with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 155: The capabilities approach to welfare (with Martha Nussbaum)

Enjoying the episode? Want to listen later? Subscribe on any of these apps or stores to be notified when we release new episodes:

April 28, 2023

What is the capabilities approach to welfare? To what is this approach reacting? How should capabilities be balanced or traded off against each other? How do capabilities differ from needs? Are zoos unethical? Can plants be subject to injustice? What are our ethical obligations towards factory farms? How do our ethical obligations to domesticated animals and livestock differ from our ethical obligations to wild animals, if at all? Why is vulnerability important? Is inequality intrinsically bad, or is it only bad because of its effects?

Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, appointed in the Philosophy Department and the Law School of the University of Chicago. She gave the 2016 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities and won the 2016 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy, the 2018 Berggruen Prize in Philosophy and Culture, and the 2020 Holberg Prize. These three prizes are regarded as the most prestigious awards available in fields not eligible for a Nobel. She has written more than twenty-two books, including Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions; Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice; Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities; The Monarchy of Fear, and most recently Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility. Learn more about her via her University of Chicago bio.

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to clearer thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Martha Nussbaum about the capabilities approach to evaluating societal justice and justice for animals.

SPENCER: Martha, welcome.

MARTHA: Hi, Spencer, it's really nice to be on your program.

SPENCER: It's really nice to have you here. I feel like you have written about so many interesting topics over your career, and I'm fascinated to dig into them with you. I'd like to start talking about the new topic of your book, “Justice for Animals,” that just came out. But in order to set up that conversation, I thought maybe we should begin with the capabilities approach that you introduced. Do you want to just tell us what the capabilities approach is, and what is it a reaction to, what problem it is trying to solve? And then we'll go into the topic of your book.

MARTHA: The capabilities approach was developed in slightly different ways by the economist, Amartya Sen, whose Nobel Prize was 1998, and by me. It's an approach to, originally, thinking about humans in developing countries, thinking about how we measure how well they're doing. And the proposal was to measure not by income and wealth, not by utility, but rather by what people are actually able to do and to be—so capabilities or opportunities to do and be things that you value. That was the idea. Now, I developed that into a theory of justice. And I said, society is only minimally just if it gives people a wide variety of these capabilities in different areas, which I then go on to talk about. And so what the new book does is to extend that to non-human animals, and to say that a just society would give all sentient animals opportunities to live their own lives in areas that are especially meaningful to them. So that's the long and the short of it.

SPENCER: So when it comes to humans, what are some of the capabilities that you outline and how do you think what should be included on that list, and what shouldn't make the list?

MARTHA: The difference between me and Sen is that he doesn't actually use a list; he uses the approach only comparatively to rank and order different countries. But of course, in reality, he is using certain things to measure. And he focuses particularly on education and health. What I do is, in developing the theory of justice, as I really do make a list, and there are 10 Central capabilities. And there's a kind of very abstract description, but then a much more concrete description — I would take too long to read the whole list, but — life, bodily health, bodily integrity, the use of senses, imagination and thought, the use of practical reason and choice, various types of affiliation, and friendships, social relationships, the ability to have good relationships with other species and the world of nature, the ability to have play and leisure time, and various forms of control over your material and social life. So it's basically a theory of not being dominated, but having a variety of spaces within which to do the things that people tend to value most. But you don't have to do them, so it allows for an individual choice as well.

SPENCER: So how did you decide on what ended up in the first?

MARTHA: Two ways: First of all, I was thinking a lot about how various philosophers in the past had focused on basic needs and so forth. But then I also looked at constitutions, particularly of South Africa and India, what abilities for their citizens they wanted to protect. Now, you'd have to get finer into the sub-descriptions of each large rubric on the list before you get to things like freedom of speech, freedom of association, the ability to work as an equal with other workers, non-discrimination. And so all of that is in there, but I just gave you the most abstract rubrics. But anyway, I learned a lot from studying these constitutions, because I thought they recorded the voices of people who had been dominated, and they were trying to create a free society. And they did it very well.

SPENCER: So can you tell us a little bit about what the capabilities approach is reacting to? What were people doing instead?

MARTHA: Well, what they were doing was to measure how well off people in the country are by looking at gross domestic product per capita. In other words, divided by the number of people. Now, that has two huge things wrong with it. First of all, because it's an average, it doesn't tell you about distribution. And you could give high marks to a society that has people doing really, really miserably at the bottom. And in fact, among developing countries, South Africa used to shoot to the top of the developing country tables, even in the apartheid era, where of course 90% of the population was doing really badly because there was a lot of economic activity going on and they were approached in the care who controlled it. The other problem was that it just looks at one thing; it looks at wealth. And it doesn't really look at life, education, health, all the things that people actually want. And so that is what's wrong with that one. And then sometimes they measured things differently by the satisfaction of preferences. But that also had similar problems because it was an average, and it could give high marks to nations that don't care about the people at the bottom. And it also favored a state of satisfaction. But people really want to be active. And of course, I say in the new book that this is what animals also want; they don't just want to be given a handout, they want to have active lives in the way that's characteristic of their species. So it was those two ways of measuring things that seemed to us particularly inadequate. And so, we propose that the normal question that people ask themselves is, “What am I actually able to do and to be?” So that's the question to which the capabilities list is an answer.

SPENCER: Have you thought about balancing the capabilities when there's trade-offs? Like, let's say, one country is higher in one of them, let's say, health, but another is higher in emotional well-being. Or there's some policy that could promote one, but at the expense of another because of opportunity cost. Do you view them as sort of all equally important? Or do you have some other way of trading them off?

MARTHA: What I do in my theory, where I'm really talking about minimal justice, is to say there are 10 that are non-negotiably important, and you've got a threshold that the society would have to establish for each of them. And then it's an unjust society if people are pushed beneath that threshold on any of the 10. So you can't trade them off above a certain threshold in mind. Now, there might be cases where you could be above the threshold on one, and just at the threshold in another. But I'm talking about the threshold, which is supposed to be the minimal amount for basic justice. Now, that means that it's a tragic situation if you're pushed beneath the threshold on any one of those. Injustice is being done. First thing to do is to recognize that. Second thing to do is to think about how to fix it. So for example, poor families can't eat without taking their children out of school for child labor — a very common situation in the developing world. What you have to think about is, how could we break the grip of that painful dynamic, and promote both adequate education and livelihood for those families. And so, actually, two states in India discovered a way of doing that. They created, in all the schools, a midday meal that had very specific amounts of nutrition, so that the children gained, and they actually gained for their families by going to school. So that's the kind of thinking that the capabilities approach favors and fosters.

