Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility
Simon and Schuster, New York, 2023
400 pp. Trade, $28.99
Using a capabilities approach, philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum makes a compelling case in arguing justice for animals. Her strengths are in philosophy and the law, two pillars of this claim for animals to live their lives and flourish (her word from Aristotle). Because of direct or indirect human harms, animals are often not permitted to live flourishing lives. Nussbaum says our debt is to heed voices calling for better treatment of animals through welfare reforms or rights. We are all implicated in various injustices to animals, whether through habitat elimination with urban sprawl, eating meat from factory farms, pollutions that stain the environment, plastics that injure marine life, etc. Rather than level accusations, Nussbaum calls for individuals, institutions, and nations to come together and enforce collective change, an idea that merits repeating. Nussbaum’s particular concern, with a focus on sentience, is with individual animal suffering.
Capabilities would include bodily health and integrity, emotions, play, and control over one’s environment. Freedoms and opportunities of choice are central to Nussbaum’s approach for empowering individuals to thrive in their social and physical environments. Most animals are subjectively aware and, conjuring Aristotle as she often does, it’s unethical for humans to stifle how any animal desires to lead a full life. Nussbaum mostly faults legislators and political theoreticians for their lack of addressing the problems of cruelty to animals, whether in captivity or the wild. She believes that political theory is anthropocentric. Key for her is how animal justice is centered in the creature’s ability to live abundantly and thrive as an individual or in a social group without harm or interference from humans. She’s skeptical that animals have flourished under human institutions. However, changes in attitudes and laws can make animals live much more richly as they deserve.
Beyond pain and suffering, injustice would include stifling animal social activity. There are, Nussbaum suggests, direct injuries (factory farming) and indirect damages (industrial pollutions) limiting animal activities they’d normally pursue to flourish. Nussbaum laments how there are international laws that are mostly not enforced. In other cases, there should be international cooperation to establish new laws, e.g., no dumping of trash into seas. In other words, laws and regulations from humans seem designed to protect their health and benefit their societies and economies, often with little to no regard for wildlife. Nussbaum envisions, rather, a “multispecies community” (pg. 6). There are flimsy boundaries of justice for animals, she notes, since human occupation of the planet is so pervasive, and at times perverse, that it overpowers wildlife. Animals, she says, should be freely able to choose their “essential life-activities” (pg. 8) and so prosper in their environments. Fundamentally, through their institutions, more humans need to acknowledge wrongdoings that impede animal liberties and make corrections.
A starting point, Nussbaum suggests, comes from loving care most humans exhibit toward their companion animals. She hopes that from there a sense of ethics for wildlife might spring with a movement away from harms and toward remedies. A linchpin to her argument concerns the other-directed emotions humans share with most mammals. To make a difference, Nussbaum says that compassion alone for another’s suffering is not enough; one must be motivated by moral indignation into forward-looking action to correct wrongs and prevent future harms. Nussbaum criticizes what she sees as the one-dimensional utilitarian view, i.e., philosophy focusing only on general suffering. She is attracted, anyway, to utilitarianism since it advocates against animal cruelty. She offers a good discussion of Bentham, but he seems to lump pleasure/pain without degrees or types and even across species without distribution, and he does not seem to account for mental suffering. With utilitarianism there’s little room for individual consciousness since what matters is the pleasure of the whole, meaning that individuals and their free actions are dispensable. In a shift from Bentham, J.S. Mill recognizes differences of pleasures stemming from agency in animals. Mill seems to accept the value of animal individuality where Bentham in theory did not.
Nussbaum devotes a chapter to Christine Korsgaard who, in her book Fellow Creatures, applies to animals Kant’s notion of treating life as an ends and not a means. Kant, nevertheless, insisted that animals are only machines of instinct, not autonomous individuals with ethics, but he did not advocate animal cruelty. While Nussbaum admires Korsgaard for seeing animals as ends in themselves (through Kant) and worthy of maintaining the quality of their own lives (through Aristotle), she takes issue with one large point. Korsgaard sees only humans as able to become interested in something external and capable of assigning value. Nussbaum views this as a limited perspective constricting the experiences and moral nature of animals: they are not necessarily, and don’t need to be, accidentally like us. We are not above animals so as to give them value, Nussbaum would assert, and such thinking ignores our own animal being. Rather, animals can make moral evaluations (e.g., altruism) beyond instinct, especially through learning and socialization.
There’s a lot of excellence in Nussbaum’s book, and it’s recommended to anyone interested in animal ethics. There are shortcomings, some noted here. Nussbaum says the capabilities approach should apply to creatures with intentionality and subjective experience. Unfortunately, this would exclude many biodiverse microorganisms working in forests to sustain soil ecosystems. She talks often about how animals kill each other but fails to see that as an evolved feeding behavior. A lion can’t choose between an antelope and a fruit salad. She imposes a human perspective by claiming nature is full of “violence and scarcity” (pg. 226). That depends on where and the time of year, so a limited anthropocentric view. It’s also somewhat overstated and shortsighted to say that nature is worse for animals than zoos or factory farms. While Nussbaum claims justice for animals, she mostly speaks of mammals with some attention to marine life, nonetheless admitting that she must eat fish for protein. In discussing animal advocacy, she does not agree with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Douglas who supported legal standing for “all...forms of life” (pg. 292). She’s not opposed to sheep shearing for wool since she sees no harm done to the animal, but these creatures have been artificially selected to produce fleece, are farm animals, and will become human food. The killing of adult fish is not a moral problem since they appear to live in an ever-present state, she believes. She claims there is no evidence for balance in nature, which contradicts credible scientific theory embracing nature as a self-regulating superorganism. She says it’s a false supposition that there are wild spaces where animals can be left to their own devices untouched by humans, but that begs the question of justice for animals in the form of reforestation with rewilding. Yet, she is patently against leaving nature to its own energies, although it has survived well by itself for millennia. She believes that zoos “educate” people with their research, but that’s debatable unless there is routine exposure.
Circling back to the idea of animals as ends with lives of their own and not as means to be used by people, Nussbaum says humans should respect animal lives, whether as companions or wildlife. She asks for humans to try and empathize with an animal’s way of life, though this is not easy. We too have evolved, but we’ve lost touch with nature. Some form of concentrated attendance in nature will help humans understand and aid animal capabilities. She raises the question of friendship between humans and wild animals. The obstacle, compared with companion animals, is shared space. Friendship then might depend on the species since it’s more difficult to share space with a wild marine animal than a mammal on land or a bird. This discussion leads her to the difficult question of friendship between a human and a captive zoo animal. The problem is that respect for an animal has been compromised if she’s put into the undignified position of enclosure, as Nussbaum would agree.
For animal rights there should be recognition of a serious problem as there is with human rights. There should be international consensus to correct a number of issues: animals as property, citizenship, borders, especially with birds and marine animals, welfare and rights, rules of protection, and integrity to enforce existing laws. Nussbaum says what should matter for all people, institutions, corporations, politicians, and courts is solving and preventing injury to animals, truly our fellow creatures.