Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis
“Is it possible to conceive of an ethic that could be extended outward, as it were, from man to non-man? From human society to nonhuman society, or wild nature? Here I am assuming the degree of altruism that would be required to extend unilaterally such an ethic in the certain knowledge that no ‘normal’ reciprocity can be expected.”
John Livingston’s question in The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation is at the heart of the new animal rights paradigm. Instead of thinking about animals based on their usefulness ratio to humans, we are being asked to deconstruct our long-held and very comfortable anthropocentric worldview. Ecocentrism, as outlined by Marc Bekoff, is the understanding that humans are not at the center of the universe, nor the planet Earth which we happen to inhabit, but are a fraction of the world’s bigger organism of interdependent communities. When we can accept that our human experience is both unique, in that it requires a particular framework that we can interpret, but also that it simultaneously endures in time with the experience of other nonhuman beings, we can begin to conceive a space where animal rights can occur purely because the animals themselves exist in relation to the rest of life and tangentially to our own perceived experience of them.
To rebalance the relationship between humans and animals, Bekoff suggests a change that must begin with our internal world and then reverberate out. His Twelve P’s of Rewilding ask humans to be “proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful, passionate, playful, present, principled, and proud.” By turning the microscope inwards on how our own behavioral patterns have been detrimental to and disassociated from our environment, we can then understand how “rights originate where existence originates” as the first, fundamental principle of Thomas Berry’s 10 Principles of Earth Jurisprudence. Bekoff refers to this guide as acknowledgement of the innate and perfect quality of all beings that exist, not just humans. Accepting the “self-referent” and self-directing existence of nonhuman animals provides a space for them to express their unique capabilities. A right to ethical consideration, which applies Martha Nussbaum’s Central Human Capabilities to animals, encapsulates the very basic awareness that all animals are deserving of a meaningful life:
“In the human case, I justify the list by arguing that these opportunities are inherent in the notion of a life worthy of human dignity. I then argue that dignity belongs to other animals as well: all are worthy of life commensurate with the many types of dignity inherent in their many forms of life. All animals, in short, should have a shot at flourishing in their own way.”
The capability to live, have bodily health and integrity, possess senses, imagination, and thought, experience emotions, express practical reason, have affiliation, thrive alongside other species, play, and exercise personal control over one’s environment, are all tenets of a fulfilled existence. Holding space for an evolving dialogue between these intersecting modalities, gives us the capability to change our perception of other species from utility to that which is deserving of dignity.
To find out more about ecocentrism, check out the Ecological Citizen Journal.