arguing all its foreign policy only in terms of national interest: Neither fully moral.

8.      Problems with anthropocentric justifications for species preservation

         a.      Pragmatic reasons get overstated

                  i.      A dozen dependent species of insects, animals or other plants typically become extinct with each plant that goes extinct

                  ii.     Such cascading, disastrous extinction only statistically true

         b.      While rare species add some backup resilience, if all 79 plants on end species list disappeared, doubtful regional ecosystem would measurably shift their stability

                  i.      Note today (30 years later) there are about 900 plants on endangered species list.

         c.      By the time a species is rare, the ecosystem is no longer likely to be dependent on it.

         d.      A substantial # of End Species have no resource value

                  i.      Beggar’s ticks (mosquitos) go extinct, form perspective or human interests: good riddance!

         e.      Anthropocentrism mal adaptive

                  i.      Is no longer functional in or suited to our changing environment

         f.      “Something morally naive in living in reference frame where one species takes itself as absolute and values everything else relative to its utility”

9.      Should not destroy species out of self-respect?

         a.      A virtuous human would avoid destroying kinds of things

                  i.      Like vandals destroying art objects, cheapen their own character

         b.      But is American shame at destroying the passenger pigeon only self-respect, or shame at our ignorant insensitivity to a form of life that had intrinsic value that placed a claim on us

                  i.      Rolston’s view is the second: Species have intrinsic value that make a claim on us



11.    Are species real or conventional (like latitude/longitude)?

         a.      One problem is whether species are real or mere conventions (or mapping device), like lines of latitude or longitude

         b.      Biologists often dispute whether something is a species or subspecies;

                  i.      Ornithologists decided the Mexican duck (an endangered species) was really just a type of common mallard and it was removed from End Species list

         c.      Species as artifacts of taxonomists

         d.      Everyone rejects duties to genera, families, orders, or phyla as agree they do not exist in nature

12.    Rolston argues species are real entities/exist, not just classifications

         a.      Rolston: “Species are living historical forms, propagated in individual organisms, that flows dynamically over generations”

                  i.      Dynamical natural kinds

                  ii.     Coherent ongoing form of life expressed in organisms, encoded in gene flow and shaped by the environment

         b.      Specific forms of life are not arbitrary/fictitious but as certain as anything else we believe about empirical world

                  i.      Even though scientists sometimes revise their theories about how to map these forms

         c.      Species more like mountains and rivers (than lines of latitude/longitude), objectively there to be mapped

                  i.      Even if sometimes fuzzy, discretionary, and sliding over evolutionary time from one species to another

13.    Protect the speciating process

         a.      Protect this living process in the environment

                  i.      Speciation is itself among the wonderful things on earth

                  ii.     Valuing speciation directly attaches value to evolutionary process

         b.      Can’t preserve the process w/o preserving its products

         c.      Endangered species a convenient/realistic tagging of this process

         d.      But can protect it (as does ESA) by protecting subspecies, varieties or other categories that point out diverse forms of life.



15.    Contractual theories of justice/rights (duties/rights are reciprocal) won’t work as species have not entered into contracts with us

         a.      But contractual theories are even deficient in human ethics as some humans not moral agents and can’t contract (mute and powerless)

         b.      “Morality is needed wherever the vulnerable must be protected from the powerful”

16.    Sentience based theories of moral considerability don’t work

         a.      Singer only reason to save end species is interest of humans and other sentient animals

         b.      Rolston cites # of examples where interests of sentient animals sacrificed for endangered plants

                  i.      Killing hundreds of rabbits on an island to protect a plant thought to be extinct.

                  ii.     National Park Service lets hundreds of elk starve each year but would never let that many grizzly bears starve and suffer (same amount)

                           (1)    So its not about suffering

                  iii.    These examples show the Park Service acts in favor of end species, assumes they count, but does not provide an argument that they do.....

17.    Biocentrism: Duties toward any living organisms is not sufficient

         a.      If these duties exist, could be easy to override, but are a duty to not disrupt living beings w/o justification

         b.      If we have duties to individual organisms, we have much greater duties to species

18.    The species is more important than the individual

         a.      Individual is the species way of propagating itself

         b.      The dignity resides in the dynamic form and the individual inherits it, instantiates it and passes it on

         c.      Species as a dynamic life form maintained over time by an informed genetic flow

19.    Species “act” in valuable ways we should morally consider

         a.      Cognitive processing (information flow) taking place at species level

                  i.      Species over generations “learns” or “discovers” new pathways,

                  ii.     A form of life reforms itself, tracks its environment, and sometimes passes over to a new species

         b.      A kind of value is here defended

         c.      Each ongoing species defends a form of life

         d.      So it has a good of its own? It does “care” about itself?

