Does nature have rights?


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We certainly should behave as if does, says Colin Tudge

There are loads of laws around the world including Britain to protect various components of the natural world and this of course is good – but the existing laws are almost entirely for our own, human benefit. The law in general regards our fellow creatures and the landscapes and oceans they inhabit as property – “natural capital” – and for law-makers in general, property is the number one concern. Very few countries – so far, it seems, only Ecuador, New Zealand, and parts of the US – acknowledge that Nature itself has Rights, comparable with human rights, and has passed laws to protect those Rights: laws passed not simply to protect what we like to think belongs to us, but to protect wild nature for its own sake. 

Laws alone are never enough, of course. What’s needed is a cross-the-board mindshift – what the old Greeks called metanoia. Despoliation of the natural world should not simply be unlawful. It should be unthinkable (in the same way that murder is unthinkable, at least for most of us). But at least to recognize the concept – that Nature should be afforded Rights, which should be protected by law – is surely a step in the right direction. 

So what’s entailed? To begin at the beginning – 

What are“Rights”? 

Rights are a matter of entitlement: who is or should be allowed to do what in any particular society or indeed throughout life in general without being punished or otherwise put a stop to. All intelligent animals that live in societies have some conception of rights — a sense of rights seems necessary to achieve social coherence – although of course, only humans spell out their conceptions formally. In all societies human and otherwise it seems that rights depend very much on rank. Some individuals are deemed to be more important than others and the most important are granted more rights. So it is that in wolf societies only the alpha male and female are allowed to breed (although there are occasional mavericks). Feudal lords typically had the right to hunt deer on their own land while commoners could be hanged for poaching a rabbit. It is widely believed, too, and taught, that feudal lords at least in some countries had droit de seigneur, including the right to steal the virginity of brides on their wedding night, but this, so modern historians generally agree, is a fabrication, put round by later generations.  Only in autocracies of the crudest kind do the bosses enjoy total freedom, for in well-tempered societies the rulers’ rights are limited too. All must obey society’s rules, explicit or implicit. Feudalism was often tempered by the code of chivalry, of which a key principle was that of noblesse oblige: those with power and rank were expected to take care or at least respect the rights of those with less. In modern, neoliberal Britain that principle seems to have gone missing. 

Rights may be and sometimes are extended in human societies by the concepts of liberalization and democracy – or curtailed by authoritarian governments or by any government in times of crisis, as in war or famine. Liberalization means that people are granted more freedom – more rights – to do more things; and democratization implies an extension of rights to more and more people, with the people themselves deciding what rights they should have. The combination – liberal democracy – seems to many to be the ideal, even though political parties that call themselves liberal democrats don’t always live up to their billing (‘twas ever thus). Liberal democracy is, I suggest, the distinguishing feature of “the West”. Many would see it as the western dream. Not everyone shares the dream but then – in liberal democracies different people have a right to their own opinions. “Progress” is often perceived as an increase in wealth or of smarter technologies but progress at least in the West these past few centuries might reasonably be equated with the spread of liberal democracy. 

But the progress has been far from smooth. Truly liberal democratic societies, one feels, should in essence be egalitarian but Britain, the US, and Australia, who all claim to be exemplars of freedom and democracy, are horribly unequal and are getting worse. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to make post-Soviet Russia more democratic and liberal but the result under Boris Yeltsin was the oligarch takeover, with Putin among its beneficiaries. For in all human societies, no matter how democratic they may claim or aspire to be, power tends naturally to accrue to those who want it most, or indeed are obsessed with it as some people are obsessed with fashion and others with Liverpool F C. And in any society those who crave power and a sense of supremacy above all else are not, generally speaking, nature’s liberal democrats. Furthermore, particularly in times of stress, many people crave strong leadership even though that generally means that their own freedoms – their own rights – are curtailed. Thus did Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and now Putin attract an ostensibly devoted following, and although we don’t have anyone quite so extreme in the west the tendency is ever-present. Donald Trump has not gone away and Narendra Modi seems set to rule India forever even though India is commonly billed as “the world’s largest democracy”. 

Some people seem simply to like rules, and feel lost when given too much freedom. Others may want freedom for themselves but fear the freedom of others. According to the perhaps apocryphal brigadiers from Tunbridge Wells who write apoplectically to The Daily Telegraph, the Woke movement and Extinction Rebellion and CND and burkas and all forms of socialism “threaten the very fabric of society”. Democracy requires us to trust others – but those who are too trusting must expect to be taken advantage of, at least now and again. St Peter pointed this out to Jesus although Jesus assured him that the price is worth paying. If we really want to make a better, kinder, world we have to be prepared to take a little flack along the way. But, he said, the long term gain outweighs the short-term pain. According to Matthew (5:38-40) he advised Peter simply to “turn the other cheek”. But I digress.

Yet despite the many setbacks, at least in the West, human rights have clearly been extended over the past 900 years or so. William I who came to these shores in 1066 was by nature an autocrat and, so historians tell us, under the feudal system that he initiated life for most people in England was less free and generally less agreeable than it had been in Anglo-Saxon days. But things began to move in the right direction with the Magna Carta of 1215 – although this was far more concerned with the rights of lords than with people at large. There was many a peasant uprising in subsequent centuries but the first truly significant political shift came in the 17th century when the execution of Charles I finally put paid to the ancient idea that monarchs rule by divine right – that indeed they are God’s viceroys. Yet the idea that our rulers have a license from on high to rule the rest of us lingers on like the microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang. Richard Nixon infamously claimed that the US president could do no wrong by definition and Donald Trump clearly agreed with him. So apparently in a minor way did Boris.  

In the 17th century too Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in particular spelled out some of the key precepts that still underpin the idea of democratic rights (although some or much of what Hobbes and Locke said is deeply questionable). In particular, in 1689 the English parliament published the Bill of Rights – “An Act declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject, and settling the Succession of the Crown”. Less than 100 years later, in 1776, the Europeans and particularly the Brits who had settled in North America formally rejected the distant rule of George III and published their Declaration of Independence, the second and most famous paragraph of which tells us that —  

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

Thirteen years later, in 1789, the leaders of the newly established United States published the first draft of the US Constitution, which begins: 

“We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility (sic), provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” 

“We the People” is a very significant phrase. This isn’t, the Constitution takes pains to assure us, some bigwig pontificating from on high. 

