Rights–Human Or Non-Human?

rogue-primateLivingston means something different by rights than what Thomas Berry means by rights, and this difference is instructive. For Livingston, rights are a human invention, part of the human prosthesis: ‘The concept of “rights” arises from perceived inequalities and inequities in the distribution of power and privilege in human societies.'(163) Whereas for Berry, rights are planetary, maybe even universal, and not human: ‘As humans we are born of the Earth, nourished by the Earth, healed by the Earth. The natural world tells us: I will feed you, I will clothe you, I will shelter you’–any rights we have come to us from elsewhere; anything else is not a right; perhaps we stole it.

What might it take for some to recognize the rights of others, for humans to recognize the rights of non-humans? I don’t know, but Livingston writes that ‘once upon a time women and slaves were chattels. With this and other precedents in mind, our present task is to move non-human beings into the arena of legitimate moral concern.'(168) This task seems somewhat like Berry’s commission that our civilization’s great work ‘is to seek the common narrative that reunites the human and the nonhuman’. However, ‘in practice, human moral and ethical constructs are used as the primary base [for rights–my emphasis].’ Because rights for Livingston are a human invention, extending them to non-humans makes non-humans part of the human construct, domesticating them. ‘This is simply not good enough for Nature,’ he writes, since nature is ‘the antithesis of the domesticated human state’.(171-172) Animal rights, and the general human conception of rights, begs ‘the root issue: that our cultural perspectives on Nature and our treatment of the non-human are not merely “wrong”,’ Livingston concludes, ‘but monstrous and unnatural.'(175)

Berry recognizes that we need a new story that establishes non-human rights. Like Livingston (remember, Livingston says that there are other selves besides the individual self), Berry faults individualism, though Berry (Catholic priest) sources the problem in the shift in religious emphasis from universal creation to personal redemption (Protestantism). Berry’s call for an explanatory new story, including an explanation of rights, looks beyond the human, to share the central role with the non-human. Rights for Livingston are a human invention, whereas for Berry rights are not human.

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