The moral residue of conservation

Publications Type: 
Journal Article
Publication Number: 

Batavia, Chelsea; Nelson, Michael Paul; Wallach, Arian D. 2020. The moral residue of conservation. Conservation Biology. 0(0): 1-8. doi:


Abstract Should conservationists use lethal management to control introduced wildlife populations? Should they kill individual animals to protect endangered species? Are trade-offs that prioritize some values at the expense of others morally appropriate? These sorts of ethical questions are common in conservation. In debating such questions, conservationists often seem to presume 1 of 2 possible answers: the act in question is right or it is wrong. But morality in conservation is considerably more complex than this simple binary suggests. A robust conservation ethic requires a vocabulary that gives voice to the uncertainty and unease that arise when what seems to be the best available course of action also seems to involve a measure of wrongdoing. The philosophical literature on moral residue and moral dilemmas supplies this vocabulary. Moral dilemmas arise when one must neglect certain moral requirements to fulfill others. Under such circumstances, even the best possible decision leaves a moral residue, which is experienced emotionally as some form of grief. Examples of conservation scenarios that leave a moral residue include management of introduced rabbits in Australia, trophy hunting in Africa, and forest management trade-offs in the Pacific Northwest. Moral residue is integral to the moral experience of conservationists today, and grief is an appropriate response to many decisions conservationists must make. Article impact statement: Defensible conservation decisions may neglect moral requirements, leaving a moral residue; conservationists should respond with grief.
Keywords: moral residue, moral dilemmas, conservation ethics, invasive species, trophy hunting, tradeoffs, grief, emotion