Nussbaum on Animals

I told Amanda that I would comment on the last section of FRONTIERS OF JUSTICE: DISABILITY, NATIONALITY, SPECIES MEMBERSHIP, by Martha C. Nussbaum. Harvard University Press, 2006. The last section focuses on how the capabilities approach handles the topic of animals and how to value them.

Nussbaum rejects social contract approaches to animal welfare, because I am so familiar with the arguments other authors have made in this regard in the past (Mary Midgley is one prime example) I wish Nussbaum had referred to these views– but alas.
Nussbaum also rejects the utilitarian approach to animals. She does this for the same reasons she rejects utilitarianism generally (it does not recognize the proper distinctions between individuals when it sums up the good; it has too narrow a conception of the good). Some of her examples of how utilitarianism does not function in regard to animals are not very good though. She says they do not consider the human workers who will lose their jobs if we become vegetarian, and that they have nothing against the painless death of animals (in response: a utilitarian certainly can care about workers, and calculate their loss in, and utilitarians are practical enough to realize that painless death is not likely to be got– so would not endorse a system that justifies farming animals for that reason.) See this review for more from the perspective of a Singerite:

To me, it seems that animal activists would get more mileage out of a utilitarian-based approach. The costs would just be theoretical, and I wish Nussbaum had conceded this point, and focused on just the benefits of her theory when contrasting her approach to utilitarianism on animals. (She does concede some points to utilitarians, and thinks, for example, harm to mosquitoes is best justified by them.)

Nussbaum’s basic approach to animal welfare is to point out that her previously developed account is better situated to recognize animal dignity than ones that stipulate rationality alone is what makes us valuable. She points out that she was complimenting our “animal nature” before animal welfare was her focus. There is this interesting possible problem, I think, though, with her recommendation that we use imagination and narrative to generate compassion for animals.

To remove any anthropocentrism, the best trade-off to imagine is that between nonhumans. A tiger and its prey, for example. A snake and a mouse. Nussbaum’s recommendations (imagination and narrative) work, with animals, I think clearly. Children’s stories seem to be overwhelming populated by talking animals. I think this is some evidence that we have an easier time identifying with animals sympathetically than with humans (they don’t talk back, maybe, or voice alternative views to our own.) The problem, then, is not in generating compassion but in putting it to the right use. If there are inevitable trade-off between the interests of animals — and this seems fairly obvious, though I would be open to some biocentric defense of short life spans for some prey, etc.– then generating compassion for one type of animal, one at a time, does not seem to be helpful. Indeed I think it would just create a temporary bias for that type of animal. I think we see this all the time.

Nussbaum will not be able to approve of a defense of nature’s own normal practices because she thinks the locus for justice is the individual, and its unfolding of its capacities.
She warns us against nature worship (anything is justified with that method) and she helpfully points out that even animal rights thinkers like Regan use a criteria for when animals attain intrinsic value– according to Nussbaum, it is this criteria (for Regan, the animals must be of a certain age and have certain abilities) that we should focus on developing carefully– and there should not be a separate account of value that gets activated once animals have these capabilities. The capabilities themselves are what we need to recognize and value and assess along with the species norm.

In some ways this seems promising, in others it does not. Comment?

Published in: on October 29, 2006 at 2:53 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. the point about children’s stories having talking animals is a good point. But another that came to my mind was how whenever an animal is hurt in a movie or television show, there is more of an emotional response elicited than from a human being killed or hurt in a movie. Don’t know if that’s a good example for your study, but I thought I would comment.

    also, wouldn’t Mill’s utilitarianism respect the individual enough for Nussbaum? It seems that it would balance the consideration of the individual and of the maximum good. I don’t know how this might apply to the discussion, but there it is.

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