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.

12 Responses

  1. First, I’m reminded of a quote from the Baha’i Faith:

    “We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.” — Shoghi Effendi

    Secondly, in today’s society, people often think of “freedom,” as the freedom to pursue the amassing of wealth and material goods, and the trivial pursuits of pleasure. Ironically, such “freedom,” is actually slavery.

  2. Focusing on negative freedom is right but your formulation of it strikes me as incorrect for at least 2 reasons. First, wilderness areas are under the jurisdiction of some government or other. As someone once said, you may not care about the law but the law cares about you, and that’s true wherever you go. Thus, I don’t think your logic works even on its own terms. Second, and more fundamentally, your self-regarding way of viewing the ‘primary right’ doesn’t even begin to define the moral realm adequately. In fact, I don’t even think you get to the threshold of morality. Take almost any of the abuses discussed on this site. If we instrumentalize the non-human world by viewing it as a means to secure our own rights, there’s little reason to condemn something like dog-fighting. After all, by torturing dogs, we’re not impairing our own freedom. More: if the environmental impact of factory farming could be greatly reduced or eliminated, it too would presumably become morally permissible. I fail to see how your definition of the primary right isn’t simply an entrenchment of speciesism

    I may have excellent reasons for concerning myself with my own freedom, in much the same way that I have good reasons to be generally self-preoccupied. However, this selfish concern, taken by itself, is not, properly speaking, moral. I only become a moral agent when I concern myself with the freedom of others and recognize them, as well as myself, as bearers of rights or interests. To honor the axiom that ethical principles are required to be impartial, the recognition must disregard arbitrary dichotomies and extend not only to other humans but to nonhumans. With that, speciesism ends and justice triumphs.

  3. 2 more points. I don’t think your framework works too well even as an appeal to selfishness. If people don’t feel disposed to protect the environment to avert the ecological disasters that must sooner or later, engulf human societies, I can’t see them being galvanized by the exceedingly notional view of freedom you propose(notional because very few people will actually avail themselves of the right to renounce human societies). Heck, if anything, what we increasingly see is the near universal acquiescence in the obliteration of very concrete garden variety personal freedoms which actually impact the quality of everyday life. Hard to see many people getting excited about the loss of what will strike almost all as a mere idea of freedom belonging to the sphere of theory.

    Finally, even conceding your premise, I don’t need to preserve existing ecosystems as a refuge for my primary freedom. If I’m not a freedom purist (if I don’t care that I can never truly escape statal authority), all I need are spaces empty of humans that can provide me with basic sustenance. These requirements can probably easily be met in wild areas whose ecosystems have been severely compromised.. .

  4. Thanks for the comment HAL 9000. On your second point, I agree, but there are many conceptions of freedom and the one I am appealing to is antithetical to the one you note. Restoration of the nonhuman prohibits unlimited human consumption. On your first point, the quote implies humans should care about the environment out of the sort of self-interest inherent in the version of freedom you condemn, but does not give any guidance as to how one should act. Some people think anthropogenic climate change improves the “environment” for humans, while others do not.

  5. Thanks for your comments Joe. I would like to address them in order: 1) You are correct about traditional wilderness areas, and I use the term wilderness because readers are familiar with it, but A) the concept I am appealing to is actually nonpolity, which in ideal form is not under any jurisdiction (consider international waters for a less than ideal but closer example) and B), like all rights, the primary right will rarely if ever result in the ideal because it has to be balanced against other rights, like the collective rights that may subject a place that would otherwise represent the ideal of nonpolity to some amount of jurisdiction. 2) The primary right does not purport to define (or negate) an entire realm of morality, any more than a right to counsel does; the right to counsel does not really speak to the morality of dogfighting or factory farming, but it’s still a good thing. That said, if the paradigm of speciesism that we ought to reject is human domination of the nonhuman, a right that requires restoration of the nonhuman world does not seem to be subject to that same objection. Like HAL 9000 I think you are conflating conceptions of freedom – physical human solitude does not equate to the “free” domination of the nonhuman. 3) First generation human rights approaches to political action have successfully galvanized large numbers of people, particularly exit and secession rights, and many more people to date than abolitionism. Combine that fact with an increasing demand for wilderness access and the primary right approach may indeed prove popular. But the actual right, like all human rights, is not contingent on popular support but rather on an objective value – literal autonomy – that majorities cannot defeat. 4) In the example you give, by conceding the state’s authority over you and settling for compromised ecosystems, you are not pursuing your primary right, the ideal of which rejects those things.

  6. Hi Carter,

    Thanks for your reply.

