Chicago Humanities Festival: Prof. Martha Nussbaum on animal ethics

By Sara Cao

Before we can determine how to best treat animals, we must first change how we view them, said renowned philosopher and Law School professor Martha Nussbaum Saturday at the annual Chicago Humanities Festival.

Nussbaum, along with Law School professor Julie Roin and Emory University ethicist Frans de Waal, discussed the implications of Nussbaum’s capabilities approach to animal rights during their talk, “How Should Humans Treat Animals?”

Nussbaum rejected previous approaches to animal rights, which focused on reducing the suffering of animals because they are “just like us.” As an alternative, she presented her capabilities approach, which proposes that the most respectful treatment of animals concentrates on providing each individual species with what it deserves for a fruitful life, with considerations of lifespan, productivity, emotional health, freedom of choice, and opportunities for leisure.

The panel agreed that people tend to rationalize their treatment of animals based upon their human prejudices. Nussbaum said that just because a person will be happy living in a small apartment in Chicago does not imply that an elephant will flourish living in a cage. Instead, “we should see how far we can push ourselves in imagining the whole world of a completely different species.”

While human morality leads people to care about animals to a certain degree, people still retain a focus on their own self-interest. In conflicts between humans and animals, “we make different decisions because we don’t particularly care about the suffering we cause,” de Waal said.

de Waal also shared some findings from his research on animal intelligence, such as the bonobo’s ability to empathize and the elephant’s capacity for self-recognition in mirrors, both of which are human attributes.

de Waal said that current scientific advances reveal that animals possess a greater capacity for emotions and understanding their environment than people realize.

“If our perceptions of animals are changing because of the science we do, then our attitudes toward how we should interact with animals will follow,” he said.