Conservationists tend to be shy of using any arguments but the merely “economic,” partly in the odd belief that these are more “rational” than other and overtly “sentimental” ones, and partly because “economic” reasoning seems likely to appeal to a larger audience.Economic arguments are not bad ones: it is indeed incompatible with any sort of economic prudence to destroy the fertility of the land, create monocultures that are susceptible to epidemics, pollute rivers, and drive species to extinction which might have proved to be useful. Given our habit of thinking only of the short-term and local gains that we might win by intensive farming or forestry, it is often quite reasonable of conservationists to remind us that there are long-term costs.

Passing beyond these merely “economic” arguments, conservationists turn to “scientific” or even “aesthetic” considerations. Even if we must admit that some patch of land will never be “economically” profitable (never produce a separable and salable commodity), still we must preserve it as being “of scientific interest:” or “to satisfy recreational needs.” Biologists enjoy studying it, and anybody may enjoy looking at it or walking through it. These are all good reasons for insisting that the care of the countryside cannot be left entirely to those who make direct, economic use of the land. Some immediately profitable uses may prove very unprofitable   to us all, in the end (as overgrazing the commons does in the famous parable elaborated by G. Hardin in Science in 1968). Any of us may have an interest (“scientific” or “aesthetic”) in making sure that there is a countryside to study and to walk in, not just a. rural factory, whether that factory is run by capitalistic owners or by bureaucratic soviets. Besides, the idea that “economic” or “scientific” motivation is “rational,” while “aesthetic” motives are not, really does not bear examination. Why is it all right to say that a piece of land should be preserved so that future generations may have food they like or interesting objects to study, but sentimental to say that it should be preserved so that people may cool their spirits by enjoyment of a rich and varied landscape?

But although it seems quite reasonable to me to insist that we have other goals in life than being fed or making sure that farmers and foresters can make a profit, it is also as well to insist that there are further, moral considerations to take into account. We need not, and should not, think only of our own good: there are other creatures in the land than us. This discovery is always a difficult one to make: many of our imperialistic predecessors, busily exploring the globe and claiming it for the Empire, were doubtless well-meaning gentlemen. They honestly thought that things in general would be better managed if they and their friends were in control (and they were, just occasionally, right), that “savages” had no real rights against them. Some took it for granted that it was their right to use and abuse “natives” for the commercial profit of the British, and would doubtless have been susceptible to arguments that it would be as well not to fish the pool dry, not to destroy a useful source of day-laborers.

Others insisted that, after all, native populations should be kept uncontaminated as a precious “scientific” resource: we should be ready to forego immediate profit for the sake of knowledge. Others again actually enjoyed strolling through lands they perceived as “untamed wilderness.” What none of them really appreciated was that the “natives” might have views of their own, that the “savages” had real rights not to be conquered, tamed, and exploited. Even genuinely humane men, who insisted that the savages not be caused “unnecessary suffering,” took it for granted that they could not run their own lives for themselves, that any white man effectively “owned” any native, even if the latter was not called a slave.

I wish to suggest that we take this seriously as a message to conservationists. We are not the only creatures that live within the land, and have a long-term interest in the continued health of the land. When Aldo Leopold urged us in Sand County Almanac to think of the land not as a commodity but as a community, he intended to remind us that there were other lives than the human at stake. Just as our predecessors were slowly brought to think that “natives” were not only more or less valuable resources, but fellow members of the community of rational decision-makers, so the conservationist who is moved by Leopold’s rhetoric should acknowledge that the health of our fellow creatures is itself a good reason for not polluting the land, and not grabbing for our own purposes all that we imaginably could.

Those who look to the land for recreation or scientific research may in the end be as dangerous to our fellow creatures as the most shortsighted of agriculturalists. “We should not burden the wilderness with this egocentric human purpose. The wilderness/’ explained Fraser Darling in Wilderness and Plenty, “does not exist for our re-creation or delectation.” My thesis is that, just as we should respect the life and autonomy of “natives,” irrespective of the commercial, scientific, or aesthetic profit we get on the deal, so we should respect what the Koran calls the “nations” of bird and beast. We should not just spare them pain (so long as we can still achieve our own goals): we should acknowledge that their rights may prevent us from justly achieving all our goals. They feed upon the land, upon the myriadfold terrestrial ecosystem, as we do; they are our evolutionary relatives and like us do not know where they came from nor where they are going. Many of their desires and feelings we can sympathize with; and even when we cannot, we can recognize that only parochial conceit (of the kind that imperialists suffer from) will imagine that only “our” concerns are really important, that only “we” can live our lives as they should be lived.

