To Stop Mass Extinction, Reform The Outdated Victorian Harm Principle

To Stop Mass Extinction, Reform The Outdated Victorian Harm Principle
There are only two northern white rhinos left alive in the world – and both are female. Image by MonikaP 

In 1859, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill published the first of his two major works, On Liberty, which helped him become, as many agree, the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the 19th century. In that essay, Mill defined what came to be known as the harm principle. Stated briefly, it says:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Today we might baulk at Mill’s use of “civilised” and “his” in this sentence, yet the general principle quickly came to dominate all legal debates about crime and the justice system. Liberal democracies the world over enshrined – and largely still use – this idea to give individuals the freedom to generally do as they please. But this ignored a deeper problem — the definition of “harm” itself.

In 1999 the legal scholar Bernard Harcourt argued that the harm principle is faulty because it actually contains no way to adjudicate between competing claims of harm. That would require an accepted and fundamental definition of harm, which doesn’t exist. This has led to growing and irreconcilable culture clashes: both sides claim they are being harmed, and whoever happens to be in power gets to decide – and put into law – their own values.

Equally, the widespread destruction of the environment has taken place because human interests are overwhelmingly prioritised over environmental harms, which are not acknowledged in fundamental legal principles. Environmental protection laws allow for harm to the environment. For far too long, harm to “others” has only really considered humans.

In the recent BBC film Extinction: The Facts, Sir David Attenborough painfully examines just how critical this crisis has become. This surprisingly radical documentary shows just how significant an overhaul we need. For the survival of life on this planet, including the survival of humanity, it is vital that actions which threaten it be recognised as harmful, regulated and made criminal under law.

Redefining harm

In a recent paper, philosopher Ed Gibney and I seek to rebuild the harm principle, so that the legal and criminal justice systems can better address competing harms, both between humans and towards the environment.

We draw on evolutionary principles to define harm as “that which makes the survival of life more fragile”. By “life”, we mean all living species, not just humans. And by “survival”, we mean the ability to flourish, not just the bare minimum of a tenuous existence. No actions ought to lead towards the extinction of life.

We argue that this principle should be used to empirically adjudicate between competing claims of harm. For example, humans should not be allowed to kill an entire species for use of their body parts, as has been the case with the Northern white rhinoceros.

The general rule to guide all actions is that “life ought to act to survive”. This is precisely what is necessary to arrive at a definition of harm that allows the harm principle to be rebuilt.

You might think this is all very well in theory, but how do we embed these evolutionary perspectives into society?

Most obviously, there is a need to fundamentally alter the legal and criminal justice systems. They are out of date philosophically, and largely still rely on Victorian principles. One way to alter them is by incorporating a legal perspective called “Earth jurisprudence” or “wild law”, an approach to all legislation that puts the Earth at the centre of the system.

Wild law

The non-mainstream perspective of wild law is best placed to use our new definition of harm. It is possibly most prominent in Australia, where scholars Nicole Rogers and Michelle Maloney created the Wild Law Judgement Project, rewriting existing legislation to be Earth-centred.

Among the principles of Earth Jurisprudence is the following tenet:

Human governance systems at all times must take account of the interests of the whole Earth community and must … maintain a dynamic balance between the rights of humans and those of other members of the Earth community on the basis of what is best for Earth as a whole … [and] recognise all members of the Earth community as subjects before the law.

This kind of outlook has been far too neglected. But more and more people now recognise these harms and demand our politicians change our laws to stop them.

Humans are a part of nature. To take just one example from Extinction: The Facts, consider the problem of overfishing. Attenborough notes there may be 100,000 fishing trawlers operating globally at any one time. Each trawler may be the size of four jumbo jets. The industrial scale of such extraction and loss of adult fish mean the populations of fish cannot recover.

Legislation that considers harm to all life rather than only humans would prohibit such activity because of its destructive nature – destructive to the fish, marine ecosystems and to people reliant on fish. The timescale of ethical consideration needs to shift from a narrow short-term focus on human individuals (catching as many fish as possible continually) to comprehensive long-term consequences for all life (collapse of fish populations and food insecurity for our children). Once we recognise this, we must change our interactions and relationships with the environment and non-human animals.

Environmental activists have been advocating for piecemeal change along these lines for decades, sometimes successfully. But what is needed is a fundamental change to the harm principle which underlies all our laws. The legal and criminal justice systems must take up their role in implementing these changes that we now know we need to make. Only this can save our fellow beings, and quite possibly ourselves, from extinction.

