When Rivers and Animals Get Human Rights, Democracy Gets Weird


One of the fundamental aspects of democratic forms of government is the recognition of rights. The Founders defied and rejected the divine right of kings, declaring that even the common man has rights, and that a ruler has duties to the common man —an unparalleled leveling that the crown found atrocious.

What is interesting about the American story even today is the ever-expanding circle of who we count as worthy of full rights. As historian Francis Fukuyama argues, "the most serious political fights in the history of the United States have been over who qualifies as fully human. Women and blacks did not make the cut in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration." But what if the circle of rights extends beyond human beings?

We might be at the advent of just such a time. Care2.com reports that in New Zealand, a river has been given the rights of personhood.

“Meet the Whanganui. You might call it a river, but in the eyes of the law, it has the standings of a person. In a landmark case for the Rights of Nature, officials in New Zealand recently granted the Whanganui, the nation’s third-longest river, with legal personhood."

Care2.com also reports that "Although this is likely the first time a single river has been granted such a distinction under the law, chances are it’s not the last. In 2008, Ecuador passed similar ruling giving its forests, lakes, and waterways rights on par with humans in order to ensure their protection from harmful practices."

Similarly, neuroscientist Daniel Bor argues that while fetuses do not have rights, perhaps some animals should. In a recent article for Slate, he offers a challenging argument for what might be called animal personhood.

Bor begins his argument by evaluating whether or not fetuses can feel pain. Because the regions of the brain associated with conscious experience and self-awareness aren't developed until about 33 weeks into pregnancy, he discounts fetal pain laws. Bor then considers the level of development of similar brain regions in other animals,  referencing experiments in which some animals (like chimps, orangutans, dolphins, and elephants) demonstrate conscious awareness.

Bors' conclusion?

“Consequently, I am a vegetarian, as are several prominent consciousness researchers. I believe it would be ethically consistent for us to extend our own rights to life and freedom from torture to any species that can recognize itself in the mirror, show clear metacognition, or even demonstrate extensive tool use."

The very fact that these arguments are being made shows that the moral conversation has taken a radical turn. Human exceptionalism, a doctrine which limits moral rights and duties to the human community, has clearly been thrown out the window.

These developments require serious consideration, not knee-jerk reactions. My hope is that we will start conversations about moral foundations. Though I oppose these ideas, I do so rationally rather than emotionally. We all need to get at the root of why old ideas of human exceptionalism are true. If they are not true, then we need to discard them. That’s how we avoid empty traditionalism.

As with many of the current moral dilemmas our generation will have to contend with, we need to address the question of what makes us human. Moreover, we now need to answer why humans are special.