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Ethics, Policy & Environment
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Is it Possible to Care for Ecosystems? Policy
Paralysis and Ecosystem Management
Robert K. Garcia & Jonathan A. Newman
To cite this article: Robert K. Garcia & Jonathan A. Newman (2016) Is it Possible to Care for
Ecosystems? Policy Paralysis and Ecosystem Management, Ethics, Policy & Environment, 19:2,
170-182, DOI: 10.1080/21550085.2016.1204054
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/21550085.2016.1204054
Published online: 02 Aug 2016.
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ETHICS, POLICY & ENVIRONMENT, 2016
VOL. 19, NO. 2, 170182
Is it Possible to Care for Ecosystems? Policy Paralysis and
Robert K. Garciaa and Jonathan A. Newmanb
aDepartment of Philosophy, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA; bSchool of Environmental
Sciences, University of Guelph, Guelph, Canada
Conservationists have two (non-mutually exclusive) types of
arguments for why we should conserve ecosystems: instrumental
and intrinsic value arguments. Instrumental arguments contend
that we ought to conserve ecosystems because of the benets
that humans, or other morally relevant individuals, derive from
ecosystems. Conservationists are often loath to rely too heavily on
the instrumental argument because it could potentially force them
to admit that some ecosystems are not at all useful to humans, or that
if they are, they are not more useful than alternative congurations
of those ecosystems. Consequently, conservationists often resort
to an intrinsic value argument, contending that ecosystems are
objectively valuable as ends in themselves, rather than merely as
means to an end. If ecosystems have intrinsic value, then they have
moral standing, which means that we must consider their needs and
interests in any decisions we make about them. This paper concerns
the signicance of this move for individual and collective action on
behalf of ecosystems. We show that even if there were ecosystems
that had moral standing, we would lack adequate practical reasons
to act on their behalf.
Ecosystems are said to provide functions and services for the wellbeing of humans and other
individuals. However, not all ecosystems are important in these ways, and even if they are
they may not be more important than alternative uses or congurations. Relying on such
instrumental values can logically commit conservationists to policies that are seemingly at
odds with other parts of the conservationists’ agenda, e.g. species additions, species remov-
als, and wholesale alterations of ecosystems if such changes enhanced the usefulness of
those systems to humans (or possibly to other sentient organisms). Conservationists might
argue that such alterations would never result in more valuable functioning. This is an empir-
ical argument that in principle could be evaluated. Even if we accept, for the sake of argu-
ment, that such alterations will rarely result in higher functioning, if it were true in even one
instance, a conservationist who relied on the instrumental defense would be committed to
a policy of alteration for that instance.
© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Rober t K. Garcia email@example.com
ETHICS, POLICY & ENVIRONMENT 171
Faced with the unpalatability of these commitments and the realization that conservation
will not always be more economically valuable (in the broadest sense) than development,
most conservationists adopt a view called ‘Ecoholism’, or simply ‘Holism’. According to Holism,
ecosystems are objectively real and have objective intrinsic moral value. These two compo-
nents of Holism merit clarication.
First, Holism involves the substantive ontological premise that ecosystems are objectively
real in that they ‘exist as such in nature’ and must be ‘found and identied instead of being
dened and delimited’ (Jax, 2006, p. 243). This component of Holism will be crucial for our
discussion, so it will be useful to give it a name:
Independent Existence: At least some things we call ‘ecosystems’ are real natural entities that
exist independently of our mental conceptions.
In other words, on Holism, ecosystems are not mathematical models or conceptual appara-
tuses for predicting or understanding what is going on in a given spatiotemporal region.
Rather, like planets, people, and particles, ecosystems exist independently of whether we
think or care about them.
Second, in addition to taking ecosystems to be objectively real, Holism takes ecosystems
to have objective intrinsic moral value. Their moral value is ‘objective’ in the sense that an
ecosystem has moral value regardless of whether or not the ecosystem happens to be valued
by individual valuers. If the value of an ecosystem were not objective in this sense, then it
would be dependent on the tastes and preferences of individual valuers—tastes that are
demonstrably inconsistent, and therefore lack any form of moral force. The moral value of
an ecosystem is said to be ‘intrinsic’, or ‘nal’, in that an ecosystem has moral value as an end
in itself. And, nally, it should be emphasized that on Holism, an ecosystem itself is among
the bearers of nal value—rather than some property the ecosystem might have, such as
health, integrity, etc. In what follows, ‘intrinsic value’ is elliptical for ‘objective intrinsic moral
In the eld of environmental ethics, Holism is one of several competing views about the
scope of the moral community, as shown in Figure 1.
