The Boulder Rights of Nature

September 10, 2013

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Boulder Rights of Nature

I would really enjoy discussing the definition of legal “rights” with these people.  The Boulder Rights of Nature organization in Boulder, Colorado, seeks to establish rights belonging to nature itself as a means to protecting the environment.  As a legal matter, it’s difficult to see how these “rights” could be enforced, given the lack of legal standing (one generally cannot sue to enforce someone else’s rights unless one has a special relationship with the other person, and since the rights here would be asserted against property owners to prevent them from “harming” the natural beings on their own property, it is difficult to conceive who besides the property owner could have that “special relationship”).

But leaving legal standing aside, this could get interesting if it gains any traction with the media.  A few years ago, I wrote on this blog that the intentional killing of any human organism (including the pre-born) should be illegal, and a reader objected that I was imposing my religious beliefs on other people.  He urged that one cannot grant “personhood” to an unborn human because other people do not believe that unborn humans are “persons.”  I disagreed, of course, and argued that the granting of rights and “personhood” to a human being comports with justice and also is not religious.  The Boulder Rights of Nature organization helps prove my point.  That organization is not “religious” as far as I can tell.  If a law granting “rights” to nature (the trees and flowers) is irreligious, a law granting rights to preborn humans is not religious, either.

In that vein, I especially love this quote from BRON’s proposed draft Sustainable Rights of Nature Ordinance:

While not eliminating property ownership, these new laws seek to eliminate the authority of a property owner to destroy, or cause substantial harm to, natural communities and ecosystems that exist and depend upon that property.

Could we not draft a similar law stating, “while not eliminating a woman’s dominion over her own body, this new law seeks to eliminate the authority of a person to destroy, or cause substantial harm to, natural human organisms that exist and depend upon her body”?  Are preborn humans less deserving of protection than trees?  If the Sustainable Rights of Nature Ordinance is not inherently unjust, could a law preventing the intentional killing of innocent preborn humans ever be unjust?

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I’ve recently spent a fair about of time arguing that the intentional killing of an innocent human life [before or after birth] should always be illegal.  This morning, I stumbled across something very interesting and relevant to the point.

It seems that controversial Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer has addressed a relevant part of the issue.  Singer is a utilitarian and he takes the common step of arguing that not all human beings are “persons,” and it is only wrong to kill “persons” (where the interest of the person killing outweighs the interest of the non-person).  However, he is extremely honest about the implications of his position:

I use the term “person” to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.  As I have said in answer to the previous question, I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.  That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do.  It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.
Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment.  That will often ensure that the baby dies.  My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support – which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection – but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.

[Emphasis added.]

Moreover, Singer addresses the common argument that an unborn baby is neither “alive” nor “human” for the justification of abortion:

[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life.

That is the rational result of splitting “personhood” from mere human life.  One can engage in the “fiction” that an unborn child is neither human nor living—a fiction that an apparently infanticidal Princeton professor claims is unsupportable despite having every reason for accepting it if he could—or one can accept occasional infanticide in a utilitarian package deal.  That is a serious commitment to abortion.

Peter Singer is right, unborn human beings are both human and alive, and his argument is further evidence, at least to me, that splitting “human life” from the (wholly invented) concept of “personhood” is a grave wrong (and yet another work of fiction) that leads to such pleasantries as infanticide, not to mention slavery, eugenics, and genocide, where utilitarian ideals would permit that such measures be taken.  Those ugly-sounding practices aren’t so far off if one is able to take “personhood” from a living human being, for whatever reason.

Also note, Peter Singer is no slouch professor throwing out some controversial ideas.  He was integral to the establishment of the International Association for Bioethics and served as its first president.  One can hardly dismiss his argument as the rantings of a hack professor.  The man knows what he is talking about.  He is wrong to adopt utilitarianism, but he is right in taking the concept to its conclusion.  Those who believe in the transcendent principle that the intentional taking of innocent human life is always wrong and should always be illegal can avoid such illusions altogether.

