BIOETHICS CASE: Aphrodisiacs and Endangered Species

Consider the plight of the rhinoceros. Many cultures prize rhino horns as an aphrodisiac. For others, they are symbols of masculinity and used for daggers. A single rhinoceros horn can fetch up to $5,000, a strong incentive for poachers. But rhinos are now also an endangered species.

Preserving species diversity is a value that most students recognize. In addition, (Western) science informs us that no love or virility-inducing properties exist in rhino horns. But in this case, the standard values seem to conflict with another basic principle, respect for other cultures and their beliefs. What should we do?

 Questions for Student Discussion:


Holmes Rolston, a leading environmental ethicist, introduces cases such as this to articulate the role of modern science in shaping the ethics of developing cultures. For Rolston, the findings of modern science take precedence over the unsubstantiated and naive beliefs of such cultures. Practices that endanger the preservation of species should be outlawed and enforced, even if imposed on these cultures. "Eliminating such illusions would be painful," he notes, "but it cannot be harmful. To care about persons morally is to want them to know the truth about themselves, their society, and their illusions, as well as the fauna and flora that surround them" (Rolston, 1993, p. 66).

An alternative view, however, would place equal emphasis on maintaining respect for the culture. Ths aim would be to work within the indigenous perspective. Surely it is possible to argue that the possible extinction of rhinos is not in the interest of even those who treasure the animal just for the cultural qualities of its horns. Such a strategy betrays the ethical principle of "respect for all species" by appealing instead to the self-interest, or prudence, of the indigenous culture. Still, it achieves the same end, though for different reasons.

Education and creative thinking can also generate alternatives. For example, the Masai of East Africa once hunted lions as a rite of passage for young males. Faced with a scarcity of lions, and now more deeply informed on environmental issues, the tribe has adopted a new initiation into warriorship: the trapping of tsetse flies, which transmit sleeping sickness. This new tradition both serves the community and perpetuates the expertise of the Masai, recognized as the world=s authority on managing tsetse flies. Here, the tradition itself is dynamic, responding to modern learning.

Cases of conflict between science and traditional values are not uncommon. Rolston also cites, for example, the threatened status of ginseng, prized in China for the purported medicinal properties of its roots. The same is true for feathers from several bird species. Of course, even Western culture had to address similar conflicts as it developed.

Our heroic investment in individual cases, such as the rhino, on behalf of "science" may sometimes need to be reassessed. Despite our best efforts, the rhinoceros may still become extinct. It may already be "doomed" by past actions, reduced to such small populations that any recovery would be tainted by loss of genetic diversity. In such cases, science might warrant accepting the loss, rather than fighting it. That would be tragic, but not necessarily unethical. At the very least, it underscores our duty to learn and to respect one another's lifetsyles, both as fellow cultures and as fellow inhabitants of the earth (see SHiPS News 5/1, p. 3).


Holmes Rolston III. 1990. "Science-based versus traditional ethics." pp. 63-72 in Engel and Engel (eds.), Ethics of Environment and Development (Univ. of Arizona Press).

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