If Holists are right that ecosystems exist independently and have objective intrinsic moral
value, then ecosystems have moral standing. This would mean that moral agents such as
ourselves ought to take into account the needs and interests of ecosystems when we make
decisions aecting those systems. Thus, if there are good reasons for thinking that Holism
is true, then such reasons provide conservationists with a powerful argument—one that
holds even for ecosystems that have no instrumental value.
In this paper we assess the Holist’s case for motivating and justifying individual or collec-
tive action on behalf of ecosystems.
Epistemic Versus Pragmatic Cases for Holism
As noted, in addition to Independent Existence, Holism is committed to the thesis that eco-
systems have moral standing. Of course, the question of standing is moot if Independent
Existence is false.1 Accordingly, we will focus on Independent Existence.
The traditional distinction between epistemic and pragmatic reasons allows us to pose
two questions. First, are there good reasons to think that the Independent Existence thesis is
true or probably true? In other words, are conservationists correct in believing that there
really are ecosystems? We call this the Epistemic Case for Holism. Second, even if we lack
172 R. K. GARCIA AND J. A. NEWMAN
convincing reasons to believe that Independent Existence is true, are there compelling reasons
to behave (act) as if it is true? In other words, are there pragmatic reasons for acting as if
there are ecosystems (even while suspending judgment as to whether they exist)? We call
this the Pragmatic Case for Holism. Below, we will suggest that the Epistemic Case is prob-
lematic and at best disputable. Unless the challenges to the Epistemic Case can be met,
Holism must rely on the Pragmatic Case. We argue, however, that the Pragmatic Case fails
to be action guiding, and therefore we do not have good practical reasons to behave as if
there really are ecosystems.
In assessing the Independent Existence claim, we meet an initial twofold complication. First,
as noted by Kurt Jax (2006, p. 246), ‘there has been no clear convergence of [ecosystem]
denitions throughout the decades’. Rather, as illustrated in Figure 2, at present there is a
rich diversity of putatively competing ecosystem concepts. Second, there are dierent inter
pretive stances one can take towards any given ecosystem concept. The far-right column of
Figure 2 shows the intended stance—this is the interpretive stance taken by the author(s)
of each ecosystem concept. Frequently, the intended stance is anti-realist—the author(s)
takes her ecosystem concept to be a useful ction, simply a way to divide up nature into
smaller chunks for the purposes of study or description. In some cases, the intended stance
is realist—the author takes there to be at least one mind-independent natural entity answer-
ing to her ecosystem concept. And, as noted by Jax (2006), for many ecosystem concepts,
the intended stance is unclear. Of course, there is nothing mandatory about the intended
stances. Depending on how you assess the relevant considerations, you might, in principle,
take a realist or anti-realist stance towards any of these ecosystem concepts. In some cases,
this might involve rejecting the author’s intended stance. Furthermore, one might take
Anthropocentrism Sentientism Biocentric
Humans Yes Yes Yes Yes
No Yes Yes Yes
No No Yes Yes
parts of the
No No No Yes
Figure 1.A hierarchy of moral views. Sentient animals are those that can consciously experience pain
and pleasure. Research suggests that these include all vertebrate animals and possibly cephalopods, but
probably exclude other invertebrates, and deﬁnitely exclude plants, fungi, bacteria and archea (Varner,
2002). Non-living parts of the natural world would include ecosystems, species, populations, habitats,
etc. While things such as species are comprised of living organisms, the collective, ‘species’, is not itself a
living thing, neither are ecosystems. Figure adapted from Varner (2002).
ETHICS, POLICY & ENVIRONMENT 173
dierent interpretive stances to dierent ecosystem concepts. For example, one might take
a realist stance towards Lindeman ecosystems and an anti-realist stance towards Dunbar
This twofold complication—the diversity of extant ecosystem concepts and the dierent
possible interpretive stances—yields a number of overall positions one might take. Call any
such overall position an ‘ecosystem ontology’.
