A Philosophy of Our Fellow Creatures

Robert Tolchin

Martha C. Nussbaum, Chicago, 2017

Robert Tolchin

Martha C. Nussbaum, Chicago, 2017

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

“Activist” might not be the first word that comes to mind to describe Martha Nussbaum, whose work as a philosopher has made her a public figure for more than three decades. But her first piece for this magazine, published in 1985, was titled “Plato and Affirmative Action.” Early in the next piece on the education of women, she writes, “Philosophers have frequently discussed education. They have far less often addressed themselves to the special problems connected with the education of women.” In recent years, Nussbaum has turned her attention to the rights of nonhuman animals, and for our sixtieth anniversary issue, she reviews three new books and a documentary about the politics and ethics of the whaling industry.

Nussbaum is a fluent correspondent who writes with generosity and tender openness, even about the tragic death of her daughter and the direction in which it has led her work. We e-mailed this week about her most recent piece.

Lauren Kane: You have written about subjects ranging from Greek tragedy to feminism in the developing world to rights for nonhuman animals. Is there a thread that you see connecting these subjects? How would you describe the trajectory of your career so far? Is it what you might have expected when you first began your work in philosophy?

Martha Nussbaum: I would say that the connecting thread is vulnerability, and perhaps also embodiment. Vulnerability is the source of our emotions, which are ways of registering how the things we value are doing out in the world. Vulnerability is also the source of our need for political justice; as Aristotle said, the gods don’t need justice, because they are perfect and complete. Women are often ridiculed for acknowledging vulnerability and emotion. We are also by our situation in the world unevenly vulnerable, as are people in the developing world. It was natural that these concerns would lead me to the other animals, intelligent creatures who share our vulnerability and who are also subjected to unequal vulnerability. I follow problems where they lead me and consider nothing too weird to explore. Currently I am writing about music: a book in production on Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and a book in progress about opera, a lifelong passion that is obviously connected with emotions and their embodiment.

When I started looking for jobs in philosophy, I knew that I wanted to work on Greek tragedy and that philosophy as it was then constituted didn’t fully make room for what I wanted to do, and even sneered at it as girly. But I was very lucky to have some powerful men in the profession (since all the powerful people in the profession were male) who appreciated my weirdness and supported me: Bernard Williams, Hilary Putnam, Stanley Cavell, and Richard Wollheim. I did not get tenure at Harvard, because the classics department voted against me, although the philosophy department voted for me. (It’s a much longer story, really, involving some really bad behavior, but that was the basic result.) However, the support and encouragement I received kept me going and got me another job, and my own tenacity and love of my work, my total refusal to retreat, has prevailed. Last year I got an honorary degree from Harvard!

Can you briefly describe your “capabilities approach,” and how it might be applied to whaling in particular? In an earlier essay in the Review, you named Natural Resources Defense Council v. Pritzker (2016) as a good example of what the theory is trying to accomplish—are there other big cases coming up that you’re watching?

The capabilities approach has its origins in development economics, in work shared with Amartya Sen. Basically, our idea was that the right way to measure how people were doing was not by GDP per capita, and not by feelings of satisfaction, but instead by what they are actually able to do and to be. Capabilities are not inner capacities, they are spaces for meaningful choice. What I added to this comparative approach was a normative use of capabilities as benchmarks for justice: a nation has achieved a minimum of justice only if its people have a core set of opportunities for choice and action in central areas of life. I introduced a list, by now well known, of ten central capabilities, which include: life; bodily health; bodily integrity; opportunities for the use of senses, imagination, and thought; emotional health; practical reason; affiliation; relationships with other species and the world of nature; play and leisure; and control over one’s material and social environment. Each of these is then spelled out much more concretely, and they function as templates for constitutional guarantees. This is the approach that I think best, as well, for thinking about whether animals have been treated justly: Do they have opportunities for the flourishing life that is central to their kind? Of course, we then need to learn a lot about what each type of animal strives for and what we need to protect for them.