The Constitution with its 27 subsequent amendments spells out in some detail what the rights envisaged in the Declaration actually amount to. Most of them seem eminently desirable although the 2nd Amendment, published in 1791, proclaimed — 

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”

— which many and probably most people feel is most unfortunate. Many have pointed out that the 2nd Amendment applies specifically to “a well-regulated Militia” – and not to people at large, and many more suggest that times have changed since 1791. But the American gun lobby in particular continues to argue that to carry a gun is “a constitutional right” which they take virtually to be a God-given right, comparable with the divine right of kings, so that to oppose it is not simply to threaten hard-won liberty but is a kind of blasphemy. Besides, guns are big business, the fruits of free enterprise – and free enterprise is a large part of what’s meant by freedom, is it not? This is one of several ways in which the concept of rights may be corrupted. In truth there is no idea, no matter how noble in intent or how carefully framed, that cannot be perverted for some nefarious purpose. Christianity and Islam have often been deployed for purposes that their founders would surely have deplored. The concept of Rights is similarly abused, as alluded to later.  

The 19th century brought many more freedoms and laid the foundations for more still. In Britain the law to abolish slavery was passed in 1833 and was in force by 1834, and in the still adolescent United States slavery was officially abolished in 1865. New Zealand had universal suffrage by 1893 though in Britain, despite the best efforts of the Suffragettes, most women did not get the vote until 1928. The Labour doyen Nye Bevan became MP for Ebbw Vale in 1929 and remarked in his memoirs that he was thereby one of the very first British MPs to be voted in by the whole adult population. He was still going strong when I was in the sixth form at school. A lot of what seems to derive from the depths of history came about in living memory. Life and attitudes in the 1940s when I was born were far closer to those in the age of Queen Victoria than to the present. As technology accelerates, history is concertinaed. 

The most significant advance came in 1948 when Eleanor Roosevelt chaired a committee that produced the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. This tells us that all human beings are —

 “… born free and equal in dignity and rights [regardless of] nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status”. 

This sounds excellent, and surely is. For the most part, the 30 Articles of the Declaration do not have the force of law but they are hugely influential nonetheless. At least, countries that fail to observe the Rights of all their citizens as spelled out in the UN Declaration risk being censured or even shunned by other countries although, in reality, most countries fall short of the Declaration’s standards at least some of the time, and nations that blatantly neglect or even persecute minorities are forgiven if they are too rich and powerful to fall out with. Many ask too whether Britain, the world’s fifth largest economy, does enough to ensure that its citizens have “a reasonable standard of living” as demanded by Articles 22-29. Even in “normal” times we fall far short. In this winter of discontent, 2022-2023, the shortcomings, not to say the horrors of life for many thousands and indeed millions of British people are obvious to all the world, though not it seems to our government. We surely are right to criticize the Arabs and the Chinese, though some would say too timidly, for the way they sweep aside human Rights at least as defined by the UN Declaration. But we also need to remove the beams in our own eyes. 

Of huge significance too in recent years was the Civil Rights movement in the US which began in the early 1950s. This led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, pushed through by President Lyndon Johnson, which “outlaws discrimination based on racecolour, religion, sex, and national origin”. This applies across the board, from service in restaurants to voting rights, employment, and – of huge significance – the de-segregation of the public schools (which the Brits call state schools). Martin Luther King Jr declared that the Civil Rights Act was “a second emancipation”. 

Yet of course, high-sounding and significant though all of the above declarations may be, the vileness that their authors sought to bring to an end lives on. In America the prohibition of slavery was succeeded by the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in many states and although the Jim Crow laws are now defunct the prejudice all too obviously lives on the world over – not just against blacks but against all minorities of those who – like women, who in the world as a whole are the majority – are particularly vulnerable in one way or another. Such bias is not exclusive to whites of course. Black and brown people are apt to treat people they feel are inferior just as badly. Perhaps such vileness is too deeply embedded within us to be expunged but we need not assume that. Some of our most fundamental biases and fears and predilections do indeed seem to be built into us including the (perfectly rational) fear of sinister noises in the dead of night, or the love we feel for our own children. But many or most of what have sometimes seemed to be our deepest feelings, as much a part of us as our red blood cells, turn out simply to be habits, or customs, and can be re-learnt, or simply fade away. Some at least of the fears that tormented our ancestors now seem ridiculous and some are remembered only by historians. Far more often than not the dials can be re-set, provided we or some pressure group don’t strive officiously to keep them alive – like the Klan, say, stoking the fires of racial prejudice or those members of the present government who cling for ideological and political purposes, against all evidence and with no trace of what Adam Smith called “natural sympathy”**,   to the belief that “the lower classes” are lazy and generally feckless and will not work unless starved into submission.

[** The Tories like to claim Adam Smith as a hero – as “the father of modern capitalism” and, by extrapolation, as “the father of neoliberalism.” But Smith was a moral philosopher before he was an economist and would surely have hated the callousness of neoliberalism – which excludes morality from its thinking as a matter of strategy, opting simply to focus on increasing material wealth.  Smith clearly believed, as all rational, humane people surely must, that the purpose of the economy is to serve the real needs of society; and, as those who aspire to be inclusive and green must agree, the economy should serve the needs of humanity as a whole and of the natural world. The present, neoliberal economy very obviously does not. General wellbeing does not seem even to be on the agenda].   

And yet: despite the best efforts of those who seek to preserve the status quo,  the worst as well as the best, laws and codes of practice that are designed to extend liberties and eliminate discrimination continue to spread, to embrace more and more oppressed and neglected groups of all kinds. More to the point, people of all kinds – black and brown and white, Christian and Muslim, men and women, aristocrat and peasant, officers and “other ranks”, LGBTs and the rest  — have shown time and again that they would far rather get along with each other than stay at odds, and usually do so if they are not too stressed or pressured to behave otherwise. So although the hoped-for progress towards a more humane and stable world proceeds in fits and starts, on a good day at least we may feel that we’re getting there. 

