Linch, Amy Theresa (2017). 'Other Species Capabilities, Theory and Practice' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


The capabilities of non-humans is an emergent topic in environmental political theory, environmental philosophy, and legal thinking and analysis. Inspired by Martha Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach to Justice for Animals, much of the discussion has focused on treating non-human animals as beings with their own ends, striving to flourish in ways that characterize the norms of their species. For Nussbaum, it is reasonable to think that a socially just society could come to political consensus on the goal of treating animals as having ends that society should promote. The capabilities approach, she argues, has many advantages for reasoning about what it would mean to treat non-human animals as entities to which justice is owed. The Other Species capability in Nussbaum’s list of human capabilities and the argument in Frontiers of Justice for including sentient, striving beings within the realm of justice also suggest that recognizing and supporting the capabilities of other species are dimensions of human capabilities.

These developments within the capabilities approach are especially important in the context of ecological changes that subject all species to human influence and increasingly bring humans and other species into conflict as a result, for example, of changes in migratory routes and habitat disruption. Yet, those at the front lines of species conflicts are often humans who suffer under inequalities within their own societies. Various criticisms of the extension of the capabilities approach to nonhumans have characterized it as out of touch with the reality of animal life, as petifying other species, or as bourgeois in its detachment from the reality of human need. They may further presume the naturalness of observed antipathy between species. These framings ignore historically deep affinities between humans and other species reflected in pet keeping practices as well as in rituals and narratives acknowledging the animal cost of human life and affirming their equal dignity with humans. They accept uncritically the idea that concern with other species is a post material value of developed nations and wealthy people, rather than a common human concern that positionality within a structure of colonial and post-colonial power deny some people.

The capabilities approach also gives us insight into structures of domination based on and reinforced by a species hierarchy. The priority of human life and humans’ entitlement to instrumentalize other species has been justified historically within the Western philosophical and legal tradition by elevating rationality over other dimensions of human existence. This distinction has also been used to justify inequality between and within human communities and the entitlement of some humans to the bodies, labor and resources of others. The extremes of inequality of wealth, power and opportunity in South Africa are but one example of the painful legacy of colonial exploitation that was justified by claims to superior rationality evidenced by abstraction from the natural world. As Gay Bradshaw’s work on elephants demonstrates, the cycles of harm initiated by violent disruption to human communities are paralleled in the social disorder of elephant communities. Elephants suffer alongside humans from destruction of their habitats and predation induced collapse of their communal structures (Bradshaw 2009). Relations of political and economic dominance between human communities also impacts the ability of human communities to exercise their Other Species capability, to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature. Evelyn Luwino Abe emphasizes the historical entwinement of her own community, the Acholi in Northern Uganda, with elephants and the importance of healing the disruption between species, not merely as an external obligation but as central to the wellbeing of the Acholi people (2012).

This panel addresses the question of how we can advance justice for non-humans in the context of inequalities of human capabilities. The panelists consider how inequalities among humans impact other species and how including other species in the realm of justice is a crucial aspect of justice between humans. The roundtable format was selected to encourage the dialogue between theory and practice that is necessary to refining both the articulation of the theory and its empirical application. It also provides a forum to explore important issues connected to Martha Nussbaum’s keynote address on other species' capabilities.

The panelists represent a range of perspectives on the challenge of creating a multi-species community of justice that supports the capabilities of all sentient striving beings. Rachel Nussbaum Wichert will speak from her experience as an animal rights lawyer about animals in captivity, particularly with respect to elephants sent to American zoos from Swaziland. Siddartha Krishnan will address the issue of “mutually beneficial” wild life conservation with respect to intersections of class, culture and power in perception of animal capabilities and human-animal capability conflict. Cormac Cullinan will be invited to contribute his experience incorporating ecological perspectives into governance systems. Breena Holland will address the possibilities of enhancing the political capabilities of vulnerable groups in the context of climate adaptation politics. Amy Linch will discuss other species’ capabilities in relation to humans’ moral agency, focusing on how the moral agency to secure the capabilities of other species is a crucial dimension of human capabilities. Jeremy Bendyk-Keymer will consider how cross species consideration can enhance democratic politics, with the conviction that consideration of other kinds of lives and consideration of each other’s lives are intertwined.

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