Chelsea Harry, assistant professor of the history of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University, advocated for animal well-being with Aristotle’s philosophy and the capability approach in a lecture titled “Function, Flourishing and Fair Treatment: An Aristotelian Argument for Non-Human Animal Well-Being” on March 27.
“Chelsea is an incredible scholar, she’s an incredible teacher and she’s an incredible member of the community,” Taine Duncan, associate professor of philosophy and the director of the gender studies program, said. “She is a philosopher of nature, and she primarily works in [German and] ancient Greek philosophy. She also does a lot of work on the philosophy of animals.”
Harry introduced her lecture by describing the commonly held beliefs regarding the status of nonhuman animals that are promoted in Western thought.
“Throughout the history of Western thought, we’ve thought of animals as proto-humans, especially in terms of cognition,” Harry said. “Why is that? Generally, we think that cognition means reasoning, and since the beginning of Western thought, generally, we’ve learned that nonhuman animals can’t reason, and thus, they must necessarily be below us.”
Harry defined the nature of four relationships between humans and nonhuman animals that prevail in Western thought.
In the first relationship, because nonhuman animals are fundamentally different from humans, it is permissible for humans to use nonhuman animals to their advantage. The second relationship identities that nonhuman animals feel pain but this doesn’t warrant a compassionate treatment of nonhuman animals.
The third relationship holds that humans must treat nonhuman animals compassionately because nonhuman animals experience suffering.
The fourth relationship argues that humans must treat nonhuman animals compassionately because humans and nonhumans animals are not significantly different.
Although Aristotle’s beliefs about nonhuman animal treatment are unclear, many scholars believe that Aristotle could have agreed with the first, second and fourth relationship, Harry said.
“Aristotle didn’t actually talk about how to treat nonhuman animals,” Harry said. “Because of this one [section of the Nicomachean Ethics]where Aristotle seems to be saying that in accordance with nature humans can do what they wish with nonhumans … This is a bit overly simplistic, a bit shortsighted, to attribute Aristotle this position because he has this huge body of extant work … where he describes in painstaking detail a naturalist observation on nonhuman animals.”
Aristotle believed that the highest form of flourishing resides in the function of humans, Harry said. Aristotle argued that rational activity is humans’ function, and to flourish, humans must participate in rational thought.
Harry extended Aristotle’s beliefs of function and flourishing to animals with the capability approach, a moral framework popularized by philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen that maintains that moral rights should be de ned by the capability to achieve wellbeing.
Understanding animal rights with the capability approach and Aristotelian thinking leads to many conclusions, including the inference that dog owners that prevent their dogs from smelling off the path during a walk are obstructing their dogs’ capacities to achieve wellbeing, Harry said.
Dogs smell their environments for their own wellbeing because they understand the world through scent, and experiments conducted by scientist Alexandra Horowitz have shown that if dogs are prevented from smelling at their own discretion, their sense of smell becomes weaker.
“[Understanding nonhuman animal cognitive capacity] involves eschewing our anthropocentric commitments,” Harry said. “First of all, to the fact that we are on top, and second of all, to the idea that whatever else is in the world is just us downgraded. Instead of thinking about how other things might approximate our cognitive abilities or [thinking about]how other creatures might feel pain, why not think about the fact that other creatures in the world are doing things way better than us, and they deserve to have the ability to exercise that function, or they’re probably not living well, just like a human who can’t have an education or exercise his or her mental capacity.”
Harry is the third annual speaker of the Norbert and Carol Schedler Scholar in Residence series, a program supported by the Norbert and Carol Schedler Endowment and sponsored by the Schedler Honors College, the Department of Philosophy and Religion, the gender studies program and the Department of Psychology and Counseling.
Photo by Hunter Moore