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«De Ethica. A Journal of Philosophical, Theological and Applied Ethics Vol. 3:2 (2016) Should We Ascribe Capabilities to Sentient Animals? A Critical ...»

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De Ethica. A Journal of Philosophical, Theological and Applied Ethics Vol. 3:2 (2016)

Should We Ascribe Capabilities to Sentient Animals?

A Critical Analysis of the Extension of Nussbaum’s

Capabilities Approach

Anders Melin and David Kronlid

Originally, the Capabilities Approach had a strong anthropocentric

orientation because of its focus on the entitlements of individual humans.

However, as a part of the interest to employ it within animal and

environmental ethics, it has been discussed whether the Capabilities Approach should consider also non-human life forms for their own sake.

The most influential and elaborated contribution to this debate is Martha Nussbaum’s extension of the Capabilities Approach to include sentient animals. In this article, we argue that Nussbaum’s ascription of capabilities to animals is problematic, since the concept of a capability normally denotes an opportunity to choose between different functionings. When Nussbaum ascribes capabilities to animals, the concept seems to simply denote specific abilities. Such a use is problematic since it waters down the concept and makes it less meaningful, and it may obscure the fact that normal, adult humans, in contrast to sentient animals, can act as conscious moral agents. The aim of granting moral status to sentient animals can be achieved more convincingly by describing our moral relationship to animals in terms of the functionings we should promote, instead of ascribing capabilities to them.

Introduction The Capabilities Approach has become increasingly influential as a theoretical approach to social justice and development. Recently, it has also been applied to questions of animal and environmental ethics.1 Originally, the Capabilities Approach had a strong See, for example, Catherine Butler and Peter Simmons, ‘Framing Energy Justice in the UK: The Nuclear Case’, in Energy Justice in a Changing Climate: Social equity and low-carbon energy, edited by Karen Bickerstaff, Gordon Walker and Harriet Bulkeley (London: Zed Books, 2013), pp. 139-157;

Jozef Keulartz, Jac. A. A. Swart, ‘Animal Flourishing and Capabilities in an Era of Global Change’, in Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change, edited by Allen Thompson and Jeremy Bendik-Keymer De Ethica. A Journal of Philosophical, Theological and Applied Ethics Vol. 3:2 (2016) anthropocentric orientation because of its focus on the entitlements of individual humans. However, as part of the interest to employ it within animal and environmental ethics, it has been discussed whether the Capabilities Approach should take also nonhuman life forms into consideration for their own sake. The most influential and elaborated contribution to this debate is Martha Nussbaum’s extension of the Capabilities Approach to include sentient animals.2 Although there has been some critical discussion of her proposal,3 most of the critics focus on the problematic practical consequences of her approach, especially of her list of animal capabilities, rather than on the more fundamental question whether it is at all appropriate to ascribe capabilities to animals. It is this latter question we want to discuss here. This is an important issue to analyze since the concept of capability was originally developed to be applied to normally functioning adult humans, and it is far from evident that it can be applied to non-humans.

A Brief Account of the Capabilities Approach

The Capabilities Approach was developed by Amartya Sen as an alternative to traditional Utilitarian approaches to welfare economics and has since been expanded into a more general theory of justice by, for example, Martha Nussbaum.4 It is generally understood as a framework for different normative judgements, for example, the (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), pp. 123-144; Breena Holland, ‘Environment as Metacapability: Why a Dignified Human Life Requires a Stable Climate System’ in Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change, edited by Allen Thompson and Jeremy Bendik-Keymer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), pp. 145-164; Kyoko Kusakabe (ed.), Gender, Roads, and Mobility in Asia (Bourton on Dunsmore, UK, Practical Action, 2012) and David O. Kronlid, Human Capabilities and Climate Change Adaptation, (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).

2 Martha C. Nussbaum, ‘”Beyond Compassion and Humanity”: Justice for Non-Human Animals’ in Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, edited by Cass R. Sunstein and Martha C.

Nussbaum (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 299-320; Martha C. Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006); Martha C. Nussbaum, ‘Human Dignity and Political Entitlements’, in Human Dignity and Bioethics. Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics (Washington, D.C., 2008), pp. 351-380.

3 See, for example, John P. Clark, ‘Capabilities Theory and the Limits of Liberal Justice: On Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice’, Human Rights Review 10:4 (2009), pp. 583-604; Marcel Wissenburg, ‘The Lion and the Lamb: Ecological Implications of Martha Nussbaum’s Animal Ethics’, Environmental Politics 20:3 (2011), pp. 391-409; Ramona Ilea, ‘Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach and Nonhuman Animals: Theory and Public Policy’, Journal of Social Philosophy 39:4 (2008), pp. 547Simon Hailwood, ‘Bewildering Nussbaum: Capability Justice and Predation’, The Journal of Political Philosophy 20:3 (2012), pp. 293-313; Katy Fulfer, ‘The Capabilities Approach to Justice and the Flourishing of Non-sentient Life’, Ethics & The Environment 18:1 (2013), pp. 19-38; David Schlosberg, Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature (Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online, 2007) and Elizabeth Cripp, ‘Saving the Polar Bear, Saving the World: Can the Capabilities Approach Do Justice to Humans, Animals and Ecosystems?’, Res Publica 16:1 (2010), pp. 1-22.





4 See, for example, Amartya Sen, Commodities and Capabilities (New Delhi: Oxford India Paperbacks, 1999); Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor Books, 1999); Martha C.

Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) and Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice.

