Books Intersections

Book review of Frontiers of Justice – Guest Post by Louise Proud

Guest post – Book review by Louise Proud

In Frontiers of Justice philosopher Professor Martha Nussbaum seeks to address the question ‘how we can move towards a truly global justice that includes all the people and groups in the world who ought to be treated justly?’ Her claim is that existing theories have been unable to achieve this. Specifically, she argues they are unable to deal with three particular issues of social justice: justice for people with a disability, justice across national boundaries, and justice for non-human animals. By contrast, she argues that the capabilities approach she has been developing can explain our duties in relation to these three problems.

Nussbaum is probably best known for her work in feminist philosophy and political philosophy and it is clear from the book that her decision to focus on disability, non-human animals and international issues is because they arise as salient issues in her bigger project, to challenge and extend the dominant theory of justice (the social contract tradition). Thus, her arguments are not located in critical disability studies, critical animal studies or studies of international relations, but in political theories of justice.

Nussbaum approaches the topic by critiquing Rawls’ contractarian Theory of Justice, because she believes that the idea of the social contract has been the ‘strongest and most enduring’ approach to social justice in the Western tradition and she believes that Rawls expresses the idea ‘in its strongest form’. She extracts the particular elements of Rawls’ theory that she believes cause it to be inadequate, namely that cooperation is grounded in ‘people of roughly equal power and ability’ seeking mutual advantage and that human rationality is centred. These elements render social contract theory incapable of explaining our duties and obligations in relation to the three unresolved issues. In response to this, Nussbaum proposes her capabilities approach, which she does not intend to ‘displace’ Rawls’ theory but to ‘advance’ it.

Whereas social contract theory is procedural, Nussbaum’s capabilities approach begins with an outcome; the idea of the value of dignity and a life that is worthy of that dignity. From this starting point the theory articulates a set of basic entitlements which governments should respect and implement to achieve this dignity. Entitlements are expressed as capabilities (what people are able to do and be in their life) as distinct from their functionings (what people actually do and are in their life). Justice requires achieving sufficiency rather than equality, therefore the capabilities approach establishes a minimum threshold for each capability that a just society must provide. Unlike social contract theory which begins with a conception of beings as mutually disinterested and rational, Nussbaum’s approach is based on an Aristotelian conception of human beings as having fundamental sociability and a sense of justice. Furthermore, justice and inclusiveness are considered as being of intrinsic value. These differences mean the capabilities approach does not need to justify mutual advantage as the source of justice or demand human rationality, or ‘rough equality’ as necessary features of individuals. As such, it avoids the problems of social contract theory and is able to explain our duties at the three ‘frontiers of justice’. Moreover, Nussbaum’s approach converges to a large extent with contract theory and she sees a strength in the fact that the capabilities approach and contract theory arrive at similar principles of justice via different routes.

Front cover of Frontiers of Justice [ID: Paperback book held up. Cover: Top half is a photo of landscape of marsh field, with on the right a metal gate held up by two brickwall pillars, pinkish clouds. Name of author is on top. Bottom half is white with title of book. Book held against green foliage with blue flowers in background] Photo: Louise Proud. 

Frontiers of Justice contains seven chapters. The first chapter is on social contract theory and includes some of the criticisms against it. Chapters two and three address the issue of disability. Chapters four and five address global inequity. Chapter six addresses the entitlements of non-human animals. The final chapter focuses on the importance of moral sentiments. Whilst Nussbaum’s book covers three issues of social justice, given the interests of the audience of Crip HumAnimal I will focus the remainder of this review on Nussbaum’s approach in relation to the issues of disability and of non-human animals. Whilst Nussbaum does not explicitly examine the intersections between disability and animal oppression, it is clear from reading the book that the two are inextricably linked. There are three elements in particular that I think readers of Crip HumAnimal will find of interest.

First Nussbaum approaches both the treatment of non-human animals and the treatment of people with a disability as matters of justice as opposed to matters of compassion or even pure ethics. Whereas social contract theory frames the morally proper treatment of animals and people with disabilities in terms of benevolence and compassion, the capabilities approach goes beyond this and frames these as issues of justice. Within Nussbaum’s approach all sentient beings are treated as primary subjects of justice. This is possible because, unlike social contract theory, Nussbaum’s approach does not conflate the questions of ‘for whom’ and ‘by whom’ political principles are created. Therefore, although both non-human animals and many people with a severe mental disability are omitted from participating in creating political principles, they can still be the primary subjects of justice.

