Molecular Systematics, Ethics, and Biological Decision Making under Uncertainty

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The controversy among Karl and Bowen (1999), Pritchard (1999), and Grady and Quattro (1999) over scientific uncertainties and the ethical and political consequences of the black turtle's taxonomic status is caused by incomplete and uncertain scientific knowledge. When faced with cases of uncertainty, conservation biologists need to use ethical rationality, not merely scientific rationality. They should follow three general ethical principles: (1) perform and present unbiased research, (2) promote use of unbiased research by others, and (3) protect human and environmental welfare. Adhering to these principles is difficult because they can conflict, are too general to provide specific guidance in a particular situation, and are not ranked according to which ought to take priority in different situations. One way to deal with these difficulties is to employ a two-stage ethical analysis. This analysis develops general principles (first stage) and then investigates the consequences of adopting each of the principles (second stage). A two-stage ethical analysis applied to the controversy over the black turtle's taxonomic status suggests that even if there are some grounds for expanding conservation biologists' responsibilities to human and environmental welfare, they are not ethically justified in using any means whatsoever to achieve desirable consequences when the public has rights to full information. Conservation biologists do not appear to have grounds for paternalism in this case because it involves value judgments, not merely professional expertise.

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Conservation Biology, v. 13, issue 5, p. 1008-1012