October 14 - 16, 2004

No consensus may be reached on the proper use of animals for medical and scientific purposes, on the formulation of anticruelty laws, on hunting regulations and the production and use of animals for food, until we agree on how our responsibility toward other species of animals should be construed. From the Paleolithic representations of hunters’ conquests in Lascaux to the twentieth-century satirical allegory presented in Orwell’s Animal Farm, humans have produced a myriad of perspectives on human and animal relations, ultimately with the goal of understanding and justifying human interests in the world. The prevailing tendency to assume a human superiority over other species, however, has been recently challenged by certain artists, philosophers and scientists, who question why or how such a relationship can be presumed or even examined.

In the last decade, the debate over what constitutes animal rights has gained increasing attention in international political and legal arenas. Concerned with the legal protection and preservation of animals, anticruelty laws, both in their formulation and enactment, define correct human behavior in relation to other species. In doing so, they address a wide range of philosophical and ethical questions that seek to essentialize the nature of humans and animals and to question the foundation of human and animal interaction. While few would argue that human attention to animal welfare is unjustified, the law seeks a balance between relative interests; it weighs the potential benefits of new forms of legal protection of animals against the harms such amendments would bring to humans. At the core of such a decision lies the philosophical crux of the issue: are human interests superior to non-human interests?

Scientific research over the last century has increasingly shed light on the biological similarities between humans and nonhumans. Though humans are distinct from other species through language and culture, the complex cognition that was once thought to be unique to humans has been scientifically demonstrated in primate animals, thereby concretely challenging the Cartesian notion of reason as the fundamental divide between humans and animals. The revolutionary primate research of the1960s and 1970s, which effectively applied evolutionary theory to the study of social behavior, furthered and strengthened the evidence for the usefulness of the comparative study of human and nonhuman animals.

Recent philosophical debates, however, have addressed the issue of establishing an appropriate conceptual basis for the consideration of ethical questions concerning nonhuman animals by using a non-comparative approach. In this manner, the quest for similarities and differences between the species—a method that may lead to justification for human behavior—is replaced by a reconsideration of human moral values and the hierarchy that has been constructed between humans and other animals, ultimately with an eye to a reevaluation of human responsibility.

It is toward a reconsideration of human and non-human relations that this seminar will examine the current trends in the philosophical, legal, literary and scientific disciplines. Speakers will include David Finkelstein (Philosophy), Sandra Macpherson (English Language and Literature), Dario Maestripieri (Human Development and Evolutionary Biology), Jill Mateo (Human Development and Evolutionary Biology), Cass Sunstein (Law School), and Candace Vogler (Philosophy).

Pre-readings