Why nature should be accorded the rights of personhood

Let us first understand what a person is and why nature is not regarded as a person in our culture. But, even before that, let us acknowledge that nature once was so regarded. Long before industrial society became obsessed with the metaphor of mechanism, ancient peoples conceived the world as a sort of living organism. It was peopled with creatures, plants, spirits, and other entities who were treated as personalities on a par with human beings. Then along came the scientific revolution.

Nature for us moderns is impersonal by definition. For us, physical things are inert and incapable of responding to us in the way that fellow human beings are. Our science defines nature as comprised only of physical entities, not of moral agents with responsibilities and obligations. Humans have formed an exclusive club, which admits only members of our kind. Members are accorded all sorts of extravagant courtesies, such as human rights, equality before the law, the obligation to relieve (human) suffering and save life at any cost, the sentiment that (human) life is infinitely precious. We have appropriated half the earth as our clubhouse and grounds, expelling other inhabitants toward whom we feel no need to extend these courtesies. Having eliminated most of those formidable competitors who posed a threat and demanded respect, the remainder of creatures are no more to us than raw materials, to use and enslave as we please, or to consume as flesh.

We have done all this because we have been able to, with little thought for the rightness of such an attitude. In the Western hemisphere, our society was founded on domination of the peoples who occupied the land before the European invasion (the “discovery” of the New World). Significantly, it went without saying that this included the assumed right to dominate the other species as well. In other words, plundering these lands for their resources, and disregarding their native human inhabitants, went hand in hand to express an attitude that depersonalized both. The Conquest, as it has been called, was simultaneously about conquering people and conquering nature.

Probably this attitude started long before, perhaps with the domestication of wild animals and plants. The relationship to prey in the traditional hunt was fierce but respectful, a contest between worthy opponents, especially when large creatures were involved. (Can it be coincidence that losers of this contest are called “game”?) Often an apology of gratitude was made to the murdered creature, no part of whose valued carcass was wasted. When animals were enslaved and bred for human purposes, the tenor of the relationship changed from respect to control. The war on animals concluded in a regime of permanent occupation. A similar shift occurred when plants were no longer gathered but cultivated as crops. Both plants and animals were once personified and treated as the peers of humans. That relationship of awe gave way to a relationship of managing a resource. The growing numbers of the human invaders, and their lack of self-restraint, led eventually to the present breakdown of sustainable management.

Today we embrace a universal biological definition of human being, and a notion of universal human rights and personhood. Throughout history, however, this was hardly the inclusive category that it now is. Groups other than one’s own could be considered non-human, reduced to the status of chattel, or even literally hunted as prey. In other words, the distinction between person and thing remained ambiguous. Depersonalization is still a tactic used to justify mistreating people that some group considers undesirable, inferior, or threatening. Personhood is still a function of membership in the exclusive human Club. But since the qualifications for that membership were unclear throughout most of human history, perhaps it works both ways. Instead of excluding animals, plants, and nature at large, we could give them the benefit of the doubt to welcome them into our fellowship.

Now, what exactly is a person? In fact, there is no universally accepted legal or even philosophical definition. The word derives from the Greek term for the theatre mask, which indicated the stage character as distinguished from the mere actor wearing it. It means literally the sound coming through the mask, implying a transcendent origin independent of the physical speaker. Personhood so understood is intimately tied to language and hence limited to human beings as the sole known users of “fully grammatical language.” Other creatures do obviously communicate, but not in a way that entitles them to membership in the Club.

Various features of personhood—loosely related to language use—include reason, consciousness, moral and legal responsibility, the ability to enter contractual relationships, etc. Personhood confers numerous legal rights in human society. These include owning property, making and enforcing contracts, the right to self-govern and to hire other agents to act on one’s behalf. It guarantees civil rights to life and liberty within human society. One could argue, on behalf of non-human creatures, that they meet some of these criteria for personhood. In many cases, like aboriginal people, they were here before us, occupying the lands and waterways. Western society is now judicially and morally preoccupied with historical treaties and land claims of aboriginal groups—and more generally with redressing social wrongs committed by former generations. Certainly, our exploitive relation to nature at large is among these wrongs, as is our checkered relation to particular species such as whales, and ecological entities such as forests, rivers, oceans and atmosphere. Thinking on the subject tends to remain human-centric: we are motivated primarily by threats to our survival arising from our own abusive practices. But such a self-serving attitude remains abusive, and morally ought to give way to a consideration of victims that are not yet extinct, including the planet as a whole. If restorative justice applies to human tribes, why not to animal tribes? Why not to nature at large?

Animals reason in their own ways. Although insects may be little more than automatons, vertebrates are clearly sentient; many display concern for their own kin or kind and sometimes for members of other species. While they do not make written contracts, at one time neither did people! Animals (and even plants) maintain measured relationships, not only among their own ranks but also with other species, in an intricate system of mutual symbiosis and benefit. These interdependencies could be regarded as informal contracts, much like those which human beings engage in quite apart from written contract and law. Deer, for example, tend to browse and not over-forage their food supply. Even viruses are reluctant to kill their hosts. It could be argued that human beings, in the course of substituting formal legalities, have lost this common sense and all restraint, and thereby forfeited their claims.

Of course, we now say that natural ecological balancing acts are not “intentional,” in the conscious human sense, but the result of “instinct” or “natural selection,” and ultimately of inanimate “causal processes.” This is a very narrow and human-centric understanding of intentionality. Fundamentally, it is circular reasoning: intending is what people do, in the human world, while causality is held to be the rule in nature. However, both intention and cause (and even the concept of ‘nature’) are human constructs. Causality is no more an inherent fact of nature than intention is absent from it. It is we humans who have imposed this duality, thereby seceding from the animal kingdom and from nature at large. Humans have formalized their observations of natural patterns as laws of nature, and formalized their own social conduct and conventions as laws of jurisprudence. Other creatures simply do what works for them within the system of nature without articulating it. Are we superior simply because we gossip among ourselves about what other creatures are doing?

Are we superior because might makes so-called rights? We chase other creatures (and fellow human beings) from a habitat and claim to own it. But private property, like money, is a legalistic convention within the Club that has no clear connection with any right of ownership outside of human society. “Ownership” in this broader sense is more deserved by those whose proven behavior adheres to the unwritten laws that maintain an ecosystem in balance with their fellow creatures. It is least deserved by those who destroy that balance, while ironically permitted to do so through written laws. If stewardship is a justification for aboriginal land claims, why not for any right of ownership of the planet? Almost any species has a better claim to stewardship than humans. After all, we have rather botched the unceded territory that the Club now occupies.

Nature is self-regulating by nature; it doesn’t need to be granted the right to self-govern by human beings. It cannot speak for itself in human language, but expresses its needs directly in its own condition. Human scientists appoint themselves to interpret those expressions, largely for human purposes. The State appoints a public defender to represent people who cannot afford counsel or who are deemed unable to defend themselves. So, why not public defenders of the planet? Their job would be to insure, in the eyes of human beings, nature’s right to life, liberty, and well-being. That could only benefit us too, since it has never been more than a delusion that we can live segregated from the rest of nature.