Bishop Wolfgang Huber of the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian.

Bishop Wolfgang Huber, is a prominent German theologian and ethicist. I was recently shown an article by Bishop Huber whilst I was conducting research on ethics and ecology. I found this article extremely stimulating and informative, so much so that I felt that I should share it with others. Matthias Drobinski of the Süddeutsche Zeitung has written of him “Huber is someone who thinks in terms of possibilities, not problems.” He served as bishop of the EKBO (Evangelische Kirche Berlin-Brandenburg-schlesische Oberlausitz, the United Protestant church body) until November 2009. Huber succeeded Manfred Kock as Chairperson of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) in November 2003 until 2009. Huber has worked on a wide variety and great number of ethical and theological themes. With his father Ernst Rudolf he has edited five volumes of documents on German church-state relations. Research on Huber’s thought emphasises the centrality of the concept “communicative freedom” in his work. His theology and public engagement is characterised by the fact that Christianity is the religion of life-enabling freedom. He understands communicative freedom as a rearticulation of the Reformation’s rediscovery of freedom, as is clear in his use of Martin Luther’s theology to substantiate his understanding of freedom. Huber aims to reconcile individuality and sociality, by developing an understanding of freedom that transcends mere self-realisation. In his recent work he makes use of the term “responsible freedom” to denote this comprehensive understanding of freedom. He understands human dignity as conferred by God, and expressed by the Christian conviction that the human person is created in the “image of God”.Human dignity cannot be equated with either the biological development or genetic characteristics as this contradicts the human person as subject of freedom. In Huber’s view a human being is always a person and never simply an object. He advocates a form of nonviolence he calls “reasonable pacifism”.

“The last responsible question is not how I heroically pull myself out of the affair, but how a future generation should live on.”  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian and resistance fighter (1906-1945)

Rights of Nature or Dignity of Nature? 

by Bishop Wolfgang Huber

The purpose of this article is to analyse some of the concepts and instruments of environmental ethics. In my view, two fundamental problems of environmental ethics need further investigation. First, because it is often asserted that we must overcome our anthropocentric perspective in order to establish a secure foundation of environmental ethics, we must examine what exactly is meant by this proposition and whether it is true. The second problem relates to the status of non-human nature in environmental ethics. In this regard the question is whether or not the attribution of rights to non-human nature is conceptually necessary to a persuasive environmental ethics and what the legal impact of such an attribution would be. 

I will deal with the first problem—the problem of anthropocentrism— as an implication of the second problem—the problem of rights of nature. I will argue that even a position beyond classical anthropocentrism has to take into account the fundamental difference between humans and non-human nature. One of the dimensions of this difference is that it is not meaningful to transfer the concept of human rights to non-human nature. We need to develop other instruments in order to clarify the status of non-human nature in environmental ethics. I will argue that the Western Christian moral tradition, frequently maligned as unregenerately anthropocentric and exploitative in its attitude toward non-human nature, offers powerful resources for this initiative. Specifically, I will propose that the Christian doctrine of creation gives rise to an appreciation of the dignity of nature which can function as well as the problematic notion of rights of nature to set limits to our anthropocentric interests. 

My argument is based on fundamental Christian ethical assumptions. A reflection on the specific weight of Christian traditions and convictions is needed in order to develop a Christian contribution to a new consensus on our human responsibility towards non-human nature. Today these traditions and convictions have to be introduced into a pluralistic discourse, but for that very reason these traditions and convictions themselves need to be clarified and critically evaluated. I will develop the argument in five steps. (1) First, I will review the controversy about rights of nature, and then (2) I will clarify the reasons for a new approach to the status of non-human nature. (3) Analysing the status of non-human nature will require examination of the problem of anthropocentrism and biocentrism in environmental ethics. (4) The proposed distinction between a biocentrism of interests and an anthropocentrism of responsibility has consequences for the question of whether we can legitimately apply the concept of rights to non-human objects; indeed, from the proposed distinction it follows that the concept of dignity of nature is preferable to the concept of rights of nature. (5) An ethic which is consistent with this dignity of nature must necessarily be an ethic of self-limitation. The consequences implied by such an ethic are as radical as those implied by the concept of rights of nature but avoid the weaknesses of the latter concept. 

The Controversy about Rights of Nature 

Historically, the concept of rights has been subject to two restrictions. First, rights have been attributed solely to human beings, not to non-human beings. Second, rights have been considered only in their relevance for human beings alive now; rights have not been attributed to future generations, even if these future generations were formally mentioned, A lively discussion has recently emerged about the expansion of our understanding of rights. The double question is whether there are rights of nature in addition to rights of persons, and whether the rights of future generations (and perhaps also of ancestors) should be established and recognized alongside those of people alive today. 

