Rights, Atheists, and Earth

The United Nations is considering a proposal that would grant the Earth rights similar to those of humans.

What is a right?  Where does it come from?  Perhaps Merriam-Webster can help:

  • right: something to which one has a just claim (So what makes a claim just?)
  • just: acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good (What is moral?)
  • moral: conforming to a standard of right behavior (What is right?  Oh crap.  That’s where we started.  And where do we get this “standard” from?)


If you’re a theist, and you believe that God has revealed to us rights and wrongs, it’s simple; God grants and ultimately enforces those rights.

What if you don’t believe in God?

Here is the dark truth.  Unless God exists, there is no reason to believe that anything within our universe has the authority to dictate a “standard of right behavior” that applies to everything in the universe.  If you are atheist/agnostic, and you insist that such a standard does in fact exist, then I have to ask, “Where does it come from?”  But there is no place for it to come from because there is no authority to serve as the origin of such an ultimate standard.  Since there is nothing from which the standard could originate, it did not originate, and therefore it doesn’t exist.  The only way such a standard can exist is if you accept the reality of a supernatural overriding force or entity that serves as the origin of an ultimate “standard of right behavior”; now you are back to believing in God.

One might reply, “So that means that in the absence of God you are allowed to do whatever you want to anyone or anything?”  To that I would say, “Yes!  I am!”  No transcendent authority exists to say otherwise.

But one thing that does exist is happiness.  We are born with the inclination to not only survive and reproduce, but to maximize our satisfaction and minimize our suffering.  While I may be “allowed” to do anything I want to anyone, operating with absolutely no restraint is not the smartest thing to do if I want to maximize my happiness.  And the reason is that humans are powerful.

No living thing poses as much a threat to my happiness as another human.  Humans are dangerous.  Any healthy adult would find it very easy to kill me, hurt me, or ruin my property or my life.  At the same time, I could do the same thing to just about any other human.  We humans live in a state of perpetual vulnerability to each other.

On the other hand, no other living thing possesses as much potential to contribute to my happiness.  Other humans compose music, love me, entertain me, grow food, laugh with me, play with me, pay me, write literature, create art, have sex with me, teach me, and fascinate me.

So while we are “allowed” to do anything to anyone or anything, at some point in our history we humans recognized that restraint in our interaction with one another makes life much safer and much more enjoyable.  It makes us happier.  “Right” is not a standard from on high.  “Right” is whatever approach promises to maximize my happiness.

Even though we don’t all agree on what makes us happy as individuals, we have been able to isolate a couple of broad shared principles that serve as foundational components of our happiness with human civilization: We have a right to our property (including our own bodies) and the expectation that other people will not touch it without our permission, and we have the right to expect others to do everything that they have agreed to do.  All other “rights” that we talk about extend from those two foundational principles.

And if someone says, “I don’t agree with those rights, because there is no authority to dictate them,” he can do that.  The problem for him is that to the extent that he abandons restraint and violates other people’s bodies or their property, other humans will abandon their restraint with respect to him.  By going “outlaw” you expose yourself to the danger of unrestrained human force.  Most people opt not to do this because it would not maximize their happiness.

So if you don’t believe in God what are rights?  In the ultimate sense, they don’t exist at all.  But with respect to other humans they exist because we invented them for each other. Humans invented rights for each other because they realized that there is more happiness to be gained in interacting peacefully with other humans—the most powerful organisms we know of—rather than forcefully.  There is no cosmic system of accountability that demands that we respect these made-up rights, it just tends to work out best for us if we do.  And so we do.

But this relationship we have with other humans is unique.  In terms of our relationships with other living things and natural resources we often find that the most happiness we have to gain is in forcefully harnessing them.  We do not generally maximize our happiness with respect to chickens in granting them a right to live.  It generally makes us happier to forcefully deprive them of their life and to eat them.  And so we do.  We do not generally maximize our happiness with respect to the earth in leaving no mark upon it.  It generally makes us happier to mine and drill it for resources.  And so we do.

Still, there is happiness to be had in conserving the Earth’s resources.  We are mesmerized by vast expanses of unadulterated landscape.  Our curiosity is captivated by the complex inner-workings of an ecosystem that—while arising spontaneously—operates incredibly well, feeding and sustaining itself, with little malfunction.  We are pleased with the maximization of happiness even in the animals we raise for food.  We prefer that the animals we eat live happy rather than miserable lives.  And we do not want to consume resources so quickly that we create a crisis of shortage.

Balancing the happiness derived from the conversion of natural resources into useful products with the happiness derived from an unmolested ecosystem is difficult.  But before we can begin to discuss this balance we need to frankly admit to ourselves that it is not a question of ethics, rights, or morality.  We made up rights for ourselves because it works for us, not because we are subservient to any cosmic system of justice, which does not exist.

