Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

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

Nussbaum and the Capacities of Animals

  • T. J. Kasperbauer


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.


  1. Balzer, P., Rippe, K. P., & Schaber, P. (2000). Two concepts of dignity for humans and non-human organisms in the context of genetic engineering. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 13, 7–27.Google Scholar
  2. Barnett, J. L., & Hemsworth, P. H. (1990). The validity of physiological and behavioral measures of animal welfare. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 25, 177–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bendik-Keymer, J. (2006). The ecological life: Discovering citizenship and a sense of humanity. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.Google Scholar
  4. Bendik-Keymer, J. (forthcoming). From humans to all of life: Nussbaum’s transformation of dignity. In F. Comim & M. Nussbaum (Eds.), Capabilities, gender, equality: Toward fundamental entitlements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Botreau, R., Bonde, M., Butterworth, A., Perny, P., Bracke, M. B. M., Capdeville, J., et al. (2007). Aggregation of measures to produce an overall assessment of animal welfare. Part 1: A review of existing methods. Animal, 1, 1179–1187.Google Scholar
  6. Bracke, M. B. M., & Hopster, H. (2006). Assessing the importance of natural behavior for animal welfare. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 19, 77–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Clark, J. P. (2009). Capabilities theory and the limits of liberal justice: On Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice. Human Rights Law Review, 10, 583–604.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Cripps, E. (2010). Saving the polar bear, saving the world: Can the capabilities approach do justice to humans, animals and ecosystems? Res Publica, 16, 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dantzer, R. (2001). Stress, emotions and health: Where do we stand? Social Science Information, 40, 61–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dawkins, M. S. (2008). The science of animal suffering. Ethology, 114, 937–945.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Deneulin, S., & Shahani, L. (2009). An introduction to the human development and capability approach. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  12. Devries, R. B. M. (2008). Intrinsic value and the genetic engineering of animals. Environmental Values, 17, 375–392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Donaldson, S., & Kymlicka, W. (2011). Zoopolis: A political theory of animal rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Duncan, I. J. H. (2001). The pros and cons of cages. World Poultry Science Journal, 57, 381–390.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Duncan, I. J. H. (2004). A concept of welfare based on feelings. In G. J. Benson & B. E. Rollin (Eds.), The well-being of farm animals: Challenges and solutions (pp. 85–101). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Duncan, I. J. H. (2006). The changing concept of animal sentience. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100, 11–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Everett, J. (2001). Environmental ethics, animal welfarism, and the problem of predation: A Bambi lover’s respect for nature. Ethics and the Environment, 6, 42–67.Google Scholar
  18. Febrer, K., Jones, T. A., Donnelly, C. A., & Dawkins, M. S. (2006). Forced to crowd or choosing to cluster? Spatial distribution indicates social attraction in broiler chickens. Animal Behaviour, 72, 1291–1300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fraser, D. (1985). Selection of bedded and unbedded areas by pigs in relation to environmental temperature and behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 14, 117–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fraser, D. (2003). Assessing animal welfare at the farm and group level. Animal Welfare, 12, 433–443.Google Scholar
  21. Fraser, D. (2008). Understanding animal welfare: The science in its cultural context. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  22. Fraser, D., & Weary, D. M. (2004). Quality of life for farm animals: Linking science, ethics, and animal welfare. In G. J. Benson & B. E. Rollin (Eds.), The well-being of farm animals: Challenges and solutions (pp. 39–60). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fraser, D., Weary, D. M., Pajor, E. A., & Milligan, B. N. (1997). A scientific conception of animal welfare that reflects ethical concerns. Animal Welfare, 6, 187–205.Google Scholar
  24. Fukuda-Parr, S., & Kumar, A. K. S. (2003). Readings in human development. Delhi: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Goodall, J. (2001). Problems faced by wild and captive chimpanzees: Finding solutions. In B. B. Beck, T. S. Stoinski, M. Hutchins, T. L. Maple, B. Norton, A. Rowan, E. F. Stevens & A. Arluke (Eds.), Great apes and humans: The ethics of coexistence (pp. xiii–xxiv). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.Google Scholar
  26. Hadley, J. (2006). The duty to aid nonhuman animals in dire need. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 23, 445–451.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hailwood, S. (2012). Bewildering Nussbaum: Capability justice and predation. Journal of Political Philosophy, 20, 293–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Haynes, R. P. (2007). Review of Cass R. Sunstein and Martha C. Nussbaum (eds.). Animal rights Current debate and new directions. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 20, 533–542.Google Scholar