Wild things who live in the same land as we do have, R. Mabey points out in Food for Free, as much claim on the wild products of the land as we do: as much right, and often very much more need. Unless we are prepared to say that mere strength and cunning is a good reason for allowing one creature “rights” that others do not have, we have no good reason to say that “we” have a right to a squirrel’s nuts (any more tl1an the white men had a right to the natives’ crops and labor). Allowing that natives and squirrels, variously, have rights is to say that there are moral limits to what even well-meaning despots may do, even despots with good taste.

The serious question is: what rights are there? Rights, in moral philosophy, are understood to form a coherent system: no one has a right to do to another what that other has a right not to have done, although the first may have some interest in doing what the other has an interest in resisting. What rights there are, in short, are to be found by discovering what all creatures might, without self­ contradiction, be required to do or refrain from doing. This is a formula derived from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who rationalized his devotion to human interests by insisting that nonhumans could only be tools, and material, for human purposes, that they could not be conceived to have any goals of their own. Even Kant was not entirely consistent in this, any more than white imperialists could always escape the suspicion that natives were individuals too. If we abandon tl1e arbitrary line that has been drawn around the human species and understand that all creatures are members of one community, the terrestrial biosphere, we can ask what rules might obtain in that system.


Some authors have denied the possibility of treating the land as a genuine community, within which moral agents might have moral duties. It is true that not all members of such a community are in any position to recognize the fact (any more than many human beings are); it is also true that there are frequently irresoluble conflicts of interest between its members. Neither of these points seem to me to make the community-model unusable, but it must be admitted that (short of the millennium) the rights of wild things will not be quite as extensive as some have expected “human rights” to be.

There can be no general rights to live without hurt or harm, to be forever protected from assault or starvation: there can be no such right because to protect it in some creatures would be to abuse it in others. The worm has no right not to be killed and eaten-any more than I do.  It does have a right (for this right can be equally apportioned) to live out its life under the law. The blackbird injures no right in killing for her needs: she would do so if, somehow, she conspired to make it impossibly difficult for other creatures to live out their programs, to enjoy their moment (metaphorically) in the sun. We are obliged to do only what all creatures can be conceived to be obliged to do: to take our turn. It is not unjust (though it may be regrettable) if we kill simply to survive as the sort of creatures we cannot help but be: it is unjust if we plot to cover all the world with our machines and art objects and artificially maintained “wilderness areas,” without regard to the claims of other creatures.

The best available land-community, the ideal that we may reasonably hold in view, is one that lives up to the occasional (though inconsistent) demand of ecologists for variety: a diverse and variegated landscape is one that allows as many creatures as possible their time in the sun. Such a land-community is not to be valued solely because it is, in a sense, more “stable,” nor because it is (to us) more aesthetically pleasing, but for the same reason that a liberal democracy is valued, as allowing as many as possible to live out their lives, not as slaves or material for another’s purposes.

In plotting our land-use, accordingly, we should take care not to claim too much. In making this suggestion, I stand within the Judeo-Christian tradition – despite the abuse which conservationists regularly heap upon that tradition. The Hebrews were required not to harvest the edges of their fields (Leviticus 23:22), and to leave the land fallow every seven and every 50 years, explicitly to allow the wild things space to move and grow (Leviticus 25:6f). They were not to hunt any creature to extinction (see Deuteronomy 22:6f), and always acknowledge that the life belonged to God alone, not to them. H. M. Kallen observes in The Dimensions of Job that the book of Job culminates in God’s answer to human impatience: “God describes Himself as the wisdom that makes for the survival of the wild ass, the hamster, the eagle, the ostrich, of all living nature.” As I have argued in From Athens to Jerusalem human beings have no special place, no special rights in nature.