Second, Nussbaum departs from the Kantian (contractarian) conception of personhood and its rigid distinction between humans and animals based on rationality. Her basis for this is her interpretation of the Aristotelian conception of the person. She highlights the commonality between human and non-human animals and sees the capacities of each as existing on a “rich continuum of types of intelligence, and practical capacities of many types…” (133). Within the capabilities approach, rationality is just one of many capacities and is not in any sense a defining one.

Third, Nussbaum’s approach also departs from the hegemony of independence which has historically been used as a basis for devaluing and even exploiting people with a disability and non-human animals. The social contract framework excludes those who may be asymmetrically dependent on others on the basis that they don’t necessarily offer mutual advantage and in fact may occasionally offer a disadvantage. Nussbaum however argues that social cooperation has more complex and wider goals including “the pursuit of justice and just interdependency for its own sake for all sorts of different people…some of them relatively independent and all in at least some ways dependent” (350). Dependency and interdependency are not only acknowledged but embraced and Nussbaum argues that that there is dignity in “human neediness, in the human temporal history of birth, growth and decline and in the relations of interdependency and asymmetrical dependency as well as in (relatively) independent activity” (356). Thus, Nussbaum’s neo-Aristotelian conception of personhood embraces vulnerability, care, empathy, interdependence and appreciates the many ways of existing and being in the world.

However, those readers of Crip HumAnimal who welcome these three elements of Nussbaum’s approach will likely be frustrated by her logic towards the end of the chapter on non-human animals where she seems to begin to veer away from justice entirely.

What Nussbaum gives with one hand she takes away with the other

Having spent the entire chapter arguing that non-human animals are inviolable subjects of justice who cannot be used as a means to an end and that no natural form of life is intrinsically more worthy than another, Nussbaum then switches to a welfarist approach and advocates policies that involve killing animals for food and for medical testing. In attempting to justify this she contradicts herself and undermines many of her own arguments. For example, she argues that her capabilities approach is superior to a utilitarian approach as “it respects each individual creature” (351) and “no creature is being used as a means to the end of others, or of society as a whole” (351). Yet she later goes on to argue that medical research on animals that promotes human’s health and safety should not be stopped immediately even though it is ‘tragic’ and suggests adopting welfarist approaches to this issue such as improving conditions for animals used in research. Her approach to killing animals for food is equally as perplexing and again she suggests this activity is permissible but that a welfarist approach is adopted and suggests that “it seems wise to focus initially on banning all forms of cruelty to living animals and then moving gradually toward a consensus against killing at least the more complexly sentient animals for food” (393). Both of these recommendations contradict the moral foundation of her capabilities approach.

Some of her arguments are also based on misinformation. For example, her reluctance to advocate not killing animals for food is based on a concern that “nobody really knows what the impact on the world environment would be of a total switch to vegetarian sources of protein, or the extent to which such a diet could be made compatible with the health of all the world‘s children” (402). This concern ignores the fact that national health organisations across the world all agree that a well-balanced vegan diet is nutritionally adequate (and might even help prevent some diseases) and that there is very little disagreement amongst academics that eating animal foods is an ecological disaster, is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance and contributes to poverty and hunger in many countries. It is perplexing and disappointing that Nussbaum’s recommendations are based on concerns that have little, if any foundation.

Thus, whilst this is not a book on intersection of animal and disability oppression, the discussion of both issues alongside each other as urgent issues of justice means readers cannot help but see that the two are inextricably linked. The interconnections highlighted in Frontiers are not new, in that many others have articulated them. However, what is ground-breaking is that in discussing justice for animals alongside other mainstream issues of justice, Nussbaum brings the issue of our treatment of non-human animals outside of the niche groups of animal rights theorists and into the mainstream as an issue of justice that society urgently needs to address. However, what Nussbaum gives with one hand she takes away with the other and it is frustrating to see her not only undermine the principles of her approach but to do so on the basis of unnecessary concerns. Nevertheless, this is an extremely thought-provoking book and an important contribution to a subdiscipline that is relatively neglected and yet has much to offer.

Nussbaum Martha C. (2006) Frontiers of Justice. Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 512p.

Review by Louise Proud – Guestpost on Crip Humanimal.



2 comments on “Book review of Frontiers of Justice – Guest Post by Louise Proud

  1. Ken Thomas

    This is an interesting and insightful review of Nussbaum’s book. It sounds frustrating, that Nussbaum’s arguments seem to be undermined by her conclusions, which are unnecessarily conservative.

    I look forward to reading this book, but will try to make my own conclusions, with the proviso that I may not agree with her conclusions.


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