About the AuthorThe Conversation

Tanya Wyatt, Professor of Criminology, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall

by Mark W. Moffett
0465055680If a chimpanzee ventures into the territory of a different group, it will almost certainly be killed. But a New Yorker can fly to Los Angeles--or Borneo--with very little fear. Psychologists have done little to explain this: for years, they have held that our biology puts a hard upper limit--about 150 people--on the size of our social groups. But human societies are in fact vastly larger. How do we manage--by and large--to get along with each other? In this paradigm-shattering book, biologist Mark W. Moffett draws on findings in psychology, sociology and anthropology to explain the social adaptations that bind societies. He explores how the tension between identity and anonymity defines how societies develop, function, and fail. Surpassing Guns, Germs, and Steel and Sapiens, The Human Swarm reveals how mankind created sprawling civilizations of unrivaled complexity--and what it will take to sustain them.   Available On Amazon

Environment: The Science Behind the Stories

by Jay H. Withgott, Matthew Laposata
0134204883Environment: The Science behind the Stories is a best seller for the introductory environmental science course known for its student-friendly narrative style, its integration of real stories and case studies, and its presentation of the latest science and research. The 6th Edition features new opportunities to help students see connections between integrated case studies and the science in each chapter, and provides them with opportunities to apply the scientific process to environmental concerns. Available On Amazon

Feasible Planet: A guide to more sustainable living

by Ken Kroes
0995847045Are you concerned about the state of our planet and hope that governments and corporations will find a sustainable way for us to live? If you do not think about it too hard, that may work, but will it? Left on their own, with drivers of popularity and profits, I am not too convinced that it will. The missing part of this equation is you and me. Individuals who believe that corporations and governments can do better. Individuals who believe that through action, we can buy a bit more time to develop and implement solutions to our critical issues. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

LATEST VIDEOS

Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
The Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
by John Cook
This video is a crash course in climate misinformation, summarizing the key arguments used to cast doubt on the reality…
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
by Julie Brigham-Grette and Steve Petsch
Every year, sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean shrinks to a low point in mid-September. This year it measures just 1.44…
What Is A Hurricane Storm Surge and Why Is It So Dangerous?
What Is A Hurricane Storm Surge and Why Is It So Dangerous?
by Anthony C. Didlake Jr
As Hurricane Sally headed for the northern Gulf Coast on Tuesday, September 15, 2020, forecasters warned of a…
Ocean Warming Threatens Coral Reefs and Soon Could Make It Harder To Restore Them
Ocean Warming Threatens Coral Reefs and Soon Could Make It Harder To Restore Them
by Shawna Foo
Anyone who’s tending a garden right now knows what extreme heat can do to plants. Heat is also a concern for an…
Sunspots Do Affect Our Weather But Not As Much As Other Things
Sunspots Do Affect Our Weather But Not As Much As Other Things
by Robert McLachlan
Are we headed for a period with lower Solar activity, i.e. sunspots? How long will it last? What happens to our world…
Dirty Tricks Climate Scientists Faced In Three Decades Since First IPCC Report
Dirty Tricks Climate Scientists Faced In Three Decades Since First IPCC Report
by Marc Hudson
Thirty years ago, in a small Swedish city called Sundsvall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)…
Methane Emissions Hit Record Breaking Levels
Methane Emissions Hit Record Breaking Levels
by Josie Garthwaite
Global emissions of methane have reached the highest levels on record, research shows.
kelp forrest 7 12
How The Forests Of The World’s Oceans Contribute To Alleviating The Climate Crisis
by Emma Bryce
Researchers are looking to kelp for help storing carbon dioxide far beneath the surface of the sea.

LATEST ARTICLES

Creative Destruction: The Covid-19 Economic Crisis Is Accelerating the Demise of Fossil Fuels
Creative Destruction: The Covid-19 Economic Crisis Is Accelerating the Demise of Fossil Fuels
by Peter Newman
Creative destruction “is the essential fact about capitalism”, wrote the great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in…
Global Emissions Are Down By An Unprecedented 7% — But Don’t Start Celebrating Just Yet
Global Emissions Are Down By An Unprecedented 7% — But Don’t Start Celebrating Just Yet
by Pep Canadell et al
Global emissions are expected to decline by about 7% in 2020 (or 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide) compared to 2019…
Decades of Unsustainable Water Use Has Dried Up Lakes and Caused Environmental Destruction
Decades of Unsustainable Water Use Has Dried Up Lakes and Caused Environmental Destruction in Iran
by Zahra Kalantari et al
Salt storms are an emerging threat for millions of people in north-western Iran, thanks to the catastrophe of Lake…
Climate Sceptic or Climate Denier? It's Not That Simple and Here's Why
Climate Sceptic or Climate Denier? It's Not That Simple and Here's Why
by Peter Ellerton
Climate change is now climate crisis and a climate sceptic now a climate denier, according to the recently updated…
The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Was A Record-Breaker, and It's Raising More Concerns About Climate Change
The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Was A Record-Breaker, and It's Raising More Concerns About Climate Change
by James H. Ruppert Jr. and Allison Wing
We’re looking back at a trail of broken records, and the storms may still not be over even though the season officially…
Why Climate Change Is Making Autumn Leaves Change Colour Earlier
Why Climate Change Is Making Autumn Leaves Change Colour Earlier
by Philip James
Temperature and day length were traditionally accepted as the main determinants of when leaves changed colour and fell,…
Take Caution: Winter Drownings May Increase As Ice Thins With Climate Change
Take Caution: Winter Drownings May Increase As Ice Thins With Climate Change
by Sapna Sharma
Every winter, the ice that forms on lakes, rivers and oceans, supports communities and culture. It provides…
There Are No Time-Travelling Climatologists: Why We Use Climate Models
There Are No Time-Travelling Climatologists: Why We Use Climate Models
by Sophie Lewis and Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick
The first climate models were built on fundamental laws of physics and chemistry and designed to study the climate…