Deep thinky stuff today.
Today I heard a lecture at the University of Denver by Martha Nussbaum, philosopher and professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, on animal rights. It was held at DU’s School of Social Work which houses the Institute for Human-Animal Connection. Listening to an academic lecture required me to wear my thinking cap completely on my head rather than at its usual jaunty angle.
Essentially Nussbaum argues against the anthropomorphism of animals. Animals don’t deserve rights because they are similar to us; they deserve rights because they are living beings with a capacity to both thrive and to suffer. If we cause them suffering then we infringe upon their rights. Boom. End of point.
This argument stands in conflict with typical activists’ arguments that make analogies between say, a pig and a three-year-old child, or an orangutan and a five-year-old child. That’s what gives these animals their value: they are like us. We praise the intelligence and societal structures of elephants and whales and marvel at their proximity to humanity.
This is precisely what Nussbaum argues against. Intelligence and its value is not an objective, universal moral force floating in the ether. It is a skill that humans measure because we seem to have it in spades compared to other species. If we were to develop a hierarchy based on things like sense of smell or spatial relations or flight, then we’d be much lower on the ladder.
It’s a fairly radical argument, and considering that as we argue, natural habitats for animals all over the world are being destroyed, it may not go very far among those who do not value animals for anything other than the resources that they provide for humans.
Some people stood up during the Q & A time to say that was all well and good but sometimes you have to anthropomorphize for the sake of practicality. A lawyer pointed out that when arguing a case involving animal rights to a jury, you have to talk about what’s going to make them feel something for your side. Don’t lecture a jury about Jeremy Bentham (the philosopher, not the character from Lost) because you’ll lose the case.
Nussbaum has said the movement needs both poets and pragmatists. I’m definitely in the latter camp. And I’m sure there are animal rights advocates who say I do a piss-poor job anyway. I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian. I wear leather shoes sometimes. I have friends who hunt, and they remain very good friends.
But I try in my own ways. I buy only cruelty-free make up (Tarte, Urban Decay, Two Faced). Most meat that I buy (and it isn’t a lot) comes from animals raised both locally and humanely. I try very hard to pick up litter and debris on hikes out of respect for the local ecosystem. And I volunteer with animal rescue groups. I also know there are many others whose livelihoods or professions place them in situations where they must make choices that go beyond mine.
Ultimately I am relieved that we have people whose purpose is to find solutions to questions of human-animal relationships, whether it is habitat encroachment or medical research or other.
Speaking of this, one point was brought up by an attorney on the panel: strides have been made in the medical community to have animals like pigs essentially be incubators for human organs. That way, doctors would not have to harvest organs from a recently deceased donor and instead could take one that does not belong to a person. I flashed to one of my favorite books: Never Let Me Go by Kazoo Ishiguro which dealt with this topic among humans. Everyone knew the inhumanity of the situation so it is dealt with far away from deep scrutiny. Yet as a person who has lost three friends in the past few years (two of whom had young children), I understand the necessity of making strides where we can get them. But trading one tragedy for another, one of which is widely recognized while the other takes some convincing in many circles, is not the answer.
As I write this my two rescue dogs are running in the backyard taking turns chasing one another. I love that they are in my life. I’m happy that I could be someone who saved them. We all deserve the basic dignity of running around for the sheer joy of it.