SPENCER: I see. So when you have a situation that's below the threshold, basically, the priority becomes getting to the threshold on these different 10 factors.


SPENCER: How do you think about setting the threshold? That seems like a difficult philosophical puzzle.

MARTHA: I think nations have to do that. The approach is not meant to be a kind of paternalism for all the nations of the world. It's meant to take account of local and regional differences in resources and abilities. And of course, in the end of the day, I favor richer nations helping poorer nations. But that's a separate topic, really. The first thing that threshold is set by the people in each nation is they think out, what is an adequate, minimal level of each of these things that we can have for our citizens? Given the case that I mentioned, in India, there's been a lot of debate that always goes on, what's the minimal number of calories in the midday meal? And it goes back and forth. But also what's the amount of education that is the decent level for a decent society? And that's something where nations have to think about their own resources. But in the end of the day, they recognize that in the current global economy, high school education is the bare minimum for having employment opportunities. So most of the Indians, first of all, the Indian states used to differ in the amount that they could offer. But then, they put education up through high school free public education as a constitutional right. And that happened after independence because people saw that it wasn't enough to just let the states manage it. We really ended up a benchmark for everyone. Now, of course, in this economy, I think it's fair to say that college education is becoming more and more important for employment opportunities. And this is what gives rise to all the discussions in the US about whether we should have free — well, of course, loan forgiveness is one part of it — but free public college education is another. So these are the kinds of discussions you have, where you ask, how important is it? Probably 200 years ago, college education wasn't all that essential; it isn't the ingredient of a dignified human life. But now it's become so because you people can't get a good job without that. So that's the kind of discussion.

SPENCER: It strikes me that the capabilities approach contrasts with utilitarianism in an interesting way, where a utilitarian approach might say, things like health or emotional well-being matter, but they matter instrumentally; they matter insofar as they produce some kind of utility in the end. And then the utilitarian approach might be trying to kind of calculate them all into a single unit so that they can be compared and added up, and then trying to maximize that. I just would be curious to hear your thoughts on that contrast between your approach which is kind of a threshold-based approach — trying to say, achieve this minimal amount of issues — versus trying to convert them into a single unit and add them up. And why do you prefer the threshold approach?

MARTHA: Well, because they're not the same. A country can do very well on education, and do very poorly on health. They can do very well on both of those, but do very poorly on the freedom of speech. So we observe that these things vary independently of one another. And the problem with the utilitarian approach is they pretend that there's a common currency. And it's something like, either pleasure in the case of Bentham and Mill, or the satisfaction of preferences that is in the case of Peter Singer. But it isn't really the only thing in question. When people don't just want to feel satisfied, they want to be able to do a variety of different things. And for that, they favor health, education, and so on. If it were really the case, that raising average satisfaction trickled down, and it really led to an improvement in all the 10 areas I talked about, that would be okay. But first of all, there's no way of measuring satisfaction, actually, that's reliable. But in any case, I think these things vary independently of one another. If you look at a country like China, they've done very well on a certain kind of education. I wouldn't say education overall, because it doesn't include the freedom to think critically and criticize the government and so on. And they've done pretty well on health. But they've done very badly, of course, on freedom of speech and freedom of association. And that, turns out, is even impacting health, as you can see in every day's newspaper now. So anyway, we just have to look at each separate thing and ask how they impact one another. That's the only empirically reasonable thing to do.

SPENCER: Could you see a situation where you add an 11th item to the list? And what would the considerations there be to add another?

MARTHA: Well, you can see if you read the list with the finer rubrics there, there's a lot under each of those. So what it would take to make a separate one would be to show that it's not actually an instance of or a subdivision of any of the ones on the list. Right now, I have to say, I have a strong status quo bias, because I made this list. It's circulating all over the world. I'd rather not change it all the time. But the one that was most convincingly brought forward was the need for care in times of dependency. And I wrote a lot about that. But I actually thought that it isn't a separate one, because it impacts so many of the others. The need for care has to do with your health and your integrity, but it also has to do with your ability to choose/have friendships. So I ended up thinking it's a kind of subdivision of almost all of the ones on the list. But anyway, yes. If somebody said, “Well, here's one that really is robustly independent from all the others.” I would certainly happily add it, but I haven't given a lot of lectures on the capabilities approach ever since 1985, when I started working on it. I have seen subdivisions that needed to be added, like the need for sleep, for example, I didn't include that under health. So there are things like that, but I don't think they're big categories.

SPENCER: One more question about the capabilities approach. How do capabilities differ from needs?

MARTHA: Well, we talked a lot to people who were part of the basic needs approach. And first of all, they have different conceptions of what they're talking about. So one difference that we are very clear about what we're talking about and the basic needs people are not, is some of them define needs in utilitarian terms. There are things that you would feel satisfied if you had that thing. But others define needs in a much more objective physiological way. So we just thought it was a mushy term, and we wanted something clearer. But the other thing is that the capabilities approach emphasizes the importance of choice because capabilities are spaces within which people actually exercise the choice to do something. What's protected is the space. So for example, freedom of religion is there under senses, imagination, and thought. But that doesn't mean you have to exercise any religion. You don't have to care about religion at all. But most people would agree that it's a good thing to protect in a decent society because many people do want to use it. So it's a space and therefore, freedom — actually, Sen's biggest book on capabilities is called, “Development is Freedom.” And he and I are both very serious about that — but the emphasis is on the space in which people are free to choose to do things that they value.

SPENCER: Got it. Is there a definition of capabilities that you work with? Or is it sort of defined in a little bit more of a broad, amorphous way?

MARTHA: Well, it's what I said: it's a space for choice. So Sen uses the term ‘substantive freedom', but we could use different terms. But what we all agree is that it's not a skill. We've written extensively about how our use of the term differs from the use in the human capital approach. And the human capital approach is fine. We've actually had very profitable discussions with James Heckman — who's a colleague of mine at the University of Chicago, and he's come to our meetings — but he uses the word capability to mean a skill—a skill that people have and that should be developed. And his writings on education use the word in that way. So it's important to say that we don't use the word that way. I actually specified three different kinds of capabilities. The first I call ‘basic capability', that means the innate potentiality to attain the higher levels of capability on my list. The second is what I call ‘internal capability', which is more like the human capital approach; it means the skill. But of course, the skill, which needs support from the environment to develop, is still not enough, because you could have the skill and develop it, and still not be able to exercise that in the world. You could have developed your interest in religion, and still not be free to exercise your religion. So the capabilities on my list are what I call combined capabilities, that is the internal developed skills, plus the opportunity to actually choose to put those into action.

