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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The moral status of nonhuman animals

There was a great colloquy last week on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website about one element of Martha Nussbaum’s latest book, Frontiers of Justice.  The book looks at three kinds of status—alienage, disability, and species membership—and views each through the lens of the “capabilities approach,” Nussbaum’s proposed alternative to Rawlsian social contract theory.  The Chronicle of Higher Education’s feature focuses on species membership and highlights the ways in which this approach provides a novel way to think about social justice for nonhuman animals.

What sets the capabilities approach apart from dominant approaches to animal rights is that it looks to a being’s capacity for flourishing as the baseline for the morally acceptable treatment that it should be afforded.  Nussbaum first developed this approach as a way of thinking about social justice for humans, holding that each person is entitled to a decent level of opportunity in ten different areas.  Some of the capacities that she suggests make sense with respect to both human and nonhuman animals (life, health, bodily integrity) while others (practical reason) don’t.

So in contrast to Kantian theories, which typically tie moral status to the distinctively human capacities for rational thought, the capabilities approach extends moral status to lower as well as higher functions, sweeping animals in with humans as objects of ethical concern.  And in contrast to utilitarianism, the capabilities approach operates at the level of the individual, requiring a minimum of dignified treatment for individuals (human or non-) rather than summing up net utility at the potential cost of inflicting great harm on some individuals if the resulting gain to some others is larger.

Nussbaum’s translation of the capabilities approach into the nonhuman animal context is a really exciting move, and there’s obviously much more to say about it than I can in this small space, so I’ll offer only a couple of brief comments.  The first is that I wonder if this approach, any more than classic utilitarianism, offers us a way around a problem that dogs (awful pun intended) this field:  how to determine what the good life is for beings who cannot tell us their preferences.  In some instances this isn’t a problem.  We know, for example, that nonhuman animals don’t want to be (or, at least, have a preference for not being) tortured.  This is true even for lower forms of life, as David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster” illustrates.  Wallace puts the lie to the myth that lobsters can’t feel pain, showing the various ways that the delicious crustacean struggles mightily against the strange practice of boiling it alive. 

But harder questions arise when we confront the psychic well-being of animals.  A dog confined in a city apartment may not have available to it the same range of experience as a dog living on a farm, but then again there may be advantages to taking an animal out of its native habitat.  Domestication clearly limits an animal’s capabilities, but it often means a steady food supply, shelter, and the absence of predators, and it’s not easy for me to see why that may not be preferable in many or most cases.

A related issue is that capabilities often exist in tension with one another.  A predator’s capabilities for killing and eating prey conflict with the desire of its target to live a life free of suffering.  This is particularly salient in light of the brutality with which nonhuman animals often treat one another, both on an inter- and intra-species level.  Male bears sometimes kill their offspring to prevent their mothers from lactating so they can continue to reproduce.  Female cats often refuse to feed the runt of the litter to conserve resources for the stronger kittens.  I don’t think it undermines the case for treating animals with dignity that animals themselves often behave cruelly, but it certainly complicates the task. (Also, Nussbaum has an interesting answer to this problem, suggesting that animals can be tricked into satisfying their preferences for attacking one another by giving them inanimate decoys.)

There’s so much more to say about this, but I’ll stop there.  The discussion at Chronicle.org includes both an article by Nussbaum summarizing how the capacities approach tracks onto species membership as well as a really interesting dialogue between the author and various interlocutors, including some major animal law and animal rights scholars. 

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on February 8, 2006 at 03:36 AM in Article Spotlight | Permalink


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Posted by: Jann Winton | Feb 14, 2006 1:58:14 AM

It's true that the capabilities approach is strongly rooted in Aristotelian thought; nothing in my post should be taken to suggest otherwise.

As for the utilitarianism issue, it’s certainly one point of difference that the capabilities approach takes account of unrealized absences in potential flourishing in a way that traditional utilitarianism doesn’t. I was seeking to highlight a separate point of difference: aggregation. It’s probably easiest just to quote Nussbaum on this:

“Nevertheless, valuable though Utilitarian work on animal suffering has been, it has some serious difficulties. One notorious problem concerns the Utilitarian commitment to aggregation: that is, to summing together all pleasures and pains. The choice maker is instructed to produce the largest total (or average) pleasure. That can allow results in which a small number of creatures have very miserable lives, so long as their miseries are compensated for by a great deal of pleasure elsewhere. Even slavery is ruled out — if it is — only by fragile empirical calculations urging its ultimate inefficiency. It remains unclear whether such a view can really rule out the cruel treatment of at least some animals, which undoubtedly causes great pleasure to a very large number of meat eaters, or the infliction of pain on small numbers of animals in laboratory testing in order to provide benefits for many humans.”

Of course, the best way to get a sense of these ideas is from Frontiers itself or the article that ran last week in chronicle.com (links to each in post above).

Posted by: Dave | Feb 9, 2006 1:20:36 AM

Gosh. I have not kept up with Nussbaum recently, but your characterizations of her fundamental philosophy seem inaccurate. In the past she has characterized the concept of flourishing not as her own invention but simply as a return to the Aristotelian conception of eudaimonia. Nor do I think that the capabilities approach varies from the utilitarian in that individuals are treated differently; rather the capabilities approach extends the concept of personal utility to include the possibility of realizing potentialities the individual may not even recognize are there. The classic example of this are the Indian women that Sen studied, who reported satisfaction with a life that others would consider very deprived. A utilitarian would take these women’s statement on face value; those who follow the capabilities approach would not.

Posted by: Michael Guttentag | Feb 8, 2006 11:56:38 PM

Hi Dave. I just wanted to recommend that everyone read Animal Rights : Current Debates and New Directions, edited by Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum. I found Elizabeth Anderson's essay particularly (and characteristically) insightful.

Posted by: Adil Haque | Feb 8, 2006 11:57:57 AM

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