In its traditional modern version, human rights thinking reflects an anthropocentric world view. Rights apply only to human beings who are endowed with reason and can engage in politics. Some philosophers have allowed exceptions to this anthropocentric view for animals. [1] The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham broke new ground in allowing some rights to animals capable of feeling pain; that opened the way to that utilitarian branch of philosophy of law that to this day has called for the recognition of animal rights. [2] This debate, both philosophical and theological, has been conducted mostly in the United States but is reflected to a limited degree in the German legal system. While older German legislation on animal protection only prohibited cruelty to animals when the acts of cruelty gave public offence, the Animal Protection Act of 1933 requires that animals be protected for their own sake; this principle underlies current law. [3] Yet such regulations are in tension with the anthropocentric view that continues to dominate at least the German legal system. The practice of animal experiments often goes beyond what seems to be morally acceptable and clearly shows how far the law and social action are still removed from protecting animals for their own sake. [4] This practice indicates—often brutally—that animals continue to be regarded as material available to be used, tormented, and killed for the real or supposed benefit of human beings. Even though such practices are still widely defended, a counter-argument is gaining ground. An increasing number of ethicists are taking the position not only that animal pain is a significant moral problem but that the whole sphere of our fellow created beings has its own value and must be respected in its own dignity. This conflict between the instrumentalising of nature and the new respect for its dignity raises the issue of whether human rights should be supplemented by a concept of the rights of nature. 

Respect for animal rights is a principle constantly propounded by movements working for the protection of animals and the environment in general, Since the early 1970s the enlargement of the notion of rights has been championed in an especially radical way by the lawyer Christopher Stone, who extends the concept of rights beyond animals to cover all natural objects. [5] He was prompted to do this by legal controversy concerning the settlement of Mineral King Valley in the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Club lost a suit it filed against the development plan, the court claiming that the Sierra Club had no right to take legal action due to lack of personal involvement. Stone then argued that the valley itself—as directly “involved”—should receive a right to sue and thus be recognized as possessing rights. He suggested that rights not only should be granted to forests, seas, rivers, and other single natural objects, but also should be granted to our natural environment taken as a whole. The natural objects themselves—and not their owners—should have a right to compensation for damage, because human interests had been accorded priority to those of natural objects. While the Sierra Club also lost the appeal they filed on these grounds, it was a near thing and the introduction of the idea of nature’s rights had a stimulating effect. 

Of course, Stone’s argument raises obvious difficulties. First, it is not clear what natural objects are to be recognized as legal entities and, second, it is not clear how nature is to assert its rights by itself. Klaus Michael Meyer-Abich, a German specialist in the field of philosophy of nature, has responded to the first problem as follows: 

Rights of our natural environment should at least be recognized wherever the Greeks—or other religions more nature-related than ours—had gods. Additional care will have to be given to plants. In Christianity the rights of our natural environment are a secularised form of recognising its creatureliness. They function as a substitute for the nature gods of other religions while we have not rediscovered a religious relationship to our natural environment. [6]

Such thinking is certainly far from a precise, legal approach. Recalling nature gods may be a helpful analogy, but it does, not answer the question as to which natural objects are to be granted rights, nor does it define to what extent these rights have to be respected when they conflict with human interests. There must be a clearly defined bearer of the right. The right must be recognized and asserted by someone. Can we speak of “rights of nature” when it is not certain who or what is eligible to bear such rights? And can we do so when nature itself is obviously not in a position to assert these rights in legal procedures? [7] 

The second problem is that a legal entity is defined through the fact of being able to recognize and assert its rights itself. Nature is obviously not in a position to do this. It is no help to recall that all developed legal systems acknowledge the notion or fact of ‘legal persons’, a status that is established by state authorities and can be granted, withdrawn, modified, or suspended. Corporations, for instance, are fictional ‘legal persons’ but have no human rights. By contrast, anyone proposing rights for nature envisages them as similar to human rights, not solely rooted in the arbitrary status of being a ‘legal person’. They are not granted, but recognized; they cannot be withdrawn, but are inalienable. While they can be reformulated in different historical periods, their core remains inviolable. Human rights cannot, by definition, apply to ‘legal persons’. They are the prerogative of people who can recognize and defend them. [8] The inviolability of human rights means that they can be attributed to those persons who are not (yet) able to claim them. Therefore newborn babies, mentally handicapped persons, and criminals fully participate in human rights. Nonetheless, the legal concept of human rights is linked with the idea that the bearers of such rights are to be acknowledged as free agents, as persons who recognize their rights and can assert them against others. They are, however, accountable for the use of their own rights and can be called to account in this regard. 

These two problems impel us to inquire whether there is any point in expanding the concept of rights in the way proposed by Stone, Meyer-Abich, and others. There is an alternative to this approach, but before we can discuss such an alternative we must confront the challenges which evoke such a new approach. [9] 

Reasons for a New Approach 

In 1989 Bill McKibbens’s book The End of Nature [10] caused a sensation in the United States. Far-reaching climatic changes as a result of human action are considered by the author to be the crucial process by which we harm and destroy nature. The book’s dramatic title is a response to an older work which describes from a feminist viewpoint the future prospects of non-human nature: The Death of Nature. [11] The threat of a climatic catastrophe that McKibben identifies is one of the results of a complex process in the relationship between human beings and non-human nature. In my view this process implies three crucial dimensions. 

