"Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility" new book by Martha Nussbaum (2023) - discussion/debate

So…I watch a Cooper’s Hawk hunt a small group of finches and sparrows in a large shrub in my backyard and the Cooper’s Hawk was relentless, going to the ground to run after the birds. I am amazed at the effort and basically “observe” this as an opportunity to witness the predator-prey dynamic (e.g., bird of prey and “songbirds”). I captured that event on video and to my surprise, after I had planned to showcase my videographer skills of nature in my backyard, several people after watching the video, asked me (they seemed distressed!) - “why didn’t I do something to stop the Cooper’s from attacking the songbirds?” "Why didn’t I intervene and prevent the pain and suffering of those little defenseless birds?” Whoa. What just happened? Obviously, the ecological dynamic became a litmus test for - What kind of human Being was I (after all), if I was not “protecting” the birds so that we could enjoy them more at our feeders? I admitted that I find Cooper’s Hawks to be an awesome species in that they relish the urban landscape and they are great hunters - and yes…they probably “love” bird feeders - as well. But to some, favoring birds of prey was like choosing sides - and the wrong one. I was no longer a naturalist, but rather a “hater” of the vulnerable little (again - “little”) finches, sparrows, - and also any song bird visiting the backyards in the neighborhood. I could laugh that one off…but it made me wonder about “obligation” and “ethics” a bit more than I had before. Do I carry a value laden or a value free mental structure with me as I interact with nature - as a naturalist? Of course, this was an issue even within the various sciences (see Thomas Khun and “paradigms”).

There are days where I have needed to come full stop in my interactions with the “natural” world and consider my role, my presence, and my purpose in the interactions as a human being in nature in varied settings both urban and rural, human-managed, and shall I also say - “in the wild” {or wilderness} as both identifier and observer of nature. This meta-cognition process as a “naturalist” has also (then) served as catalyst to consider my role as observer and Identifier with iNaturalist in a reflective way and in a manner such that I consider many ethical considerations as well. But I have to admit I had not delved as deep in the literature (journal articles and books) that examines the obligations, duties, and responsibilities of humans to the ecosystem(s), and more specifically, the animals that are “out there” and around us. Even after reading several articles and books, I have found that perspective and position on the extension of “human ethics” into the natural world is complicated and messy. I still “favor” the wolf, the eagle, the Cooper’s Hawk…but I still carry over the “old days” of “Do Not Disturb” nature - let it be. Humans back off. I remember the shifts from conservation, to stewardship, to ecology, to deep ecology, and wilding. Along the way…watching paradigms shift. Should we intervene in nature with a human-based ethics?

Which takes me to the soon to be published book (January 2023) by Martha Nussbaum, Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility (Simon & Schuster). The book blurb is repeated here to generate discussion and dialogue and information for the iNaturalist community…

“Animals are in trouble all over the world. Whether through the cruelties of the factory meat industry, poaching and game hunting, habitat destruction, or neglect of the companion animals that people purport to love, animals suffer injustice and horrors at our hands every day. The world needs an ethical awakening, a consciousness-raising movement of international proportions. In Justice for Animals, one of the world’s most influential philosophers and humanists Martha C. Nussbaum provides a revolutionary approach to animal rights, ethics, and law. From dolphins to crows, elephants to octopuses, Nussbaum examines the entire animal kingdom, showcasing the lives of animals with wonder, awe, and compassion to understand how we can create a world in which human beings are truly friends of animals, not exploiters or users. All animals should have a shot at flourishing in their own way. Humans have a collective duty to face and solve animal harm. An urgent call to action and a manual for change, Nussbaum’s groundbreaking theory directs politics and law to help us meet our ethical responsibilities as no book has done before.”

So who is Nussbaum and why would this book be worth reading - even if provocative - in its proposals?

Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, appointed in the Philosophy Department and the Law School of the University of Chicago. She gave the 2016 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities and won the 2016 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy. The 2018 Berggruen Prize in Philosophy and Culture, and the 2020 Holberg Prize. These three prizes are regarded as the most prestigious awards available in fields not eligible for a Nobel. She has written more than twenty-two books, including Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions; Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice; Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities; and The Monarchy of Fear.

