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Attfield and Animals: Capacities and Relations in Attfield's Environmental Ethics

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Robin Attfield's work has been central to the development of environmental philosophy in a number of key areas, including stewardship, population, human development and the moral standing of living organisms. In this paper, I'll focus primarily on just one aspect of Attfield's work: human moral obligations to sentient animals. I'll first outline how, and in what ways, Attfield has argued that such animals are morally important. I'll then suggest that—while providing a good grounding for some central concerns of animal ethics—Attfield's focus on animals' capacities, in the context of a consequentialist approach to ethics, doesn't obviously accommodate other relational concerns that we might think are important. I'll consider how a consequentialist such as Attfield might respond to this concern, and I'll conclude by explaining why this still leaves some residual worries about what I'll call “capacity-oriented” consequentialist approaches to animal ethics.

Attfield's ethical framework is complex and carefully developed. Here, I'll only be able to give a very basic outline of his approach to ethics in general, and to animal ethics in particular. First, and most importantly, Attfield is a consequentialist. That is, what's central on his account is to act, or to follow practices, that bring about the best possible outcomes. Best outcomes, for Attfield, are measured in terms of flourishing, or perhaps well-being, broadly understood. Attfield takes flourishing to refer not only to subjective, experiential states such as pleasure and pain, nor just to preference satisfaction or frustration (as would be standard in utilitarianism); his sense of flourishing is much more expansive. All living beings have a good of their own; they can do well or badly, they have basic needs that they must meet in order to stay alive, and in this sense they can all flourish. Admittedly, some few lives might “lack any features which make them worthwhile to anyone or anything, including the creature the life of which is in question”. (Attfield 1994b, 164) But normally, all living beings can be in states of flourishing, whether or not they can consciously experience anything at all. A tree, Attfield famously argues, has a good of its own, and can flourish or otherwise; for this reason, the tree has interests—in receiving sufficient water, and nutrition, for instance. Non-human animals, like trees, have interests in water and nutrition, but also possess other interests such as not feeling pain; while humans have all these interests, plus additional interests, such as in making autonomous decisions about their own lives. Having interests and being able to flourish, then, emerges from the possession of certain capacities; capacities lie at the heart of Attfield's ethics. Attfield maintains: “Let the ‘essential’ capacities of an x be capacities in the absence of which from most members of a species that species would not be the species of x's, and let ‘x’ range over terms for living organisms. Then the flourishing of an x entails the development in it of the essential capacities of x's.” (Attfield 1994b, 160) The development of essential capacities is what constitutes flourishing for living beings. For Attfield, ethical actions and practices are those that bring about the best outcomes in terms of developing such essential capacities by promoting and protecting organisms' interests, and thereby maximizing flourishing. Following this pattern then, in the case of animals, humans should act to (or follow practices that) maximize animals' flourishing, or, at least, maximize animals' flourishing taking into account the impact such flourishing would have on other (present or future) animal or human interests, or the interests of living but non-sentient beings such as trees.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2010

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