Uniquely human: the basis of human rights

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No one can study the entire map of existence. Anyone who wishes to get the biggest picture possible has to be acutely aware of lacking a distinct picture of human relations. While the fabric of intra-human relations need not be prominent in every picturing of the whole cosmos, one thing that should never be forgotten is that human beings are holding the camera. To assume otherwise is to take the position of a godlike view of the universe from above the give and take of earthly existence. Unless one is willing to introduce a divine mind, every view is an animal’s view; and the human mind’s eye, directly or through one of its instruments, provides the most far reaching view. Every ethic is a human ethic; the issue is how well the humans see the world.

The term “speciesism” was coined in 1970 as a parallel and an extension of racism, feminism, ageism, and other –isms that refer to unfair judgments by some human beings who treat others as less than human.689 But “speciesism” is not a parallel term. If one were to try to put into practice a belief that humans are like every other species and should not try to act otherwise, the absurdity of the claim would be apparent. Any distinctly human activity would have to be eliminated, except perhaps activity to end the human species.690 If one looks at the humans as a species, there is no discontinuity between a human species and other species. But the continuity includes fantastic differences of human history including the study of species.

If there were a successful attempt to rid the world of “speciesism” no one would be left to say when the project had succeeded. If humans do not control the meaning of worth and value, someone or something else must. A denouncing of speciesism has to be based on a religious belief in some kind of being or life force that is of greater value than humans but it is unclear who beyond the humans is supposed to do the evaluating.


In environmental writing, the standard opposite of equality is “hierarchy,” a term that has few defenders these days. Even politicians, corporate executives, and military generals now profess skepticism about the values of hierarchy. In environmental writing the fight against “anthropocentricism” is based on a faith in equality as the alternative to hierarchy. Paul Taylor writes: “The bio-centric outlook precludes a hierarchic view of nature. To accept that outlook and view the living world on its own terms is to commit oneself to the principle of species impartiality….This impartiality applies to the human species just as it does to nonhuman species.”691

If in contrast to Taylor’s view, one acknowledges that different kinds of things on earth are not equal in all respects, there is a need to describe differences as well as sameness. The recognition off difference and sameness leads to a judgment of how to order things. The word hierarchy for this purpose is not an ideal word. It carries a lot of historical baggage, especially since the nineteenth century. But if only to stretch the imagination, the history of “hierarchy” is worth noting. It has a fifteen-century story line so it has likely been a useful description of some human experience.

“Hierarchy” means a sacred order. It would be understandable if the secular world rejected the idea of an order that is sacred; but almost never is sacredness the reason given for an attack on hierarchy. Instead, the objection is to the idea of an order in which each thing has its distinctive place in a scale of values.

The first fact to note about “hierarchy” is that it was coined to describe the cosmos rather than an organization. The second thing to note is that the original image of hierarchy was circular; a hierarchy was “circles inside circles.” The term was inspired by Plotinus’ neo-platonic philosophy although Plotinus did not use the term.692 In the Neo-platonism that dominated Western thinking for more than a millennium, beings emanate from the One. “In order that being be, the One must be not being but being’s begetter.”693 At each level there is an overflow of being so that the uni-verse is united around its center. “Each of our souls has a center. When we are concentrated upon this center, we are fully ourselves and ‘in the Supreme’. But all other souls have centers, and one can imagine a center of centers. Through the center of our soul we contact this center of centers.”694

Neo-platonism is strongly associated with the metaphor of a “chain of being” which is misleading unless one imagines a circular chain.695 The food chain, for example, is not a ladder; it is a circular movement. It was only in the nineteenth century that the chain of being lost most of its meaning and was reduced to a ladder.696 Plotinus’ favorite metaphor is a chorus surrounding the One. “Each brings to the chorus something of his own; it is not enough that all lift up their voices together; each must sing choicely his own part to the music set for him.”

Sharing is the principle of a world that is organized hierarchically. One of the most basic principles of medieval philosophy was that “the good is that which is diffusive of itself.” Each thing overflows its being. The good can only be possessed by being given away. This principle still finds echoes in modern ethics. We ultimately judge a person’s moral goodness not by their rule-keeping but by whether their actions are life-enhancing, that is, whether the good in their lives is shared with others.697 George Eliot was undoubtedly aware of this medieval principle when she wrote of her heroine, Dorothea Brooke: “The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.”698 A hierarchy of values is a circular movement in which the good is a gift that returns to the giver.

