Acton Institute Powerblog

Do Plants and Animals Have Civil Rights?

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Earlier this month I attended the First Kuyper Seminar, “Economics, Christianity & The Crisis: Towards a New Architectonic Critique,” in Amsterdam.

One of the papers presented was from Jan Jorrit Hasselaar, who discussed the inclusion of non-human entities into democratic deliberation in his talk, “Sustainable Development as a Social Question.” I got the impression (this is my analogy, not Hasselaar’s) that there was some need for a kind of tribune (for plants instead of plebeians), who would speak up for the interests of those who could not speak for themselves.

The framing of the issue of the dignity of animals, plants, and the natural environment more broadly connected the integration of these interests into our public discourse as analogous to the civil rights revolutions concerning race and sex in the West over the previous century. The following video makes an argument in similar terms:

My basic concern, and something worth remembering on a day celebrating the civil rights legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., is that while the intentions of such narrative framing is laudable (that is, we ought to rightfully respect the dignity and worth of the created world), linking such concerns to the moral power of civil and human rights issues is misguided. Can we really talk coherently about plants and animals having rights?

My fear of equating (or conflating) the justice concerns of human rights with the justice due to non-humans and inanimate reality is that rather than raising the treatment of non-human reality to the higher level of human beings, instead it is more likely that human beings will be devalued. In such a scenario, animals and plants aren’t likely to fare better; rather, human beings are likely to fare worse.

The concept and the framework of stewardship, holistically understood and comprehensively construed, seems far better suited to me to protect the dignity of the human person as well as to properly respect the worth of the created order. As Kendra Langdon Juskus writes, “Christians have a unique testimony in exhibiting compassion for animals. It doesn’t result from the demands of animals’ rights or from an arbitrarily constructed morality. It results from faithfulness to the first and most fundamental privilege we are called to by our Creator.”

The key is to properly value these various realities. But injustice can be done both by overvaluing as well as undervaluing; the Christian tradition maintains that there is a kind of hierarchy of goods with respect to the created order. Human beings are more significant relative to plants and animals (and animals are more significant, I think, than plants; and, contra the video above, some animals more than others).

The challenge is to properly value, protect, and steward the rest of creation, while respecting the reality behind Jesus’ assertion: “You are worth more than many sparrows.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Jordan,

    I appreciate your thoughts, as always. I agree that stewardship can be a helpful lens through which to approach these issues. Talk of “rights” for plants and animals works fine, but only if you carefully define what those rights are. For example, I think most would agree that most animals, and possibly plants, have a “right” not to be killed without reason. This corresponds to a duty by humans to be reflective in our killing of plants and animals.

    That said, as an overall frame for human-animal relationships, I like stewardship, but this too needs to be defined. Some have argued that stewardship is nothing more than avoiding waste in our use of resources (i.e. always strive for economic efficiency). This obviously sells short our call to care for the rest of creation. I like the quote by Kendra Langdon Juskus, it seems to get the balance right.

    On another note, I think you are probably right about the hierarchy thing, but I have my worries. The reformed tradition has always been characterized by focusing our emphasis on the distinction between God and creature. As fellow creatures, it is probably more important that we focus on God’s relationship with animals and plants, rather than our own. Think “Theocentric” ethics. That said, on a pragmatic basis, I will not argue with your conclusions. It is easy to take these things to extremes that are problematic.

    • Thanks, Steve. I agree that stewardship can be a term that covers a variety of perspectives, and so it does need some fleshing out. But I do think that the idea of stewardship includes something like a relationship of responsibility or authority over or in relation to something else, and therefore there is some kind of unequal relationship assumed by using such a term. This can be fleshed out to accord with a biblical (not merely Reformed, I would say) distinction between Creator and creation. But I think it is better because that element of responsibility is non-reducible under a stewardship framework (i.e. someone has to “steward” something else). As to the question of rights, I’m not absolutely against ascribing rights to animals per se; I just wonder what that amounts to. In your example, I can see how such rights would circumscribe the actions of others. In other cases, however, “rights” are often linked to “responsibilities,” and on that construal it seems strange to me to refer to animals in such a way. Do animals have responsibilities? Are they moral agents?

      • Jordan,

        Stewardship does imply a hierarchy, and one that I am comfortable with. So we need not eliminate all hierarchies. What I am interested in avoiding is a hierarchy in which animals exist for human good only. This kind of argument pops up in writing about the environment quite a bit, and I don’t think it is good theology. Some part of Christian stewardship has to involve power that is used for the sake of animals.

        You are right that any account of rights for animals has to be qualitatively different than most human rights. Animals are not moral agents, in the sense that they are not culpable of wrongdoing. That means that rights can only exist in reference to humans, since we would not talk about one animal’s duty to another animal, but we can talk about human duties to animals.

        All that said, I am not that committed to the language of rights. If we can make more progress without rights-language, I will happily jettison it. I could be wrong about the hierarchy stuff too. Feel free to persuade me otherwise.

        • I think it is pretty defensible, if not crystal clear, that the biblical account of animals does not ascribe to them instrumental value only, in which they exist only for human good. The case regarding plants is somewhat murkier, I think. And I don’t mean to argue for a detailed hierarchy, but as the original post makes clear, I think it is essential that we don’t mix up the qualitative difference between human beings and animals (and the rest of creation, for that matter), a danger that is particularly at issue in the use of “rights talk.” I think the concept of stewardship protects that distinction, as well as as the creator-creature distinction, and also provides a context in which we can sensibly talk about human responsibilities towards the rest of the created order (and perhaps in some limited sense then corresponding “rights” that could be codified into law in some form or another).

  • Thanks, Jordan. I agree that this isn’t about rights, but about stewardship. Or even more about virtue…we ask ourselves what kind of people we want to be, instead of who has rights or what the consequences of our actions are. Those are important facets, but I think virtue ethics often helps in relating to animal, and even in our behavior with respect to plants, trivial as it sounds. It’s not a “rights” or “stewardship” mentality that keep me from carving my initials on a beech tree.