Martha Nussbaum

Frontiers of Justice

Ch 6: Beyond Compassion and Humanity, Pt 2

pages 357-388



2.      Focus of capabilities approach (=CA) is on well-being and dignity of individual existing creature and harm done when powers blighted

         a.      Increased #s not important

         b.      Existence of future individuals not important?

                   i.       Except in so far as existing individuals have valuable capabilities to propagate and raise offspring?

3.      Biodiversity preservation not a matter of justice

         a.      Continuation of species may have some sort of ethical or aesthetic importance (be a good in its own right), but not a matter of justice

         b.      Human caused species extinction wrong/unjust because it is done via damage to individuals

         c.      Not question of justice if species were to become extinct with no impact on well being of individual creatures

         d.      Worries

                   i.       Not unjust for humans as a species to drive other forms of life extinct? (Not a question of justice, but some other problematic behavior?)

         e.      Problem that species preservation measures often harm (sometimes all) the individuals involved: E.g., California condor, red wolves, gray wolves returned to Yellowstone

                   i.       So CA not justify such measures?

4.      Special protection for individuals of endangered species?

         a.      Yes, but not for the species itself (or for future individuals of the species not yet born), but to continue way of live of existing individuals

         b.      A concern for reproductive capabilities and flourishing of existing individuals.

         c.      So if all the members of a species were past reproductive age, then no reasons to give them special treatment?

5.      So CA is individualistic in that way


6.      Nussbaum, like Singer, Rachels (and Regan), believe there are morally relevant distinctions among forms of life

         a.      E.g., Killing of chimp and killing of a mosquito or shrimp not same sort of harm

                   i.       Killing the chimp is a worse harm in part because it takes a conscious interest in continuation of life

7.      Nussbaum thinks there may well be difference in intrinsic worth (high/lower) between forms of life, but these should not affect questions of basic justice

         a.      “We should not follow Aristotle in saying that there is a natural ranking of forms of life, some being intrinsically more worthy of support and wonder than others”

         b.      But “some lives are richer and some more impoverished: Better to be a chimpanzee than live as a worm”

         c.      These possible differences in inherent worth are relevant to comprehensive conceptions of good life and not to justice/entitlement

8.      Morally relevant differences (including differences in what justice requires) not based on idea that there is a hierarchy of worth/value in different kinds of life/species

         a.      But because differences in capabilities lead to differences and greater or lesser possibilities of harm (blighting the flourishing of capabilities)

         b.      Key quotes (360-61)

                   i.       “Differences of capacity affect entitlements not by creating a hierarchy of worth or value, but only by affecting what can be a good or a harm to a creature”

                   ii.      “Level of life is relevant not because it gives different species differential worth per se, but because the type and degree of harm a creature can suffer varies with its form of life”

                   iii.     “Because the capabilities approach finds ethical significance in the unfolding and flourishing of basic (innate) capabilities-those that are evaluated as both good and central-it will also find harm in the thwarting or blighting of those capabilities.”

                   iv.     More complex forms of life have more and more complex (good) capabilities to be blighted, so they can suffer more and different types of harm

                   v.      Might we see the more complex beings as more vulnerable then (to harm) and more needy? More sensitive? Have to be more careful how you treat them as they hurt easier!

                   vi.     So need to give special moral concern to the more complex beings?


9.      Worry about killing a mosquito? (Not really)

10.    Threshold below which the blighting of capabilities is not a harm?

         a.      Answer: Yes

         b.      In the actual world sentience is coextensive with that threshold set of capacities

11.    Why can utilitarianism explain why minimally bad to kill a mosquito, but CA has harder time?

         a.       Utilitarianism: Moral considerability limited to sentient beings and mosquito not sentient

         b.      CA: Good resides in opportunities for flourishing, not in sentience alone

                   i.       Why isn’t mosquitos ability to live a capacity bad to cut off?

