Tag Archives: altruism

A Note on Stone’s “Should Trees Have Standing?”

A report in the New York Times the other day about the Federal District Court case naming the Colorado River as plaintiff led me to Christopher D. Stone’s 1972 Southern California Law Review article, “Should Trees Have Standing?” Justice Douglas drew on Stone’s arguments to formulate his dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, and since that time the essay has been widely influential, a classic that helped define a field.

For Stone, a river or a lake, a mountain or a forest, a species or the biosphere can have roughly the same status as other “legal incompetents.” A human guardian or, as we might say nowadays, a protector brings a complaint for a natural entity that has suffered some injury. The case is brought “at the behest of” the river or mountain, without having first to prove injury to the guardian or some third party (e.g., a fishing guide whose business has suffered as the result of stream pollution); and the natural entity itself would be the beneficiary of an award or remedy ordered by the court. So, for instance, a judgment against those who have polluted a stream might direct them to undo the damage done to its waters, mitigate erosion of its banks and depletion of its plant life, restock its fish, and so on. The stream would have a “right” to be made whole again.

Stone recognizes that his proposal “is bound to sound odd or frightening of laughable,” but that, he notes, has been true of any movement to confer rights on rightless “things”:

There will be resistance to giving the thing “rights” until it can be seen and valued for itself; yet it is hard to see it and value it for itself until we can bring ourselves to give it “rights” — which is almost inevitably going to sound inconceivable to a large group of people.

Stone’s thinking can seem way ahead of its time — and ours (even if the writing here is sometimes redolent of Southern California in the early 1970s). This is especially true toward the end of the piece, where Stone moves from making strictly jural arguments for the standing of rivers, trees, and other natural entities to broader observations about the “shift from the view that nature exists for men”:

…the time is already upon us when we may have to consider subordinating some human claims to those of the environment per se. Consider, for example, the disputes over protecting wilderness areas from development that would make them accessible to greater numbers of people. I myself feel disingenuous rationalizing the environmental protectionist’s position in terms of a utilitarian calculus, even one that takes future generations into account, and plays fast and loose with its definition of “good.” Those who favor development have the stronger argument — they at least hold the protectionist to a standstill — from the point of advancing the greatest good of the greatest number of people. And the same is true regarding arguments to preserve useless species of animals, as in [the case of sea urchins endangered by a nuclear power plant.] One can say that we never know what is going to prove useful at some future time. In order to protect ourselves, therefore, we ought to be conservative now in our treatment of nature. I agree. But when conservationists argue this way to the exclusion of other arguments, or find themselves speaking in terms of “recreational interests” so continuously as to play up to, and reinforce, homocentrist perspectives, there is something sad about the spectacle. One feels that the arguments lack even their proponent’s convictions. I expect they want to say something less egotistic and more emphatic but the prevailing and sanctioned modes of explanation in our society are not quite ready for it. In this vein, there must have been abolitonists who put their case in terms of getting more work out of the Blacks. Holdsworth says of the early English Jew that while he was “regarded as a species of res nullius … [H]e was valuable for his acquisitive capacity; and for that reason the crown took him under its protection.” (Even today, businessmen are put in the position of insisting that their decent but probably profitless acts will “help our company’s reputation and be good for profits.”)

For my part, I would prefer a frank avowal that even making adjustments for esthetic improvements, what I am proposing is going to cost “us,” i.e., reduce our standard of living as measured in terms of our present values.

We may still not be “ready for it,” as Stone puts it; and, he goes on to say, there might be a more “fundamental problem” with asking human beings to put their own immediate self-interest aside and act on ethical principle, or to limit our rights in order to respect the rights of others:

Insofar as the proposal is not just an elaborate legal fiction, but really comes down in the last analysis to a compromise of our interests for theirs, why should we adopt it? “What is in it for ‘us’?”

