Monday, January 25, 2010

Does Nature have rights?

Writing about historical carbon output, like most philosophers, I worry about who has done what, who is owed and who owes, whether ignorance matters or not, and so on. But in all of this debate there is an embarrassing silence about “Nature”. As we worry about what (if anything) the Developed World owes the Developing World, a fair division of the pie seems still to only involve “us”. As I have posted here before, one reason for that is that we don’t have room in our moral discourse for things like Nature – because, as it were they are things and not people. “People” here need not mean just humans. In fact a humans can cease to be a person (if they are brain damaged enough) and, if there are Martians, that in itself ought not to prevent them being people (if nonetheless rather different from people we have encountered to date). If this is sounding like a non-standard use of the term ‘people’ it is. I am using the term to apply to anything that ought to be treated as having a claim to moral standing. What you need to have to underwrite such a claim is where the philosophical trouble starts. Is it a point of view? Something like it is to be you? These notions impose pretty strong standards to meet – perhaps sentience. And so on that account, both Nature and most of the things that make it up, don’t qualify. On the other hand, if we weaken the condition on moral standing to having interests in some vaguely objective sense (say reproduction and survival) then stones don’t have standing but flees do. Hold on! Does a flee really care if it is eaten or not? And that pushes us back into the arms of a condition of standing that it is likely that only we can satisfy. But Stone’s wonderful article “Should Trees have Standing?”, reprinted in a book of his essays with the same title, takes a radically different tack to break this impasse. Begin with the Law not Philosophy he argues – and take legal rules as nothing more than rules, not as rules that express underlying moral principles. Then ask if those rules can be plausibly applied to things that do not have interests of their own. The key move in this is the model of guardianship. Consider a profoundly brain damaged child for whom a guardian is appointed to speak on the child’s behalf, to represent the child’s interests. Now the philosopher wants to say, “Wait a minute! What if the child has no interests. What if the child is so brain damaged that it (literally) has no point of view?” Stone’s argument is that this does not matter from the point of view of the law. All that matters is what the law decrees. “…. what the legal rules touching on the ward provide”. And if those rules can accommodate the guardianship of trees, so much the better. Is this anything more than legal sophistry? Does it carry any philosophical weight? Here is why I think it does – Stone’s argument is embedded in a much broader conception of the relationship of ethics and the law. The law, he argues, develops by extension and in doing so, it offers us a social mechanism to develop our account of ethics as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Moral personhood is a tricky matter, particularly when we begin to consider cases in bioethics (ie: patients in PVS, never-competent babies, profound dementia). Even trickier, as you point out, are cases where we want to assign some notion of 'rights' to things like trees (or stones, natural formations, or pieces of paper like the US constitution, for example). Perhaps the way to approach these cases would be to say that persons bestow value on trees, certain stones, or pieces of paper, and in virtue of these things having value, they thereby are deserving of our respect. That is, our duty to not wantonly destroy trees, or use the US constitution for kleenex, or fill the Grand Canyon with cement, does not derive from trying to bestow moral person on these sorts of items, but rather, by recognizing that these things have axiological value. On this approach, we avoid the puzzling prospect of assigning moral rights to trees and stones like we do to persons, and can still maintain that we have certain moral duties in regards to non-sentient objects like trees, stones, and papers. I think this axiological approach works in a similar spirit that Stone's argument operates under--(but, I have not read Stone). That is, the moral duties we have toward things like trees and the profoundly brain-damaged derive not from assigning moral personhood per se to them, but rather, by looking at human-derived 'rules' (in Stone's case) or 'values' (in the axiological case), and adjusting our behavior and treatment of them accordingly.

-Michael Gentzel
Johns Hopkins University
Dept. of Philosophy