Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum to address animal rights in Humanities Day keynote

Renowned philosopher says a new ethical, legal approach is necessary to protect animals

Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum has built her storied career on championing underdogs. Now, the influential philosopher and humanist is turning her attention toward the entire animal kingdom.

The University of Chicago scholar argues for both an ethical revolution and new legislation to protect animals against mistreatment, including the poaching of elephants and rhinos and the devastation of natural habitat through climate change and human greed. But how do we create a wholly new approach to protect diverse animals?

Nussbaum will further that conversation during her keynote address on Humanities Day, hosted Oct. 17 by UChicago’s Division of the Humanities.

Her address, titled “Animals: Expanding the Humanities,” will be held at 11 a.m. CDT during the first fully virtual celebration of Humanities Day. Now marking its 40th anniversary, Humanities Day highlights the power of art, literature, philosophy, music, linguistics and language—presenting the public with a snapshot of leading humanities research at the University of Chicago.

In this Q&A, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, appointed in the Law School and the Department of Philosophy, discusses how human beings have traditionally framed the ethical treatment of animals with our capacity to relate to them. But is such an approach enough? Contending that non-human animals matter for their own sake, Nussbaum uses the Capabilities Approach—the theoretical framework she pioneered—to argue for the value and dignity of all species.

Is your Humanities Day keynote address about animals part of a book project you’re working on?

Yes, I have a contract with Simon and Schuster, and a wonderful editor there who is giving me comments on chapters as I draft them. At this point, six of the 12 chapters are already in draft, and the whole thing is due at the end of calendar 2021. My plenary lecture is an overview of parts of the argument. But the fun for me is so often in the details. We are in a golden age of research on animal behavior and animal intelligence, and I love finding out new things about animals I know a lot about, such as elephants and whales, but especially about animals I know less about, such as birds, fish and octopuses.

Why is it necessary to make both ethical and legal changes to protect animals’ rights?

Well, ethics has included wonderful concern for animals for millennia, both in non-Western philosophy (Buddhism and some aspects of Hinduism) and in Western philosophy (the Greek Neoplatonists Porphyry and Plutarch)—and I include Aristotle despite his flaws, since he really is the ancestor of my Capabilities Approach. The whole argument of my book might be said to flow from my doctoral dissertation, on Aristotle’s little work On the Motion of Animals. But these approaches have not been dominant.

For the most part, human beings have been both arrogant about human specialness and obtuse about animals, and things got much worse in the last century with the creation of the factory farming industry, which daily tortures countless animals. There are many things ethically sensitive people can argue about, such as the limits of medical experimentation, or whether any type of meat-eating can be ethically OK. But no ethical person can condone what goes on in the places where chickens and pigs are raised for our food. So, there is urgency ethically. In other areas too, we are wrecking the lives of sea creatures by heedlessly filling the seas with trash. We are destroying the habitats of countless creatures, both by taking over their land and by not containing global warming.

Legally, our approaches to animal lives are a mess, a gappy patchwork of some international treaties, some federal laws in each nation and thousands of state and local laws. There is huge lack of coordination and numerous inconsistencies. Thus, animals who live with humans as companions are pretty well protected, though by an inconsistent mess of local statutes. The animals we eat have basically no protection, though some states and some nations do better.

International treaties are also a mess: The minute the international treaty concerned with whaling was amended to ban the harpooning of whales, the Japanese simply withdrew from the treaty organization. There is nothing anybody can do about that.

My approach defends some tough and consistent ethical goals that should be benchmarks for law, but then it is up to courageous legal organizations to figure out how to make progress within our existing legal framework. My daughter, who died in December 2019, was a lawyer for one such organization, Friends of Animals, and my work takes inspiration from her life’s work and attempts to continue it.

In both ethics and law, we urgently need the humanities. Philosophy can provide cogent arguments for a coherent set of norms that we can keep our eyes on as we move forward. As I say in the lecture, the arguments supporting some current approaches are very weak, so philosophers need to get to work and do better.

Among your central human capabilities, you discuss our ability to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature. Why is this a significant change in perspective of our capabilities and ethics?

As I say in the talk, that is what the human-centered list says, but it is not enough, because it is all about what human beings need. Already in the late 1980s, I found, working with an international group that I could get a robust agreement among international development workers that this was a good goal.

But the next step, saying that animals matter for their own sake, not just for the sake of human beings, is much harder. Even my longtime collaborator Amartya Sen was unwilling to go there, and many participants in our Human Development and Capability Association are upset with me, because they think that we must solve all the urgent problems of human beings first, before showing any concern for other animals. I don’t agree: The goals need not be seen as at odds, and they should be understood to support one another. The way we treat the sentient beings with whom we share this planet is an aspect of our humanity. And if we neglect this issue, we fail as human beings.

What type of laws would acknowledge we share the world with other species—and that what they are able to do and be matters greatly to us?

You name it. As I said above, some issues are especially heinous: for example, the factory food industry. Because of the huge power of big agriculture in U.S. politics, however, I fear this one is one of the toughest to change.

We can all express ourselves as consumers, making ethical choices. Whole Foods has enabled a lot more choice as to the sourcing of our food. And some states, especially California, have used legislation to restrict the types of practices that are permissible: for example, only cage-free eggs may be sold in California. But anyway, that is one area where legal progress is urgent but very hard.

With respect to domesticated animals, things are looking up. It’s all a patchwork of local laws, that’s the problem, but some communities are making real progress. The Chicago Bar Association has a very active animals’ section that has been working on the issue of puppy mills, which is a form of fraud as well as of cruelty, since consumers are usually unaware of the mistreatment of young animals. Laws against declawing cats are also important locally, as well as more traditional laws against dog fighting and other forms of cruelty.

We’re also more aware of the humane treatment of formerly wild animals that are now living among us: coyotes, for example. As for wild animals, typically they need to be protected by cooperative international legal action, and that is difficult and uncertain, as my example of Japanese whaling shows. But we can help at our end by refusing to allow trophies from hunted wild animals (for example elephant tails, beloved of modern-day hunters) to enter the U.S. California has been pursuing this issue effectively. A worldwide ban on ivory, if it could be attained, would cut back on poaching, though enforcement will remain difficult. Banning the confinement of orcas in marine theme parks is almost achieved, thanks to the film Blackfish. But there are so many issues, habitat issues, poaching issues, confinement issues. Each person can do something useful by starting locally.

—To read more about how Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach can help create “a positive vision of animal flourishing,” read the full Q&A at the Division of the Humanities website.