One ecosystem ontology is what we will call global anti-realism, which takes an anti-realist
stance towards all ecosystem concepts. On this view, Independent Existence is false: strictly
speaking, there are no ecosystems of any kind that exist mind-independently. Opposed to
global anti-realism is realism, which arms Independent Existence and takes a realist stance
Author Boundary Criterion, Type Degree of Internal
Tansley (1935) Process, Functional High, unspecific Anti-realist
Rowe (1961) Topography, Statistical Low Anti-realist
Stöcker (1979) Process, Functional Unimportant Anti-realist
Likens & Bormann (1995) Topography or interactions,
Lindeman (1942) Topography, Functional Low Unclear
Odum (1953) Process, Functional Intermediate, low
Klijn & Udo de Haes (1994) Topography, Statistical Low Unclear
Dunbar (1972) Topography, Functional High Realist
Jørgensen et al (1992) Process, Functional Unclear Realist
Odenbaugh (2010) Unclear High Realist
Figure 2.Figure and deﬁnitions adapted from Jax (2006). Boundary criteria: Topography indicates that
the boundaries of the ecosystem should be drawn by features more or less visible directly in space, either
through diﬀerences in features such as land/water boundaries, or between more or less homogeneous
patches of organisms and abiotic variables, and includes cases where the boundaries are completely
arbitrary. Process indicates that the boundaries of an ecosystem should be drawn based on interactions
between components of the ecosystem. Statistical denotes that the boundaries are determined by
observing the distribution patterns of the elements of ecosystems. Functional denotes that the boundaries
are determined by observing the interactions between the elements of the ecosystems. Functional
relationships can be seen as necessary to call an ecological unit an ecosystem. These relationships can
take diﬀerent forms and degrees. On the one extreme, the elements of a unit may not need to display
any interrelations at all, or they might require: self-regulation, equilibrium states, and relative functional
autonomy. Note that Jax calls the realist status ‘ontological’ and the anti-realist status ‘epistemological’.
What conclusions ought one draw from this plethora of ecosystem concepts? Jax concludes, ‘Given the
history of the concept “ecosystem” (Hagen 1992; Golley 1993; Jax 1998) and the epistemological status
of ecological units (Jax, 2006), there is not a single “right” deﬁnition for the term ‘”ecosystem”. There can
be diﬀerent useful deﬁnitions for diﬀerent purposes’ (Jax, 2007). Sagoﬀ is less charitable: ‘What are called
natural ecosystems … are so mixed up, contingent, fractious, intractable, unexpected, protean, erratic,
changeable, unpredictable, ﬁckle, variable, and dodgy … [even ecologists ﬁnd them hard to pin down]’
(James, 2013, p. 264; Sagoﬀ, 2013, p. 253).
174 R. K. GARCIA AND J. A. NEWMAN
towards at least one ecosystem concept. Realists agree that there is at least one kind of
mind-independent ecosystem. Realists disagree, however, over how many kinds of those
ecosystems there are. A pluralist takes a realist stance towards two or more ecosystem con-
cepts and holds that these are conceptions of fundamentally dierent kinds of ecosystems,
all of which exist mind-independently. A monist holds that there is only one kind of ecosys-
tem that exists mind-independently. There are two ways to be a monist. An exclusivist is a
monist who takes a realist stance towards exactly one ecosystem concept and an anti-realist
stance towards the rest. An inclusivist is a monist who takes a realist stance towards two or
more ecosystem concepts, but argues that these are dierent concepts of the same kind of
natural entity. For example, an inclusivist might take a realist stance towards both Lindeman
and Dunbar ecosystems, but hold that these are dierent ways of conceptualizing the very
same kind of natural ecological unit.
Because Holism requires some version of realism, the Epistemic Case for Independent
Existence turns on this question: how good are the reasons favoring a realist ecosystem
ontology, whether monist (exclusivist or inclusivist) or pluralist?
The Epistemic Case
Ecological science has given rise to the variety of ecosystem concepts, so it is important to
ask to what extent the scientic considerations favor a realist ecosystem ontology. The cur-
rent state of thinking in the eld of ecology is probably best summed up by Jax (2007):
Given the history of the concept ‘ecosystem’ (Golley 1993; Hagen 1992; Jax 1998) and the episte-
mological [anti-realist] status of ecological units (Jax, 2006), there is not a single ‘right’ denition
for the term ‘ecosystem’. There can be dierent useful denitions for dierent purposes.