To summarize so far: Rights are a convention, a social and legal device that should help us to live harmoniously in societies: entitlements, which spell out what we are allowed to do; the counterpoise of rules, which tell us what we can and can’t do. But are Rights just a social convention, a convenience, to be formally stated in legalistic terms, or is there more to the idea than that? 

Where do our Rights come from? And are we entitled to Rights at all? 

A great many people — the kind commonly known as “materialists” – take it to be self-evident that the universe that we can directly observe (with or without the aid of special instruments) is all there is: matter, energy, and the four recognized forces (electromagnetism, gravity, and the weak and strong nuclear forces). All this, of course, is the stamping ground of science. Some people feel that since the material universe is all there is, then if only we knew enough science we would understand life and the universe exhaustively. To them, science is the only serious game in town and all the rest is fancy. In the early 20th century the philosophers known as logical positivists turned this idea into a formal doctrine. Mercifully, logical positivism passed decisively out of fashion in the 1970s and in reality very few people ever lived their lives as if they really believed its tenets. Even the most ostensibly hard-nosed love their children and their dogs and are moved by the music of Schubert or Nina Simone. But the general idea behind logical positivism still runs through science nonetheless, and through economics, and hence is translated into policy, and is said to be “rational” and “realistic”. 

But a great many other people – the majority, so formal surveys suggest – feel that there is more to life and the universe than can be directly observed and measured; that there are “forces” at work behind the scenes that are beyond the reach of science and may properly be called transcendent. Many feel – indeed they take it to be obvious – that since the universe is so complex and yet so intricately interwoven that there must be some intelligence, a consciousness, behind the whole caboodle. Some feel that this consciousness must be part of the fabric of the universe itself – a “universal consciousness”. Some feel that this consciousness belongs to a separate being, generically referred to as “God”. Some say that the universal consciousness is God. Whatever variation on the theme we choose to adopt, the feeling that there are transcendent forces at work behind the observable and measurable universe is what I suggest should properly be meant by the term spirituality. Spirituality properly conceived is a feeling for transcendence. It is not just heightened emotion.

So is transcendence thus conceived a sensible notion? Or are the hard-noses right to dismiss it out of hand? Short of divine revelation we can never know – and of course we may be deceived by flights of fancy that we mistake for revelation. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers and mystics have been reaching for final answers for many thousands of years – perhaps since our species first became recognizably human, and perhaps the foundations of such meditations were laid even before that. I will simply suggest here that in effect, all human thinking on all matters falls into two main camps: materialist (what we can observe and measure is all there really is); and what for want of a better term I will call “transcendental”. Others use the term “transcendental” in other ways but I mean it to include all those very big ideas (including indeed the idea of God) that cannot be explored exclusively by the methods of science and yet seem to many or most of us to be very important. 

The dichotomy pervades, as indeed it must, the discussion of Rights. “Rights” is indeed a social construct to be expressed in legal terms – a formal statement of entitlements to make sure that the members of societies claim what they ought to claim and not what they shouldn’t. As such, though, clearly, Rights is also a matter of moral principle, underpinned by our sense of what is good and what is bad. Philosophers of the ultra-rational hard-nosed kind argue that we can and must arrive at moral principles just by thinking rationally. So it was that at the end of the ultra-rational 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, moral philosophers of the kind generically called “utilitarian” tried to define morality itself virtually in arithmetical terms. Thus as the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham put the matter it the late 18th century:  

“… it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

What really matters, though, surely, is what it is that makes “the greatest number” happy. As I have pointed out many a time and oft, if six Nazis have a good time beating up one Pole there are six happy chappies to one who is made extremely miserable. But does that mean it’s good? In like vein, on the grander scale, majorities in societies the world over have sometimes – often! — sought to suppress and sometimes even to exterminate inconvenient minorities. Indeed, genocide is still rife in the world at large, sometimes sanitized as “ethnic cleansing”, and sometimes apparently the exterminators feel better off (duly “cleansed”) if they succeed. Majorities outnumber minorities by definition. Does that make genocide OK? Does it make imperialism OK? Surely not. Clearly, moral philosophising requires more than calculation. 

In fact, some decades before Bentham, one of the greatest rationalists of all time, David Hume, a pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment, declared that moral precepts cannot be arrived at simply by thinking about them, and by calculation. However ingeniously and rigorously we may argue, morality in the end is and must be rooted in feelings – what Hume called “passions”. As he argued in A Treatise of Human Nature of 1739: 

“Reason is, and ought to be only the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Relevant too is his comment, also in A Treatise of Human Nature, that “we cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’” —  though that is just a precis of his original text. 

In short: reason and rationality of course have vital roles to play in our attempts to understand life and the universe and also to outline how we ought to behave. But in the end our conclusions, our beliefs, in all matters and particularly matters of morality are rooted in our feelings, which in the end are informed by our intuitions – concepts that we do not arrive at consciously but are apparently built into us – or sneak up on us as we go through life without our being aware of it. Of course we must engage our conscious minds as far as we are able, and sometimes employ computers too to help our thinking along. But in the end our understanding and our philosophy of life, our attitudes, are rooted in and guided by our intuitions, and experienced as the expression has it as “a feeling in the bones”. Our intuitions can of course be refined by our conscious thoughts and experiences – we do and must cultivate our intuitions. But above all we must listen to our bones. The bones have it. Or as St Augustine said early in the 5th century: 

“. . . return into yourself. Deep within man there dwells the truth.”

This is where the idea of transcendence comes in. One idea of a transcendent kind that I feel has enormous mileage is that of universal consciousness – which surely should be taken seriously as discussed elsewhere on this website (and in The Great Re-Think). I like too the Eastern idea of the Dharma which some Buddhists take to mean “universal harmony” – as discussed later. 