SPENCER: Let's turn now to your new book, “Justice for Animals.” Can you tell us about how did you adapt the capabilities approach to thinking about animals?

MARTHA: Well, I really didn't have to adapt it, because it's the same basic idea that what's important is not just freedom from pain — as the utilitarians would say — but it's to give living beings the opportunity to do a wide range of different things that they value. And so it's the idea of a space of choice of what the creature actually values. And so that's the same idea. It's just realized in each species in a different specific way. So the human list has things that humans value. The list for elephants would have things on it that elephants seem to value most. And of course, the elephants don't walk into the lecture room and tell us what they want. But they do, because people who've lived with elephants for many years and have observed they're striving, what frustrates their striving, they're the ones who could be relied on to give us a list like that. And each species would have a slightly different list of things that it ought to be able to do. At a very general level, I think a lot of the things are the same, that is all do value life, health, bodily integrity, etc, etc. But the forms of what health is varies with the species. What bodily integrity is, varies with each species. And especially, what sociability and affiliation are, varies greatly with the species. So human beings need friends, but how many is not made very clear. Dolphins need a pod of a quite large size in order to have a healthy life as dolphins. Elephants need a matriarchal group of a certain size to live a healthy life as elephants. And so all of these things would be included in the finer level of the list because people can't assume. For example, zoos often think, “Oh, because human beings can be happy in a small apartment, an elephant could be happy in a small enclosure.” No, an elephant cannot flourish without a vast space to move around in and with a large group of other elephants. So those are the things that you would want to put on the list.

SPENCER: Do you apply this framework kind of the same way when you're talking about, let's say, animals affected in nature by human pollution, compared to let's say, animals in factory farms that are being raised for food? Or do you feel like it kind of is applied uniformly?

MARTHA: The goal is the same, that is that animals should be free to choose to exercise their characteristic activities, up to some reasonable threshold level. How they do it will vary with the kind of animal. If it's a companion animal, this will require an ongoing relationship with human beings. Those animals have evolved to be codependent with human beings, and they get their flourishing in symbiosis with human beings. That's not true of most animals. So then if you think of other animals, you would think, “Well, what is their characteristic form of life? What is it that obstructs that form of life?” Are most zoos forms of obstruction? Not necessarily so. I think there are smaller animals for whom zoo life could be relatively adequate. They could live the characteristic life of their kind if they have enough other co-species members and so forth. But those are the questions that I would ask.

SPENCER: Would you say that, from your point of view, a lot of zoos are unethical because of the way they treat their animals?

MARTHA: I would say that with respect to elephants, large marine mammals, including dolphins and whales, most large predatory animals, zoos are unethical. I think apes are an interesting case. Because if you can really design a colony of apes. There are research colonies that are like this: Frans de Waal, the great primatologist, describes with ape colony called Arnhem, where he did a lot of his research on primate sociality, that's an island and it's large, and they can go around the island and they're confined, in a sense, because it's an island, but it doesn't stop them from living characteristic chimpanzee lives. So yeah, that's a mixed case. I think that fish can probably live okay in a sufficiently large and diverse enclosure. So I'm not in favor of eliminating all zoos. And again, birds, it depends on the kind of bird. Parrots don't need much sociality. And I think they can be even kept in a research lab and do quite well. Irene Pepperberg's wonderful work with her parrots, Alex, was done all in the lab where Alex lived. Parrots tend to be either loners or they live in a pair. So, it all depends on what the animal is and what it needs. I do think that the worst, most horrible abuses, if we wanted to know where to start, are the abuses in the factory farm industry. But if we should think, “Oh, but out there in the wild animals are going about their business unfettered and unaffected by what we humans do,” we would be totally wrong. On the land, human activities encroach and pollute the habitat of all large land animals. Not to mention that poaching kills a lot of young animals. In the seas, human beings' plastic trash has caused the deaths of countless marine mammals; they eat the plastic, and then it fills up their stomachs and then stays there, so they can't eat anything else. And the noise pollution created by things like oil drilling and air bombs that are used by the oil rigs to track the ocean floor also creates a disastrous stress for the marine mammals and stops them from reproducing and migrating in the ordinary way. So there's all kinds of encroachment in the seas that we don't really think about. And in the sky, well, about half our species of migratory birds are now endangered, and some have already become extinct. The reason being, air pollution. That does the same bad things to the birds that it does to people, only they're smaller and more vulnerable in some ways. Then they crash into our buildings. So my own law school building is a glass 1950s building. Last spring, some birds changed their migration path. All of a sudden, they crashed into our buildings, and we had bird corpses all over the ground. So, we have to learn to fix our environment, so that it's more hospitable to the other forms of life. And actually, it's possible to do that. You can put bird stickers on the building, so they know it's not a space, that it's actually a solid thing. And then they don't crash into it.


SPENCER: How does your view relate to sort of more traditional environmentalism? Because obviously, there's some overlap there, right? You're saying we have an obligation to not harm animals with our activities in such a way that removes these capabilities. But it seems like that could end up differing somewhat from the way environmentalists typically look at the problem.

MARTHA: Well, I carve out a special place for creatures who are sentient. And by sentient, I mean having a subjectivity that sees the world from their own point of view, as if they're someone at home in there. And that is a property that belongs to most animals: all vertebrates, some invertebrates. And we know this from experiments, where we see whether the animal can feel pain subjectively, and so forth. Fish, now we know, are sentient. We didn't know that before. Birds, that's been agreed a long time ago. The ones that are in dispute are crustaceans. It's very unclear to what extent crustaceans are sentient. Insects, probably not sentient. Then cephalopods, probably, are sentient. But anyway, sentience, to me, is a great dividing line in nature. Because for me, what injustice is, is the wrongful blocking of a being's striving to get what it wants. So if you think about a striving being who's trying to go through the world, getting the things that are most important for that being, you think of a sentient being: a being who sees the world from its own point of view, who has perception that feels like something and various felt desires. So sentience is important. Now, that doesn't mean that there's other natural entities — maybe insects, but also plants — that they're not important. They have some importance, but not in the theory of justice. And that's what I'm working on. I don't think it's an injustice to a plant to kill it. It may be dead for lots of further reasons. And we could develop an account of our ethical obligations to the environment that extends way beyond the theory of justice to individual sentient beings. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about wronging the creature in a very particular way, which is injustice. And plants can't be subjects of injustice.

