Martha Nussbaum and the Capabilities Approach
What makes a human life worth living?
12 minutes read - 2357 words
In the capabilities approach, philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that a human life, in order to reach its highest potential, must include a number of “capabilities” – that is, of actual possibilities that one can realise in one’s life. These include the ability to live a life that is “worth living,” the ability to use one’s imagination, sufficient education to enable a “truly human” understanding of the world and one’s position in it, having dignity and a sense of equal worth, as well as the ability to participate in the political life of one’s society.
But one could ask: does Aristotle’s theory apply in the same way to all cultures, or is it specific to some Western notion of the desirable life? Could a Muslim society, or an indigenous tribe in South America, embrace the Aristotelian life? And if so, what exactly would this look like?
There certainly is a problem there, even if we only look at our own society. People just have so different attitudes about life, different backgrounds, beliefs and values. How can one form of “flourishing” be right for everyone?
There are two ways to respond to this problem.
First, one could say that, indeed, every society, and perhaps every single person, should be entitled to their own form of _eudaimonia, _or ultimate happiness. Both the wisdom that we need to navigate our lives well and the ultimate goals that we have in life depend on the society we live in, the education we were given when we were young, the religious beliefs we have. So there is no common ground there, and every single person, as well as every society, would have their own understanding of what a good life is.
This position is called “moral relativism”. It is tempting to be a relativist because we actually want to acknowledge the diversity of opinions and cultures and give everyone the right to choose their own path to happiness. But there’s also a trap hidden inside that package.
If I am a relativist, I am committed to accepting other people’s and other societies’ beliefs, even if they are incompatible with my own. Whatever crazy thing someone might believe, I would have to accept, because for the relativist every point of view is as good as every other. Should we protect or exploit the environment? Should we assist refugees or close our borders? Should we vaccinate people or not?
The relativist couldn’t say what is wrong with North Korea. Their values and their system is what it is, and it’s nobody’s business trying to change it.
And it becomes even more difficult when we look at other societies. The relativist couldn’t say what is wrong with North Korea. Their values and their system is what it is, and it’s nobody’s business trying to change it. The same would be true of slavery in the early US, of Nazi Germany and their actions in the 1930s and 40s, and of every other atrocious state or group one would care to name. Obviously, that’s a problem.
Are there absolute values?
The second possibility is to assume that some values are universal and that they apply to all human beings, no matter where they live and what they, themselves, believe. Such a kind of moral absolutism is behind the various UN declarations and the concept of universal human rights. If we share this approach, we would say that everyone on Earth needs to have particular human rights, no matter whether they like it or not, and also no matter whether they even want those rights. A society that does not honour these rights (for example, North Korea, the early US or Nazi Germany) must be mistaken. And we would have a right to force them to change their ways, in the name of these universally valid values.
This one is tough. Because we not only would have to be against Nazi Germany (which everyone in their right minds already is), but we would also commit to having the “right” answer to a whole lot of other questions: that we are allowed to force people to get vaccinated, to attend school, to wear seat belts while driving, but also, in the extreme, to not smoke, to not drink and certainly to not carry guns around without a very good reason.
If the conditions for human flourishing were absolute and unchanging across time and cultures, then human history would essentially be striving towards the one, optimal society (which is, in a way, what Marx believed) and every other system would be wrong, something to overcome and leave behind.
The Capabilities Approach
You see how neither of these two approaches seems to be entirely satisfactory. On the one hand, we don’t want to endorse, or even tolerate, societies in the style of Nazi Germany. On the other hand, we don’t want to go around with a quasi-colonial attitude that says that only our own system is right and everyone else must be mistaken.
But we can’t have our cake and eat it at the same time. Or can we?
Philosophers Amartya Sen (1933-) and Martha Nussbaum (1947-) believe that we can. Despite some differences between them, the basic idea of their solutions is similar. And, in the case of Nussbaum, her capabilities approach is based on Aristotle.
Like Aristotle, Nussbaum also emphasises that a fully-lived human life can be judged in terms of functioning. A human being is well-functioning when (Aristotle would say) they pursue their eudaimonia, the state of ultimate happiness that comes from exercising one’s virtues in always the right way. Nussbaum modernises this a little and says that a full human life is one in which we have particular “capabilities”. These capabilities are very similar to possibilities of functioning in particular ways.
Like Aristotle, Nussbaum also emphasises that a fully-lived human life can be judged in terms of functioning.
On the most general level, a capability is a real possibility of doing something or achieving something. The point is that the possibility must be real. So, for example, a poor person might in principle have the ability to study at a university, if they had the money to do so, but they don’t have the money. Therefore, in the understanding of the capability theory, we wouldn’t say that they have this capability. If, on the other hand, there is a solid system of social support in place that they can use to actually go and study, then they would have this capability.