  1. Violence against nature. The production and consumption of energy are the decisive benchmarks for human violence against non-human nature. At the same time, they are the key indicator of the reversal of power in the relationship of humanity and nature in a scientific and technological age. For thousands of years people experienced nature as something stronger and more powerful than themselves. They entered into a magical, religious, or practical relationship with it in order to mitigate threats, avert dangers, gain its favour, and wrest from it what was necessary for life. In our modern industrial culture nature has become an object of human research and control. The imbalance of power has been reversed, reaching its climax to date in the discovery of nuclear fission and the penetration of the genetic code. These steps open the way to a new dimension of human knowledge and human dominance. Nuclear energy seems to offer a source of inexhaustible energy, thus nourishing the idea of the immortality of the industrial system. Discovering the genetic code changes the human position in nature in a radical sense. We are no longer objects of the evolutionary process but can intervene in it ourselves. In view of this new potential for control, we may wonder whether nature has any value of its own which ought not to be totally subordinated to human interests. 
  2. The interplay of construction and destruction. On the one hand, human rule over nature broadens human potential for action. The present generation is going through a period of rapid change, as illustrated by the revolution in industrial products and forms of production, the increase in productivity, and the development of new communication technologies. Yet nature is being irreversibly destroyed at the same time. In our generation the earth’s genetic pool has been reduced at a speed unparalleled in history. Within two decades a third of all species of flora have disappeared in Germany, with 216 out of 466 species of fauna dying out or falling to endangered status in the same period. [12] Over half of the threats to air, water, species, and food supply that have occurred in the last three centuries have occurred in the last three decades. [13] The global disappearance of species is the most massive intervention in life and its genetic potential since the inception of evolution. The interplay of construction and destruction also applies to humankind itself, e.g., through environmental pollution, the greenhouse effect, or nuclear war. It is also reasonable to ask whether present and future forms of biotechnological dominance of life may be endangering the survival of the human race. There is no reason to rule out the possibility that genetic engineering may produce a post-human stage of evolution. The only bulwark against such developments provided for in our religious and cultural awareness and in our legal systems is the idea of inviolable human dignity, transcending political forces and technological innovations. Yet whether this bulwark will be strong enough is an open question. It is also questionable whether the concept of “dignity” can be (or should be) confined to humans. 
  3. Intergenerational timelag. The threats emanating from present developments in science, technology, and consumption are often immediately obvious, coming upon us with great speed and producing global effects. In some cases, however, current interventions will have delayed negative consequences. The causes of the serious damage to forests that we are observing today can be traced back over many years; other environmental damage is only becoming apparent now, years after it began. Human-induced climatic changes will ensue with a time lag of three to four decades. Forecasts of consequences are always to a degree uncertain and are therefore ill-suited to motivating people to change current habits of thought and action. Most people prefer to react to present dangers than to gear their action to future ones. The wave of hurricanes over the last few years in different continents has done more to change behaviour than the forecast of climatologists that there may be a 2.5°C anthropogenic rise in temperature in the next forty years. Merely reacting is clearly inadequate, however. The question is whether human beings can develop the ability to take anticipatory action. It is the struggle to discipline current moral reasoning and current policy discussions in a way that gives adequate weight to delayed costs and consequences that forms the backdrop of demands for the recognition of the rights of future generations. What is the proper conceptual framework for dealing with these challenges induced by the new technological possibilities of our generation? There are two prominent answers: one remains within the framework of anthropocentrism; the other seeks to overcome anthropocentrism by a biocentric approach. 

Anthropocentric and Biocentric Approaches 

To the extent that I have considered the impact of science and technology in terms of its importance for the survival and flourishing of humankind, my argument so far has been anthropocentric. This is still a widespread approach, and many authors consider the problems of environmental ethics solely in anthropocentric terms. Their basic assumption is that only conscious beings can incorporate value or non-value. All human action is thus assessed exclusively in terms of its effects on human beings. These authors use no criterion for human responsibility other than the life and future expectations of humankind. [14]

When it is adopted by ethicists who appreciate the intricate pattern of dependencies that constitutes the biosphere, the anthropocentric approach provides a powerful means of reasoning about environmental responsibilities. Far from merely reinforcing the status quo, it has far- reaching consequences for moral reflection, including —above all— recognising the rights of posterity. By contrast to the problematic extension of rights to non-human nature, the extension of rights to future generations is certainly conceivable in the framework of a human-centred approach. The argument runs roughly as follows: While conscious beings exist, they are to enjoy at least the same opportunities as the present generation. Protection of nature, preservation of the countryside and wild animals, a sparing use of resources—all this can be derived from an anthropocentric perspective. [15] All that is needed for this is to assign the rights of future generations the same status as those of the present one. One only needs to borrow from human rights discussions the idea that the present generation must not act in such a way as to deprive coming generations of the rights it enjoys itself. Formally this is not new to human rights thinking. Back in 1776 the Virginia Bill of Rights stated that people could not deprive their descendants of recognised rights even by state treaty.[16] From this John Rawls deduced a “just savings principle,” which says that each generation is to leave the next one the resources and opportunities of survival it would with good reason claim for itself. [17] This idea was rooted in the anthropocentric tradition of human rights philosophy, yet with the growing impact of human action on the future, it is gaining unexpected weight today in the discussion of conservation and of the responsible use of natural resources. Science and technology compel us to develop an ethic based on responsibility. Is our present line of action really responsible, in the light of the rights to life and resources of future generations?[18] 

