“A group called the Dallas Safari Club is auctioning off the chance for one hunter to shoot an endangered black rhinoceros in Namibia. The club claims all proceeds will support conservation of the embattled species…”
The Dallas Safari Club’s auction sale of “conservation tags” permitting hunters to shoot endangered black rhinoceros in Namibia has stirred up a debate over conservation methods worldwide. The auction proceeds of such permits are, ironically, directed back towards supporting the conservation of the endangered species – the profit expended on land management, habitat restoration, etc. Executive Director Ben Carter of the Dallas Safari Club reveals the group’s utilitarian approach: “Populations matter; individuals don’t. By removing counterproductive individuals from a herd, rhino populations can actually grow”. The right thing to do, from their perspective, is what benefits the most – killing one rhino to save many. Basing rights in the theory of consequentialist ethics as such, utilitarianism measures ethical behavior based on providing the “greatest utility for the greatest number of people or beings”.
Although the Namibian model is proving itself to be rather effective – showing a 30% increase in the black rhino population – there seems to be many who are not in favor of the utilitarian approach. Others often look to duty and obligations for moral answers – acting on first principles. Such rights-based code of ethics places intrinsic value – as an alternative to instrumental value – in people or beings, recognizing the good or right in something in and of itself.
Environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s concept of land ethic defines a relationship between people and nature different from one described by the advocates of rhino auction. Leopold put forward what he understood to be the fundamental ethical precept where the word “land” refers to the community comprising collectively of man, as well as “soils, waters, plants, and animals”, that is to be loved and respected in its entirety. Accordingly, each individual or member of a community is deemed to be significant in protecting and preserving the health of this “land”. Such consideration by Leopold directly contrasts Carter’s utilitarian statement that “populations matter; individuals don’t”.
Further, Leopold’s perspective on the auction sale would likely be one opposite of Corey Knowlton’s. Knowlton, a Texas millionaire and, more importantly, a hunter who bought one of these conservation tags for $350,000, insisted in an interview, “if we want wildlife to be around for future generations, we have to understand that wildlife has to have a value”. Constructing an economic argument as such, he asserts that male, aggressive, post-reproductive rhinos have a negative value; on the contrary, the land ethic’s principle proclaims the need to “quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem”. Leopold, thus, would rationalize that the rhinos – as a part of this shared, expanded community – are entitled to exist regardless of their economic benefits to humans. The dominant Modern Western discourse, characterized by hierarchical dualism and domination, manifests man’s power over nature. What does wildlife do for “us”? For human beings? As such, many come to consider the wildlife population to be abound only when managed by humans. Leopold would urge us to change “the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it”.
In this context of black rhinoceros, I am personally in favor of the utilitarian approach. However, in general, contextual objectivity versus subjectivity seems to be the key factor in deciding whether or not populations matter over individuals. Say, for example, that you are given the choice of saving one individual – your father – over a handful of people who do not matter to you. Then, the question suddenly becomes much more difficult. The utilitarian approach, moreover, is flawed in that it places all emphasis strictly on the consequences of one's action and none on other moral principles or human rights. Injustice can easily arise from utilitarianism, and morality is about more than just the outcome, overall happiness of all - benefit of many.
Adler, S. (2015, September 7). The Rhino Hunter. Retrieved December 10, 2015, from http://www.radiolab.org/story/rhino-hunter/
Howard, B. C. (2013, October 28). Rhino Hunt Permit Auction Sets Off Conservation Debate. National Geographic.
Leopold, Aldo (1949). The Land Ethic. In A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press.
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