How to Talk About–and Activate–the “Rights” of Non-human Entities

My friend Ben Mangrum (currently a fellow at the University of Michigan’s Society of Fellows) has been corresponding with me about social movements and about the problems of deploying the vocabulary of human rights to address environmental issues, particularly the “right” of non-human entities (from animals to forests to ecologies) to be respected and provided the necessities for existence.  I offered some thoughts about his comments in Social Movements, Institutions, and Rights about 12 days ago.

Now I am just going to provide his most recent thoughts here:

I can see how the distinctions between institutions and social movements are important, and I’m not one for tearing them down because of some poststructuralist allergy toward distinctions. I can see, as you say, that the raison d’être of social movements are changing public attitudes and thus—in the best of worlds—they influence political and legal outcomes even if they strive to remain “outside” the processes of formalization. And I agree wholly with the paragraph beginning “Even more, I am arguing…” in your response. I think that’s what I was driving at in my question.

To respond to the links with my essay, the worry about becoming an advocate of “the party” is as much part of the “rights” conversation as it is part of the “intellectuals / social movements” conversation. I think that’s another way of putting your point. Representation (in its political sense) formalizes the needs of individuals through the “institution” of the party or collective. Similarly, acknowledging or even conceiving of the needs of the non-human—or our obligation to the non-human—requires an act of representation that formalizes “our” status as “human.” We institutionalize ourselves as a species when we talk about the “rights” of the non-human.

But I haven’t been able to satisfy myself about this view of either humanism or representation. Part of what I was trying to argue is that our identification as a species requires a reduction of our ontological condition—there are no discrete entities. We’re made up of more “non-human” bacteria than “human” cells. So, while humanism provides the parameters for thought, including “rights,” it also constitutes a reduction of thought. As Nietzsche was wont to say, we misunderstand ourselves. So, I agree fully with the pragmatist point that the non-human enters “rights” discourse via a human advocate. I’m also working from a place of uncertainty, though, about whether the humanist-representation framework is a conceptual fiction that, given the exigencies of our ecological situation, we need to embrace or, based on the same exigencies, if some anti-humanist or post-humanist framework could more closely approximate our ontological condition.

For the same reasons you voice, I’m skeptical of anti- or post-humanist alternatives. I can’t get my mind around those alternatives, and I consequently incline toward the theoretical artifice of the “human.” Still, it feels like I’m working with broken equipment—or, trying to fix a leaky dam with duck tape.

I worry that the representational politics of using “rights” as the solution for environmental crises is self-defeating. Do such humanist terms as easily license environmental exploitation as they could advocate on behalf of non-human entities? We’d need some sort of reasonable framework—a center that can hold—to keep “rights” from being mobile across agendas (e.g., the “right to develop economically” vs. the “right of vulnerable ecosystems to preservation”). As I try to argue, the attempt to look to ecology to find that “center” displaces the humanist terms themselves. The human contrivance needs non-human  checks and balances lest—and again, I’m channeling Nietzsche—there’s a whiff of nihilism about the humanist terms of the debate. I’m worried that the extension of the humanist idea of “rights” relies on something like the economist’s fiction of the “rational self-interested individual.” There’s little comfort in these fictions. But there may also be some utility in the former, even if the idea of “non-human checks and balances” (assuming such a thing were even possible) would throw the whole debate into disarray.

I can’t see any clear signs for resolving the uncertainty. I see the pitfalls of aspiring toward pristine solutions, but I know you’re not one for discouraging a search for better solutions.

One other thing. I’ve also been thinking about is the idea that social movements have a performative dimension—their very presence constitutes a certain type of civil society. In addition to the bureaucratic necessities or “conditions of possibility” for social movements, I also think they’ve become a kind of “institution” within our forms of thought. We can point to and name them—categorize them—in a way that constitutes a public form or social structure. In other words, I’d think that at an intellectual and social level, movements are an institution—one that is, hopefully, especially prominent in democratic societies.

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