Sunday, March 28, 2010
Eavesdrop on Philosophers Philosophizing
Do species have a right to exist?
This is the question being discussed by a group of environmental philosophers on a listserve I follow. The discussion is fascinating me at three levels.
First is the substance of the debate itself. The two philosophers who launched the discussion, Phil Cafaro and Win Staples, probably want to make the best possible philosophical argument they can that species "have rights," so they can assert these rights against (or at least give them a place in the mix of) other rights during negotiations for the use of our natural resources. It will come out here that there already exists a legal precedent that grants such rights to species (through the Endangered Species Act). However, explicating a sound philosophical basis for such rights can be thought to put such rights on even stronger ground - moral ground. Laws presumably can change. Morality is generally seen to be less relative.
The second level of interest has to do with semantic acrobatics. Words can shape a debate. Sometimes we want to question the appropriateness of the terminology being employed. For example, during the discussion, a couple of people asked whether the idea of "species" is accurate enough for the assignment of rights. This person points out that there are no true species, that "species" is a "close enough" term used by scientists as a convenience for categorizing organisms for all the reasons that scientific categorization is useful. Similarly, another writer notes that "rights" are a particularly human invention, and asks whether we should be focusing on such a human-centric perspective, or should be using our time to discuss the larger picture, where humans are just another species co-existing within the biosphere.
The third point of interest has to do with the distinctions between ethics generically, and environmental ethics. Generically, we tend to look at ethical categories, e.g. consequences and utility (who will be helped or harmed and in what ways), principles at stake (how does something fit into my world view?), and virtue (what would a "virtuous" person - e.g. Ghandi, Jesus, Andy of Mayberry - do in this situation). But when we are discussing ethics in a more narrow context, in this case the context of the ecological integrity of the planet, maybe the ethical considerations need to shift a little to fit the discussion. Like, have to be bigger in scope. Who is helped and who is harmed may need to be viewed from a very long-term, very broadly interspecial perspective. Principles to apply may need to be drawn from beyond brotherhood or neighborhood - to emerge from concepts of ecohood. And what constitutes virtue may need to be redefined in terms of ecological integrity rather than individual or even communal integrity.
Somewhere else I have written about the convergence theory, offered by environmental philosopher Bryan Norton, which says... we really don't need to focus on whether we should be managing our planetary resources for human utility or for ecological integrity, because if you spin out a plan to ensure the on-going availability of these resources to humans, the plan is going to be the same plan for maintaining ecological integrity along the way. Anything less will result in decreased availability of those resources at some future point.
Even so, we need a way to argue for the preservation of natural resources, whether to ensure their availability to our great-grandchildren or to ensure the integrity of the ecosystem. Since we humans are very anthropocentric critters, and mostly talk about things in the context of human cultural institutions - in this case, "rights" - Phil & Win's question becomes important.
So, I thought you might like to read this debate for yourself... The entire discussion is VERY MEATY (and long), so I won't present it all at once. Instead, today I post Phil and Win's original post. In future days I will post the replies. And, if you have something to add, please leave comments here on the blog (not on facebook, as Phil and Win are not there, to my knowlege). I will forward your comments to the conversants.
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Win Staples and I are trying to work through whether or not wild species have a right to exist free from anthropogenic extinction. Below is an attempt to grapple with this: an extended argument that such a right does exist. It is sort of the rough first half of a paper, maybe, in the second half of which we would consider objections to such a right from Norton and Rolston. Any comments would be greatly appreciated!
Philip Cafaro, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, 80523 USA. Website: www.philipcafaro.com
For a Species Moral Right to Exist
ENTITLEMENTS (1) that people behave in certain ways towards us; and (2) to key resources, that we need for survival. They are...
JUSTIFIED CLAIMS on others, with correlative...
DUTIES that they act (or refrain from acting) in certain ways. They promote and preserve certain...
INTERESTS AND ACHIEVEMENTS that we judge to be of great value. Rights also promote...
FREEDOM (1) to be what we want to be; and (2) from unwanted or harmful actions of others.
Finally, rights are...
TRUMPS, powerful claims that outweigh non-rights claims.
I think this captures the essence of rights.
Status theories argue that because of what people are, we should respect them, by accepting rights that limit how we may treat one another.
Interest theories argue that rights are tools for protecting, maximizing, or fairly distributing something that we want to preserve, maximize, or fairly distribute; candidates include: utility, primary goods, capabilities, and resources.