20.    What is wrong with human-caused (anthropogenic) extinction

         a.      It shuts down the generative processes

         b.      Stopping the historical flow in which the vitality of life is laid

         c.      Extinction is a kind of “superkilling”: Kills forms beyond individuals, kills essences beyond existences

                  i.      Humans ought not play the role of murderers

         d.      It shuts down a unique story

                  i.      All such stories eventually end, but we seldom want unnatural ends

         e.      One form of life never endangered so many others;

                  i.      Never before has earth faced superkilling by a superkiller

21.    Burden of justification is on species killers

         a.      If you think life on earth ought to exist (if you care for life on earth), then the burden is on you to say why it is okay to wish to deliberately extinguish a species

         b.      If it makes sense to claim one ought not to kill individuals w/o justification, it makes more sense to claim one ought not to super kill the species w/o superjustfication

22.    Duty to species is prima facie: real, important, but can be overridden

         a.      With pests or disease organisms

23.    Can’t say good (interests) of a species is just the good (sum total or average) of its members

         a.      For “events can be good for the well being of the species, considered collectively, although they are harmful if considered as distributed to individuals.”

         b.      “Genetic load” (p. 723): genes that somewhat reduce health, efficiency, fertility in most individuals, but introduce enough variation to permit improving specific form and its ability to track, change, and survive in new environments

         c.      Predation in individual elk conserves and improves the species

         d.      Forest fire harms individual aspen trees, but helps aspen as a species as it restarts forest succession w/o which the species would go extinct.

         e.      Death bad for individuals, good for species: All individuals die, but that is good and a necessity for the species as it makes room for those replacements that allow development to occur, improve in fitness and adapt to shifting env.

         f.      Reproduction not good for the individual, but for the species

                  i.      It’s the species recreating itself and defending its own kind from other species



25.    A species is what it is inseparably from its environment

         a.      Not preserving tigers by relocating them to the moon

26.    Goal is not preservation of species but of species in their ecosystem under the forces of natural selection

27.    Not just what species are, but where they are that we must value

28.    The species can only be preserved in situ (on site)

         a.       Zoos and botanical gardens can lock up a collection of individuals, but they cannot begin to simulate the ongoing dynamism of gene flow under the selection pressures in a wild biome.

         b.      Ex situ preservation, while it may save resources and souvenirs, does not preserve the generative process intact.

29.    Human caused extinction radically different from natural caused extinction

         a.      Note that 99% of species ever lived gone extinct before humans came around

         b.      As different as death by natural causes is different from murder

         c.      Extinction in nature does harm species, but is not evil in the system;

                  i.      Rather a key to tomorrow

                  ii.     Normal turnover in speciation.

                  iii.    It takes away life when unfit in habitat and supplies other life in its place

                           (1)    Either extinct line transforms or related or competing lines thrive

         d.      Anthropogenic extinction shuts down tomorrow as it shuts down speciation

                  i.      Closes doors rather than opening them

                  ii.     Dead-ends the line

                  iii.    Think of a parking lot as what humans do that kills off species

30.    Humans have no duties to preserve rare species from natural extinction

         a.      As cannot and need not save a product w/o the process

31.    History of diversity of life on planet is awesome and to be respected and protected

         a.      Steady increase

         b.      With 5 great/mass extinctions which let to recovery afterwards

         c.      This long term performance deserves ethical respect

         d.      Awesome: Earth begins with 0 and runs up towards 5 to 10 million species

         e.      Tendency toward “species packing”–nature produces as many species as it can

         f.      Humans should not inhibit this exuberant lust for kinds

         g.      “Several billion years worth of creative toil, several million species of teeming life, have been handed over to the care of this late-coming species in which mind has flowered and morals have emerged.”

         h.      Shouldn’t the one moral species value this process/products for what it is itself (intrinsically) and not just because of its own self-interest?

Questions on Rolston’s Duties to Endangered Species


1.         Describe several anthropocentric reasons for species preservation and then identify what Rolston thinks about those arguments. Does he agree with them? Explain. Consider rivet popping, resources, reading the book of life.

2.         Explain the worry that species might be like lines of latitude and longitude. Why is this a problem for arguing for duties to species? Why might one think the are like those mapping strategies? Does Rolston think species are like such lines?

3.         Explain Rolston’s conception of the nature of species. Are they real? How do they relate to the individuals that make them up?

4.         How does a duty to protect the speciating process (what Rolston thinks is most important) help explain and justify the Endangered Species Acts focus not just on species but subspecies and varieties?

5.         Do you agree with Rolston that the species is more important than the individuals that compose them?

6.         What are some of the valuable things species due that Rolston suggest we should value? Explain how species learn/discover over evolutionary time, how they defend a form of life.

7.         How does Rolston characterize human caused extinction? How is it different (both biologically and evaluatively) from natural caused extinction? Does Rolston believe we have duties to preserve species going extinct naturally?

8.         Is the duty Rolston argues we have to not drive species extinct absolute or prima facie? Explain and give examples

9.         Explain using some of his examples why the good of a species is not just the good of its members. Consider predation, fire, death, reproduction.

10.       Why does Rolston think about preserving species in zoos? Why does he think this is not even possible, much less desirable? What is it we should be preserving? What are we preserving if we put endangered species in zoos?