SPENCER: Sometimes philosophers will define the phrase consciousness in terms of there's something that it's like to be that creature, right? There's something that it's like to be a human, but there's not something that's like to be a rock. Or another way to say it is like, it has internal experiences. So, you have the internal experience of red, that means you have consciousness. If you have any internal experiences, then you're conscious. And it seems to me like the way you're using the word sentient, it's sort of like consciousness plus some other stuff. Is that accurate?

MARTHA: Well, I don't use the word consciousness, because no one agrees what it means. I use the words biologists use, and they use the word sentience. And they talk about it as a multi-layer thing. So first of all, the kind of low-level sentience would be the ability to initiate aversive activity. But that isn't enough. So then what I'm looking for, what the biologists are looking for, is subjectivity: the ability to see the world from your own viewpoint. At the very least, that involves the ability to feel pain. That's not the only thing, obviously. To see red and have it look like red to you, that's just as important but harder to experiment on. So pain becomes central, simply because you can do experiments with fish, for example, to see if they feel pain. But you can't really easily tell whether they see this as this. So anyway, that's what we're looking for. The ability to see something from your own point of view, to have someone at home there that you're communicating with, and the fish pass that test.

SPENCER: I agree with you that the fish likely pass that test. Although, I think I'm more uncertain than you. And I think the reason I'm more uncertain is because it seems like, at least in theory, one could build an automaton that does things like try to avoid pan. You can see this with AI and video games, right?

MARTHA: You got to read experiments because they know all these things, right? I don't do the experiments, I just report. But Victoria Braithwaite's book, “Do fish feel pain?” narrates a wide range of very carefully devised experiments designed to show precisely the difference between really feeling pain and just having an automaton. She's convinced me. She hasn't convinced absolutely every scientist, but it's interesting that the one who's attacked her repeatedly is someone who works in the fishery industry. So I knew his interventions with some skepticism.

SPENCER: Yeah, my friend, who became a veterinarian, was telling me about how much of the veterinary medicine is funded by the meat and dairy industry, and it just creates these very weird distortions in how people look at some of these questions.

MARTHA: Well, I couldn't agree more. And we found out even recently that UC Davis, which is one of the great places to do research on animals, is heavily funded also by the factory farm industry. If we could get rid of the iron lock grip that the factory food industry has over our debates in this area, I would be very happy. But it's not easy, because they are very powerful. Ever since the 1960s, where we had our first federal law — well, there have been other laws before that — but the big law, the Animal Welfare Act, came in in the 60s and it was really a good law except that it left out all the animals we eat. And the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, again, look at the name, ‘migratory birds', so it doesn't include the birds that we eat. So all the good laws had these carve-outs by the factory farming industry. I know a friend of mine was up for Senate confirmation in a Washington job some years ago, and he had to sit down with the representatives of the American Farm Institute, and try to convince them that he wasn't a threat to their interests. So this is really bad. And I hope this will change. I think changing the order of the primaries may help because you always had these people going to Iowa and having to pose for a photo op, holding a pork sausage. But of course, the pork industry is one of the cruelest and the most terrible; the gestation crates that hogs have to stay in are just terrible stuff. And so, anyway, they had to pretend that they were alright with that. And people who wouldn't do that, like Cory Booker, just weren't going to get enough backing. So let's hope maybe dethroning Iowa a little bit will help people like Cory Booker get further. We'll see. I can tell you, Europe has a lot better animal protective laws than America. And I think it is because no one industry has such a great political power there.

SPENCER: How do you think about our moral obligations with regard to factory farms? Do you think of this as more like a systemic issue that needs to be dealt with on a political level? Or do you think it's unethical for people to purchase animal products from factory farms, which in our world means almost any animal products, because in the US, almost all animal products come from factory farms?

MARTHA: Well, fish do not. You could get humanely farmed fish. But there is a very smaller, more elite level that are humanely farmed cattle and pigs and so forth. But you're right that it's very few. Now, I guess, I think the main responsibility is each person should do what they can do in their own area. So if you're not politically connected, you can't work for better laws, you can still make the choice with your food choices. But really, we need a lot of work on the laws, because the factory farming industry has passed laws in most states that are called Ag-gag laws that prevent people from developing conditions in the factory farming industry. So in other words, if a person with a video camera comes in and photographs what's really going on, that's illegal under these laws. Now, of course, they did this because they know that if people really know what's going on there, they will rebel and they won't purchase these meat products. But they've been successful in stifling dissent. Now, one of the things that's happened is that animal welfare groups, such as the Humane Society of the US, have campaigned very effectively against these laws, and they repealed them. My book gives all the stats on this. But these laws have been repealed in some states; in other states, they've been challenged in the state courts and declared unconstitutional on freedom of speech grounds, but they're still enforced in about half of the states. There's a lot of political power behind them, so I would say, if you're in a position to work for the repeal of these Ag-gag laws, that's one very good thing you can do. And if you're a journalist in a state that doesn't have Ag-gag laws, then you can publicize these terrible conditions. There are wonderful books that have been written that show people what's going on, so you should do that. And in general, you should do whatever you're placed to do that would make this situation evolve toward a much more decent situation.

SPENCER: One thing I find so fascinating about the animal issue is that, unlike many issues, it's one that most people are implicated in every day. Most people, at least in America, are eating animals every day. And it just touches people's lives very directly. And I think that actually makes it really hard for people to think about it because to come to the conclusion that what we're doing to these animals is really horrible, it's sort of implicating yourself in this really horrible situation and this ethical morass.

