The Capabilities of Different Beings

Linch, Amy Theresa (2016). 'The Capabilities of Different Beings' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

The diversity of life on earth is fatally threatened by human activity. Current extinction rates are estimated to be 1,000 times higher than a pre-human base rate (De Vos et alia 2014) and current models project loss of between thirty and fifty percent of existing species by 2050 (OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050). Conversion of complex ecosystems to meet the needs of an expanding human population, destruction and fragmentation of habitat, introduction of pollutants and exotic species, and rising global temperatures due to fossil fuel consumption are among the causes of accelerated die off of myriad plant and animal species. This decline in biodiversity is consequential for human wellbeing through its impact on infectious disease, food production and a host of ecosystem services on which human life depends (Chivian and Bernstein 2008, Cardindale et alia 2012). The ecological degradation resulting from human activity fundamentally undermines what future humans will be able to be and do – and may foreclose the existence of human life altogether. Climate change in particular disparately impacts existing humans through their geographical location, their specific ecological relationships, and the resources available to them to adapt to ecological change. The ways of being human are also radically narrowing as economic and political forces erode the autonomy and undermine the resilience of distinct linguistic and cultural communities (Davis 2007).
The multidimensional conception of wellbeing in the capabilities approach to justice is well suited to illuminating the consequences of radical ecological change and species loss for human flourishing (Heyward 2011, Holland 2008, 2014, Pelenc et al. 2013, Rauschmayer and Lessmann 2014, Scholtes 2010, Watane 2014). A growing number of scholars have also argued that humans have an obligation to the nonhuman world as a matter of justice because human freedom entails taking responsibility for our actions (Thompson and Bendik-Keymer 2012, Pelenc et al. 2013) and because each life has an inherent dignity that warrants the conditions of its flourishing (Nussbaum 2006, Schlosberg 2012). This panel seeks to advance the discussion of why and how other species can be included in the scope of justice as a matter of human flourishing, and as ends in themselves whose dignity warrants human respect and restraint.
The papers address this theme at various levels. Bendik-Keymer advances the philosophical basis for an ecologically encompassing justice by arguing that including other species in what he calls “animal politics” is crucial to the realization of our own ethical beings. While acknowledging that other species are worthy of moral consideration as ends in themselves, Bendik-Keymer does not see this as the most compelling reason for their inclusion. He argues that we must take responsibility for the effects of our actions on others in order to bring our actions in line with our values – embracing our ecological responsibility is necessary to preserve our capability to live with others in accordance with what we value. Linch and Holland draw on discussions of obligations to future generations and collective capabilities to articulate the role of culture in securing human capabilities. They focus on cultural claims to other species by members of vulnerable groups to understand conflicts between other species’ capabilities and the human capabilities to live with and toward others in ways they choose, to exercise practical reason, and to have political control over their environment. They clarify terms and push the discussion of the capabilities approach toward revealing and reconciling tradeoffs between human and non-human capabilities. In their discussion of cultural and scientific defenses of whaling, Nussbaum and Wichert demonstrate the power of the capabilities approach to recognize different forms of life as worthy of protection. They challenge the moral authority of “culture” by highlighting the multiple ways of valuing whales and whaling among different groups, including Japanese whale hunters and consumers, scientists, and activists. Nussbaum and Wichert illustrate both the importance of recognizing nonhuman species as ends in themselves, rather than deriving their protection from human needs and values, and the evaluative potential of the capabilities approach in understanding what such recognition requires.
The panel takes up the conference theme of diversity in two ways. It considers the diverse forms of life worthy of dignity that can be identified and secured within the capabilities approach, and it examines the various ways that cultural difference intersects with the project of including the flourishing of nonhuman life among the political goals of a just society. Each of the papers considers culture as a means of coordinating value across groups, and thus as a condition of what Alkire calls prospective capabilities. Attention to the diverse ways that people experience the nonhuman world is thus necessary to understand what it might mean to pursue ecological justice by protecting the capabilities of other species without compromising human capabilities and the kind of transformative action this would require.

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