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Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership by Martha Nussbaum

Jean Chambers witnesses Martha Nussbaum raise a high bar for standards of international social justice.

In Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, Martha Nussbaum criticizes John Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism while arguing for her alternative theory of liberal justice, the capabilities approach. She uses Rawls’ general method of balancing theoretical commitments against intuitive moral judgments to form a coherent system of beliefs. She also assumes, with Rawls, that a pluralistic liberal society requires a consensus among various groups concerning a common intuitive conception of what justice is. But she rejects Rawls’ manner of justification of the principles of justice, which is through a hypothetical decision by self-interested rational parties. She prefers the capabilities approach, an outcome-oriented theory which first defines the goal of social justice – namely, everyone having a life worthy of human dignity – and then tries to identify the best means to provide such a life for all sentient creatures – namely, effective social institutions.

According to the capabilities approach, a life of dignity requires a threshold level of provision to allow for the realization of each of the ten basic capabilities: “Life… Bodily Health… Bodily Integrity… Senses… Imagination… Thought… Emotions… Practical Reason… Affiliation… Other Species… Play… [and] Control Over One’s Environment.” (pp.76-77) The core concept of dignity helps to distinguish between important and trivial capabilities. Unfortunately Nussbaum does not define ‘dignity’ clearly. It seems to mean the equal inherent worth of people or sentient creatures, and to express a sense of wonder or sanctity about them. Her list of the top ten capabilities is also provisional, pending a global dialogue aimed at consensus. The resulting agreed list is to be written into national constitutions and laws, and used to measure development efforts, replacing the current flawed measures.

Nussbaum provides a neo-Aristotelian explanation of a capability, as an ability to function in a species-typical way, at some threshold level necessary for a dignified life. For example, ‘practical reason’, the capacity to plan and decide what to do, is necessary for a human life of dignity. If a human being were totally deprived of practical reason, her or his life would be correspondingly less than a truly dignified human life. Nussbaum’s political liberalism is hypothetical. If we want a minimally decent society in which everyone has a dignified life, then everyone must be entitled to the threshold level of every capability essential to that dignified life.

The burden of providing these essential entitlements to everyone falls on everyone, according to Nussbaum. We are collectively responsible. Specific duties should be assigned to individuals and institutions according to the structure of the society. Unlike utilitarianism, which can unfairly and unrealistically require each individual to attempt to fix overwhelming inequalities, the capabilities approach requires that social institutions ensure social justice. People should cooperate to create constitutions and other social institutions which will guarantee the basic capabilities to everyone. National governments must be prepared to use coercion as needed to distribute resources justly. Thus Nussbaum’s just world would likely comprise somewhat socialist states, similar to Sweden, together composing a United-Nations-style international organization which would encourage all nations to provide the basic capabilities to their citizens. (On Nussbaum’s view, nations should avoid merging into a world state, because if such a state were to become tyrannical it would be too difficult to overthrow. A world state might also undermine desirable cultural diversity, for example by asserting a global ideology.)

The ‘frontiers’ of Frontiers of Justice are three social frontiers at the edge of the political community as it has been defined by social contract theorists such as Rawls. The early social contract theorists Thomas Hobbes,John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau posited free and independent men, roughly equal in power, living at first in a pre-social ‘state of nature’. Such men would have had little reason to form a society and submit to the authority of laws unless they could individually benefit from giving up their absolute liberty. Therefore the only social contract they could rationally agree to would be a mutually advantageous one. But this familiar scenario has tended to exclude from the resulting polity anyone who it might not be mutually advantageous for such men to cooperate with – anyone who is not free, not equal, or not independent. Nussbaum claims that people with disabilities, citizens of other nations, and non-human animals have thereby been banished by contract theorists to the frontiers of social justice.

