Be the Best That You Can Be, Best to Your Ability

Martha C. Nussbaum (Belknap Harvard, 2011) ISBN: 9780674050549

I think I may have fallen in love with Martha C. Nussbaum.  Law professor, ethicist, feminist, philosopher, confident teacher and elegant writer, she is a source of inspiration, even if I don’t subscribe wholeheartedly to her political biases.  Creating Capabilities is but one of her numerous contributions to discourse on human rights and starts with a simple proposition: living beings are more important than money.  GDP, which measures the economic wellbeing of a country in purely monetary form, is an at best unhelpful measure of any given nation’s actual prosperity.  In its place, Nussbaum and other proponents, such as the originator of the school, Amartya Sen, nominate the “capabilities approach” to measuring human (and animal) development, suggesting several different benchmarks that should first be aimed for and then improved upon by the world’s nations.  Creating Capabilities forms something of a manifesto for this approach.

The capabilities approach springboards from the utilitarian school of jurisprudence and social justice, as enunciated notably by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice.  Rawls’ “original position” theory–that is, that if placed in a position of complete equality, all people would attempt to create an equitable system of laws and distribution–suffers a flaw in that it excludes the various factors that create inherent inequalities.  These inequalities are not well-served by utilitarianism, which aims to provide the greatest good, or “utility”, to the greatest number of people and so would tend to fail minorities already in a position of disadvantage.   Nussbaum is deepy critical of utilitarianism, even as she expands upon that philosophy’s admirable goal of creating equity.  She attempts to combat utilitarianism’s flaws by focusing on the development of choice and opportunity for everyone, taking account of cognitive and physical impairments, and paying less attention to the final distribution of wealth, power and material goods amongst people.

What is important, Nussbaum holds, is that everyone has the same level of opportunity to develop and reach their full potential as individuals.  This means societies must create systems of education, healthcare and distribution that enables all members the opportunity to participate and achieve, according to their particular set of abilities and ambitions, their highest “capabilities”.  Building achievement in 10 key capability areas set out by Nussbaum should become the goal of national governments, rather than increased GDP in itself.  Nations should improve their systems of economic management and ensure that their wealth is used in building the capabilities of their citizens through, for example, investing in education, health and transport infrastructure.

I would tend to agree with the capabilities approach as preferential to GDP in measuring wellbeing, and as an instrument of nurturing human rights.  Creating Capabilities addresses a number of issues I have often found myself pondering, such as how to achieve actual equality of choice, if not outcomes, for all participants in society.  Unlike Rawls’ theory, Sen and Nussbaum accept that inequalities exist and that a certain level of inequality does inhere in human existence.  Equality in the classical sense is not the goal of the capabilities approach; rather, it is for all people to have access to more than the basics of human survival, so that they can flourish.  A key part of the capabilities approach is thus alleviating poverty, which is the major factor in restricting most people’s choices worldwide.  Nussbaum also tackles the matter of how to preference freedoms, and when it is justified to revoke or abbrogate certain freedoms.  The grandest idea is that constitutions reflecting the capabilities should be drafted and maintained, so that the capabilities are not subject to the whims of the populace or the potential for tyranny of the majority*.

Nussbaum goes further to state that the capabilities should extend to animals with a level of sentience, and does not shy away from the ethical problems posed by that state of affairs.  Though an advocate of animal rights herself, Nussbaum understands that the animal food industry is a source of employment to people worldwide and proposes that the “tragic choice” of killing animals for humans to eat is likely to continue for some time into the future, though she urges an end to sports hunting and factory farming.  She also dismisses the idea that any animals truly live in “the wild”, since humanity is so ubiquitous in its habitation and environmental impact.

As is common in such books, Nussbaum provides a concise summary of views in conflict with the theories described in the book.  While I would tend to agree with her analysis of the flaws in classical liberalism and utilitarianism, I do have some quibbles with Nussbaum’s easy dismissal of the colonial argument against a global human rights movement.  And to clarify, I too am someone who generally falls on the universalist side of this particular debate.  Creating Capabilities makes the poor assumption that colonialism is something which is isolated in the past.  I agree that the legacy of colonial regimes was not one that encouraged human rights to flourish–they obviously did quite the opposite–but I disagree that the modern human rights movement is free from elements of colonialism.  It must be accepted that advocates of universalism have taken some missteps and that human rights arguments, especially those coming from a western context, are often framed in ways that misunderstand or exclude the very people they seek to empower.

The capabilities approach feels like one that could lend itself to helping resolve the difficulties presented in colonial “settler” states such as Australia and Nussbaum’s native US, and other regions with indigenous or other minorities.  However, because the capabilities approach as described here is rather state-centralist (more on that below), there are difficulties posed in supporting self-determination and freedom of choice amongst cultural minorities.  Especially in “settler” states, I have difficulty agreeing that the capabilities of indigenous peoples are best served by the state, even a state with the perfect democratic model often assumed in Creating Capabilities.

Nussbaum’s bias is very obviously in favour of government centralism.  She rejects the notion of any kind of world government for fairly obvious reasons, but any alternatives to national governments are not really considered.  I want to stress that there are alternatives; the democratic nation-state is a relatively modern invention.  Though I don’t necessarily propose that alternatives such as co-operatives, “villages” or other community-based consortiums are better**, I would like to see such means considered.  Nussbaum points out that a proper application of the capabilities approach requires a deep understanding of the needs and problems faced by individuals.  THis is not necessarily best reached by national governments, even in a representative democracy***.

Creating Capabilities does not purport to be the final word on the capabilities approach.  Nussbaum and her colleagues are eager for the idea to be engaged with, expanded and developed.  Indeed, you can join the Human Development Project to discuss and learn about capabilities development.  This book just provides a kicking off point, and one which should inspire thought.  Nussbaum’s language is not always accessible, though she does make some effort not to use academic jargon.  She does assume the reader’s background in some jurisprudential and human rights concepts, but takes steps to explain the ideas she critiques, so readers will not be left floundering in philosophical concepts.  As a basis for rights development, the list of capabilities is not as user-friendly as, say the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and nor is it intended to be as definitive.  Nussbaum wants you to read this book, engage in its proposals, and think about the merits of its ideas–and so do I.

*Or tyranny of the minority, which can also happen.
**I haven’t done the research to say whether I think so one way or another, to be honest.
***Indeed, as a queer woman with a keen interest in human rights, I find the very idea quite laughable, given the current state of affairs.





About Cecilia Quirk

Cecilia Quirk's ultimate goal in life is to become 'Avatar: The Last Airbender's' Uncle Iroh, or as close a proximation as possible for a redhaired white woman. Or Granny Weatherwax. Or hell, both. She enjoys green tea, long walks, manipulating causality and afternoons at home. She lives in the Magical Kingdom of the Roundabouts and works as a wild gnome herder.
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