W.S. Merwin, poet and lover of the land, writes "If I want to talk of trees, I will have to use a forgotten language."
In Book XV of Ovid, we get the story of Pythagoras. This influential and mysterious Greek intellectual was born in 485 BC and his teachings include the notion of virtue, by which he meant worldly success achieved through practical good management of private and public affairs.
The name of Pythagoras is connected with two parallel traditions, one religious and one scientific. The scientific tradition ascribes to Pythogoras a number of important discoveries, including the famous geometric theorem that still bears his name. In religion, Pythagoras introduced the doctrine of transmigration of the soul or "metempsychosis," which allows that our souls can enter animals and plants or, in short, other species in the natural world. The importance of this spiritual concern with the afterlife is that the outcome underscores a fundamental attitude--animals acquire the same rights as humans. Ethics and humanity (in a radical way) shift to include other species, if only because these creatures and beasts house human souls. The religious perspective remains anthropocentric rather than biocentric, but it does require humans to apply ethical values to an ecosystem rather than any single human entity. The idea of the human community includes all of creation.
Roderick Nash gives us a historical chronology of natural rights evolving towards "The Rights of Nature." The following epigraphs will help you understand the destination of Nash's philosophic history.
How narrow we selfish, conceited creatures are in our sympathies! How blind to the rights of all the rest of creation!--John Muir, 1867
I believe in the rights of creatures other than man.--David R. Brower, 1971
We must constantly extend the community to include all. . . . The other beings--four-legged, winged, six-legged, rooted, flowing, etc.--have just as much right to be in that place as we do, they are their own justification for being, they have inherent value, value completely apart from whatever worth they have for . . . humans.--Dave Forman, 1987
From Natural Rights to the Rights of Nature
It began, appropriately enough, outdoors in a June-green meadow called Runnymede alongside the River Thames. The English barons who gathered there in 1215 forced King John to accept a lengthy list of concessions which came to be known, in the Latin in which it was written, as Magna Carta. Although the barons hardly thought of it in such terms, they were in fact dealing with ethical dynamite that revolutionaries five centuries later would call "natural rights." The tendency of this concept to take on expanded meaning is one of the most exciting characteristics of the liberal tradition. Whether this tradition should expand to include nonhuman interests--perhaps even nature as a whole--is the proposition under examination in the present volume.
While it is easy to overstate and modernize the significance of Magna Carta, there are some reasons for regarding it as the cornerstone of liberty in Anglo-American culture. Set forth in this document for the first time was the idea that a certain segment of society, in this case some twenty-five barons, possessed rights by virtue of their existence, independent of the will of England's king. Clause thirty-nine, for example, prohibited imprisonment or banishment except in accordance with law and as a result of the judgment of one's peers. Magna Carta placed other limitations on the royal power to tax property and confiscate land without the consent of the Great Council. The concept of natural rights, and even some of the charter's wording, later figured in the making of the American government. Of course the barons at Runnymede would have been appalled at such extension of their principles. They had no conception of the rights of anyone save a male in the upper crust of English nobility. But time was on the side of ethical expansion.
The thought of English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) became the most important source of American natural-rights tradition. As outlined in his Two Treatises of Government (1690), Locke's ideas contained a logic particularly compelling to a people engaged in building a society in a wilderness. The "state of nature" that underlay Locke's ethical system was a pre-social, pre-government condition in which all people were equal and free before God and each other. The natural or fundamental law that existed in this situation consisted of absolute and unchanging or, as Americans preferred, "unalienable" moral axioms. The most important of them was that every person, by the simple virtue of their existence, shared a natural right to continue existing. From this Locke derived his list of the natural rights of mankind: "Life, Liberty, Health, Limb or Goods."' In regard to "Goods," or what he alternately called "Property or Possessions," Locke believed a person had a right to that which he labored to produce. This principle would later prove troublesome in the case of slaves, and Thomas Jefferson, as we shall see, neatly avoided the difficulty in his 1776 formulation by the substitution of "happiness. " Much later the sanctity of property would create a problem when environmentalists sought to treat the environment itself as having rights superior to ownership.
