A Response to Jeff and Joe Regarding Our Primary Right

by Carter Dillard

Sincere thanks to Jeff and Joe for their biting critique of the idea of a primary human right that guarantees humans access to wilderness and complete biodiversity. This response, which is geared for the audience of the blog generally, will divide their critique into eight points and respond to each (taking their points a bit out of order), before drawing back to the theme of this blog in order to explain why the right not only survives their appraisal, but can simultaneously satisfy environmental, human, and animal interests.

1. Primary in what sense, and based on what evidence?

Jeff raises a challenge to the idea of a primary right by arguing that the term implies universal acceptance. Because, Jeff argues, many people will reject the value of being alone in the wilderness the right cannot be universal and therefore fails. First, it’s not clear to me that the Tembé would not recognize something like a right to wilderness or the nonhuman, given their historic struggle to preserve the rainforest around them. Second, as Joe notes, whether the Tembé actually recognize the right and underlying value or not does not defeat the right, any more than Hutu leaders’ failure to recognize the universal right of all peoples to be free from genocide, and the GOP’s recent refusal to recognize universal rights for the disabled that trump parental authority, prove that those rights are wrong. As discussed below, this is in part because claiming a right is like saying “you ought to do this,” which cannot be proven wrong with the response “we don’t/won’t do that” (this is simply the difference between an “ought” and an “is”). The responding party might not do the thing or want to do the thing, but perhaps they still ought to. The universality of particular rights derives not from universal acceptance, but from logical arguments that deduce the particular rights from things all humans – because of certain social and biological shared characteristics – will value, whether they admit it or not, see e.g. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

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A Response to the Primary Right

Jeff Pierce

In his post on the Primary Right, Carter Dillard equates the right to be let alone with the right to be alone, as in, utterly and completely alone.  Up PR1Carter’s sleeve hides an unspoken premise resembling something like this: the influence of other human beings, however minor, spoils my inalienable right to be ruggedly individual.

I characterize his conception of freedom as rugged individualism because the right to be alone feels unmistakably American.  Thoreau is lurking there, skipping stones with Herbert Hoover and Paul Ryan.  To call the right “primary” suggests it’s universal.  But if a Tembu South African or a Tembé Brazilian failed to recognize herself in this concept, the right to be alone is neither universal nor primary.

PR3The right to be alone is distinctly American for another reason: Carter extracts it from a dissenting opinion Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1928.  This is the same Louis Brandeis who, while yet an attorney in 1890, sowed within American jurisprudence an entirely novel right when he published, with Samuel Warren, “The Right to Privacy” in the Harvard Law Review.

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Carter Dillard

Thinking about our first or “primary” human right is actually a new way of thinking about how to protect the environment, and how to visualize what our planet ought to look like.

When we think about the idea of being free, we usually think about the freedom to act, or the right to do what we want without others interfering. But freedom also means the right not to be acted upon and to be free from other people, in other words, to be let alone. Unless we have some special obligation, like being the parent of a child, we are generally free to get away from other people and the influence they would otherwise have over us.  When it comes to particular countries and governments, which are really just collections of individual people, unless we have committed a crime or done something unusual, we also have a right to leave and be free of them. For example, we are free to leave the United States, and forcing people in the former Soviet Union to live behind the Iron Curtain violated their human rights.  We should not be forced submit to any other person’s influence, or collection of persons’ influence, against our will.

Because we have the right to leave any person and any country, it follows that we have the right to leave every person and every country. One implies the other.  If you were to leave every country on earth until you got to the last country, you should be able to leave that one as well.

How do we do that? First, we have to see the earth as actually made up of two worlds – the human and the “nonhuman,” or those species other than humans.  Countries are political entities – they are based on the organization of human power and influence. Leaving every country on earth does not mean having to fly to the moon; it means leaving, as best one can, human power and influence and entering the nonhuman world – what we generally call wilderness. The nonhuman world is, by definition , comprised of those places in the world occupied by species other than humans living in their natural habitats.

Keep in mind that nonhumans don’t live in countries or organize into systems of rights the way we do. So the earth divided into human and nonhuman worlds would look something like the earth did for most of human civilization – limited human societies surrounded by a sea of relatively complete biodiversity and wilderness.  It would be other species, living and flourishing in their habitats, all around us in an interconnected system. This view of earth is no fantasy – if biodiversity can be protected, our birthrates continue to decline, and we continue to urbanize, this planet will look very much like that: city-states awash in a sea of nature.

But this is the point: For us to be free, for it to remain possible to be free of every person and country on earth, the nonhuman world must be protected and allowed to flourish. Without it we would remain locked in that last country on earth, permanently subjected to others’ influence, or as one senator said in passing the Wilderness Act of 1964, “without wilderness this country will become a cage.” Because we have a right to leave all others and their influence, or the “cages” we create for each other, the nonhuman world must remain and flourish. It is a necessary condition for freedom to actually mean something.

Why call this right to be free from others the “primary right?” Rights are about other people, and your relationships with them. Given that, the primary right, or the first thing that is decided in any systems of rights, is whether you relate to or are influenced by other people at all. The first thing about any system of rights that is decided is whether you are even part of it. People in the Soviet Union would not have had to worry about the lack of human rights in that system if they could have simply gotten away.