12.    CA claims that moral status (being who has entitlements based on justice) involves disjunctive list (threshold capabilities)

         a.      Must have either/or (“major life functions”)

                   i.       Capacity for pleasure/pain (sentience)

                   ii.      For movement (= be aware of a good thing at a distance, desire that good and move toward it as a result)

                   iii.     Capacity for emotion and affiliation

                   iv.     Capacity for reasoning

                   v.      Possible others: play, tool use

13.    Unnecessary killing of creatures below this threshold, should not be done, but it is not a matter of justice/entitlement

         a.      “Enough on our plate if focus on sentient creatures”


14.    CA rejects idea that species membership in itself is of no moral relevance

         a.      Rejects idea that species to which a creature belongs has no moral relevance

         b.      CA is concerned with characteristic functioning and forms of life so it attaches some significance to species membership as such

15.    Species to which a severely mentally disable human belongs (Sesha) has moral relevance in describing what capabilities society should extend to her

         a.      She will live (and flourish or not) in human species community

                   i.       And not in the nonlinguistic community of primates

         b.      Flourishing in that community is defined by species norms

         c.      That a disability creates impediments to species-typical ways of flourishing creates a moral imperative for society to treat and cure them if possible

         d.      Such humans are not like chimps (note: chimps might be more psychologically sophisticated)

16.    Importance of language use depends on species

         a.      Language use is a frill for chimps

                   i.       For a chimp to learn rudimentary language not important capability

                   ii.      Their own characteristic mode of flourishing in their community does not rely on it

         b.      For severely disabled humans, some access to language is essential to a dignified life

                   i.       For severely retarded human, learning rudimentary language is important

         c.      Point holds even given the capabilities of the two (chimp and human) are the same: for one it is part of species flourishing, for another it is not

17.    Species norm tells us what the appropriate benchmark is for judging if given creature has decent opportunities for flourishing

         a.      Dog (“Bear”) wheel chair example

                   i.       Though not in pain, needed a special wheel chair so didn’t have to drag hind quarters

                   ii.      Needs special support to obtain a species-specific norm of flourishing

                   iii.     Access to movement was an essential part of a life with dignity for this dog




20.    CA does not extract norms directly from facts about an animals capabilities

21.    Capabilities must be evaluated

         a.      Which ones are good, central to a decently flourishing individual of that species leading a life of dignity (and which not)

22.    Many things found in human life are not capabilities CA should/would foster

         a.      Greed, brutality are human powers/capabilities

23.    CA advocates frustration of certain tendencies

         a.      This is required for a being to flourish


24.    Must not romanticize nature

         a.      Rejects idea that nature’s order and qualities are good/perfect if only humans would stop interfering

         b.      Rejects idea nature harmonious and wise and we’d live better if get in tune with this fine harmony

         c.      Mill: nature kills and maims and inflicts great suffering on humans and other animals

25.    No balance of nature (Botkin)

         a.      Rejects idea that nature is permanent, resilient and in best condition for other creatures, env., and for humans

         b.      Many env maintain themselves only with human intervention

26.    Respect for nature (and animals) does not mean just leaving nature/animals alone as they are

         a.      Must involve ethical judgments about what is good there

27.    CA committed to replacing the natural with the just!


28.    Does CA promote flourishing of harm-causing creatures like predators and disease organisms?

         a.      Harm causing capabilities of humans and animals (predation, spreading of disease) are not among those likely to be protected by CA

         b.      Unless they are central to the ability of the creature to live a flourishing and dignified life as the sort of creature it is

                   i.       A creature feeling frustration and pain at inhibition of its predatory capacities is not living a flourishing life

         c.      Zoos instead of feeding lions tender gazelle to crunch on, found that a large ball on a rope whose resistance and weight symbolize the gazelle satisfied the lion

         d.      Disease animals (like rats) should be sterilized and we should try to avoid killing them

         e.      Apart issue of harm to others we should look at animal life and see how it is lived and try to promote those capacities.