    Point 2 is well-taken; but maybe a can rephrase my objection. Your view of the nonhuman seems anthropocentric. You seem to be saying that we should care about nature because it provides a theater in which we can realize human freedom. Doesn’t this amount to the drastic instrumentalization of other species?.Isn’t this undisguised speceisist selfishness?

    Point 4. The way I understand your theory is that we should have a right to opt out of the social contract. I can do this in a non-peopled space whether it has 1000 or 999 nonhuman species. The loss of 1 or more nonhuman species doesn’t interfere with my autonomy. It could be said that the loss of these species represents the influence of others on me, but that seems a very attenuated form of influence and it doesn’t materially cripple my ability to opt out of the social contract.

    Do non-humans also have a primary right not to be subjected to human influence? It’s been argued–to my mind, convincingly– that nonhumans should be seen as rights-holders. If they can have other rights, why not this one?

  7. Carter, I have to admit, I’m baffled that you would glean an appeal to the aquistion of material wealth/the pursuit of trivial pleasure, from that quote.

    To me, the quote speaks to the importance of a healthy environment and a healthy “human heart” (our inner and essential spiritual selves) playing off one another.

    If we are constantly pursuing material gain or trite pleasure, it’s unlikely our hearts will be in a good place. Not to mention, such an approach is surely going to put detrimental strain on the enviornment.

  8. Thanks for yours Joe. Point 2: To want to be free of other humans can be as much about rejecting human systems as it is about “using” the nonhuman world or wilderness to derive pleasure. So in that sense, the intent need not be exploitative. And to the extent the “use” involves the practice of wilderness ethics, the “use” is more an act of appreciation than exploitation. Does this mean the primary right encourages predation just so that people exercising the primary right can survive? Again, the primary right does not speak to this; it is not a system of morality, but an objective human right (falling within that very specific framework) that creates an interest/duty regarding leaving others alone. Its view of the nonhuman, speciesist or not, aside, one cannot deny this: the consequence of the primary right is a quantum leap in autonomy for nonhumans relative to any approach to the environment at work in law today.

    Point 4: Great point, but I think there is a way around that. Start with the ideal – if the loss of that one species is caused by other humans, then no, logically you are not free of others and their influence – in the ideal sense of it. But yes, that is a very attenuated or immaterial influence and where do we draw the line? Doesn’t the taking of one nonhuman creature from the world then violate my primary right? This is where we have to remember that our premise is the framework of objective human rights. Humans rights, like others’ right to life, to travel, to have children (this is the key one) get balanced against the primary right, albeit by keeping the ideal of the nonhuman in mind to do the balancing. Given that balance, I suggest we draw the line using something like the almost universally recognized right to exit nations. If we view humans as one of many species that must share our planet, then the nonhuman “country” to which we must be permitted exit to would look something like healthy populations of nonhumans living in their nonhuman environments.

    Note one thing – to the extent the greatest threat to the nonhuman world today is premised on a version of liberalism, the primary rights at least meets it on its own ground, and avoids the “talking past one another” result abolitionist-liberal debates provide.

    Do nonhumans have the primary right? They do to the extent they enjoy any other fundamental rights, though because most nonhumans have never acceded to the social contract at all, they may not fit well in the social contract scheme the right is premised upon. Regardless, in terms of wanting to be let alone by humans, they have been trying to exercise something like the primary right from time immemorial.

  9. It’s a fascinating idea. Not being a fast thinker, I’ll need some time to read your full paper and absorb it.

    On the last point (can nonhumans fall under the protection of the social contract), Mark Rowlands has some interesting things to say. He argues that, contrary to received opinion, Rawlsian contractarianism, purged of its Hobbsian vestiges, provides a framework to support the notion of nonhuman rights. From what I remember, his idea is that we shouldn’t take the metaphor of the contract too literally. The original position is a means to illuminate the fundamental equality principle ( individuals don’t deserve harms or benefits resulting from properties for which they’re not responsible) Rationalty, like race etc is just such a property. Thus rationality is yet another morally arbitrary property that must be suspended to enter the original position. A related point is that there need not be 2 contractors. This would indeed be required if the contract were really a contract, but it’s only a heuristic device to help us understand who has what moral entitlements under the equality principle.

  10. […] 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 […]

  11. […] applies against public and private actors alike, the primary right dissolves on its own terms, as Joe observers (Feb. 21).  We secure the ability to exit political association only under two conditions.  First, since […]

  12. Earlier this month, David Cantor of Responsible Policies for Animals, Inc. wrote a book review for, in which he explains in depth what his vision of real animal rights entails.

    Although David’s review has, on the surface, nothing to do with Carter’s contention that humans have a primary right to leave any country and live free and undisturbed in wilderness areas/nonhuman habitations, it occurs to me those who posted here would enjoy reading and perhaps commenting on it:

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