Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Rhino versus human values

In the Congo a remnant population of rhinoceros are being killed by hungry human militia. The population of rhino has fallen from 22,000 in the past to 900 today but 400 have apparently been killed in the past few weeks.

Obviously the future of the population looks bleak. This raises the partly (though not entirely) hypothetical question of whether acting to ensure the survival of the rhinos outweighs the survival of the starving militia. One could duck this question by supposing (a) that external food supplies could be provided as a substitute for the rhino, (b) that we can’t do much to save the rhino population anyway so, by a triage argument, we should be unconcerned with their fate and, finally, (c) that killing the rhino will only ensure the survival of these people on the basis of rhino meat for a few weeks anyway. But supposing objections (a)-(c) are not valid, my own view is that survival of the rhinos is far more important than that of the militia. The reason is basic economics – we value things on the basis of their scarcity value at the margin not on the basis of a priori attributes. There are 6.5 billion humans and only a small rhino population. The rhinos have non-negligible charismatic value and while human life is important it is much more abundant so its scarcity value is lower.

Human beings in this instance seem to have lower social value than the animals they are feeding on. I’d be interested in reader views on my contention about this. The same ethical issues are increasingly arising around the world as the needs of human populations conflict with the desire to conserve biodiversity – an example on the Foreign Correspondent show was the conflict between elephants and villages in Sri Lanka. Again, in my view, a optimal social decision maker should give priority to elephant populations and for much the same reasons.


conrad said...

We have an even easier ethical example in Australia, and we don't even have to let the people die.

All we have to do is stop giving farmers vast amounts of money to destroy the environment, and many endangered species might be saved. This seems much easier than your example, but people still don't want to do it.

Dean said...

Not sure if those two examples are the same, as one involves putting a higher value on social (or political) capital rather than natural capital whilst the other involves actually placing a high value on animals than on human life. It is not about saving the environment per se, but about actually making the ethical jump in which we place life other than human above human life.

Your example Conrad, whilst undoubtedly very accurate, reflects the infuriating tendency to put environmental concern below all others.

In terms of your ethical challenge, I can’t help but make the obvious comment about ‘where will it end. Once we acknowledge that some lives are not worth saving regardless of the individual’s desire to live because of their environmental or social cost I wonder where we stop. We value life not because it is scare (it is clearly not) but because of an ethical decision. The economic reasoning may be sound, but it is beyond the ethical bounds within which we permit action.

Can we make an exception to this rule without justifying many other sacrifices of human lives?