A ‘good’ decision is a ‘fair’ decision

Tips on incorporating equity into decision-making

 Equity is an important consideration surrounding decisions relating to ecotourism. Tourism can bring in an alternative source of income, but large numbers of tourists can degrade an area. Who should get to decide if and how much tourism should be allowed? Pictured above is the LA Ciudad Perdida (the lost city) in Colombia. It’s an example of ecotourism which tries to incorporate ethics into its practice by employing local guides and providing money to local indigenous groups. (Photo by Elizabeth Law)

Equity is an important consideration surrounding decisions relating to ecotourism. Tourism can bring in an alternative source of income, but large numbers of tourists can degrade an area. Who should get to decide if and how much tourism should be allowed? Pictured above is the LA Ciudad Perdida (the lost city) in Colombia. It’s an example of ecotourism which tries to incorporate ethics into its practice by employing local guides and providing money to local indigenous groups. (Photo by Elizabeth Law)


KEY MESSAGES:
  • Improving social equity is important to good environmental outcomes
  • What constitutes equitable outcomes and processes is highly normative and subject to ethical deliberation
  • We encourage a more analytical incorporation of equity into conservation decision making (and provide a guide on how this might be done)

There are many reasons to consider social equity in conservation decisions. On the one hand, it’s a nice thing to strive for – we all would like to think we are being ‘fair’ in the decisions we are a part of (both as an individual and as a society). On the other, it can help build community support and participation (social capital) which is really valuable for successful conservation outcomes. But how do you integrate equity into conservation decisions? What does it even mean to be equitable? Understanding the multiple ways that equity can be perceived is key to answering these questions. Exploring different ethical frameworks can help us understand some fundamentally different perspectives of what is meant by ‘good’ or ‘right’. For example, three broad schools of ethical thought in Western philosophy include consequentialism, deontology, and virtue. Consequentialism focuses on the outcomes of actions, deontology on the actions themselves, and virtue on the inherent character of the decision-maker. These different philosophies then give rise to different motivations and objectives in how we incorporate equity in decision-making. Equity might implicate the process or procedure (eg, who gets to make the decisions and how), recognition (eg, what types of information are considered), distribution (eg, how are outcomes, rights, responsibilities, etc. allocated), and context (eg, what past injustices and historical legacies are considered).

Wind turbines on farmland across Australia have proved a vexed policy issue for policy makers. Local communities often dislike them while individual farmers who received income for having them on their land love them. Who benefits, who suffers, what’s fair and equitable? It depends on who you ask.

Wind turbines on farmland across Australia have proved a vexed policy issue for policy makers. Local communities often dislike them while individual farmers who received income for having them on their land love them. Who benefits, who suffers, what’s fair and equitable? It depends on who you ask.

But, as is common with complex problems, the multiple objectives can be in conflict. For example, equitable procedures may not lead to equitable distributions. And egalitarian distributions are rarely equitable in practice. Equity is a highly normative and multifaceted concept, where the objectives of equity may not be mutually achievable. So, as a policy goal, equity can be highly contested and problematic to implement. As such, we need to be really clear about what our motivations and objectives are for including equity. As researchers studying environmental decisions, how might we proceed in regards to equity? Many of the issues we deal with are controversial and politicised; and social equity is often a concern. We recently developed a framework to help deal with this challenge (Law et al, 2017). We identified motivations for considering equity (Fig 1), illustrated how alternative ethical frameworks can influence what is considered equitable, and demonstrated how alternative objectives might be in conflict. To help overcome the challenges associated with incorporating equity in conservation decision-making, here are ten tips for better integration.

Figure 1: Motivations for considering equity in environmental decision making. These different motivations influence which methods and actions are seen as right, appropriate, and useful to include in a conservation decision-making process. (From Law et al, 2017)

Figure 1: Motivations for considering equity in environmental decision making. These different motivations influence which methods and actions are seen as right, appropriate, and useful to include in a conservation decision-making process. (From Law et al, 2017)

Define motivations and objectives of equity within the context of the problem:

1. Clarify ethical motivations and how this may shape the way we identify the problem, the process and decision.

2. Identify the diversity of potential issues concerning equity at the outset, particularly the opportunities that might arise from instigating, exacerbating, or ameliorating conflict.

3. Determine which dimensions of equity are important given the objectives and the context. Given the tools and available data, which of these are tractable.

Plan for a diversity of stakeholders and objectives:

4. If stakeholders are involved in the decision process, be sensitive to potential conflict. Be aware of potential biases and limitations of the processes of elicitation and negotiation.

5. Determine the implications for equity of targets and objectives, and decide how to manage objectives that might be less measurable (though no less important).

6. Use informed and appropriate metrics of equity and efficiency carefully within planning and prioritisation (if this matches your objectives for equity).

7. Consider what you are asking stakeholders to do and whether this adequately compensates and incentivizes them for the duration of the intervention.

8. Consider decision models that allow a level of uncertainty due to self-determination.

Ensure equity is achieved during implementation:

9. Monitor and rigorously evaluate equity objectives during implementation, particularly when conservation actions rely on volunteer participation.

10. Expand, modify, or restrict the intervention as required.

We believe there is a big opportunity for conservation decision-making to be guided by these principles of ethical pluralism, particularly in the design of more holistic measures and methods for assessing equity. There is also scope for a better understanding of the preferences stakeholders hold for equity, as well as how policies achieve equity in practice (ie, applied ethics). Although incorporating equity into conservation decision-making adds a layer of complexity to an already challenging process, embracing this complexity will result in better more enduring conservation outcomes.


More info: Elizabeth Law e.law@uq.edu.au

Reference

Law EA, NJ Bennett, CD Ives, R Friedman, KJ Davis, C Archibald & KA Wilson (2017). Equity trade-offs in conservation decision making. Conservation Biology.  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13008/abstract

2 comments on “A ‘good’ decision is a ‘fair’ decision”

  1. Rachel Dawson Reply

    This article is an example of academics juggling big words and ideas and coming up with what common sense could have told you, namely that it’s good to be ethical. You need to go to wind farms and analyze the information, ideas and stakeholders and then come up with solutions. Pictures of wind turbines, tables and lists do nothing.
    In the world of environment and ecology tables, lists and formulae often don’t apply because there are too many variables, much of it is subjective, the scale is too large and the time frame too long. You need common sense and local knowledge over a long time frame to look at each situation on its merits.

    • elizabethalaw Reply

      Hi Rachel, I’m sorry you feel this way. I definitely agree with you that real world contexts are complex, and there is no substitute for local knowledge and appreciating diverse stakeholder perspectives. Yet decisions on these wicked problems still need to be made, despite these complexities. This is why we tried to synthesise things into a short framework. These frameworks give an overview of aspects to consider, in an attempt to help researchers understand and incorporate diverse ethical considerations into their work, and hopefully making research and decision-making less subjective. In the full paper we go through a number of different techniques and tools for managing equity in decision-making in each of these steps, discussing their benefits and potential challenges. Learning about different philosophies of morality and justice has certainly helped me appreciate different perspectives – revealing to me that what appears ‘common sense’ on the surface is often anything but!

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