The vast majority of humanity is not convinced that making up rights for the Earth would make us happier.  So we don’t do it.  And if this means that we humans are selfish—concerned only with our happiness—there is no problem because neither the Earth nor the universe will hold us accountable for our self-centeredness.

And if, in the face of all human opposition, some people still maintain that the Earth has rights, then they will have to admit to themselves that they have faith in the existence of a higher order that does dictate a standard of rights, ethics, and justice.  Most people do, and we call them theists.

Anyone who asserts that the Earth has rights is operating on the basis of faith in a supernatural authority.

There is no rational atheistic argument for the inherent rights of the Earth.

    • ACB
    • June 3rd, 2011 11:29am

    It’s a very complicated thing to understand. But it makes very much sense. People, ahem, Humans are very powerful creatures that live off of what makes them happy.
    It’s a good thing that we have taken into account that not all that makes us happy is a good thing.

  1. ACB, while it is true that not everything that makes each one of us happy is automatically “good” (e.g., say it pleases me greatly to set redheaded people on fire), it seems that if it pleases 99% of humanity, both in the short-term and in the long-term, to mine the earth for minerals rather than to leave the land in tact then, outside of supernatural revelation to tell us otherwise, there is no reason to believe that there is anything “wrong” or “evil” with this.

    • Thad Beier
    • June 15th, 2011 1:32pm

    While I would agree with your argument with respect to, say, Mars — I believe that “Earth” is standing as a proxy for “the home of our children and grandchildren”. No belief in a higher power is necessary for that argument.

  2. Thad, you make an excellent point, and I believe that you are absolutely right. As I mentioned, we humans discovered that we are much happier in our interaction when we grant rights to other humans; so we do it. But it also makes us happy to know that when we die that we leave the world in a state that will make the next generation happier than our generation. That matters to us. We can debate whether we evolved this need to “matter” or whether we received it supernaturally it, but it’s there—without question.

    And so this reinforces my point. It’s not that the Earth or anything on it actually has rights. It’s that we humans simply decided to recognize rights for each other, and to an extent, even to the next generation that does not yet exist. And this inclination is almost universal among humans.

    I’m not arguing that we should trash the planet simply because it feels good right here and now in the short-term. If we are concerned with the happiness of future generations, we have to harmonize that long-term concern with our short-term desires. That’s admittedly a thorny problem that demands serious consideration and even vigorous debate. I am not saying that we dismiss concern for the long-term sustainability of the earth; I am simply arguing for the basic assumptions on which this discussion must take place.

    This discussion cannot take place on the assumption that the Earth has rights, because it does not. Instead, the discussion should assume that humans seek happiness, and that they also derive happiness in knowing that other humans now and in the future are happy; simple introspection tells us that this is true, so we don’t have to prove it. What approach to the management of the earth will maximize human happiness now and in the future? That is the question.

  3. You have forgotten about consequence in the real world. Without a God there would still be consequences in the real world that would guide us to a morality. For example, imagine an atheistic society, would everyone in such a society do whatever they want? No, because of real world consequences. It’s this dynamic that creates morality and our sense of right and wrong. You could treat me bad, but I can treat you badly back and make you not want to treat me bad ever again. There’s a balance that must take place, or the society would die off. And it, the moral rules, change over time, which is why slavery, sexism, racism, etc. and things of the past or becoming things of the past.

    If you believe in God, I’m not going to convince you otherwise, but you should watch some Sam Harris videos on morality, they are eye opening. Especially the parts about how atheistic societies are more moral than religious ones. There’s something there.


    P.S. I remember when matt.com was for sale for $50k!

  4. Matt, I am in complete agreement with you, except I’m not sure that “happiness” really is the normative value at work here. Many people are willing to forgo their own happiness for the sake of others, and while you might argue that this is a source of happiness in-itself, I think that would be stretching the meaning of the term too far, especially in extreme cases of self-sacrifice. There is a sense of satisfaction that humans get when they feel they are “doing the right thing”, and I have been unable to reduce it to any particular feeling or emotion. Perhaps it is just a fundamental feature of our cognition.

    What really bothers people about all this is that even someone like Adolph Hitler can think they are doing the right thing. And without an external normative source for judging the rightness of actions, we are left in the precarious position of simply admitting that we have no basis for a rational argument to the contrary, and are simply in disagreement with such people.

    Of course, a Utilitarian will say that rightness of action is judged according to the standard of maximizing the happiness of the greatest number of people. The arguments for and against Utilitarianism are well-worn and I won’t go into them here, but it really boils down to this: why the hell should I care about anyone else’s happiness? And the only answer I can give to that question is: I just do.

