Animal Rights--The Fierce Green Fire?

Greg Brown (University of Idaho)

Is the philosophy of Animal Rights consistent with environmental principles? It has been suggested by some that environmental principles and the Animal Rights philosophy are at odds with one another. At issue is whether sound environmental principles can be upheld by adhering to a rights based philosophy which grants the extension of moral principles to non-human animals.

A recent example is The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) decision to snare pigs on one of its Hawaiian island preserves. The pigs were originally brought to the islands by sailors. The TNC alleges that the pigs are wreaking havoc on the delicate Hawaiian ecosystem and that the drastic measure of snaring is the only feasible alternative to limit the damage caused by the pigs.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the largest Animal Rights organization in the U.S., investigated the Hawaiian TNC preserve and exposed the cruel pig snaring practices in PETA NEWS, its membership publication. In response to what must have been a great many letters and phone calls from concerned animal activists, TNC announced a moratorium on pig snaring within the preserve in question.

This example is one where environmentalists claim that the Animal Rights philosophy is in direct conflict with environmental goals, in this case, the preservation of native plants and species. The claim is that animal rights and environmentalism just don't mix--the two are like oil and water.

From an animal rights perspective, there is an obligation to treat non-human animals with respect on an individual basis, just as there is an obligation to treat each and every individual human being with respect. At least, this is the standard that we strive to achieve. While this philosophical and moral requirement to treat individual animals (human or non-human) as possessors of inherent value does not preclude an environmental or holistic view of nature, it may present some philosophical difficulties, and in the example cited above, some difficult real-world dilemmas.

In The Case for Animal Rights, Tom Regan explains that sacrificing the individual for the greater biotic good might be fairly dubbed "environmental fascism." (Pg. 362) Using Regan's example, if man is "only a member of the biotic team" with the same moral standing as other members of the team, and there was a situation which pitted the life of a rare wildflower against a human life, would it not contribute more to the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community to kill the human and save the wildflower? From a rights perspective, this conclusion could never be reached because a rights perspective "denies the propriety of deciding what should be done to individuals who have rights by appeal to aggregate considerations" including decisions that would benefit the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. Regan states that "individual rights are not to be outweighed by such considerations (which is not to say that they are never to be outweighed)" (p. 362).

The animal rights perspective does not deny the possibility that collections or systems of natural objects might have inherent value that is different from and not reducible to the sum of individual preference-satisfactions, but the problem is one of how to attribute moral rights to a collection of natural objects such as trees or to an ecosystem. According to Regan, no one writing in this area of ethics has yet done so.

A rights based environmental ethic, one that recognizes that individual inanimate natural objects have inherent value and a basic moral right to treatment respectful of that value, is an ethic that should be welcomed by environmentalists. After all, if we show proper respect for the rights of the individuals who make up the biotic community, would not the community also be preserved?

Returning to the TNC example, what is the proper course of action? Animal rights advocates with environmental sensibilities would no doubt be frustrated by the apparent Hobbesian choice--the cruel death of non-native wild pigs or the probable damage to rare Hawaiian flora and fauna by allowing the wild pigs to live out their lives. Are these the only two choices? Perhaps not. One technology that is increasingly being looked to for dilemmas such as this is sterilization. While far from a panacea, such a technology might allow for a relatively painless control of animal populations.

But even this technique presents difficult moral problems for those concerned about the welfare, if not rights of the wild pigs. All too often, the pervasiveness of human encroachment has painted wildlife managers into a corner where Hobbesian choices become inevitable, and drastic intervention at the expense of some innocent participant in the natural world is the norm. An animal rights perspective would tend to break the vicious cycle of intervention. It would, more often than not, allow Mother Nature to play out the hand that was dealt thus withholding judgment against this or that species.

An animal rights perspective on the environment, and in particular, wildlife management, is one were human intervention is limited to techniques which maintain the respect for each individual animal. It is a perspective that merits serious consideration. The results of rival wildlife management alternatives (the tag 'em, slag 'em or bag 'em syndrome) are at best, cause for concern. Is it not possible that those that respect all life forms hold the key to environmental salvation?

Those who believe in, and adhere to the animal rights movement find the environmental and animal rights movement inseparable, both in thought and action. A continuing puzzlement is why the reverse is not true. How can the environmentalist rationally ignore the obvious connection between meat consumption and environmental degradation? Between the rights of endangered species and those of cows or pigs? If the "fierce green fire" is not fanned by the winds of compassion for all life forms, it is a fire that we ought to consider snuffing.


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