Justice for Animals: A theory in search of moral principles

Credit: Alejandro Ospina

At the end of Justice for Animals (2023), Martha Nussbaum calls her approach in this new book “the best theoretical ally of all concerned humans working toward” an awakening to “our kinship with a world of remarkable intelligent creatures and to real accountability for our treatment of them” (314). As this claim suggests, Nussbaum sets out to provide a political philosophical theory that captures the remarkable diversity of animals, as well as our obligations to them. Unfortunately, I do not think she has achieved this ambition. Despite the book’s considerable merits, Nussbaum ultimately fails to present a consistent set of normative principles—making it difficult to adequately address practical concerns relating to our treatment of animals.

As someone whose own scholarship on fundamental rights has been influenced by Nussbaum’s work, I cannot hide the tremendous excitement I felt at reading this book. It is no doubt a must-read for anyone working on issues relating to the treatment of animals in the fields of ethics, political philosophy, or law. 

Justice for Animals is based on the capabilities approach, which was developed by Amartya Sen and Nussbaum to challenge prevailing accounts—such as those focused on mental states, preference satisfaction, or resources—concerning what is of value in the lives of human beings. Nussbaum sought to identify a list of capabilities that are typically necessary for human beings to flourish: that is, real opportunities to give expression to certain human bodily, social, and psychological characteristics, such as being able to express oneself freely or form intimate relationships. 

In her past work on animals and in this book, Nussbaum develops the capabilities approach beyond its initial focus on human beings to capture what is of value in the lives of other sentient creatures. Animals, she contends, have characteristic ways of life and, ultimately, they too ought to be able to live a flourishing life by their own lights. To understand what that involves, she points to a whole common diverse set of capabilities—what she terms “significant strivings”—that individual animals must have in order to flourish. These tend to track the species of which they are members—for example, elephants generally require the capabilities, amongst others, to move around large distances, forage, and bathe themselves in mud. 

The capabilities approach was initially put forward as a theory of value. The problem is that a theory of value, while vital, does not in itself make an ethical or political theory. For that, we also need a worked-out set of principles that inform us of what we ought to do. It is here that I think the greatest deficit in Nussbaum’s view lies. The idea of species-typical capabilities is not sufficient alone to provide normative guidance in concrete cases. This is particularly the case given that the capability view asserts that what is of value in the lives of animals cannot be reduced to one type of property, such as pleasure, but involves a range of nonreducible specific capabilities that all must be realized to an acceptable level. Problems arise where valuable capabilities conflict within individual lives. 

One example Nussbaum provides is the capability cats have to appreciate being able to roam, climb, and move around freely. She recognizes that, in urban areas, hazards such as cars, viruses, and other animals reduce the average life of a cat and can lead them to suffer serious injuries. Here we have a clash of capabilities in an individual life. Nussbaum contends that cats should be kept indoors—despite the fact that this goes against a central species-typical capability for cats to be able to move around freely. Nussbaum’s reasoning here is that since cats are adaptable, they can become accustomed to a species-untypical way of life that may reduce the chances of harm to them. 

She also, in another chapter, argues that, if it becomes possible to do so, we should try and eliminate carnivorous animals killing other creatures for food—even if this is central to the way of life of a lion or leopard. Adaptability no doubt helps creatures cope with new environments. But part of the attraction of the capabilities view was its ability to critique situations and practices that harm individuals’ species-specific modes of flourishing. If those species-typical behaviors can be changed, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between an unacceptable intrusion into the life of an individual animal and a shift in their conditions of life to which they should simply adapt. 

Indeed, Nussbaum’s early capabilities approach offered the promise of stronger—and more desirable—moral guidance. Animals in some zoos, for instance, may actually be treated reasonably well yet live impoverished lives. This is borne out, for instance, by the fact that elephants in zoos live a fraction of their normal life span in the wild even if they are not maltreated. An attractive version of the capabilities view would therefore counsel against keeping animals in such conditions that undermine the wide-ranging capabilities they need to flourish. In this book, Nussbaum reasons that, in human-controlled environments like zoos, animals can, in fact, be protected from a variety of threats that occur in the wild, such as devastating hunger, disease, fear, and torture. Provided animals are still able to express a reasonable level of species-typical characteristics, zoos, she reasons, could actually be advantageous for animals. 

Of course we can create environments that eliminate certain threats from animal lives (and our own), but do we not then fundamentally undermine what it is to live a free, flourishing life as that animal? Instead of protecting animals’ species-typical behaviour and habitats,  Nussbaum’s revised ethic, taken to its logical conclusion, now advocates a form of paternalism run wild—subjecting all animals to human control and ultimate domestication. 

This lack of a normative compass becomes even more problematic in situations where different beings have capabilities that appear to conflict. Nussbaum’s discussion of medical research is one example. She quickly glosses over the permissibility of such research to consider how to reduce the harms to animals in laboratories. Yet, earlier in her book, Nussbaum professes agreement with the Kantian principle that animals should be treated as ends in themselves and not merely as instruments to fulfill the purposes of others. Animal experimentation involves deliberately taking healthy creatures with life forms of their own and utilizing them for purposes that will (usually) not advance their own well-being. This is the very definition of treating individual animals merely as a means toward achieving the purposes of others. It is very hard to see why Nussbaum does not recognize this and struggle with the very permissibility of such experiments. Her approach in this book seems to be focused entirely on an assessment of overall consequences—being prepared to allow for terrible cruelty to individuals provided thereby positive results are achieved for treating others in the future.

The concept of species-typical flourishing that Nussbaum advances in Justice for Animals is of great value in building a philosophical theory of how we ought to treat other animals. Unfortunately, she fails to present a coherent set of normative principles required to translate her theory of value into a fully fledged moral guide. Nussbaum, then, falls short of offering a wholly transformative approach to our relationship with other creatures—one that would truly heed her own call for kinship, accountability, and mutual respect for all modes of flourishing.