Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Natural Conduct

Sophia Weinstein's picture
“In their occluded waters light loses its directionality within a few inches of the surface. Beneath this lies a flowing stream of suspended matter in which visibility does not extend beyond an arm’s length. With no lighted portal to point the way, top and bottom and up and down become very quickly confused” (Ghosh 46).

 Having spent so much time this semester in and outside of our 360 contemplating connectedness, barriers, intersectionality, and porosity, I am finding myself in a sort of ‘flowing stream of suspended matter’ – very close to accepting the possibility that I will never truly find the right direction with which to ask the right questions and find the right answers to understand the world. There is a false sense of closure associated with our 360 coming to an end, yet I know that my life as a student and as an ecologically minded person is much more in the beginning stages. I am in a stream of questions and answers (that are never truly answers) that circle me back to discover that indeed, the same problems still exists in our world. Everything, for me, comes back to the relationship between being an individual and belonging as part of a group or society. I want to break out of this whirlpool. I have been having trouble understanding why I am so transfixed on this “me/us/them” theme, seeing as we are an eco-literacy 360 and this topic does not feel pointedly ecological. Exploring the connections we have with one another is important, but does not fully consider our connections to earth and the environment. It seems to reveal more of our disconnections with earth. Perhaps this disconnection is why I am so transfixed. Dee Eggers, an environmental studies associate professor at UNC Ashville, recently gave a TEDxTalk called “Dolphins as Persons” that has really guided my questioning in a more tangible direction. She touches on many topics that engulfed our 360 discussions – language, connections, our relationship to earth, and our responsibilities to solving problems we’ve created. What feels new, however, is her idea of what personhood means, and what it may entail. I see now that there is another conversation that was always lurking within our readings and conversations that is at the heart of the barrier between humanity and ecological thought: what is a person, and how does our personhood influence our relationships with earth, and all other life?

In Eggers definition of “person”, one must: be alive and aware, feel positive and negative sensations, have emotions and a sense of self, control one's own behavior, recognize other persons and treat them appropriately, and have a variety of sophisticated cognitive abilities. She says that as a result of classifying dolphins as persons, “We wouldn’t be managing ‘populations of dolphins’, they would actually individually have rights” (0:50).

In two of the novels we have read this semester, The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee and The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh, we have encountered characters that each have strong views about animal rights. Their behavior as a result of their views are entirely in contrast - one choosing to speak out, and the other acting through scientific inquiries – yet I believe that their beliefs are both rooted in the idea that animals are to be treated as persons with individual rights.

In Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, a cetologist named Piya travels to India’s tide country to study a rare species of dolphin, and finds herself caught in a crisis between the rights of humans, and the rights of animals. Fokir, a fisherman that knows the rivers well, helps in her research, and despite their language barrier, they are able to communicate very well. Their unique connection seems to result from their own relationships with the land and the animals, and the similar respect they have for animals. Piya’s initial admiration for Fokir is a result of his awareness and knowledge of the dolphins, but their connection eventually falters when she sees him act violently towards a tiger. A tiger is trapped by townspeople on one of the river islands, and while Piya tries to stop everyone from attacking the tiger, Fokir joins the townspeople to kill it. Piya says, “This is an animal…you can’t take revenge on an animal”, but Fokir feels differently, saying that “when a tiger comes into a human settlement, it’s because it wants to die” (Ghosh 242-244). They both seem to perceive the tiger as a person – an intelligent being who is aware and has a sense of self – yet this shared belief is not enough for them to respond to the trapped tiger in the same way. Piya’s life is focused on understanding animals through science, while Fokir’s life is centered around his family, and understanding the ever-changing flow of nature in the Sundarbans. When confronted with a trapped tiger, they see different things: Piya, a beautiful regal and rare animal, and Fokir, a town that needs to protect itself.  It seems that Piya and Fokir acted differently towards the tiger because they chose ‘the individual’ differently. Piya chooses to see the tiger as the person, valuing its life as an individual while regarding the townspeople as ‘people’ rather than a group of individual persons. Fokir’s actions show that he is valuing the townspeople as individuals, while regarding the tiger as one of a species. Is there a right and a wrong in this situation? How, in any situation, can we choose who has personal rights?

“We have only one death of our own; we can comprehend the deaths of others only one at a time. In the abstract we may be able to count to a million, but we cannot count to a million deaths” (Coetzee 19).

