“Justice for Animals” Lets Us ‘Discover New Ways of Seeing Animals’

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

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?

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