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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An interesting post on the blog of a South African discusses what people mean when they assert that they have a right to believe what they want:

[C]an anyone actually believe something just because they want to? Go on, try it. Pick some belief at random, something silly which you never really took seriously before, and will yourself to believe it…

I doubt you had any more success than I did.

What we can claim is the right to express and practice our beliefs, whatever they happen to be, to the extent that our actions do not infringe on the rights of others.

It is these other rights which concern me most. Attempts to defend a belief which cannot be limited may infringe on a few of them, for example:

Freedom of expression: False beliefs can generally only be maintained by ignorance. If someone has the “right” to believe something then that necessarily means that we must loose the right to argue with them about it.

Equality: Many beliefs are discriminatory. So often the so called “right to believe” is used to justify acts of discrimination in all their various forms.

In conclusion, We need to stop assuming we can control belief and let free expression take care of defending rational beliefs and gradually dismantling the irrational ones.

I agree that many people misuse the term “right to believe” just as they misuse the phrase “stop forcing your beliefs on me.”  No one can really be forced to believe anything, although certainly propaganda and brain-washing do exist.  Some are better at guarding their minds than others.  Still, people generally use these phrases more as nifty sound-bites than intelligent arguments.

That said, after reflection, I do believe one can choose to believe things.  One may not be able to choose to believe a fact in the abstract, especially something we know is wrong.  No matter how much I close my eyes and insist to myself that Catalina Island does not exist, I cannot do so because I’ve been there and know that it does.  However, consider a situation where a friend claims to have visited an unnamed island in the South Pacific where there are beautiful mountains and waterfalls.  Depending on my friend’s propensity to tell the truth or exaggerate, I can make a rational choice whether to believe him or not.  In court, we ask juries to decide which testimony they believe based on the evidence.  Sometimes that requires a very difficult decision, but a decision nonetheless.

Even so, the right to decide what one believes does not in itself require action or inaction by any other private individual.  If I speak falsehood and deceive others into false beliefs, the correct course is not to limit the expression of false beliefs, but to respond with truthful ones (this is what the above post is getting at in the conclusion).  In America, that’s the whole point to the First Amendment:

If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927).

Now, with respect to freedom to follow one’s beliefs through actions, we have a much more difficult question.  I think there should not be a bald right to act on one’s beliefs however one sees fit.  You’ve got to have more.  When a bald right to act on one’s beliefs is respected, we get ridiculous statements like the following:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

Come again?  We have a right to define our own concept of the universe?  And that right is supposed to be respected by law?  Of course, that’s nonsense.  The law will not permit me to define my concept of the universe if my concept of the universe claims that law does not exist.  Anarchy is not among my liberties.  There is no right to define one’s existence.  The Supreme Court was out to lunch in that statement, as the dissent noted:

A State’s choice between two positions on which reasonable people can disagree is constitutional even when (as is often the case) it intrudes upon a “liberty” in the absolute sense. Laws against bigamy, for example — which entire societies of reasonable people disagree with — intrude upon men and women’s liberty to marry and live with one another. But bigamy happens not to be a liberty specially “protected” by the Constitution.

As argued in the dissent, a government may make choices that intrude on the liberty to act upon one’s beliefs.  But when it does, the question is not whether it may intrude on such actions in the abstract, but whether the particular intrusion is just.  That will be a matter of politics.  But it makes no sense, in the public discourse aspect of the process, to assert that a law should be changed because it infringes on someone’s right to practice their beliefs.  The kind of belief and the kind of intrusion must be considered on their own.

Incidentally, to address the discrimination argument in the post, I’m going to disagree with the proposition that “acts of discrimination” are inherently a bad thing.  Lots of discrimination is beneficial.  We discriminate against minors when we do not allow them to drive.  We discriminate against those who commit crimes by throwing them in jail.  The question is not whether a law is discriminatory, but whether it is rationally discriminatory.  And of course, that will draw some really heated debates, hence the current climate of politics and the media.

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.

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. 

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