Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Philosophers Philosophizing Deux

"Do species have a right to exist?"

This past weekend, I posted the beginnings of a dialogue on this question, instigated by two environmental philosophers, Phil Cafaro and Win Staples.  Today I begin posting the responses.
I want to point out that the question, to be answered properly, must be dissected before it can even be discussed.  As you read, keep in mind these three sub-questions:

What is meant by the term "species"?

Do species have rights?

If so, is the "right to exist" one of the rights species enjoy?

By the way - before we get started - I used the french "a deux" above in honor of yesterday's high energy proton beam collision achieved by scientists using the high energy Large Hadron Collider [LHC], an $18 billion particle collider designed to replicate the conditions of Big Bang.  The LHC is located in a 17-mile tunnel along the France-Switzerland border.  Scientists are hoping the LHC may help them discover new properties of physics, like the so-called theoretically anticipated Higgs Boson or "God" Particle.  If this isn't exciting enough, the project has been plagued with so many set-backs that two scientists on the project have theorized that the Higgs Boson particle may be so antithetical to nature that it is finding its way back to destroy itself, or conversely, humans from the future may be attempting to sabatoge the project for similar reasons.  Wow!  Science or science fiction?  It gives me goose bumps!

Here we go - deux.

# # #

Mike Vandeman to ISEE-L
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I have no idea if anyone has rights. A right is a specific type of relationship: it can only be granted by other people.

BUT, if humans have rights, then there is no good reason to exclude any other living things. We are genetically 98.6% identical to chimpanzees. That doesn't leave room for differences in rights. The same goes for all other species, all of which are our relatives and with whom we share a huge amount of our genome.

I am working on creating wildlife habitat that is off-limits to humans ("pure habitat"). Want to help? (I spent the previous 8 years fighting auto dependence and road construction.)

Please don't put a cell phone next to any part of your body that you are fond of!

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Don Maier to ISEE-L

subject Re: [ISEE-L] Do species have a moral right to exist?

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 Hi Phil, Win,

I'm always rooting for some such argument as this to be convincing. Unfortunately, I think that critical premises for your general case are based on confusions. The force of other arguments (based on interests) has, I think alarmingly limited penetration into the living world.

My notes follow. 

Don Maier

[Ed. note: Red text is copied from Phil & Win's article.  Black text is Maier's commentary.]

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.

The rights of a species (if any) are not the same as the rights of individuals. Individuals and species are two very different sorts of entities. Establishing a right for a human or non-human individual to live in itself says nothing about the right of its species to survive. "Surprisingly" would be a lot more appropriate than "Just so".


Non-rights-holders are not members of the moral community and may be treated as things: mere means to community-members’ ends.

Having rights is (I believe) not at all a necessary condition for being morally considerable and therefore not to be treated as a "mere thing". Your assumption to the contrary seems to have its root in confusing moral agents with moral patients. It think that it should be easy for a virtue theorist (such as yourself) to admit environmentally productive virtues, including ones that tend to preserve species, without admitting species to the inner moral ring of rights bearers.

You cannot advocate Leopold’s “land ethic” without including, as a fundamental component, a right to continued existence for nature’s other species.

This seems false to me, for the reason just cited.

... people should refrain from activities (particularly economic activities) that endanger species...

What, exactly, is an "economic activity"? Or, more to the point, what isn't -- to some degree -- an economic activity? I think that, to a first order approximation, the correct answer to that last question is "very little". Is "economic" here being used as a synonym for "behavior connected with satisfying crass, materialistic, frivolous desires"? Or does "economic" include "growing food to sell to my neighbor"? Of course, both have (or can have) major effects on non-human species.

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.

This reprises the confusion noted in 1).
...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...

every species’ achievement of organic existence and persistence in the face of life’s challenges is a great achievement, well worthy of our respect.

This text exposes possible sources for the underlying confusion. Humans are creative. A species, including the human species, is not creative. Evolution did not "take effort" and it was not an "achievement" in any sense that relates to the kind of purposive struggle that (one might legitimately argue) commands moral respect. I would say that whatever cogency there is here rests on a teleological premise regarding evolution and natural selection. Anyone embracing the naturalistic premise would (or should) reject such a premise.

...opening the floodgates to anything and everything having intrinsic value and a right to exist.