This question is particularly apt in view of human applications of genetic engineering. A human-centred ethic is quite adequate to produce compelling arguments to counter any effort to introduce planned production of “perfect” human beings; such production would be incompatible with human dignity, destroying as it does the human personality, which of necessity entails unique individuality and unplanned, even disturbing, elements, Human dignity is understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition to be based on the inimitable individuality of each human being. This tradition not only has a general concept of dignity enjoyed by each person equally, but also a fundamental belief that all women and men are accepted by God in their uniqueness and are thus to be respected by others accordingly. Human beings have this dignity as persons with their own history, not as abstract ciphers. They cannot be swapped for another better planned and equipped designer model. A specific moment of human dignity, which has to be taken into account even if we develop a larger concept of the dignity of nature, is the uniqueness and individuality of every human person and each individual’s potential of self-determination. 

The example of the critical review of potential genetic change shows how far-reaching an anthropocentric ethic may be. Already it has drawn conclusions incompatible with predominant economic and political options in the rich and highly industrialised countries. Yet many regard such an ethic as inadequate today. They insist that it must be supplemented by a biocentric (or physiocentric) model, requiring that the rights of nature be recognized as well. [19] Proponents of the biocentric approach claim that non-human nature has an independent right to exist and that animals and plants have certain rights not derived from human interests. Many advocates of this position favour a holistic concept based on the idea of the fundamental equality of all parts of nature. They contend that the evolution of ethical world views advances from orientation to one self and the small group via different intermediate steps to seeing our planet as part of the universe. Likewise they expand the notion of law from its original reference to narrowly defined class rights to the wider concept of human rights (with the deliberate inclusion of marginalised groups) and finally to the rights of nature. [20] In the German discussion Meyer-Abich has distinguished eight development stages of ethical reflection: egocentricism, a utilitarianism which includes relatives and friends, an ethic of group interests, the ethic of national solidarity, solidarity with all persons alive at a given time, solidarity with the members of future generations, the inclusion of animals capable of feeling pain, and finally the holistic position. In this last case, the organic and inorganic world—humans, animals, plants, and the four elements—attain a value of their own in the whole natural context.” He has called for the widening of this ethical horizon to be accompanied by the broader concept of rights. 

A pragmatic objection to this lovely holistic vision is that most people feel overwhelmed by it. They can only act responsibly in a limited sphere. They feel helpless and powerless when told that the range of their ethical responsibility and legal obligation is the cosmos. Such a pragmatic objection does not in itself mean that this concept is wrong. The objection does, however, focus attention on whether it is really necessary to step beyond traditional anthropocentrism and, if so, whether the term “rights of nature” is the correct instrument for effecting this step. 

There are two different ways of distinguishing between anthropocentrism and biocentrism. One method involves the distinction between interests, The key issue here is whether the human interest in self-preservation should be recognized as the basic element of a future-oriented ethic (anthropocentrism of interest). Perhaps the survival interests of non-human nature can be recognized by humans too (bio-centrism of interest). The other method of differentiation involves the assignment of moral responsibility. The key question here is who is the protagonist (subject) of the ethic—only humankind, comprising conscious and accountable beings (anthropocentrism of responsibility), or all living creatures (biocentrism of responsibility)? With this set of distinctions in mind, let us examine the familiar claim that we must overcome our anthropocentric perspective if we are to establish a secure foundation for environmental ethics. What exactly are we being exhorted to do? If advocates of this view mean that we must supplant anthropocentrism of interest with biocentrism of interest, they have proposed an interesting method of reform that deserves further scrutiny. However, if they mean that we must abandon anthropocentrism of responsibility for biocentrism of responsibility, they have aimed a mortal blow at the very heart of ethical reasoning. 

The Hebrew Bible described human beings as made in the image of God, and Greek philosophy characterised them as accountable animals; this laid the foundations for the emergence of an ethic culminating in the modern era in the momentous concept of freedom. Human beings may inquire about the justification for their actions; their freedom is discerned precisely in their raising this question and recognising only those grounds which they can accept without compulsion. Anthropocentrism of responsibility is profoundly rooted in the traditions of faith and philosophy. It is hard to imagine an ethic in the absence of anthropocentrism of responsibility since this is synonymous with agency. Cutting these roots would mean killing the concept of responsibility itself. In an age when the need for an ethic of responsibility is being rediscovered, there are good reasons for insisting on anthropocentrism of responsibility: human beings are accountable for the consequences of their actions. 