The dierent denitions of ‘ecosystem’ mark various research traditions in ecology, each
working with its own preferred ecosystem concept. Naturally, those working within a par-
ticular tradition tend to prefer their own ecosystem concept over the others. This preference,
however, is based more on the particular research interests of an ecologist than on objective
empirical grounds or compelling scientic arguments (de Laplante, pers. com.). For those
interested, we note that a similar conceptual equivalence is at play among the 26+ concepts
of ‘species’ (see Pigliucci, 2003).
Indeed, the conceptual diversity displayed in Figure 2 indicates that the empirical evi-
dence is consistent with a range of conicting views about the ontological status of ecosys-
tems. As shown in Figure 2, with respect to their intended stances, most ecosystem concepts
are either unclear or explicitly anti-realist. A relative minority have an explicitly realist
intended stance, but, as Jax notes, the realism overreaches the empirical data and is based
on speculative metaphysical assumptions (Jax, 2007, p. 244). Put dierently, with respect to
the successes of ecological science, the explanatory power of realism is at least matched by
that of global anti-realism: neither ontology has a reasonable claim to being the best expla-
nation of the successes of ecological science. Thus, the Epistemic Case is unconvincing: the
evidence fails to make realism more likely than global anti-realism. In fact, we think the
evidence makes realism less likely than global anti-realism. But set that aside. For our pur-
poses, we only need the following weaker thesis:
Underdetermination: The empirical considerations underdetermine the choice between a realist
and anti-realist ecosystem ontology.
ETHICS, POLICY & ENVIRONMENT 175
In other words, given the available evidence, realism and global anti-realism are equally
likely to be true.2
We take Underdetermination to be a relatively uncontroversial verdict on the Epistemic
Case.3 However, our primary aim is not to provide a comprehensive defense of
Underdetermination but to assess the prospects of the Pragmatic Case. To this end, the thesis
is important because it shows that the Pragmatic Case is both necessary and possible.
On the one hand, if the Epistemic Case were convincing, the Pragmatic Case would be
unnecessary. In other words, if we had good reasons for believing that ecosystems were real,
then we wouldn’t need further reasons for acting as if they were real. Thus, because the
Epistemic Case fails, the Holist must resort to pragmatic considerations to motivate action
on behalf of ecosystems.
On the other hand, the Pragmatic Case requires a context of epistemic uncertainty.
This is because the most natural and promising way to construct a pragmatic case for
Holism is by appealing to the so-called precautionary principle.4 In a catchphrase, the
principle says ‘better safe than sorry.’ The principle is applicable only in a context of
epistemic uncertainty, where ‘we either lack probability information, or have reason to
distrust the information we have’ (Gardiner, 2006, p. 49). According to Underdetermination,
the Holist finds herself in exactly this type of context. The thesis does not say that the
Epistemic Case fails so utterly as to tip the scales towards global anti-realism. Rather, it
assigns equal probability to the two ontologies. This epistemic uncertainty makes the
Pragmatic Case possible since, after all, if we had good reasons to think that ecosystems
are not real, then there would be no point in acting as if they might be. Thus, although
Underdetermination says that the Epistemic Case fails, it also indicates that the Pragmatic
Case is both necessary and possible.5
It seems, then, that the Holist has a great deal riding on the Pragmatic Case.6 We take this
up next, and here we will see the main thesis of our argument: a context in which the
Pragmatic Case is both necessary and possible is also a context in which the Pragmatic Case
The Pragmatic Case
If ecosystems are independently existing things and they possess objective intrinsic moral
value (i.e. if Holism is true), then it must be possible to harm an ecosystem in a morally sig-
nicant way. In traditional ego-based normative ethical theories, harm amounts to failing
to respect the independent interests of the individual who possesses the intrinsic value.
