Sir Matthew Hale is frequently credited with a key role in establishing the public trust doctrine in modern environmental law—a claim that has been contested by multiple scholars on the basis of both the legal relevance to American law and whether his claims for public rights in De Jure Maris can be taken as a statement of public trust at all. Whatever Hale’s relationship to public trust doctrine as a principle of law, however, his religious writings show that he relied upon legal metaphors of trusts and stewardship as the basis for moral arguments for the human obligation to care for their environment. References to human stewardship were not uncommon in religious writing of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but Hale elaborates on the moral implications of the steward’s fiduciary role in a more extensive and legally detailed way than most, emphasizing the human obligation to account to the proprietary “lord,” God, for the responsible and proper use of that which has been entrusted to them.
In a chapter in his posthumously published Contemplations Moral and Divine entitled “The Great Audit, with the Account of the Good Steward,” Hale uses the Book of Matthew’s parable of the talents to imagine God calling humans to “account” for their use of the “blessings and talents” that God “committed to [their] trust and stewardship, to manage … for they ends they were given.” While the “blessings and talents” Hale discusses are broad and comprehensive, he gives special attention to the implications of human beings’ “stewardship” of creation for their duties to nonhuman creatures. In the section subtitled “Touching Thy Creatures,” Hale writes: “I received and used thy creatures as committed to me under a Trust, and as a Steward and Accomptent for them; and therefore I was always careful to use them according to those Limits, and in order for those Ends, for which thou didst commit them to me.” Hale frames the “Limits” to human control in terms of justice: God “has given us a Dominion over thy Creatures, yet it is under a Law of Justice, Prudence, and Moderation; otherwise we should become Tyrants, not Lords.” That “Law of Justice” requires using the nonhuman world with “Temperance and Moderation,” for the “Support of the Exigencies” of human life, yet with “Mercy and Compassion” for the “Powers of Life and Sense” which non-humans possess. To fail in either temperance or compassion would constitute a “Breach of that Trust under which the Dominion of the Creatures was committed to us, and a Breach of that Justice that is due from Men … to be merciful to [their] Beasts.” Cruelty and mistreatment of other creatures is therefore “a Tyranny inconsistent with the Trust and Stewardship that thou [God] has committed” to humans.
Thus Hale imagines a contractual relationship existing among God, humans, and non-humans, making humans morally responsible for the well-being of present and future generations of beings. Though Hale, like any contemporary moralist, stresses the sinfulness of the “Luxury and Excess … Lusts … vain Glory or Ostentation” that spur humans to mistreat and misuse the non-human creatures in their power, for him the fundamental sin is the violation of man’s fiduciary duties as God’s steward. Thus using creatures to excess is not simply a sin of personal gluttony. It breaks the terms under which God granted humans their limited dominion, by (in this case, literally) eating into God’s resources: whenever eating or drinking, Hale says, “I checked myself, … still remembered I had thy Creatures under an Accompt; and was ever careful to avoid excess or Intemperance, because every excessive Cup and Meal was in Danger to leave me somewhat Insuper and Arrear to my Lord.” The sin of mis- or over-use of God’s creatures, for Hale, lies in the violation of the contract between man and God to care for his creation according to the stipulated terms, and the failure to maintain God’s creation as a steward ought, by taking more from it than can be sustained. Hale believes the power granted to humans as the stewards of the world to be by its very nature subject to a law whose primary purpose is to ensure that justice and happiness is, overall, extended to each creature. That is, after all, the rationale that licenses human sovereignty over the world: that they maintain God’s ideal balance among the competing needs of various creatures for the optimal happiness of all. Only by justly fulfilling the duties laid out for them by God can humans legitimately claim “dominion” over the nonhuman world.
It makes sense for Hale to rely on the language of law and justice to reinforce moral obligations, since as biographer Alan Cromartie points out, Hale’s legal philosophy was based upon the premise of a legislating God who was “the basis of all natural moral knowledge,” as well as the premise that “the rule that all contracts should be kept was much the most important natural law.” In this, Hale was a part of a longstanding tradition of contractarian natural law, which drew moral principles from the nature of the fundamental contract between God the creator and his creations. Not all those who shared Hale’s belief that human beings were the trustees and stewards of God’s gifts extended their obligations to nonhuman creatures, but there is reason to believe that his opinions on that subject had a long and lasting influence on English morality, if not law: “The Great Audit” was excerpted, condensed, and reprinted regularly as a pamphlet from the 1690s to the 1790s, and the sub-section “Touching Thy Creatures” was the longest of the eight sub-sections included in those condensed editions, taking up five of a total of around twenty-five pages.