It is a mistake to link, or even confuse, this anthropocentrism of responsibility with anthropocentric interests. While we must acknowledge the degree to which anthropocentrism of interests has shaped modern ethics, it is important to note that the tradition is not so unambiguously anthropocentric as some proponents of biocentrism have suggested. At least up until the age of Enlightenment, ethical reflection was always codetermined by the awareness that interests requiring consideration in moral judgment are not simply identical with the interests of people whether these interests are construed individually or collectively. Rather, agents were thought to be capable of acting responsibly in the interests of others, even of the whole. Precisely this structure of human responsibility is described in the Judeo-Christian tradition with the disclosure that humankind is made in God’s image. [22] This means in practice that action will be in responsibility for others and thus for the whole. Moreover, this leads to the dual structure which has always characterised Christian understanding of sin—a condition in which people have lost their God-image and their sense of responsibility for others and the whole. In this dual structure are rooted the religious and ethical implications of the word sin

Originally the ethic of the Judeo-Christian tradition and its secularised equivalents linked an anthropocentric understanding of responsibility with a non-anthropocentric understanding of interests. Amongst all creatures humankind alone appeared to be responsible agents, while also showing respect for the vital interests of non-human nature. This is to be found in other religions, too, where taboos erect protective walls around those interests which may not be violated by human action. [23] Observing such taboos has often proved equally beneficial for both human and non-human nature. This shows the wisdom religions have conserved. After all, many religions state that human beings remain true to their own interests only when they also consider the interests of others. It is an essential feature of the religious view of human life that we are part of a greater context which is not at our command. 

The slow abandonment of this attitude in Western culture has been a complex process with different forces working together. Among them was the general victory of the market model that contradicted the wisdom of religion. According to the market model, we best serve the interest of the whole in exclusively following our own interests. This imperative supplemented an anthropocentrism of responsibility with a narrow anthropocentrism of interest. This deprived agents of grounds for taking the interests of non-human nature into consideration in determining human action. Nature was demystified and instrumentalised, putting it at the mercy of those people who thought themselves its lords and masters. 

This linking of human-centred responsibility and human-centred interests made a crucial contribution to the expansionist thrust of modern industrialism. For a certain time this dual anthropocentrism proved extraordinarily successful. This thought pattern is undeniably fallacious, however. It has been clearly shown that market orientation to personal interest alone is by no means an adequate guarantee for the promotion of common good. Instead, interventions are necessary in order to limit the market mechanism, as illustrated by the history of social legislation. It is apparent today, in different ways, that human self-interest alone is an insufficient motive to safeguard the preservation of non-human nature. The call for rights for nature is thus based on an incontrovertible and correct insight. Contrary to the assumption of its proponents, an ethic that serves only human interests by no means automatically leads to the sufficient protection of non-human nature. Just as the market model cannot guarantee that the orientation to the individual interests of some will at the same time serve the welfare of all, human-centred interests cannot ensure the future benefit of nature as a whole. It is true, then, that anthropocentricity of interests must be overcome. 

Yet talking about the rights of nature is not the best way to go about it because by attributing agency to entities that cannot function as agents, we undermine moral agency. Rights regulate relations between responsible agents. They relate to someone in principle able to make use of claims, freedoms, and competences. The concept of ‘right’ is part of anthropocentrism of responsibility and is wrongly used if extended beyond persons in order to overcome anthropocentrism of interests. Yet is there no other way to entrench the interests of non-human nature in ethics and the law? 

Dignity of Nature Rather Than Rights of Nature 

It is indisputable that a society can endow natural objects with legal status just as it can ‘legal persons’. It can declare a stretch of countryside a national park; it can declare species of flora and fauna worthy of protection and can make it an offence to kill a single animal or pick a single flower of the designated species. However, just as with ‘legal persons’, these rights depend totally on the decision of society to establish and grant them in order to advance its interests or to balance competing rights. It is quite a different issue whether natural objects have “moral rights” that are inalienable—not awarded by society but requiring respect from all societies and states. 

Though some of those who want to speak of such rights extend the concept to all natural objects and even to the whole cosmos, most limit the concept to animals capable of feeling pain. [24] However, even if the rights of non-human nature are confined to suffering animals, the concept of moral rights needs to be fundamentally changed in order to be applied in this way. In the past, inalienable moral rights have been recognized only with respect to subjects who are—as a species—moral actors, whose moral rights may in principle be matched by moral responsibility. [25] Once rights are claimed for animals capable of feeling pain, the concept of rights has lost its clarity; the core of these rights can no longer be found in the fact that their holders enjoy freedom, equality, and also a right to (active, personally responsible) participation. [26] So the very transfer of rights to animals capable of suffering compels us to dissolve the concept of rights underlying human rights. Once the traditional concept of rights has been abandoned, there seems to be no reason only parts of non-human nature should be covered; we might as well extend these “rights” to animals not capable of suffering, to plants, to biotic communities, or to stretches of countryside. If rights are no longer the prerogative of accountable persons, why should Mineral King Valley or an ordinary tree not enjoy them as well? 

