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People for the enlightened treatment of animals

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum aims to provoke a new relationship between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.


Philosophers have long said that animals deserve better from humans. Ashoka (c. 304-232 BCE), a Hindu emperor who converted to Buddhism, wrote about his attempts to refrain from activities that harm animals. In ancient Greece, Plutarch (46-119 CE) and Porphyry (c. 234-305 CE) tried to persuade people to treat animals better by demonstrating the highly developed qualities that animals exhibit. In modern times, Peter Singer’s 1975 book “Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals” decried “speciesism” — the human bias for favoring our own interests over those of other species. Ingrid E. Newkirk, a founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, called Singer’s work a “philosophical bombshell” that “forever changed the conversation about the treatment of animals.”

Today, pleas to stop exploiting animals are mainstream — including denunciations of factory farming and advocacy for vegetarianism and veganism. But Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, claims human cruelty to animals has only continued to grow. The devastation, she says, has resulted in a “long overdue ethical debt.” Unfortunately, Nussbaum insists, the leading theories defending animal rights aren’t up to the challenge of helping people appreciate what animals deserve and inspiring them to act.


In her upcoming book “Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility,” Nussbaum spells out this ethical debt and explains what it would take to address it. Nussbaum has been working for many years on what she calls the Capabilities Approach. The theory holds that the well-being of any creature — whether it’s a human, your pet dog, or an animal in the wild — arises from the freedom to live in a way that is deeply connected to the creature’s capabilities and functions. So instead of exploiting animals, we should give them what we also want for ourselves — opportunities to flourish.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited.


Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, author of "Justice for Animals."Robert Tolchin

Why did you write this book? What’s missing from other arguments about our “long-overdue ethical debt” to animals?

The issues are enormously urgent, and I believe my new approach will direct our practical efforts better than the existing alternatives. But I also wrote it because my daughter Rachel, who was a lawyer for animal rights, died tragically of a drug-resistant fungal infection at the age of 47, and I wanted to continue her life’s work in the only way I know how: as a theorist.

The leading theoretical approaches to animal ethics in public policy and law are what I call the So-Like-Us Approach and the Utilitarian Approach.

The So-Like-Us Approach seeks legal personhood and legal rights for a limited group of animals — apes, elephants, and whales — on the grounds of their alleged likeness to humans. This gets things wrong in several ways. First, likeness to us is the wrong reason to treat an animal well: We need reasons that focus on them, not on us. Second, it leaves most animals utterly at the mercy of human neglect and cruelty. Third, it is wrong about nature, assuming that life forms are lined up like a ladder, with humans securely at the top. Animals have some abilities that we utterly lack — birds’ ability to navigate by magnetic fields, for example, and dolphins’ capacity for echolocation — that is, for perceiving what is inside an object through reverberations. We should investigate each form of animal life in all its beauty and strangeness.


The theoretical approach of the British Utilitarians, represented today by leading animal activist and philosopher Peter Singer, does a lot better, because it focuses on pain, which is certainly relevant to the just treatment of animals. And I can agree with Singer that if we only stopped causing unnecessary pain, that would be huge progress. But the view flattens the world too much when it insists that pain is the single bad thing and pleasure the single good thing. Animals, like humans, want freedom from pain. But they want many other things: free movement, a social life among others of their kind, recreation, sensory stimulation, and the ability to direct their own lives.

My own approach, the Capabilities Approach, says that our aim should be to allow each animal to live an active life characteristic of its species, up to some reasonable threshold level. I think this gets things right: All animals count, and all deserve to live as the animals they are.

You write that it is just as wrong to terminate a pet’s life when the medical costs become expensive as it is to stop providing medical care for a disabled child or elderly relative. Why do you believe that?

When you invite a dog or cat into your life, you assume responsibility for its welfare — even more clearly than for an elderly relative, whom you did not choose. I think all Americans have a right to basic health insurance and that their right to conceive or adopt a child requires the public provision of adequate insurance. I also think people who wish to adopt a companion animal have a right to affordable pet insurance, which should be mandatory for anyone who adopts. But government is unlikely to provide this any time soon, so we must focus on nongovernmental organizations and other private sources to make this an affordable reality.