I would argue that status theories and interest theories both capture important aspects of rights, and that they can and should be brought together in a eudaimonistic theory of rights. On this approach, rights are key tools for enabling human flourishing. We should uphold rights (rights have normative force) because of what people are and can be, as in status theories. People as people deserve respect, and we show that respect by respecting their rights. But we only get a full understanding of the value of rights and of which rights we should uphold, by pressing on to specify a full account of human flourishing, and by showing how protecting rights furthers this flourishing in various ways.
When rights conflict, arguably, we should adjudicate claims based on how different answers would affect overall human flourishing. If we want to know what restrictions to place on freedom of expression, when it lapses into slander; or what amount of redistribution of property to engage in as a means to promote economic security; it is hard to see how we could do better than to consider how our answers will further the well-being and well-doing, understood as comprehensively as possible, of all the people involved. (This is not to claim that such generalities will answer these questions by themselves, without further work, or that they will lead to clearly and unambiguous answers in all cases; merely to say that this is probably the best we will be able to do, by way of giving principled answers to such questions.)
We value human beings, their lives and achievements, and want to further their interests and well-being. Therefore, we affirm human rights. We affirm human rights in order to affirm human flourishing.
In a world where people engross more and more of the habitat and resources all species need to flourish, an obvious question becomes: do we want other species, besides people and our domesticated species and commensals, to continue to flourish on the Earth? If the answer is “yes,” then we arguably need to affirm their right to do so.
I would thus amend the claim, “rights are key tools for enabling human flourishing,” as follows: “rights are key tools for enabling human flourishing and the flourishing of nonhuman species.” I would further assert that wild species have a right to continued existence free from anthropogenic extinction.
In his 1981 article “Are There Any Absolute Rights?” Alan Gewirth argues that all persons have an absolute right against unjust killing, or homicide. Whether such a right really is absolute, in theory or practice, is debatable, but clearly the right to life is a fundamental human right. Without it, our lives and projects hang by a thread; without it, other rights have little point or purpose. Before we can talk about how rights improve our lives, we must secure life itself. So the right to life is the first and most important right for persons.
Just so, the right to continued existence is the first and most important right to assert on behalf of other species. A true commitment to this right entails others, which we may go on to specify: a right to a certain amount of resources and habitat; a right to continue to evolve without human interference; etc. But the right against untimely extinction is paramount.
To return to our overview of rights, asserting a species moral right to exist means asserting:
ENTITLEMENTS (1) that people should refrain from activities (particularly economic activities) that endanger species; and (2) that all species should be secured the habitat and resources they need to survive. It means making...
CLAIMS on people which we take to be rationally JUSTIFIED, with correlative...
DUTIES that they act through their governments to secure the habitat and resources needed by other species to survive, that they refrain from consuming in ways that threaten other species’ essential resources, and that their governments and the corporations which provide them with goods and services likewise act with restraint. It means recognizing an...
INTEREST of other species in their continued existence—or at least their persistence in reproducing and refining a natural kind that we recognize as a good of its kind—and recognizing this as an...
ACHIEVEMENT of great creativity and lasting value. It involves promoting other species’...
FREEDOM (1) to be what are and to evolve into what they will be, free (2) from untimely human extinction or unnecessary human interference. Finally, such a right to continued existence is a powerful...
TRUMPING claim, that should outweigh non-essential human interests. Just as the presence of a starving man outweighs my right to eat the dinner I have just prepared—I owe him that dinner, even if I’m hungry—so the presence of an endangered species, reduced to its last population or last few members, outweighs a real-estate developer’s right to build on a plot of land, or a community’s right to dam a river or build a new power plant.
Recall that there are two main ways that philosophers typically try to justify rights and determine which rights people have. Both can make a place for a species right to exist.
Status theories argue that because of what people are, we should respect them, by accepting rights that limit how we may treat one another. Key characteristics which many philosophers have argued mandate such respect are human rationality, free will, autonomy, and creativity. These are indeed wonderful capacities and characteristics that deserve to be respected, preserved and enhanced, through securing people rights. Because all these human qualities can be stunted or even snuffed out entirely, through neglect and injustice.