  29. Haynes, R. P. (2008). Animal welfare: Competing conceptions and their ethical implications. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  30. Heeger, R. (2000). Genetic engineering and the dignity of creatures. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 13, 43–51.Google Scholar
  31. Holland, A. (1995). Artificial lives: Philosophical dimensions of farm animal biotechnology. In B. Mepham, G. Tucker, & J. Wiseman (Eds.), Issues in agricultural bioethics (pp. 293–305). Nottingham: Nottingham University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Holland, B. (2008). Justice and the environment in Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach”. Political Research Quarterly, 61, 319–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Ilea, R. (2008). Nussbaum’s capabilities approach and nonhuman animals: Theory and public policy. Journal of Social Philosophy, 39, 547–563.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kirkwood, J. K. (2003). Welfare, husbandry and veterinary care of wild animals in captivity: Changes in attitudes, progress in knowledge and techniques. International Zoo Yearbook, 38, 124–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kuklys, W. (2005). Amartya Sen’s capability approach: Theoretical insights and empirical applications. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  36. Kumar, R. (2008). Permissible killing and the irrelevance of being human. The Journal of Ethics, 12, 57–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. McMahon, J. (2002). The ethics of killing: Problems at the margins of life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Mogil, J. S. (2009). Animal models of pain: Progress and challenges. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 283–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Murphy, C. (2010). A moral theory of political reconciliation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Nussbaum, M. (2000). Women and human development: The capabilities approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Nussbaum, M. (2004). Beyond ‘compassion and humanity’: Justice for nonhuman animals. In C. R. Sunstein & M. C. Nussbaum (Eds.), Animal rights. Current debates and new directions (pp. 299–320). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Nussbaum, M. (2006a). Frontiers of justice: Disability, nationality, species membership. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.Google Scholar
  43. Nussbaum, M. (2006b). The moral status of animals. The Chronicle Review, 52, B6.Google Scholar
  44. Nussbaum, M. (2008). Human dignity and political entitlements. In A. Schulman & M. C. Nussbaum (Eds.), Human dignity and bioethics, essays commissioned by the president’s council on bioethics (pp. 351–380). Washington, DC: The President’s Council on Bioethics.Google Scholar
  45. Nussbaum, M. (2011). Creating capabilities: The human development approach. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Nussbaum, M., & Sen, A. (1992). The quality of life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Palmer, C. (2010). Animal ethics in context. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  48. Regan, T. (1983). The case for animal rights. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  49. Rollin, B. E. (1998). On telos and genetic engineering. In A. Holland & A. Johnson (Eds.), Animal biotechnology and ethics (pp. 156–171). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Rollin, B. E. (2006). Animal rights and human morality. New York: Prometheus Books.Google Scholar
  51. Rumbaugh, D. M., & Washburn, D. (2003). Intelligence of apes and other rational beings. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Schinkel, A. (2008). Martha Nussbaum on animal rights. Ethics and the Environment, 13, 41–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Schlosberg, D. (2007). Defining environmental justice: Theories, movements and nature. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Segerdahl, P., Fields, W. M., & Savage-Rumbaugh, S. (2005). Kanzi’s primal language: The cultural initiation of primates into language. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Sen, A. (1999a). Commodities and capabilities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Sen, A. (1999b). Development as freedom. New York: Anchor.Google Scholar
  57. Smith, K. (2008). Animals and the social contract: A reply to Nussbaum. Environmental Ethics, 30, 195–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Thompson, P. (2008). The opposite of human enhancement: Nanotechnology and the blind chicken problem. Nanoethics, 2, 305–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Tom, E. M., Duncan, I. J. H., Widowski, T. M., Bateman, K. G., & Leslie, K. E. (2002). Effects of tail docking using a rubber ring with or without anesthetic on behavior and production of lactating cows. Journal of Dairy Science, 85, 2257–2265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Tulloch, M. (2011). Animal ethics: The capabilities approach. Animal Welfare, 20, 3–10.Google Scholar
  61. Varner, G. (2012). Personhood, ethics, and animal cognition: Situating animals in the two-level utilitarianism of R. M. Hare. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Wechsler, B. (2007). Normal behaviour as a basis for animal welfare assessment. Animal Welfare, 16, 107–110.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Texas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA

Personalised recommendations