Out of the broad concept of transcendence emerges the idea of God. And behind the idea of Rights lies the idea that our Rights are God-given. That is: our Rights are given by God, but also restricted by God. The concept of “divine right” as once applied to monarchs (and as modern-day would-be autocrats clearly feel applies to them too) sounds the same but isn’t. “Divine right” as the term was and is understood implies that the monarch or modern-day autocrat has been granted carte blanche to do whatever they choose. The idea that Rights in general are God-given has never to my knowledge been taken to mean that we can do whatever we like and claim that this is God’s will. The American Declaration of Independence of 1776 does not say directly that our Rights are God-given, apparently because God was a contentious issue in those Enlightenment times, especially in a new country that was established in large part by religious refugees of various denominations and persuasions. But it does say that people at large have been “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”, which conveys the same meaning. The American Constitution from a few years later is a humanist document which tells us up-front that “We, the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” without reference to a Creator, implying “we the people” are perfectly able and have a perfect right to decide for ourselves what our entitlements should be. Since the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 tells us that we are “… born free and equal in dignity and rights” without regard to “colour, religion … or any other status”, reference to God would clearly be inappropriate. 

But whether we feel that our Rights are God-given or are dreamed up and conferred upon ourselves purely by our own efforts, the concept of Rights can be and commonly is abused. I don’t mean simply that our Rights are routinely ignored or overridden by the powers-that-be all over the world, which is all-too obviously the case. I mean that we often seem to take our entitlements for granted, and claim more Rights for ourselves than can  be justified, and by claiming more Rights than we have a Right to we thereby damage society as a whole. Indeed we might reasonably ask — a kind of meta-question — “By what right do we claim any rights at all?”

Rights abused 

“Rights” is indeed a moral concept – and as I have argued at length elsewhere (I got the idea from Christopher Isherwood’s account of Ramakrishna, plus an English philosophy lecturer whose name I regret I have forgotten) the three fundamental “bedrock” moral principles are those of compassion, humility, and an attitude of respect and preferably of reverence for the natural world. In the Eastern religions in particular the last of these becomes the sense of oneness (of which more later).  These three ideas are at the core of all the global religions and at least of many indigenous religions. They are so widely recognized, even if they are not always spelled out in this simple form, that they might reasonably be said to be universal; built by whatever means into the human psyche. Indeed the senses of compassion and of humility are clearly not confined to humankind, as the studies of modern zoologists reveal (notably of Frans van der Waal, as in The Age of Empathy (2009)). 

Wherever our “Rights” come from, whether we see them as a human invention or a gift from God, they must not be allowed to override these bedrock principles. If they do, then the whole concept of Rights is abnegated. Rights should be seen as a practical way of reinforcing moral principles and Rights that override those principles should not be recognized as Rights at all.

And yet, in various ways, individuals and whole societies routinely abuse the concept of Rights. I once heard a woman at Atlanta airport whose suitcase had mysteriously winged it to Nairobi proclaim for all the world to hear that this was an abuse of her “human rights”. “Ah have a raht to ma valise!”, she wailed. A trivial example – but it reflects a whole state of mind. Very clearly among much else she and her entire social class had forgotten the principles both of compassion (she did not spare the feelings of the benighted desk-clerk) and, above all, of humility. Less trivially, the National Gun Lobby’s claim that they have a constitutional “Right” to “bear arms” is not only an obvious misreading but also flouts all three of the bedrock principles in spades – including the sense of oneness since the assault weapons they think they have a right to are used to shoot moose and bears and whatever else comes in their sights as well as human beings. 

On the grander scale, by what Right has Russia invaded Ukraine? And by what Right did Britain presume to claim half the world as its Empire? In fact it seems that most countries (or tribes) at some point in their history have sought to dominate their neighbours, or whoever was vulnerable and had something worth plundering. It’s just that Britain was better at it than most, not least because we are a middle-sized island with easy access to the sea. Yet the various imperialists have always managed, typically with the help of their priests and sometimes of their philosophers, to demonstrate at least to their own satisfaction that their aggression was and is justified – which is another way of saying they had a Right (if not a duty) to act as they did. Thus in Shakespeare’s Henry V the archbishop appeals to the obscure and anachronistic Salique Law in order to demonstrate to the world at large that Henry not only had a Right but a positive duty to invade France, with all the slaughter and mayhem and plague that they all knew must follow. 

So too the Europeans who expropriated the lands of native people appealed to the philosophy of John Locke. For Locke argued that whoever used land most efficiently – which really meant most productively, in material terms – had the most Right to make use of it. Since white-man’s agriculture produced more food per acre than the native Americans’ hunting or their own kinds of farming, the incomers had more claim on it. In truth, some indigenous forms of growing in North America were and still are hugely productive but the Europeans simply assumed that their own methods must be superior and as they say on the Glasgow Herald, “never let the facts spoil a good story”.  

More recently, but in the same vein, George W Bush and his generals ostentatiously prayed before invading Iraq. Apparently too with the blessing or at least the acquiescence of the Orthodox Church Putin claims the Right to re-create the USSR or even to re-enact the foreign adventures of Peter the Great (no wonder Sweden is feeling nervous). Such enormities do not merely flout the moral principle of humility. They take us deep into the realms of hubris, which the Old Greeks saw as the greatest sin of all. “Rights” is indeed a necessary concept. But it is also very dangerous.  

Religion too has this ambivalent quality. Thus it has often been invoked for dubious purposes but it can also provide the antidote to such abuse. Islam in particular emphasizes humility – the word “Islam” means “submission” (to God). So it is that cricketers from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, when facing the inevitable interview after scoring one of their fluid centuries, invariably attribute their success not to their own skill or endurance or hard work but to Allah, without whose beneficence they could do nothing. St Paul in comparable vein taught that all the good things of life are bestowed on us only through the graceof God, as in the expression (a paraphrase of St Paul (1 Corinthians 15 8-10)), “There but for the grace of God go I”.  Martin Luther in particular in the early 16th century argued that whether or not any of us is admitted to the kingdom of Heaven depends entirely on the grace of God. More generally – and most importantly –the idea of God, or more broadly of transcendence, leads us to a sense of the sacred; and, in particular, in the present context, to the idea that Nature is sacred. To destroy or otherwise despoil what is sacred takes us beyond mere crime and into the realms of sin; not just unlawful but truly unthinkable, which is where we need to be.  

