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Better Lives for All Us Animals in Martha C. Nussbaum’s “Justice for Animals”

Better Lives for All Us Animals in Martha C. Nussbaum’s “Justice for Animals”

  • Our review of Martha C. Nussbaum's new book, "Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility"

Martha C. Nussbaum, one of the greatest living moral philosophers, explores the moral lives of nonhuman animals in her urgent new book, Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility. In this brilliant and accessible work, Nussbaum develops an account of the moral lives of animals that is stronger than other philosophers’ accounts and relevant to the efforts of humans seeking to build a better, more just world for all animals.

Nussbaum extends and adapts for all animals the capabilities approach to ethics she and Amartya Sen developed to assess the goodness of humans’ lives. Using the capabilities approach, we can look at a particular creature—say, a whale—and ask, Given the kind of animal this creature is, and given what we know about what such animals need to lead full and flourishing lives, can we say this creature in its present circumstances is capable of thriving? If we see a particular whale is denied access to expanses of water undisturbed by sonar—conditions marine biologists identify as necessary for whales to thrive—we can conclude the whale is facing an injustice that humans must amend.

The capabilities approach, Nussbaum explains, invites humans to view the lives and struggles of nonhuman animals with senses of wonder, compassion, and outrage. We humans can feel wonder at the flourishing of animal lives different from our own. We can feel compassion when we see animals kept from flourishing; we know what it feels like to be thwarted in our own efforts to flourish in ways characteristic of our own species. And we can feel outrage when we see humans wantonly constrain and kill animals. Expressing her own outrage, Nussbaum writes:

[A]ll animals, both human and non-human, live on this fragile planet, on which we depend for everything that matters. We didn’t choose to be here. We humans think that because we found ourselves here this gives us the right to use the planet to sustain ourselves and to take parts of it as our property. But we deny other animals the same right, although their situation is exactly the same. They too found themselves here and have to try to live as best they can. By what right do we deny them the right to use the planet in order to live, in just the way that we claim the right?

In such forceful passages, Nussbaum exemplifies the point, key to her broader philosophical project, that emotion is essential to reason; we need the right emotional states to see the world clearly and to respond to the world truthfully.

Although Justice for Animals is written to address general readers, Nussbaum works through, in lively and accessible fashion, key philosophical questions about animals and ethics. She asks, for example, what qualities of an animal’s life make it a candidate for care under the capabilities framework. Nussbaum argues that the capabilities framework applies to all animals that are (a) sentient and (b) capable of significant striving, which “includes subjective perception of things that are helpful or harmful . . . plus a variety of subjective attitudes, such as pain and pleasure, and, in addition, numerous other subjective states that motivate behavior: desires and emotions.” All of the creatures that fall in this category, from mammals to birds to fish, must be afforded real opportunities to lead flourishing lives.

To her credit, Nussbaum does not avoid difficult questions, including those about the moral treatment of companion animals, such as dogs, which we have bred down the ages for docility and companionship with humans. Humans cannot now turn all dogs loose in the wild and wish them full, flourishing lives. Rather, regardless of how morally suspect processes of dog breeding have been over time, we must now do our best to afford dogs flourishing lives in a world almost totally dominated by human beings. In addition to offering good medical care and our own steady companionship, we must create spaces (e.g., dog parks) and laws (e.g., humane treatment laws) that support dogs’ efforts to flourish. As this example shows, Nussbaum builds out from her philosophical arguments to propose strong and commonsense laws we can pass to protect animals.

See Also

A great merit of Nussbaum’s book is its wide range of sources. Nussbaum does not build her argument only in reference to works of philosophy. Instead, she develops and backs up her arguments with references to scientific texts, case law, popular accounts of animals’ lives, and works of literature from Homer’s Odyssey to P. G. Wodehouse’s novels. Curiously, although Nussbaum believes literature can reveal aspects of ethics that are difficult to address in standard philosophical discourse, she does not explain in much detail how careful readings of literature about animals can help us imagine what flourishing lives might look like for different creatures. For a brilliant presentation of this argument about animals, ethics, and literature, readers might pick up Alice Crary’s remarkable book Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought.

All readers, not only readers already committed to animal rights, ought to read Nussbaum’s new book. Following Nussbaum’s arguments, we can discover new ways of seeing animals with wonder and compassion. And we can hone our senses of outrage and use that outrage to fuel our efforts to build a better world for all us animals.

Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility
By Martha C. Nussbaum
Simon & Schuster
January 3, 2023

View Comment (1)
  • Yes, animals do need justice! They need the protection that is due them just like us as people get. This is a great title for a book and I look forward to reading it someday.😊😊😊

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