Locke did not go so far as his fellow philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in characterizing life in the state of nature as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," but he did acknowledge sufficient insecurity in nature to persuade rational people to organize a society and a government. He called the process a "social contract." Through it each individual surrendered some of the complete freedom characteristic of the state of nature, but retained the natural, pre-social or God-given rights to life, liberty, and property. Indeed the whole point of social and political organization was to safeguard these fundamental values. From this recognition stemmed one further right, revolution. If the government acted in ways that menaced the natural rights of the people, they were justified, according to Locke, in renouncing its power. Through revolution individuals reclaimed the protection of natural rights they had entrusted to the state through the social contract.
It followed that subscribers to Lockean principles favored constitutional forms of government (democracies and republics) over monarchies, where concentrated power was susceptible to corruption. Locke wrote his Treatises as a defense of England's "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which tempered royal power with a written statement of the people's rights.
The potency of natural-rights ideology is such that one revolution breeds another. So it was that soon after the Glorious Revolution, and increasingly after 1760, English colonists in America began to flex their ethical muscles against yesterday's revolutionaries, now consolidated as the government of the mother country. What Bernard Bailyn calls "the transforming radicalism of the [American] Revolution"' was the idea that the English Parliament and monarchy were denying the colonists their natural rights. Going back five hundred years for justification, American revolutionaries like James Otis contended that "Magna Carta itself is a . . . proclamation" of the people's uncompromised possession "of their original, inherent, indefeasible, natural rights. Time and time again, as independence approached, Americans employed words such as "tyranny," "slavery," and "oppression" to describe their condition. Liberty was the objective, and the revolutionary mind elevated it to the status of a sacred and secular mission.
The Declaration of Independence of 1776 marked the fullest flowering to that date of natural-rights philosophy. As Carl Becker was among the first to understand, Jefferson's manifesto was not so much original thought as it was a compilation of ideals that had circulated widely in England, France, and North America for at least a century. But Jefferson's phraseology was especially felicitous. "The laws of nature and of nature's God," he wrote, are the foundations from which reason and conscience reveal "self-evident" truth, namely, "that all men are created equal" in their possession of "certain unalienable rights." The three Jefferson chose to enumerate were, of "life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
But Jefferson did not really mean what he wrote. In practice some people were more equal than others. Women, for example, were not full partners in the spirit of 1776. Neither were slaves nor Indians, and most of the states initially required even white males to be property holders and taxpayers. Most of the restrictions on white male suffrage withered away in the early nineteenth century, but blacks were not constitutionally enfranchised until 1870 and a half century more elapsed before females (1920) and Indians (1924) achieved suffrage. Civil rights for blacks dominated social protests in the 1950s and 1960s. Clearly the American Revolution did not create an egalitarian product so much as it started a process. Two centuries after Jefferson's articulation of America's preeminent ideal its fullest implications were still being discovered in the movement for the rights of nature.
Natural-rights principles exploded into Western thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They spawned one revolution in Massachusetts which, in turn, helped inspire a powerful wave of liberalism throughout the Western world. The magic circle of rights holders was widening. This was the sense of Benjamin Rush's 1787 comment, above, about the ongoing American Revolution. Subsequent acts in Rush's "great drama" would take the democratic impulse far beyond what the eighteenth-century revolutionaries imagined possible or even desirable. According to Robert R. Palmer, the liberal leaders in revolutionary America were "groping toward a new kind of community."" Only the most radical among them understood that the concept of community might be extended beyond the confines of the human race. The idea, however, was not entirely new.
Greek and Roman philosophers had a clear conception of natural, as opposed to man-made, law. Although they did not speak about "rights," they understood that people had existed prior to government or indeed any civil order. This state of raw nature was organized according to certain biological principles centered on the facts of existence and survival. In Latin these principles were called jus naturae or jus naturale. In contrast, the ideas of justice that humankind overlaid on this basic order were thought of as the jus commune, the common law applied to the people and embodied in the laws of states and nations." But where did nonhuman beings fit? It was obvious to classical thinkers that humans had not been alone in the wilderness, Eden, or whatever state of nature one chose to place at the dawn of history. Animals were there, too, not to speak of less sophisticated forms of life, along with the inanimate components of the environment. What, then, was the right relationship of humans to these fellow travelers in the stream of time?