How does thinking about the environment in terms of the primary right change things? First, it gives us a theoretical baseline, a way of seeing what our planet ought to look like. This is something most environmentalists have not been able to agree on. Second, it changes the basic thinking in environmentalism: the focus should be on freedom, not well-being. Third, protecting the nonhuman world because it ensures the very possibility of human freedom is different than protecting nature for its own sake. Those most responsible for harming the nonhuman world have gone unpunished because humans are less apt to act until we know we have something to lose. Thinking about our primary right shows us that we are losing something right now, that those most responsible for destroying the nonhuman world are violating our right to be free.

If we value freedom we value nature, or the nonhuman world, because it makes the act of consenting to others’ influence possible. Protecting the environment is not about making a world dominated by humans safe, healthy, and sustainable – a pleasant place for humans to live. It is about restoring the nonhuman world around us as best we can so that freedom actually means something.

GEESE MEAT FOR THE POOR!! Scarsdale’s Contract with USDA to Slaughter Geese and Donate Meat to Local Food Bank

Angelique Rivard and Ally Bernstein


Recent breaking news of the Village of Scarsdale’s plan to slaughter the group of geese who consider Audrey Hochberg Pond their home, along with their babies in March, and then donate the meat to a local food bank has caused quite a stir among interested members of the public. After receiving complaints from local attendees of the pond explaining they “were tired of stepping around the droppings” and claimed the geese were “attacking them” after people got “too close to their eggs,” the Village of Scarsdale decided the best solution would be to enter into a contract with the USDA, slaughter the geese, and feed them to the needy.

Unfortunately, slaughtering geese is not news to the residents of Westchester County, as the county routinely kills geese in an effort to control population. But has the county gone too far and made killing geese before considering any alternatives too easy and too commonplace? Has the village gone too far in claiming they are doing a public service by killing the geese and feeding it to the poor?

Before we make the case for the Scarsdale Geese, let us make a disclaimer: we can all agree that wildlife control issues are a sensitive subject due to the varying viewpoints across the board from wildlife protectionists, animal welfarists, environmental conservationists, hunters, and the general public. In many cases, such as those dealing with population control, the issues are: what is the best solution and what factors do we need to consider in implementing the solution. Such factors include: whether or not the targeted animal is a danger or threat to other animals and humans; what the costs of implementing the solution are; and what the environmental and ecological impacts of dealing with the target animal will have in the future. Dealing with any one of the multitude of factors often leaves the interest groups on opposite sides of the fence or right on the fence, making for long debates over what the final solution will be. Finding a solution usually requires extensive research about all of the factors and a thorough investigation into the impacts of the final decision.

But the issue here is much more than an animal rights issue. It is an economic issue. Instead of being applied to educational or safety initiatives, taxpayer dollars will be used to fund the slaughter. And furthermore, this type of “solution” is inefficient since the geese will just return, inducing a habitual slaughter of geese every year. It is also a human rights issue. While feeding the poor and hungry is of great concern, shouldn’t the food being fed to them be monitored as if it were sold in grocery stores? The geese in Scarsdale have fed on chemically fertilized grass for their entire lives, making their meat unsuitable for human consumption. And furthermore, the plans to have the geese meat inspected by the FDA prior to distribution to the food bank are inconclusive. It is an environmental issue. Wildlife, humans and nature all must coexist in order to have a symbiotic ecosystem. While it is true that geese are not endangered, setting these types of precedents can have scourging consequences for other species in the near future. It would seem illogical to extinguish a particular species in a certain area any time they grew too inconvenient for another species

And of course, to come full circle, it IS an animal rights issue. Protection for the geese and humans alike, who share the aesthetics of the Audrey Hochberg pond must be achieved. They must live in harmony in order to survive. Often, the reason conflicts occur is due to children approaching the nests of eggs and disturbing them. Many times, children step on these eggs for sport. Just like any mother of any species, they have protective instincts to chase away predators. If the geese were not provoked, there would be little to no reason for attacks. As humans, we cannot cause part of the problem and then take no responsibility in its negative repercussions.

As responsible humans capable of understanding what is wrong and right, we need to make it a priority to explore alternatives to slaughtering a group of animals rather than opting to wipe out groups of animals without extremely compelling reasons. Alternatives that have been used to combat this issue in other parts of Westchester County have included relocating the geese, installing a fence that is high enough to keep the geese out, the use of border collies to round up the geese, deterrence mechanisms, and the use of decoys to mimic the natural predators. While some of these options might not be feasible for use at this particular pond, we are sure that at least one of them is a more practical, cost effective, and humane alternative.

So, what can you do? If you are a constituent in the Village of Scarsdale your voice will have great influence. Speak out to your representatives and tell them that you oppose this inhumane solution. Attend a Scarsdale Village Board Meeting. The upcoming meetings are scheduled for Feb. 13th and Feb. 26th. You can find more information about these meetings here. Even if you are not a Scarsdale resident, like us, you can still speak out. Find out who your Westchester County Legislator is by going to this website. If you do plan to attend a meeting, bring a petition with you stating that you “Oppose the Scarsdale Geese Slaughter” and get as many signatures as possible. It is our duty to give voice to the voiceless and take action to prevent unnecessary extermination of undeserving groups of animals.

Prop 2 Fallout

Interesting post here about the false dichotomy bandied about in the wake of Prop 8 and Prop 2 in California.  As Ari Solomon explains, Prop 2′s passage does not indicate a preference among Californians for animals over people.  The two measures and the situations of the beings involved are incomparable and the respective civil rights struggles they represent are the worse for any attempts to equate them.

David Cassuto


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