The Pritzker case involved a challenge to the US Navy’s sonar program brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Ninth Circuit found that the sonar program violated a statute called the Marine Mammal Protection Act, not because it caused pain, but because it prevented the whales from being able to choose a number of characteristic life-activities that they value. The use of sonar impeded migration, reproduction, emotional equanimity, and even foraging. That is the inclusive and rich way we should approach animal lives when we make and enforce laws. Many zoos do not inflict pain, but they do impede important life-activities and relationships.

What I’m really hoping for is some case that will grant animals legal standing, which has happened in Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, and India. “Standing” means that the animal (through a human guardian) can become the plaintiff in a legal action, as happened in Colombia with a group of hippos who had been brought there by Pablo Escobar and who were about to be exterminated because they had become too numerous. The animals themselves became the plaintiffs and won the case, and now they are living in different animal sanctuaries in various countries. Without standing, a statute has to be invoked, and our statutes concerning animals are very uneven, protecting some animals but never the ones people eat. (For example, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act explicitly omits birds people eat.)

Cass Sunstein has shown conclusively (he has a famous article called “Standing for Animals”) that standing for animals is fully consistent with the US Constitution, so what we need is for some court to take the plunge. A US District Court, giving permission for US scientists to testify as expert witnesses in the Colombia case, made some approving remarks on the standing issue, so we are inching closer, but it still hasn’t happened. Of course, animals don’t represent themselves in court, but neither do humans with cognitive disabilities. Yet the latter can be plaintiffs in lawsuits—against a bad nursing home, for example—so the current situation is irrational. But I’m afraid US politics is very resistant to expanding animal rights, far more than most European countries. Of the major politicians who have run for president, only Cory Booker insists courageously on discussing the concerns of animals, and it certainly has not helped his chances.

You’ve also mentioned “So Like Us” theory, which argues that humans are more likely to advocate for the rights of a species if we can locate analogs to human experience. I wonder if you’ve noticed a similar preference, or reverence, we give to species that we consider particularly beautiful or majestic (whales and elephants) over species that we consider commonplace (pigs and chickens)?

You are right. In the book I address how the emotion of wonder leads us to value animal lives and summons us to compassion and to action. I think we also feel wonder toward animals we live with and love, dogs and cats. But it is certainly true that we feel less wonder for pigs and chickens, particularly when we encounter them debased and treated as mere things in the factory farming industry. I think we should try to reawaken wonder in ourselves by encountering these animals in humane surroundings. But good fiction can also help us. That is why when writing about pigs in my book, I introduce readers to the Empress of Blandings, a truly awe-inspiring pig in several novels of P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse had an imagination full of childlike wonder at all creatures, and he helps us recover that.

How has your own personal loss and grief shaped your work?

I basically had a privileged and happy life up to the time I lost my daughter. My parents died, my marriage and several relationships ended, I didn’t get tenure at Harvard, but I always had a core confidence, stemming from my happy childhood, that I could prevail despite life’s tragedies. But I have also always had a very vivid sense of tragedy. I remember lying on the couch in our prosperous upper-middle-class house in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, reading Dickens—and later Tolstoy and Henry James, and of course the Greek tragedies themselves. In my imagination I was Hecuba and Clytemnestra. I was also an actress, both in school and, for a short time, professionally, and I tried to explore those roles in my own body. Even now, at the University of Chicago, we put on faculty productions, and I have played Clytemnestra opposite Richard Posner’s Agamemnon, and Hecuba surrounded by a wonderful cast of faculty friends in a production of The Trojan Women.


So my inner world had been prepared, almost rehearsed, for the biggest shock of my life, when my daughter died at the age of forty-seven, after a long illness, of a fungal infection after surgery. As she was dying I found myself in tears, hearing in my head Hecuba’s speech over the body of her grandson, when she says that she had always expected to die first, and all of a sudden she has to mourn this young child. I think that mental preparation was a kind of road map that made me less alone, and less clueless, in my grief.

