Ethics, equity and a ‘good’ environmental decision

Ethics and environmental decision science

When researchers hear the word ‘ethics’ they often groan. That’s because the term usually arises in connection to ethics committees; panels which university-based scientists need to go through to get permission to undertake research. They ‘groan’ because it’s another transaction cost on getting their research done. Having said that, every ‘good’ researcher also acknowledges how important this process is – it’s the basis of their societal permission to do research.

Just as the notion of ‘ethics’ underpins the legitimacy of our research, ethical philosophies permeate our science in many fundamental ways. For example, it influences our choices about what to study and how we frame conservation problems. Social ethics is one of the defining features of the ‘new conservation’. It is therefore becoming increasingly critical to understand the interplay between ethical considerations and environmental decision making.

An important ethical consideration that demonstrates this is the idea of equity. CEED researchers have been attempting to incorporate equity into environmental decision frameworks over many years. In simple terms, it refers to fair or just treatment of individuals or groups. It can range from consideration of procedures and the distribution of resources, to the recognition of stakeholder values and knowledge. Equity is multidimensional and means different things to different stakeholders. Just like the idea of ‘biodiversity’, equity is not a single thing.

There are also many possible motivations for engaging with equity when working in conservation decisionmaking. Sometimes these motivations are divided into two themes: fundamental (virtues) or outcome-based (social or environmental). Fundamental motivations perceive equity as inherently right or valuable, whether it leads to support for conservation or not. In contrast, outcome-based motivations see equity as instrumental to achieving desirable ends.

For example, increasing the equity of decision-making processes may facilitate greater acceptance by the community of conservation management decisions and this can result in a higher likelihood of success for the policy being implemented.

And it’s important to note that it is possible to be motivated by multiple fundamental and outcome-based rationales simultaneously.

As equity is seen as both a virtuous policy ideal in itself and instrumental to the success of conservation, it is no surprise that equity has become embedded in many national and international conservation agreements. However, these policies often lack the conceptual and methodological clarity required to deliver equity in practice. For instance, Aichi Target 11 (part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, see Decision Point #100) specifies that networks of protected areas must be “equitably managed”, yet no operational definition of equity is provided.

This emphasizes that equity is a highly normative and multifaceted concept. As a policy or program goal, it can be highly contested and problematic to implement. In the domain of conservation research our attention to date has largely been focussed on considerations of distributional equity. This has limited the appreciation of equity and ethical considerations in some environmental decisions.

We also need to recognise that decisions are not just an application of rationality: ethical considerations are critical for framing the problem, for example when  comparing different options for prioritising species conservation given limited budgets (a process often referred to as ‘conservation triage’). It may be that different approaches to conservation triage (rights vs outcomes) create conflict that is ultimately irreducible given different ethical perspectives. However, we have recently shown how these ethical controversies could be minimised with greater attention to the wider decision environments (Wilson & Law, 2016).

We show how conservation triage can be more acceptable, by addressing distributive justice, respecting autonomy, placing triage in a broader system of care, explicitly dealing with risk and risk preferences, and questioning whether these normative ideals are delivered in practice.

Our reflection here doesn’t answer all the questions emerging when discussing ethics and environmental decision making, if anything it just raises more questions. What we hope it does demonstrate, however, is that when it comes to exploring good environmental decision making, we can’t afford to leave ethics out of the equation.

The ethics of offsetting

For a demonstration of the importance of ethics in developing our decision frameworks, consider offsetting. Biodiversity offsetting is transforming conservation practice around the world (see Decision Point #85). Development activities that degrade or destroy biodiversity at one location are now increasingly acceptable because of compensatory environmental gains generated elsewhere. This change represents a major shift in how nature is protected, and yet its philosophical justification has received little attention.

Chris Ives and Sarah Bekessy from RMIT argue that biodiversity offsetting aligns most easily with a utilitarian ethic, where outcomes rather than actions are the focus. However, offsetting schemes often neglect to account for the multiple values that people assign to biodiversity – including unique, place-based values. Furthermore, the implications of defining nature as a tradeable commodity may affect our sense of obligation to protect biodiversity.

Ironically, offsetting may exacerbate environmental harm because it erodes ethical barriers based on moral objections to the destruction of biodiversity.

By failing to consider the ethical implications of biodiversity offsetting, we risk compromising the underlying motivations for protecting nature.


Ives CD & SA Bekessy (2015). The ethics of offsetting nature. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 13: 568–573.

More info: Kerrie Wilson


Wilson KA & EA Law (2016). Ethics of conservation triage.  Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

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