Yet, before we go this far, let us ask whether what is gained is worth the necessary sacrifice. The sacrifice consists in giving up the link between the idea of elementary rights and the capacity of their bearers to recognize them. The link is broken solely to heighten the human duty to respect non-human nature. Talking about nature’s rights is thus a device to serve an anthropocentrism based on responsibility. It rests on the insight that human action is a threat to non-human nature and so must be contained by the latter’s interests. Yet this idea can be expressed by other means. It is not necessary for its sake to construct non-human holders of moral rights. The desired purpose can be achieved differently. It is enough to state that non-human nature has not only an instrumental or intrinsic value but also an inherent dignity. By inherent dignity I mean an integrity unrelated to any extraneous purpose. 

The instrumental value of an object consists in its being a means to an external end (food is for our sustenance). The intrinsic value of an object consists in its having in itself a value for others (a lovely flower or exquisite painting delight the beholder). The dignity inherent in an object, however, is not dependent on external recognition but exists in itself. [27] It is an integrity which can neither be granted nor withdrawn by others. Has non-human nature such dignity or integrity? 

It is frequently said that the Judeo-Christian tradition restricts such dignity to humankind alone. Evidence is drawn from the creation account in which humankind alone is made in the image of God. [28] From this biblical concept of creation there arose the traditional idea of the “great chain of life.[29] This envisages all living beings as fitted into a hierarchical order with humans at the top of the hierarchy of embodied beings. They differ from all other links in the chain owing to their special dignity, that of being shaped in the image of God. 

Modern anthropology secularised this idea, claiming that humankind alone enjoys autonomy and has dominion over the earth, while non-human nature is (heteronomously) at its service. [30] Natural objects are only of worth if they are of use to people; they have no dignity of their own. This interpretation is also espoused in the modern era by those theologians who interpret the divine image as meaning that human beings have an exclusive claim to dignity. 

Another theological interpretation is conceivable, however. According to the biblical creation texts, the creation of humankind can neither be separated from the whole creation process nor from the rest of creation. The goal of creation, we read, is the coexistence of creatures, not their separation. This is shown particularly clearly in the regulations on access to food in the biblical texts; they aim to give all living beings what they need in order to survive in the limited common space available.[31] The interaction of creatures in one and the same cosmos is an important aspect of the creation idea. All creatures relate to the creator and depend on the divine goodness; they all have very little space to live and a limited life span; they all depend on finding a solution to their competition for the means of life which will enable the individual to survive in the midst of other life. 

Against this background the commission to rule over the earth and all animals takes on a new meaning. The difference between persons and other creatures does not consist in persons having dignity while other creatures do not. Instead, all creatures partake in the dignity bestowed on creation by the creator. However, human beings are distinguished by the ability to perceive and recognize the dignity of other creatures and are thus granted the right to assign them names.[32] The exercise of rights is bound to the gift of language. The right to name other creatures includes the duty to preserve and promote their lives, The meaning of human dominion over nature is shown precisely in the capacity to care for others. Human dominion is in accordance with creation when it is marked by respect for the integrity of the other creatures. 

Respect for the dignity of other beings—human and non-human—is a basic feature of Christian ethics. The history of Christian ethics is a history of repeated attempts to overcome limitations on the attribution of dignity. The twentieth century has been particularly marked by the recognition of and the attempt to overcome massive forms of violation of the dignity of God’s human creatures. Examples are the struggle against slavery and racism and sexism. It is my argument that a right understanding of Christian ethics requires that respect for dignity must be extended to non-human nature—in thought, word, and deed. 

While it is fundamental to the wisdom of religion to recognize and affirm the dignity of nature, even the resolutely secular mind has access to this insight. We have all glimpsed nature’s own dignity and integrity. When we encounter nature in its beauty or overwhelming power, it shows us its own measure. It shows us that it not only has an instrumental or intrinsic value, but a dignity of its own.

Among modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant gives the concept of dignity an outstanding role. One of his definitions of the term reads as follows: “In the sphere of purposes everything has either a price, or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as an equivalent; what is beyond all price, however, thus allowing of no equivalent, has a dignity.” [33] I would conclude, with Kant, that anything with dignity has always to be seen as an end, never merely as a means. 

Of course, Kant limits the sphere of purposes to beings endowed with reason because he has to anchor the end-in-itself in the autonomy and thus in the self-determination of the subject. The concept of creation is more radical in that it anchors the dignity of the creature in its relation to the creator and not in itself. Rooting dignity in creation —as contrasted with rooting it in autonomy—opens the way to seeing non-human nature, too, as something that has a dignity before it has a price. Only from this religious perspective can we coherently argue that the attitude of persons to non-human nature should be the same as the attitude of persons to persons, that all natural entities should be seen as ends, never merely as means. Such an understanding of nature may appear plausible to us —even beyond the sphere of religious convictions— because, for our generation, too, the instrumental attitude to nature is constrained by an aesthetic relationship, in which we encounter nature in its own inherent dignity. As long as we only use nature as a means or calculate its value for ourselves, it will only have a price; we can find an equivalent for it. In the aesthetic relation to nature —which is more than a romantic feeling— we are confronted with nature’s own measure, however, and with something unique. Yet the sphere of industrial utilisation of nature is spreading and absorbing much of its previous confines. The aesthetic relationship to nature is being pushed back into nature preserves, nature protection areas, or national parks, themselves endangered by the tourist industry. In the long run there may be no havens for the aesthetic relationship to nature—unless our attitude to nature as a whole undergoes change. 