Strangely enough, I know of Nussbaum’s works mainly through her coverage of various philosophical topics related to philosophical perspectives associated with Aristotle and the Stoics - not ethics and nature/animals. But it was the recent publication, from The New York Review of Books, Dec. 8, 2022, A Peopled Wilderness, We must find new ways to act toward animals in a world dominated everywhere by human power and activity - that caught my eye as a active participant in the purpose and activities of iNaturalist community. I had not been aware of Nussbaum’s interest in the ethics of human-animal interactions, and Nussbaum raised the following questions,

“Should we try to leave nondomesticated animals alone in “the wild,” imagined as their evolutionary habitat, but also known to be a place full of cruelty, scarcity, and casual death? Or do we have a responsibility to protect “wild” animals from scarcity and disease and to preserve their habitats? And what about predation of vulnerable animals by other animals? Could it possibly be our responsibility to limit that? Can we envisage such a thing as a multispecies society, where “wild” animals are concerned? And what is “the wild”? Does it even exist? Whose interests does this concept serve?”

Evidently, this is not the first examination of such topics in relation to “nature” as Nussbaum offered a review essay earlier in this year in The New York Review of Books, (March, 10, 2022) What We Owe Our Fellow Animals: Can we develop a theory of justice that encompasses nonhuman animals?

The point of this short review and essay for the iNaturalist Forum is to consider the provocative approach by Nussbaum and to reflect on our role and interests in the domain of “nature” and the interactions of humans with other living organisms to which we share environments (directly or indirectly) and consider the controversial topics of “well-being” and “flourishing” (which seemingly has been associated with the exclusive domain of {only} humans) as it is applied to animals as well (and plants too?). Nussbaum has made me think deeper into this realm and also as a “naturalist” - a human being interested in nature - and to think more of this activity than just as an exercise in taxonomy and “counts.” I may not agree with all of the points, but I appreciate the different perspective.

Below I have listed further materials related to this topic.

Martha C. Nussbaum (2018) Working with and for Animals: Getting the Theoretical Framework Right, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 19:1, 2-18, DOI: 10.1080/19452829.2017.1418963

Martha C. Nussbaum (2017) Human Capabilities and Animal Lives: Conflict, Wonder, Law: A Symposium, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 18:3, 317-321, DOI: 10.1080/19452829.2017.1342382

…we conclude that we are rapidly moving into an era in which humans are successfully cultivating our capacity for wonder at animal lives, given increasing possibilities of imaginative interaction. Whalewatching and human interest in whale song are just two instances of this growing awareness of ourselves as one animal species sharing the world with other intelligent beings who, like us, possess striving and agency. When people cultivate their humanity through such practices, they are far less likely to make casual, flimsy, and ad hoc arguments for brutality. It would appear that it is this sort of attunement to animal lives that explains the Ninth Circuit decision.* Biocentric wonder does not fully settle hard cases of capability conflict. It does help us frame them in an adequate way—and, we all would add, in a way worthy of the human capabilities of us all.

  • US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that invalidated the US Navy’s sonar program on the grounds that it disrupted a variety of life-activities of whales.

Further reading and articles that expand, refine and/or critique Nussbaum’s approach.

Reed, C. (2021). Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach to Compassionate Conservation: The Case of Wild Horses in the United States, Society & Animals (published online ahead of print 2021). doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/15685306-bja10063

Human-animal studies have taken a “wild turn” because of growing concern that the urgency to preserve or restore native species and ecosystems has led to overlooking the pain and suffering inflicted upon nonhuman animals targeted as threats to that cause. Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach is used to examine the case of wild horses in the American West. Federal law protecting them predates amendments requiring managers to regulate their numbers because of conservation. I conclude that the wild horse program meets Nussbaum’s definition of compassion in important respects, and that temporary fertility control, long-term pastures, and adoptions fulfill her criteria of justice, but with important qualifications. The capabilities approach relies on the possibility of rational discourse about the protection of wildlife individuals, but that consensus might apply only to certain species. In addition, “culture wars” plaguing the U.S. threaten the possibility of a consensus about compassion and justice for nonhuman animals.

Delon, N. Wild Animal Ethics: Well-Being, Agency, and Freedom. Philosophia 50, 875–885 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-021-00421-8

Vincelette, A. (2022). “In Defense of Tigers and Wolves: A Critique of McMahan, Nussbaum, and Johannsen on the Elimination of Predators from the Wild”. Ethics & the Environment 27(1), 17-38. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/858104.
McMahan, Nussbaum, and Johannsen have recently suggested that humans should seek to eliminate predators from the wild or avoid reintroducing them if this can be done without great harm to an ecosystem. This is because predators cause a great deal of pain to those sentient animals which are their prey. This paper will first challenge the pragmatic aspects of such a position on the global level, arguing that it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to remove predators from the environment without doing great ecological harm. Because removal of predators might be considered more feasible on the micro scale this paper will go on to challenge the axiological foundations of such a view. In particular defenders of the removal of predators from the environment tend to base their position on the preferencing of the disvalue of pain over the value of life. Yet if life itself has value it can be a good even with those beings that cause pain to others. Moreover, there is a value to diverse forms of life that must also be acknowledged. An ecosystem with diverse habits and life forms exercising different ways of being has great value even if again this comes at the cost of suffering and pain to some of the creatures in it. Once these things are understood it is clear that predators should not be eliminated from the wild and indeed should be reintroduced into ecosystems where they once flourished.

