du Plessis, Jessica (2017). 'The Role of the Natural Environment in Human Flourishing' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


The extreme threats currently facing the global environment are giving prominence to the need to understand our relationship with the natural world. In this paper, I claim that Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach does not, in its current form, adequately account for the role played by the natural environment in human flourishing. My main concern is that Nussbaum’s approach fails to specify that the environment must itself be flourishing to some degree in order to properly contribute to human flourishing. I therefore suggest that her approach be revised to resolve this shortcoming. I draw often on the work of Breena Holland, who makes a similar point to mine, though our suggestions for revision are different.


I discuss two ways that the environment can be seen as contributing to and supporting flourishing, in accordance with the conception of flourishing adopted by the capabilities approach. Firstly, the contribution from life experiences refers to the ways that the environment provides opportunities for and enriches cultural, aesthetic, spiritual, religious and other experiences. Secondly, we see from empirical science that the many ecosystem and natural services provided by the environment crucially support human life (at least presently), and consequently support our ability to flourish.


However, the environment only makes the two kinds of aforementioned contributions if it is functioning at or above a certain optimal level. Nussbaum’s eighth capability fails to specify that the well-being of the environment itself is intrinsically tied to human well-being. Consequently, I suggest a way in which Nussbaum’s approach could be revised. In recent versions of her list, Nussbaum includes provisos as part of capabilities five through seven, that outline what institutional and other conditions must be met in order for those capabilities to be realisable. I suggest that a similar stipulation be added to the environmental capability. This stipulation should acknowledge that protecting a person’s full range of capabilities entails protecting the environmental resources that support all of the central capabilities, both now and in the future. If a functioning, healthy environment is not included as a proviso in her list, the capabilities approach cannot ensure that people’s minimum requirements for flourishing are adequately identified and thereby met.


After showing why revising Nussbaum’s approach is necessary, I look at why such a revision is also highly beneficial. This is because an environmentally cognisant revision of the capabilities approach provides a theoretically satisfying and practically powerful basis for an environmental ethics. I argue in favour of this claim by first outlining adequacy conditions that a satisfactory environmental ethic must meet, and then showing how a revised CA (RCA) meets these conditions. I use the adequacy conditions suggested by Ronald Sandler, which state that an environmental ethic should (I) provide a theoretical way of condemning unsustainable practices and life styles and (II) be able to practically engage in political discourse to encourage solutions to environmental problems.


I show that a revised version of Nussbaum’s CA is able to meet (I) and (II). It meets (I) by condemning unsustainable practices on the grounds that unsustainable practices threaten people’s ability to attain a threshold level of their capabilities, and this is unacceptable if social justice is to prevail. The RCA is able to meet (II) due to three features of the approach. (a) In light of the RCA’s - weakly - anthropocentric stance, it stands a better chance of influencing policy than nonanthropocentric arguments. (b) By focussing on the environment’s role in human flourishing, a revised CA avoids untenable and artificial divides between humankind and the environment. (c) Lastly, the approach is not imperialistic given Nussbaum’s focus on capabilities as opposed to functionings. As such, the revised capabilities approach necessitates environmental protection but does so in a way that still allows for people to hold an array of sentiments towards nature, which makes it both highly inclusive and practical.


By revising Nussbaum’s approach, we will be presented with a dynamic, effective tool that can aid in promoting environmental protection. This paper thus aims to offer both a justification and a motivation for making Nussbaum’s capabilities approach more environmentally aware. 

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