Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Martha Nussbaum On Justice For Animals

Appears in this episode

Andrew Sullivan

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:

On the one hand, we’re told that gender is purely a social construct, with no connection at all to biology or sexual reproductive strategy or hormones or anything else, so it’s something people can choose freely and change at any time — really just a kind of style, like being a punk or dressing preppy, a set of fashion choices and mannerisms and whatnot, which have become stereotypes in the culture that we can freely accept or reject or invent in completely new forms …

… but then at the same time, those same people are telling us that puberty and hormones and organs and many other attributes of the physical body are the most important things of all, and those come in two binary categories, and if people can’t align their physical body structures into the right category, it will harm them so much that they will almost certainly commit suicide.

So which is it?

Is it estrogen vs. testosterone? In that case, it’s binary, and it’s about biology, and maybe there are people with male brains in female bodies, but otherwise this is pretty clear-cut. Or is it just a style choice? In that case, nobody should care what hormones are in their blood, and no insurance company should be paying for cosmetic treatments relating to someone’s personal hairstyle.

Very well-put. The intellectual incoherence of queer and gender theory is, however, a feature not a bug. Another listener on Leor:

Your conversation with Leor Sapir made a possibly dumb question occur to me: do trans people ever get as irritated with the trans label as you do with the LGBTQIA+ label? It had never really occurred to me until Sapir said it, that the trans label lumps together multiple identities. If I were a medically transitioned trans adult who had gone through the whole shebang / ordeal of cross-sex hormones and surgery, I could see myself being annoyed by a 13-year-old who isn’t sure about their sexuality calling themselves “trans” for a few months. Or maybe trans people have a less strong “get off my lawn” instinct than I do.

Also, I wanted to say that I appreciate the way you tend to couple your critique of the treatment of trans children with statements that being trans is a real condition and that trans people deserve compassion and respect. Like you, I don’t know what the science of being trans is exactly. But when a bunch of people who are otherwise sane and decent report that they’ve long been going through something acutely painful for them — the feeling of having been born in the wrong body — I believe them, same as I believe that homosexuality is a real thing even if I can’t explain it with scientific precision. It seems to me an awfully tough hand to be dealt in life; what a horrible feeling it must be to be trapped in the wrong body, and what a relief it must feel to get one’s gender identity and body aligned.

So, while I’m appalled by the woke left’s cavalier attitude towards child transition, I’m no less appalled by the hard right’s sneering contempt for the notion that being trans isn’t a real thing. Like, have some decency.

I’ve met quite a few transsexuals and old-school transgender men and women whose eyes roll into the back of their heads listening to these children marinated in queer and gender theory. The “non-binary” bullshit is particularly irritating coming, as it does, from lapping straights seeking to be cool.

This next listener has a guest rec:

Longtime admiring reader here, since the early 1990s. The Dish has never been more important than today. Please never retire. (Though as someone who has grown up in the shadow of the USSR, and has had a most fervently beloved relative thrown into post-KBG jail for six years over a manufactured charge, and tortured in the meanest way over this homosexuality, it makes me sad to listen to your blind spot about Ukraine. I think you are utterly wrong on that issue.)

Suggestion: why not have on the British journalist Rod Liddle? His article in The Spectator about Robert Fico’s win in the Slovakian elections, and what “populism” does or does not mean, struck a deep cord with me. Reading up on Liddle’s last five years of output gave me some measure of respect for his ability to expose pieties, but with humanity. He’s sometimes prescient. Curmudgeonly, yes, but also a reasonable guy — not a rabid “anti-woke” warrior who goes too far exploiting the discourse vacuums the left has created. I also find him funny and, in these riven times, am desperate for humor.

My own impression is that he’s an often amusing but provocative reactionary. Forgive me for passing. Another rec:

You might enjoy chatting with Jeff Kripal. His 2019 book, The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, is a good introduction to his writings for a sophisticated but not necessarily academic audience, though it’s scholarly enough. He is currently chair of the Religious Studies department at Rice. Why I think he’d interest you is that he, like you and me, was raised Catholic and now delights in explorations into a variety of religious phenomena, including UFOS, drugs, abductions and, very much, sexuality. I think he enjoys being outrageous but always with a scholarly, rational basis.

Next up, a bit more on the debate over the origins of wokeness:

Your dissenter wrote:

Couldn’t one take a similarly sympathetic approach to the 1960s-70s version of critical theory? Yes, things may be out of hand now with race and gender theory, but what world were those thinkers responding to? The intensely oppressive gender roles prescribed in the postwar years, seemingly unshakeable racial segregation and wealth disparities through redlining, and subtle power well after the Civil Rights rulings and laws … the list could go on.

I think this reader hit the mark. Current wokism is not the same and doesn’t derive from the ‘60s movements and theories you mention. Much less is it Neo-Marxism.  The American movements of the ‘60s were genuine — from the bottom-up, grass roots with broad political support, against real legal, legislative and de facto barriers to equality and an unpopular war. This was an era of upheaval and creativity in which a number of political tendencies rose, including the ones you mention. They coincided with national liberation movements in what was then the Third World.

Wokism, I think, is a 21st century cultural phenomenon distinct from legal and political gains of the past. It is tied to an artificially expansive view of “human rights” and the desire of some in “marginalized groups” for conscious approval or acceptance by the majority populations. It represents an intellectual misdirection about what comes next after formal legal barriers to equality are torn down. Safe spaces, seminars, the cutting of advanced placement, and new forms of separatism do not change the material well-being of African American or other marginalized or minority communities. For example:

  1. Opposition to puberty blockers and surgery for under-age kids is not an attack against transgender people. There is no special “right” for the transgender community and medical professionals to side-step controversies over medical research, diagnostic protocols and proofs of efficacy long used to guide safe medical interventions.
  2. There is a difference between supporting gay and transgender civil rights and having to approval or accept all actions and beliefs associated with that community.
  3. Some of the tenets of critical race theory are simply reactionary. Tens of thousands of whites didn’t march under the banner of Black Lives Matter because they took a corporate DEI seminar. They took action because Floyd’s death was broadcast and streamed into their living room. They learned from their own experience.

And they’re now learning a lot more about BLM. A plug from a long-time reader:

At the risk of being impertinent, I wanted to share a short essay I wrote for City Journal. It’s about a wokeish podcast on Bernie Goetz. You’ve published and engaged with quite a few of my emails over the years, and I’ve been a Dishhead for almost two decades. So, I thought I would share this review, which I’m somewhat proud of. (And the idea that you might read it pleases me.)

Here’s another plug, and a query, from a “reader and subscriber in Poland”:

I want to draw your attention to the passing of Terence Davies (1945-2023), whose films remain the most devastating testimony to a gay Catholic childhood ever captured on film. (I’m speaking as a gay Catholic myself). I would love to read your thoughts on Davies’ work. (My own thoughts, published on Roger Ebert’s website back in the day, are here and here.) Terence will be sorely missed.

This is my first encounter with it. Bleak!

Thanks as always for the emails. Send yours to

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