MARTHA: Right. I've worked on a number of big issues of justice in my lifetime. And I think you're right, that the ones that are hardest to change are the ones where the person is implicated on a daily basis. So when I think about why it is that as a feminist, I've been frustrated so often in seeing progress toward justice for women, whereas the gay rights movement, which was nowhere when I first started writing about it in the 1970s, has now come such a long way. And you see Republicans voting in (whatever it is) Respectful Marriage Act. But those same people would not support a lot of basic things to curb sexual assault, changes in laws that would be powerful to protect women. And I think the reason really is that we're implicated, at least, straight men are implicated on a daily basis with the lives of women. And they really want it — even though they might say something else — they want to dominate in their households, and they want to control women. Whereas, if a gay couple moves in next door, wants to live their own life, in a way, they don't care about that, they can respect that. And of course, they might even have children who are themselves gay, and then they would have to respect that. So I think the hardest ones are indeed the ones where you know you have to change. For a man to have a marriage that's based on true equality of opportunity and equality of respect means a lot of change. And a lot of men are still not ready for that. It's happening more and more, but it's not ready yet. Whereas, the change with respect to LGBTQ people is more like, “Let them be, and let's show respect for them.” But you don't have to change yourself beyond that, just showing respect for the person next door. So I think with the animals, it is like with women, you have to change your own life. And everyone does; men and women have to change their own lives. But we have lots of reasons to do it. It's not just justice to animals, it's also climate change issues, the role of the meat industry in causing global warming, and the basic decency that we have as human beings is at stake here. Because we are animals, and to see what we're doing to these other animals that are as vulnerable as we are, and they're complexly sentient, intelligent creatures, that's a blight on our own humanity, I think. And I think as people get to know more about what's going on in the meat industry and what animals are really like — what their lives are really like — I think they do see that, and it's heartening to me. I think we're ready for a lot of change. The only thing that can make change speed up is this new question of stem cell-grown meat. I think the impossible meat stuff was good already. That soy-based meat that sort of satisfies your craving for meat, but it's better for you in health terms, that's been a big success. But the stem cell-grown meat is real meat. But it doesn't require anything to be done to living animals: no killing, no factory farms, and so on. So if that really takes off, then it would be really a game changer in a major way.

SPENCER: I suspect that if we get to a world where you can have a delicious hamburger that's actually made of meat, but no animals were harmed in the process, that would cause a massive turning point in society where everyone would look back and say, “Oh, my god, it's so unethical to mistreat animals and put them in a factory farm,” right?

MARTHA: Yeah, it's legal already in Singapore, and it's about to be marketed in the US. So it's happening.

SPENCER: My understanding is it's still going to take a number of years to get it cost-competitive. But on the plus side, these technology curves tend to be exponentially falling prices. So hopefully, we'll get there, not too long.

MARTHA: Well, I hope so. And I think that the fact is that people are health conscious, so that might not satisfy that problem. So they might still want to eat soy-based meat and more vegetarian diet if they choose. But then that's okay. Some people can do that. And some can eat the stem cell meat.

SPENCER: Another question I wonder about is the role of wild animals in your theory. So wild animals could potentially have really difficult, painful lives. This is something that's debated sort of, like how good is the average animal life? Do you think that we have an obligation to help wild animals? Or do you think that as long as we're not causing problems for them, that...

MARTHA: Well, first of all, I think we are causing most of the problems that they suffer from: the habitat issues that I've talked about and the pollution of the seas by plastic and noise and so forth. So, if it were just a question of cleaning up the mess that we made, that would already be quite a lot of improvement. And most of the depletion of the habitat for land animals is caused by global warming and other things that are also manmade. But beyond that, first of all, there is no ‘wild'. There is no such thing. Every space that's available for animal life on this planet, and above the planet, is the human-dominated space. We've gotta face up to that. The largest land places where animals can roam are wildlife reserves in African nations. And those reserves, when they are curated well as they often are, are very human-dominated in a benign sense. That is, humans stopped the poachers from coming in. I've been on an eco safari where the border of the wildlife reserve in Botswana has soldiers lined up because they want to stop the poachers from coming in from Namibia. So you've got to stop the poachers, and you've got to stop certain pestilential illnesses that would wipe out an animal population. So they spray for tsetse flies. Sometimes they even intervene at the more micro level, like if an animal breaks a limb and would be about to die, they've done surgeries in the wild. And I think it turns out that they have to do it now, so that the animal can still return to its own group. But all of this is done by human intervention. So what we're left with is really the question: “Should we intervene with what animals do to each other?” And that's something that I think we should recognize as a real problem. Because when animals are eaten, that's bad for the one who's eaten. And usually, if it was in our house, we wouldn't allow that, we wouldn't allow a cat that we owned eat a little bird. And instead, we give that cat some substitute activity that would satisfy its predatory instincts, without the killing of a little bird. Should we try to do that in the so-called wild? (Well, there isn't a real wild, but in larger spaces.) I think not, because it would mean too much hands-on control. We don't know enough, and it would probably mess things up quite a lot. But I think we should realize that that's actually a problem: that animals are having miserable lives in spaces that we control. It's like a cat eating lots of little birds in your house. And so what should we do about that? Well, I think at the margins, we may intervene in small ways. For example, in the tourist industry, there's a great interest — and a lot of money is made here — watching animals devour other animals. People pay a lot of money to come to Botswana and see nature red in tooth and claw. In the safari that I was on, four of the six people in our jeep were people who really wanted to see predatory animals leaping on a small antelope and tearing it limb for limb before the creature was even dead. And for that end, they kept these wild dogs — it was this particular species of endangered wild dogs — they propped them up artificially, and kept them numerous enough and well-fed enough that they were able to stage that horrible gladiatorial game for the tourists again and again so that they would make money. And I noticed, by the way, that the tourists who had that interest in seeing the gladiatorial show of animals were also talking all the time — they were South African farmers — about how their black employees were actually like animals. It was really an ugly morning that I spent because they would say, “Oh, they just have sex like animals. And that's why they're all dying of AIDS.” And so, I really didn't like these people, as you can see. But I noticed that the tourist industry was geared to make money from people like that, who want to see horrible cruelty and carnage. And they were limited in the human society; they don't get enough opportunity for carnage anymore, not like the Roman gladiatorial games. So they see it when they watch predatory animals. I think we should stop what I call sado-tourism, and that would be at least a start. And then beyond that, we can just think, what can we do? I do know that predatory animals in zoos can learn substitute activities, like a tiger in a zoo can learn rather like a domestic cat can learn to play with a ball that exercises its predatory capacities, and then eat humanely killed meat, which would be...we would feed it its need for meat, and then it would also not show frustration at the loss of the ability to kill. If that could happen in the wild on a large scale, maybe we should try it. But I think we don't know enough, and we shouldn't try it anytime soon.


SPENCER: We already talked about how your approach differs from the utilitarian one. But let's compare it to a couple others in this case, which are the anthropocentric approach and the Kantian approach. Do you want to compare it for us?