Then, in that devastation, my book on animals, which Rachel knew about and which embodied her own cherished work (as a lawyer for animal rights), became my link to the future. If I could not keep her alive, I could at least keep her cause alive in that book, by making it as good as I could. I felt I had a mission. The only time I felt real depression (as opposed to anguish) was for a brief period after I finished the book and turned it in to the publisher. I thought, What am I going to do now? And then my ex-husband, a terrific man (I have always had such wonderful relationships with exes) said that he knew me and knew that I would find another project to care about and write about. He was correct, of course, and I pulled myself out of the swamp by starting the Britten book. (My daughter was also a huge music fan, so I haven’t really left her behind!) But I have to say that this whaling article is a great delight for me, because I am returning to my daughter’s most cherished cause. I also get enormous support from my widowed son-in-law, who lives with me now. It won’t surprise you that I am planning a book about Greek tragedy, interwoven with a memoir of my daughter and her death.

As you know, this is our sixtieth anniversary, and you are a long-standing contributor. Are there any memories about writing for the Review that have stayed with you?

Bob Silvers was a great man, a visionary; but he was very difficult to work with. He simply did not answer for ages when you turned something in, and then out of the blue, months later, would come galleys. Of course he didn’t use e-mail, even in the 1990s, so you simply could not find out what was happening for weeks and weeks. Still, I loved doing the review of Allan Bloom, and the pieces on feminism, where I convinced him to take seriously a kind of work that was new to him. And the Review has always been a pillar of what is best in our culture: long may it flourish. We are surrounded by so much that is cheap and tawdry, and the Review has been a beacon of quality, taste, and judgment.

Today’s process is so much better. Emily is a total joy to work with—even if the sequence of events is aggravating at times, in the many iterations of criticisms and edits that drive me crazy—and I love the way she trains the interns through the process.

Have you ever had an interest in trying to understand whale song, insofar as it can be understood? What music (made by humans) reminds you of whale song, if anything comes to mind?

I read a lot about it. The scientific consensus is that the songs are admired by other whales for their aesthetic value, not for communicative content. There are fads, and whales seem to take an interest in novelty. A variation that appears in the Philippines can make its way to Hawaii in six months. To us the sounds seem alien and mysterious. Allan Hovhaness used actual whale song in his symphonic poem “And God Created Great Whales,” which seems to me the right way to show admiration, since nothing else is like it. (Although I also greatly enjoy Haydn’s version of whales in The Creation.)

Do you compose in longhand or on the computer? Do you revise? What do you do when you’re feeling blocked?

I love writing, and I always want to get back to it when meetings and other distractions impede. I do also love teaching, which is why I don’t retire, but some parts of the academic life are not exhilarating.

Anyway, I like writing best. My typical day is to get up and do a long workout (thirty to forty minutes on the elliptical or the recumbent bike, then weights, and lots of stretching before and after, so ninety minutes total, all in my home, which is full of exercise machines). Then I shower, dress, all the while singing whatever my voice teacher and I are working on (mainly opera) for about thirty minutes (my hobby), then I get to work for the rest of the day. I do not lose sleep, and make plenty of room for friends, so my life is rather placid and orderly.

I used to write in longhand, but it never went well, because I have very bad handwriting and used to have to read my exams aloud to teachers. Luckily, my father insisted that I learn typing, and when I was twelve he sent me to the Philadelphia School of Office Training to learn. So now I am very fast, and my fingers and mind are in sync. I revise a huge amount, and can do it so much more easily than in the old days when you had to use Wite-Out. If I am not sure how to get started with a chapter, I take a lot of notes and map things out. Finally a shape emerges and I leap in, doing first the part I feel most ready to write. With the whale article I took notes for weeks, and gradually I came up with a shape. But what is lovely is when I get to a part that is truly meaningful to me. That is true joy, expressing something in sentences.

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