Identifying the independent interests of an ecosystem is a philosophically dicult task.7
Anthropomorphisms aside, there is certainly nothing that an ecosystem cares about, and
even taking the broader view of interests as ‘welfare interests’, it is dicult to identify what
it means for an ecosystem to fair ill or well that is independent of the welfare (or conscious)
interests of the individual plants and animals that comprise the ecosystem. If it is not possible
to morally harm an ecosystem, then ecosystems do not possess intrinsic value and we moral
agents are not obligated to consider ecosystems in our decisions, except insofar as they
aect other moral patients. But the latter consequent is atly at odds with Holism. As we
said in the ‘Epistemic versus pragmatic cases for holism’ section, Holism requires both that
ecosystems have intrinsic value, and that Independent Existence is true. We said that if the
latter is false, then the question of intrinsic value is moot. Let us assume, for the sake of
176 R. K. GARCIA AND J. A. NEWMAN
argument, that it is possible to identify the independent interests of an ecosystem. Whatever
those interests are, it seems unlikely that they will be identical for all ecosystems. For example,
a prairie ecosystem is unlikely to have the same welfare interests as a pond ecosystem. To
anticipate what we say below, it also seems unlikely that fundamentally dierent kinds of
ecosystems—such as Dunbar and Lindeman ecosystems—will have the same welfare inter-
ests. For our purposes, however, we do not need the thesis that it is unlikely that dierent
kinds of ecosystems will have dierent welfare interests. Rather, we only need the following
Varied Interests: For all we know, if there are ecosystems, then it is false that all ecosystems
share all and only the same welfare interests.
In eect, Varied Interests says that we are in no position to rule out the possibility that fun-
damentally dierent kinds of ecosystems will have (perhaps fundamentally) dierent welfare
In many situations where the epistemic case is uncertain, there will be a moral argument
for behaving as if the epistemic case were certain. For example, the problem of animal sen-
tience is epistemically uncertain. We can never know with certainty that, for example, dogs
are capable of consciously experiencing pain. The best we can do is make a weight-of-evi-
dence argument that they can and that they do.
If a dog can consciously experience pain, then it would be morally wrong to cause a dog
pain for no good reason. As an ethical position, we apply a form of the Precautionary Principle
and take the pragmatic position that we ought to act as if dogs can consciously feel pain,
because of what is at stake if we demand epistemic certainty before we extend moral con-
sideration to dogs. In this case the pragmatic argument has the following form:
With respect to animal sentience, it doesn’t matter whether the evidence makes it more likely
than not that dogs are sentient. For all we know, dogs are sentient. And, if dogs are actually
sentient and we fail to treat them as such, then they will suer signicantly. Thus, we should
treat dogs as if they are sentient because of what’s at stake.
In what follows, we ask whether we can extend the same kind of precautionary approach
to the case of ecosystem existence. In other words, even if we lack convincing reasons to
believe that there are ecosystems, should we behave (act) as if there are ecosystems? Before
moving on to this case, a few general comments about the Precautionary Principle are in
‘The’ Precautionary Principle
The plausibility and exact formulation of the Precautionary Principle is the subject of con-
siderable debate, including recent articles in this journal.8 Our aim is not to settle these
debates, but to consider whether and how precaution might motivate action on behalf of
ecosystems. 9 As is often noted, there is no single Precautionary Principle, but many closely
related ideas.10 Sandin (1999) counts 19 dierent statements of the Precautionary Principle,
but perhaps the most well-known is the one used in the 1990 UN Economic Conference on
Europe (later adopted verbatim as Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration in 1992):
Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientic certainty shall
not be used as a reason for postponing cost-eective measures to prevent environmental
ETHICS, POLICY & ENVIRONMENT 177
This statement is sometimes known as ‘the weak precautionary principle.’ It is occasionally
phrased more generally as: ‘lack of full certainty is not a justication for preventing an action
that might be harmful.’
This more general form of the Precautionary Principle has been deployed in environmen-
tal ethical arguments for decades.11 For example, Precautionary Principle arguments were
deployed from the earliest days of arguments about anthropogenic climate change. The
arguments took the form:
With respect to policy P, it doesn’t matter whether the evidence makes it more likely than not
that climate change is anthropogenic. For all we know, climate change is anthropogenic. And,
if climate change is actually anthropogenic and we fail to enact P, then many will suer signi-
cantly. Thus, we should enact P because of what’s at stake.
The uncertainty here is around the question of whether or not changes in our climate are
caused in part by our own actions.
