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Martha Nussbaum On Justice For Animals

Martha Nussbaum On Justice For Animals

The philosopher has a new book out.

Martha is a philosopher and legal thinker. She has taught at Harvard, Brown, Oxford and is currently the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, appointed in the Philosophy Department and the Law School. Her many books include The Fragility of Goodness, Sex and Social Justice, Creating Capabilities, and From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law. Her new book, which we discuss in this episode, is Justice for Animals.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — on whether fish feel pain, and if we should sterilize city rats instead of killing them — pop over to our YouTube page.

Other topics: Martha growing up in NYC; converting to Judaism; studying Latin and Greek; becoming a professional actress; giving up meat; her late daughter’s profound influence on Justice For Animals; Aristotle’s views on justice; the difference between instinct and sentience; why crustaceans and insects probably don’t feel pain; preventing pain vs. stopping cruelty; Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer; the matriarchal society of orcas; Martha and Amartya Sen’s creation of the “capability approach”; how zoos prevent pain but nevertheless limit life; how parrots are content living solo, even in a lab; why we shouldn’t rank animals according to intelligence; George Pitcher’s The Dogs Who Came to Stay; the various ways humans are inept compared to animals; how a dolphin can detect human pregnancy; how some animals have a precise sense of equality; the diffuse brain of the octopus; the emotional lives of elephants; our brutality toward pigs; why the intelligence of plants is merely “handwaving”; how humans are the only animals to show disgust with their own bodies; our sublimation of violent instincts; mammals and social learning; Matthew Scully’s Dominion and the “caring stewardship” of animals among Christians; whether humane meat on a mass scale is possible; the emergence of lab meat; Martha’s advice on what you can do to protect animals; JR Ackerley’s book My Dog Tulip; euthanasia; and various tales of Bowie, my beloved, late beagle.

The subject of animal rights was first tackled on the Dishcast with vegan activist John Oberg, and we posted a ton of your commentary here. Browse the Dishcast archive for another convo you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in their entirety — subscribe to get everything else). Coming up soon: Spencer Klavan on How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises and Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft. Later on, two NYT columnists — David Brooks and Pamela Paul — and the authors of Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira.

Have a question you want me to ask one of these future guests? Email, and please put the question in the subject line. Please send any guest recs, pod dissent and other comments to

First up, a listener on Israel:

Would you be able to point me to nuanced, reliable, historically accurate resources about the contemporary nation of Israel? I have been following the unfolding conflict via Bari Weiss and her Free Press, but know that I’m missing some context. I’ve got a vague understanding of Israel’s re-establishment after WWII but have gaps that I’m very cautious to fill in without some kind of guide. (I’ve heard to date that modern Israel is “white supremacy intent on oppressing brown bodies,” which is clearly a nope; and I’ve also heard that modern Israel is simply an attempt by NATO precursors to exercise Western control over the Middle East, which sounds like a conspiracy theory.) Any suggestions?

Our episode with Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi on the history of Zionism was one of the most well-received discussions on the Dishcast. Check it out. Here’s a clip:

Here’s an unaired email from the time, in January 2022:

Thank you for bring up Yossi Klein Halevi as an interlocutor for the podcast. He is a deeply humane and nuanced thinker and writer, and his views on the difficult conflict are informed not by slogans but by experience. I hope you will bring a sagacious counterpart from the Arab side, who can acknowledge the existence of two conflicting true stories. This is the key that can unlock the difficult decisions necessary for a compromise. 

I want to question one of the conclusions that you seem to have reached regarding the conflict. You talk about the corrosive nature of the settlement enterprise, which Yossi seems to be agreeing with. He is saying that if there is an honest peace offer to divide land, the Israelis will be willing to accept the compromise and risk the civil war. For you, however, settlements mean the end of the Zionist project. This is where you lost me. I understand the very strong opposition to settlements. I understand that they are an obstacle to an agreement, one among many. But why do they mean that Zionism is doomed? Would you say the same if Israel hadn’t built beyond the 1949 armistice line? 

Do you think that building settlements is a singularly bad policy that will undo Zionism, or that they expose the incurable lethal poison in the heart of Israel? If it’s the former, then every bad policy can be corrected. As Yossi explained, Israel evacuated its population when required for peace (and those who prefer to stay in settlements may chose to become citizens of the Palestinian state when it is created). So, bad as they are, settlements do not spell the end of Zionism. 