Romans 1:20:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

Heaven by the rockband Live (not a Christian band):

I don’t need no one to tell me about heaven
I look at my daughter, and I believe
I don’t need no proof when it comes to God and truth
I can see the sunset and I perceive

In the comments to another post, the question arose whether the pro-life position is inconsistent with a failure to prevent as many naturally-occurring deaths in the womb as possible.  I found the discussion worth a separate post, and I hope that the gentleman with whom I was conversing will take no offense at the separate post written in response to his comments: Read the rest of this entry »

We had an excellent discourse in response to a recent post about the existence of “rights.”  The comments delved a bit deeper into the existence of God and the Natural Law.  This morning I came across a paper written by Frank Beckwith, summarizing the work of J. Budziszewski on the Natural Law (Beckwith and Budziszewski are two of the biggest influences in my thinking on the subject).  I find Beckwith’s opening illustration apt to our recent discussion.  He writes:

Several years ago when I was on the philosophy department faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, when the school sported a very good basketball team, one of my students, obviously frustrated with the points I was making in class, blurted out the question, “Why is the truth important?” I distinctly remember the befuddled look on her face seconds after I offered the reply, “Do you want the true answer or the false one?”

A few days later, in the same class, another student, taking up the cause of his befuddled peer, claimed, with great confidence, that there are no objective moral norms and that there was no way that anyone, including his professor, could possibly show him otherwise. At that point, I looked at him squarely in the eye, with as stern a facial expression I could muster, and told him, “Please sit down and shut up. I am right and you are wrong. And that’s that.” He was, as one would guess, visibly shaken. There was dead silence in the classroom. His peers, who were obviously displeased with the treatment he received, were not about to come to his defense. They were, rightfully, upset with their professor. But they remained mute. So, I let the moment sink in, for about 15 seconds, though it seemed like an eternity.

I then broke the silence, and asked the shaken student, “Are you upset about something?” “Yes,” he answered, “you treated me rudely.” I replied, “I do not disagree. Am I wrong in thinking that you had a justified expectation that I should have dialogued with you in a way that was respectful?” “No, you are not wrong,” he said, “That is exactly what I expected.” I continued, “It seems to me that your expectation is perfectly justified, and that I was wrong in treating you in the fashion I did. But that expectation relies on the veracity of a deeper truth, that you are the sort of being that is entitled to reasons when matters of moral concern are brought to your attention. I did not give you reasons. I merely asserted my power. What you realized at the moment of offense was the moral truth you have always known: might does not make right.” I paused and again let the silence do its work. For the student knew where the conversation was going. He knew that he had been relying, unwittingly, on the resources of the natural law in order to reject as illegitimate the treatment he had received at the hands of his mean professor. We were like two men at a restaurant sharing a meal while debating the existence of the chef, and one of the men was talking with his mouth full.

Now, one might argue that the student was simply displeased with the unusual treatment he received at the hands of his professor.  But mere “displeasure” does not go far enough to explain the fact that he was offended.  There are other unpleasurable and unexpected things the professor might have done, like give a pop quiz.  That would have been irritating, not offensive.  Our notion of “offended” implies an offense, the violation of something more than a man-made rule.  Moreover, the student’s expectation that his professor would offer him reasons that truth exists in response to his assertion demonstrates the student’s belief in the necessity of objective reasons, which necessitates objective truth.

C.S. Lewis drafted an interesting essay in 1944 that proves to be useful today.  Lewis argues that democracy is warranted not because we all deserve to be our own autonomous rulers, but because none of us do: Read the rest of this entry »

The Natural Law Explained

September 17, 2009

To follow up on an earlier brief post, I want to give a more detailed accounting of the meaning of Natural Law from Thomas Aquinas.  I’ll pick a couple of his comments in his Treatise on Law (a subpart of his Summa Theologica).