In the absence of a convincing Epistemic Case for Holism, it is natural to consider whether
a precautionary argument might justify individual or collective action on behalf of ecosys-
tems. In schematic form, such a precautionary argument might go as follows:
ACT: With respect to acting on behalf of some putative ecosystem e, it doesn’t matter whether
the evidence makes it more likely than not that e exists. For all we know, e exists. And, if e actually
exists and we fail to act on behalf of e, then e will suer signicant harm. Thus, we should act on
behalf of e because of what’s at stake.
Unfortunately, in attempting to motivate action on behalf of an ecosystem, any such appeal
to the Precautionary Principle will fail in virtue of two further theses which we will now defend:
Plenitude and Disparity. As we will see, these theses vex the Pragmatic Case with paralysis.
The Plenitude Thesis
Our rst thesis involves the notion of ‘plenitude.’ We will say that there is a plenitude of eco-
systems if for each ecosystem X, there is a great number of other ecosystems—the Ys, such
that X and the Ys form a set of ecosystems whose members are variously overlapping and
nested, both spatially and temporally. As noted by Jax (2006) and Odenbaugh (2010, p. 245,
248), ecologists typically conceive of ecosystems in such a way that, on a realist interpretation,
there would be a plenitude of ecosystems. For example, if there are watershed ecosystems,
there is almost certainly a plentitude of them. This is illustrated in Figure 3.
More generally, for each ecosystem concept listed in Figure 2, it is reasonable to think
that if there are any real ecosystems answering to that concept, then there is a plentitude
of them. For our purposes, however, we only need a weaker thesis:
Plenitude: For all we know, if there are ecosystems, then for each kind of real ecosystem, there
is a plenitude of ecosystems of that kind.
In eect, Plenitude says there is a realist presumption for plenitude.
The Disparity Thesis
Above, we granted that although the empirical case fails to convince, it doesn’t fail so utterly
as to justify global anti-realism. So in this section, for the sake of argument we will assume
that there are ecosystems and will consider how the pragmatic case fares on this
178 R. K. GARCIA AND J. A. NEWMAN
As shown in Figure 2, there are numerous ecosystem concepts currently employed by
ecologists. Moreover, as the discussion in Jax (2007) makes clear, although certain ecosystem
concepts may have been superseded or fallen out of favor, there is no single ecosystem
concept that is signicantly more empirically adequate than all the others. Thus, given the
ambiguity of the evidence, if one is going to be a realist, one should not be an exclusivist.
Put dierently, even assuming that there are ecosystems, one would not be justied in taking
a realist stance towards a single ecosystem concept while taking an anti-realist stance
towards the rest. Instead, it would be more reasonable to take a realist stance towards several
ecosystem concepts and thus be either an inclusivist or a pluralist. However, although the
evidence rules out exclusivism, it also underdetermines the choice between inclusivism and
pluralism. Thus, the assumption that there are ecosystems together with the evidence fails
to settle the question of how many kinds of ecosystems there are. Even if we assume that
there are ecosystems, the evidence doesn’t make inclusivism more likely than pluralism,
much less rule out pluralism. We thus arrive at our second thesis:
Disparity: For all we know, if there are ecosystems, then (pluralism) there is a disparate group
of fundamentally dierent kinds of ecosystems.
In eect, Disparity says there is no realist presumption for monism.
Figure 3.Three (of many) ecosystems that might reasonably be of management and/or scientiﬁc interest.
The Kirkland Creek watershed (lower left insert), which is a part of the Conestoga River watershed (lower
right insert), which itself is a part of the Grand River watershed (shown in brown on the main map). The
ﬁgure illustrates that ecosystems may be variously overlapping and nested. This is an illustration of the
ETHICS, POLICY & ENVIRONMENT 179
The Paralysis Problem
In recent discussions of the Precautionary Principle, it has been shown that in some contexts
the Precautionary Principle recommends both action and abstention. In such a context,
eorts to be precautionary will be paralyzing (Sunstein, 2002). Unfortunately, Varied Interests,
Disparity, and Plenitude together create a paralyzing context for Holism. In such a context,
eorts to be precautionary on behalf of ecosystems will be paralyzing. To see the problem,
reconsider the above argument from precaution, ACT. Paralysis vexes ACT in light of the
ABSTAIN: If we act on behalf of ecosystem e, then a realistic outcome could be that some other
intrinsically valuable ecosystem e* will suer signicant moral harm. Thus, we should not act
on behalf of e.
