The Holberg Lecture: "Justice for Animals: Practical Progress through Philosophical Theory"

Lecture by 2021 Holberg Laureate Martha C. Nussbaum.

Animals suffer injustice at our hands: the cruelties of the factory farming industry, poaching and trophy hunting, assaults on the habitats of many creatures, and innumerable other instances of cruelty and neglect. Human domination is everywhere: in the seas, where marine mammals die from ingesting plastic; in the skies, where migratory birds die in large numbers from air pollution; and, obviously, on the land, where the habitats of many large mammals have been destroyed almost beyond repair. Addressing these large problems requires dedicated work and effort. But it also requires a good normative theory to direct our efforts.

I begin the lecture by offering an intuitive account of justice and some illustrative examples of human injustice toward animals. I then present three prominent, but, I argue, inadequate, normative theories that claim to address the issues. First is an approach, which I call the “So Like Us” approach, based on the traditional idea of the scala naturae, in which humans are at the summit of nature, but a small number of animals, primarily apes and elephants, are close enough to humans in intelligence to be worthy of special legal protection. This approach offers nothing for the sufferings of so many creatures who are deemed not sufficiently “like us.” It is also lacking in curiosity, not willing to investigate the manifold forms of intelligence and cognitive complexity in the animal world.

Second is the Utilitarian approach, which holds that the only good thing is pleasure and the only bad thing is pain, and insists that animals, like us, ought to be shielded from unjustified pain. This approach is a lot better, but it flattens the world too much. Animals do need freedom from pain, but they also need the ability to move freely, to play, to choose their own paths through the world, to enjoy social relationships. 

Third is the Kantian approach of Christine Korsgaard’s important recent book. This approach does better still, developing an attractive account of what it is to treat an animal as an end rather than a means. In many important respects its practical recommendations dovetail with my own. But Korsgaard insists that humans are the only creatures capable of normative thinking and self-direction, and that the other creatures can therefore only be “passive citizens”. I criticize this argument both empirically and normatively.

Finally, I lay out my own “Capabilities Approach” which holds that all sentient creatures (all who have an internal subjectivity, a point of view on the world, a category that includes all vertebrates and some invertebrates) ought to have the opportunity to live a flourishing life in accordance with the characteristic life-form of their own species. After developing the approach philosophically, I give several examples of the practical conclusions to which it leads us, in thinking about both companion animals and wild animals, and show that these conclusions could not be adequately justified by any of the other three approaches. 

Martha C. Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, University of Chicago. She was awarded the 2021 Holberg Prize for her groundbreaking contributions to philosophy, law and related fields.


to 15:00, CEST.
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Time: 02:00 P.M. – 03:00 P.M. (UTC+2) /
08:00 A.M – 09:00 A.M. (EDT)
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No preregistration required.