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Harvard Historian Nancy Koehn On Animal Liberation

April 29, 2014

What legal rights do animals have? It's a subject that The New York Times Magazine takes on in a recent profile of Steven Wise, a lawyer with The Nonhuman Rights Project.

In his 2005 book, Though the Heavens May Fall, Wise examines the 1772 ruling of British Judge Lord Mansfield. It was a ruling that set the precedent for outlawing slavery in the modern Western world. What the Mansfield judgment did for slaves in the eighteenth century, Wise would like to do for animals in his lifetime.

Thanks to scientific research we  can  no longer believe, as Descartes did, that  animals are soulless automatons. Instead, researchers have proven that there are species who are equipped with cognitive capabilities that allow them to have an interior life. Animals  such as elephants, orcas, and chimps can distinguish the past from the present and the present from the future. Wise and his peers argue that if certain animals are so biologically and emotionally similar to humans then shouldn’t they also be granted some of our fundamental rights?

As Princeton philosopher Peter Singer puts it:

All the arguments to prove man's superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering the animals are our equals.

Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, Engelbert Reineke via Wikimedia Commons

Some people see Wise as an eccentric who is toiling his life away in courtrooms with doomed arguments. But could Wise end up being to animals what Martin Luther King, Jr. was to the civil rights movement, or what Mary Wollstonecraft was to women’s rights? 

Today Harvard Historian Nancy Koehn joins Jim Braude and Margery Eagan to talk about Steven Wise’s mission. Koehn also explains why he could succeed and why it is that the animal rights movement has gained so much momentum in such a short amount of time.  

Do yourself –and the animal kingdom—a favor and listen to Nancy Koehn read from her copy of Darwin’s Descent of Man. Hear  her recount how animals and humans use to coexist. And find out how  her personal trainer fits into all of this.

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