Nussbaum’s capabilities approach includes a list of ten capabilities that human beings must have. This list, she seems to be saying, is what we would (at least) require for a life to be called a fully realised human life. If individuals had more capabilities than these, it wouldn’t hurt, of course, but if the capabilities in this list were missing, then the human life would be somehow defective.
Life – Able to live to the end of a normal length human life, and to not have one’s life reduced to not worth living.
Bodily Health – Able to have a good life which includes (but is not limited to) reproductive health, nourishment and shelter.
Bodily Integrity – Able to change locations freely, in addition to, having sovereignty over one’s body which includes being secure against assault (for example, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, domestic violence and the opportunity for sexual satisfaction).
Senses, Imagination and Thought – Able to use one’s senses to imagine, think and reason in a ‘truly human way’– informed by an adequate education. Furthermore, the ability to produce self-expressive works and engage in religious rituals without fear of political ramifications. The ability to have pleasurable experiences and avoid unnecessary pain. Finally, the ability to seek the meaning of life.
Emotions – Able to have attachments to things outside of ourselves; this includes being able to love others, grieve at the loss of loved ones and be angry when it is justified.
Practical Reason – Able to form a conception of the good and critically reflect on it.
Affiliation: (1) Able to live with and show concern for others, empathize with (and show compassion for) others and the capability of justice and friendship. Institutions help develop and protect forms of affiliation. (2) Able to have self-respect and not be humiliated by others, that is, being treated with dignity and equal worth. This entails (at the very least) protections of being discriminated on the basis of race, sex, sexuality, religion, caste, ethnicity and nationality. In work, this means entering relationships of mutual recognition.
Other Species – Able to have concern for and live with other animals, plants and the environment at large.
Play – Able to laugh, play and enjoy recreational activities.
Control over One’s Environment: (1) Political – Able to effectively participate in the political life which includes having the right to free speech and association. (2) Material – Able to own property, not just formally, but materially (that is, as a real opportunity). Furthermore, having the ability to seek employment on an equal basis as others, and the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure.
Freedom, but not obligation
In a sense, the capabilities approach seems to avoid the harsh choice between relativism and absolutism regarding human rights and the values of human life. By emphasising “capabilities” instead of a requirement that all states and all human beings have exactly the same values, Nussbaum avoids the problems of both approaches. Like an absolutist, she insists that there is one, right list of capabilities that every human being on the planet is entitled to. But many of these capabilities are so basic and rooted so deeply in human nature that hardly anyone would disagree with them. Also, what counts here is the capability, not the actual realisation. Nussbaum does not say that everyone has to have a concern for the environment, for example (number 8, above). She only requires that everyone is able to have such a concern and the ability to act upon it. If one does not make use of this capability, then this is presumably nobody’s business.
The capabilities approach seems to avoid the harsh choice between relativism and absolutism regarding human rights and the values of human life.
In our own lives…
Let us now have one last look at the capabilities approach in relation to what we ourselves consider a good life, the fully lived, fully realised human potential. Because, after all, this is what we are trying to achieve as Aristotelians.
On the surface, it would seem that almost everyone in a Western, middle-class setting surely must have the ten capabilities and satisfy the requirements of the capabilities approach. But is that so?
We should be able to have a life that’s not so reduced as to not be worth living. But we all can imagine lives (we talked about the phenomenon of office workers who die of exhaustion on the job) where we might question whether such lives feel “worth living” to their subjects. A “good life” regarding nourishment and shelter is also quite demanding. McDonald’s wouldn’t cut it and Hong Kong’s 350 square foot flats for a family would probably not qualify as good shelter. Adequate education is not as available as it should be, not even in the developed countries, as widespread conspiracy theories show. And we would probably agree that we are far removed from an ideal society in which we are all treated equally, with dignity and equal worth, and in which we are not humiliated by others. And there are many more points where our own societies seem to fail us – just go through the list and ask yourself if you see this capability realised for all human beings in your own daily environment.
Remember also that, for Aristotle, one cannot achieve a perfect human life alone. We all depend upon each other.
Only a supportive society will make it possible for its members to reach the higher states of human development and self-realisation. The same is true for the capabilities approach.
Let us, then, look at our own surroundings and try to evaluate where we stand in relation to that demanding Nussbaum list. Do we have all the capabilities ourselves? If not, what is missing? And how can we go about obtaining the capabilities we lack?
What about those around us? The worker on the street, the man who collects the garbage in the office, the retired person who lives alone in the flat below ours, the beggar at the train station. Do they have all the capabilities in a real sense? Can they actually make use of them? And what do I need to do in order to help everyone reach the best life that they can have, in order to provide the missing capabilities to them? Would a donation to a charity help? Volunteer work? Perhaps just to invite one’s lonely neighbour to an afternoon coffee once a week?
Let us try to look at our lives and those of others under this light and see where each one of us can make a difference. Where we can, with just a little bit of effort or some small donation, substantially improve the lives of those around us and make it easier for them to live full, valuable and happy human lives.
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