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.