This is a question I am prepared to answer, but only after permitting myself some observations about how odd the question is. It asks for me to justify my position in the very anthropocentric hedonist terms that I am proposing we modify. One is inclined to respond by a counter: “couldn’t you (as a white) raise the same questions about compromising your preferred rights status with Blacks?”; or “couldn’t you (as a man) raise the same question about compromising your preferred rights status with women?” Such counters, unfortunately, seem no more responsive than the question itself. (They have a nagging ring of “yours too” about them.) What the exchange actually points up is a fundamental problem regarding the nature of philosophical argument. Recall that Socrates, whom we remember as an opponent of hedonistic thought, confutes Thrasymachus by arguing that immorality makes one miserably unhappy! Kant, whose moral philosophy was based upon the categorical imperative (“Woe to him who creeps through the serpent windings of Utilitarianism”) finds himself justifying, e.g., promise keeping and truth telling, on the most prudential-one might almost say, commercial-grounds. This “philosophic irony” (as Professor [S. Morris] Engel calls it) may owe to there being something unique about ethical argument. “Ethics cannot be put into words”, Wittgenstein puts it; such matters “make themselves manifest.” On the other hand, perhaps the truth is that in any argument which aims at persuading a human being to action (on ethical or any other bases), “logic” is only an instrument for illuminating positions, at best, and in the last analysis it is psycho-logical [sic] appeals to the listener’s self-interest that hold sway, however ”principled” the rhetoric may be.

That logic may have its limits and ethical argument its attendant ironies should not deter us. “The strongest case can be made from the perspective of human advantage,” Stone writes; and after reviewing that case, he goes on to suggest that protecting the environment will actually raise our standard of living, if not in terms of our present values, then (this point deserves emphasis) in terms of new and more durable values.

Stone is even prepared to argue that “a radical new conception of man’s relationship to the rest of nature would not only be a step towards solving the material planetary problems” (and the problems Stone identifies here, in 1972, are still very much with us and more urgent than ever before: melting polar ice caps, dying oceans, serious threats to water). “There are strong reasons for such a changed consciousness [Stone admits that he is uncomfortable with the term] from the point of making us far better humans.” Recognizing the rights of those whose standing once seemed “unthinkable,” to borrow Stone’s phrase, surely has.

The Delta Response to Gamma Rats and Sociopaths

Doug Casey may not believe, along with Margaret Thatcher, that there’s no such thing as society, but he seems to have given up on ours. An investor and a self-styled libertarian, Casey thinks the country is done: “All the institutions that made America exceptional – including a belief in capitalism, individualism, self-reliance and the restraints of the Constitution – are now only historical artifacts,” he wrote in a post this past week. The “moral rot” runs so deep, Casey argues, that there is no fixing the institutions; the rot has become institutionalized.

How did things get so bad? Casey has a simple answer, one that doesn’t require much reading of history or economic analysis: sociopaths. Sociopaths “are now fully in control of major American institutions. Their beliefs and attitudes are insinuated throughout the economic, political, intellectual and psychological/spiritual fabric of the US.” These “really bad actors” – Casey estimates that they make up about 4 percent of the population –“are drawn to government and other positions where they can work their will on other people and, because they’re enthusiastic about government, they rise to leadership positions. They remake the culture of the organizations they run in their own image.”

Casey is hardly the first to claim that sociopaths have taken over. The movie The Corporation popularized the trope. If in the wake of Citizens United corporations are persons, then (runs the argument) they are the kind who belong in a straitjacket. Since then, and especially since things went bust in 2008, it’s become popular to characterize CEOs and Wall Street investors as sociopaths; it borders on cliché. Casey’s simply transferred the argument to government: no surprise, really, that it is as dysfunctional and destructive as the other centers of power in twenty-first century America.

Casey recommends flight over fight. He argues that it makes better sense than ever to become an International Man (the initial caps are his: the International Man appears to have achieved an iconic status in his mind), and find a safe haven to keep one’s assets and one’s life out of the reach of the sociopaths. Casey sees this flight from society not as the act of a misanthrope, but a “gamma rat”:

You may recall the ethologist’s characterization of the social interaction of rats as being between a few alpha rats and many beta rats, the alpha rats being dominant and the beta rats submissive. In addition, a small percentage are gamma rats that stake out prime territory and mates, like the alphas, but are not interested in dominating the betas. The people most inclined to leave for the wide world outside and seek fortune elsewhere are typically gamma personalities.

