Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Animal ethics at Caffè Nero

Following a safe crossing of the North Sea, I have now landed in Manchester. The conference will start within an hour or so. Going over Marcel’s paper again on the flight I must say that I am thoroughly impressed. Having provided a ground-breaking treatment of the relationship between green thought and liberalism in his book Green Liberalism, this new turn in his thinking offers the most far-reaching and, if one dare to use that word in this context, lethal attack on traditional animal ethics ever launched.

For my own part, if we stay in the realm of public reasoning (as opposed to personal religion) I have felt quite comfortable with a simple distinction; I am utilitarian when it comes to animals and Kantian when it comes to people. The distinction rests on “moral agency”, or with the risk of slipping into transcendental reasoning, the capability of reflexively experiencing existence.

The standard objections are looming, what about infants or the severely mentally handicapped? And I know, I will not be able to get out of those objections without introducing an entirely new moral category, namely “human dignity” which I take as reason to apply Kantian ethics even to those humans who for, one reason or the other, are not able to exercise moral agency. But what about aliens the science fiction fan may ask? Again, if they are “normally” capable of reflective existence, then they are to be included in our sphere of justice as our equals. I hold existence to be indivisible and absolute, though I admit that this once again takes me dangerously close to transcendental reasoning.

Okay, so what is Marcel’s contribution? It is to draw out the implications of the “capabilities approach” advocated by Martha Nussbaum and others. At first, focusing on capabilities seemed to be a nice way out of the long-standing and fruitless debate between animal welfarists and animal rightists. For those unfamiliar with the capabilities approach it can very briefly be condensed into the right of every person (or animal) to develop and flourish according to its own capabilities. Justice then requires us to act in a manner that does not harm the ability of other beings to develop their capabilities. However, if we look at the animal world we see that relations between animals are rarely “just” in this sense but rather "nasty, brutish and short" to paraphrase Hobbes. If we are to take the capability approach serious this state of affairs is highly unsatisfactory, and according to Martha it calls upon us to carry out the “gradual supplanting of the natural by the just”. In his paper Marcel gives a rather mind-blowing account of what this could mean in practical and, I promise, it is not a pill which many ecologically inclined would like to swallow.

To some, this certainly sounds like academia at its worst. Who seriously thinks that we have a positive duty to prevent animals from hurting each other? Perhaps not many, but by drawing out what is implicit in the ever more popular capabilities approach, Marcel is forcing us to think seriously about what our long-term aims should be in relation to the natural world.

(no wonder I stay away from the BLT and stick to the tomato/mozzarella panini)



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