People with disabilities may not be free or independent; and those with severe mental disabilities may be unequal. Nussbaum argues that such people should nevertheless be considered full citizens entitled to dignified lives, even if no one could gain from cooperating with them. She notes that the social contract tradition has always denied the reality of dependency, despite the obvious fact that everyone is dependent on others during infancy, old age, injury, and illness. Historically women have done most of the largely unpaid work of caring for dependents, so by ignoring women, the social contract theorists conveniently evaded the thorny issue of justice for dependents and caregivers. Nussbaum argues that justice for people with disabilities should include whatever special arrangements are required for them to lead a dignified life, and the work of caring for them should be socially recognized, fairly distributed, and fairly compensated.

Traditionally, other nations fall outside each nation’s own social contract. They may be too poor to qualify for mutually advantageous cooperation with rich nations, for example. According to the capabilities approach, the international community should help all nations provide for the realization of the basic capabilities for all their citizens, by adopting the capabilities list as a measure of development and then fostering the redistribution of wealth between nations. Nussbaum agrees with Amartya Sen that the capabilities list would be a more informative measure of the quality of people’s lives than the usual indicator, which is gross domestic product per capita. It would also be better than measuring the satisfaction of people’s actual preferences, because the objective list of capabilities would be the same for everyone. Sometimes oppressed people fail to form preferences which express dissatisfaction with their situations because they have lowered their expectations below what is needed for a dignified life. On Nussbaum and Sen’s view, all human beings have equal dignity and an equal claim to whatever of the world’s resources they need to express their basic capabilities, even if they have lost sight of those capabilities.

Nonhuman animals have been banished to the frontiers of justice because they are unable to understand, agree to, or live by a social contract. They are thus unequal, and lacking rational autonomy, unfree. Justice for animals is difficult to specify, because their capabilities vary and may be obscure. Nussbaum agrees with the utilitarian Peter Singer that the capacity for pain and pleasure identifies which creatures ought to be included in the moral community. But the capabilities approach requires more than simply relieving suffering and increasing pleasure. Besides stopping the fur trade and other cruel practices, humanity should try to accommodate the other needs of animals to exercise their capabilities. For example, perhaps zoos should provide large predators with equipment to exercise their predatory capabilities, without giving them prey animals to kill. The capabilities approach addresses many more dimensions of the quality of animals’ lives than the utilitarian.

Nussbaum’s particular list of capabilities appears to assume a very traditional intuitive theory of human nature, which may not universally satisfy. An evolutionary psychologist, for example, might argue that human males need an outlet for their capabilities for aggression and competitiveness, capabilities which do not appear on Nussbaum’s list. Also, following Grotius, Nussbaum explicitly claims that human nature is benevolent enough to motivate general cooperation for the common good. This empirical claim requires more supporting evidence given the fairly obvious human proclivities for conflict and war. The capabilities approach would be a more plausible political philosophy if its assumptions about human nature were better grounded in contemporary work in the biological and social sciences, for instance.

A related practical problem accompanies the large and crucial role governments are expected to play in ensuring capability justice. National governments and international organizations would be responsible for preventing exploitation while ensuring dignified lives for each and every one of their citizens. But the massive redistribution of wealth needed to pay for global basic entitlements would require significant government coercion, especially if people are less naturally benevolent than Nussbaum supposes. Such coercion could work, as it apparently has done in the Scandinavian socialist democracies. However, the potential dangers of big government are just as problematic for the capabilities approach as for any other theory calling for massive redistributions of wealth and a heavy regulation of the economy.

Despite these theoretical and practical problems, Nussbaum’s explication of the human and animal capabilities essential for lives of dignity sets a demanding, detailed, moral and political standard to strive for. And it provides at least a sketch for an overlapping consensus on what social justice may require.

© DR Jean Chambers 2007

Jean Chambers is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Oswego, specializing in theoretical ethics, feminist philosophy, and social and political philosophy.

Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership by Martha Nussbaum, Harvard Univ. Press, 2006, 487 pp, £21.95/$35.00 ISBN: 0674019172.

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