MARTHA: The anthropocentric approach is pretty prominent in animal law because a very fine animal lawyer named Steve Wise heads the Nonhuman Rights Project, and he uses this approach, which I call the ‘so like us approach' to defend the rights of certain large animals who seem very close to human beings, particularly great apes and elephants, to be transferred from bad conditions to good conditions. So he's litigated for an ape to be recognized as a person in law and be transferred from their bad confinement to an animal sanctuary. And he's lost, by the way. And then again, similarly, a loss for an elephant to be transferred from a zoo to an elephant sanctuary. The thing is that he does this not because he thinks it's the most correct theory, but he thinks it's what everyone believes, and therefore, he's more likely to win. But I think you should lead with your best approach that represents the best in human thinking. And to underestimate the intelligence of judges is something you should never do. Maybe that's why he doesn't win, because he's so cynical in the way he tries to play on what he thinks the judges are actually thinking. But anyway, it's just the wrong reason to protect animals, because they're so like us. No, we should protect animals, because each of them is what it is. And they're not like us. And they have amazing variety. So they don't line up to be graded A through F on the ladder. Instead, they're all different, and they have amazing horizontal variety. So it's just a bad way of approaching the whole problem. And of course, as you can imagine, it delivers nothing at all for the animals, other than apes, elephants, and whales, because those are the only ones he thinks that are sufficiently like humans.

SPENCER: So is the argument there that there's something that makes them human-like, that gives them more moral importance, and you kind of reject that?

MARTHA: He goes by the traditional picture of the ladder of nature, that there's humans at the top, and we're closer to God. It's really essentially, I think, a religious picture, although he doesn't put it in those terms. But he's talking to people who would have inherited the Judeo-Christian picture of nature that's like that. And because we're up at the top, that's why we're closer to God, we have this marvelous rationality, then there are some few animals that come along just behind us. And they're a little bit close to us, and they could just sneak in and get a little bit of consideration. That's the way he sees it. And so that's the way he thinks the judges are seeing. I actually have a higher opinion of judges. And I think they're prepared to have wonder and curiosity about the real lives of animals. I talk about a case where the US Navy sonar program was declared illegal on the grounds of its adverse impact on the behavior of whales. So, these are people who look at whales, they're fascinated by them. And they notice very specific things about them: how they migrate, how they reproduce, and even things like the emotional stress that they're under from the noise from the sonar program. So I would rather lead with the truth and not pretend that there's this ladder in the world. Because after all, animals could do lots of things we can't do. Birds can migrate across the globe because they sense magnetic fields. And they always know where they are. But we can't pick up on magnetic fields. So that's one ability that they have that we don't have. Some creatures, like dolphins, can see what's inside an object that they're approaching by their vibrations. Theirs is echolocation; it's what it's called. And they use a kind of sonar to figure out what's inside an object that they're approaching. One amazing dividend was that a captive dolphin knew that her trainer was pregnant before the trainer herself knew that, because the trainer couldn't tell what was inside, but the dolphin could and signaled it to the trainer, and then she went and got a pregnancy test. So, these are abilities that are amazing, and we humans don't have them. They have amazing abilities to make peace and settle conflict; it would be good if we had more of those abilities. Frans de Waal has a wonderful book called, “Peacemaking Among Primates” that describes that. It's just ignorance and lack of curiosity, to say that we're at the top in nature.

SPENCER: And what about the Kantian approach? Do you want to tell us what that is and how it contrasts with your thinking?

MARTHA: Yeah. Christine Korsgaard wrote a wonderful book called, “Fellow Creatures,” and it's a book that I greatly admire. She is a Kantian philosopher — well, actually, she wrote her dissertation under my supervision on both Kant and Aristotle, and there's a lot of Aristotle in there too — but she starts by rejecting the historical Kant's view of animals, which is that we should just use them as we please. She doesn't agree with that at all. And she has a very eloquent defense of the idea that there is no better or worse; each creature's life is its own type of thing. So I agree with all of that. But the place where she comes back to Kant is where she talks about citizenship and how we enact these ideas about animal lives. And she says that, because we're the only creatures who have the kind of higher ability to deliberate and rank ends and think about what she calls our practical identity — no other animal she thinks has those abilities — therefore, the other animals have to be passive citizens. That means they receive a handout from us, but they can't be agents in the creation of a better world. I think that's wrong, empirically. She just doesn't really know much about animal science, and that's pretty plain in the book. But actually, animals are very cooperative, and they reason in so many different ways. They have complex abilities of both ethical rationality and other kinds of rationality. And besides, where did we get those? They're part of our animal heritage. So Kant's way of splitting the rational from the animal is just wrong. That's us, we're animals. But the other thing is that animals are agents in so many ways. So animals are always indicated by their behavior, by their languages — which are many and complicated — what they want, and what they're seeking. And so if we pay more attention to them, they can be active agents in creating the world of citizenship. We already admit that some creatures, human creatures who can't use language — that is, humans with severe cognitive disabilities, very young infants — they're citizens. And that means that their preferences that they indicate by their vocalism and by their behavior are taken into account when laws are made. And I just want to say the same thing about animals. Sure, they have to be represented by a human surrogate, so do we when we go to court. But it starts with what the animal indicates in its own behavior and its own way of vocalizing its own good. The book has chapters that talk about the inadequate theories, and then a detailed account of my theory, but then it also has chapters on tragic conflicts that we face between one animal's good, and another chapter about why is death the harm, and when is it harm. Chapters about companion animals, wild animals, and finally, a chapter about law. So it's a very complicated book.

SPENCER: Alright, so let's jump now into a rapid-fire question round. So I'll just ask you questions, get your quick take. Obviously, there's not gonna be time for you to explore them in detail. But first question: I know you've written about the importance of vulnerability in our explorations of ethics. Do you want to tell us about why you think vulnerability is an important element?

MARTHA: Well, it's there. It's what we are; we're immensely vulnerable. And I think a lot of philosophers in the past have not wanted to own up to that, not wanting to recognize it. So I'm just bringing it back into the picture, which means that we need also to understand emotions and talk about them a lot, because they're ways that we're in touch with the objects with which we are vulnerable. And it also means that we need to protect the most valuable forms of vulnerability. It isn't as though we just glorify vulnerability. Sometimes it's a good thing. Sometimes it's a very bad thing. But we need to think politically about how we protect human beings in their exercise of the good forms of vulnerability, like friendship and love, but also prevent them from the bad forms like hunger.

SPENCER: In some of your work, you've talked about inequality. And I'm wondering, do you think that inequality is bad in and of itself for its own sake? Or do you think of it as bad, primarily, instrumentally because it has negative effects?