 Elizabeth Costello, a fictional character in Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, gives a highly controversial speech highlighting her extreme – one may say prophetic – views on animal rights. I believe that Costello sees all animals as ‘persons’, and more importantly, that she sees those who do not see animals as persons as somehow less than a person. In her speech, she draws a horrific comparison between factory farming and the Holocaust. This comparison is misguided and extreme – surely a literary tactic Coetzee uses to force readers to feel polarized from Costello, and lead them to question their beliefs more fully. It has had this exact effect on me, as I now make an effort to make sense of the speech in regards to my own beliefs about animal rights. I would like to imagine that the focus that Costello has taken is skewed; that perhaps the connection between the Holocaust and factory farms exists, but the correlation has just been drawn between the wrong subjects. I would have an easier time justifying a comparison between the oppressors in Nazi Germany and implementers of factory farming than a correlation between animals and the eleven million people killed in the Holocaust. This is not to say that I see Nazis and factory farmers as the same; they are different people in distinct circumstances, and comparing their unique situations and actions is problematic. Still, I would like to think that what Costello was saying is that the rights of animals and of victims of the Holocaust were denied not because they were being treated as other than ‘persons’, but rather that their oppressors were not acting as persons – recognizing other persons and treating them appropriately. We need to transition our focus back to the cause of the problem.

In sara.gladwin’s Serendip response to my Education paper about Words as Barriers, she introduced David Bohm’s ideas regarding the “Rheomode” (flow) of language. Bohm proposes a new language structure that focuses on the action, rather than the subject(s). While a linguistic alteration of our language may be unnecessary in this context, I think that perhaps our sentence structures are directing us towards the wrong subject in regards to individual rights issues and violations. I feel strongly about the rights of animals, but when framed within the dialogue about personhood, I believe that the issue in more about the Humane-ness of people than it is about the rights of animals. It is about the limitations of our liberty, and how liberty does not belong solely to humans. Our need to lay down laws is a result of our actions as humans, not a result of the actions of animals, or of any oppressed people. Our rights that are supposedly ‘natural’ are considered as such because they exist unless taken away by something (someone) unnatural (human). Where do we draw the line? How do we limit our rights in order to protect the rights of others?

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [are] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Yet there is not freedom, justice, and peace in the world for all beings. The earth itself is not at peace. Why is this? It is my belief that power gives people an ability to infringe on the rights of others. Exercising power is not an inalienable right, yet in our society, it seems written into our culture. To me, this culture is the basis for our problems, and the basis of our ecological disconnections. America’s founders determined that our government assures protection of our natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But what if exercising these rights, particularly liberty, neglects the rights of other people, of animals, and the earth? Article 17 of the Universal Declaration says, “Everyone has the right to own property”. If our natural, inalienable rights that were written into our law intrude on the rights of animals and the rights of the land, how can these rights be natural? Perhaps the true question is this: What are the rights of animals and of earth, and how can we write them into law?

The characteristic of both Costello and Piya to expect a high level of respect from humans towards animals and the earth is something that is missing from our lives. Today, people are valued by their worth as a person, with little weight placed on how they value others. These natural rights that we have given ourselves are impeding the lives of animals and the life of our planet. So here is a call to action (of sorts): We need to redefine natural rights. We need to reframe this entire concept, to include accountability for how we treat others; we need Rules of Natural Conduct. As earth’s inhabitants, we belong to an ecosystem, and therefore our personal rights must be united with personal responsibilities to the world that supports all life. Our ‘natural conduct’ would recognize the rights of all other life, and our responsibility not to infringe on the rights of other living things. Perhaps this is an oversimplified view of a problem, but it is my understanding that ecological responsibility has been written out of our society. If it had always been considered improper to act in ways that benefit humans at high consequences to other life, we would not be dealing with the same environmental crises that we are currently faced with. By educating towards ecological literacy, we can work to reteach the natural responsibilities that we owe to our earth and fellow earthlings. Perhaps this is a bit idealistic, but it is a step in the right direction. Valuing non-human life, and extending rights to other forms of life is the only way we can work towards maintaining the future of earth. In Dee Eggers words, “We need to restore world garden,” and to do so, we need to restore how we think about earth.



Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print.

"TEDxAsheville - Dee Eggers - Dolphins as Persons." YouTube. YouTube, 02 June 2010. Web. 13 May 2014. <>.

Coetzee, J. M., and Amy Gutmann. The Lives of Animals. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.

"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Declaration, Human Rights Charter, The Un and Human Rights." UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 10 May 2014.