In the same way, we can argue that we should respect other species for what they are. In general, species are the primary examples and repositories of organic nature’s creativity and diversity; they represent thousands and often millions of years of effort and achievement. In particular cases, species are what they are: keystone predators or humble detritivores; flashy birds-of-paradise or exquisitely camouflaged sparrows; towering redwoods, home to myriads of other species, or diminutive mites, inhabiting the interstices of the bristles of a particular bird species’ feathers. We should preserve the cheetah’s right to exist because it can run up to seventy miles per hour and bring down a gazelle. We should preserve chimpanzees in the wild because they engage in complex social interactions, tool-making and the rudiments of language, in addition to being our closest nonhuman kin. We should preserve horseshoe crabs because of their extreme longevity as a species, perhaps hundreds of millions of years in essentially the same form; and the Arctic Tern, because its annual peregrinations tie together the Arctic and Antarctic regions; and Leatherback sea turtles because each one roams the oceans for up to one hundred years, tracking food and natal beaches with the same level of accuracy as wolves track the details of their land habitats.
All these species are what they are, and what they are is good. It is a fatal mistake to take human beings as the template for all natural goodness, and decide what has important or ultimate value, what shall live or die, based on these things’ similarities to us. It is simply another form of unjustified self-partiality and anthropocentrism to do so.
Besides, the alternative, to restrict intrinsic value and rights-bearing to those beings (surprise!) that are similar to us, seems obviously ad hoc and suspiciously convenient. How could it be possible that only our species deserves its place in the sun? I deserve to continue to have the opportunity to think (perhaps about whether or not Kentucky will make it to the Final Four at the NCAA tournament this year, or whether the latest Twilight movie was as good as the previous one) and to act autonomously (including choosing to have Chinese or Thai food when I go out to dinner with my wife next week). But polar bears have no right to hunt seals, wolves have no right to bay at the moon, kangaroos have no right to graze thorn trees, and peregrine falcons have no right to come screaming out of the sky and “thwack!” the life out of an unwary duck. I can’t believe it.
I can’t believe that I am so wonderful, or you either, frankly. And I can’t believe that other species are so unimportant.
Isn’t this exclusive valuing of human beings an echo of cramped worldviews that we should have discarded long ago? Now that science has opened up wider views of the universe and provided greater knowledge of the history and nature of the other species with who we share this beautiful world, is it still possible to treat our existence as the one miracle in the world, and not value the existence of the millions of other species on Earth?
A detailed case can be made that just as human beings’ reasoning powers, freedom, autonomy and creativity grounds our status as rights-bearers, so organic species’ natural free creativity and their ability to “lock in” order (logos) many times more complex than anything found in inorganic nature grounds their status as rights-bearing entities. In both cases we may find special value in freedom, creation, and rational order.
Yet any such argument is bound to stretch our intuitions, which have been formed, after all, around paradigm arguments regarding human rights. Indeed, the fact that the extension of rights to all humans represents great moral progress to all of us engaged in this debate, might make it that much harder to think creatively or objectively about the proper criteria for rights-bearing status. ”We don’t want to undermine the case for universal human rights; perhaps it is better, then, to just focus, laser-like, on the wonders of human nature, and emphasize their uniqueness and unique value.” In this way, a commendable humanity may aid a less commendable anthropocentrism.
Environmental philosophers should not kid ourselves. The alternative to defending other species’ right to exist is not to debate the question of their moral status at our leisure for another thirty or forty years. The alternative is to acquiesce in an economic and political order in which species do not have such a right and in which humanity continues to exterminate other species, because their continued existence is not particularly important, compared to the various economic interests that are driving them to extinction.
Discussions of the proper moral status of species are bound to be inconclusive. Yet they are necessary, because ascribing rights necessarily involves valuing rights-bearers for what they are in themselves. This is not the only reason for granting an entity rights; as I argue in more detail below, ascribing rights to particular individuals or classes impacts society as a whole, and these impacts must be taken into account in deciding whether to grant particular rights to particular entities, what weight to give these rights, etc. However, valuing and preserving things for what they are in themselves is a fundamental aspect of rights ascription. Rights are not merely instrumental, but involve assertions of intrinsic value and respect for what something is. Having said this, however, it is important to add that rights do have great instrumental value and this aspect, too, needs to be addressed in a complete argument for a species moral right to exist.
As stated previously, interest theories of rights justification see rights as tools for protecting, maximizing, or fairly distributing something that we want to preserve, maximize, or fairly distribute. They thus see rights as instrumentally valuable in the effort to protect or increase what is intrinsically valuable, or taken as good without need for further defense. Candidates for such intrinsic or grounding value include happiness, utility, or the general welfare; the preservation, expansion or actualization of human capabilities; and human freedom to act and choose our individual paths in life.
