In complex areas of international policy, such as biodiversity conservation, there is a risk that well-promoted strategies will be received by decision makers as a cure-all. The U.S.-based Conservation International is promoting biodiversity hotspots as a ‘silver bullet’ strategy for conserving most species for least cost. We assess the degree to which this goal is compatible with four social values that characterize the conservation movement. We find that biodiversity hotspots provide only a partial response because conservation does not treat all species as equal. We argue that explicit recognition of such values is fundamental to a structured debate contributing to the development of a common strategy for biodiversity conservation.