Human Rights and the Rights of Nature

The idea that humans possess ‘natural rights’ was developed by European philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, although the actual expression ‘human rights’ only came into common parlance in the 20th century. In 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, the notion of human rights is inferred as far back as 3800 years ago, in the moral codes of Hammurabi, and 500 years later in those of Moses. Both these codes imply that all humans have certain rights, and both were presented to the populace as instructions from a deity or deities.

The natural sciences have nothing to say about human rights. People are not born with rights. Nature does not bestow rights upon us. The concept of human rights is a purely cultural construct. We can decide to confer rights on ourselves and others, and acceptance of these rights can then become embedded in our culture.

In recent years there has also been much discussion about the notion of animal rights. Indeed, some authors believe concept should be extended not only to animals, but also to tress, mountains, rocks and the streams. I have not followed this literature – but an excellent account of this movement of thought in the English-speaking world is provided in the book The rights of nature: a history of environmental ethics by Roderick Nash.

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer has been a prominent supporter of animal rights, although he does not extend the concept to trees, mountains and rocks which, he says, do not feel anything, and so do not have rights. A more recent book advocating animal rights is Animalkind: what we owe to animals, by Jean Kazez.

However, as in the case of human rights, animals do not possess rights until they are conferred on them by humans. Animal rights are also a product and component of human culture.

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