Concerned about these questions, Romans found it logical to assume the existence of another body of moral precepts: the jus animalium. It implied that animals possessed what later philosophers would call inherent or natural rights independent of human civilization and government. As the third-century Roman jurist Ulpian understood it, the jus animalium was part of the jus naturale because the latter includes "that which nature has taught all animals; this law indeed is not peculiar to the human race, but belongs to all animals. Granted, Ulpian included only animals in his concept of justice, but it derived from the idea that nature as a whole constituted an order that humankind should respect.
After the decline of Greece and Rome and the advent of Christianity, nature did not fare well in Western ethics. Increasingly people assumed that nature, animals included, had no rights, and that nonhuman beings existed to serve human beings. There was no extended ethical community. It followed that the appropriate relationship of people to nature emphasized expediency and utility. There need be no guilty consciences because the only values of nature were instrumental or utilitarian-defined, that is, in terms of human needs. The Christian version of this argument turned to Genesis for evidence that God gave humankind dominion over nature and the right to exploit it without restraint. Understandably, early philosophers such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694) could believe that the human relationship to the environment was not a subject for ethical concern. Departing from Ulpian, they argued that natural rights did not derive from a pre-social state of nature but only from human nature. This meant that law did not originate in fundamental principles of justice common to people and animals. Rather it represented a set of manmade rules that reflected human interests. So Pufendorf could conclude, "there is no common rights/law between man and brutes." John Rodman has identified this seventeenth century rejection of animal rights as a "turning point in the history of thought. "
In the early modern period discussion of the extent to which ethics should be applied to nature swirled around the question of vivisection. At its worst this practice involved cutting up unanesthetized animals that had been tied or nailed live to a board. As medical science emerged in the seventeenth century, it relied on vivisection to study the workings of the body. But the practice drew the wrath of early humanitarians, and the vivisectors turned to Rene Descartes (1596-1650) to justify their research methods. A celebrated mathematician, physiologist, and psychologist, Descartes provided a general philosophy of the irrelevance of ethics to the human-nature relationship. Animals, according to Descartes, were insensible and irrational machines. They moved, like clocks, but could not feel pain. Lacking minds, animals could not be harmed. They did not suffer. They were, in Descartes's sense of the term, unconscious. Humans, on the other hand, had souls and minds. Thinking, in fact, defined the human organism. "I think, therefore I am" was Descartes's basic axiom. This dualism, the separateness of humans and nature, justified vivisection and indeed any human action toward the environment. Descartes left no doubt that people were the "masters and possessors of nature."" The nonhuman world became a "thing." Descartes understood this objectification of nature as an important prerequisite to the progress of science and civilization.
An alternate, but extremely minor, train of Western thought that' challenged anthropocentrism derived in part from the classical GrecoRoman idea that animals were part of the state of nature and the subjects of natural law. Although Christianity weakened the ideas of an extended community, the principle of jus animalium persisted in European thought. Intriguing but fragmentary evidence suggests that from time to time in the Middle Ages courts of law conducted criminal trials of animals that, for instance, killed humans." This practice makes the argument of the 1970s that trees and other natural objects should have standing before the law less novel than it might appear at first glance.
Interestingly, the first record of a law respecting the rights of nonhuman beings, or at least human duties toward them, appeared in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The author of "The Body of Liberties," which the General Court adopted in 1641, was Nathaniel Ward (1578-1652). A lawyer and later a minister, Ward came to New England in 1634, settling in Ipswich. At the request of the court he prepared the first codification of the colony's statutes. Ward's list of rites," by which he meant "rights," contained as the ninety-second item the stipulation that "no man shall exercise any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man's use." The ninety-third "rite" obliged persons who "leade or drive Cattel" to rest and refresh them periodically." Obviously, utilitarianism is evident here-only domestic creatures are protected but it is significant that in 1641, at the height of Descartes's influence in Europe, the first New Englanders endorsed the idea that animals were not unfeeling machines. And the use of the word "Tirranny" seems to imply the idea of the natural rights or freedoms of nonhuman beings in the tradition of jus animalium. Perhaps the task of creating a new society in a wilderness made the Puritans more mindful of comprehensive ethical principles derived from a state of nature similar to the one they occupied.