MARTHA: Well, I think it depends on what you're talking about. In the capabilities approach, what I tried to do is take each capability separately, and ask whether when we think of the equal respect between persons as the touchstone, whether equal respect is jeopardized by various forms of inequality or not. Now, I think if you have an equal freedom of speech, that's a direct impact on equal respect for persons. And so, therefore, freedom of speech must be allocated equally, if it's to be protected at all. I think the right to have a house, which is a right in some developing countries' constitutions, housing rights don't need to be exactly equal. They need to be adequate. You need enough but maybe not exactly the same. And so, the approach needs to vary with the thing you're talking about.

SPENCER: Are you familiar with the effective altruism movement?


SPENCER: So I'm curious what your thoughts are on it. What do you see as good about it and bad about it?

MARTHA: I think that, in the end, human beings will not solve problems of inequality, without decent, stable, democratic political institutions. The research over the years has more and more come to that conclusion. I teach a course on global inequality that always keeps up with the new research. And therefore, this and other forms of philanthropic support for human life are sometimes just not much good, because in the end, they help the ones who are there, but they don't build durable institutions that can sustain it for the future. Sometimes it's positively counterproductive because — Angus Deaton, who won the Nobel Prize in 2004, and he's the great health economist of the century, he shows that — if you want health to be really distributed well in the population, what you need are durable, health-related political institutions. You don't get that by money coming in from outside. Even if it's not siphoned off by corrupt bureaucrats, it will undermine the political will to build durable health-related institutions. And so he very much tells his audience and his students, “Do not give money because it will actually do harm.” Now, that's a harsh lesson. And it'd be nice if there were exceptions to it. And he thinks there may be some exceptions to it, like in giving financial aid to deal with particular diseases. But on the whole, the question to ask, I think is, what can one country that's privileged do to create and assist the formation of durable political institutions in another country? Now, it can't be paternalistically done, but I think technology transfer is one thing that we can do — our university has a center in India and another one in China — but for cooperative projects of scholarship, giving assistance of (but not assistance) but learning from one another in areas ranging from health to philosophy. So these are things that are helpful. But I think effective altruism is unfortunately not likely to really solve the problems.

SPENCER: Sounds like the effective altruism you're reacting to is the part of the movement focused on global health. There's another part of the movement that is focused on existential risks, like trying to reduce the probability of human extinction or civilization collapse. I'm curious if you have any thoughts on that aspect of it?

MARTHA: Well, again, I would say the same answer that I would give you. If countries are to avoid these risks, they have to have a decent political structure and they have to be willing to take the right steps. Now, I think just throwing money at the problem in the short term, sometimes it doesn't do harm. Sometimes it just fails to solve the problem in the long term, and it might solve it in the short term. But I think actually, more often, it undermines political will. And if people know that all this money is coming in from people who donate, then they're not going to get their political act together to form durable institutions. I didn't used to believe this. I was totally on the other side before. But I've been convinced by Deaton's arguments. And I think there may be exceptions to them, but we just have to see empirically what those might be.

SPENCER: When it comes to happiness or well-being, do you think that we should be maximizing moment-to-moment happiness or life satisfaction, insofar as we're going to choose to try to increase well-being at all?

MARTHA: First of all, we have to get clear about what happiness means. And I think Kahneman is totally unclear, so that's a real problem in his work. I've written quite extensively attacking his work. I have this paper called, “Who Is the Happy Warrior? Philosophy Poses Questions to Psychology.” So anyone who wants to look that up can look it up. But the happy warrior is a poem that Wordsworth wrote to talk about a man who was living a flourishing life. And the point was, he wasn't feeling good at all, because he was fighting for a just situation for his country, and he was doomed to go down with misery and pain, etc, etc, etc. But he was flourishing because he was doing what he thought he ought to do, and he was doing it by his own free choice, and he had all these other virtuous parts of his life, too. So, my conception of happiness is really Aristotle's, that it means a flourishing life and the flourishing life has many components, but they all involve choice. So the first thing is, you don't get it by just feeling good. So moment to moment means nothing to me at all. Satisfaction with your life as a whole is better. But the thing is that it doesn't yet tell you what the different parts of life are. And maybe, you need a more objective account of what parts your life should have. For example, a person who's badly colluded and thinks that women should be subordinated might feel satisfaction with his life as a whole if he behaved like Harvey Weinstein. That's not happiness in my view. It would have to have genuine goods that you're realizing in your life. So anyway, I'm quite far from Kahneman, and I think the research has created a lot of confusion and it hasn't helped at all.

SPENCER: One thing I've noticed about your work is that you seem very willing to stand up to really high-prestige people and say, “You know what, I think your theory is mistaken and here's why.” And I'm wondering, was that a trait that you always had? Were you always that sort of person? Because I think most people would be afraid to do that. Or is that something you developed over time?

MARTHA: I think it's a trait of the field of philosophy. Quite frankly, I don't think it's particularly me. I think philosophy is a very healthy field compared to, for example, literary studies, because although it does have people who are more famous than other people, it encourages criticism and challenge. And I was encouraged by great people — John Rawls, Hilary Putnam, Stanley Cavell — to challenge them. Then I taught a course with Stanley Cavell where what we were doing was challenging our students to challenge us and so forth. So I actually think it's the field as it exists now in the United States. It didn't always exist that way. And I'm sure when Heidegger was teaching in Germany, he wanted subservient pupils not challenging pupils. But it was the way I was brought up. And I hope that I took advantage of that. And I do credit to...I've argued against Rawls in many, many ways. And he knows that. And he actually chose me to write the article on “Rawls and Feminism” for the Cambridge Companion on Rawls, partly because he looked at the criticisms that I had made, and he learned something from that. So I hope I like that. The people who were my students — and oh, they're all over the place now, and I'm so proud. I actually did another podcast about an hour ago with one of my earliest Ph.D. students from the University of Chicago, Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, who is challenging me all the time. And he's always pushing me in the direction of thinking more about ecosystems and plants and so forth, not just about animals. Christine Korsgaard was my student too, and we have a critical dialogue that's very rich. So I just think it's a wonderful thing about the professional philosophy that we can do that. And when I'm looking for people on the job market, that is what I'm looking for, I'm looking for not parroting some received wisdom, but learning. And one way you often do that is to learn a lot of the history of philosophy, because then you know that anything you say has to be bigger than the latest fads and fancies. So one of the things I like about my own department is we really require quite a lot of training in the history of philosophy. These are big minds that always stood above the rank and file, and we challenge them, and they challenge us. So that's the way I like to teach.