De Ethica. A Journal of Philosophical, Theological and Applied Ethics Vol. 3:2 (2016) assessment of individual well-being and the assessment of social conditions. It focuses on what people can be or do, such as their opportunities to learn, enjoy social relationships, and be mobile, in contrast to other accounts of well-being, which are exclusively concerned with subjective categories, such as happiness, or on the means to well-being, such as wealth or income.5 ‘Functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ are two fundamental concepts within the Capabilities Approach. Functioning refers to what people actually are or do, such as being mothers or fathers, expressing themselves through art works or being volunteers in NGOs. They can be both complex and very elementary, such as the functioning to be well-nourished. Capability refers to the opportunity to function in a certain way. A key element of the Capabilities Approach is the emphasis on personal freedom concerning how one wants to live one’s life. Accordingly, Nussbaum states that in the case of adult citizens, a fair distribution of capabilities, rather than functionings, should be the political goal. This means that persons should be given the opportunity to, for example, have leisure time or to live in sexual relationships if this is the kinds of functionings that they value, or they should still be allowed to work 14 hours a day or to live in celibacy if these are the kind of functionings they value instead.6 Along the same lines, Sen also distinguishes between functionings and capabilities, and argues that it is an essential part of a good human life to be able to exercise choice.7

Nussbaum’s Extension of the Capabilities Approach to Animals

As stated above, Nussbaum’s early formulations of the Capabilities Approach are concerned only with entitlements of human beings. One central tenet in her early formulation of the Capabilities Approach is that certain capabilities should be assigned to all normally functioning adult humans, since they are beings with a capacity to consciously form their lives. The concept of capability is closely linked to the concept of human dignity.8 However, in Frontiers of Justice and some other later works Nussbaum argues that sentient animals should be included in a theory of justice. She formulates her own view of our moral relationship to sentient animals partly based on a critique of Kantian social contract theory. Such theories reject that humans have obligations of justice to non-human animals, because they suppose that the human form of rationality is the only ground of dignity and because they describe political principles as deriving from a contract among equals. According to Nussbaum, such theories should be criticized for two reasons: we need to recognize that many non-human animals possess a high level of intelligence, and we should reject the idea that only beings who can join a contract as equals can be subjects of justice. She is critical of Rawls’s theory, which she sees as a form of Kantian social contract theory, since he denies that our behaviour towards animals should be regulated by principles of justice. Nussbaum criticizes Rawls’ contract theory for not taking into account how intelligent animals are and how capable they are of Ingrid Robeyns, ‘The Capability Approach’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, online at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/capability-approach, (accessed 2015-02-10).

6 Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, pp. 87-88.

7 Amartya Sen, Inequality Reexamined (Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online, 2003), pp. 40-42.

8 See, for example, Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, pp. 71-72.

De Ethica. A Journal of Philosophical, Theological and Applied Ethics Vol. 3:2 (2016) forming complex relationships. For Rawls, only beings that have a capacity for a conception of the good and a capacity for a sense of justice can be considered moral persons, and only moral persons are entitled to be treated with justice. However, Rawls admits that we can have duties of compassion towards animals since they can feel pleasure and pain.9 Nussbaum believes that the contract doctrine is inappropriate for handling ethical issues related to animals since we cannot conceive of animals as being participants in a contract. Contrary to Rawls, Nussbaum argues that our treatment of animals also raises issues of justice. She says that it is not only morally wrong to treat them badly; it is unjust since they have a moral entitlement not to be mistreated. The capabilities approach sees individual animals as agents and subjects, as creatures that are ends in themselves.

Animals are active beings that have a good and they are entitled to pursue that good. It is not enough to regard them as objects of compassion, since such a view does not acknowledge the fact that someone is to blame if they are made to suffer. Humans should not only look upon animals with compassion, instead we should also avoid and hinder acts that cause them suffering.10 For Nussbaum the concept of capabilities is closely linked to the concept of dignity, since she understands the promotion of capabilities as a way of realizing a life with human dignity. She states that ‘dignity is not defined prior to and independently of the capabilities, but in a way intertwined with them and their definition’.11 As Nussbaum points out herself, her view of dignity has evolved over time. In Women and Human Development, she describes dignity as a unique human characteristic by pointing out that humans have a way of performing certain functions, such as eating, which is distinctly human. To live a dignified human life is to exercise one’s rational powers and to consciously form one’s life in cooperation with others.12 However, in later works, Nussbaum points out that non-human sentient animals possess dignity since they, too, are complex living beings with capacities for activity.13 Nussbaum argues that the Capabilities Approach should include the moral belief that every sentient animal should be able to live a flourishing life with the type of dignity relevant to the species to which it belongs.14 One important reason why Nussbaum wants to ascribe capabilities to animals is that she emphasizes the similarities between humans and animals. According to her view, also other animals have forms of rationality, and the human rationality is just one specific form of practical reasoning.15 Nussbaum points out that some characteristics that often have been regarded as uniquely human, such as practical intelligence, altruism and empathy, can be found also in animals.16 Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice, pp. 327-332.

Ibid., pp. 329-338.

11 Ibid., p. 162.

12 Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, pp. 71-72.

13 Nussbaum, ‘Human Dignity and Political Entitlements’.

14 Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice, p. 351.

15 Ibid., pp. 159-160.

16 Ibid., p. 363.

De Ethica. A Journal of Philosophical, Theological and Applied Ethics Vol. 3:2 (2016) A Critical Discussion of Nussbaum’s Extensionism We welcome Nussbaum’s attempt to integrate concern for animals for their own sake within the framework of the Capabilities Approach. Such a move is important if we want to apply the Capabilities Approach to individual and collective actions, which affect the lives of animals. Her argumentation is in line with recent trends within ethics. It has become increasingly common to accept the moral belief that also animals should be taken into account for their own sake and that animals should be included within the sphere of justice. However, we do not think that ascribing capabilities to animals is a convincing way to integrate concern for them for their own sake within the Capabilities Approach.

The main reason is that according to the common definition of what a capability is, it seems to require the unique human ability to make rationally considered choices.



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