Martha Nussbaum on “The Moral Status of Animals”

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Her essay in today’s Chron is here; excerpt below:

…”In 2000 AD, the High Court of Kerala, in India, addressed the plight of circus animals “housed in cramped cages, subjected to fear, hunger, pain, not to mention the undignified way of life they have to live.” It found those animals “beings entitled to dignified existence” within the meaning of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which protects the right to life with dignity. “If humans are entitled to fundamental rights, why not animals?” the court asked.

“We humans share a world and its scarce resources with other intelligent creatures. As the court said, those creatures are capable of dignified existence. It is difficult to know precisely what that means, but it is rather clear what it does not mean: the conditions of the circus animals beaten and housed in filthy cramped cages, the even more horrific conditions endured by chickens, calves, and pigs raised for food in factory farming, and many other comparable conditions of deprivation, suffering, and indignity. The fact that humans act in ways that deny other animals a dignified existence appears to be an issue of justice, and an urgent one.

“Indeed, there is no obvious reason why notions of basic justice, entitlement, and law cannot be extended across the species barrier, as the Indian court boldly did.

“In some ways, our imaginative sympathy with the suffering of nonhuman animals must be our guide as we try to define a just relation between humans and animals. Sympathy, however, is malleable. It can all too easily be corrupted by our interest in protecting the comforts of a way of life that includes the use of other animals as objects for our own gain and pleasure. That is why we typically need philosophy and its theories of justice. Theories help us to get the best out of our own ethical intuitions, preventing self-serving distortions of our thought. They also help us extend our ethical commitments to new, less familiar cases. It seems plausible to think that we will not approach the question of justice for nonhuman animals well if we do not ask, first, what theory or theories might give us the best guidance.

“In my new book, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, I consider three urgent problems of justice involving large asymmetries of power: justice for people with disabilities, justice across national boundaries, and justice for nonhuman animals. During the past 35 years, theories of justice have been elaborated and refined with great subtlety and insight, stimulated by John Rawls’s great books, which built, in turn, on the classical doctrine of the social contract in Locke, Kant, and Rousseau. The social-contract tradition has enormous strength in thinking about justice. Devised in the first instance to help us reflect on the irrelevance of class, inherited wealth, and religion to just social arrangements, its theories have been successfully extended, in recent years, to deal with inequalities based on race and gender. The three issues that are my theme, however, have not been successfully addressed by such theories, for reasons inherent in their very structure : or so I argue.” …

NB: Martha Nussbaum will be giving the 2006 Charles Wilson Knowlton Lecture on Thursday, February 23rd at 5 pm at the University of South Carolina School of Law. The title of her talk is “Radical Evil in the Lockean State: The Neglect of Emotions.”

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