An Ethic of Self-Limitation 

The wisdom of religion says that human beings can only live when they know themselves to be situated in a greater context which is not at their command. Or, to paraphrase a famous saying of Albert Schweizer: I am only life when I can live in the midst of life that can also live. [34] Contemporary thinking no longer bows to the superior power of nature, despite earthquakes and climatic disasters. We only recognize the dignity of nature when we are willing and able to limit our actions voluntarily. Talking of the “rights of nature” is supposed to assist in this self-limitation, as we have seen. The dignity of nature, which we may perceive aesthetically, is by this means prematurely connected with rights. 

The relationship of people to their natural environment becomes the occasion for the drafting of a charter of rights, supposedly comparable with human rights. Meyer-Abich has done that, asserting, on the one hand, that “Persons, animals and plants, and the elements are related in natural history and form a natural legal community. [35] According to this, animals, plants and the elements have, as legal actors, the same status as human beings. On the other hand, however, he also acknowledges that “The inherent value of our natural environment is expressed in the form of rights by humanity. The rights of our natural environment are asserted vicariously and assigned by laws.” The starting point here is the responsibility which distinguishes human beings from non-human nature, The semblance of rights for non-human nature is shattered by the question of how they are to be established and implemented. The survival interest of persons is expressed as a subjective right, but this is not true of non-human nature. This inconsistency reflects the difference between having an interest and taking an interest. Elementary rights can only be granted to someone who can also conceivably be a legal subject. Autonomy is required for this, not just dignity. One can only have rights if one’s activity is not determined by physical laws alone, thereby enabling actions to be checked in the light of morality and legality. 

So it turns out to be misleading and superfluous to speak of nature’s rights. It is more appropriate to become aware of our responsibility for recognising nature’s dignity. Such recognition necessitates a self-imposed limitation on human interventions in natural processes. The criterion for this limitation is the realisation that nature must never be seen as merely a means, but also as an end in itself. Its use as a means of enhancing human life and development is thus limited by the duty to preserve its richness and variety. 

This changed understanding of the moral relationship of the human and the non-human has direct legal consequences, requiring an ecological restructuring of our constitution and legal order. In current German law most regulations for the protection of non-human nature are rooted solely in human interests—apart from some prohibiting cruelty to animals. Nature and the countryside are to be protected as “human resources and for human recreation.” [37] This anthropocentrism of interests must be changed if the law is to become compatible with an ethic of self-limitation. This can be shown by reference to the part of the German Constitution dealing with basic rights. Article 2 speaks of free development of personality. “Everyone shall have the right to the free development of his personality in so far as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against the constitutional order or the moral code.” There is no reference to the dignity of nature in this context. An ecological reworking of the constitution would need to start with recognising the dignity of nature as the limit of the free development of human personality. The Article should be amended to read thus: “Everyone shall have the right to the free development of his or her personality in so far as s/he does not violate the rights of others or the dignity of nature or offend against the constitutional order or the moral code.” From the very insight that the dignity of nature limits our individual development and thus also restricts economic interests, one can derive the consequence that the state must conserve natural life support systems. For years we have been discussing the question of whether such a state goal can be written into the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany. Such a comprehensive commitment of the state has been countered by an alternative proposal restricting the state’s welfare obligation to the natural resources necessary for human life. This proposal has been further weakened by being subjected to statutory regulation. 

Such a restriction to life support systems and human survival interests appears fatal to me. The premise is that the protection of our natural environment is to be determined by the collective egoism of human beings. I protest. Not only should our basic life support systems be subject to state protection for the sake of future generations, but also all forms of life that are possible victims of human action should enjoy this protection for their own sake. The constitutional amendment would then read: “Life support systems shall enjoy the especial protection of the state.” 

Bishop Huber With His Eminence Reinhard Marx, Cardinal, Archbishop of Munich and Freising.


