Martha Nussbaum calls for animals to be given ‘same rights’ as humans

When Lady Gaga’s dog walker was shot and her two beloved French bulldogs stolen for ransom in 2021, the singer offered a $500,000 reward, which led to their return. Lady Gaga was delighted – but did anyone think to ask what her dogs, Koji and Gustav, wanted to happen to their kidnappers? West Ham footballer Kurt Zouma was fined £250,000 by his club and sentenced to 180 hours of community service for kicking and slapping his cat – but what recompense did his cat receive?

Each year in Britain three million dogs, cats, mice, rats, guinea pigs, pigs and monkeys are killed to test new drugs – but what would happen if they were all suddenly able to hire a lawyer?

One of America’s top academics wants to find out.

Leading philosopher Martha C Nussbaum is making a controversial call for animals to have equal rights with humans.

“Animals are in trouble all over the world,” says Nussbaum, 75, Distinguished Service Professor of Law & Ethics at the University of Chicago, Illinois, whose new book Justice For Animals calls for creatures great and small to be given equal moral and legal rights to humans.

Shake your head in bemusement by all means but, make no mistake, when Nussbaum talks, Americans in power listen – even if they may strongly disagree. And perhaps we should too?

“Our world is dominated by humans everywhere,” she says.

“Much of the time, that domination inflicts wrongful injury on animals: whether through the barbarous cruelties of the factory meat industry, through poaching and game hunting, through habitat destruction, through pollution of the air and seas, or through neglect of the companion animals that people purport to love.”

Nussbaum calls for the beasts of the world to be given the same ethical and moral consideration we give – or should give – to our fellow humans.

“Animals are not things that we may use as we like,” she tells the Daily Express.

“They are sentient beings who seek their own lives. We share this fragile globe with many other animals, who also feel pain, suffer loss, desire companionship, and to put it briefly, who want to live their own lives just as we want to live our lives.”

Did Johnny Depp and Amber Heard ask their Yorkshire terriers how they felt about being smuggled into Australia? Did the US Navy ask bottlenose dolphins if they wanted to be trained to hunt for undersea mines in war zones? Could you one day receive a call from your dog’s lawyer demanding that you give your pooch a bigger share of your bed and feed it wagyu beef daily?

Probably not, but Nussbaum feels that a change is in order, and hopes to shame us into giving animals the same rights that we ourselves take for granted.

“We think we have the right to be where we are, and to use the habitat to support our needs – why would we not accord animals the same right?” she asks.

“Sentient animals, those who feel pain and have a subjective perspective on the world” – mammals, birds bony fish, octopus and squid – “have a right to have a chance to live a life characteristic of that type of animal, up to some reasonable threshold level. Justice for animals is our collective responsibility.”

Nussbaum, who has written influential books on sex, gender, politics and justice, calls for animals to be given equal legal standing with humans, extending the few laws protecting animal welfare.

“Ultimately we could do what India has done, which is to give animals recognition as persons under constitutional law,” she says. “You can’t deprive an animal of life or liberty without due process of law. That would be the goal.”

Animals obviously cannot advocate for themselves in court, but then neither can human infants or the mentally disabled, yet we afford them full legal protections, Nussbaum argues.

Controversially, Nussbaum says that not all creatures are naturally eaten by predators in the wild, and likens animal predation to human rape.

“Nature is not harmonious, and nature is not just,” she says.

“Just think: women are often raped, and that has been so all throughout human history. That doesn’t mean women were made to be raped. They were made to lead their own lives with considerable autonomy.

“But in fact, they’re in an environment where other people have the power, so they all too often get raped. That doesn’t mean we should perpetuate that and say it’s the nature of women. So, too, with predation.”

Nussbaum calls for a complete reevaluation of animal rights in a world where humans assume that we rightly sit at the apex of a global order of the species.

“I don’t think that there is any reason to think that humans are ‘at the top’ of anything,” she says. “We have some abilities that other animals lack, but they also have abilities – sensing magnetic fields, echolocation – that we lack.

“Most animal groups take better care of their own members than humans do, and many negotiate conflict much better.”

She calls for the elimination of factory farms and slaughterhouses, human encroachment on animal habitats, and the end to chemical, light and noise pollution – the deep sea oil drilling and ocean floor-mapping “air bombs” that shatter marine ecosystems – but not overnight.

“I favour ending the worst abuses first, and ending others gradually,” she says. “I would put the elimination of factory farming high on my list, and also ending the use of single-use plastic, while leaving the question of eating humanely-raised and slaughtered animals for a later debate.

“The reach of human cruelty has expanded. Even people who do not consume meat produced by the factory farming industry are likely to have used single-use plastic items, to use fossil fuels mined beneath the ocean and polluting the air, to dwell in areas in which elephants and bears once roamed, or to live in high-rise buildings that spell death for migratory birds.”

Plant-based meat substitutes like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, along with the development of laboratory-grown real meat produced from stem cells, could one day eliminate any need for factory farms and mass animal slaughter. In an increasingly overcrowded world Nussbaum calls for people “to limit our own population growth in order for the world to be minimally just”.

She welcomes the use of seeing-eye dogs for the blind, drug-sniffing dogs and police horses, but “only if the creature has good working conditions and plenty of opportunities for leisure and society. That’s what every working creature, human or non-human, has a right to have.”

Women who two centuries ago were treated as property controlled by men today have rights and freedoms, Nussbaum notes. “The same thing can happen with the rights of animals.”

Giving animals equal rights could also benefit humankind, she says: “In some cases the change is win-win: environmental pollution is very bad for humans too.”

If we fail to give animals their moral and legal rights, Nussbaum argues, “our health will be worse, our lives will be impoverished, and the gloriously rich world in which we dwell will be impoverished beyond repair”.

Many animal rights are already protected, though often poorly enforced, and Nussbaum urges that research experiments on animals should eventually be replaced by artificial intelligence and computer simulations.

With glaring understatement, she concludes: “There is much room for improvement.”

Just ask your cat.

  • Justice For Animals: Our Collective Responsibility by Martha C Nussbaum (Simon & Schuster, £20) is out now. For free UK P&P, visit or call 020 3176 3832

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