As with status theories, interest theories have been developed with a primary focus on human interests. However, they seem amenable to broadening the community of rights-bearers, as other philosophers have argued.
Utilitarian theories that define utility in terms of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain typically take the pleasure and pain of nonhuman sentient beings into account. Hence they may support animals’ (instrumental) rights against mistreatment. Furthermore, the lives of animals and plants can go better or worse, and be more or less successful; hence it makes sense to speak of human actions harming (helping) their welfare or furthering (undermining) their interests. Given this and a sense that the welfare or interests involved are important, there seems to be no conceptual barrier to granting other organisms rights to secure their welfare, utility, or interests.
Capability theories such as Martha Nussbaum’s take the development of full human capabilities as the great good and proper goal, in life and in ethics. Nussbaum sees rights as instrumental to providing the wherewithal to allow all people to further such development. But other organisms have capabilities, too. Although this aspect of the approach has not been much developed, it seems that capability theorists should be able to support the rights of individual organisms to develop their capabilities—again, provided such development is seen as important.
Interest theories which seek to maximize human freedom see rights as instrumentally valuable for this purpose. Such theories are often libertarian, valuing political and civil rights and scorning economic and social rights; however, recently developed “left libertarian” approaches support extensive economic and social rights, based on the need for sufficient resources to allow people to be free. The main point to make here is that other organisms besides people may be free or constrained: wild, or tamed or domesticated. If we value freedom as such, we may assert that other organisms, too, have a right to their freedom. In practice, many a prickly wilderness advocate does just that, happily singing “Don’t Fence Me In” for himself and for wildlife.
In all these cases, it seems we can make sense of at least some nonhuman organisms having interests, welfare, happiness, capabilities, or freedom, and of their possessing rights which protect or enhance these things. It is a further question, whether we can speak of whole species (as opposed to individual nonhuman organisms) having interests, welfare, happiness, capabilities, or freedom, either simply or in some extended sense. Thus, it is a further question whether species, as such, possess rights or could plausibly be granted rights, as a means to furthering their interests, welfare, happiness, capabilities, or freedom.
One way to deal with this issue would be to build on the idea that individual organisms have interests, can feel pleasure or pain, can utilize their capabilities, and can live freely, in order to assert their individual rights to do so. This might support stringent limits on human interference with and overutilization of the natural world, thus preserving many species.
Another way to deal with the issue might be to assert that species have an interest in their own continued existence, manifested through their successful efforts to reproduce and perpetuate new individuals of their own unique kinds. They show freedom and creativity in doing so, all of which might ground a right to continued existence.
Bryan Norton considers such an alternative, only to reject it:
It might be suggested that rights of species are somehow generated from the interests of species, but the concept of interest of species is not at all clear. Individual lives are bounded by birth and death, and these parameters guide judgments of individual interest. Anything that threatens to cause the death of an individual is clearly against that individual’s interest, other things being equal. But suppose a species is suffering a slow but steady decline in population because of competitive pressure from another species (human or otherwise). Would it be in the interest of the species to come under steady adaptational pressure that both fuels its decline in population and, simultaneously, increases the likelihood that it will speciate before it becomes extinct? That is, there is no single manner in which the ‘life’ of a species is terminated. Also, it is not obvious whether having a large population is in the interest of a species or not. Is a species ‘better off’ if it has larger population? Or is a small, robustly healthy population preferable? Is it better for a species to be moving toward more specialized adaptations, or are more opportunisitic adaptations preferable from its point of view? It is not just that these questions have no ready answer. Rather, they seem to be odd questions as it is unclear whether or not they are to be answered in terms merely of the likelihood of the species being perpetuated. Without guidance concerning the ‘interests’ of the species, there is no sense of how to proceed toward an answer to them.
. . . To apply the concepts of rights and interests to nonhuman species as collectives is not only to expand the application of the concepts; it radically alters their very logic as no reasonable analogies exist for reconstructing them. We are left without any clear guidelines for deciding what rights a species has because one cannot generate such rights from interests in any meaningful sense of that term. (Why Preserve Natural Variety? pp.170-1)
Norton certainly points to real puzzles and difficulties. Yet many of these could perhaps be surmounted if we simply stipulate that existence is good (esse qua esse bonum est, Augustine said, striking what he took to be bedrock). To some degree, we have to do this in human ethics as well, for who is to say that some people, or perhaps most people, might not be better off dead than alive? Coherent philosophies have been built around the idea that life is suffering and that our main goal should be to make an honorable surrender from the field. Once we stipulate that ethics should help us to live, in this world, however, we can leave such solutions to life’s problems aside, and go on to specify concrete ways to live better lives, which will include specifying particular rights which secure and improve human existence. Presumably, even with a full complement of rights, there will remain many puzzles about how to live well, and many forks in the road between radically different alternatives, which reason may not clearly adjudicate between. Nevertheless, we will almost certainly want to preserve a right against homicide, and other rights which render our existence more secure.
