Justice for animals and expanding our communities

Credit: Alejandro Ospina

How far do our communities extend? To whom do we humans owe something? For the growing neoliberal fascist movement worldwide, the answer begins with excluding individuals based on their gender, race, birthplace, ideology, and other factors. These groups claim to defend freedom, yet they seek homogeneity and the exclusion, or caging, of difference. By contrast, a broader understanding of community could encompass not only all people, but also beings who would extend our sense of obligation beyond the human. Through such an expansion, we might learn that “It is an “immense pleasure,” as poet Elvira Hernández writes, “to contemplate / an empty cage.” 


Expanding our moral obligations

Martha Nussbaum provides tools for expanding our communities in her book Justice for Animals. Her vision of community includes animals that engage in what she calls “significant striving,” which includes “subjective perception of things that are helpful and harmful, a variety of subjective attitudes such as pain and pleasure, and numerous other subjective states that motivate behavior: desires and emotions” (p. 21). To include these beings would produce a moral obligation to them; it would also allow us to rethink how humans relate to nature and to deepen our understanding of who “we” are.

Our obligations to other humans are often expressed through moral principles or law. In advocating for the inclusion of certain animals in our community, Nussbaum argues for their recognition in our moral and legal systems. The specific form of those obligations will vary depending on the animal species and the relation that the individual animal has with humans. The book’s last chapters, for instance, deal with the crucial differences between the obligations we have to domestic animals and those we have to wild animals, reflecting on tragic dilemmas humans face, such as meat consumption and the use of animals in experiments.

But the question about inclusion remains a weakness of animal justice theories, and the theory presented in this book is no exception. Even with Nussbaum’s scrupulous reasoning, can we justify drawing a line between those beings who are part of our community and those that are not? 

When faced with a tragic dilemma, Nussbaum takes a classical philosophical approach: step back and see if there is an actual dilemma. Following her lead, I would argue that there is no actual need for a sharp line between those beings we should include in our community and those we should exclude. Instead, we can embrace an obligation to respect every living being on Earth. We can devote our energy not to asking who is in and who is out, but to understanding what it would mean to respect different beings.


Who still lies beyond the line?

Given the current ecological and climate crisis, now is the perfect time to change our relationship with nonhuman life. The moral and legal systems in the Western world have long excluded these beings, leading to their mass exploitation and destruction. By extending the approach presented by Nussbaum in Justice for Nature, we may be able to expand our community to include every form of life.

Traditionally, we have different obligations to different levels of community. The legal and moral obligations that we have with our partners, parents, and children are not the same as those we have with the rest of our family, neighbors, country, humanity, animals, plants, nature itself, and so on. As we zoom out from ourselves, both moral and legal obligations tend to fade.   

A story like Margarita Castro’s provides a poignant counterpoint. Margarita was an 89-year-old woman from the city of Talcahuano, in the central-southern part of Chile. When local authorities tried to chop down a cork oak tree outside her house to pave the street, she tied herself to the tree in an effort to save it. The tree was over 50 years old and was planted at the same time that Margarita’s house was constructed. Having cared for the tree all those years, she regarded it as a companion, and she was not willing to let it be killed.

Margarita’s story went viral, and she received support from many people in Chile. The tree was eventually replanted in a nearby park, where it could continue to grow and live.

Were we to adopt Nussbaum’s approach in Justice for Animals, this and other trees would not be part of our community and we would therefore not owe them anything. The book draws the line at whether a being demonstrates significant striving, which excludes trees, among other beings.

I doubt that Margarita would agree to draw the line there. In line with the Indigenous concept of buen vivir, she understood that a good life cannot be achieved without considering the welfare of all beings, human or not. At 89 years old, she risked her own safety to save one of them, demonstrating her deep appreciation for that particular tree.


The potential of the capabilities approach

Yet Nussbaum’s framework holds potential. The concept of significant striving builds upon the idea of sentience, which has helped us draw moral and legal boundaries in the past (v.gr. the Chilean law protects some animals, recognizing sentience). Nussbaum acknowledges that sentience has been defined based on projections of human experience, and the category of sentient beings has changed over time with scientific discoveries. By the same token, rather than limit our moral framework to beings whose significant striving we can identify, why not extend it to all beings? 

The development of the capabilities approach is one of Nussbaum's biggest contributions to moral philosophy. Within this approach, equality and well-being are connected. The well-being of each subject is partly determined by the opportunities they have for being or doing according to their own specific capabilities. The community is responsible for creating the necessary conditions for these opportunities and for achieving an acceptable level of equality and freedom (p. 140).

Instead of defining our community based on either sentience or significant striving, we may adopt a concept of respect for all beings that recognizes differences among species and individuals. By using the capabilities approach, we can expand our communities to include every living being without treating all as equals and without creating tragic choices. The flexibility, precision, and grounding of this approach can strengthen respect for other beings while maintaining our existing obligations toward human beings.

The extension of the capabilities approach to animals is a significant contribution to the discussion about animal rights, and for this we owe a debt of gratitude to Nussbaum. Justice for Animals could be a game changer in the current conversation about the rights of nature and the protection of biodiversity. The cage is slowly opening, and we may live to see it empty.