30.    Nussbaum rejects the idea negative duties/rights (duties of noninterference) are more important than positive duties/rights (duties of aid)--or that only the former exist

31.    Traditional idea of negative/positive distincion

         a.      Wrong to harm another by aggression (negative duty to not violate a negative right)

                   i.       Matter of justice (protect property/personal security/political and civil liberties)

         b.      Not morally problematic (or not as problematic) to let people perish of hunger or disease (no positive duties to respect positive rights)

                   i.       Merely a matter of material aid (adequate health care and housing and food)

32.    CA notes that all human capabilities cost money to support

         a.      State that protects capabilities has affirmative duties in every area, always costing $

         b.      E.g., protecting people from aggression or theft (promoting capability of bodily integrity) requires state provide police, courts, and so on

         c.      E.g., promoting capability of health requires state providing opportunities for employment, health care, food

33.    Argument for “redistibutive” taxation:

         a.      Even the concept of redistribution, which I have just employed, needs to be called into question, since it rests on the prior determination that people own the unequal amounts they have. Many views of ownership in the history of philosophy, from Grotius to Mill, have called this judgment into question, saying that the part of a person's holdings that is needed to support other members of a society (or world, in the case of Grotius) are actually owned by the people who need them, not by the people who are holding on to them.


34.    Argument for accepting positive/negative distinction in case of animals (which Nussbaum--in the end--rejects)

         a.      Have a duty to refrain from harming animals, but not obligated to support the welfare of all animals by ensuring them adequate food, shelter and health care

         b.      Enough to fulfill our negative duties

         c.      Species themselves have rest of task of ensuring their own flourishing

         d.      Practical argument: Mess it up

                   i.       Also, if tried to help them (be “benevolent despots”) we’d just mess up the lives of animals

         e.      Theoretical argument: Violates species autonomy

                   i.       Benevolent despotism over the lives of animals–supplying their needs–is wrong as fails to value the sovereignty of species, which has moral weight (like sovereignty of nations)

                   ii.      Part of what it is for a creature to flourish is to settle certain important matters on its own, w/o human intervention-even if benevolent

         f.       Bighorn sheep example: In Yellowstone National Park, bighorn sheep caught pinkeye (Chlamydia), which occurs naturally in them, and which ultimately resulted in the death of about 300 individuals. Had wildlife veterinarians treated the sheep, presumably some of them would have been saved. Park Service decided against this.

35.    Reasons she rejects this argument for no positive duties to animals

         a.      Many animals live under humans direct control (companion, farm, and zoo animals) and to these we have direct responsibility for nutrition and health care

         b.      Many “wild” environments/animals are affected by pervasively by humans and this gives us duties

         c.      All agree that positive duties exist when one is responsible for putting the individual in danger


36.    Should humans only protect animals if their problems are due to us?

         a.      E.g., not preserve endangered species going extinct on own?

         b.      Not help animals who have been harmed by natural disasters?

         c.      Nussbaum: No.

37.    We do have positive duties of material aid (food, health care, etc) in such cases (even when we are not responsible for animals trouble)

         a.      How extensive are these duties?

         b.      How to balance them against appropriate respect for the autonomy of a species

         c.      Like in foreign aid, need to give in a way that preserves and enhances autonomy rather than increases dependency

                   i.       Bad result if all animals endued up in zoos, completely dependent on human arrangements

                   ii.      But we should supplant the natural with the just

38.    Paternalistic treatment of animals (like children and disable humans) is appropriate (if done intelligently and respectfully)

         a.      But must be balanced against idea that species autonomy is part of animal flourishing

         b.      But “Many animals will do better in imaginative and well-maintained zoo than in wild, at least under present conditions of threat/scarcity"

                   i.       Tigers threatened by poachers


39.    Rejects “romantic fantasy” of domestic animals as held prisoner by human who should be set free and not made to do things humans want

         a.      Many of these animals evolved with humans and can’t flourish in the wild

         b.      Many are benefitted by training and more strongly their flourishing requires training

                   i.       Just as we potty train and force children to get educated

         c.      Many animals capable of fine feats of athletic excellence if given appropriate training–and they should be trained

                   i.       Horse races, training border collie

         d.      Human training of some animals required for their flourishing

         e.      Respectful paternalism pays careful attention to species norm of flourishing