Norton suggests that puzzles regarding species’ interests might make it impossible to specify their rights. Yet if we are unsure what degree of competitive pressure is beneficial to a riverside plant species, or whether more specialized adaptations might further or undermine its survival and flourishing, or whether “it” really still is “it” after a hundred thousand years or so of evolution, we can be reasonably sure that ripping up the last remaining individual plants to build a marina will harm the species. We can be reasonably sure that such an action is not in that species’ interests. In fact, conservation biologists routinely speak of various actions helping or harming a species, where they mean: helping or harming its odds of survival. We need not specify a species right to a certain amount of competition, or a species right to a certain degree of specialized adaption, in order to assert a species right to continued existence free from anthropogenic extinction.
Human beings need many things from other human beings in order to survive and thrive; other species mostly need us to leave them alone and not pave over their habitat, poison them with our effluents, or monopolize any of their essential resources. We may leave it to them to work out the details of their lives and continued evolution. We may take the hint that species themselves give us, as they strive to perpetuate their own particular kinds, and affirm their right to do so.
In fact, this last approach seems the straightforward and promising. It argues that in addition to valuing human beings’ happiness, freedom and development, we should value the happiness, freedom and development of other species. In other words, just as we value Homo sapiens, we should value other species, for what they are and what they may become. We should use rights as tools to ensure other species continued existence and well-being, as well as our own.
Again: status theories and interest theories both capture important aspects of rights. I believe they should be brought together in a eudaimonistic theory, in which rights are key tools for enabling the flourishing of all life: human and nonhuman. The flourishing of life is the great value that our own lives and our ethical and legal systems should preserve and enhance. Living beings deserve respect, in virtue of what they are. We show that respect by upholding their right to survive and thrive. We get a fuller understanding of the value of rights and which rights we should uphold, by specifying fuller accounts of human and nonhuman flourishing, and considering how asserting rights might further this flourishing in various ways.
Let me make three brief points in closing. First, individuals are clearly our paradigmatic rights holders, both in theory and practice. But the widespread acceptance of group rights for human groups suggests that there is nothing conceptually confused or practically impossible about affirming group rights. The post-war International Convention against Genocide, legal protections for minority group rights in various national constitutions, and passage by the UN General Assembly of the “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” in 2007, all indicate a felt need for group rights. There is no reason to limit the beneficiaries of such group rights to human groups or aggregations—unless we believe that only human groups or aggregations are important. Such an assertion would itself stand in need of rational justification.
Second, as Cass Sunstein puts it, while the philosophical justification of rights is complex and many paths to such justification are possible, “in practice, rights are a product of concrete historical experiences with wrongs” (The Second Bill of Rights, pp. 35-6). Mindful of past losses and faced with the immanent extinction of the bald eagle and many other species, the US Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1969, creating a de facto species right to exist; a right which was explicitly stated to trump mere economic rationales for extinguishing species. A subsequent Congress weakened the Act, allowing such economically-motivated extinctions in limited circumstances. Yet the manner in which this was hedged about (the need to convene a cabinet-level “God Squad,” etc.) suggests unease with this backsliding. It is deeply wrong to extinguish another life form unnecessarily, as even many philistines will acknowledge, when pressed. It is this wrong which grounds a species right to continued existence. Philosophers should not stray too far from such wrongful acts themselves, when considering whether or not we can make sense of a species right to exist, or whether such a right should be affirmed.
Third, in modern constitutional democracies, rights are the moral and legal coin of the realm. They affirm who is in and who is out of the moral and legal community. They determine how essential resources will be distributed. They determine who lives and dies; who lives well and who scrapes by. If environmentalists want to do all we can to prevent species extinctions, we need to mobilize rights in the effort. Both to make our case to the general public, which understands such matters in terms of rights; and in the courts, where rights (not intrinsic values) do indeed tend to be “trumps.” If the power of the law can give life to bogus corporate “people” with a right to “speak” politically, we should not doubt that it can also destroy life, helping to wipe real species off the face of the Earth.
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