In short, whether or not you “believe” in God, there can be no doubt that the idea of God can at least be a useful heuristic, helping us to focus on moral principles that, evidently, we all too easily lose sight of. Thus the existentialist philosophers as represented by John-Paul Sartre were and are humanist through and through, taking it to be self-evident that humanity can and must invent itself and so must take responsibility for all its own thoughts and actions. By contrast, those of religious persuasion (who worldwide are by far the majority) like to feel that there is some greater intelligence at work in the universe who sets the moral standards and who cares about what we do and in some way sits in judgment. This way of thinking helps us to focus on what goodness really ought to mean and at least to think twice before overstepping the mark. Thus, even if you don’t really “believe” in God, the idea of God is still useful. There is a parallel here with the idea of the constant in physics, like g (Newton’s gravity) or lambda (Einstein’s supposed “cosmological constant”). A constant in physics is a holding operation. We don’t know what if any reality might lie behind the various physical constants but they seem to be necessary to make sense of the theorising and the maths and build a coherent picture. In short, whether or not “God” literally “exists” (and some Christian theologians argue that the concept of existence is simply inappropriate when applied to God) the idea of God helps us to keep sight of the bedrock principles of morality – and if we once lose sight of those principles then we really are lost, as history has demonstrated time and again, and still does.  

Non-theistic religions as Buddhism is generally assumed to be do not speak of God (although the present Dalai Lama constantly refers to God) but they do share the general sense of transcendence. Thus various Eastern religions share the concept of Dharma. Each interprets Dharma in its own way but I like the idea that’s embraced by at least some Buddhists, that it means universal harmony. For despite the all-too obvious strife in the world, life and the cosmos as a whole are in the end harmonious, with all the many components working together to form a glorious whole. Humanity has tended at least in recent centuries to emphasise the competitiveness of life – the antithesis of harmony. Darwin in the mid-19th century reinforced the idea – made it scientifically respectable, and indeed the biological orthodoxy – by suggesting that competition is the principal driver of natural selection, which in turn he saw as the principal driver of evolution, without which life would could never have advanced beyond the level of the hypothetical primeval slime. Darwin also knew, though, and emphasised, that life could also be cooperative and some biologists, notably the Russian Peter Kropotkin, suggested that cooperation is at least as important as competition. I like to say that competition is a fact of life but cooperativeness is its essence

Indeed, it seems sensible to see competition and cooperation as complementary opposites, like yin and yang. But in the real, physical universe as a whole there seems always to be asymmetry between complementary opposites. One will always have the edge over the other. If it were not so, there could be no change – the opposites would always be in perfect balance. The universe would still be in the bland and boring state that cosmologists tell us it was in in the milliseconds after the Big Bang: a smooth soup of matter-energy. And, contrary to common perception and the prevailing folklore and the ideology of neoliberalism, cooperativeness has prevailed. If the symmetry was not disrupted in favour of cooperativeness there could be no atoms, no molecules, no stars or galaxies or planets, and no life. Earthly life is a master-class in cooperativeness. All Earthly life is a dialogue between proteins and nucleic acids, two very different classes of molecule that must have arisen independently, initially just as nucleotides and amino acids, and gradually (although it seems surprisingly rapidly) forged a working relationship, and co-evolved. Much further along the track, the eukaryotic cell is a coalition of several or many different bacteria and archaeans. 

So, as I like to put the matter, although competition is undoubtedly a fact of life, cooperativeness is its essence. The same kind of thinking applies to the cosmos as a whole. The idea of the Dharma in its Buddhist form reflects this thought. Herein too we might reasonably suggest lies the essence of morality. Whatever contributes to the universal harmony is good, and whatever detracts from it is bad. Morality thus has cosmological significance, which we may or may not choose to express in religious terms. Whatever helps is OK. 

Anyway: these, as I see things, are some of the complexities entwined in the apparently simple concept of Rights. I suggest that they need to be brought to the surface more often than seems to be the case, and laid out for inspection. The essential concepts are indeed matters of intuition. But our intuitions should wherever possible be exposed to the cold light of reason. Wisdom may be achieved, if at all, only by dialogue between the two. 

So, to get finally to the point, is it sensible, is it right to say that Nature has Rights? 

Does Nature have Rights? Why not? 

A lot of people including me, and clearly including a great many “indigenous” peoples, take it to be self-evident (to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s expression) that Nature does have Rights, which all individuals and humanity as a whole must respect (for Rights have no substance unless they are respected). But many other people don’t agree. Most people simply don’t think about abstractions such as whether Nature has Rights. Of those who do, some seem simply to dismiss the idea out of hand and some positively object to it. 

The nay-sayers fall into three main categories: 

First, there are those who say that to grant nature “Rights” is not “rational”. They point out that the idea that Nature does have Rights is just a “feeling”, mere sentiment, and we can’t run the world on sentiment. Our attitude to the rest of Nature must be “practical” – which tends to mean in practice that we should do whatever is likely to increase our own material wealth. And to do this we should simply treat the natural world as a resource, and give the various bits of it a price, and call that “natural capital”, which can then be totted up and dispensed according to the rules and logic of finance. All the rest is mere whimsy and self-indulgence – the stuff of Romantic poets and hippies, and general layabouts. 

But the hard-nosed, self-styled rationalists who espouse such arguments fail to see that the idea that Nature has Rights is a matter of morality, and fail to grasp or are more likely unaware of Hume’s point that morality in the end is a matter of feeling. We cannot simply rationalize our way to a moral position. Come to that, our conception of truth in general in the end comes down to a feeling in the bones. Plenty of evidence suggests that the Universe began with a one-off Big Bang but quite a few eminently well-qualified physicists reject the idea. They simply feel in their bones that it can’t be right. 

