Putting the Proper back in “Property” – Part 19
This essay came about as I read, and then reread, Ronald Bailey’s article in the February 2012 issue of reason entitled, “Does Mars Have Rights?” Bailey brought up some interesting points and raised some reasonable questions, but something bothered me.
In the last paragraph he wrote: “They simply do not have an ethical point of view that we must consider.” He was referring to Martian microbes (that may or may not exist). I realized, more clearly than ever, that there is something in my free market ethics and morality that does not fit the mainstream capitalist mold. So, it is this gap – or gulf – between property rights advocates of two different camps that I explore here today.
In the standard Lockean view, property rights arise necessarily from the axiom of self ownership. Through the volitional exercise of our independent minds and wills, we humans combine our actions with the material world around us and create things to improve our lives. We build shelters, we create weapons by which to hunt animals, we create tools by which to gather plants or harvest crops, and we clothe ourselves. Some of our belongings we keep and utilize directly; some we trade for other things: goods, supplies, services, etc. Taken in combination with a multitude of other such trades, an economy is born and our species’ standard of living is altered – presumably for the better.
But what of the plants, animals, and minerals we harvest, kill, and gather? There is a fundamental agreement that this is okay and proper … and right. Else we would not survive even one day. What is clear, however, is that there is a serious divergence in the way these entities are regarded. I strongly suggest that the view that these non-human components of life are inferior and may be handled dismissively and abusively is inappropriate and ignorant.
Some believe – and I’m among them – that we have the right to domesticate cattle. But many of us, including me, have a major problem with the manner in which these animals are treated during various stages of their exploited lives. Some are branded with red hot irons, castrated, confined in grossly inadequate pens and forced to wade in their own feces, de-horned, force-fed alien and unnatural diets (e.g. corn), pumped full of questionable chemicals, and eventually slaughtered and butchered in whole-sale fashion. This camp apparently believes that our need to honor the dignity of these animals is negligible. After all, they’re just “dumb” animals, and God put them here for us to use … as we wish!
Wait a second – am I going to address planetary rights, or animal rights?!
Both, actually. I propose that asking, “Does Mars have rights?” is the same basic question as, “Do cows have rights?” The fact that we ask these questions in this way implies that we have been approaching this issue – of rights – from the wrong end. The real issue is how do conscious and self-aware beings like us live the best way we can with regard to all entities – whether natural or artificial, simple or complex, self-aware or inert. If rights were to exist only in proportion to one’s level of awareness or enlightenment, then babies would have no rights at birth, and would only gradually attain them as they approached adulthood. Mentally disabled people would have fewer rights than normal, healthy individuals, and highly-educated academic types (e.g. members of Mensa) would accrue more rights than us average folks.
By this reasoning, if we were to grant that lions, dogs, squirrels, frogs, clams, and bacteria had rights, they would be miniscule relative to those we would grant to adult humans. So, what about redwood trees? Fields of cotton? Azaleas and roses? Crab grass? Poison Ivy? Lichen? What about rocks, boulders, subterranean veins of copper, salt domes, and interstellar hydrogen clouds?
Rather than trying to ascribe rights according to some Byzantine rating system, to every variety of existent, I suggest we approach this issue more elegantly and, I believe, logically. Let’s look to the source of rights: the faculty of self-awareness. Because we humans can discern the difference between right action and wrong action, respectful behaviour and disrespectful behaviour, we are inextricably charged with an obligation to do our best, to approach every choice with conscious respect for the entities we encounter.
Look at the title of this article. What I really mean here is that Mars has rights in the same sense that a dragonfly, a dog, and a baby have rights. There is a proper kind of respectful and thoughtful relationship we ought to have with these entities, each according to its fullest potential, according to the nature of its existence in the fullest context of our understanding. The more we know and understand the world around us, the more we can adjust our actions to treat each other, animals, plants, and planets more carefully and respectfully.
Considered in this way, the rights that Mars “has” do not originate within its planetary core, or hover around the reddish haze of its apparently barren landscape. It has rights in that it “deserves” to be treated rightly … by beings who would have the wherewithal to explore it and colonize it. Whichever species shows up on Mars first (or next) will have the chance to do whatever it wants … to install scientific installations, to build shrines, or to trash the place. Nobody on Earth will be able to lift a finger (or tentacle) to stop them. That being said, there is a deep part of me, developed over my lifetime of study, play, and interaction of all kinds, that leads me to believe that this inert planet ought to be explored and studied with reverence and awe. Our relationship to it ought to involve a commitment to thoughtful stewardship that envisions things on the order of 10,000 years.
This approach is no different really than the approach of mindful climbers who ascend Mt. Everest. Since the 1970s, it was common practice of many climbers to treat this place as a high-altitude dump, leaving used oxygen canisters and trash in ice caves and under rocky crags. This appalling behaviour so blatantly contradicts the spirit of the enlightened adventurist who loves the outdoors that, thankfully, a concerted effort has been made in recent years to reverse this trend and to remove and dispose of the litter.
We humans, distinguished by self-awareness, are obliged to act and behave thoughtfully in all our encounters, in every situation. As we attempt this, we naturally regret it when we fall short. As long as we do our best to get back into harmony with the world around us, all is fine. It is when we show up in large numbers and begin to act as a mob that we tend to produce more ugliness and harm than we would if left to our own (individual) devices.
When we get to Mars, there will presumably be no villages, or water sources, or animals to consider – not even micro-organisms. Nevertheless, I believe we owe it to ourselves, first and foremost, to respect the order, the harmony, and the beauty that we’ll find there. Does this mean that I would advocate never going there at all? Should we preserve this cosmic museum piece in its pristine and untouched state by never going there? No. That would be an absurd application of the ethic that I’ve been advocating in this article. What we ought to do, though, is arrive with an attitude of peace and respect, imagining that the place were inhabited by invisible guardians, asking silently for their blessings as we explore and, eventually, colonize the fourth stone from the Sun.