The Rights of Trees and Toads

The importance of having a well balanced attitude and perspective toward to physical world we live in comes to a head when considering the third of Jim Moran’s challenges for environmental philosophy (or ethics). In the first post we considered whether or not reasoning should be human-centered; for Christians, the question comes to God’s purposes in creation extending beyond providing an arena for redemption to take place. The second asked the question of whether there is a special status for humans, such as is implied by the concepts of the image of God and what is sometimes referred to as the “creation mandate” by which Adam and Eve are instructed to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over the other living things.

The final entry in this series (admittedly not the most popular one attempted on this blog) turns the second question on its side. Moran lists the third challenge as that of defining moral status. That is, who or what has “rights” that in any way require us to respect the integrity and quality of life of other beings, whether human or other? Anyone who has heard or read Peter Singer’s views will recognize that he is quite unapologetic in claiming that all species have moral status equal to that of humans; hence his book Animal Liberation, which when published in 1975 did much launch him into the academic ethics arena. Some do not stop at animal life, extending rights to all living things, including trees, shrubs, etc. Other draw a line that has to do with the ability to feel pain when assigning rights; others use some sort of cognitive criteria.

In Christian circles, Albert Schweitzer spoke of doctrine of reverence for life in The Philosophy of Civilization (1923). According to this “doctrine” all living things are worthy of respect which includes the prevention of killing any of them unnecessarily. That, of course, hardly resolves the issue, as necessity will need to be defined. But while expressing the utmost respect for the integrity of God’s magnificent creation, Schweitzer stopped short of speaking about “rights” owned by other living things. Perhaps in today’s rights obsessed context he would have done so, but that is a matter left to speculation. In any case, what does it mean for a creature to have rights? In some of his more recent work, singer does talk about a connection between rights and personhood, which would seem indispensable. But his concept of personhood flounders, in my opinion; in trying to be broad enough to encompass at least the higher animals, he ends up reducing any meaningful distinction. Yet it is only one type of rights-bearing animal that makes all the decisions, which to my mind undercuts the talk of equality before it gets off the ground.

But do we necessarily de-value non-human life by denying their status as rights bearers? One might indeed conclude as much when considering some of the grotesque ways in which people have treated both beasts and forests. And one might be less than optimistic that we will do better without recognizing the rights that such things should be accorded. As mentioned yesterday, however, we should not pretend that we do not have dominion when we do such things; we are undeniably “the deciders.” That fact alone makes talk of rights for trees and toads into a wrong category. Instead, we should recognize that our dominion is a delegated one, and this One is both their Creator and ours; and if we learn more of His character we will be better equipped to have a more balanced and productive relationship with all of His creation. To pretend otherwise is to either violate the original mandate, or on the other hand raise the status of animals in a way which results only in lowering our own.

There’s a lot of room left for discussion of these issues, especially in what it means for a host of questions like vegetarianism, animal training and domestication, appropriate and inappropriate ways of raising farm animals, etc. What do you think on any of these fronts? And how important is it that Christians develop an environmental philosophy or ethis in the first place? What do you think of the challenges suggested by Moran? Are there others we would need to consider?