Is There a Conflict between Property Rights and the Moral Requirement to Protect Endangered Species?

Thomas L. Wayburn

Moral Requirements

The moral requirements in question are two in number:  Freedom is the absence of coercion, the ability to make one’s own decisions, in short, autonomy.  The first moral requirement is to respect the freedom of oneself, others (making appropriate allowances for infants), and posterity.  (Quite obviously, this requirement precludes interfering with the freedom of someone else.  It seems hard to justify the institution of employment on the basis of this ethos.  Why does it matter that you can pick one of 50 TV channels at night if you must do what your boss says all day!)  One can develop technical philosophical machinery that permits this so-called moral axiom to be made more precise.  The idea is that your parents and yourself have certain rights as a set, similarly do you and your children.  Since your children are likely to have children themselves, by transitivity we can deduce that to impose upon the freedom of ourselves or our children is to impose upon all of posterity.  This is the crucial point:  If a species of plant or animal or a natural resource is not available to posterity, a serious moral exception has taken place.

The second moral requirement is to respect the environment including plants and animals.  One might fell a tree to build or burn, but to clearcut a forest is reprehensible.  Similarly, I don’t claim (yet) that no one may slay an animal for food or even raise him to be slain although I have serious personal problems with doing it myself.  I think we shall advance beyond the point of exploiting the animal kingdom, whether for food or labor, for our own selfish ends.  It is clearly more enlightened to treat every animal as though his life were for his own purposes – just as ours are.  Thus, the part about animals, and perhaps plants, might be derivable from the first axiom.  Further, damaging the environment is clearly an imposition on anyone who thinks it is.  Since we have no idea about what our children’s children will think — it is an imposition on posterity.

The third moral requirement is to tell the truth, which is in short supply – but not here.  Moreover, I do not believe the ranchers are lying.  They are merely (quite literally) — thoughtless.

Biological Diversity, a Strictly Utilitarian View

But, the extinction of an entire species of plant or animal can be rejected on strictly utilitarian grounds.  (The aforementioned moral requirements or axioms are justified on grounds of reasonableness, aesthetics, and utility.)  Suppose, the only cure for glaucoma were to be found in a substance excreted by a particular bird or insect.  We would deprive ourselves forever of the benefits that could be derived from that animal without exploiting him – perhaps by enhancing his life deliberately – if we allow that animal to become extinct.  Moreover, nature loves diversity.  If the number of species is not sufficiently diverse, all species might be lost – including us.

Ownership as Custodianship

In the Western world and elsewhere the concept of private property has currency.  This needn’t be the case.  I agree that each of us needs a piece of the earth to care for and to extract a living from.  In fact, we are each entitled to a suitably weighted (to account for soil conditions, natural resources, natural beauty, etc.) but nearly equal share of the earth’s surface according to the first moral axiom.  It is easy to see that owners of large chunks of the earth impose upon the freedom of others, even if it be an unfair and unreasonable and impractical shrinking of the locus of their movements.  One might be deprived of certain aesthetic pleasures.  (I am told that, in France, no one is permitted to own seaside property.  The reason for this is obvious.)

The first and second moral requirements can be shown to imply that everyone must hold the land in custodianship – leaving it as well off or better off than when he took possession.  This, of course, includes the welfare of the plants and animals.

Custodianship May Not Be Used to Hoard Wealth

Further, property may not be exploited to accumulate wealth or power, which may subsequently be used to impose upon the freedom of others – by employing them, by influencing political decisions, by consuming resources excessively, and so on.  (One example would suffice.)


There is no ethical conflict whatsoever between property rights and endangered species.  The property rights of which the ranchers speak do not now, never have, and never could – exist.

Houston, Texas

August 28, 1994

Revised December 5, 2004