Cautioning against overemphasis of normative constructs in conservation decision making

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Conservation Biology, 2019, 33 (5), pp. 1002 - 1013
Issue Date:
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© 2019 Society for Conservation Biology Questions around how to conserve nature are increasingly leading to dissonance in conservation planning and action. While science can assist in unraveling the nature of conservation challenges, conservation responses rely heavily on normative positions and constructs to order actions, aid interpretations, and provide motivation. However, problems can arise when norms are mistaken for science or when they stymy scientific rigor. To highlight these potential pitfalls, we used the ethics-based tool of argument analysis to assess a controversial conservation intervention, the Pelorus Island Goat Control Program. The program proponents' argument for restorative justice was unsound because it relied on weak logical construction overly entrenched in normative assumptions. Overreliance on normative constructs, particularly the invocation of tragedy, creates a sense of urgency that can subvert scientific and ethical integrity, obscure values and assumptions, and increase the propensity for flawed logic. This example demonstrates how the same constructs that drive biodiversity conservation can also drive poor decision making, spur public backlash, and justify poor animal welfare outcomes. To provide clarity, a decision-making flowchart we devised demonstrates how values, norms, and ethics influence one another. We recommend practitioners follow 3 key points to improve decision making: be aware of values, as well as normative constructs and ethical theories that those values inform; be mindful of overreliance on either normative constructs or ethics when deciding action is justified; and be logically sound and transparent when building justifications. We also recommend 5 key attributes that practitioners should be attentive to when making conservation decisions: clarity, transparency, scientific integrity, adaptiveness, and compassion. Greater attention to the role of norms in decision making will improve conservation outcomes and garner greater public support for actions.
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