1.  On the substance of the Natural Law itself, Aquinas states:

[T]he first principle of practical reason is one founded on the notion of good, viz. that “good is that which all things seek after.” Hence this is the first precept of law, that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.

Since, however, good has the nature of an end, and evil, the nature of a contrary, hence it is that all those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance. Wherefore according to the order of natural inclinations, is the order of the precepts of the natural law. Because in man there is first of all an inclination to good in accordance with the nature which he has in common with all substances: inasmuch as every substance seeks the preservation of its own being, according to its nature: and by reason of this inclination, whatever is a means of preserving human life, and of warding off its obstacles, belongs to the natural law. Secondly, there is in man an inclination to things that pertain to him more specially, according to that nature which he has in common with other animals: and in virtue of this inclination, those things are said to belong to the natural law, “which nature has taught to all animals” [*Pandect. Just. I, tit. i], such as sexual intercourse, education of offspring and so forth. Thirdly, there is in man an inclination to good, according to the nature of his reason, which nature is proper to him: thus man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God, and to live in society: and in this respect, whatever pertains to this inclination belongs to the natural law; for instance, to shun ignorance, to avoid offending those among whom one has to live, and other such things regarding the above inclination.

2.  On the extent to which Natural Law is present in all people, true for all people, and known by all people, Aquinas states:

As stated above (Articles [2],3), to the natural law belongs those things to which a man is inclined naturally: and among these it is proper to man to be inclined to act according to reason. Now the process of reason is from the common to the proper, as stated in Phys. i. The speculative reason, however, is differently situated in this matter, from the practical reason. For, since the speculative reason is busied chiefly with the necessary things, which cannot be otherwise than they are, its proper conclusions, like the universal principles, contain the truth without fail. The practical reason, on the other hand, is busied with contingent matters, about which human actions are concerned: and consequently, although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects. Accordingly then in speculative matters truth is the same in all men, both as to principles and as to conclusions: although the truth is not known to all as regards the conclusions, but only as regards the principles which are called common notions. But in matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles: and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all.

It is therefore evident that, as regards the general principles whether of speculative or of practical reason, truth or rectitude is the same for all, and is equally known by all. As to the proper conclusions of the speculative reason, the truth is the same for all, but is not equally known to all: thus it is true for all that the three angles of a triangle are together equal to two right angles, although it is not known to all. But as to the proper conclusions of the practical reason, neither is the truth or rectitude the same for all, nor, where it is the same, is it equally known by all. Thus it is right and true for all to act according to reason: and from this principle it follows as a proper conclusion, that goods entrusted to another should be restored to their owner. Now this is true for the majority of cases: but it may happen in a particular case that it would be injurious, and therefore unreasonable, to restore goods held in trust; for instance, if they are claimed for the purpose of fighting against one’s country. And this principle will be found to fail the more, according as we descend further into detail, e.g. if one were to say that goods held in trust should be restored with such and such a guarantee, or in such and such a way; because the greater the number of conditions added, the greater the number of ways in which the principle may fail, so that it be not right to restore or not to restore.

Consequently we must say that the natural law, as to general principles, is the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge. But as to certain matters of detail, which are conclusions, as it were, of those general principles, it is the same for all in the majority of cases, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge; and yet in some few cases it may fail, both as to rectitude, by reason of certain obstacles (just as natures subject to generation and corruption fail in some few cases on account of some obstacle), and as to knowledge, since in some the reason is perverted by passion, or evil habit, or an evil disposition of nature; thus formerly, theft, although it is expressly contrary to the natural law, was not considered wrong among the Germans, as Julius Caesar relates (De Bello Gall. vi).

(Emphasis added.)

