What do we owe animals?
Sir - have you no decency?
Martha Nussbaum is one of my favourite philosophers. Along with Armatya Sen she developed an idea called The Capabilities Approach; a method of measuring how well a society meets human needs.
The Approach considers all the things a person needs to flourish. We don't just need food and water and shelter. We need opportunities of many sorts: from love and security to satisfying work to participation in culture and politics.
In this article, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2022/03/10/what-we-owe-our-fellow-animals-ethics-martha-nussbaum/ Nussbaum uses the Capabilities Approach to examine what we owe to the other forms of life that we share the planet with.
The theory - which got its start in development economics—focuses on the ability to select valued activities and to avoid the frustration of choice.
Sen uses the approach for comparative purposes: it is more illuminating to compare capabilities than to compare utilities, or GDP per capita.
My version is different: it creates a theory of basic justice, focusing on the duty of nations to create sufficient opportunities for significant activity in some particularly important areas, including life, health, bodily integrity, emotional health, choice and affiliation, and leisure time.
With valuable input from a group of younger members of the international Human Development and Capability Association, I have recently been developing my theory into a theory of justice for nonhuman animals.
We share this fragile planet with other sentient animals, whose efforts to live and flourish are thwarted in countless ways by human negligence and obtuseness.
This gives us a collective responsibility to do something to make our ubiquitous domination more benign, less brutal—perhaps even more just.
. . . thus even expert scientists have long denied the extent of the abilities of birds, who have no neocortex and therefore (many have thought) cannot be very bright.
But evolution does not take just a single route. In the case of birds, "convergent evolution" has produced abilities very similar to those of apes (tool use, complicated social strategies, the ability to deceive others) through a totally different biological path.
(I did an introduction about birds last week that touched on that. It's available @ https://www.simulat.ca/introductionsv2.php?title=Bird%20Brains)
She mentions some biases that historically have influenced our ideas about animals.
".. . the tendency to think that humans are the only creatures with language, and that this sets us utterly apart from the rest of sentient life."
or ". . . the idea that reflexive self-consciousness is the be-all and end-all of intelligence, and that we humans are unique in possessing it."
Behind these biases lies a more general failing, which the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal calls "anthropodenial": the denial that we are animals of a certain type (the anthropoid type), and the tendency to imagine ourselves, instead, as pure spirits, "barely connected to biology."
As de Waal puts it in a preface,
"We used to think in terms of a linear ladder of intelligence with humans on top, but nowadays we realize it is more like a bush with lots of different branches, in which each species evolves the mental powers it needs to survive."
When I was young the normal idea was that humans were the peak of evolution. Maybe even the 'goal' of evolution.
I've since learned that that is incorrect.
Are humans more highly evolved than dolphins or octopi or crows?
Once we shed the biases mentioned above that question becomes almost meaningless.
Nussbaum applies the Capabilities Approach to the problem of our ethical obligations to animals.
The idea is that each has evolved to have a certain set of drives that enabled them to live in an environment. They are unhappy if those drives are thwarted.
So, for instance whales that evolved to swim long distances singing to their friends and family grow unhappy if isolated in a small tank.
Or chickens that evolved to forage for their food are unhappy when trapped in cages where they can barely stand up let alone spread their wings.
This has been measured.
As Nussbaum puts it:
We seek flourishing: free movement, free communication, rich interactions with others of our species (and other species too). Why should we suppose that whales, dolphins, apes, elephants, parrots, and so many other animals seek anything less? If we do suppose that, it is either culpable ignorance, given the knowledge now so readily available, or a self-serving refusal to take responsibility, in a world where we hold all the power.
This argument holds a lot of weight for me but it is not absolute.
Wolves strive to eat deer and deer strive not to be eaten. One way or another somebody's striving will be thwarted.
What do you think?