40.    Should humans police the animal world, protecting vulnerable animals from predators?

         a.      What happens to the victim is key issue, not who does it

         b.      Painful death of gazelle equally bad for the gazelle whether done by human or tiger

                   i.       Tiger not blameworthy

         c.      Have similar reason to prevent it, if we can do so w/o doing greater harms.

         d.      CA is entitlement based and outcome oriented

         e.      Put animals (predators or prey) in “protective detention?”

                   i.       But likely to do greater harm, by closing off very possibility of flourishing in the wild

         f.       “Where we can protect gazelles w/o massive intervention that would cause harm, perhaps we should do so; Problem is that needs of predatory animal must also be considered”


41.    Hunting vs restoration of predators vs letting prey die of starvation vs birth control

         a.      Hunting may cause less pain

         b.      Best would be non-violent population control via sterilization

         c.      Note: she does not choose the environmentalists preferred option (restoration of predators)



43.    CA focuses on adequacy not equality (and it need not aggregate or compare interests across species?)

         a.      It is threshold based; specify minimum threshold and below which justice has not been done

         b.      Minimal justice requires securing to animals (and humans) each core capacity up to a minimum threshold

44.    Equal dignity across species, while an attractive idea, conflicts with many people’s religious and other world views, so she will not rely on it when striving for political consensus among people

45.    Insists instead on looser idea that all creatures entitled to adequate opportunities for flourishing life.



47.    If animals have interests in future, then problem with the argument that painless killing of animals is okay

         a.      Some animals do have a “sense of their life as a narrative extended over time, at least to some degree”

         b.      Likely for any animal with a memory

         c.      So have a conscious interest in future

         d.      Have temporally extended projects that sudden death frustrates

         e.      Killing frustrates those interests

         f.       Death a harm, though lesser harm than continuing to live in pain and decrepitude (euthanize old dogs)

         g.      Worry that given the weak sense of the future and future projects animals have, this argument does not give the harm of killing such animals enough weight

48.    But many conscious animals do not have sense of future like this; okay to kill them painlessly?

         a.      Okay to create them, give them a good life and then kill them painlessly?

         b.      Singer’s replacement argument issue

49.    CA has a hard time saying this, as believes in many types of goods/bads not reducible to conscious awareness

         a.      E.g., ability to move freely valuable for animal even if does not feel absence as pain

         b.      Ability to have supportive relationships with other animals is good even if animal raised in isolation is not aware of the deprivation or pained by it.

50.    Do these animals have centrally valuable forms of capability that killing harms?

51.    Depends on animal: More complex sentient animal can suffer more and different harms than less complex

52.    Cow vs fish vs shrimp

         a.      Cow can suffer many harms at death that shrimp can’t

                   i.       Deprivation of social network

                   ii.      Deprivation of varied pleasures of moving and eating

                   iii.     Deprivation of mobility

         b.      Shrimp probably does not feel pain

                   i.       Restricted range of functions and little awareness of them

                   ii.      “Shrimp does not have one of the other major life functions either” (threshold capacities)

         c.      Fish is in between the two, as has capability for movement and enjoyment

53.    CA can see some harm in termination of “minimally sentient life” but harm seems less grave

54.    Harm of death varies in importance with nature of creature in question

         a.      Prevention of suffering is crucial always

         b.      Harm of death is often less grievous a moral harm than inflicting suffering (true for animals, not humans....?)