    What I find particularly interesting is that most humans are able to derive a sense of “doing the right thing” via submission to an external authority, especially a deity. They happily accept a fiat code of conduct, and seem to prefer that the authority dictating it be one that is unquestionable. It is a false sense of comfort so illusory that I cannot understand why more people do not question it.

    • Matt
    • August 28th, 2011 9:31pm

    Oh, I completely agree, Matthew! I must have failed to make myself clear. As I state in my post regarding the consequences of practical amorality:

    And if someone says, “I don’t agree with those rights, because there is no authority to dictate them,” he can do that. The problem for him is that to the extent that he abandons restraint and violates other people’s bodies or their property, other humans will abandon their restraint with respect to him. By going “outlaw” you expose yourself to the danger of unrestrained human force. Most people opt not to do this because it would not maximize their happiness.

    So if you don’t believe in God what are rights? In the ultimate sense, they don’t exist at all. But with respect to other humans they exist because we invented them for each other. Humans invented rights for each other because they realized that there is more happiness to be gained in interacting peacefully with other humans—the most powerful organisms we know of—rather than forcefully. There is no cosmic system of accountability that demands that we respect these made-up rights, it just tends to work out best for us if we do. And so we do.

    I think that addresses your point here. If I’m missing something, please let me know.

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    • Matthew Eaton
    • October 6th, 2011 7:22am

    No, sorry, I disagree vehemently with your assertion that to believe in an authoritative standard of correct behaviour is to believe in God. Correct and good behaviour does not and should not rely on some kind of supernatural authority to enforce a set of rules. It comes from the natural, in-built desire to be treated and to treat others in a humane and compassionate manner. I believe this is part of our ability as a sentient, self aware and intelligent life form to experience empathy, and to care about the well-being of others. This empathy does not always extend to members of other species and, well, the Earth, but it does serve as the origination of our desire to treat others well.

    Your insistence that Atheists and Agnostics are, in a sense, amoral is quite insulting!

    • Aaron
    • October 7th, 2011 5:21am

    @Matthew Eaton

    Matthew, how is empathy a natural condition for humanity? To say that it is a by-product of the intelligence with which evolution has selected for our species is inadequate, I think.

    Evolution is efficient at selecting for biological machinery, and it would have killed off any mutations that tended toward empathy almost immediately (at least the form of empathy that is not directly solely towards one’s genetic kin).

    The individual / pack that ignores the rights of the next individual / pack and takes all their stuff wins, evolutionarily speaking. This is why we don’t see much empathy in the animal world.

    Animals are concerned only about their own genes, so they are “kind” to their offspring (most of the time) or to their kin (who share their genes). Even a bee hive has many sterile workers serving to protect and promote their own genes via their queen (who is their relative).

    So there are essentially two other solutions: God did it, or humans decided, early on, to invent empathy for themselves. In the former case, this whole discussion is irrelevant. In the latter case, empathy is intellectual construct that most humans learn but are not born with.

    • Matt
    • November 13th, 2011 4:10pm

    @Damon Woolsey

    Damon, this thread is going in a much more general direction than the original essay. But I’ll bite…:-) This is not going to be a rigorous treatment. I’m just spouting thoughts as they occur to me. Otherwise I’ll spend weeks on it it. I don’t pretend to have systematically worked out any of this. Chew on it and spit it back out! Maybe you can give me some food for thought and an entirely new essay will result from the discussion.

    So, when I think of the pursuit of happiness I’m not thinking simply of experiencing it instantaneously. It is also about the anticipation of future happiness (or the lack thereof). So we see the economics of life come into play. One with a high time preference is not going to be inclined to endure extreme self-sacrifice; they want their happiness now. One with a low time preference may be inclined to suffer now because they anticipate the future satisfaction of knowing that they “did the right thing”.

    In fact, some encounter a situation where they believe that they have to suffer now in order to avoid unhappiness later. Consider the scenario where someone sacrifices (or at least offers) their life for another person; the consideration is the avoidance of future unhappiness. You hear about people who risk their lives for another and they tell us that, “I had to do it. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I had just let that person die.” People who feel that they have “shirked their duty” in such a scenario sometimes live with crushing psychological pain (in the form of guilt) for the rest of their lives. On the other side of the same token, one may experience great psychological satisfaction in having lived up to their “duty”.

    I suspect that one lying on his death bed looking back on his life and being satisfied that he did “good things” can be very, very happy as a result of his past sacrifice and suffering.

