Vol. 16 No. 6 (June, 2006) pp.427-430


FRONTIERS OF JUSTICE:  DISABILITY, NATIONALITY, SPECIES MEMBERSHIP, by Martha C. Nussbaum. Cambridge, MA:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2006.  512pp. Hardcover. $35.00 / £21.95 / €32.30. ISBN: 0-674-01917-2.


Reviewed by Steven Tauber, Department of Government & International Affairs, The University of South Florida. Email: stauber [at] cas.usf.edu.


Liberal social contract theory, with its emphasis on individual freedom and equality of opportunity, has been instrumental in expanding justice.  However, constraints on social contract theory prevent it from dealing with questions of justice for the disabled, inhabitants of poor nations, and non-human animals.  Martha Nussbaum, a leading political theorist and legal philosopher, attempts to rectify these deficiencies with FRONTIERS OF JUSTICE.  Nussbaum develops a “capabilities approach” that expands liberal political theory in order to encompass concepts of cooperation and care, thus providing justice to those previously disregarded groups.  This book is a major contribution to jurisprudence and political theory, and it will be valuable to scholars interested in health care, international relations, or animal welfare. 


Chapter One offers a scholarly and lively analysis of classical and modern social contract theories.  Nussbaum devotes considerable attention to John Rawls, who proposes a procedurally based philosophy of justice that she regards as “the strongest form” (p.3) of social contract theory.  All social contract theories, including Rawls’, regard the contractors as independent actors of relatively equal stature, who recognize that forming an organized government will be to everyone’s mutual advantage.  However, because the disabled, inhabitants of poor nations, and animals are dependent upon and unequal to a dominant group, social contract theory excludes them from its conception of justice.  Compassionate treatment towards those individuals is a product of charity, not justice.  Additionally, the Utilitarian approach, which overemphasizes aggregate results at the expense of disadvantaged individuals, will not guarantee social justice for the disabled, inhabitants of poor counties, and animals.  To present an alternative to these theories, Nussbaum introduces her “capabilities approach” by discussing ten essential capabilities—“life,” “bodily health,” “bodily integrity,” “senses/imagination/thought,” “emotions,” “practical reason,” “affiliation,” “other species,” “play,” and “control over one’s environment” (pp.77-8).   Unlike Rawls, who focuses on procedural justice, the “capabilities approach” is concerned with outcome oriented justice.  As a result, the “capabilities approach” requires a just society to guarantee basic dignity to the disabled, inhabitants of other nations, and animals.


Chapters Two and Three deal specifically with disabilities.  Social contract theory assumes that independent, rational people enter into [*428] social contracts for mutual advantage, but the severely disabled are not in such a bargaining position.  Eschewing the Kantian conception of the person as a “rational being,” the “capabilities approach” adopts Aristotle’s conception of the person as “a political and social animal . . .who shares complex ends with others at many levels” (p.158).  Consequently, the ends of justice are able to focus on guaranteeing basic dignity for people with disabilities.  Nussbaum illustrates the feasibility of her “capabilities approach” through a discussion of actual public policies that will enhance guardianship for the disabled, opportunities for their education, and accommodations for their caregivers. 


Chapters Four and Five concentrate on justice for inhabitants of other nations, many of whom live in morally unacceptable physical and economic conditions.  Nussbaum highlights the fallacy of Rawls’ and Kant’s two-stage social contract in international relations.   If viewed as the state of nature, then the international sphere should consist of nations that are independent and equal, which is clearly not the case since the G8 countries dominate world affairs.  Nussbaum argues that justice must be globalized, although she emphatically rejects a world state.  The concluding section, entitled “Ten Principles on the Global Structure,” (pp.315-324) extends specific conceptions of justice beyond questions of security and political rights to include minimum guarantees in education, health care, and economic stability. 


Nussbaum convincingly establishes that her “capabilities approach” provides a powerful and realistic model of justice for the disabled and inhabitants of poor nations.  By using the examples of three real people with varying degrees of disability, Nussbaum personally engages the reader and better emphasizes the relevance of dignity for all individuals regardless of their abilities.  Additionally, discussing her approach in light of actual public policies for the disabled verifies that the capabilities approach is feasible.  Nussbaum’s theory enhances our understanding of international justice by demonstrating that the duties of wealthy nations and multinational corporations are fundamental to justice in a global society.  The most compelling aspect of this book is that, despite its pointed criticism of extant liberal political philosophies, Nussbaum still operates within the liberal framework.  Unlike non-liberal theories of care for the underprivileged (Nussbaum focuses largely on Kittay), the “capabilities approach” stresses individual freedom and equality, while still requiring basic dignity for all humans.  In short, Nussbaum has strengthened liberal theory by stretching it far enough to accommodate the disabled and citizens beyond American shores, but not too far so as to break its fundamental tenets.


