Rachel's Democracy & Health News #879, November 2, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: What are we doing and why are we doing it? Are we succeeding?]

By Peter Montague

Occasionally a reader will ask, "What guides your selection of stories for Rachel's News?" In this short series, we'll provide an answer.

Basically, the question is, What are we doing and why are we doing it? Are we succeeding?

Here at Rachel's News we hold a fundamentally conservative view of our role: this world came to us as gift from our forebears and we have an obligation to pass it along undiminished and undamaged.

Simple ideas guide our work

Our work springs from a simple, universal ethic -- every culture and every religion endorses the Golden Rule [1,2], which says, "Treat others the way you want to be treated." This tells us, first, to alleviate suffering. This, in turn, leads directly to human rights -- we all have a basic right to a life free of suffering, to the extent possible. The elements of such a life were laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the U.S. endorsed Dec. 10, 1948.


For us, the Golden Rule and the Universal Declaration together define justice. Justice is that which tends to manifest the Golden Rule and the Universal Declaration; injustice tends to manifest the opposite. It is unjust -- unfair and therefore unacceptable -- to impose suffering on others or to stand by and allow suffering to go unnoticed or unchecked. It is unjust -- unfair and unacceptable -- to deprive anyone of any human right as spelled out in 1948.

In recent years, science has confirmed what people have always known: human community is essential for human well-being. We humans evolved as social creatures[3,4] who cannot thrive when separated from our circle of family, friends, acquaintances, and animal companions. Social isolation makes us sick and leads to an early death. This is one reason why racism[5] and white privilege are profoundly wrong. At a minimum, they create social isolation, which leads to illness and suffering, and so they are unjust and unacceptable.

Furthermore, when we damage nature we diminish our own -- and everyone's -- possibilities for a life as free as possible of suffering. When we create havoc via global warming or damage to the Earth's protective ozone layer, or when we pave over fertile farmland, or exterminate the fish of the sea or the birds of the air, we diminish everyone's possibilities for securing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (to quote the Declaration of Independence of 1776). To us, this is unjust and unacceptable.

Our dependence of all creatures

Science now confirms the wisdom of indigenous peoples, that we are all interdependent, all humans, all species. We humans are part of, and are supported by, a biological platform of enormous complexity, which we cannot understand, but which we know with absolute certainty nourishes and sustains us. Even a child can see that, without it. we are lost.

Because human rights and justice cannot be secured if our biological platform is shredded, we all have a right to intact natural and social environments -- environments that enable us to provide for ourselves the essentials of air, water, food, shelter and community (the basic prerequisites for "happiness"), which we all require to prevent suffering.

Furthermore, as Jeremy Bentham articulated in 1789, animals too have a right to live a life free of suffering to the extent possible. As Bentham said, the question is not whether they can reason, or whether they can talk. Their right to live free from torment hinges on the question, can they suffer? Their suffering stands on a moral plane with ours.

Because the biological platform, upon which we all depend, cannot be secured unless we are free to take action to protect it, human rights and justice are essential requirements for human survival.

The earth is our home and we have to take care of it, for the reason that we absolutely depend on it. To preserve our home without understanding all its billions of inter-related parts, we can aim to preserve every part of it. No part of creation can be presumed dispensable. We can say we know what's dispensable, but what if we're wrong? In recent years we came close to making the surface of the earth uninhabitable for humans because we failed to understand how DuPont's CFC chemicals were damaging the ozone layer. It was a close call. Our ignorance is vast. As Albert Einstein reportedly said, "We still do not know one-thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us."[6]

When flying blind, go cautiously

Whenever we set out to do anything that might harm any part of our home, we can move slowly, move cautiously, as we would when flying blind. Like any good pilot, we can constantly check for signs of trouble, and when any such signs are observed, we can take action to prevent further trouble. This is common sense and ancient wisdom. Look before you leap. A stitch in time saves nine. Prevention is better than cure, Erasmus told us.

We are all in this boat together and none of us has the right to endanger the ship. To do so is a deep and intolerable injustice to all.

Purpose of Government

From these principles, we understand the purpose of government. For example, the Declaration of Independence of 1776 tells us,

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."

The purpose of government, then, is to secure human rights, including the right to enjoy intact natural and social environments without which we cannot have life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. Put another way, the purpose of government is to protect and secure the things that we all depend upon and share in common, the air, water, soil, human language and accumulated knowledge, the genome, public health, reciprocal relationships of trust, and much more.

And finally any government becomes illegitimate when it fails to gain the consent of the governed. People have an inherent, unalienable right to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.

These, then, are the basic, conservative ideas that guide our choice of stories for Rachel's news. Now the plot thickens. More next time.


[3] As CrossRoadsMinistry.org says, racism is one group's individual race prejudice enforced by the misuse of power via systems and institutions.

[5] A shorthand version of the Universal Declaration is Franklin Roosevelt's "four freedoms," which he described this way: "In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium, it is a definite basis for a world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so called 'new order' of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb. To that new order we oppose the greater conception -- the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.... Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them."

[6] Einstein quoted in The Sun (June 2006), pg. 48.