It should always be ethically difficult to sacrifice the hope of saving threatened animal and plant species to better protect the "greater good", according to a new Australian study.
"Conservation triage is the process of making difficult decisions about priority under severely constrained resources," said the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, Associate Professor Kerrie Wilson, who is based at The University of Queensland's School of Biological Sciences.
"Many people would disagree that conservation triage is hard."
Associate Professor Wilson said a new paper co-authored with UQ's Dr Elizabeth Law argued that triage should be hard.
"Most people are familiar with the concept of triage in emergency medicine, where we should preserve and protect as many human lives as possible by assigning priority to patients with an immediate need for life-sustaining treatment," she said.
"The scale of the conservation problem could be more accurately reflected by triage decisions faced in disaster or pandemic contexts.
"Disaster triage conditions typically require more 'hard' decisions to be made, that is, decisions that demand consideration of sacrifice of human life for 'the greater good'."
Dr Law said conservation triage seemed to be at a stalemate between people who accepted triage based on utilitarian rationalisation, and those that rejected it.
"We argue that without considered attention to the ethics of conservation triage, we risk further polarisation in the field of conservation," she said.
"Conservation triage is far from 'just' decision-making, rather it involves complex ethical dilemmas.
"While triage 'contexts' – where there are not enough resources to save all species – may be largely inevitable, decision theory (the bread and butter of our Centre of Excellence) itself does not inform what objective ought to be maximized, for whom, or how.
"Unfortunately, current conservation triage often sits at odds with society preferences and moral ideals."
Associate Professor Wilson said the new study showed how conservation triage could be more acceptable.
"We address issues such as distributive justice, respecting autonomy, placing triage in a broader system of care, explicitly dealing with risk and risk preferences, and questioning whether these ideals are delivered in practice," she said.
The paper, "Ethics of conservation triage", is published in the Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.
Associate Professor Kerrie Wilson was recently awarded the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year while Dr Law recently was selected for a prestigious German government program.