Human rights and the environment

| 27th February 2014
Rediscovering our place in the Universe: a couple at Burning Man 2012, Washoe County, Nevada, USA. Photo: Duncan Rawlinson via
Rediscovering our place in the Universe: a couple at Burning Man 2012, Washoe County, Nevada, USA. Photo: Duncan Rawlinson via
Are human rights separable from the wider rights of other living beings, the environment and the Universe? Gabriel Moran finds that humans need to re-assert their central position in the world and build an encompassing moral responsibility.
A person who is careless of his or her surroundings is foolishly oblivious of the interdependence of the humans and what surrounds them.

Two of the most important developments during the last half century have been the human rights movement and the environmental movement.

The literature on human rights seldom makes reference to the environmental movement. Human rights are a claim upon the whole human community but what are the implications for the rest of the world?

On its side, environmental literature seldom refers to the movement for human rights, although there are frequent debates about who or what, if anyone, has rights. The failure to address the relation between human rights and environmental concerns distorts both of these important areas.

The human paradox

The title of my book, Uniquely Human: The Basis of Human Rights, is intended to capture the paradox in the human relation to everything else in the world.

Some writers on the environment assume that asserting rights for all human beings on the basis of their uniqueness is a problem for other species.

And, indeed, if the 17th century language of 'man versus nature' still controls much of our thinking, then an assertion of 'man's superiority' is not good news for women, children, nonhuman animals, and the physical world.

My argument is based on an ambiguity that is inherent to the term uniqueness. Uniqueness means to differ from all others. But that process of difference can go in opposite directions.

Objects are unique in that they occupy one space and time; that is a difference by exclusion. Humans share in that uniqueness when they are considered as objects, but the more important human uniqueness is its openness to include all others.

Human rights are an assertion about men, women and children as the animal with the widest responsibility for life on earth.

We are all unique (just like everyone else)

The uniqueness of the human is that it is unlike every other animal by being similar to all of them, a recapitulation and an embodiment of the full texture of life. Human life is wondrous in its complexity and incomprehensible to itself.

All animals are open to the world around them. Mammals are individuals that are receptive and responsive to their environment. Humans carry the process further by being open to the whole world.

As Theodosius Dobzhansky put it, "All species are unique, but humans are uniquest." [Quoted in Robert Sapolsky, 'A Natural History of Peace', Foreign Affairs, 85 (Jan./Feb, 2006), 104.]

A unique being is one that suffers or feels the world. A very unique being extends the meaning of world and feels more deeply for others of its own kind. Human uniqueness includes feeling for other sentient animals for whom suffering the world includes painful suffering.

The humans as the uniquest animals are in the world with their whole selves. Reason should not be imagined as a power above. At its best it is the transformative power of the whole self from within.

The human being thus differs from other animals by being like all the other animals, able to take in and respond to the whole world.

Human disequality

Some environmental writing argues that if only humans would recognize that they are an insignificant speck in the universe, they would stay in their place of equality with other species.

The problem is that in relation to the power to destroy other species the humans never were equal and their power now has become enormously magnified.

The attempt to downgrade the human goes in the wrong direction. Human respect for the greatness of each human being is needed to restrain humans from using violence against each another.

If each human being were seen as uniquely important, an attitude of respect would extend to what the human being is related to, that is, to everything.

We must re-place ourselves at the centre

On the question of where do humans stand in relation to the environment, the answer seems obvious: in the middle.

The environment is what humans interact with every hour of the day. A person can either take care of his or her environment or carelessly do violence to it. A community and the human race as a whole have the same choice.

A person who is careless of his or her surroundings is foolishly oblivious of the interdependence of the humans and what surrounds them.

What men - rationalistic, individualistic, controlling men - tried to do was to remove themselves from their place at the center of the environment and imagine themselves outside and above the world of other beings. The humans' temptation is to become ec-centric beings.

What was in fact imagined to be separate and above was not the human being but the mind of man. The corrective is to imagine human beings - men and women in their diverse roles - at the center of the animal kingdom, at the center of living and dying organisms, and at the center of a world of wondrous things that go beyond human imagination.

Only from the center can humans exercise their responsibility of respecting each thing.

Respect most often means to appreciate the beauty of each kind and each individual. Respect can sometimes entail acting to heal wounds that have been caused by past human actions.

The war on nature

Humans have the power to make things that can kill wholesale - they are obviously superior to other beings in their ability to kill and to interfere in the complex cycle of life.

That is the underside of their superior ability to appreciate the world, care for their environment, and make things that are a novel contribution to the Universe.

Rachel Carson described her revolutionary Silent Spring as "a book about man's war against nature." [Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).] She discussed with her editor entitling the book either The War against Nature or The War with Nature.

