January 18, 2024

Justice for Animals: a Wrong-Turn for the Capabilities Approach?


In Justice for Animals, Martha Nussbaum argues that the capabilities approach is ‘the best theoretical ally of all concerned humans working toward’ an awakening to ‘our kinship with a world of remarkable intelligent creatures and to real accountability for our treatment of them’ (p. 314). In this talk, I will seek to evaluate whether this is true and the version of the capabilities approach developed in her recent book. Whilst many elements of this approach are attractive, I shall engage with three main critiques mainly rooted in a number of applied examples she gives. The first will focus on the theory of value: I shall engage with whether Nussbaum undermines the capabilities approach by arguing, for instance, that the capabilities of many animals can best be protected in human-controlled environments like zoos which are not the environments in which animals ordinarily flourish. Secondly, I shall seek to highlight the lack of a coherent set of normative principles underlying the approach – which leads to several inconsistencies and, in some cases, a failure to challenge serious abuses of animals. Lastly, I will question the notion that rights of animals are ‘imperfect’ and only generate collective duties on the part of humans. The talk will seek to generate a discussion of how to improve on this important account of our duties towards animals which is of central importance in guiding adequate law reform.

This event is open to all.

The Talking Animals, Law & Philosophy series is made possible through generous sponsorship by the International Society for Animal Rights (ISAR). The work of the Centre is supported by the Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law & Policy.


David Bilchitz is Professor of Fundamental Rights and Constitutional Law at the University of Johannesburg and Professor of Law at the University of Reading. He was recently appointed as an Acting Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. He is Director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law (SAIFAC) and Vice-President of the International Association of Constitutional Law. He is also director of Animal Law Reform South Africa and has been involved actively in trying to change the plight of animals in South Africa through parliamentary submissions and litigation. He has written several academic articles considering the changes that the new democratic constitutional order - that emerged in South Africa in 1994 - should bring about in relation to the status and entitlements of animals. He has co-developed and co-taught the first full course on animal law in South Africa.