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Ethics and Morality

Justice for Animals Means Freedom to Do What Comes Naturally

Martha C. Nussbaum offers the Capabilities Approach, a new comprehensive theory.

Key points

  • The Capabilities Approach argues that as a matter of justice, animals must be able to perform their characteristic form of life.
  • Domestic and wild animals are considered while calling the notion of the “wild” into question given the ubiquity of human domination and control.
  • We must move toward a future in which human-animal conflict no longer exists, and do so as quickly as possible.

"Animals are in trouble all over the world. Whether through the cruelties of the factory meat industry, poaching and game hunting, habitat destruction, or neglect of the companion animals that people purport to love, animals suffer injustice and horrors at our hands every day."

I've long been interested in animal ethics and well-being, and the first sentence (above) of the description of renowned philosopher Dr. Martha C. Nussbaum's landmark new book Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility was all it took to make me put down what I was reading and learn about what she was offering, namely, a revolutionary theory and call to action―the Capabilities Approach. I'm thrilled she could take the time to answer a few questions about the new ethical awakening that is most needed globally.

Simon and Schuster, with permission.
Source: Simon and Schuster, with permission.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Justice for Animals?

Martha C. Nussbaum: The issue of animal justice is incredibly urgent, and the normative theories that are currently directing practical efforts and legal are inadequate. My Capabilities Approach offers better guidance.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

MCN: I’m a philosopher, and I’ve worked on this theory for years with human justice in view. Now I apply it to this new set of issues. As a law professor, I include legal as well as ethical issues.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

MCN: Anyone who cares about animals and has an interest in theories of justice.

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

MCN: I begin by laying out some major areas of our wrongful treatment of animals, defining injustice in terms of wrongfully thwarted striving. Next, I examine the three leading theories of animal justice that are currently propelling practical efforts. First is the anthropocentric approach of Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project, which argues for rights for some animals (apes, elephants) because of their likeness to humans. Second is the Utilitarian approach of Jeremy Bentham, J. S. Mill, and today’s Peter Singer, which holds that pain is the one bad thing and pleasure is the one good thing. Third is the Kantian approach of philosopher Christine Korsgaard, which says many wonderful things but concludes that on account of their alleged lack of ethical capacities animals can be only “passive citizens.”

 Frans van Heerden/Pexels
Source: Frans van Heerden/Pexels

Having criticized all of these approaches as inadequate to the complexity of animal lives, I turn to my own Capabilities Approach, which argues that what each sentient creature is entitled to, as a matter of justice, is the ability to exercise the major parts of its characteristic form of life, up to a reasonable threshold level. I also consider the elusive topic of sentience, delving into a lot of recent research that amply demonstrates that all vertebrates and many invertebrates are sentient and have the capacity to feel pain and a point of view on the world. I argue that plants are not sentient, and that for that reason they should not be regarded as subjects of justice, though they may be owed other types of ethical concern.

I also consider death: when, and for what reasons, is it a harm? I use this philosophical reflection to argue that death is a harm to all animals who have projects that extend over time. I also address “tragic dilemmas”: cases where we feel that we are stuck and must do wrong whatever we do. The cases I take up are medical experimentation, where cures for human and animal diseases are found through harm to many animals; the conflict between indigenous peoples’ rights to culture and the welfare of animals, especially in the area of whaling; and conflicts over habitat between poor people and animals. My general strategy is to ask us to use our imaginations to conceive of a possible future in which that conflict would no longer exist, and then to move toward that future as quickly as possible.

In my discussion, I consider companion animals and spell out in detail the implications of the Capabilities Approach for policies concerning their lives. I also do the same for “wild” animals, in the process calling the whole notion of the “wild” into question, given the ubiquity of human domination and control.

I also discuss the idea of human-animal friendships and whether and under what conditions friendship can exist between humans and non-human animals. I conclude they can and offer detailed examples of such friendships.

What about law? First I examine the current resources in U.S. law for the protection of animals and then argue that animals ought to be given legal standing (the right to be the plaintiff of an action), as they currently are in four countries but not in the U.S. I focus on several specific areas of legal change: the horrors of factory farming; the abusive practices of “puppy mills”; and, finally, the mistreatment of whales and the impotence of international law to address their predicament.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

MCN: It is theoretical, although with constant practical examples; and my theory is different from the others that are dominant in the field.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about your approach to achieving justice for animals they will be treated with more respect and dignity?

MCN: I really am hopeful. I think we are at the beginning of a great revolution in animal treatment, and I will be very happy if my book plays even a small role in getting us to respect and justice.


In conversation with Dr. Martha C. Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, appointed in the Philosophy Department and the Law School of the University of Chicago. She gave the 2016 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities and won the 2016 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy, the 2018 Berggruen Prize in Philosophy and Culture, and the 2020 Holberg Prize. These three prizes are regarded as the most prestigious awards available in fields not eligible for a Nobel Prize.

For discussions about animal law click here.

Jane Goodall Institute Statement on Cetacean Captivity. ("The Jane Goodall Institute calls for an immediate worldwide, permanent ban on capturing, keeping and breeding cetaceans in captivity.")

Do Humans Owe Animals Equal Rights? Martha Nussbaum Thinks So. New York Times, December 6, 2022.

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