Res Publica

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 1–22 | Cite as

Saving the Polar Bear, Saving the World: Can the Capabilities Approach do Justice to Humans, Animals and Ecosystems?

  • Elizabeth Cripps


Martha Nussbaum has expanded the capabilities approach to defend positive duties of justice to individuals who fall below Rawls’ standard for fully cooperating members of society, including sentient nonhuman animals. Building on this, David Schlosberg has defended the extension of capabilities justice not only to individual animals but also to entire species and ecosystems. This is an attractive vision: a happy marriage of social, environmental and ecological justice, which also respects the claims of individual animals. This paper asks whether it is one that the capabilities approach can really deliver. Serious obstacles are highlighted. The potential for conflict between the capability-based entitlements of humans and those of nonhuman animals or ‘nature’ is noted, but it is argued that this does not constitute a decisive objection to the expanded capabilities approach. However, intra-nature conflicts are so widespread as to do so: the situation is outside the circumstances of justice as they are standardly understood. Schlosberg attempts to reconcile such conflicts by re-examining what it means to flourish as a sentient nonhuman animal. This fails, because of the distinction between flourishing as a species, which often requires predation, and flourishing as an individual, which is as frequently incompatible with it. Finally, the paper considers how a capabilities theorist might move beyond such conflicts, identifying two possible strategies (which are not themselves unproblematic) for reconciling the demands of humans, animals and ecosystems.


Capabilities Nussbaum Schlosberg Justice Nonhuman animals Ecosystems 



Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the New Voices in Politics Seminar, Newcastle University, 22 January 2009, the Research Seminar in Political Theory, University of Edinburgh, 30 January 2009, and the 8th Global Conference in Environmental Justice and Global Citizenship, Mansfield College, Oxford, 10 July 2009. It has greatly benefited from the discussion on all three occasions. I am also indebted for highly constructive written comments to Jan Deckers, Hannah Droop, Cecile Fabre, Clare Heyward, and two anonymous reviewers for Res Publica.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Politics and International Relations, University of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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