However, I am not persuaded that the “capabilities approach” is a workable way to achieve justice for animals.  Although I anticipate many readers will be skeptical of the very notion of justice for animals, my critique stems from an ethical perspective that embraces animal liberation.  In that context, I recognize [*429] that Nussbaum effectively confronts social contract theory’s exclusion of animals, which leads to the morally untenable result that a society can be just even if it allows animals to be killed, hurt, or humiliated.  Nevertheless, Nussbaum has not demonstrated that her “capabilities approach” brings about more ethical treatment of animals compared to the Utilitarian approach.   The Utilitarian approach to animal liberation, most notably advocated by philosopher Peter Singer (2002), evaluates the treatment of animals not by intrinsic rights as some philosophers do (e.g., Regan 2001).  Instead, Utilitarians require animal treatment to be based on weighing the suffering animals experience against the benefits that humans receive when animals are used for food, clothing, entertainment, and research. 


Specifically, Nussbaum unfairly criticizes Utilitarianism’s ability to develop a system of ethics that benefits animals.  For example, she assails the Utilitarian approach because it takes note of the suffering of meat industry workers who will lose their jobs as more people become vegetarians (p.394).  However, this is an empty charge because a Utilitarian could consider the loss of those jobs and still advocate complete vegetarianism.  The amount of suffering resulting from the job losses is much lower than the amount of the intense pain, fear, and discomfort that the meat industry inflicts upon animals.  Moreover, considering the job losses of the meat industry might spark policies to provide financial assistance and job retraining for those displaced workers, consequently reducing overall suffering.  Nussbaum also argues that by focusing solely on pain and suffering, Utilitarianism does not necessarily view the “painless killing” of an animal to be “bad” (p.359). However, this charge is misleading because, as Singer writes, “it is not practically possible to rear animals for food on a large scale without inflicting considerable suffering” (Singer 2002, at 160).  In fact, Singer explicitly rejects eating any animal (even crustaceans and mollusks) since they can feel pain, or in the case of mollusks there is the potential that they can feel pain (Singer 2002, at 170-178).  Finally, Nussbaum’s condemnation of Utilitarianism, because its “indeterminate” aggregation of overall benefits versus suffering might yield “results that are extremely harsh toward a given class or group”  (p.342), is off the mark.  This criticism is valid for Utilitarian approaches to human justice, but because the nature of animal suffering is in a completely different class, it is not applicable when considering animals.  The stark contrast between tortuous suffering experienced by animals used for food, clothing, and entertainment obviously outweighs the negligible benefits humans receive from eating meat, wearing fur, or going to the rodeo.  As long as one accepts that animals should be included in the Utilitarian calculus, it is not possible under any aggregation technique to justify this form of cruel subjugation. 


The “capabilities approach” also results in less ethical treatment of animals than the Utilitarian approach, and it causes Nussbaum to endorse immoral practices concerning the treatment of animals.  For example, Nussbaum approves of [*430] keeping mammals in zoos as long as their capabilities are met.  She cites as an acceptable method of satisfying a captive tiger’s need to hunt the Bronx Zoo’s practice of tying a ball to a rope in order to simulate a gazelle in the wild (pp.370-371).  Aside from reporting that the “tiger seems satisfied” (p.371), she offers no evidence to support that this technique actually fulfils the tiger’s fundamental need to chase prey.  More importantly, Nussbaum overlooks the fact that the process of preparing the captive tiger’s food results in more animal death and suffering than if the tiger were allowed to pursue prey in the wild.  Based on a Utilitarian calculus, I maintain that zoos used for entertainment purposes are wrong under any circumstances because they greatly increase animal suffering and do not offer even remotely proportional benefits to humans.  Nussbaum more severely undermines the “capabilities approach” when she concludes that it could compel humans to interfere in egregious cases when one animal harms another animal in the wild (pp.373-380, 399).  Given the otherwise humble tone of FRONTIERS OF JUSTICE, I am surprised that Nussbaum would make the hubristic claim that humans should (or even could) interfere in nature.  In the final analysis, it does not appear that liberal theory can be stretched far enough to include justice for animals.   For over thirty years Singer’s Utilitarian approach has been the consummate method of justifying ethical treatment of animals, which is why Singer is universally regarded as the inspiration for the modern animal liberation movement.  


My reservations notwithstanding, FRONTIERS OF JUSTICE represents significant progress in thinking about justice for the disabled and inhabitants of impoverished regions.  Although, the section on justice for animals was ultimately not persuasive, Nussbaum still provides an erudite and engaging analysis of that critical issue.  



Regan, Tom. 2001. DEFENDING ANIMAL RIGHTS. Urbana, IL:  University of Illinois Press.


Singer, Peter. 2002. ANIMAL LIBERATION. New York:  Harper Collins.


© Copyright 2006 by the author, Steven Tauber.