However, settlements do serve as a convenient euphemism for the opposition to Zionism and Israel per se. It is not Israel’s 1967 borders, but Israel’s 1948 existence. If Israelis believed that stopping settlements means peace, they would have stopped. But if they are told that not matter what they do their country has to stop being, why would they listen? 

As Yossi said, many Israelis are ready to trade ’67 for ’48. What is your position?

I favor a settlement based on the 1967 borders. And I think the settlements are deliberately designed to prevent that. But what they will create is either more atrocities, as Palestinians are expelled from those areas in due course; or endless conflict with no security for the Jewish state.

Yossi has a new piece in The Atlantic this week. Money quote:

As gratifying as it is to see the facades of parliaments and other public buildings lit with images of the Israeli flag, we know that much of that support will disappear as civilian casualties in Gaza—and perhaps in Lebanon—mount. Israelis will tell you: We don’t need the world’s sympathy only when the violated bodies of our family and friends are being displayed to cheering mobs in Gaza. We need that sympathy most when we attack those who have carried out these atrocities. If you can’t distinguish between an army that tries to avoid civilian casualties and a terrorist group that seeks to inflict them, then spare us the condolences.

Another email on Yossi’s episode:

Thank you for this discourse about Israel, and I’m sending you warmest regards from Beit Shemesh, approximately 10 km as the crow flies from the “green line.” I’m an American — and an oleh, a recent immigrant to Israel. Let me just say I immigrated here in 2018 with one set of ideas and find myself in possession of a totally different set after nearly four years living this complicated Jewish dream.

Yossi Klein Halevi and Peter Beinart are — it pains me to say, as I so vehemently disagree with Beinart — an excellent point/counter-point. I’m sure you’ve thought of this, but you might ask them which Palestinian voices to bring into the mix. Additionally, I think it’s not enough to have Palestinian voices — please also include Arab Israeli voices who do not identify as Palestinian, but rather as Israeli. I wish I could be more useful here and actually provide names. But right now I’m more of a consumer and not that discerning, by which I mean I don’t really know who the ideologues are yet. 

Again, thank you for this discourse. Soon after moving to Israel, and not only seeing my beloved Homeland from the inside, but also the Old Country (the USA) from the outside, I began to feel an intellectual tumult that disturbed me greatly. So much rhetoric. So much ideology. Not enough journalism. Not enough thought.

So I started a list in my Evernote called “Voices of Sanity/Voices of Reason.” You were the first person on my list (Yossi Klein Halevi is also on the list, his Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor is one of the most important books of my life. I read it straight through — and I am a very slow reader — during one Shabbat in Mitzpe Yericho, one of those dreaded “settlements.”

One of the biggest shifts I’ve realized since becoming an Israeli citizen: In Israel, group identity is radically important. I guess it creates a sense of security in being right all the time. The trade-off is that everyone else is more than wrong; they are heretics. This includes family and friends. This is the opposite of Judaism. Instead of creating the energy that brings the world together — which is our mandate as Jews — it splinters everything into the smallest possible splinters. I came to Israel more inclined to the particularist in “orthodox” Judaism. Now nearly four years later, I’m far more interested in the universalist in Torah. 

On last week’s episode with Ian Buruma on conmen and collaborators, a listener writes:

I enjoyed Buruma’s take on allowing readers to draw their own moral outrage from biographical subjects. I read an excerpt of Michael Lewis’ Going Infinite in the WaPo, and it didn’t seem overly sympathetic to Sam Bankman-Fried, and it hardly seemed like hagiography. Rather, it seemed like straight-ahead journalism depicting its subject just as he was. I would have found it odd if not inappropriate if Lewis told me how to react to examples of SBF’s odd and inappropriate behavior. 

So it was with some surprise that I read a NYT review criticizing Lewis for not criticizing SBF. I heard the Dishcast after reading both pieces, and now I wish the book critic had done so before writing the review. There are certainly times when reporting can and should include the journalist’s impressions, but it’s often a favor to the reader to be spared the advice on how to think and react to a story. 

Michael was on the Dishcast two years ago to discuss his Covid-era book, The Premonition. A clip:

On our recent episode with Leor Sapir on gender-dysphoric kids, here’s an email from a biochem professor:

I’m surprised you and Leor didn’t really explore the following fundamental incoherence in the trans debate:

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