I have to admit that the fantasy of becoming an International Man holds its attractions – a hoard of wealth, prime real estate, the finest mates (check their teeth and gums, just to make sure). But it is, ultimately, a fantasy of power and control that betrays a feeling of powerlessness and a loss of control.  The International Man would have us believe that he is a refugee, fleeing persecution, but he doesn’t ask for pity or succor; he demands privilege and exemption from all that is common.

He is shrewd and selfish, not heroic. Odysseus, arguably the first international man, was wily, but he suffered heroically because he longed for home. The gamma cannot be nostalgic; home is where he finds or makes his fortune, until the taxman catches up. He fancies himself a hobo or tramp, but he has investment assets, property and multiple passports. He wants to own but not owe – not nothing to nobody, nohow. He accumulates wealth but, it would seem, cares nothing for common wealth; that may make him rich, but it also makes him the enemy of prosperity.

If the International Man is iconic, he would appear to be an icon of idiocy, in the classical sense of that word. Arendt puts it this way in The Human Condition: “a life spent in the privacy of ‘one’s own’ ([in Greek,] idion), outside the world of the common, is ‘idiotic’ by definition.”

What else should we call a person who sees bad actors taking control, institutions failing, society collapsing, and decides to get out while he still can? What would be his motto? Ask not what you can do for your country, but what you can grab for yourself?

More importantly, what would it take to go beyond gamma – to delta, let’s say, where you can apply yourself to meaningful work, and to building the next society?

The delta understands social collapse and institutional failure not simply as a crisis, but as an opportunity to create something new. The delta wards off doom by doing humble work, tinkering, fixing and reclaiming. As I conceive it, delta is all about tikkun — doing the difficult work of “world repair,” not throwing one’s hands up in despair. It takes imagination. Poets, painters and teachers can be deltas; they give us new models to work with. So can inventors and entrepreneurs. In fact, I would put social entrepreneurs and socially responsible investors at the forefront of the delta group. And delta is on the rise: B-corporations, which work to produce public benefits, have won legitimacy in seven states; legislation in pending in seven others.

Deltas work at a remove from the dysfunctional centers of power, on the edges of organizations, independently and within small groups, where they can experiment and learn from each other. The delta looks for alternatives to the destructive power dynamics of the alphas and the betas – flatter organizations, fair dealing, transparency and collaboration. If the gamma is entirely self-directed, even to the point of idiocy, the delta is other-directed, altruistic, a maker of community. Deltas stay networked, because they recognize the limits of the self, and know that our lives and our liberty take on meaning only with and in relation to others, no matter how much we may fantasize about going it alone.

To Prosper We Need More Than Jobs

I’m always thrown by attempts to measure prosperity purely in terms of economic growth or high employment figures. Those measures are too restrictive, and they are also disorienting. Politicians who offer jobs leave me cold, and do us all a disservice. As I’ve written several times, the country is, or ought to be, more than a workcamp.

There’s an opportunity to reflect on that last point in Close to Home, the documentary Ofra Bickel made for Frontline about the 2008 financial crisis. In Chapter 4, we see Rob, a human resources executive who has “been out of work for a year,” attending a series of “networking functions.” He has found the job search an “insurmountable” challenge, and he hopes – in vain – that these networking events will help him get over the hurdle.

We see Rob and his fellow networkers – all of them out-of-work middle management types — exchanging business cards, practicing their pitches, learning how to introduce and present themselves. It’s an endless rehearsal for a debut that never comes, and Bikel finally decides to give up on Rob and on the networkers: it’s pretty clear none of this is going to pay off.