Jessica van Jaarsveld (2021) How Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach Values the Environment: Extrinsically But as an End?, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 22:3, 468-485, DOI: 10.1080/19452829.2021.1879747

Marcel Wissenburg (2011) The lion and the lamb: ecological implications of Martha Nussbaum’s animal ethics, Environmental Politics, 20:3, 391-409, DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2011.573361

I thought the stupidity of “protecting” prey animals from predators was only in the mind of people who learned about nature from watching that accursed “Bambi” movie. When people say they are “protecting” “their” songbirds from hawks, I’d like to ask them if the are also protecting “their” population from the diseases that the hawk is controlling, or keeping populations from camping small areas for extended periods.

Now someone apparently wrote a paper on why predators are bad that had to be responded to?


I think anything that focuses on saving ‘things we like’ vs ‘things we don’t’ leads to, if not already is, absurdity.

On the original observation, I would ask the return question: “why do you wan the hawk to starve?”

It’s an infinitely complex problem and Nussbaum’s book sounds like an interesting read. How can we leave alone ‘the wild’ where we have already interfered so heavily? Do we have a responsibility to maintain ecosystems we have affected?

I think importantly:
How do we even understand what our impact is on the ecosystems and what we could/should interfere with vs let be wild? Creatures go extinct and evolve all the time, but we just keep looking through a decades-long lens instead of millennia.
Can we even draw a line between untouched wilderness (to leave alone), lightly touched (to monitor) and impacted (manage)? It would be difficult to account for migratory wildlife and natural ecological changes for a start.

Secondly, how integrated are humans? We keep seeing ourselves as some godly caretaker of all of nature, but in reality we’re just creatures making our way through our own lives with the messes and wonders we’ve made.

How do we take responsibility without leading to tyrannies?


Some people have never read There’s a Hair in My Dirt! by Gary Larson and it shows.

Topic reminds me a bit of another one: Rescuing insects from spider webs, at least the first paragraph where you mention peoples’ reactions to the video.

The last part, where the author suggests eliminating predators to reduce harm… that was a bit much for me. Maybe I glossed over it, but would this only leave herbivores and what about smaller, more microscopic lifeforms? I prefer the “let it be” mentality, in theory, anyway.


Yeah, we see how eliminating wolves reduced “harm”, right?.)


I wonder how many Save the Songbirds are vegetarian like me?

When we sold and left our first garden … we had finally achieved a garden with tall indigenous trees which supported a sparrowhawk.

Walking along the beach one day, a raptor found a little bird’s nest on the dunes - swooped down and claimed first one nestling, then the second - while the parents shrieked in fury.

On a hike we watched in quiet respect as this lizard became lunch for a snake - first diplaying tail-biting defence, which failed as the snake’s venom took effect.


I’m always amazed by how many people don’t understand just how many of these adorable little birdies are predators, but I guess insects don’t count.

The suggestion that getting rid of predators as a possibility (let alone a good idea) is such a monumentally absurd suggestion displaying a total ignorance of how the natural world works that I can’t take anything from her seriously.


These are wild species, not domestic dogs and cats, you can’t simply “rescue” a species and it will magically flourish because you “helecopter mom’d” some populations for a few decades. Does anyone believe these programs never cull? Also how ethical the “adoption” process? do these species share the same federal protection when they are transferred from federally protected areas?

Culture wars engineered, created and sustained by the corporations that generated, profited by, and rely on the destruction of countless species and habitats.

This is exactly the reason why conservation efforts need to be taken from the hands of American and western politicians, and handed over to local and indigenous experts who actually understand the species, and environment they’re protecting.

and significant legal action, including large effective sanctions needs to be enforced upon the governments of all globally north nations as well as the PRC, Russia and other nations full of oligarchs that have directly profited from the wholesale destruction of countless species.