  1. See Klaus Michael Meyer-Abich, Wege zum Frieden mit der Natur: Praktische Naturphilosophie für die Urweltpolitik (Munich and Vienna: Hanser, 1984), 162ff.; Kent Greenawalt, Religious Convictions and Political Choice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 103ff. 
  2. See Tom Regan and Peter Singer, Animal Rights and Human Obligations (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976); Andrew Linzey, Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment of Man’s Treatment of Animals (London: SCM Press, 1976); Raymond G. Frey, Interests and Rights: The Case against Animals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980); Peter Singer, Praktische Ethik (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984), 70ff.; Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Andrew Linzey, Christianity and the Rights of Animals (New York: Crossroads, 1987); Andrew Linzey and Tom Regan, Animals and Christianity (New York: Crossroads, 1988).
  3. See Albert Lorz, “Die Entwicklung des deutschen Tierschutzrechts,” in Tierschuez: Testfall unserer Menschlichkeit, ed. Ursula Hindel (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1984), 129-43.
  4. See Wolfgang Hardegg and Gert Preiser, Tierversuche und medizinische Ethik (Hildesheim: Olms, 1986).
  5. Christopher D. Stone, Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects (Los Altos, Calif.: W. Kaufmann, 1974); for a further development of Stone’s thought, see Christopher D. Stone, Earth and Other Ethics: The Case for Legal Pluralism (New York: Harper and Row, 1987). 
  6. Meyer-Abich, Frieden mit der Natur, 166.
  7. For a rather metaphorical use of “right” in this connection, see the discussion of the Gaia hypothesis in Jim E. Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979); Jim E. Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Jonathan Weiner, The Next Hundred Years: Shaping the Fate of Our Living Earth (New York: Bantam, 1990).
  8. The fundamental difference between the status of ‘legal persons’ and human rights is blatantly ignored by Jörg Leimbacher, “Rechte der Natur,” Evangelische Theologie 50 (1990): 450-59, esp. 456f. 
  9. In the following I am developing earlier reflections; see Wolfgang Huber, Konflikt und Konsens: Studien zur Ethik der Verantwortung (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1990), 208-35. 
  10. Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York: Random House, 1989). 
  11. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980).
  12. See Horst Krautter, “Planen in Städten und Gemeinden,” Vorgänge 98 (1989): 97-105, esp. 101.
  13. See the report of the inquiry commission, “Schutz der Erdatmosphäre,” submitted to the Deutsche Bundestag in October 1990.
  14. From the German discussion see Dieter Birnbacher, Verantwortung für zukünftige Generationen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1988), 58; Günther Patzig, Okologische Ethik—innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck und Rupprecht, 1983); see also Frey, Interests and Rights.
  15. See the vivid descriptions of the history of environmental ethics by Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967, rev. 1973); also Roderick Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989). 
  16. Virginia Bill of Rights, Section 1. 
  17. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), §44. 
  18. Hans Jonas’s ethics of responsibility is also anthropocentric in this sense; see Hans Jonas, Das Prinzip Verantwortung (Frankfurt: Insel, 1979); translated by the author as The Imperative of Responsibility (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
  19. The basic difference between the rights of future generations and rights of nature is unfortunately not brought out in the interesting proposal of Lukas Vischer et al., “Rechte künftiger Generationen—Rechte der Natur,” Evangelische Theologie 50 (1990): 433-77.
  20. Nash, Rights of Nature, 5 ff.
  21. Klaus M. Meyer-Abich, “Von der Umwelt zur Mitwelt: Unterwegs zu einem neuen Selbstverständnis des Menschen im Ganzen der Natur,” Scheidewege: Jahresschrift für skeptisches Denken 18 (1988): 128-48; see Paul W. Taylor, Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986).
  22. See Christian Link, “Rechte der Schöpfung—Theologische Perspektiven,” Evangelische Theologie 30 (1990). 459-68, esp. 462. 
  23. See Theo Sundermeier, “‘Jeder Teil dieser Erde ist meinem Volk heilig‘: Natural religious piety,” in Frieden in der Schöpfung: Das Naturverständnis protestantischer Theologie, ed. Gerhard Rau, Adolf Martin Ritter, and Hermann Timm (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1987), 20-34. 
  24. Cf. notes 1 and 2. 
  25. Once again, these rights are inalienable inasmuch they also apply to persons who are not able or willing to assume their moral responsibility; the above argument should thus not be misunderstood as implying a symmetry of rights and responsibilities (duties). ‘On this problem see Wolfgang Huber and Heinz Eduard Tödt, Menschenrechte: Perspektiven einer menschlichen Welt, 3rd ed. (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1988), esp. 106-13. 
  26. Freedom, equality, and participation together form the basic pattern of modern human rights; see Huber and Tödt, Menschenrechte, 80 ff. 
  27. See Taylor, Respect for Nature, on this distinction.
  28. Gen. 1:26ff.
  29. See Joseph W. Krutch, The Great Chain of Life (New York: Pyramid, 1956); Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (New York: Harper Brothers, 1960).
  30. René Descartes, Discours de la Methode (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1960), 101; Günter Altner, Die große Kollision: Mensch und Natur (Graz, Vienna, and Cologne, 1987), 94-130.
  31. Gen. 1:29f. and Gen. 9:4. The systematic importance of food arrangements in biblical texts has been pointed out by, e.g., Gerhard Liedke, Im Bauch des Fisches: Okologische Theologie (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1979), 130ff. 
  32. Gen. 2:19f. 
  33. Immanuel Kant, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, vol. 4 of Werke in sechs Bänden, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1956, 1968), BA7. 
  34. Albert Schweitzer said: “Ich bin Leben, das leben will, inmitten von Leben, das leben will” (Albert Schweitzer, Die Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben [Munich: Beck, 1982], 111). 
  35. Meyer-Abich, Frieden mit der Natur, 190.
  36. Ibid
  37. Federal Nature Protection Act, 20 December 1976, § 1 para. 1 (BGB1 1, 3574).