The Edges of Life

Jeremy Waldron

  • Life’s Dominion: An Argument about Abortion and Euthanasia by Ronald Dworkin
    HarperCollins, 273 pp, £17.50, May 1993, ISBN 0 394 58941 6

Do trees have rights? Radical conservationists who oppose the logging of redwoods in the American North-West, or the destruction of the tropical rain forests, sometimes claim that they do. The forests, they say, have been here much longer than we have, and have as much right to exist as the rapacious human species that is destroying them. Arguing that trees have rights is their way of insisting that there is something to be said on the trees’ behalf in environmental disputes, quite apart from what we say on behalf of the humans involved (who may or may not have an interest in letting the trees live).

Philosophers are more cautious about rights-talk. Rights, they say, are not to be invoked lightly, and are certainly not to be attributed on every occasion when some entity is deemed worthy of protection. If one wants to speak out on behalf of trees, and if a given tree has no instrumental value – that is, no value to anyone (its utility as shade or scenery, for example, or its contribution to the air we breathe) – one should begin by saying, not that the tree has rights, but that it embodies some intrinsic value.

The concept of intrinsic value is less familiar than that of rights, and is a difficult one to isolate. As far as we know, human beings alone make judgments of intrinsic value, and it is easy to confuse the proposition that we judge something to be of value with the instrumental proposition that something is judged to be of value to us. Nevertheless, there could not be instrumental value unless there were intrinsic value: the chain of instrumentality must end somewhere. In Utilitarian ethics, it comes to an end in human well-being and happiness. If we assert that trees have intrinsic value, however, we are saying there are ultimate ends in the world besides humans and their experiences: that it is objectively a bad thing if a tree is killed, not because any person loses anything thereby, but because the universe is a poorer place on that account. Something that was alive and growing is so no longer. Or if we don’t think that about the individual tree, we may think it about a species of tree. Even apart from what we lose (in terms of a natural pharmacopoeia, for example), we may think our world impoverished – made a less rich, a less colourful, a less value-laden place – every time a species becomes extinct.

Intrinsic value takes us this far, but rights convey much more. If some entity has a right to exist, then there is a strong, if not absolute prohibition on destroying it, quite different from the qualms that even radical conservationists must have about defending trees. For like the rest of us, they live in wooden houses, read and write books made of paper, and cut down trees in their gardens purely for aesthetic convenience. They are even willing to bargain with the timber industry, about logging so many trees and no more. These attitudes would be incomprehensible on the assumption that they really believed trees have rights. In any case, that belief is implausible on its own merits. In our culture, rights are reserved for entities which not only have intrinsic value, but which in some sense value themselves: entities that are sentient, that have a point of view, and are in principle capable of asserting the claims that their rights embody. None of this is true of trees. Treating trees as persons may have certain rhetorical advantages for the conservation movement, but on the whole it seems wiser to stick with the language of intrinsic value than to flirt with sylvan rights.

The most striking thesis of Ronald Dworkin’s book is that what I have just said about trees can be said also about foetuses. Though the pro-life movement stridently affirms that foetuses have human rights, Dworkin argues that their position on abortion is more plausibly explained along the lines of my interpretation of the radical conservationist position. What they hold is a belief, not about rights, but about intrinsic value.

I wonder if this is plausible in terms of political sociology. Those who picket abortion clinics seem pretty clear in their own minds that what they are protesting is the deliberate killing of human children who have a right to live. One pro-life activist, Michael Griffin, was recently found guilty of murder because he shot a Florida doctor dead outside an abortion clinic. Though he now claims he was brainwashed, he is reported to have written a letter from jail in which he encouraged other activists to do the same, and said that if his deed prevented even one baby from being torn to pieces by a doctor in its mother’s womb, the shooting would have been worthwhile. That may be crazy; but it certainly sounds like a belief in foetuses’ rights.

Dworkin, I guess, would say (thankfully) that there are very few Michael Griffins. So far as other activists are concerned, he writes: ‘Sometimes people who disagree passionately with one another have no clear grasp of what they are disagreeing about, even when the dispute is violent and profound.’ Pro-life picketers simply cannot believe (what they say they believe) that the foetus is ‘a helpless unborn child with rights and interests of its own from the moment of conception’. Like the defenders of trees who live in wooden houses, their actions and attitudes are inconsistent with this as a view about rights. Many pro-lifers claim, for example, that abortion is permissible in cases of rape or incest. But that cannot possibly be reconciled with the view that foetuses have rights: do children forfeit their rights because of the way they were conceived? In the 1992 Presidential campaign, George Bush and his Vice-President Dan Quayle, both fierce adherents of the pro-life position, each said that he would stand by his own daughter or grand-daughter if she decided to have an abortion. ‘They would hardly do that,’ Dworkin maintains, ‘if they really thought that abortion meant the murder of their grandchildren or great-grandchildren.’

In any case, he argues, the view that a foetus has rights from the moment of conception is too obviously implausible to be taken seriously. To attribute rights to a being is to say something about the importance of protecting its interests. But it makes no sense ‘to suppose that something has interests of its own, unless it has, or has had, some form of consciousness: some mental as well as physical life.’ The embryological evidence shows that a foetus cannot begin to feel pain before the third trimester, let alone experience the other mental states – desiring, hoping, expecting, fearing etc – that interests and rights presuppose. A charitable reading of the pro-life movement, then, requires us to grant them a view somewhat more persuasive than ‘the scarcely comprehensible idea that an organism that has never had a mental life can still have interests’.

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