Political Environments

The mystical and cosmic principle of hierarchy took on a new meaning in the twelfth century when it passed from Greek to Latin and was used by the Western Church to describe ecclesiastical organization. The Latin Church translated sacred order into sacred orders, for distinguishing levels of the clergy.699 Despite the fact that the image of a pyramid of power is difficult to reconcile with the Christian New Testament, the pattern of power that moves from top to bottom became the meaning of a hierarchic arrangement.

This meaning of hierarchy is one of the Church’s not so helpful contributions to the modern world. The secular world had little difficulty in sacralizing the arrangement of superiors having the right to give orders and inferiors having the duty to obey. In the nineteenth century, hierarchy became almost interchangeable with bureaucracy. Since then, people have found it difficult to imagine organization as having any other form than a pyramid.

What has been happening over the last half century is an increasing skepticism about the efficiency of a bureaucratic pyramid when creative change is needed. An organization in the form of a pyramid can work reasonably well for making a standard product and for executing standard policies. Some people like to be at the top of the pyramid and give orders but after a while it can get lonely up there where no one will tell them what is really going on. Lieutenants do not like to bring bad news to the superior on whom he or she depends for a job.

In writing on organization, there is great enthusiasm for the topic of “leadership.” The qualities of a leader are endlessly discussed. Rules for leadership are formulated in catchy phrases and simple rules. In this sea of clichés, one finds people called leaders groping their way to some other image, language, and way of acting. The leaders talk of the need to listen, to get everyone involved, and to encourage creativity. The leader cannot do that while sitting atop a pyramid.

But what is the alternative? Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, writes: “Hierarchy is dead. The organization of the future will be virtually layerless and increasingly boundaryless.”700 Welch wisely refers to the future because his own tenure at GE was hardly a model of a layerless and boundaryless organization. It is somewhat comical to hear a president or a CEO, whose salary is a hundred or a thousand times the average salary in the company, proclaiming equality. One thing sure about the United States Marines, Harvard University, or the New York Times is that they are not about to go layerless and boundaryless. Bureaucracy might not be working well but equality of everyone is not possible for any organization larger than a few people.

Can the term hierarchy be salvaged from its imprisonment in the image of a bureaucratic pyramid? That is very unlikely even though earlier meanings of a term do not entirely die out. But it is unwise to be contemptuous of hierarchy if one has nothing to offer in its place except equality. No fifth-century language is adequate for today’s organization or to picture the heavens. But a rebellion against some of the language and images of the nineteenth century might lead one to consider earlier periods of history and their non-scientific understanding of cycles of life and the humans’ dependence on their environment.

Humans, including environmentalists, get their image of the universe, their ultimate environment, from their experience of that tiny part of the world in which they interact with people and things around them. From our earliest moments we know the difference between “to be” and “not to be.” In infancy, we are aware of a universe that is immeasurably bigger than we are. It has an order which we do not begin to understand and which is first taken to be sacred and unchanging. The infant recognizes a few human beings who hold the power of life; they supply nourishment and protection against heat, cold, and falling. Mother is the primary life force while a father, if he is present, is likely to be seen as in charge of the organization. As we get older, our ideas become more sophisticated but we never completely jettison our earliest images. It is perhaps fortunate that we do not do so because an infant’s awe on beholding the universe is an attitude worth retaining.

A child’s earliest sense of organization is the family in whatever form it is present. Big people give orders, little people obey. That outward pattern of authority is balanced by the day-to-day functioning of the family in which everyone knows what is to be done and the family works together. Besides giving orders, the big people take care of the little people who cannot do everything that older people can. For young children, family life at its best is one of affection, care and a modeling of how to act. Admittedly, family life at its worst instills attitudes of fear, self-protection at any cost, and a distrust of the motives of other people. Most people probably get some of the best and some of the worst of early childhood.

When human organization goes beyond the family, as it inevitably does, there is a powerful drive to set up a father to keep wayward children in line. When Plato described his ideal society he did so based on the principle that society is simply the “individual writ large.”701 Not surprisingly, his society included a guardian class who ruled over everyone else. The rulers are compared to watchdogs that have to control those too weak or too ignorant to rule their own lives. The human race has made some but not a lot of political progress in the centuries since Plato. His ideal society is still the model for authoritarian governments around the world. Plato dismissed the idea of democracy. The rule of the demos, the masses, would lead to chaos. There are endless examples of the elimination of dictators that produce only violence until another individual proclaims that he is the true voice of the people.

