Recognizing animal personhood in compassionate conservation

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Conservation Biology, 2020, 34, (5), pp. 1097-1106
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Compassionate conservation argues that actions taken to protect the Earth's diversity of life should be guided by compassion for all sentient beings. A set of essays published in Conservation Biology call to reject compassionate conservation. Critics argue that there are situations in which harming animals in conservation programs is appropriate. Three core reasons can be summarized: (1) conservation's raison d'être is biodiversity protection; (2) conservation is already compassionate to nonhumans; and (3) conservation should be compassionate to humans. We analysed these arguments, finding that objections to compassionate conservation are expressions of human exceptionalism, the view that humans are of categorically separate and higher moral status than all other species. In contrast, compassionate conservationists believe that conservation should expand its moral community by recognising all sentient beings as persons. Personhood, in an ethical sense, implies an entity is owed respect, and should never be treated merely as a means to other ends. On scientific and ethical grounds, there are good reasons to extend personhood to nonhuman animals, particularly in conservation. The moral exclusion or subordination of nonhuman beings has served to legitimate the ongoing manipulation and exploitation of the more-than-human world, the very reason conservation was needed in the first place. We embrace compassion for its ability to dismantle human exceptionalism, to recognise nonhuman personhood, and to navigate a more expansive moral space. Article impact statement: The debate about compassionate conservation is about whether to recognize nonhuman personhood. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
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