The paralysis stems from this. According to Disparity, for all we know, if there are ecosystems,
then there are several fundamentally dierent kinds of ecosystems. According to Plenitude,
for all we know, if there are ecosystems, then for each kind of ecosystem, there is a plenitude
of ecosystems of that kind. And, according to Varied Interests, for all we know, if there are
ecosystems, then it is false that all ecosystems have all and only the same welfare interests.
Putting these together, we see that, for all we know, if there are ecosystems, then there are
many fundamentally dierent kinds of ecosystems, and a great number of each kind, vari-
ously overlapping and nested, both spatially and temporally, where these dierent kinds of
ecosystems have dierent welfare interests. In such a context, it seems impossible to rule
out that acting on behalf of one ecosystem will not come at the expense of another. In other
words, given Varied Interests, Disparity, and Plenitude, the Holist cannot rule out ABSTAIN.
Hence the paralysis: precaution recommends both acting on behalf of e and not acting on
behalf of e. In this context, the Precautionary Principle fails to be action guiding.
Conservationists would like to argue that ecosystems have intrinsic moral value, a position
called Holism, because it is a more powerful argument than one that appeals to the instru-
mental value of ecosystems. Holism requires Independent Existence, the ontological thesis
that ecosystems exist as natural, mind-independent entities. We suggest that the epistemic
case for Independent Existence, and hence for Holism, is unconvincing. This places particular
weight upon the pragmatic case for Holism, i.e. that we should act as if ecosystems are real
objects, even though we might not have good epistemic reasons to think so. Unfortunately,
such pragmatism is problematic in light of the very reasonable arguments that for all we
know, if Independent Existence is true, then the following three theses are also true: all eco-
systems do not share all and only the same welfare interests (Varied Interests); there are
several fundamentally dierent kinds of real ecosystems (Disparity); and there is a great
number of such ecosystems, variously overlapping and nested, both temporally and spatially
(Plentitude). Varied Interests, Disparity, and Plentitude together imply that any action we under-
take to benet one ecosystem might morally harm any number of other ecosystems of the
same or dierent kind. Thus, the pragmatic case is vexed with paralysis: we cannot act on
pragmatic grounds. In sum, even if there are ecosystems that have moral standing, we lack
adequate practical reasons to act on their behalf.
180 R. K. GARCIA AND J. A. NEWMAN
Where does all of this leave the conservationist? If our argument is correct, then conser-
vationists should abandon their Holist position, at least insofar as it applies to ecosystems.
Conservationists should stick to instrumental arguments to motivate ecosystem manage-
ment, even if doing so (occasionally) entails actions that at rst blush might seem unpalat-
able, such as species additions or deletions that improve ecosystem function, or the wholesale
conversion of one type of ecosystem into another type if the alternative would be more
valuable to us. On the other hand, if conservations remain committed to Holism, then resolv-
ing the epistemic uncertainty around Independent Existence must become an absolute
research priority. Without such a resolution, ecosystem management is a moral quagmire,
vexed with paralysis in that every proposed action may be simultaneously helpful and harm
ful to dierent ecosystems, for the reasons discussed above. With the choice of the morally
right action out of reach, inaction seems to be the only morally safe decision.
1. A referee observesthat onemight hold that ecosystems both (i)exist mind-dependentlyin that
they are individuated (metaphysically and not merely epistemologically—see Lowe (2003,
pp. 75–77)) by our (say) theoretical interests, and (ii) have intrinsic moralvalue in virtue of
mind-independent facts about the world. The conjunction of (i) and (ii)—call it the‘hybrid
view’—is similar to how one might think about artwork. For example,one might think that
something’sbeinga sculpture(rather than being a mere lump of clay) is dependenton the minds
of those in the art community, yet one might also hold that the sculpture’s being beautifulis
an objective fact about it.The hybrid viewmarks an interesting positionin the logical space
of views about ecosystems and merits more attention that we can give it here. However,
the hybrid view is atly incompatible withHolism—at least the standard version of Holism
under consideration here. Indeed, we would consider this paper a success if it compelled
conservationists to retreat from Holism to the hybrid view. Nevertheless, we doubt that such
aretreatwould be attractive to conservationists. For starters, it is unclear what sort of moral
obligation we wouldhave—if any—to conserve or protect ecosystems if they are entities whose
very existence depends on our own theories or ways of classifying the world. At the veryleast,
conservationism wouldenjoy signicantly less moral force on the hybrid view than on Holism.
