What Humans Owe Animals

6 minute read
Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, appointed in the Philosophy Department and the Law School of the University of Chicago. She is the author of Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility

Animals are in trouble all over the world. Our world is dominated by humans everywhere: on land, in the seas, and in the air. No non-human animal escapes human domination. Much of the time, that domination inflicts wrongful injury on animals: whether through the barbarous cruelties of the factory meat industry, through poaching and game hunting, through habitat destruction, through pollution of the air and the seas, or through neglect of the companion animals that people purport to love.

In a way, this problem is age-old. Both Western and non-Western philosophical traditions have deplored human cruelty to animals for around two millennia. The Hindu emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism, wrote about his efforts to give up meat and to forgo all practices that harmed animals. In Greece, the Platonist philosophers Plutarch and Porphyry wrote detailed treatises deploring human cruelty to animals, describing their keen intelligence and their capacity for social life, and urging humans to change their diet and their way of life. But by and large these voices have fallen on deaf ears, even in the supposedly moral realm of the philosophers, and most humans have continued to treat most animals like objects, whose suffering does not matter—although they sometimes make an exception for companion animals. Meanwhile, countless animals have suffered cruelty, deprivation, and neglect.

Today, we have, then, a long-overdue ethical debt: to listen to arguments we have refused to hear, to care for what we have obtusely ignored, and to act on the knowledge of our bad practices that we can so easily attain. But today we have reasons humans never had before to do something about human wrongs to animals. First, human domination has increased exponentially in the past two centuries. In Porphyry’s world, animals suffered when they were killed for meat, but up to that point they lived pretty decent lives. There was no factory meat industry that, today, breeds these animals as if they were just meat already, confining them in horrible conditions, cramped and isolated, until they die before ever having decently lived.

Animals were long hunted in the wild, but for the most part their habitats were not taken over for human dwellings or invaded by poachers seeking to make money from the murder of an intelligent being, an elephant or a rhinoceros. In the seas, humans have always fished for food, and whales have long been hunted for their commercial value. But the sea was not full of plastic trash that entices animals to dine on it, and then chokes them to death. Nor did companies drilling for undersea oil create noise pollution everywhere (drilling, air bombs used to chart the ocean’s floor), making life increasingly difficult for social creatures whose sense of hearing is their primary mode of communication. Birds were shot for food, but those who escaped did not choke on air pollution or crash fatally into urban skyscrapers, whose lights entice them. In short, the scope of human cruelty and neglect was relatively narrow. Today, new forms of animal cruelty turn up all the time—without even being recognized as cruelty, since their impact on the lives of intelligent beings is barely considered. So we have not just the overdue debt of the past, but a new moral debt that has increased a thousandfold and is continually increasing.

Read More: What If Animals Have Nightmares Too?

Because the reach of human cruelty has expanded, so too has the involvement of virtually all people in it. Even people who do not consume meat produced by the factory farming industry are likely to have used single-use plastic items, to use fossil fuels mined beneath the ocean and polluting the air, to dwell in areas in which elephants and bears once roamed, or to live in high-rise buildings that spell death for migratory birds. The extent of our own implication in practices that harm animals should make every person with a conscience consider what we can all do to change this situation. Pinning guilt is less important than accepting the fact that humanity as a whole has a collective duty to face and solve these problems.

What do we do now? First, we need a good theory to map out the goals to which we are heading. My theory, the Capabilities Approach (CA), rejects the idea that we ought to rank animals by their likeness to us, and also that we should focus only on the minimization of pain. The theory says that justice entitles all animals to a set of “capabilities,” or opportunities to choose, corresponding to their species form of life. For example, each elephant would be entitled to the opportunity to socialize with a matriarchal herd of other elephants, to bring up young communally in that setting, to walk long distances over the grass searching for—and finding—food, and to be free from murderous poachers eager to kill for ivory.

Animals do need relief from pain, but they also need the society of other creatures, lots of room to move around in, opportunities for play, and in general the chance to be the makers of their own lives. The CA urges that our goal should be, for each type of animal, a set of opportunities—capabilities—to lead lives characteristic of their kind. With the CA framework in mind, even a very humane zoo will be problematic because animals there typically do not live with a large enough group of other animals and have few choices about how to live.

There is so much to be done that there is more than enough for everyone, and we all need to work from our own starting points and with our own skills. My law students will go out and try to grapple with the myriad of legal issues about animal treatment that are now before us. Others can join or financially support one of the many excellent organizations working on these issues, for example the Humane Society of the United States. Others will focus on efforts to protest the factory farming industry and limit it by laws that some states have now passed, or focus on efforts to raise political and consumer consciousness about plastic wastes and their disastrous effects on marine creatures. Some will adopt and love a shelter animal. Many will teach their children about these issues and expose them to films and videos that show both flourishing animal lives and the terrible ways in which we have insulted and interrupted them.

Justice is all of us—and a choice. It’s a choice to become friends of animal lives: with wonder, compassion, outrage, and hope. We need to make it now.

Copyright © 2022 by Martha Nussbaum. From JUSTICE FOR ANIMALS: Our Collective Responsibility by Martha C. Nussbaum published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

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