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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Old Faithful Should Not Have Rights



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I get into the “nature rights” movement in my biweekly On the Square column over at First Things. I think the issue deserves much more pushback than it receives. People are still in the eye rolling stage, and yet, countries overseas and municipalities here, are passing such laws. I give some examples and pivot to why the issue is important. From my piece, “Old Faithful Should Not Have Rights:” 

Of greater philosophical concern, the nature rights ideology subverts what I call human exceptionalism by elevating the natural world to moral equality with human beings—effectively diminishing us to merely another animal in the forest. Such a reductionist self-perception alone could cause great harm. But by asserting that flora and fauna—perhaps even geysers and other geographical phenomena—have “rights,” the movement degrades liberal principles arising from the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the same way that wild inflation devalues the worth of currency. Indeed, if a squirrel or mushroom and all other earthly entities somehow possess rights, the very concept withers.

In a sense, if everything has rights, nothing really does.

I then note:

What’s more, nature rights are unnecessary if we recognize our solemn duty to properly manage the environment through well-crafted use-management techniques and the application of conservation principles. For example, we impose very stringent and effective protections against human development within our national parks, such as Yellowstone, without giving rights to Old Faithful.

I conclude:

Thus, the controversy isn’t really about “rights” at all. Rather, we are having an important debate about the scope, nature, and extent of our responsibilities toward the natural world in the context of the human drive to thrive. These obligations to “the other,” it is important to add, are predicated solely on our being human. In this sense, the nature rights controversy and the willingness of some to sacrifice our own welfare to “save the planet” is ironic evidence of the very human exceptionalism that growing numbers of environmental advocates reject.

If we want to continue to devalue rights and downsize our standards of living, embrace the rights of nature.



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