Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Benjamin Hale

Second Advisor

Steven Vanderheiden

Third Advisor

Daniel Doak

Fourth Advisor

Peter Newton

Fifth Advisor

Bruce Goldstein


Environmental ethics has generally taken up nature conservation as an issue of environmental value: we ought to protect nature to protect value in nature. This value-centered conservation ethic raises three categories of problems: theoretical challenges over the commensurability and substitutability of environmental value; discursive hurdles with how we talk about conservation; and practical problems with how conservationists put philosophical tools into actions. I investigate these problems in concert to show how obligations provide a plausible alternative account of why and how we ought to protect the natural world. This dissertation argues first that a value-centered approach has overwhelmingly been used to defend conservation; second, that such an approach is unwieldy and impractical; and third, that moral obligations offer a plausible alternative ethic that explains, defends, and prescribes the conservation of nature. I use a review of relevant literature, a series of thought experiments, and three case studies. The case of wolf management in Denali, Alaska highlights the “Substitution Problem,” which calls into question the substitutability of value. The case of salmon conservation and hydroelectric development of the Susitna River in Alaska provides an example of how a broader focus on reason would support an obligation-centered idea of conservation. The case of geologic preservation in Goblin Valley State Park, Utah shows how an obligations framework already grounds many environmental protections and accounts for a wider scope of conservation. I find that intersubjective agent-centered obligations explain that we ought to protect nature because of moral principles established by reasons that hold up to the scrutiny of others.