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AND JUSTICE FOR ALL: You may be thinking about animals all wrong (even if you’re an animal lover)

Our moral beliefs are conditioned by cultural context. There was nothing inherently 'normal' or 'natural' about our ancestors’ cruel practices toward animals. Those practices are mostly not necessary now.

SIGAL SAMUEL: Martha Nussbaum is a very, very big deal, the kind of philosopher who, when she publishes a book, makes waves well beyond the ivory towers of academia. Her new volume, Justice for Animals, plunges into the animal welfare debate, billing itself as a “revolutionary new theory” in how we humans think about other animals. Which makes it all the more surprising that, at its heart, her theory isn’t very revolutionary at all…

Nussbaum first co-developed the capabilities approach in the 1980s with humans in mind, working with its original architect, the Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen. The theory argues that a just society should give each human the chance to flourish, which requires the opportunity to access some core entitlements to at least some minimum degree — things like good health and physical safety that any living thing requires, but also social relationships and play. These aren’t random; they’re things that human beings have specific reason to value because of the type of creatures we are.

Now, she wants us to extend this approach to other species. Each species will have its own list of core entitlements, tailored to its unique form of life. The animal’s nature — its intrinsic capacities — would decide how it has the right to be treated, as opposed to us humans deciding how we think it should be treated.

The appeal of the capabilities approach is that it gives us clear rules about what we can and can’t do to animals, an ethical formula that can claim to be rooted in something intrinsic or objective. Which would be nice: Life is so complicated and messy; it’s comforting to have a formula!

But ultimately, it does humanity a disservice. The obligations we feel to animals can’t be captured by any immutable formula because they don’t only flow from the animals’ intrinsic capacities; they’re also shaped by the relationships those animals can have with us, and by our own historical, economic, and cultural conditions, which are always changing.

By clinging to the dominant style of argument in animal ethics — a style that says our obligations to animals are forced on us by the nature of animals themselves or even the nature of reasonableness itself — Nussbaum’s theory ends up leading to some iffy conclusions. It leads to a focus on helping individual animals, not species. And it prompts us to consider the idea that we should intervene to help not just those animals we’ve domesticated, which are utterly dependent on human beings, or those directly harmed by our actions, like endangered species, but also those trillions of animals that suffer and have always suffered in the wild…

Nussbaum’s capabilities approach doesn’t need to present itself as a grand theory in order to make a helpful contribution to our world. Although it won’t, on its own, motivate concern for animals, it can be a very useful framework when we’re trying to figure out how to express our concern. Beyond that, philosophy actually has a crucial role to play: If it acknowledges that our moral beliefs are conditioned by cultural context, it can help show us that there was nothing inherently “normal” or “natural” about our ancestors’ cruel practices toward animals, and that those practices are mostly not necessary now. It can free up our culture to tell a new story about ourselves and other animals. SOURCE…


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