Andersen: Defending the rights of nature |

Andersen: Defending the rights of nature

More and more thinkers are concluding that nature deserves the rights that are innate in all life forms. Human exemptionalism has had its day. Nature gradually is being accorded the rights hard won by all of history’s downtrodden.

The most recent enlightenment toward natural rights was in a New York Times article on Dec. 9. In “Considering the Humanity of Nonhumans,” author James Gorman started with an essential question: “What is a person?”

If the Supreme Court can designate a corporation as a person, so can philosophers designate an animal as a person. Under tort law this assignment bears the weight of damages for violating ecosystems and furthering extinctions.

Rights come first. Then the law follows with protections for those rights. Such is the progressive evolution of man — to extend rights to others in a show of planetary modesty.

It begins with exploring the philosophical and metaphysical nature of personhood. Here is a realm of the future where fellow life forms are accorded the rights simply to be. Gorman refers to a legal case that is seeking an extension of rights to four chimpanzees.

If this sounds absurd it is only because we humans have maintained a monopoly on rights and freedom. We have proclaimed ourselves masters of the virtues under which we would like to live, meaning with unconditional supremacy.

The case for the chimps argues that they have a right to liberty as individual beings with self-directed mobility. This comes from the Nonhuman Rights Project, which filed writs of habeas corpus in New York recently on behalf of the four captive chimps.

The same ruling that once was used to fight slavery, writes Gorman, “is being used as a model for how to fight for legal rights for nonhumans.”

The case is based on proving that these four chimps have thinking ability and self-awareness. This, writes Gorman, is the basis for personhood and is grounds for the extension of legal rights.

This idea has tremendous appeal for those who, like Albert Schweitzer, practice reverence for life. It was Schweitzer, the ethicist, who made Aspen a Mecca of ethics and morality.

In his 1949 address, Schweitzer called it a matter of common sense to achieve a deep, spiritual reverence for and understanding of nature through observation. Here in Aspen, he placed himself in league with the great champions of compassion for all of life. His was a saintly message delivered in a canvas tent.

In his book, “The Rights of Nature,” Roderick Nash describes human progress as the act of granting rights — first to white men who owned property, then to all white men, then to women, then to people of color, etc.

Extending the base of that pyramid into the animal kingdom is man’s next act of contrition for ten thousand years of domination.

Granting rights to animals is not new. A hundred and fifty years ago the beating and torture of draft animals was made illegal during the horse-and-buggy era. Most people would find animal cruelty naturally repugnant, but it took legislation to back up the innate sensibilities most of us feel.

What the ethicists are saying about chimps is that they should be granted “a limited right to bodily liberty.” In other words, they should be freed from cages. This begs the issue of whether zoos are humane.

One look at the animals penned up inside them should be answer enough. Zoos preserve an iron-bar boundary between us and them, making animals objects to be entertained by, amused by, frightened by.

Simply by posing the question of animal rights the issue becomes a dormant bud of awareness. Man, we must acknowledge, is not the only sensate being worthy of a sense of self. Animals, for anyone who has ever loved one, are selves with personalities and the power to communicate.

We are all animals born of the animal kingdom. The domination that has defined us as humans will one day be exchanged for the deep sympathy that will truly make us human.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He is executive director of Huts For Vets. He can be reached by email at Connect with him on Facebook at

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