2. Note that we are not using the so-called Principle of Indierence here. Roughly, this principle
says that in the total absence of evidence you should assign equal probability to eachmutually
exclusive possibility. The argument does not depend on this controversial principle. In fact, it
would not apply here because, as noted, there is evidence for both realism and global anti-
realism. So, the principle of indierence does not apply in this context. The main argument only
requires the thesis that realism and global anti-realism are equally likely to be true.
3. Exactly how compelling must an epistemic case be for it to provide sucient grounds for
accepting realism? Fortunately, for our purposes we do not need to provide a specic answer
to this question—such as by specifying an exact probability threshold. For our purposes, we
only need to provide a partial but plausible answer, namely that if the epistemic case for realism
is more or less matched by the epistemic case for global anti-realism, then the epistemic case
fails to provide sucient grounds for accepting realism.
4. Our working assumption is that the strongest and most promising extant version of a pragmatic
case for Holism is one that appeals to a precautionary principle. Although space forbids a
comprehensive defense of this assumption here, perhaps we may be permitted to note that
it seems entirely unclear how a viable case for Holism could avoid a precautionary approach
that relies (even if tacitly) on a precautionary principle. Notwithstanding this point, readers
who think that there is a viable non-precautionary pragmatic case for Holism are welcome to
see our aim here as restricted—to show the failure of an important kind of pragmatic case for
Holism. Whether a viable pragmatic case for Holism can be constructed without appealing to
a precautionary principle remains to be seen.
ETHICS, POLICY & ENVIRONMENT 181
5. Note that the version of the precautionary principle being discussed here is not the extreme
version that has been widely rejected in the literature. The implausible version of the principle
is the sort that can be used to recommend precaution based on mere possibilities. As an
example, one might use the latter principle to argue that, for all we know (it is possible that)
there is an invisible person in the building, so we shouldn’t demolish it. But our argument here
is not deploying this version of the principle. The claim isn't that there is an absence of any
evidence or indications regarding the truth of realism or global anti-realism. Rather, as noted,
there is evidence for each, but the evidence is (or, for the sake of argument, can be presumed
to be) counterbalanced and thus underdetermining with respect to those two theories. So, the
argument here does not require the extreme version of precautionary principle.
6. It may be that using the precautionary principle to range over ecosystem ontologies is an
unusual application of it. But to depict holism as using the principle in this way is not to construct
a strawman of the view. After all, precautionary principles are widely used in environmental
arguments. And, if the holist is not using (albeit tacitly) a precautionary principle, then it is not
clear how the holistcan rely on the Pragmatic Case. The alternative decision-making tools are
generally acknowledged to be Cost-Benet Analysis or Risk Assessment, and neither seems
7. See the discussion in Varner (1991).
8. Hartzell-Nichols (2013) and Steel (2013).
9. Precautionary approaches to ecosystem conservation are alive and well. To cite but one
example, witness this recent remark in Trends in Ecology & Evolution: ‘These facts argue for a
precautionary principle of conservation and restoration. Rather than embracing invasion-driven
“novel ecosystems” as a “new normal” [...], we should seek to reestablish—or emulate, insofar
as possible—the historical trajectory of ecosystems, before they were deected by human
activity, and to allow the restored system to continue responding to various environmental
changes’ (Murcia et al., 2014, p. 549).
10. See, for example, Ahteensuu and Sandin (2012).
11. Indeed, the precautionary principle has been heralded as ‘the fundamental principle of
environmental protection policy’ (Jordan & O’Riordan, 1999, p. 22).
For helpful discussion and comments, the authors wish to thank Kevin de Laplante, Clare Palmer, Kristin
Shrader-Frechette, Gary Varner, and Jason West. Garcia is especially grateful for the support provided
by an Internal Faculty Fellowship from Texas A&M’s Glasscock Center for Humanities Research. Newman
was supported by a grant from the Canadian Natural Science and Engineering Research Council.
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
Robert K. Garcia http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3341-1423
Jonathan A. Newmanhttp://orcid.org/0000-0003-3155-4084
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