We don’t see the problem with our self-importance because our narcissism is so complete.
Over time, the idea of “being human” has surely meant — and will continue to mean — many things. There is and has never been just one answer. But surely one thing it ought to involve today is the ability to recognize that the question itself is a problem.
We humans are very self-focused. We tend to think that being human is somehow very special and important, so we ask about that, instead of asking what it means to be an elephant, or a pig, or a bird. This failure of curiosity is part of a large ethical problem.
The question, “What is it to be human?” is not just narcissistic, it involves a culpable obtuseness. It is rather like asking, “What is it to be white?” It connotes unearned privileges that have been used to dominate and exploit. But we usually don’t recognize this because our narcissism is so complete.
We share a planet with billions of other sentient beings, and they all have their own complex ways of being whatever they are. All of our fellow animal creatures, as Aristotle observed long ago, try to stay alive and reproduce more of their kind. All of them perceive. All of them desire. And most move from place to place to get what they want and need. Aristotle proposed that we should strive for a common explanation of how animals, including human animals, perceive, desire and move.
We know Aristotle as a philosopher, but he also was a great biologist who studied shellfish and other creatures large and small. He encouraged his students not to turn away from studying animals that don’t seem glamorous, since there is something wonderful in all of them, not least the sheer fact that they all strive for continued life.
This sense of wonder, which should lead us to a fuller ethical concern, is a deep part of our humanity. But wonder is on the wane, and we humans now so dominate the globe that we rarely feel as if we need to live with other animals on reciprocal terms.
Domesticated animals occupy a privileged sphere, but even they are often treated cruelly (think of puppy mills, or abandoned feral cats). The factory farming of pigs, chickens and other animals is a relatively new form of hideous brutality. As for the creatures in the “wild,” we can see that our human crimes are having a devastating effect on them: the damages that come from lab research using animals; the manifold harms endemic to the confinement of apes and elephants in zoos; the depletion of whale stocks by harpooning; the confinement of orcas and dolphins in marine theme parks; the poaching of elephants and rhinoceroses to benefit the international black market; the illicit trafficking of African elephants to American zoos; the devastation of habitat for many large mammals that is resulting from climate change. It is now estimated that human activity has contributed to the extinction of more than 80 mammalian species.
New issues arise constantly. The world needs an ethical revolution, a consciousness-raising movement of truly international proportions. But this revolution is impeded by the navel-gazing that is typically involved in asking, “What is it to be human?”
Let’s rekindle and extend our sense of wonder by asking instead: “What is it to be a whale?” Then let’s go observe whales as best we can, and read the thrilling research of scientists such as Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell. Let’s ask about elephants (my own most beloved species), and if we can’t go on safaris, let’s watch films of elephants simply living their lives, exhibiting communal devotion, compassion, grief and a host of other complex attitudes that we humans tend to believe belong to us alone.
And let’s do much more philosophical and legal work on theoretical approaches to protecting other animals and developing more reciprocity with them. We have gathered so much scientific information about the complexities of animal lives. Now let’s put it to use philosophically. Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson have already done wonderful work on reciprocity and community with domesticated animals, but there’s more to do.
In the world of philosophy-influenced policy, the most significant general approach to animal entitlements until now has been that of the British utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, courageously and ably developed by the philosopher Peter Singer. This approach continues to have great importance because it focuses on animals’ suffering. If we were to simply stop inflicting gratuitous pain on animals, that would be a huge step forward.
We now know that animals need many things that don’t always cause suffering when they are absent: the chance to associate with others of their kind in normal groupings; the chance to sing or trumpet in their characteristic ways; the chance to breed; the chance to move freely through unobstructed space; the chance to pursue curiosity and make new discoveries. So we also need, I believe, an approach that focuses on a plurality of distinct “capabilities,” or freedoms, that each species requires to live a flourishing life.
I’m now writing a book that will use my prior work on the “capabilities approach” to develop a new ethical framework to guide law and policy in this area. But mine is just one approach, and it will and should be contested by others developing their own models. Lawyers working for the good of animals under both domestic and international laws need sound theoretical approaches, and philosophers should be assisting them in their work. And there is so much work to do.
So let’s put aside the narcissism involved in asking only about ourselves. Let’s strive for an era in which being human means being concerned with the other species that try to inhabit this world.
By Martha C. Nussbaum
Ms. Nussbaum is a philosopher. Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago Law School.
Upcoming in The Big Ideas: essays by Anne Wojcicki, Ai Weiwei, Bernard-Henri Levy and others. Read the entire series here.