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UChicago Philosophy Professor Discusses Ethics of Animal Rights

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The offices of Harvard's Government Department are housed in CGIS Knafel.

University of Chicago Philosophy Professor Martha C. Nussbaum said that society should grant enhanced legal protections for animals and reconsider the ethical principles governing human-animal interactions at a Friday talk in Boylston Hall.

Nussbaum’s talk — titled ‘Working With and For Animals: Getting the Theoretical Framework Right’ — was the opening keynote lecture for the 12th annual Harvard Graduate Conference in Political Theory. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and the Government Department and concluded with a discussion between Nussbaum and Priyanka Menon ’16, a graduate student in Government.

Nussbaum began her talk, which was derived from a January article published in the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, by criticizing current animal rights theories developed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham and Nonhuman Rights Project founder Stephen M. Wise. According to Nussbaum, Wise’s approach over-relies on animals’ resemblance to humans, and Bentham’s framework depends on a potentially faulty conception of animal pleasure and pain.

Nussbaum proceeded to propose a new ethical framework, which she described as a “capabilities approach” and “an approach to justice for both humans and other animals.” Nussbaum also discussed what she described as a lack of consideration for animals under American and international law, and the need for an “ethical revolution, a consciousness-raising movement of truly international proportions” in society’s views on animal rights.

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“It typically takes an ethical movement to get law going,” Nussbaum said. Nussbaum added that she hopes that her new framework will spur changes in the way non-human animals are treated by governments around the world.

“It’s time to acknowledge that we share the world with other species, and that what they’re able to do and be matters greatly,” Nussbaum said.

Jacob S. Hoerger, a third-year graduate student in the Government department and the organizer of Nussbaum’s talk, said that the graduate conference aims to provide “a stimulating night of conversation and to try to have talks that are at the forefront of new research.”

He said that he hoped audiences would be “thinking about animal rights issues more seriously than when they walked in the door.”

Daniel T. Roberts, a first-year graduate student in Government department and self-described “anthro-centric” thinker, said he came to the lecture “as an opportunity to challenge my preconceptions and as kind of a healthy thought exercise.”

Though Roberts said he felt that Nussbaum was too quick to dismiss certain opposing views, he also said he found her research “very compelling,” and hopes it can also be applied to solve human problems.

Man Ha Tse, an S.J.D. candidate studying at Harvard Law School, also said she found the talk worthwhile.

“I think, probably, a majority of the population doesn’t even think of this as an issue that is worthy of serious scholarly intention,” she said. “So I always think it’s important to have serious scholars like Martha Nussbaum putting forward these ideas. I think it makes a difference, ultimately, in that way.”

Correction: Oct. 23, 2018

A previous version of this article misstated the gender of Man Ha Tse. It has been updated.

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