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Animal Rights And The Ecological Fallacy

Martha Nussbaum has an interesting, but I think ultimately unsuccessful, article arguing for a different approach to establishing moral status for animals. Her view is basically consequentialist, but she rejects the aggregation characteristic of utilitarianism. Where utilitarianism measures all aspects of an individual's life in a single metric of pleasure or satisfaction, and then sums the pleasures or satisfactions of all individuals, Nussbaum wants to consider the separate goods that make up each individual's life, goods which cannot be traded off either within or across individuals. She further rejects the psychological subjectivism of utilitarianism's metrics, preferring to state her list of goods as objective conditions for the dignified flourishing of the being.

There's a lot to take apart in Nussbaum's article, but the thing I want to focus on for now is how Nussbaum falls prey to what I see as one of the key critiques made by utilitarians against Kantian arguments that accord rights to all and only humans: the ecological fallacy. The Kantian argument says, in essence: "since the average human is capable of reason, whereas the average animal is not, then every human has the set of rights that come from the ability to reason, whereas no animal has those rights. Utilitarians rightly point out that it is fallacious to judge an individual by the characteristics of the other members of some arbitrarily-selected group (in this case the species -- but the argument has also powerfully been made by feminists in response to those who would base universal gender roles on differences in the average capabilities of the sexes). Nussbaum seems to recognize the problem when she argues for an individualist, rather than "species rights" perspective. But she falls right into the ecological fallacy in her discussion of how we decide what are the list of goods contributing to a creature's flourishing:

Capacities do crisscross and overlap: A chimpanzee may have more capacity for empathy and perspectival thinking than a very young child, or than an older child with autism. And capacities that humans sometimes arrogantly claim for themselves alone are found very widely in nature. But it seems wrong to conclude from such facts that species membership is morally and politically irrelevant. A child with mental disabilities is actually very different from a chimpanzee, though in certain respects some of her capacities may be comparable. Such a child's life is difficult in a way that the life of a chimpanzee is not difficult: She is cut off from forms of flourishing that, but for the disability, she might have had. There is something blighted and disharmonious in her life, whereas the life of a chimpanzee may be perfectly flourishing. Her social and political functioning, her friendships, her ability to have a family all may be threatened by her disabilities, in a way that the normal functioning of a chimpanzee in the community of chimpanzees is not threatened by its cognitive endowment.

That is relevant when we consider issues of basic justice. For children born with Down syndrome, it is crucial that the political culture in which they live make a big effort to extend to them the fullest benefits of citizenship they can attain, through health benefits, education, and re-education of public culture. That is so because they can flourish only as human beings. They have no option of flourishing as happy chimpanzees. For a chimpanzee, on the other hand, it seems to me that expensive efforts to teach language, while interesting and revealing for human scientists, are not matters of basic justice. A chimpanzee flourishes in its own way, communicating with its own community in a perfectly adequate manner that has gone on for ages.

I see no reason why the species should be taken as the fundamental unit for the allocation of conditions for flourishing. Why not, instead, subdivide the species so that a child with Down's Syndrome has a different list of capabilities than a non-Down's child? Or go the other way, and say that all the primates have a list of capabilities proper to them?

In the end, I think the only way to tell whether a being is flourishing is to ask it (or to observe other behavioral indicators). This brings us back, though, to one of the key points of utilitarianism -- that what is good for a being is based on that being's subjective self-assessment. And for all Nussbaum's talk of maintaining the dignity of beings, it seems to me that respecting individuals' perspectives is ultimately more dignified than ascribing to them a set of capabilities based on a philosopher's intuitions about what is appropriate to a creature of its species.


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