IV. Ethical aspects
The concept of biodiversity always includes descriptive aspects that relate to measurable and describable characteristics of the diversity of e.g. species. At the same time, the term "biodiversity" is used to refer to the diversity of nature as something that is worthy of protection. Biodiversity protection is often considered a worthwhile objective; yet it can be challenged on philosophical and ethical grounds. The subject of this discussion is how human behaviour towards non-human nature can be justified and which value (or even intrinsic value) can be attached to nature. The moral debate on biodiversity thus mainly focuses on its right to protection. What exactly is the value of biodiversity? Is it a purely instrumental value that has to be contextualised with respect to the benefit for human beings, or does nature, or do specific areas of nature, have value in its/their own right?
Nature and environmental ethics approaches:
Nature and environmental ethics (see module Nature and Environmental Ethics) argumentation often follows basic patterns, which can be broken down into anthropocentric, pathocentric, biocentric and holistic positions (see module Overview: Positions). These approaches differ in terms of the range of objects to which intrinsic value is being attached and which are hence directly entitled to protection. All four approaches have in common that they are anthroporelational (see module Anthroporelational). This means that the value assigned to nature is reflected in rights to protection that always relate to the human being. Only humans can bear the obligation for protection; only humans have the ability to establish rules and to assume responsibility.
From an anthropocentric (see module Anthropocentrism) (only applying to human beings) environmental ethics point of view, nature is only valued insofar as it is of significance or value for human beings. According to this theory, only human beings have intrinsic value. Moral duties are only owed to other human beings; there is no direct obligation to protect non-human creatures. Hence, if from an anthropocentric perspective it is claimed that biodiversity is to be conserved, this is based on human beings potentially being affected by these actions, and not on an intrinsic value being assigned to nature. Particularly with regard to the real, or potential, benefits of biodiversity and the question of who takes advantage of these benefits, and to what extent, the notion of justice (see module Justice) is a central aspect of the ethical debate.
In the pathocentric (see module Pathocentrism) approach, inherent value is attributed to those living beings that are able to experience pain, which becomes manifest in observable behaviour, such as trembling or attempts to flee. Hence, at least higher animals and human beings have a right to protection. From the pathocentric point of view, the value of biodiversity is only indirectly derived from the direct value attributed to sentient organisms. Thus, an ecosystem must not be destroyed for example if apes are likely to suffer from the consequences.
In biocentrism (see module Biocentrism), there is a greater obligation for protection than in pathocentrism, as the biocentric approach includes all living organisms. Thus, human responsibility not only extends to organisms that are valuable to humans, or to sentient organisms, but to all living organisms. Proponents of this approach often argue that, whether it be consciously or unconsciously, each living organism has an "interest" in living, which is not to be violated without any reason by human beings.
In holism (see module Holism), living and non-living nature in its entirety is the bearer of moral value. This approach focuses not only on individual living organisms, but on nature as an integrated whole, including natural systems (such as ecosystems or ecological niches). As a result, human beings should protect nature as a whole - not because it is valuable, able to experience pain or alive, but simply because it exists.