Until our nation(s) leader(s) admit to the crimes committed upon nature, in the name of nationalism and economic expansion, we will NEVER reach a consensus on species conservation, mark my words, we will continue this global “them v. us” braindrain, and allow countless civil conflicts to spread until our nations and planet becomes Arakis, but without the spice.

Discussion like this from folks like McMahan, Nussbaum, and Johannsen, these “devils advocate” arguments and the like, are in my opinion, highly damaging to conservation efforts.

This type of confusing, theoretical hairsplitting continues to muddy the waters of the conversation, and is thus allowing politicians (on the left, center and right) to continue to discredit an entire movement in a sentence, because they can quickly ‘other’ scientists and researchers into the box of “greedy tree huggers” that will say anything for some more funding, opposed to our humble, very trustworthy and highly ethical politicians that have promised to “protect our economy” and “create jobs”.


Well, people are a bit odd, and some like to tell everyone else what to do. I’ll leave it at that.


Based on what i see here a lot of this concept strikes me as very colonial and Western and missing the point that we are all animals as well. You might as well go the Thanos/Sepiroth path and just kill all life because as long as there is life there will be some form of suffering and death. Also as others have said we’ve already killed off all the large predators from a lot of places, and it certainly didn’t make things better, even for the deer who now die of horrible disease, starvation/cold, or alongside roads bleeding to death. We’ve got enough work to do on our own species’ ethics and for many of us, our own culture/economic system’s ethics even more so, rather than worrying about policing ethics from one animal species to another (!)


Ah yes since we consider ourselves more intelligent we should definitely dictate what is right and wrong based on our own set of values and policing it. Does that also not imply considering ourselves superior to all other species?

What gives those credentials to us, the species which has destroyed more than any other and will almost indefinitely be the demise of earth as we know it? Feels kind of egocentric to me.

On the flipside, when I first read the original post I did have the knee-jerk reaction of scoffing about protecting prey from predators, but then I thought about it a bit and there are ways we are already doing this that I think are responsible. Endangered species are regularly protected by use of exclusions around nests or otherwise (yes, leaving that vague but you know what I mean). I think this is a responsible practice in the event of trying to replenish populations that have been diminished.

I think it all comes down to there is no inherent ‘right or wrong’, these are ideas invented by people. Since it is subjective people will have all manner of opinion as to what is deemed right or wrong. It is my opinion that in this instance science should really drive when we should and should not intervene. Everything else is just nature doing it’s thing as it has for millions of years before we came to existence, and implying a species is doing something wrong for simply doing what is has evolved to do in order to survive and reproduce is absurd and unscientific.

edit: just to clarify, none of this tone was directed at anyone engaging in this discussion, moreso the concepts themselves.


thank you for responding - I just want to make sure that readers here are aware those are not my quotes or my position(s) - rather, those are statements from the literature in regards to Nussbaum (et al) - actually abstracts of journal publications.


Anyone who thinks that “jobs” are or should be more important than “the environment” doesn’t understand where jobs (or economies) come from.


Yes. South Africa has Mantashe protecting coal miner’s jobs.
While the country is plunged into loadshedding. And small businesses fold!

I think there’s no shortage of people who don’t understand where jobs (or economies) come from.

also in regards to the wild horses, ironically, i heard somewhere that they do not act as invasive species IF they are being predated which is happening a few places with cougars and wolves. They are a complicated one because a very similar species was native during the ice age (along with huge predators of course) then went extinct, so this species is in that niche and not entirely inavsive? But without predators they act that way. There’s also a bunch of range politics which is a whole different issue. But… YOU NEED PREDATORS.

(sorry, i forget where i heard it so i can’t cite it)

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Phragmites australis americanus (American Common Reed) and Phragmites australis australis (European Common Reed) are not only similar species; they are the same species. But Phragmites australis australis is one of the most damaging invasives in North American wetlands. Genetic relatedness to a native species is a poor metric for decerning if the potentially invasive organism fulfills the same ecological role.

I agree the addition of predators would likely change the dynamics of feral horses in the U.S., and I’m saying all of this, not to be combative, but rather to weigh in on what in my opinion is a common misconception regarding ice age horses and feral horses. The success of many invasives can be attributed in part to being moved to areas where they have no predators/natural controls.


It should be pointed out that syphillis and yaws are caused by different subspecies of the same bacterium; but one is a sexually-transmitted disease, whereas the other is usually transmitted among children at play.

There is very little life on this earth that doesn’t rely on the death of something else for its own existence. If we equate death with suffering and pain then life requires suffering and pain. If life is good how can what it requires be bad?

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