Those who reject the moral argument because (they say) it is not “rational” further suggest that whatever is not rational (in their terms) must by definition be “irrational” – but this only shows how language can lead us astray. For irrational in general parlance means mad – and of course we should reject ideas that are mad. But the antithesis of rational in this context is not “irrational”. It is “non-rational”. If we suggest as the logical positivists were wont to do that the only really rational ideas are those that can be quantified and subjected to mathematical analysis then we must conclude that all morality is “irrational” and therefore mad. But if we reject all morality – live our lives without any concept of good or bad – then we cease to be human beings and become robots. It is possible to live like a robot. Termites are wonderfully successful though there is no good reason to suppose that they are deep thinkers. The various “castes” of termites include workers and soldiers and queens and stud males but no-one has identified a caste of moral philosophers. But is it truly “rational” to want to live like a termite? Intelligence is what we need, and is a necessary part of being human, and as Dostoyevsky commented in Crime and Punishment

“It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently”

But it surely is “rational” to want to live in a truly functional world in which we each and all of us can attain fulfilment and live in harmony with other people and with other creatures, and flourish, and for this we require morality, and morality in the end is non-rational. The idea that Nature has Rights is indeed in large measure non-rational. But it is certainly not irrational, meaning mad. Indeed if we aspire to live in a harmonious world then the idea is entirely rational. It is certainly irrational to reject what is non-rational out of hand. 

Secondly: Some theologians argue that the idea that Nature has Rights is somehow blasphemous. These detractors are wont to cite Genesis 1: 26 which tells us in the King James translation that — 

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”.

Also, consciously or unconsciously, these religious objectors invoke the idea of the scala naturae This idea derives originally from Plato and Aristotle; was elaborated by the Neoplatonists (Plotinus and Proclus) in the early centuries AD; and featured strongly in Mediaeval Christian theology which combines Biblical lore with Greek philosophy.  From this amalgam emerged the idea of “The Great Chain of Being” with God at the top, then the angels, then animals, then plants, then minerals. 

This line of thinking implies that “man” is in a quite different category from the rest of Nature and further suggests that the norms that attach to us (including the idea of Rights) need not and indeed should not apply to the rest. After all, if we were indeed made in God’s image then it is hard to see how other creatures were as well. The word “dominion” too implies not only that we can boss the rest around, but have a positive duty to do so. And the chain of being idea implies that it would be just as wrong to grant human privileges to animals and plants as it would be to assume that we have the same entitlements as the angels, or indeed as God. We should know our place in the grand scheme of things and everyone else’s place too and not presume to meddle with the natural, God-given order.   

Thirdly:  Many simply declare, peremptorily, that there should no Rights without responsibilities. Some have dismissed the specific idea of Animal Rights because cows, say, can’t be held responsible for, say, knocking people off their bikes (as happened recently in Oxford) and so should not be afforded Rights. We should not be cruel to cows, the thinking goes, and should keep them fed and watered if we presume to take them into captivity, but we should not suggest that cattle are in any way entitled to the good things that we might choose to send their way. Detractors also invoke the notion of tit for tat. Cows don’t give us the Right to ride our bikes into their midst or walk in their fields so they should not expect commensurate favours from us.  And what applies to cows, which are at least sentient and even intelligent, must surely apply to Nature as a whole. Cows cannot be held responsible for the damage they may do to humans as they seek to defend their calves and dandelions cannot be held responsible for anything at all. It is simply inappropriate, therefore, to suggest that dandelions should have Rights. 

Short-termist materialists have argued in similar vein that we need not hold ourselves responsible for what happens in the future since the people who will live in the future can in no way repay their debt to us. Most people I am sure would feel in their bones as well as their brains that to apply this argument to our unborn descendants and indeed to all future life on Earth is grotesque. But it has been solemnly espoused nonetheless. 

Yet there is of course some mileage in the no-Rights-without-responsibilities idea. Many people including me have argued that the American Declaration of Independence is deeply flawed precisely because, at least in its summarising second paragraph, it tells us that 

“ … all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” 

— but it does not mention social responsibility. But then, Donald Trump and indeed Al Capone might reasonably argue that they are or were simply trying to live their lives as they want to, and to be happy, and so are doing no more than the founding fathers of the US encouraged them to do. 

In truth in all such matters, or indeed in all matters of any kind, we must always use judgment. We cannot live sensibly by slogans alone, much as the warring political parties might want us to. Babies cannot be held responsible for their various enormities, but does that mean they should not be granted Rights? What of people who are mentally impaired, for whatever reason? Yet we can resolve this apparent dilemma by applying a slogan coined by Karl Marx in 1875: 

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” 

In short: we should not ask cows or indeed babies to take responsibility, or cows because they can’t.  But babies and cows do need to be protected against ill-use, and the idea that they have Rights should help to protect them. 

The point in the end is the one made up-front: that Rights are a human invention designed to help us to create stable societies that it is possible and preferably agreeable to live in. Societies need rules to tell us what individuals can and cannot do, and individuals need some concept of entitlements, to ensure that society’s rules do not make impossible demands and prevent us from living tolerably. Those Rights may simply be a human convention, or they might in some sense have been conferred by some supra-human agency. In either case, whether or not we choose to recognize that individuals have Rights, and what those Rights should be, is our choice.  Even if God is making the rules or granting us our Rights, it is up to us in the end whether we recognize the authority of God, or choose to ignore the voices from on high. We may be swayed one way or another by arguments (or slogans) such as no-Rights-without-responsibilities, but we can and must choose for ourselves whether to take notice of them. In other words, if we choose to decide that Nature should be afforded Rights – if we feel in our bones that this is a good thing – then we should go ahead and do it. 

Besides, for the benefit of the hard-heads, we can point out that there are very good “practical” reasons to declare that Nature has Rights. 

Why we should declare that Nature does indeed have Rights

Despite such reservations and caveats it makes perfect sense, and it surely is morally and spiritually right, to insist that Nature should be given Rights. The simple point is that the concept of Rights helps to prevent abuse and therefore helps to protect. And human beings need to protect the natural world much better than we do. We need to keep Nature in good heart for self-centred, “anthropocentric” reasons: because only Nature can protect us against the extremes of Nature. We cannot curb global warming without extensive and healthy forests – and flourishing plankton, because diatoms and other marine organisms absorb more CO2 than anything else. Neither can we protect ourselves against flood and drought, nor maintain soil fertility. Neither can we afford to be selective and say, “We need this species, and that species, but we don’t need the rest so let them go”. We just don’t know enough and never can to know who does what or – even more to the point – how they all interact. In fact we don’t even know to within an order of magnitude what’s really out there. So it is for example that our leaders seem vaguely aware that honeybees are important to us because they pollinate crops but few if any realise that Britain has nearly 300 species of solitary bees which are even more significant pollinators, plus flies and beetles. For anthropocentric reasons too we need wild nature for our mental and spiritual wellbeing even though we may not always realize this. 

