Martha Nussbaum Writes What Humans Owe Animals

What Humans Owe Animals

Animals are in trouble all over the world. Our world is dominated by humans everywhere: on land, in the seas, and in the air. No non-human animal escapes human domination. Much of the time, that domination inflicts wrongful injury on animals: whether through the barbarous cruelties of the factory meat industry, through poaching and game hunting, through habitat destruction, through pollution of the air and the seas, or through neglect of the companion animals that people purport to love.

In a way, this problem is age-old. Both Western and non-Western philosophical traditions have deplored human cruelty to animals for around two millennia. The Hindu emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism, wrote about his efforts to give up meat and to forgo all practices that harmed animals. In Greece, the Platonist philosophers Plutarch and Porphyry wrote detailed treatises deploring human cruelty to animals, describing their keen intelligence and their capacity for social life, and urging humans to change their diet and their way of life. But by and large these voices have fallen on deaf ears, even in the supposedly moral realm of the philosophers, and most humans have continued to treat most animals like objects, whose suffering does not matter—although they sometimes make an exception for companion animals. Meanwhile, countless animals have suffered cruelty, deprivation, and neglect.

Today, we have, then, a long-overdue ethical debt: to listen to arguments we have refused to hear, to care for what we have obtusely ignored, and to act on the knowledge of our bad practices that we can so easily attain. But today we have reasons humans never had before to do something about human wrongs to animals. First, human domination has increased exponentially in the past two centuries. In Porphyry’s world, animals suffered when they were killed for meat, but up to that point they lived pretty decent lives. There was no factory meat industry that, today, breeds these animals as if they were just meat already, confining them in horrible conditions, cramped and isolated, until they die before ever having decently lived.

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