Human Rights and the Rights of Nature

There has been a great deal of talk over the past half century about the crucial ethical issue of human rights. 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 idea that humans possess ‘natural rights’ was further 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.

The natural sciences have nothing to say about human rights. People are not born with rights. Nature does not confer rights on 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. This does not mean, of course, that the concept of human rights is unimportant.

In recent years there has also been much discussion about the notion of animal rights. Indeed, some authors believe the concept rights should be extended not only to animals, but also to trees, mountains, rocks and 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 prominent supporter of animal rights. Incidentally he does not extend the concept of rights to trees, mountains and rocks which, he says, do not feel anything and therefore possess no 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 human culture. Animal rights are a product of, and a component of, human culture.

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