    In another scenario, which speaks to the point I made in the original essay, we can prefer future happiness over instantaneous happiness in the way that we restrain our passions. I might want to steal your new TV—it would make me instantaneously happy—but if I pursue exploitation of others for my instantaneous happiness, I run the risk of future unhappiness when I have to become a fugitive constantly in fear of retaliation. I also might lose the opportunity to engage in future happy arrangements and relationships due to my tarnished reputation. That’s the threat of a lot of future unhappiness in exchange for a little present happiness in enjoying your television set.

    So while I agree, I wouldn’t call this type of self-sacrificial suffering “happiness” in the now, it is an investment of suffering (or at least restraint from instantaneous happiness) with the expectation of future happiness. No?

    (Also, while what makes us happy may be subjective, I strongly suspect that the phenomenon of happiness itself is fairly objective in that when you or I say, “I am happy,” we are experiencing a similar sensation. Obviously, I cannot prove this.)

    As for your point that wildly differing things make different people happy—this is true. And you’re also right in that, we are in no position to tell Hitler that he is, according to some cosmic code of ethics, “wrong”. If a psychopathic pursuit of dominating power (and the sadistic exercise of it) is his pursuit of happiness, then in the absence of any authoritative ethical code, his pursuit of happiness is what is “right” for him. Our pursuit of happiness is inevitable. Whatever we believe will lead to happiness for us is what we are going to chase. We act with purpose. As far as I can imagine, everything that we ever purpose to do is with the intention of achieving some measure of happiness (now or in the future), or resolving some conflict that prevents happiness (now or in the future).

    Now, just because Hitler is operating according to his nature and is doing what is right for him doesn’t preclude me from recognizing that his pursuit of happiness is on a collision course with my pursuit of happiness and that this conflict makes us mortal enemies. He is also in no position to tell me that I am in any sense “wrong” for attempting to assassinate him. The bacteria that infests my sinuses and makes me sick isn’t doing anything “wrong”. It is operating according to its nature. And I am operating according to my nature in employing drugs to destroy it.

    The good news for people is that, while what makes us happy is subjective preference and may not derive from any external authority, for whatever reason we detect recurring patterns in these subjective preferences. Amongst humans it is undeniable that there is substantial overlap in the preferences that drive our pursuit of happiness. Within that overlap we are able to derive a useful “lowest common denominator” of “happiness preference”. Of course individuals have radically differing preferences, which is why that LCD is pretty generic, and yet pretty significant. It mostly boils down to: do all you have agreed to do & do not encroach on other persons or their property. And on that shared preference we invent this notion of “rights”. And our culture reinforces this preference and more or less makes an effort to condition people to apply that preference consistently.

    Our culture is such that we tend to assume that people align with this LCD of preferences, that we call rights, until someone demonstrates by their actions that they do not. And so it becomes, in practice, something of a normative standard. We just assume that people basically feel that the world would be a very unhappy place if humans operated according to the law of the jungle: might makes right. If you tell people that there exists a land where people do not have to live up to their agreements and commitments, and they are allowed to encroach on your person and your property, and that in this place the strongest and most powerful are free to exploit the defenseless and weak, and then you ask them, “Would you like to live there?” almost everyone will say, “absolutely not!” And so if you have that basic assumption in place, you can build an entire system of normative ethics on top of it.

    This system isn’t based on any authority. It is just based on a set of preferences that enough people share to make it a fairly valid assumption.

    I know I’m flirting with the notion of “natural” rights, but I don’t think I quite go that far. I’m not naturally entitled to have anyone respect my rights, and neither am I naturally obligated to respect anyone else’s. Personally, I believe that I stand to derive more happiness in respecting other people’s rights in hopes that they will do the same for me. And enough other people just happen to agree to make it all “work”. So it’s utilitarian. Although it might be confused with the notion of “natural” rights because I say that I am acting according to my “nature”, when I speak of “my nature” I speak of myself as an individual, not as a human. Hitler was human, and his nature was very different from this human. Most people operate according to their individual nature and pursue happiness in a manner that just happens to be congruent with my pursuit of happiness. I feel very fortunate for this.

    On the other hand, perhaps these “rights” are natural in the sense that they in some way naturally optimize our existence. Rights, along with their corresponding ethical requirements, are like vitamins. You can live in a state of vitamin deficiency, but you might be sick. Or you might be weak. It is natural to consume nutrients sufficient to drive your physiological processes—processes that naturally depend on a particular quantity of these nutrients. Likewise, perhaps our psychological processes do not run optimally in the absence of rights? Most of us need rights to be happy? Of course, neither the universe nor anything or anyone else in it owe you rights any more than they owe you vitamin C. But your mind and body still expect them. Just a thought!

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