The literature on war and the literature on environmental ethics seldom cross but wars between humans are part of a larger war that humans have carried on with other species.

L.O. Howard, when he was head of the Bureau of Entomology, spoke in 1921 about "the war of humanity against the class Insecta".

There have always been environmental problems just as there have always been wars between humans but in both cases the human race has now raised the stakes. War has always been wasteful and damaging to bystanders near and distant.

Solving the problem of violence between humans is a necessary part of situating humans in their relation to other species.

We are holding the camera

No one can view the entire map of existence. While the fabric of intra-human relations need not be prominent in every picturing of the universe, one thing that should never be forgotten is that human beings are holding the camera.

To assume otherwise is to take the position of a godlike view of the universe from above the give and take of earthly existence. Unless one is willing to introduce a divine mind, every view is an animal's view.

And the human mind's eye, directly or through one of its products, provides the most far reaching view. Every ethic is a human ethic; the issue is how well the humans see the world.

If one were to try to put into practice a belief that humans are like every other species and should not try to act otherwise, the absurdity of the claim would be apparent. Any distinctly human activity would have to be eliminated, except perhaps activity to end the human species.

This policy would seem to be implied in Paul Taylor, Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics: "Given the total, absolute, and final disappearance of Homo Sapiens, then, not only would the Earth's Community of Life continue to exist but in all probability its well-being would be enhanced."

If one looks at the humans as a species, there is no discontinuity between a human species and other species. But the continuity includes fantastic differences of human history including the study of species.

What is 'natural law'?

It has often been assumed that unethical behavior arises from a man acting like an animal. For example, violence is often thought to be irrational behavior that overcomes reason.

Human violence, however, can be highly calculative and far more destructive than the action of any other animal. It is true that other animals kill but it is within boundaries; it is unusual for animals to kill their own kind. Only humans rationally create a sub-species of the human that provides a license to kill on a massive scale.

For human beings there is a right way and a wrong way to act although no one has a code of conduct that would fit all humans in all circumstances.

The basic principle is to treat each thing according to its nature. Unfortunately, human beings do not understand all natures, not even their own. A 'natural law' would be a summary of the 'laws of natures' but since those laws are unavailable a summary tells us very little.

In the 17th century, the conflict was between a moral and a mathematical approach to laws of nature. Mathematical science has been of inestimable help to the human race but a moral understanding of natures involves every art and science.

What were called "the laws of nature" were brilliant mathematical conclusions based on empirical data. The term 'natural law' was left to moralists whose views were a mixture of ancient wisdom, the experience of ordinary people, and ignorance of natures.

Some of the ignorance has been cleared away, for example, about human sexuality, but a confusing polemic around the idea of 'natural law' still obstructs an understanding of the relation of human-nature to nature.

What has to be affirmed is that human rights are related to the nature of the human, and that human-nature is not separate from the other natures.

The rights of all living beings

It would not make logical sense to try to extend the idea of human rights to nonhumans. But it can make sense to see human rights as arising from the rights that each thing in the universe has and, especially from rights as applied to living beings.

A right in this context is not a concept within the human's legal system but rather the respect that a human has for a world that is not of human making. In turn, when human rights have been conceived it makes sense to see rights extending in an analogous way to other animals and to other living beings.

Human rights pertain to what is most basic for all human life. Such rights are not asserted against the nonhuman world but exist in the middle of the animal world where the understanding of the human's nature is inseparable from understanding other natures

What is needed is a change of attitude on the part of humans in the way that they treat one another and the extension of a nonviolent attitude to their surroundings. They have to think in general patterns while they test their overall outlook by how they treat their most obvious kin.

Those animals who can engage us as friends remind us that we have an untold number of friends who live beyond our perception. We cannot see the whole world because it is simply too big and we do not have a view of all animals. The bear, giraffes and elephants in the first row block our sight.

Our greater moral responsibility

Oppression, violence and destruction are not healthy for any species. Some human beings think that it is in their individual interest to use violence against members of their own species. The same people engage in thoughtless destruction of other animals and other elements in the environment.

The protection of human rights is a defense of all who are vulnerable to human violence. Just as the 'chosen people' are a stand in for 'people' as the chosen species, so the unique human species is a stand in for all species on earth.

Trying to bring humans down to the level of other animals will not improve the lot of anyone. Instead, humans have to be encouraged to accept their place at the center, the animal that is morally responsible to the whole universe.

As Wendell Berry wisely puts the case: "It is only by remaining human - that is, by the acceptance and proper use of the human powers - that they can understand, respect, and preserve the animals."



Gabriel Moran is professor emeritus of educational philosophy at New York University where he currently teaches international ethics. Among his books is A Grammar of Responsibility, Living Nonviolently and Uniquely Human: The Basis of Human Rights (Xlibris, 2013).

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