Nussbaum’s capability approach and african environmental ethics: is the african voice heard?

du Plessis, Jessica (2018). 'Nussbaum’s Capability Approach and African Environmental Ethics: is the African voice heard?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


While the Capability Approach (CA) has been increasingly engaging with Indigenous value systems, African perspectives continue to be largely left out of the conversation. For instance, the Journal of Oxford Development Studies published a special issue in 2016 that focused on engaging with the capabilities approach from the perspective of indigenous peoples. This was done, as noted by Bockstael and Watene in their introductory article, with the goal of bringing indigenous voices, specifically as they apply to nature, into conversation with the capabilities approach as this could offer further richness to the approach and it is an important test to consider whether the CA is able to incorporate indigenous values. However, the special edition only included considerations from Latin America, New Zealand and Australia. In light of this, I expand the conversation to - for the first time - include the perspective of traditional African environmental ethics (AEE).


In order to assess whether the CA is able to capture the view of African environmental ethical positions I will look at the points of convergence and divergence between AEE and the CA, as conceived of by Nussbaum. I will use the work of leading authors in the field of AEE, including Peterson, Murove, Bujo, Tangwa, Behrens, Ramose and Omari to outline the central features of AEE, specifically those values that are common to all – particularly sub-Saharan – African traditions.


In terms of the points of convergence, I show that it is a promising starting point that Nussbaum’s approach includes the capability termed “Other Species” at number eight on her list of ten central human capabilities, referring to one’s ability to live with concern for and in relation to plants, animals and the world of nature. In order to capture AEE, an approach to human flourishing must necessarily recognise that having some sort of relationship with the environment is fundamental to living a fully human life, as this notion is foundational in AEE.


African ethics, and African environmental ethics as a result, is rooted in the concepts of Ukama and Ubuntu, which imply interrelatedness with other people, as well as the natural environment. It is a core belief in African environmental ethics that humans and non-human nature are all part of a cosmic community, and, consequently, people have an ethical duty to maintain harmonious relations within this community. According to African environmental ethics then, we are custodians, rather than owners, of the land because the land belongs to all - the dead, the living and the yet to be born - and so we must preserve it for the sake of future generations.


A further point of convergence is that while living with concern for and in relation to non-human nature is a core feature of human flourishing, there is an allowance for human interaction with and the (sustainable) use of nature. Nussbaum’s focus is on living in relation to the world of nature, not in abstraction from it. There are other environmental positions, namely preservationist accounts that see nature as needing to be protected from humankind per se. This, too, is in line with the way that AEE conceives of the human-nature relation, as it claims that humans are an inextricable part of the ecological community and web of life, and must consequently be co-creators in the evolutionary process.


While Nussbaum’s CA does capture the way that AEE promotes living in relation with the world of nature, there are nonetheless divergences between the two conceptions. Specifically, there is a difference in the metaphysical importance attributed to the role that living in relation to the environment plays in human flourishing. Nussbaum notes that she had not originally included this capability, saying that its conclusion was controversial. She has similarly offered little elaboration on this capability, and beyond simply including it as one of the items on her list of ten, it remains relatively undiscussed in her work. This stands in contrast to the metaphysically fundamental role attributed to the connection to nature in African thought.


Furthermore, Nussbaum’s CA has been accused of failing to accommodate indigenous value systems that see the environment as having intrinsic rather than purely instrumental value. Krushil Watene makes this point with reference to indigenous Māori values. However, I believe that Nussbaum’s CA is capable of capturing the way that AEE values nature, as both seem to lie somewhere between anthropocentrism and nonanthropocentrism. Both acknowledge the role of the environment from the perspective of human flourishing, but neither reduces this role to instrumentality alone. There is a reason Nussbaum did not include in her list “being able to live with concern for and in relation to lampshades, coffee mugs and the world of stationery” because there is something about the natural world that we tend to value more intrinsically than the objects sitting on our desks. AEE, too, conceives of a hierarchy of being that gives importance to humans, but does not imply that nature should be exploited or that it has no value beyond its usefulness to humans.


I therefore conclude that in general, Nussbaum’s CA is able to capture the core commitments of AEE. I also hope to show some ways in which Nussbaum’s CA can be expanded and enriched by engaging with African environmental thought. Such an investigation is crucially needed if we are to confidently promote the CA as a universal conception of human flourishing. Though this paper can only stand to serve as a preliminary discussion, I hope that it offers a useful starting point. 

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