Emotion as a Source of Moral Understanding in Conservation

Publications Type: 
Journal Article
Publication Number: 

Batavia, C.; Nelson, M. P.; Bruskotter, J. T.; Jones, M. S.; Yanco, E.; Ramp, D.; Bekoff, M.; Wallach, A. D. 2021. Emotion as a Source of Moral Understanding in Conservation. Conservation Biology. 35(5): 1380-1387. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13689


Recent debates around the meaning and implications of compassionate conservation suggest that some conservationists consider emotion a false and misleading basis for moral judgment and decision making. We trace these beliefs to a long-standing, gendered sociocultural convention and argue that the disparagement of emotion as a source of moral understanding is both empirically and morally problematic. According to the current scientific and philosophical understanding, reason and emotion are better understood as partners, rather than opposites. Nonetheless, the two have historically been seen as separate, with reason elevated in association with masculinity and emotion (especially nurturing emotion) dismissed or delegitimated in association with femininity. These associations can be situated in a broader, dualistic, and hierarchical logic used to maintain power for a dominant male (White, able-bodied, upper class, heterosexual) human class. We argue that emotion should be affirmed by conservationists for the novel and essential insights it contributes to conservation ethics. We consider the specific example of compassion and characterize it as an emotional experience of interdependence and shared vulnerability. This experience highlights conservationists’ responsibilities to individual beings, enhancing established and widely accepted beliefs that conservationists have a duty to protect populations, species, and ecosystems (or biodiversity). We argue compassion, thus understood, should be embraced as a core virtue of conservation.