But most of all we shouldprotect wild nature for its own sake.  It ought to be self-evident, as it was and is to a great many traditional, “indigenous” societies, that other species matter too. In the end, this is not something that can be argued through “rationally”. As the Oxford philosopher R G Collingwood would say, it is an “absolute presupposition”; something we feel in our bones. People who aspire to be “hard-headed” suppress such feelings. The idea that Nature has Rights cannot be defended by rational means alone and since it does not contribute directly to GDP it is therefore “irrational” and therefore is a mere self-indulgence and should be ignored. But as argued above we cannot create a safe and agreeable world without indulging feelings and ideas of a non-rational nature. It is truly irrational – ie mad – to try to do so. The feeling that Nature really matters should never be overridden. It must be cultivated. 

But this requires a radical shift of worldview; or, less portentously, of attitude. Above all, we need to embrace the idea of oneness. 

The essential concept of Oneness 

The prevailing attitude of the modern world at least among our leaders is strictly anthropocentric. Most people, and especially most people in power, seem to take it to be self-evident (or as an absolute presupposition) that human beings are the only creatures that really matter. True, more and more people take a conscious interest in wildlife conservation. But in the minds of the powers-that-be, this is justified primarily or only because wild nature provides “ecosystem services”, the value of which can be expressed in financial terms. Trees help to prevent flooding which causes £billions of damage to property and time spent enjoying the natural world is labelled “leisure”, and so can be seen as part of “the leisure industry”. 

In reality, too, many of those whose outlook is primarily or exclusively anthropocentric don’t seem to care much about other human beings either. Of course there are many enlightened landowners who care deeply both about the wild creatures and about the people who live on their land, and about the world as a whole – but many too are content to fell trees on hilltops to make way for grouse-moor even though this may lead to floods in the surrounding villages. The people who are flooded out are often poor (certainly much poorer than the landowner) and the prevailing Right-wing dogma has it that people are poor only because they are witless and lazy, and so deserve everything they get. So who cares? In short, we have to extend the concept of anthropocentricity itself to embrace all humankind and not just the people we choose to identify with. 

But then we need to take one further step: to move beyond anthropocentricity to adopt an attitude that may properly be called biocentric or ecocentric or – best of all Gaiacentric. Gaia is the idea developed by James Lovelock from the 1960s onwards, which says that the Earth as a whole (and indeed the entire solar system) is to a certain extent homeostatic. That is, when a rock, say, is left in the sun it simply gets hotter and hotter, and in the shade it gets colder and colder, so that in some parts of the universe its temperature may veer close to absolute zero. But when the Earth as a whole is exposed to the full blast of the sun or the depths of winter a whole host of feedback mechanisms click in which ensure that on the whole conditions remain within the moderate “Goldilocks zone” within which living creatures can survive. Homeostasis is a key feature of all living creatures (although few are able to regulate their own body temperature as well as birds or mammals do) and so, said Lovelock, in this vital respect, the Earth as a whole behaves as if it was a living organism. In reality, too, the Earth’s capacity to regulate conditions depends absolutely on the presence and abundance of living organisms: trees, diatoms, bacteria and archaeans, protists, animals, and plants. Thus the Earth provides conditions in which living creatures may thrive, and the living organisms in turn ensure that conditions on Earth stay within bounds that are conducive to life. Lovelock’s friend and walking companion William Golding suggested the name “Gaia” for this grand conception after the Greek goddess of the Earth. To my mind Gaia is one of the greatest and most momentous scientific insights of the 20th century. 

Gaiacentricity (as it may be called) is in turn underpinned by the moral/metaphysical concept of oneness. The sense of oneness is the ultimate expression of the idea that we, human beings, ought to look after the natural world or at least should do everything within our power to minimize the damage that we do to it as we go through life. And, I have suggested, concern for the natural world, together with compassion and humility, is one of the three “bedrock” moral principles that are recognized by all bona fide religions, both global and indigenous, and indeed by atheist humanists of the more enlightened kind, and thus may reasonably be considered universal. 

Yet some philosophers and some representatives of some religions reject the idea of oneness. Thus in the 17th century the Portuguese-Dutch Jewish theologian and philosopher Baruch Spinoza proposed that everything that is, including of course the natural world, is God. This may seem like the ultimate expression of oneness and also tells us that God is real and God matters. But some Jewish and Christian theologians declared that Spinoza was a blasphemer and was even an atheist because the idea that God is nature, or that nature is God, seems to abrogate the idea that God is the Creator of all nature, and is above nature. Indeed, they said, it seems to make God redundant. Ho hum. 

But then, too, the hard-heads are wont to argue that concepts such as “oneness” are mere whimsy, out with the fairies. Nature, they say, as Tennyson said in one of his blacker moods, is “red in tooth and claw”. Darwin suggested than natural selection is a principal driver of evolution, and competition for mates and resources is the principal driver of natural selection. Today the world is dominated by the simplistic doctrine of neoliberalism which argues that all individuals and commercial companies should compete as vigorously as possible and as ruthlessly as necessary to maximise their own material wealth — which, they then claim, in moralistic vein, will “trickle down” to the rest of us so that we all ultimately benefit from the apparent selfishness of the rich. But, say the neoliberals, since Darwin and others have shown that Nature itself is ruthlessly competitive this means that the neoliberal emphasis on competition is “natural” and is therefore OK. This is bad biology and dreadful moral philosophy. 

