Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

, Volume 26, Issue 5, pp 977–997 | Cite as

Nussbaum and the Capacities of Animals



Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach emphasizes species-specific abilities in grounding our treatment of animals. Though this emphasis provides many action-guiding benefits, it also generates a number of complications. The criticism registered here is that Nussbaum unjustifiably restricts what is allowed into our concept of species norms, the most notable restrictions being placed on latent abilities and those that arise as a result of human intervention. These restrictions run the risk of producing inaccurate or misleading recommendations that fail to correspond to the true needs of animals. Here and throughout the essay the argument draws from the lives of captive apes, especially those with extensive experience with humans. A further criticism is that the normative guidance the capabilities approach does provide is merely at the level of heuristics. Preference testing, it is argued, also uses species norms profitably as a heuristic, but it does so within a much larger and fecund system of assessing an animal’s well-being.


Nussbaum Capabilities Preference testing Apes 



The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers of an earlier version of this paper for their helpful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Texas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA

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