Here is where the earlier meaning of hierarchy would be a help. Instead of a pyramid with a ruler who claims to be benevolent, political life needs to be arranged as “circles within circles,” that is, small communities within which persons are valued and between which power is experienced as shared. Larger organization has to be a gathering of small communities that move toward a center. Any number of communities can be related through a center, in contrast to a pyramid whose size has a built-in limit for effective action. In any large pyramid the ruler at the top cannot see what is going on at the bottom; those at the bottom feel like they are being treated as things rather than people.

In recent times the attempt to change the picture has been called “decentralization,” a name that guarantees failure. The man (usually) at the top begins passing down power through his underlings; by the time any power gets to the bottom it is of little value for improving lives. At the first announcement that power is going to be shared with the people, the people at the bottom are apt to take initiative. They put into practice their knowledge that human power is shared power. Their acting without proper permission leads to a conflict between the bestowers of power from on top and the people on the bottom who have discovered that they can get a lot done without asking permission. When the conflict becomes severe, the ruler on top announces that the people are not ready for power so that for everyone’s sake power has to be restored to the top.

“Decentralization” does not work because what is lacking in a pyramid is a center. You can de-top a pyramid but you cannot de-center it. The worst disease one can have is one in which the name for the cure has been given to the disease. The real alternative to a pyramid is small communities interacting with each other around a center. The arrangement is not as utopian as it may sound.

Where political democracies are sustained they depend not on the rule of an undifferentiated mass but on innumerable groups of people who create a sense of dignity and importance in individual lives and who function to give restrained power to the center. The governing of any group should be from the center not the top. Centeredness should be embodied in the language which is used, the personality of the governor, and the location and architecture of the government. Otherwise, there is a slipping toward the image of somebody being at the top who thinks that the world can be controlled by giving orders.

The United States of America was not founded as a democracy; there was a fear of putting government in the hands of ordinary people. However, the founding principle was that a central government would have its power delegated to it by smaller units. The weakness of the United States is that its states are not small communities. From the beginning, the states have asserted their own independence, delegating some power to a “federal” government. For its proper functioning, the United States needs not a federal government but a national government situated in the middle of the country. Washington, D.C. may have seemed close enough at the beginning of the country but a central government would be better located centrally, for example, in Kansas.702 Despite many drawbacks the United States has managed to survive so far with enough of the elements that would make up a national grouping of small communities. However, without serious reform of the basic structure its future is tenuous.

Philosophical Environment

Political commentary may seem irrelevant to a chapter on humans and their environment. However, a political community is not only part of the environment of human individuals and groups, it inevitably supplies much of the imagery when humans look to their physical environment and to the heavens. Some people simply project the idea of a powerful figure up above who is in charge. Even when it is clear that there is no up above in the universe, the idea does not go away. Political and scientific views are tied to philosophical assumptions about where humans stand in relation to the cosmos.

Religion when it functions as primitive science can reinforce the bad imagery of a god sending down a message to one group of people who have to conquer competitors. However, each of the world’s long-standing religious traditions attempts to evoke awe at the grandeur of the universe and to remind the humans that they are the receivers not the creators of existence, life, and intelligence. The Bible says that the humans are a little less than the angels. That is great praise of the human but it is praise of human beings as a distant reflection of the divine, and as receivers of goods which are to be shared with others. The constantly repeated assertion in environmental writing that Christianity (or Judeo-Christian tradition) encourages the humans to use their powers for nothing but their own selfish satisfaction misses the Bible’s main story line.

It is a central part of human life to ask questions. Some people may get to the point of only asking “how can I use this?” or “what’s in it for me?” Nevertheless, human beings are capable of more diversity and depth to their questions. Their “self-interest” is not reducible to using things for a short term benefit to the self of their immediate perception. The interests of the self are many if one does not neglect the poetic, contemplative, and caring aspects of human personhood. Plato’s criticism of Protagoras was not for his saying “man is the measure of all things” but instead “man the user is the measure of all things.”703 Man, or more exactly the human being, is indeed the measure and measurer of everything unless there is some greater mind in the universe. It is true that a dog or a cat can take a measure of its “owner.” A nonhuman animal may have an accurate measure of its immediate environment but as far as we can tell it does not ask philosophical or religious questions.