Here are two common objections to that idea. One, only affluent people can afford to pay expensive medical bills for their pets. And two, it’s irresponsible to spend so much on sick pets when many poor human beings are suffering.

Basic animal insurance is, in fact, not all that expensive. But the most important issue is choice. If you are not prepared to cover a dog’s reasonable health care costs, don’t adopt a dog. It’s like the choice to have a child: It comes with demanding responsibilities.

Do you have any pets?

No. I used to have a companion dog when I was younger, but then I lived in a house with a large fenced back yard where Laird, a Scotch terrier, could run around much of the day. Until my mother’s death, she had a series of beloved dogs, in the same situation. But I live in a high-rise building, in a city where there are virtually no dog parks, so I would have to keep a dog on a leash most of the time, and I think dogs need space to run around. Also, I travel a great deal. I simply cannot give a dog the care any dog deserves, and I explain in the book that a large proportion of companion dogs are underexercised and have too little quality companionship. We have to ask not only how living with an animal can enhance our lives but how and whether we can enhance the animal’s life. It is as taxing as having a child, but most people treat the choice much too casually.


And I should add that I detest the term “pet,” which suggests that the animal is a toy for human amusement. I always say “companion animal.”

Many acknowledge that factory farming is cruel and unjust. But you insist our obligations to animals run deeper, that even if we raise them humanely and kill them painlessly, it’s still wrong to kill young ones for food, like lambs, and others at any age, including pigs, chickens, and cattle. Why?

First we have to ask what is wrong with death, and that is not an easy question. I think a painless death is wrong whenever it interrupts life activities that the person invests with meaning. But many other animals, too, invest their lives with meaning and pursue temporally extended activities. So their lives can be interrupted in midstream just like a human life. I think some animals live in the moment and don’t invest extended projects with meaning: Fish, I believe, are like that. So I — uneasily — eat humanely raised and painlessly killed fish. But I am prepared to learn that I am wrong. Meanwhile, if we only ended the factory farming industry, we would have made a lot of progress.

You claim that if we’re going to eat fish and eggs, the morally superior choice is to purchase humanely sourced and free-range ones. What about people on limited food budgets?

That is a large question of food policy, and answering it requires an overall theory of the distribution of rights to quality food, which I can’t provide here! But the reason why these alternatives are expensive right now is that there are not many producers, and as producers become more numerous in response to laws such as those California has passed, mandating humanely sourced eggs, the cost of these things can be expected to go down. If people can’t afford these things right now, they should not be blamed, and we should work to make the ethical choice affordable, as with electric cars.

Do you believe hunting animals for sport should be abolished?

Hunting terrorizes an animal and inflicts terrible pain. Hunting for subsistence at least serves a need, but hunting for sport is utterly frivolous, so the pain it inflicts is gratuitous and cruel. Fox hunting has now been abolished in Britain, where it was once glorified.

What do you make of the argument that rituals like hunting and eating animals are morally permissible when they’re necessary for preserving a culture’s identity?

All cultures have unsavory pasts. It would not be a good argument to say that men should be allowed to continue raping and beating women just because that behavior is a deep part of traditional cultural practices! If a culture has traditional practices that are cruel to animals, they should reinvent them to remove the element of cruelty. Greek tragedy was a theatrical substitute for rituals of human sacrifice. In the same way, traditional cultures have in many cases redesigned their identity-preserving rituals to turn the cruelty into a nonlethal dramatic representation.

What would an ethically designed zoo look like?

First of all, it simply would not contain animals who can’t possibly live their characteristic form of life in a restricted space. Elephants, whales, dolphins — all need many miles of land to roam in and large groups to socialize with. If the zoo is large enough and equipped with a well-designed environment, I think that apes and monkeys can ethically be kept there, and most types of fish and birds. But the environment must be not only large enough, it must be interesting, offering stimulation and many activities and a rich social life with a large-enough group.

Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity, and a scholar in residence at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. Follow him on Twitter @evanselinger.