From animal rights to cosmic democracy

The second part of Clark’s essay on “Animals, Ecosystems, and the Liberal Ethic” wades into deeper and more interesting waters.

Clark contends that it’s “better to abandon abstract argument, in favour of historical.” Ownership, he maintains, is a social concept and thus the idea that we can do whatever we want with what we “own” is a needlessly abstract and ahistorical way of looking at things. It’s better to think in terms of “historical claims and protections, not with the pre-social rights of self-owners: rights established not by abstract argument, but by the slow discovery of a mutually acceptable forebearance and cooperation–a process, incidentally, that there is no sound reason to limit to human intercourse.”

The early liberals, he maintains,

did not appeal to absolute rights of self-ownership (restricted by the equal rights of others). Private property was defended as the likeliest way of enabling a society of freemen to subsist in mutual harmony, and cultivate their virtues: if we each had some portion of the land to tend we would be less likely to fall prey to tyrants, and the land itself would prosper. What we owned, however, was not the land itself, but the lawfully acquired fruits, and we owned these only for their lawful use. “Nothing was made by God for Man to spoil or destroy” (Locke, ‘Treatises’ 2.31: 1963 p. 332; see Hargrove 1980). Individual liberty rested on the value God placed in every soul, as a unique expression of His glory, such that any despotism, however benevolent in purpose, must issue in a decline of valuable diversity. Each of us has a profound and vital interest in the virtue of our fellow-citizens, and in the continued viability of the ecosystems within which we live.

Clark brings this classical liberal insight into conversation with recent writing on “deep ecology” with interesting results. The main idea of deep ecology is that, rather than being self-sufficient individuals, we are all parts of the ecosystems to which we belong, the whole which has a certain priority over the parts. This is not to downgrade the value of the individual, but to point out that her flourishing depends on the flourishing of the whole of which she is a part.

Individualists, and some animal rights proponents like Tom Regan, have been wary of what they call “environmental fascism” that seems to threaten to subordinate the interests of the individual to the collective. We sometimes see this tension between environmentalists and animal rights people: environmentalists are mainly concerned with preserving ecosystems even if that means, for example, culling animal herds.

Clark, however, sees a “necessary moral synthesis” of libertarian and “zoophile” intuitions in a vision of a kind of cosmic ecology. A reasonable and proper good for individuals depends on the good of the whole: “The living world (which is itself an element or function of the cosmic whole) is like ‘the federation or community of interdependent organs and tissues that go to make up [a physician’s] patient’ (Gregg 1955; see Lovelock 1982). Claiming a spurious advantage for individuals at the price of damage to the whole is simply silly.”

The whole he sees as the City of God. Invoking Berkeley he identifies this with the whole created universe, each in its own way reflecting an aspect of God’s glory. And each part has a claim to exist, if only for a short time. It’s reasonable that we should protect our own kind against threats to life and limb, but beyond that we ought to be content with our allotted portion. There can be no absolute “right to life” because death comes for us all and is part of the fabric of the universe; but we can aim for a “letting be” of things according to their kind:

The rights that all self-owners have simply as such cannot include any right of immunity to disease, predation or famine. No such right can be justly defended for all self-owners, since the terrestrial economy is organized around the fact of predation. None of us can be treated absolutely and only as ‘ends-in-ourselves’, never to be material for another’s purposes. Of all of us it is literally true that we are food. If blackbirds have no right not to be eaten by foxes (and people, correspondingly, no duty to protect them), since such a general right would deny the right of life to foxes, but blackbirds have all the ‘natural’ rights that all self-owners have, it follows that we too have no right not to be eaten. The only ‘right to life’ that all selfowners might be allowed, just as such, is the right to live as the creature that one is, under the same law as all others. Foxes do no wrong in catching what they can: they would be doing wrong if they prevented the creatures on whom they prey from enjoying their allotted portion in the sun, if they imprisoned, frustrated and denied them justice. Foxes, obviously, are not at fault.

The libertarian thesis, applied to the terrestrial biosphere, requires that no-one do more than enjoy a due share of the fruits of the earth, that forward-looking agents plan their agricultural economy with a view to allowing the diversity of creatures some share of happiness according to their kind. It does not require that everyone abstain from killing and eating animals, if that is how the human creatures that are there can live. Some people may so abstain, because they see no need to live off their non-human kindred, but this (on liberal views) must be their choice, not their duty. Libertarians, by the same token, will not see any general duty to assist people against aggressors. Even aggression, it turns out, is not necessarily unjust, a violation of right, though enslavement is. Even if some acts of aggression are unjust, there is no general duty to defend the victims. Any duty that such libertarians acknowledge to assist the prey will rest upon their sense of solidarity, not on abstract rights of self-ownership.

Clark calls this a “radically anarchic view of human and extra-human intercourse,” but says that we might be justified in going beyond this by acknowledging the fact that, within the “cosmic democracy,” most of us animals already exist in social groupings, many of them including multiple species. “We can,” he says, “moderate the merely libertarian ethic by the ethic of solidarity: both depend upon our vision of the moral universe, both are necessary.”

The vision of the cosmic democracy, of a universe in which each thing has its appointed part to play and its own particular dignity, eminently justifies decent treatment of non-humans, and even an extension of sympathy and mercy. “[I]t may also be compatible with justice, even required by a more elevated sense of ‘justice’, that we should give each other more than we have a right to demand: we may construct ‘laws of the nations’, and tacitly agree to assist those who are in need, so long as we may justly do so.” What Clark seems to have in mind here is what I referred to the other day as the “special duties” owed to those creatures that we share our lives with in a particular way, such as pets or other domestic animals. “Emotions of solidarity” combine with and reinforce “contractual justice” as we find our circle of sympathy expanding outward, pushed by the vision of cosmic democracy wherein we are all related as partial reflections of the Creator’s glory.

This “visionary solidarity” seems a long way from the bare-bones political ethic of libertarianism, and Clark admits that he has pushed the liberal ethic to the point of collapse:

If ‘we’ are illumined by this vision of the living world, we may request a like forebearance and enthusiasm from our fellow citizens. Those who show that they cannot conceive of the world in its richness, cannot sympathize with their fellow-creatures, may seem to us to be menaces. It is, correspondingly, our ‘natural right’ as self-owners so to organize society to introduce that vision into all with whom we must associate.

Now this is heady stuff. Though it must be qualified by what Clark says a bit earlier:

This would be a ‘fascist’ vision only if it implied that there was some elite group entitled to inflict upon an ignorant world the legislation they thought justified, at whatever cost to the ideals and lives of their victims. There is no such implication: on the contrary, it is just those elite groups which most offend against the rules of liberal solidarity.

So it seems that what he’s getting at is this: we need something like a paradigm shift, a new moral vision that takes in the whole of the living world, not just the human sphere and this vision will naturally impace the way we order our common life. But this isn’t the sort of thing that can be imposed from the top down. So there’s no question of a kind of green fascism.

Given what I’ve seen elsewhere of Clark’s political views, I would imagine that he would favor this vision being propagated through decentralized and non-hierarchical local communities joined in some kind of loose federation.

From my earlier post on Clark’s “anarcho-conservatism”:

Following Jefferson and Kropotkin, Clark seems to favor a decentralization of political power to the most local feasible level. He rejects, however, revolution as a means to replacing the military or political form of association with peaceful and non-coercive methods. Even Gandhi’s “non-violent” revolution, he points out, resulted in no small amount of bloodshed, and the Indian state that replaced British colonialism arguably suppressed liberty in a number of ways, not the least of which being the incorporation of unwilling minorities into the Indian state.

Instead, Clark adopts what he calls “anarcho-conservatism,” an anti-revolutionary commitment to expanding the organization of the civil or economic means of social cooperation, side-by-side with, and gradually replacing coercive means. He concedes that such a conservative stance risks being insufficiently sensitive to present injustice, but argues that change which grows organically out of a people’s past is preferable to the kind of sharp break with it that revolution often brings.

Analogously, Clark might say that a change in our evaluation of the moral status of animals can and should develop organically from existing moral traditions. And so he might find Matthew Scully more congenial than Peter Singer on this score. A gradual modification of our moral views, developing in an organic, quasi-Burkean fashion is more likely to take root than some attempted revolution from above.

One thought on “From animal rights to cosmic democracy

  1. Pingback: Radical faith and creation « A Thinking Reed

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