For, as argued above, as we look more closely at nature (as indeed Darwin did) we find more and more examples of cooperativeness – within species and between species. Overall Nature is far more cooperative than it is competitive and if it were not so life itself could not have come about. The Cambridge philosopher G E Moore pointed out that it is naïve in the extreme to suppose that what we take to be natural is ipso facto good – he called this the “naturalistic fallacy”. But since Nature as a whole in in truth a giant exercize in cooperativeness it might be more helpful to follow in Nature’s footsteps than Moore supposed. 

All in all, then, as always, what’s really needed is a shift of mindset: what is meant by metanoia. This requires among other things a shift in the general tenor of formal education: more emphasis on ecology; a broader conception of science – what it can tell us and what it cannot; an economy built around the real needs of humanity and of the natural world – not geared, as now, to the simplistic increase in perceptible wealth; politicians who understand the need for all this; and, I would say, (though others would not), to recognize again the idea of transcendence and the much abused concept of spirituality.

Then the shift of mindset needs to be translated into the economy and politics and ways of life. The role of law in general is to underpin and reinforce the kind of changes that we need to make. Laws to protect Nature are of key importance. And, I suggest, the idea that Nature has Rights would at least help us to frame and to underpin those laws. It would help us to cultivate the state of mind in which the wanton destruction of Nature is not simply unlawful, but is unthinkable.  

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3 responses to “Does nature have rights?”

  1. Jennifer Scott avatar
    Jennifer Scott

    We humans don’t really have any business asking, “Does Nature have Rights?”. It makes it sound as if we are in charge of such decisions. If humans are in charge, then as soon as it becomes inconvenient for Nature to have Rights, we can easily come up with as many justifications for why it shouldn’t. After all, as you explained, the idea of affording Rights in the first place stems from the need to bring about social coherence – i.e., it’s a human thing, or an animal thing. And as you explained, we dole it out according to rank. Seen in this light, any creature or entity that is not part of the society in question has no say on the subject of Rights, having no status. They become completely dependent on our generosity or our whims, which is a pretty precarious place to be.

    But if we step back from our human-centered frame of reference, and consider a “universal consciousness” that is “part of the fabric of the universe itself”, then you could argue that the concept of “Rights” become meaningless. From the perspective of “universal harmony” (your view of Dharma), where “life and the cosmos as a whole are in the end harmonious, with all the many components working together to form a glorious whole”, we would then approach life differently. We need to tap into universal harmony by tuning in to our moral compass, including “compassion, humility, and an attitude of respect and preferably of reverence for the natural world” (as you put it), giving us “a sense of oneness” with the natural world. At the same time, any action we take that moves us away from this universal harmony is made evident by the degree of problems we are getting ourselves into (e.g., climate change, depletion of ground water, polluting our resources, species extinctions, etc).

    So I think you’re right – an innate sense of morality gives us the ability to judge how far off we are getting from universal harmony and serves to keep us in check, that is, if we choose to pay attention to it. I think you should continue to point out this universal truth, rather than the idea of Nature having Rights. You may get a lot of pushback, but remember that these are just justifications for bad behaviour, so they can convince themselves that their exploitative behaviour for short-term gain is really okay. But deep down inside they know better.

  2. Martin Stanley avatar
    Martin Stanley

    Dear Colin,

    Los Cedros in Ecuador is located in the cloud forest region about 4 hours’ drive from Quito and is inhabited by what are called locally colonists: people of mixed race who typically left the city slums to cut down forest to make a farm. Often they are not from farming families and don’t have a family background in farming. They buy some cattle and clear the land and call themselves farmers. So this is very different culturally and legally to indigenous groups living in the Amazon and is also in a different eco system.

    I have not had a lot of dealing with indigenous peoples in Ecuador (although more in Peru) but from what I have read my impression is that they don’t use the concept of Rights a lot in their interviews in the press. More frequently they talk of people being part of nature, depending on nature being healthy. In some cases people talk about trees and rivers and animals having spirits etc and so they make little distinction between people and animals. Hunting and killing animals for food is done with respect as these animals or birds etc are seen as their ancestors and nothing should be wasted.

    The indigenous groups have been badly treated over the years by their governments and major corporates who obtain mining and oil concessions and trash their lands. So they probably have a jaundiced view of the legal system and distrust central government, and because of this they may not talk a lot about their rights under the legal system as they don’t hold a high opinion of it – they see it just as ongoing racial abuse and exploitation started by the conquistadors.

    So it maybe it’s the NGOs and lawyers working with indigenous people who are more inclined to use terms like Rights of Nature.

    Where do Rights come from?

    I think Rights are a human construct, and while we can point to what seem to be similar examples in the animal kingdom — of hierarchies and certain behaviours based on their biology — these are not eternal and fixed. So for example an older dominant male can be challenged by a younger individual. It’s the “law of the jungle” or “survival of the fittest”.

    I guess some would claim that the law of a legal system and courts is more civilised and fair than the “law of the jungle”. But looking at the problems we are grappling with like climate crisis, problems of river pollution by water companies etc, one could argue that the legal system is very much loaded on favour of the status quo and short-term financial interests of powerful corporates and current people in power, and is not as fair as is claimed. And it doesn’t seem designed to cope with major changes like climate crisis or providing justice to the weak.

    The recent example from Dartmoor of the judge who ruled in favour of the land owner who did not allow camping I found weird, not to say unbelievable. He said that camping was not specifically permitted and so was forbidden – but chose to overlook the fact that the land owner was organising commercial shoots, which meant he allowed people to roam on his land while others are shooting. Subsequent articles in the press claimed that he was not complying with regulations about rearing pheasants commercially, and was releasing them into a nature reserve next to his land.

    The judge should have weighed up these competing rights in a more measured manner. Owning land on Dartmoor is not a normal freehold but comes with some covenants or obligations which, weirdly, the judge ignored. All this seems to imply that he felt it is OK for a landowner to run large commercial pheasants shoots on Dartmoor when not specifically permitted and without any restrictions even though people are allowed to roam free over that land. How can you roam free when people are firing guns? Is this one rule for the rich and another for the poor?


    The following articles are also very much to the point:

  3. claudio avatar

    Very helpful to me, Colin. I drew much wisdom from it …and will use some of it giving proper acknowledgmet. Claudio

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