3.  Aquinas further explains how people who know the Natural Law can deny the Natural Law and end up affirming things that are obviously wrong:

As stated above (Articles [4],5), there belong to the natural law, first, certain most general precepts, that are known to all; and secondly, certain secondary and more detailed precepts, which are, as it were, conclusions following closely from first principles. As to those general principles, the natural law, in the abstract, can nowise be blotted out from men’s hearts. But it is blotted out in the case of a particular action, in so far as reason is hindered from applying the general principle to a particular point of practice, on account of concupiscence or some other passion, as stated above (Question [77], Article [2]). But as to the other, i.e. the secondary precepts, the natural law can be blotted out from the human heart, either by evil persuasions, just as in speculative matters errors occur in respect of necessary conclusions; or by vicious customs and corrupt habits, as among some men, theft, and even unnatural vices, as the Apostle states (Rm. i), were not esteemed sinful.

4.  With respect to human laws, Aquinas states that all human laws must conform to the Natural Law:

As Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5) “that which is not just seems to be no law at all”: wherefore the force of a law depends on the extent of its justice. Now in human affairs a thing is said to be just, from being right, according to the rule of reason. But the first rule of reason is the law of nature, as is clear from what has been stated above (Question [91], Article [2], ad 2). Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.

But it must be noted that something may be derived from the natural law in two ways: first, as a conclusion from premises, secondly, by way of determination of certain generalities. The first way is like to that by which, in sciences, demonstrated conclusions are drawn from the principles: while the second mode is likened to that whereby, in the arts, general forms are particularized as to details: thus the craftsman needs to determine the general form of a house to some particular shape. Some things are therefore derived from the general principles of the natural law, by way of conclusions; e.g. that “one must not kill” may be derived as a conclusion from the principle that “one should do harm to no man”: while some are derived therefrom by way of determination; e.g. the law of nature has it that the evil-doer should be punished; but that he be punished in this or that way, is a determination of the law of nature.

Accordingly both modes of derivation are found in the human law. But those things which are derived in the first way, are contained in human law not as emanating therefrom exclusively, but have some force from the natural law also. But those things which are derived in the second way, have no other force than that of human law.

All of this is fairly easy to summarize:  There is an objective code of moral laws (the “natural law”) that actually exists.  The first rules are “do good, avoid evil,” and other obvious rules immediately flow out of or coincide with that (do not harm people, etc.).  These laws are not a matter of opinion and we humans did not decide to make them up, these laws are what they are and always have been.  Everyone knows these obvious laws, but honest men can disagree about the applications of these laws in certain complicated circumstances.  People who violate these laws can become self-deluded and then think they do not know the laws that they know.  Laws that humans make up through government should conform to these laws.

The Meaning of “Rights”

August 27, 2009

We hear a lot about “rights” in American discourse.  Just watching Sportscenter, I heard the term “animal rights” (in reference to Michael Vick), which got me thinking.  What is a right?

Civil rights.  Animal rights.  Equal rights.  So-called “reproductive rights.”  “Gay rights.”  The right of privacy.  We hear lately that everyone has a “right to healthcare”. 

From America’s founding document: “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.” 

I did a Wikipedia search on the subject just to see what was there, and the summary was brief and, in my opinion, incomplete, but it still mentioned a couple of the concepts I will discuss below. 

Read the rest of this entry »

The Regina v. Dudley & Stephens case is one of the most important cases in English common law history regarding the relationship between criminal law and morality.  The case was decided in 1884 in an English court (Queen’s Bench Division, 14 Q.B.D. 274).  The basic run-down for our purposes is that three men (including defendants Dudley and Stephens) and a young boy were stranded at sea on a small emergency boat after they were forced to abandon their ship because of a storm.  On the 18th day they were stranded at sea, having no food for the previous seven days and no water for the previous five, one of the men (Dudley) thought it a good idea to draw straws to decide which man should give up his life for the sustenance of the others on the raft (i.e. cannibalism).  As disturbing as that is, Stephens nevertheless agreed to the “drawing,” but the third man refused.  Dudley and Stephens noticed that the boy was rather sickly and did not have a family like they did, so they decided that rather than sacrifice the life of a healthy grown man with a family, it would be more prudent to kill the boy and eat him while they awaited their unlikely rescue.

Read the rest of this entry »