If our relations to the wild things should be governed by a vision of this sort of cosmic democracy, the ecosystemic community, what of our relations with the tame, the domesticated creatures of our farms and households? Here, too, a notion honed in political philosophy has its uses: the social contract. Alongside the general duty to respect the autonomy of our fellow humans, acknowledged by Kantian moralists, there are more local, national duties to keep faith and care for our fellow citizens, to obey laws justly made. Although no actual human community ever began in an explicit bargain to play fair by one another, not to break the rules of the bargaining community, we can still assess the present state of a human group by asking whether its members would rationally have consented to the bargain they live under: Do they all stand to gain, in whatever terms they prefer? All of us, for example, stand to gain from the maintenance of a civil community in which disputes are resolved by recourse to legally established courts which display no systematic prejudice against any particular group: even if we lose occasionally we would all lose far more if we were forced to live in a state of nature, subject to the wills of all those stronger than ourselves, or if it were accepted that judges might be biased towards the class of their choice.

Can the same be said for the contract of domestication? Once again, it does not much matter how it came about that humans domesticated nonhumans-though it is worth remarking that it was probably this long experience of interspecies cooperation that has given us the capacity to sympathize with and understand nonhuman animals. Possibly dogs and humans really did recognize mutual advantages in their cooperation. But we can still assess the situation by referring to a notional contract even if the first domestic dogs were strictly captives or salable commodities, as J. F. Downs   suggested   in   the   1960   Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers. Most human groups, after all, probably began in war and slavery: how they began matters less than what they are now.

As a cautionary fable   at least, we can suggest that humans, horses, dogs, and cattle began by cooperating: humans provided skills of forethought and care, and the animals provided assistance, companionship, transport, milk, clothing, even meat. T. Ingold’s I974 study in Man of the changing historical relations between Lapps and reindeer suggests how easily this contract may be manipulated for human benefit: because the strength is ours, because (once the gods have abandoned us) it is we who have to enforce the observance of the contract on ourselves, there is clearly a powerful drive towards treating the animals first as unequal partners and then as commodities, without any contractual rights at all.

But though it may be difficult to remember this, we ought to assess our practices by referring to what might rationally be accepted by all parties. Probably, given our known bias, we should try to lean over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to our less powerful parb1ers. We should not muzzle the ox that treads out the corn, and (most emphatically) should not deny to our domestic animals those personal relationships of care and affection that most human groups have learned to give, and which are, Darling asserts, the animals’ right once we have domesticated them. This model certainly does not answer all questions, nor does it instantly validate that system of interspecies relations which I would myself think best: it does not, for example, positively prove that we ought not to rear animals whom we intend to kill and eat. This is perhaps an advantage if it is to seem more than a convenient rationalization of my own moral preferences: whereas I am myself very unsure that it would be rational of cattle to accept care and feeding on condition that their male calves are culled to feed the carers, it is certainly arguable that cattle might have preferred this to being culled by wolves, without any corresponding care. They might: I do not think that people would accept such a bargain for themselves. And no one would suggest that it would be rational of cattle to accept intensive farming: What imaginable goal of theirs is reached by this?

The ideal to which we may look without exaggerated optimism is a countryside in which humans so manage their uses, agricultural, scientific, or recreational, as to allow the maximum possible use of the land to other wild creatures: the rules should be the fine democratic principle of “maximum liberty compatible with an equal liberty for all” (a rule, be it noted, that not only allows but requires definite efforts to restrain the overweening). Domestic animals, including farm animals, should be regarded as partners paying their way and being owed a corresponding care and affection. It has always been difficult, of course, to manage the delicate emotional strategy of caring for a creature whom one plans to castrate, kill, and eat.

As the message slowly sinks in that human beings are not of a radically different kind, that we may communicate with creatures of other species even if they are not clever, I would expect the contract of mutual profit to be changed. Many creatures would be bred back to the wild state, and take their places as fellow members of the land-community, hunted perhaps but no longer expected to feel /gratitude for being slaves. Contrary to the views expressed by). Baird Callicott in 1980 in Environmental Ethics, there is no good reason to think that domestic animals are wholly denatured, incapable of autonomous existence. But the practical difficulties of “animal liberation” are quite real. That liberation is a long-term goal: in the near future it will be enough to allow the wild things their place, and give the tame things what they are owed, in terms of a life well-lived. That, after all, is the bargain all of us might rationally have made-to live as members of our civil community at the price of being asked, some day, to die for it.           Cc