Book Review: JUSTICE FOR ANIMALS by Martha C. Nussbaum

As with so many books about the plight of animals in today’s world, Martha C. Nussbaum’s Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility needs to be read most of all by those who eat animals, visit zoos, buy puppies, and so on — in other words, those who may not realize (or who don’t wish to see) the horrific conditions in which so many animals in our society live. Yet Justice for Animals is also a hopeful and galvanizing book for anyone who deeply cares about animals.

We have, unfortunately, created a world that is increasingly inhospitable to all animals on our planet. As Nussbaum writes, “No nonhuman animal escapes human domination. Much of the time, that domination inflicts wrongful injury on animals, whether through the barbarous cruelties of the factory meat industry, through poaching and game hunting, through habitat destruction, through pollution of the air and the seas, or through neglect of the companion animals that people purport to love.” And now, she writes, we have a “long-overdue ethical debt: to listen to arguments we have refused to hear, to care for what we have obtusely ignored, and to act on the knowledge of our bad practices.” 

The urgency of the book’s message is clear in its details, particularly the indirect injuries we’ve inflicted on animals in recent times. While humans have always used animals, our treatment of them, including the indirect injuries inflicted on animals by humans, is worse than ever: “Animals were long hunted in the wild, but for the most part their habitats were not taken over for human dwellings or invaded by poachers seeking to make money from the murder of an intelligent being, an elephant or rhinoceros. In the seas, humans have always fished for food, and whales have long been hunted for their commercial value. But the sea was not full of plastic trash that entices animals to dine on it, then chokes them to death … birds were shot for food, but those who escaped did not choke on air pollution or crash fatally into urban skyscrapers, whose lights entice them.”

While we humans may have once convinced ourselves that using animals was okay, or even necessary, those days are long gone. “Today,” Nussbaum argues, “we know far more about animal lives than we did even fifty years ago. We know much too much for the glib excuses of the past to be offered without shame.”

Among the things we now know: all vertebrates, and even some invertebrates, feel pain; animals have emotional lives that include fear, grief, and compassion; animals can solve complex problems; animals are social; animals are constantly teaching and learning; and so on.

The first chapter of Justice for Animals begins, “Animals suffer injustice at our hands,” and from there Nussbaum investigates these injustices as well as the legal and philosophical theories that relate to the treatment of wild and companion animals. Injustice, she argues, is not just harm but “wrongful thwarting,” whether deliberate or by negligence. “Everyone knows that the actions of humans cause animals a lot of suffering … but many people don’t admit that this is wrong.”

So how do we get people to care? Nussbaum addresses the impacts of compassion, wonder, and outrage on our treatment of animals, and she takes a deep dive into the philosophical, legal, and religious traditions that have shaped the way humans treat animals, from Jeremy Bentham to Steven Wise to Peter Singer. While examining the work of animal advocates, she challenges many of them for not going far enough; for example, she rejects the anthropocentric view of animal rights in favor of embracing nonhuman animals’ uniqueness and diversity, rather than focusing on the ways in which they are “so like us.”

Nussbaum’s exploration of these philosophies paves the way for the introduction to her own Capabilities Approach, explaining how the CA applies to humans as well as all sentient beings. Though the theory is thoughtful and complex, it can be summed up succinctly: “The CA is basically about giving striving beings a decent chance to flourish.”

We need to do more for animals than prevent pain, Nussbaum asserts; “we should also think about the other aspects of a flourishing animal life,” such as their need for social interaction. 

Among the goals of the CA are to supply a “virtual constitution to which nations, states, and regions may look in trying to improve (or newly frame) their animal-protective laws” and “to make a separate list for each type of creature, putting on the list the things that matter most when it comes to survival and flourishing” — which includes not only health and bodily integrity but play and fun. 

Perhaps most significant about the CA is that “it follows wonder and curiosity, discovering the varied and remarkable ways that animals strive for flourishing.” The CA emphasizes the importance of understanding of animals’ own language (not simply how they communicate with humans), on not only avoiding pain but any type of deprivation or loss of freedom, and respecting animals’ own unique cultures. 

The CA focuses on animals as individuals, yet it encompasses endangered species as well. As Nussbaum notes, scientists estimate that today’s extinctions are between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the normal rate. Currently, 25 percent of the world’s mammals and 40 percent of amphibians are at risk of extinction, including species we know and love: bears, Asian and African elephants, tigers, myriad bird species, and many more.

And in focusing on animals as individuals, Nussbaum writes, “the way a species becomes extinct involves great suffering for many of its remaining members. Think of polar bears unable to mate or forage, trapped on ice floes as the polar ice melts. Think of endangered elephants and rhinos threatened by poachers, forced to watch members of their group get slaughtered for the sake of their tusks. Those who survive often lead a traumatized existence, at the same time as habitat loss also threatens them with starvation. Think of whales (many species now endangered) beached, gasping their last breath, because their bodies are stuffed full of the plastics with which the oceans are increasingly filled.” 

Readers who may doubt animal sentience will learn from Nussbaum’s chapter on sentience, particularly about the lives of fishes, birds, cephalopods, crustaceans, and insects. She also devotes chapters to examining the harm of deaths that are sometimes considered ethical or humane; the complexity of the human-companion animal relationship (“many of the same people who believe they love a companion animal are one of the ones who abuse them”); and the human responsibility toward wild animals (this thought-provoking chapter will be especially interesting for wild-animal and nature lovers).

The final chapter on law is not just for legal minds; it’s for every human. As animal advocates know, fighting for animal rights within the legal system is challenging, to say the least. In the U.S. alone, the “legislative process is plagued by gridlock, partisan division, and lobbying on behalf of financial interests, the meat industry being among the most powerful.” Current laws protecting animals fall short, sometimes by design but also because they are rarely enforced. Nussbaum offers a few examples of laws and their protections, gaps, and flaws and concludes, “The remedy really requires the evolving consciousness of humanity to generate solutions.”

And to implement these solutions requires work from myriad directions, from the legal system to animal welfare to scientific research — as well as showing “the beauty, the amazing capacities, and the current plights of animals to a mass audience through journalism, film, and visual art.”

Justice for Animals is such an important book for anyone concerned with not only animals but the well-being of our entire planet. And despite the hard truths Nussbaum shares, the book ends on a hopeful note, with a list of developments in animal protection in the U.S. and around the world — a list we can hope continues to grow. Most of all, Nussbaum notes: “All readers of this book can find their own roles in the effort,” which means we need not wait for forces outside ourselves to begin changing animal lives. All humans have talents and capacities that can make the world better for the nonhumans we share the planet with — and this book is a wonderful education as well as inspiration to start now. As Nussbaum puts it: “We humans can and must do better.”  

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