For my write-up today on Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, I’ll talk about something that Gore says on pages 277-278. Gore says that “The emphasis on the rights of the individual must be accompanied by a deeper understanding of the responsibilities to the community that every individual must accept if the community is to have an organizing principle at all.” Gore then says on page 278 that the West has prioritized the rights of the individual over the rights of the community, posterity, and the earth itself. Even when environmental damage is criticized, Gore maintains, the emphasis is on the individual rather than anything larger than the individual, for the spotlight is often on how individuals have been negatively affected by environmental damage.
This is a particularly controversial passage in Gore’s book. In my post a while back on the topic of the environment in Newt Gingrich’s Real Change, I say the following:
“Chapter Sixteen also disapproves of Al Gore’s contention that all humankind and posterity, not just individuals, have rights, for Newt interprets this as ‘some collectivist and non-democratic elite’s interpretation of what is needed’ (page 194).”
Where do I stand on this? I don’t know. On the one hand, I can see Newt’s point that embracing a notion of communal rights can lead to a slippery slope in which the government can find an excuse to infringe on individual rights. Moreover, I think that it would be going too far to say that the community has “rights” that are inviolate (but whether or not Gore is arguing that, I’m not sure). On the other hand, I agree with Gore that we should look beyond what affects individuals in the here and now, in a specific country, while not ignoring the broader human community, ecology, and posterity. In addition, I’d be hesitant to say that even individual rights should be absolute, especially when an individual exercising his rights can infringe on the well-being of the community.
I’d probably embrace a fairly broad interpretation of the principle that we have rights, but our rights should not infringe on the rights of others. But I don’t have a full-fledged system on when the government should be able to violate individual rights. Would I be open, for example, to the government using eminent domain to seize people’s property in order to create a mall that can employ people in the community and uplift the economy? I’d be very hesitant to be open to that, to tell you the truth.