While I think that the case for the value of species has yet to be made, I would also embrace species egalitarianism. However, the implications are not so rosy as you portray. For one major example: There are all kinds of microbes and parasites whose flourishing makes human lives less flourishing. There are just as many creatures that aren't making people miserable yet, but are entirely capable of it -- upon jumping over from their current, non-human hosts (zoonotic diseases). How happy are we about these organisms? Not in my backyard? Except our backyards are inexorably creeping towards theirs. To paraphrase some nearby text, can you "believe" that Leishmania spp. don't have the right to invade your spleen?
I can’t believe that I am so wonderful, or you either, frankly. And I can’t believe that other species are so unimportant.

Here's yet another reprise of confusing species with individuals. Actually, putting aside your species affiliation and considering you as an individual, I have no doubt that you are wonderful! But that is entirely different from saying that the human species deserves moral respect. It might. But what's the case for it? Does it derive from respect from individual humans? Does this argument transfer to other species via their individual members?

...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?

My position would be that we should value the existence of millions of other species. But this has nothing to do with rights. Nor does your "absence of evidence for material difference" argument have any apparent connection to your claims about the rights of non-human (or even human) species. The case for human rights (as distinguished from human species rights) does not rest on the human species being a "miracle".
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.

This picture of "evil economics" versus "the miracle of species" is an unhelpful caricature. You might know that I argue vociferously against the presumption that neoclassical economics gives us a viable general theory of value. But unfortunately, human interests that have little to do with "value in trade" (i.e. economic value) often conflict with the survival prospects of other creatures on the planet. The need to grow enough food is perhaps the single best example of this.
... 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.

Should we take this to express agreement that none of the preceding arguments is relevant to species' rights? Of course, your discussion omits myriad difficulties with the "interests" approach. For example: What level of consciousness is required for a creature to have interests? Do trees have interests? Leishmania? Are there good interests (worthy or moral respect) versus bad interests (not so worthy)? My personal sense of this is that the initial plausibility of these interest-based arguments (if any) fades rapidly when one considers the vast majority of creatures on the planets (insects and microbes).

... puzzles and difficulties... 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).

Unfortunately, it seems false that, simply, all that exists is good (by virtue of merely existing). That view might make sense to a theologian who wishes to justify the Creation. But the appeal ends there. In fact, I'd say that what makes moral philosophy interesting is precisely that not all existence or ways of existing are good. (In fact, the great theologians recognized this, too. There is a rich theological literature that contends with the existence of evil in the world.) The questions remains, what are the good ways of existing and what reasons are valid ones for making such judgments?
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.

I, for one, am reasonably sure that species have no interests. Nothing in this text or elsewhere persuades me otherwise. So I, for one, am "reasonably sure" that this species' interests have no bearing on the matter.
I would cite a conservation biologist only if she gives good reasons for taking a stance on values, not by virtue of her membership in that profession. Conservation biologists are as capable as philosophers of characterizing (some would say "anthropomorphizing") species as "having interests" -- without any solid grounds for saying this.

Given the great intrinsic value of individual species or biodiversity generally, we might be justified in acknowledging a species moral right to exist.

In fact, this last approach seems the straightforward and promising.

It seems to be anything but. My book on What's so good about biodiversity? conducts an extensive survey, but fails to find a single convincing reason why biodiversity, as such, is valuable. One would have thought that if it were straightforward, someone would have figured it out by now. I do hope that someone does. But I would suggest that the fact that no one has a decent theory on this is a strong hint to look for other approaches.
... the widespread acceptance of group rights for human groups suggests that there is nothing conceptually confused or practically impossible about affirming group rights.

I think that a careful analysis shows that these are the rights of individuals to maintain their association with a group, as an important part of their human identity.
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.

This rights-based interpretation is, I believe, your suggested interpretation, not something in the ESA. Certainly, the ESA, as originally drafted, reflected a sense of the value of non-human species that goes beyond species-as-economic-resource. However, it is a long leap from there to species rights. If you are going to make that leap, then you owe us the reasons that launch it.
... rights are the moral and legal coin of the realm.

The reasoning behind the reasoning here seems to be:
"If species had rights, then environmentalist good will prevail.  Therefore, we must establish that species have rights."

Unfortunately, this doesn't give us good reasons for believing that species have rights. Of course, if there were a convincing argument for species rights, then that would be a formidable political weapon. But convincing arguments are precisely what we lack. So long as this is true, arguments from species rights will be entirely unconvincing. Or worse. They will reflect badly on those who proffer them and will ensure that they are marginalized in the wider debate.

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