This was such an interesting thread to read, I'm saddened to see it came to a hault.
Late to the party, but I am hoping I can resurrect it. Before I begin, I would like to say as a former teacher, having a masters in education, with a focus in learning in philosophies, I wish more people would take part in these discussions, not only in the reef hobby, but in nearly everything that involves a beating heart. True learning only takes place when there is a back and forth dialogues, 360 degrees of various view points are taken, and finally a conclusion can me made. Naturally, more angles will arrive, due to maturation, technology, etc, thus learning never stops.
After reading through many of the articles, even after 20 years of being involved in the just the hobbyist side, I too have questioned my stances. Ideas or topics I never considered, or was not aware of, flooded my mind..Does this make me an uninformed reef keeper?
There is no easy answer, and if someone were to ask me if me owning a tank is morally correct, I simply could not give a one word answer. It would be more along the lines of many sentences, paragraphs and excerpts, and even after all of that, there would me many more questions than answers. A few real life examples come to mind.
First, what makes something ethical, and whose to say? Way back in college, during an ethics class, I became intrigued with John Stuart Mills "the harm principle". In short, a person do whatever they please, as long as their action doesn't cause harm to others. Tie this in with the popular topic in mathematics, "chaos theory", you better have many aspirin at your disposal. I celebrate the fourth of July by shooting off fireworks, however one of the fireworks goes haywire and lands in a neighbors yard burning a child on the arm...I just caused harm....wasn't my intent but....
The next dilemma, or obstacle in this, intent. That for many people is the ultimate determination when evaluating ones moral hazard or moral character. What about the people who intend on good things, but simply are not educated enough to thoroughly determine what species of aquatic life best fits them.
Does any aquatic life fit anyone? What standards are used to measure what justifies the capability of being fit in a particular role? A popular, more mainstream topic is that of zoos. Is it fair to house a tiger in a 50x50 enclosure? Some could argue that is totally wrong to take an animal out of the wild. They might be right. One could also argue, that due to habitat destruction (world overpopulation....was the world designed to support 7.1 billions people?) that soon zoos may be the only place they can safely survive.
Problem with the reef hobby is, we really don't have any set of standards to determine fish harm vs fish happiness. With mammals, we can measure cortisol, normal vs abnormal behavior, test for stress related diseases, and general well being. In fish, many people will say my purple tang is thrilled to be on my reef. That may be correct, but without comparison, there is simply no way to tell. If the basic needs of living organisms are to eat, survive and reproduce, with the exception of a handful of fish (clownfish, cardinals, etc) many fish never satisfy the last requirement. Does that void leave them without fulfillment?
As I work through my emotions, I often ponder about human ethics. We often look back at our ancestors, and sometimes marvel at their endeavors, and other times, become disgusted. Slavery, holocaust, human sacrifice, wars, native American treatment...just to name a few. 400 years from now, will future generations look back and say, I can't believe large multibillion dollar companies would cut healthcare for their employees, make them sit behind cubicles, work 60 hours a week to the tune of a 58 percent divorce rate, and still carry on? Will they frown at the fact millions of lives of animals are taken for the purpose of fragrance, supplement, and make-up testing? Is this all ethical?
In the short term, I believe almost everything is relative, and not relative to what others are doing, but to what you know. Just because certain countries are fond of wiping out entire herds of whales for the purpose of eating, doesn't make it right for me to try and get 9 Achilles tangs, with the hopes one will survive. However, in relation to what I know, based on what I have seen, read, discussed, then I will be able to make a decision I deem as immoral. The hobby, involves a ladder, and ultimately there is always one or more unethical decision maker who had the ability to prevent catastrophe.
The guy buying a hippo tang for his kids nano tank may not be thinking immorally. Perhaps after presenting the lfs worker, who we entrust to help us make informed choices, failed to educate the buyer on his purchase. Perhaps the wholesalers, after seeing Moorish idols perish at the rate of 95 percent, could make a conscious decision to cease importing them.
However, the almighty dollar will determine what comes in and gets sold. This is where most of the immorality of the hobby arrives. Just as the case with backyard breeders selling dogs, or people smuggling in wild birds.
Lastly, I firmly believe humans are born with an innate ability to know right from wrong. If one does themselves, and the wild, the proper research, and determines that a particular fish or invert is something they are able to have thrive, and they are willing to put the proper resources into play, and make changes if necessary, then one should feel good about what they did.
Its not about what fish are available in what Asian restaurant, or how many tuna are caught in a given week. Its about what you choose to put into your aquarium. For every ban on a species, or section of ocean that closes down, a stronger black market is created, and smugglers will excel in what they do. However, if more people were educated on their impact, in a sense their "harm principle" , they would no longer have a demand for that animal, and in time, there wouldn't not be enough desire or demand to have that animal caught and brought in.
At the end of the day, I keep a 180 gallon tank, with a focus of corals I can adequately keep with my 400 watt halides, (no low light corals) and fish , that in my mind and judgment, would be content in the confines of my 6x2 glass box. There are times I feel guilty, and one thing I vow is to limit that, and not make the same mistake twice. I will not keep large fish, nor fish that requires miles and miles of roaming space. Just like great white sharks will not eat in captivity, amongst a million gallon holding tank, I will not consciously keep specimens in my tank who will be unhappy, both in my head and heart.
Lots of rambling, thought processes, and I am still no closer to an answer then I was before.