Nussbaum’s capabilities approach to justice

I mentioned a while back that I was reading Martha Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice. To re-cap briefly: Nussbaum criticizes social contract theories of justice for their inability to deal with three cases: duties to the disabled, to foreigners, and to nonhuman animals.

As a supplement (or replacement–it’s not entirely clear to me), she recommends her “capabilities approach.” Instead of arriving at principles of justice by way of a hypothetical contract entered into for mutual advantage, the capabilities approach identifies certain key capabilities that are essential for each member of a minimally just society to have. These relate to functions that, according to this view, are essential for any flourishing life.

The capabilities Nussbaum lists are:

1. Life
2. Bodily health
3. Bodily integrity
4. Senses, imagination, and thought
5. Emotions
6. Practical reason
7. Affiliation
8. Relationship with other species
9. Play
10. Control over one’s environment (both political and material)

These capabilities don’t define the good life in a comprehensive way; rather, they’re supposed to be necessary conditions for a variety of lifestyles. Nussbaum’s view is a “liberal” one in the same way that Rawls’s is: the account of justice is “political not metaphysical.” That is, adherents of a variety of conceptions of the good life could, in theory, agree to this list of capabilities as a minimum set of entitlements that a just society should guarantee to each of its members. (Following Rawls, she refers to this as an “overlapping consensus.”)

Nussbaum’s view is also liberal in a second sense. It leaves the decision of whether or not to exercise these capabilities up to the individual. For example, it’s not up to the state in a just society to ensure that people are living healthy lives, but it does have a responsibility for ensuring their access to the capability for living healthy lives (by, for example, establishing a system of public health care that guarantees universal coverage).

In Nussbaum’s account, this list of capabilities is an elaboration of a certain intuitive idea of human dignity and what is required to flourish as a human being. These evaluative underpinnings determine what capabilities are proper for justice to secure. There are capabilities that humans have–for cruelty or sadism, for instance–that are not necessary for a flourishing life.

This is a point where I’m unsure how Nussbaum’s theory works. If the capabilities depend on a prior idea of “human flourishing”–one that excludes some capabilities and not others–where does the idea of flourishing itself come from? Nussbaum is clear that flourishing can’t simply be read off from nature, as it were. Humans have many capabilities that they shouldn’t necessarily exercise. But Nussbaum doesn’t provide–at least in this work–a worked-out account of just what flourishing consists in and how we determine that.

I think what Nussbaum would say is that all she needs for her approach to work as an account of political justice is for the capabilities to be derivable from or consistent with various accounts of flourishing that are entailed by different views of the good life found in a pluralistic society. For instance, a Christian and a secularist may disagree profoundly about the nature of the good for human beings, but still be able to agree on Nussbaum’s capabilities list as necessary for the realization of both of their visions.

As she writes:

Insofar as a highly general idea of human flourishing and its possibilities does figure in the approach, it is not a single idea of flourishing, as in Aristotle’s on normative theory, but rather an idea of a space for diverse possibilities of flourishing. The claim that is made by the use of this single list, then, is not that there is a single type of flourishing for the human being, but, rather, that these capabilities can be agreed by reasonable citizens to be important prerequisites of reasonable conceptions of human flourishing, in connection with the political conception of the person as a political animal, both needy and dignified; and thus these are good bases for an idea of basic political entitlements in a just society. (p. 182)

This is appealing, but “reasonable” seems to be doing a lot of the heavy lifting in this paragraph. How do we determine which conceptions of human flourishing are reasonable? Are they just whatever ones support the capabilities on Nussbuam’s list? But that seems to be arguing in a circle. Otherwise, we need some substantive notion of “reasonableness” that rules out some conceptions of flourishing as beyond the pale. This would seem to amount to a kind of “meta-account” of human flourishing that includes a variety of more specific conceptions within it. But how can we determine what that is?

I confess I don’t have a clear or fully informed understanding of the theory. So take this for what it’s worth as a kind of first impression.


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