Saturday, May 17, 2008

Enforcing the Attitude of Respect for Nature

So I wrote this for my environmental ethics class, and I figured I'd post it. But I just want to make clear up front that I don't agree with Taylor's argument for the attitude of respect for nature. The paper takes its correctness as a premise, and I want to make sure it's understood that I believe that premise to be false. Nevertheless, I think it's a fascinating point of view, and I think this exercise has been valuable for me in terms of thinking about rights and how they're supposed to work. Hopefully others can find some value in it too.


In his book, Respect for Nature, Paul Taylor offers an account of a disposition which he calls the “attitude of respect for nature.”[1] This disposition, Taylor explains, involves the recognition of the inherent worth of non-human “nature,” which leads to the treatment of nature with a proper degree of respect.[2] Proper respect, he argues, involves adherence to certain rules[3] which should not be broken in the absence of morally significant reasons. These rules include a duty to refrain from harming other organisms, from interfering in their activities, and from deceiving them or violating their trust, as well as a duty to make restitution when one does wrong.[4] For Taylor, the attitude of respect for nature is a virtue; it is view about how good people will act,[5] and for what reasons they do so.[6] For the sake of our discussion, we will make the assumption that Taylor’s view is objectively sound (a claim which Taylor does not make[7]), and the attitude of respect for nature is in fact virtuous.

Because Taylor’s view includes a mechanism by which individuals would voluntarily make restitution for any transgressions, it seems that if everyone were completely virtuous, there would never be any need to coercively enforce the mandates of justice; Taylor’s virtuous people would take care of any problems on their own. But it will immediately be noted that not all people are virtuous in Taylor’s sense. Many fail to hold the attitude of respect for nature. Because of this, they will likely do things that are inconsistent with this attitude, and which therefore represent iniquities. Accordingly, we might ask whether others would be justified in coercively interfering with these individuals’ actions in order to ensure that individuals who are not themselves virtuous nevertheless behave as if they were.

Generally, the simplest way to justify coercion is to cite the violation of some right held be the victim. As Taylor points out, rights represent things to which we are entitled,[8] so that if we are wrongfully deprived of them, our rights are violated.[9] Given that we are entitled to the objects of our rights, it seems eminently plausible that we would be justified in using force in response to the violation of our rights. If we could show that the sort of unvirtuous actions identified by the attitude of respect for nature represented rights violations, then we would have a good reason for believing that coercive enforcement might be justifiable.

Complicating matters, however, is the fact that Taylor offers two different accounts of rights, and these two views produce opposite conclusions about whether the behaviors in question violate rights.[10] In order to properly appraise the justifiability of coercion, we will need to decide between these views. According to Taylor’s first account, there are several necessary components of rights which plants and non-human animals cannot fulfill, making it impossible to conceive of them as having rights.[11] First, Taylor argues that to have a right, it must be possible for us to conceive of the rights-holder asserting the moral legitimacy of the claim represented by a right. Because they cannot think in terms of moral legitimacy, plants and non-human animals fail this test.[12] Second, he claims that we must be able to conceive of the holder of a right being able to think of herself as being inherently worthy of that right. Plants and non-human animals fail in this criterion as well.[13] Third, Taylor contends that we must be able to conceive of a rights-holder as being able to choose whether or not to exercise his right. Because plants and non-human animals cannot make this sort of choice, they fail here as well.[14] Finally, Taylor explains that having a right involves an entitlement to “…register complaints, demand redress, or call for legal enforcement of their rights…”[15] whenever they are violated. Because plants and non-human animals lack the capacity to carry out any of these entitlements, Taylor suggests that it would be nonsensical to recognize them as having rights.[16] Though each of these objections, if correct, would be conclusive on its own, taken together they seem devastating.

However, Taylor offers a way to understand rights that would allow us to preserve the notion that acting inconsistently with the attitude of respect for nature constitutes rights-violating behavior. Where the first view understood duties possessed by others as the corollary of rights recognized and asserted by the rights-holder, Taylor’s alternative conception of rights holds them to amount to recognitions of duties towards others which result from taking proper account of their inherent worth.[17] If failure to act in accordance with these duties indeed qualifies as rights-violating behavior, then actions inconsistent with Taylor’s attitude of respect for nature could certainly be understood in this way.

But do actions which fail to properly respect others’ inherent worth constitute potentially enforceable rights violations by themselves, or are the conditions described in Taylor’s first account really necessary for the recognition of rights? To answer this question, we might ask whether there are any seemingly clear cases where we would think ourselves justified in coercively enforcing the “rights” of a victim who does not fulfill one of the criteria mentioned in Taylor’s first view. And in fact, Taylor alludes to two groups of such entities: the insane and the severely mentally handicapped.[18]

Members of these two groups seem to fail on each of the four tests Taylor offers in his argument that plants and non-human animals do not have rights. Some insane and severely mentally handicapped individuals are certainly unable to conceive of “legitimacy,” to see themselves as being inherently worthy of respect, to choose whether to exercise or waive a right, to complain about violations of their rights, to demand restitution, and to call for the enforcement of their rights. Accordingly, Taylor’s first view would deny that we can possibly conceive of these individuals as having rights.

But nevertheless it seems clear that we would often think ourselves justified in using coercion to protect these individuals. And it does seem that the kind of situation in which we would feel justified in doing this lines up quite well with Taylor’s second conception of rights. That is, we coercively intervene to protect the insane and the severely mentally handicapped when we feel that they are being treated by others in a manner which fails to take proper account of their inherent worth. If we feel that this practice is based on a manner in which those individuals are entitled to be treated, then it seems to follow that we recognize them as having rights, in spite of all of the objections that Taylor’s first account has to offer, and that these rights are of the kind suggested by Taylor’s second account.

Of course, it could be that we are simply unjustified in behaving in this manner towards the severely mentally handicapped and the insane. But if we are justified, then it seems that we have good reason to think that coercion could be justified in protecting plants and non-human animals, whose inherent worth we have acknowledged by assuming that Taylor’s attitude of respect for nature is an objective account of the way that virtuous individuals will interact with non-human nature.

[1] Taylor, P.W., page 59.

[2] Ibid, pages 71-80.

[3] Ibid, page 89.

[4] Ibid, pages 172-192.

[5] Ibid, pages 88-89.

[6] Ibid, pages 15-16.

[7] Ibid, page 167.

[8] Ibid, pages 226-227.

[9] Ibid, pages 243-244.

[10] Ibid, pages 219-255.

[11] Ibid, page 246.

[12] Ibid, pages 246-247.

[13] Ibid, pages 247-248.

[14] Ibid, pages 248-250.

[15] Ibid, page 251.

[16] Ibid, pages 250-251.

[17] Ibid, pages 251-255.

[18] Ibid, page 225.

1 comment:

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