As Bikel realizes, there is something pathetic in their efforts. There is something ridiculous — and telling — here as well: a gathering of able-bodied, educated, smart American adults, all in dire economic straits, and all they can think to do is to practice for their next job interview. It never occurs to Rob or any of his fellow networkers to do something together, to join efforts and start something, to create something where there is nothing. In a word, they never really build a network. They simply want to get back on the corporate payroll. It’s disturbing to think that that’s all they know how to do.

What happened to that can-do spirit? American gumption? Bootstraps? Independence? Entrepreneurialism? Nowadays, over 90 percent of adult Americans are regular employees (as opposed to self-employed people); whether they have jobs or not, most Americans can think of themselves only as employees. Of course, it wasn’t always this way. There was a time, before the industrial era and the great waves of immigration it brought, when the majority of Americans did not have a “job” and wouldn’t take one unless they had to. “Being an employee was considered a form of bondage, only a step above indentured servitude,” as John Curl puts it in his history of American cooperative movements. “One submitted to it due to economic hardship, for as short a time as possible, then became free once more, independent, one’s own boss.”

We still like to pay tribute to the freedom from wage slavery we once enjoyed, or lament its loss. Take another film, this one from 1961: The Misfits, directed by John Huston, written by Arthur Miller and starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. Gable plays Gay, an aging cowboy who thinks that most anything beats “working for wages” and sees employment for what it is – a loss of freedom.

Gay’s tragedy is that he has outlived the possibility of that freedom. The Wild West has become nothing more than a rodeo show; the cowboy life Gay leads is “like roping a dream. I just gotta find another way to be alive, that’s all,” he realizes, “if there is one anymore.” In the film’s closing scene, Gay, bloodied and defeated, drives off toward a new life, or at least what’s left of his life, with his friend Guido yelling after him: “Where’ll you be? Some gas station polishin’ windshields? Makin’ change in a supermarket? Try the Laundromat! They need a fella there to load the machines!” That’s all that’s left for cowboys in Miller’s postwar America.

The most important thing to realize is that it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to succumb to the despair of another networking meeting or turn in your cowboy hat for a Walmart greeter’s cap. And you don’t have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Few people can or ever have. Throughout our early frontier history and well into the industrial era, independent Americans relied on altruism, mutual-aid societies and cooperative working arrangements to build houses and raise barns, protect one another from fires or other losses, or “to accomplish their liberation from wage slavery.” That’s the story Curl’s book tells — a side of the American story we don’t usually acknowledge, but ought to understand and appreciate if we hope to prosper, together, with or without jobs.

Hypothetical Frogs

Over the holiday weekend I came across a reference to W.D. Hamilton’s “Geometry for the Selfish Herd” — which is apparently a classic in theoretical biology and the theory of animal aggregation.

Published in the 70s, the article makes the case that animals are gregarious to reduce their “domain of danger”: in other words, they group together, and organize themselves within groups, for self-preservation, not for altruistic reasons or for the sake of good company.

For Hamilton, being social means watching out for your own self interest.

Extending Hamilton’s observations on the grouping of frogs around a lily pond to the human world is tempting, but not so easy. Krugman isn’t satisfied with being Hamiltonian about economics; he calls the hypothesis of the frogs around the pond a “useful fiction” of evolutionary theory, and warns against allowing such fictions to dominate our thinking or to be mistaken for “deep-seated truths”.

The same would have to be said for extending Hamilton’s model of gregarious behavior to human covenants and compacts or to other questions of social organization, or to discussions of the origins of cities, or to accounts of moral action — e.g., altruistic practices or demonstrations of selflessness. Tempting, but ultimately a stretch.

Hamilton discovers Hobbes through evolutionary genetics and mathematical models; but is Hamilton’s evolutionary theory really any more “useful” than other fictions — e.g., ancient fictions about how orators first brought human beings together by persuasion, or accounts of benevolent despots who ordered people into cities?

Of course it’s worth discussing how “social” and “altruistic” arrangements (as well as theories of altruism) often disguise or disclose the power of self-interest; and Hamilton’s observations about the privileged “center” of an aggregate might inform further thinking about social ideas of status and power.

But ultimately it may be a question not of math or science, but of what stories we choose to tell about ourselves, and why.