Discrimination Against ‘Invasive’ Species: An Ethical Exploration
In a garden in Florida, a green iguana is shot. Two questions arise immediately that draw a wedge between conservationists and animal advocates: Is this ethically problematic? And if so, in what way?
To offer some context, green iguanas are native to Central America, and were probably first introduced to Florida as exotic companion animals. There, they have flourished. They leave excrement in swimming pools and chew through cables, creating power outages. Their burrows can collapse sidewalks. In addition to being seen as a nuisance to humans, there’s some evidence that they could be a threat to native Floridian species. So, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) has encouraged homeowners to kill them.
For many animal advocates, the killing is what jumps out immediately. As the study authors point out, reptiles like the green iguana experience pleasure, pain, and emotions, and engage in social behavior – and we still have much to learn about their cognitive abilities. Is it ever ethically acceptable to kill such sentient beings? For many animal advocates, the answer may be clear cut. From a conservation perspective, it’s a question with no single easy answer, involving complex moral trade-offs between the different interests at play. In this study, the authors draw our attention to a more overlooked moral issue: the question of discrimination.
Fundamentally, discrimination simply means drawing distinctions based on traits. The authors argue that “wrongful discrimination” goes against the bedrock moral principle of the equal moral worth of persons. There are two strands here: inherent value (i.e., persons are ends, not means to ends), and moral equality (i.e. persons are equally worthy of respect).
To illustrate the difference, the authors offer the example of a thief who only targets women. By stealing, the thief disregards their inherent value, treating them as a means to his own ends. By only stealing from women, he singles out this particular group as less deserving of respect.
Bringing it back to the green iguanas: are we subjecting them to wrongful discrimination? To answer this question, we need to understand two key points: whether the same bedrock moral principle applies to nonhuman animals; and whether “invasive” is demeaning.
Drawing on animal scholars like Regan and Singer, the authors of this paper contend that it would be speciesist to exclude nonhuman animals from theories of discrimination. There’s no morally relevant characteristic that all humans and no nonhumans possess. As such, they argue that the principle of equal moral worth applies to all of us.
A quick glance at the history and context of the word invasive quite clearly suggests that it demeans. “Invasive” is used to justify the extermination of sentient beings, often with little concern for their suffering. In Australia, for example, the label justified the horrifying practice of “cane toad sports,” where people used these animals as living balls in golf and cricket.
The authors decide that, given that nonhuman animals deserve equal moral worth and that “invasive” is demeaning, describing green iguanas as invasive wrongfully discriminates against them. The study further argues that this discrimination is particularly bad coming from an authority figure like the FWC. Their authority creates the possibility of wrongdoing without culpability among members of the public. If I shoot a green iguana because I have placed my faith in the FWC and their recommendations, I am not wholly responsible for my ethically wrong action.
At this point, faced with the image of the dead iguana, we might be wondering: isn’t the real problem with this case the loss of life? Anticipating this question, the authors point out that animal rights theory does, in some cases, accept the killing of nonhuman animals. Killing and discrimination of species are two distinct subjects, and both deserve careful thought and examination. With discrimination being a more overlooked concept in animal rights scholarship, this study dives into that aspect of the conversation in earnest, and asks animal advocates to do the same.
Ultimately, the authors conclude that discrimination creates unjustifiable subhierarchies within the (itself problematic) human/nonhuman hierarchy. As invasive species, green iguanas are demeaned; charismatic megafauna like pandas and tigers are privileged. Instead of promoting the idea that some animals are more equal than others, the authors suggest that we focus on data as we make conservation decisions. It can be an uncomfortable process when our idealism comes into conflict with our conservation goals, but making data-informed decisions may be the best way for us to proceed.