The ultimate philosophical question is: Why is there something rather than nothing? Human are no closer to answering that question than they were when a philosopher (or a child) first asked it. The question of why can be dismissed as useless, that is, it cannot be put to use for achieving some immediate good. One could also say that a human being is useless; a human being can be put to use only if first treated like a subhuman.

Seventeenth-century authors posited a “Supreme Being” in answer to the question of why anything exists. The answer shows a failure to understand the question. Saying that there has to be a first being to explain why there are other beings is not an answer to why there is ”to be.” As Annie Dillard notes, “The question from agnosticism is, Who turned on the lights? The question from faith is, Whatever for?”704

In modern times deism/theism became the name for reasoning to a conclusion that there is a first being. In that linguistic framework a religious person would have to be called an a-theist, one who denies that a first being explains the existence of other beings. In contrast to both theism and atheism, the religious sense is an admission that humans cannot grasp why there is a universe and how the universe is ordered. One can only remain open to being surprised at the wonders of it all. A religious person today might agree with Nietzsche’s judgment: “It seems to me that the religious instinct is indeed in vigorous growth – but that it rejects the theistic answer with profound distrust.”705

A religious sense is helpful for reminding humans that they did not create the universe. Humans can have no discernible effect on their ultimate environment, but they can do serious damage to their earthly environment. A few people have speculated that possibly the earth is alive and that the humans are just (cancer?) cells; whatever short-term damage humans do will be healed by mother earth.706 I doubt that any humans can fully accept the view that they are cells of an organism. Although humans are aware of being dependent on their environment, each person has a sense of wholeness, neither a part of the earth nor apart from the earth.

Uniquenesses of Beings

Each thing can be called unique insofar as it is itself and not another. We do not usually use the term unique this way because it does not add anything to a description. When people do use “unique” they are usually struggling with a paradox which they sense. They know that “unique” signifies difference but a difference that not only allows but invites comparison. For example, in Sherwin Nuland’s much praised book, How We Die, the author’s first two sentences are: “Every life is different from any that has gone before it, and so is every death. The uniqueness of each of us extends even to the way we die.”707

The paradox in Nuland’s statement is that if every death is different from all others, how is it possible to write a book about “how we die”? Would it not require a description of millions upon millions of deaths? Nuland is assuming that we all die differently but all possible ways of dying are brought together in comparing human deaths. Each uniqueness can be compared to every other uniqueness in the mixture of factors that go in to human dying.

“At the simplest organic level, any particular animal or plant has uniqueness and individuality because it lives its life and no other – that is to say, because it dies.”708 The individuality of a living thing depends upon the combination of elements in its environment. The constant process of change leads to development but eventually to a dissolution of its unique combination of elements. Every organism begins to die at the moment of its birth. Some organisms have mighty long lives that are measured in centuries; others go through the cycle of birth, growth, decline and death in a matter of moments. Nuland says there is a “natural” length for a human organism. He thinks that if we could eliminate accidents and diseases which attack the organism humans would live for about 110 years. A recent historical and statistical study suggests 130 years for a “natural” human life.709 Researchers may disagree about the potential length of human life but dying seems to be inevitable for organic life.

In trying to understand the uniqueness of the human being, it is helpful to begin with the uniqueness of each living thing. Lewis Thomas writes that “we tend to think of our selves as the only unique creature in nature, but it is not so. Uniqueness is so commonplace a property of living things that there is nothing at all unique about it.”710 Thomas plays here with the two contrasting meanings of uniqueness: the fact that each living thing differs from all others and the fact that all of them are the same in being individuals. Living beings are unique because they are in a space which nothing else occupies but, in a more important sense, they are unique because they are open to an environment from which they draw sustenance. Their uniqueness is a combination of elements that are common to the species; it is the combining that creates individual uniqueness.

As we move from plants through animals to human-animals there is an increasing complexity in the combination of elements that constitute uniqueness.

1) At the level of plants there may not yet be much individuality in the growth of shrubs and weeds. Nevertheless, trees can have a definite character in combining the possibilities of treeness. Ronald Reagan was criticized for supposedly saying that when you have seen one redwood tree you have seen them all. Anyone who has ever spent contemplative time in a redwood forest knows how false that claim is. Anyone who tries to keep house plants alive in a less than ideal environment knows that each plant needs its own individual care. Some people talk to their plants which is probably more therapeutic for the person than the plant but the total environment of a living plant is at issue for its health.

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