The treatment of animals was not a major concern with John Locke but property was, and the fact that animals could be owned resulted in their acquiring some rights in his philosophy. These, of course, derived from the rights of the owner, not the animal, and were otherwise related to human interests. In Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) Locke reasoned, in opposition to Descartes, that animals can suffer and be harmed and that harming them needlessly is morally wrong. It becomes clear that this is not due to the natural rights of animals but to the effects of cruelty to animals on people. Locke notes that many children "torment, and treat very roughly young Birds, Butterflies, and other such poor Animals, which fall into their Hands." He feels this behavior should be stopped and corrected because it "will, by Degrees, harden their Minds even towards Men." People, Locke continues, "who delight in the Suffering and Destruction of Inferior Creatures, will not ... be very compassionate, or benign to those of their own kind." Locke concludes this discussion with a commendation of a mother of his acquaintance who made sure her children took responsibility for the welfare of their "Dogs, Squirrels, Birds," and other pets. He felt these children were on their way to becoming responsible members of society. In his 1693 discourse, then, Locke moved beyond a strict concept of utility. Not only customarily owned and useful animals like cattle and horses should be well treated, but also squirrels, birds, insects indeed "any living Creature.""
Nathaniel Ward and John Locke were not alone in opposing cruelty to animals. As early as the fifteenth century, and increasingly in the seventeenth and eighteenth, protests sounded over practices such as vivisection, cockfighting, staged fights with dogs known as bull- and bearbaiting, fox hunting, and the sort of purposeless brutality Locke addressed in 1693. Two arguments appeared most frequently. The early English humane movement pointed, like Locke, to the adverse effects of cruelty to animals on its human perpetrators. It also contended that since animals were part of God's creation, humans, as the most favored and powerful form of life, had the responsibility of being good trustees or stewards of their welfare on God's behalf Some formulations of this argument even hinted that God would keep account of cruelty and dole out appropriate punishments. The first humanitarian protests in no way' questioned the assumption that nature existed for mankind. But they did call for the human dominion to be as gentle as possible."
Amidst the undeniable potency of anthropocentrism and dualism in Western thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one finds a weaker yet persistent notion that leads directly to the concept of expanded community on which environmental ethics rests. It was the revolutionary idea that the world did not exist for humanity alone. Pre-ecological thinkers generally set this idea in a religious context. All of nature existed because of and for the glory of God, the Creator. He cared as much about the welfare of the most insignificant being as about human beings. Another source of this humbling concept was the philosophy of animism or organicism, the belief that a single and continuous force permeated all beings and things, making the world, in effect, one large organism.
For Henry More (1614-1687), an animist who taught at Cambridge University, there was a "Soul of the World, or Spirit of Nature" (he called it the "Anima Mundi") present in every part in nature. This mysterious "plastical power" literally held the world together." In Germany Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716) not only discarded the distinction between humans and nature so dear to Descartes but also rejected the separation of the living from the nonliving. Everything, he believed, was interconnected. But recent ecophilosophers, notably George Sessions, point to Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) as the organicist who most closely anticipated both ecological consciousness and environmental ethics. In marked contrast to his anthropocentric contemporaries such as Descartes, the Dutch thinker put forward the pantheistic notion that every being or object--wolves, maple trees, humans, rocks, stars--was a temporary manifestation of a common God-created substance. When a person died, the matter that was his body became something else: soil and food for a plant, for instance, which might nourish a deer and, in turn, a wolf or another person. Spinoza's understanding of these interrelationships made it possible for him to place ultimate ethical value on the whole, the system, rather than on any single and transitory part. There was no "lower" nor "higher" in his philosophy. His idea of community had no bounds and neither, it followed, did his ethics. A tree or a rock had as much value and right to exist as a person."
Nash goes on to summarize the history of Natural Rights becoming Rights for Nature. At this point we may notice the connection between Spinoza and David Forman in the epigraph.
The conversation about "The Rights of Nature" continues in the present. Read this article from Grist Magazine about the teachings of one of the most respected and influential environmental lawyers in this country.