SPENCER: It's funny you mentioned Rawls because one of my questions for you was how your work builds on his and then what you tend to disagree with his work about?

MARTHA: Well, I think Rawls was one of the great political philosophers of the Western tradition. His work will endure. I think it's marvelous work. Of course, I wouldn't write about it at all, if I didn't have something new to say. So I do feel, first of all, that he had left a lot to be desired in his treatment of women. And like the late Susan Okin, I criticized him on a lot of things in that area. But more generally, I think there are areas where there's pervasive inequality, where a theory that measures well-being by income and wealth doesn't go far enough. And that he needed to measure well-being more in terms of capabilities. He actually admitted this late in his life. But then he said, “Well, it doesn't really matter that much. He wasn't going to go back and reformulate it because income and wealth was a good enough proxy.” I don't think that's right. I actually think particularly where you're dealing with cases of persistent inequality, the capabilities approach does a lot better. But anyway, look, it was a towering achievement that...I was so glad that I did know him. I was in his classes, but only after I was already an assistant professor because I got my Ph.D. in classics, so I couldn't take philosophy classes when I was in graduate school. But I was lucky that I got to hear him teach and to be in faculty meetings with him and to talk to him, correspond with him in later life. In fact, he was the one who sent me in the direction of writing for the general public. Rawls was a very shy man. He also had a very bad speech impediment; he stammered, so he didn't lecture in public at all. And he never went on TV, etc, etc. He lectured in the classroom, by having everything written out in advance. And he was still quite colorless and shy, but everyone was fine with that. But anyway, he also didn't have the kind of writing style that would lend itself to a general public audience. But one time I got invited to write something for the New York Review of Books, and I didn't know whether doing that would be good for my career or bad for my career. What should I do? So Rawls took me out to lunch — it was at a hamburger place he'll repute, Berkeley's Burger Cottage, a real greasy hamburger place. Anyway, — he said, “You know, if you can do this, that is right for the general public, then you have a moral obligation to do it. And you have no choice. You really have to do it. Because people need to hear from philosophers.” And he said, “I can't do this, but if you can do it (and he thought I could do it), then you have to do it.” So that started me on this path that I've never come off of.

SPENCER: Martha, thank you so much for coming on. This was a really fun conversation and lovely to talk to you.

MARTHA: Thank you very much. Great to talk to you.


JOSH: A listener asks, "How can you quickly develop a skill to detect adverse pathologies or dark personality traits? So like bipolar disorder, delusional disorder, Machiavellianism, etc."

SPENCER: Well, first of all, I want to say that there are people that have all kinds of different personality disorders, personality traits, mental disorders and so on that could be perfectly great people and could be, you know, awesome people to be friends with, awesome people even to be partners with. So, you know, I don't want to assume that someone who has a personality disorder or mental health condition is a bad person or that someone you should try to avoid. However, I will say that certain types of disorders do elevate the risk of someone being harmful to you. For example, I think that people with narcissistic personality disorder are more likely to harm you than other people are. I think people with antisocial personality disorder or sociopaths are more likely to hurt you than the average person. And so if you encounter someone like that, you know, I think you have to assume there's an elevated risk and you have to get to know them better. Or sorry, if you choose to get to know them better, you just want to keep that in mind and be a bit more cautious than usual to make sure that not someone's going to harm you. In terms of detecting people having these different traits, I think it's really trait specific. I don't think there's, as far as I know, there's no way to find across these different traits if someone has any of these things. But I will say when it comes to people with narcissistic personality disorder, I think one thing you can look at is do they redirect the focus of the conversation to them? Do they seem to have this very strong attention seeking focus where you can kind of model their behavior by like what gets them attention? So one thing that really strong narcissists will often do is they'll, whatever you're talking about, they'll somehow bring it to themselves, their accomplishments and so on. Another aspect that I think actually confuses people is they'll also often brag about how great other people are. So they're talking about other people being amazing, which is a little surprising because you might think, well, they're narcissists, why wouldn't they be talking about themselves? But talking about how other people are amazing that they know or people who are in their orbit is a sort of an indirect way to kind of talk about how great they are because they know these great people. So there's just some things to look for there. In terms of antisocial personality disorder or something of a sociopath, the only way that I have successfully detected when people have that is in basically noticing that they don't react the same way as other people in certain situations. And it's sort of hard to characterize what these reactions are like, but you might notice a very peculiar reaction. And in my experience, what I do in this case, I just asked them, I just asked them about their experience. I said, oh, I noticed you reacted this way when this happened. Tell me more about that. And usually, in my experience, they've been very forthright and just kind of explained what's going on in their mind. And that gave me a lot more insight and eventually led me to the conclusion that they likely had antisocial personality disorder.

JOSH: Do you think we should be doing more to keep certain types of personalities away from positions of power? Like, for example, you know, I've heard that CEOs and politicians tend to be maybe slightly more likely than the average person to be sociopathic. And that seems like the sort of trait that ought to be kept away from positions of power. So what are your thoughts about that?

SPENCER: I think really the question here is one of ethics. Like, obviously, it's not great to have someone who's really unethical in a high position of power. So that raises the question, well, someone with narcissistic personality disorder or someone who's a sociopath, can they be ethical? And the answer is absolutely yes. They're at elevated risk for being unethical, but they can be ethical. And so why would someone like that be ethical? Well, because there are multiple forces at work that make people ethical. One force is belief structures, right? So someone could be narcissistic or antisocial but have a very strong belief structure about what's good and what's moral and really try to adhere to it really strongly. So, for example, someone who raised in Christianity could really believe strongly in Christianity or someone who's an effective altruist could really believe in effective altruism even with these other traits. So that can be an ameliorating factor. And so that can make them kind of counterbalance the personality. Another thing is fear of punishment. Now, fear of punishment does reduce crime and does reduce bad behavior. I don't think it works alone. The only reason someone's not doing a bad thing is because of fear of punishment. The problem with that is then, well, as soon as they're not worried about being caught because they have a way of getting away with it really likely, then they're going to do the bad thing. So I don't think that's enough. But with maybe the right combination of things, the fear of punishment plus a really strong belief system around what's good that kind of guides their behavior, then, yeah, maybe they can behave really ethically. And so, you know, I would take it on a case-by-case basis.




Click here to return to the list of all episodes.


Sign up to receive one helpful idea and one brand-new podcast episode each week!

Contact Us

We'd love to hear from you! To give us your feedback on the podcast, or to tell us about how the ideas from the podcast have impacted you, send us an email at:

Or connect with us on social media: