On the origin of rights
A dialogue between Peter the hawk and Davina the goose. Peter believes that animals are equal to humans and that mutual aid is necessary. Davina is a frequent traveler who says knowledge and morals are learned with experience.
Davina: Peter, it’s going to be two stories today, one from India and the other from Canada
Peter: two stories, why?
Davina: they seem to be linked even though they come from two different places in the world; I found that interesting.
Peter: a beginning of an universality of sorts. What are they about?
Davina: in India, a court ruled that two rivers would have rights like human beings. In Canada, a woman was not convicted after she gave some water to pigs.
Peter: you lose me here even if I see that it’s a court decision in both cases.
Davina: that’s the point: humans now believe that non-humans can have rights. In India it is at least decided in one instance and in Canada, this woman pushes for everyone to acknowledge that pigs taken to the slaughterhouse in trucks have the right to be watered.
Peter: and why was she prosecuted when it is only a matter of compassion and it does not even seem to me that it can be discussed?
Davina: because in Canada, pigs are considered private property so she should not have step in.
Peter: while in India, I guess rivers are in the public domain.
David: yes, so everyone uses them without restriction and they are polluted.
Peter: in either case, isn’t it strange that humans decide for non-humans? It is always the idea that nature was created for their personal use.
Davina: you are right but let’s face it, we are happy that the area where we are is protected.
Peter: I grant you that but why do there have to be laws for the world to be respected? In India, if I remember my travels correctly, spirits are everywhere so everything is sacred, why isn’t that enough to engender compassion? In Canada, the first inhabitants begged the pardon of the animals when they had to kill them in order to survive. Why did it disappear?
Davina: you are an idealist, dear Peter. Everything should be so but it is not and it is by noting this that some have acted. It is experience that makes morality evolve.
Peter: and where does it come from, the compassion of those who have it if it is not already in them a priori? You know that all their religions say the same thing about it, so it’s a common feeling.
Davina: yes, but when humans believe they have a special place in nature, they start to think that everything is theirs and that they don’t have to respect what surrounds them since what surrounds them is at their disposal. The harmful consequences which ensue push them to review their conceptions.
Peter: and find what they shouldn’t have forgotten.
Davina: that’s why the acquittal of this woman in Canada also seemed to prove that common sense could prevail in humans.
Peter: still, it’s a pretty complicated detour to get to what should have been obvious from the start: every element in the world has a place and a function and therefore cannot be ignored. Where’s the difficulty in understanding that?
Davina: we’ve talked about it before, their world is too detached from reality.
Peter: they remind me of those invasive plants that kill their host and die with it, but your stories show me that they are starting to better measure the impact of their actions on the rest of the world. That said, in the case of these laws, it is less about goodness than about well-understood interest so in fact, they don’t decide for us but for them, even if they don’t say it.
Davina: the problem is, this seemingly inconsistent disrespect establishes a harmful way of thinking because it is generalized to all aspects of existence.
Peter: your clairvoyance and your kindness are your charm, dear Davina, but if humans were to disappear by their ignorance of the laws of the world, would you regret it?
Davina: idealistic but cynical, isn’t it my dear Peter?
Is the origin of rights in compassion, morality or interest?
For Davina, morality is at the origin of rights but this morality is dictated by experience which shows that without these rights, the equilibrium of the world is threatened.
For Peter, respect and compassion are evidences that humans have put aside out of arrogance and it is therefore the defense of their interests that pushes them to rediscover these values and to put them forward in the form of rights.
Why give rights rather than develop the idea of compassion?
How does experience modify the law?
Want to think a little more? See, for example, Applied ethics where Singer explains how different interests justify different ethical responses.
Want to contribute to these dialogues? Write your comments and questions below.
Want to know more about the tastes of Peter and Davina? Their favorite books are in the domain library.