Multispecies Justice: Challenging the Institutions of Political Theory

Understanding justice through the multispecies lens does not simply mean expanding our circle of care, says Danielle Celermajer, it means rethinking justice itself. So what does this mean for political theory, and beyond?

Photo by Gilberto Olimpio on Unsplash.

As with other grand concepts like ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’, the meaning of ‘justice’ has always been, and remains deeply contested. Our intuitions about injustice, though, tend to be sharper. When, for example, someone is forced into a situation that endangers their life or threatens their wellbeing, and they have no say in the matter, few would disagree that this is unjust. In the Australian summer of 2019-2020, living beings inhabiting more than 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km or 24.7 million acres) of bushland found themselves in the midst of, and unable to escape, the wildfires that ravaged the country. It is impossible to count the number of plants or insects that were killed, but it is estimated that over a billion individual animals were burned to death.

These were not the fires that form a natural part of Australia’s cycles of death and regeneration. They were both unprecedented in scale and severity, and they were, most importantly here, the result of anthropogenic climate change. Human actions, in other words, and human decisions, resulted in the death and untold suffering of billions of beings other than humans; beings who played no part in creating those conditions, and who were excluded from decisions that might have averted them. For some people reading this, the scene may seem remote; but it is the earth as a whole that is now entering the climate catastrophe. So, the scene that played out in Australia represent but one variant of what we know will increasingly unfold as the earth as a whole enters the climate catastrophe. Beings across the earth will similarly find themselves unable to escape unliveable conditions not of their own making. Injustice beyond the human is clearly at play.

“The claim that justice, as distinct from softer categories like care or ethical attentiveness is the correct analytic lens to bring to the world of beings beyond the sphere of human societies represents a radical challenge to the field of political theory.”

The claim here is thus that our relationship with world of beings beyond the sphere of human societies ought to be evaluated according to the principle of justice. This marks a departure from frameworks with which we have tended to be more comfortable in thinking about what humans owe other beings, frameworks like care or welfare; and it represents a radical challenge in the field of political theory. True, in the last fifty years, critical race, feminist, Indigenous, disability and queer theorists and social movements have attacked some of the foundations of classical dominant theories of justice by demonstrating that their implicit assumptions about the ‘subject of justice’ in fact ensured that some humans would always be disadvantaged and excluded. Even then though, for the most part, two assumptions remained; that the boundaries of justice were co-extensive with the boundaries of humans; and, that the subject of justice was the individual. These also began to crumble as ecofeminists, posthumanists and environmental justice theorists (amongst others) pointed to the entanglement of humans and beings other than humans, and with this, the fictional nature of the idea of the autonomous individual. The natural implication of this trajectory of critique was that justice needed to take into account beings other than humans and the relationships with which they (and we) are involved. The rub is that doing so does not simply mean expanding the circle of those who have claims of justice; it means rethinking justice itself.

The natural implication of this trajectory of critique was that justice needed to take into account beings other than humans and the relationships with which they (and we) are involved. The rub is that doing so does not simply mean expanding the circle of those who have claims of justice; it means rethinking justice itself.

Once we start to look at justice through a multispecies lens, a number of puzzles immediately present themselves. Here, I name just two. First, what do the truly radical differences of these newly introduced subjects imply for the concept of justice and the institutions designed to administer it? The work of justice always involves mediation between different and perhaps incompatible interests, but now in our circle of parties that need to be considered are beings with endlessly diverse phenomenal life-worlds, biotic affordances, capacities, and needs. Moreover, even amongst those who agree that justice ought not remain the preserve of humans, there are deep disagreements concerning the relative status of individuals (animals or trees for example) and larger collectives like ecosystems or species. For some, the proliferation of difference, and the inevitable multiplication of conflict is sufficient reason to close the door at the boundary of the human. But this theoretical move itself stinks of precisely the type of arbitrariness and force we call injustice.

Second, how might the experiences, perspectives and interests of beings other than humans be represented in these ‘conversations’ about how we ought to live together without massive distortion? Our institutions of justice universally rely on human language as their medium. Failing a complete transformation in our capacity to translate across the now myriad differences, it would seem that there is no option other than to mediate the representation of others’ interests and perspectives through human communication. How then to avoid the twin perils of forms of representation that exclude beings other than humans, or those that subject them to epistemic domination and distortion? How might we learn to know otherwise such that beings and relationships can express what flourishing would mean for them within their own media?

Rather than providing definitive answers to these puzzles, the collection of authors who have contributed to a recent Critical Exchange paper, published in Contemporary Political Theory, demonstrate what it means to authentically grapple with them. Our pieces ask whether we might develop conceptions and practices of multispecies justice that do not require hierarchies amongst beings, that do not assert what is ontologically primary or secondary (individuals or systems for example), and that do not require that we establish a common ground of relatively transparent representation. Rather, we wonder whether it might be possible to develop practices of justice that are sufficiently capacious and responsive to move nimbly across and within different kinds of ‘scales of mattering’.

When it is working well, political theory offers up frameworks and conceptual tools that can help us make sense of the conflicts and tensions arising in our communities. At its best, it can help us navigate those conflicts and tensions in ways that support greater flourishing for those caught up in them. Now, as we enter the climate catastrophe, and confront its impact on all beings, we can no longer ignore the truth that that category of ‘those caught up in them’ goes well beyond the humans who have long been fighting out what justice means. The ethical responsibility of political theory to attend to those who were, in fact, there all along, but are now subjected to injustices that may well spell their ultimate demise, is one that multispecies justice seeks to take up.

‘Justice Through a Multispecies Lens’, coauthored by Danielle CelermajerSria ChatterjeeAlasdair CochraneStefanie FishelAstrida NeimanisAnne O’BrienSusan ReidKrithika SrinivasanDavid Schlosberg and Anik Waldow can be accessed through Contemporary Political Theory.

Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney, where she is Director of the Multispecies Justice Project. Her books include Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apology (Cambridge University Press 2009), A Cultural Theory of Law in the Modern Age (Bloomsbury, 2018), and The Prevention of Torture: An Ecological Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Along with her multispecies community, she has recently lived through the NSW fires, writing in the face of their experience of the “killing of everything”, which she calls “omnicide”. Danielle Celermajer  is the Research Lead on Concepts and Practices of Multispecies Justice .

For an interview with the author, contact Professor Danielle Celermajer on danielle.celermajer@sydney.edu.au.

For all other media enquiries, contact Vivienne Reiner, University of Sydney Media and Public Relations Adviser, +61 2 9351 2390 or vivienne.reiner@sydney.edu.au.