It’s hard to believe that a book titled Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility would be written by an author who does not adamantly support – nay actively rebuffs – veganism, but here we are. So let’s get into it. Martha C. Nussbaum is a philosopher whose repertoire includes titles like From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law and Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Nussbaum purports her political philosophy to be that of “liberal revisionism”. In other words, and as evidenced by Justice for Animals, Nussbaum noticeably shies away from revolutionary action in favor of a watered down, non-confrontational approach to animal justice. 

Nussbaum argues for a new theoretical approach to animal justice, one which emphasizes the need for animals to live fulfilling lives. At its core, the theory not only suggests that animals have a right to exist, but also that they have a fundamental right to function and generate valuable outcomes. For example, a well-cared for ape at the zoo may, by many standards, live a fine life. However, confinement itself is a condition which prevents the ape from living a fulfilling life; one in which they have apparent freedom. Nussbaum’s intent is clear. However, Justice for Animals is weakened by contradictions and a failure to truly support revolutionary thought. 

Like other liberal thinkers, as opposed to leftists, Nussbaum only supports animal rights on the condition that new policies, thought practice, and cultural shifts do not interfere with the status quo of the bourgeois. In one revealing passage, Nussbaum argues in favor of medical insurance for companion animals. But what about universal healthcare? Wouldn’t a truly revolutionary change be not only the introduction of universal healthcare to all humans, but also to nonhuman animals? In this way, Nussbaum emphasizes her desire to operate within fundamentally racist, classist, colonial power structures, rather than advocate for a new, equitable way of life for all. Yet, the greatest flaw of this work is Nussbaum’s views of veganism. 

Nussbaum is not a vegan. Nussbaum is not a vegetarian. In fact, Justice for Animals contains a few sweeping generalizations about veganism that make it clear Nussbaum fundamentally lacks an understanding of veganism or the many different practices, beliefs, and subcultures among the vegan community. This dismissal of veganism is tinged with a tone that most vegans will recognize: one of a person who knows that their morality and eating are incongruent. Nussbaum’s sections on veganism are noticeably vague and brief. In one passage Nussbaum admits that, though she believes eating fish may be morally wrong, she does so for protein, as her stomach cannot handle beans or lentils. Similarly, she eats yogurt for calcium. It is fascinating to me that someone capable of developing an entire philosophical theory on animal justice simultaneously believes that plant-based protein only comes from beans and lentils; that calcium only comes from cow’s milk. Nussbaum’s lazy criticisms of veganism have already been debunked ad nauseum and, frankly, aren’t worth engaging with. 

As someone who has not previously read Nussbaum’s work, I was excited to dive into this text. My excitement quickly dissipated. Despite a few truly fascinating asides, such as Nussbuam’s take on the concept of “the wild” in Romantic literature, Justice for Animals is overshadowed by Nussbaum’s painfully liberal belief that political establishments act in good faith. Then again, Nussbaum also believes that cow’s milk is good for you.

Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility by Martha C. Nussbaum

One thought on “Book Review: Justice for Animals

  1. This is an interesting take on Nussbaum’s book. I have only made it halfway through but I wondered if there were many reviews out there because I was surprised by her casual dismissal of veganism. Perhaps she has a somewhat superficial and stereotypical grasp of veganism as a matter of justice, which is what it is, after all.

    I can’t comment on your opinions in regard to political ideology, but given that true revolution is extremely unlikely, seeking ways to change how we relate to other species and seeking more just attitudes and practices within existing political and economic structures seems the only genuinely practical way forward. Others can tackle more complex prospects for change; I am more interested in real change that can be grasped by ordinary folk.

    Veganism seems to me now far too blemished by its historical baggage and needs some kind of grassroots reformation before it can really either tackle the ingrained power of the agricultural lobby or gain broader public acceptabnce.

    I’m not sure how this could be accomplished but Nussbaum’s Capabilities framework offers a serious prospect for doing so. I don’t know if classical veganism can be integrated within that framework, but given the progress Nussbaum and others have made with this kind of thinking in human justice and rights it seems possible. And, perhaps, more likely to achieve real success given the abject failure of animal rights advocacy and veganism so far.

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