MARTHA C. NUSSBAUM
See other pages about this author on this site, here and here and here and here
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum considers the subjection of women and homosexuals.
By ALAN RYAN
A bookstore browser who knew no philosophy and nothing of Martha C. Nussbaum might be startled by the title ''Sex and Social Justice.'' Sexual attractiveness and sexual happiness are just about the least justly distributed of all human goods, and even the most optimistic politicians have never pretended that much can be done about it. As one would guess, Nussbaum does not connect sex and social justice quite so swiftly as that -- although one of her themes certainly is the wickedness of social conventions that deny women the same chance of sexual happiness as men, and the wickedness of laws that deny homosexuals an equal chance of forming successful sexual partnerships on the same terms as heterosexual couples.
''Sex and Social Justice'' is highly readable, and very engaging. It is elegantly written and carefully argued. Its references to Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant and John Rawls will fall more easily on the ear of philosophers than on the ear of the lay reader, but Nussbaum is such a clear and fastidious writer that the most lay of lay readers will painlessly learn a great deal about Aristotle's view of happiness, Mill's distaste for seeing women treated as if they were children, Kant's insistence that we must treat one another with reverence for our common humanity and Rawls's theory of social justice.
The book consists of 15 substantial essays that range from the economic exploitation of illiterate women in Bangladesh to the introspection of Mrs. Ramsay in ''To the Lighthouse''; they take in Andrea Dworkin's enraged denunciations of the way men regard women, Richard Posner's coolly ironic discussions of the commercialization of sex, and the strange encounter between Plato's ''Symposium'' and the state of Colorado. If that appears to be a pretty mixed agenda, there are some recurrent themes that hold the book together and give it a unity of style and purpose.
One of them does much to give the book its readability. Nussbaum, who is the Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, worked for some years on a United Nations project dealing with transnational comparisons in standards of living. It evidently gave her a taste for empirical evidence, and she uses it here to great effect. The first sentence of the first essay is enough to bring the reader up short: ''I may die, but still I cannot go out. If there's something in the house, we eat. Otherwise, we go to sleep.'' The speaker is a young widow from Rajasthan, India; her husband died a little while ago, and she belongs to a caste whose women may not work outside the home. Her elderly father comes a hundred miles to plow the little plot of land she lives off. When he dies, she and her children may very well die with him.
Why? What, or who, prevents Metha Bai from going out to work? Not a shortage of work; not her own incapacity. The ''what'' is the local culture, and the ''who'' includes her own relatives, who will beat her if she tries to leave her house. This little horror story anchors the second of the themes that sustain the book. Local cultures are not sacrosanct; they license any amount of cruelty, oppression and misery. Identity is much overrated, especially for women who in most cultures find their identity construed in relation to fathers, brothers and husbands. The communitarianism lately fashionable in the American academy and on the lips of American and British leaders can be bad for your health; indeed, as the example of Metha Bai suggests, it can be fatal.
In the name of what, though, are we to condemn local traditions? Does it not show an unpleasantly chauvinistic, even imperialist attitude to object to the ways in which other societies make sense of their daily lives? Is it not an outdated Enlightenment view that there is a unitary human nature that in all times and all places needs the same things? Is it not the sort of simple-minded liberalism that we have rightly learned to reject -- individualistic, rationalistic, obsessed with freedom of choice?
Nussbaum's response is unflinching. It is not true that the world divides neatly into individualistic, choice-obsessed Westerners and contented traditionalists. The girls who suffer clitoridectomy -- firmly labeled female genital mutilation by Nussbaum -- do not volunteer for it; they are forcibly mistreated, and would plainly wish to have a choice in the matter. Metha Bai plainly wants to have the choice between starving to death in accordance with tradition and doing something to keep herself and her children alive.
It is an oddity of recent arguments, not about the developing world but about our own, that feminists have been hostile to liberalism. Conversely, quite a number of writers who have thought of themselves as defending the verities of the liberal tradition have got very angry with contemporary feminists. Nussbaum treads a delicate path. She does not succumb to the urge to cry ''A plague on both your houses''; instead, she courteously unpicks the plaintiffs' cases and allows their frailty to emerge. So when Alison Jaggar attacks what she sees as the egoism and individualism of liberalism, we are reminded that moral individualism is a commitment to holding individuals responsible for doing what they ought, not an encouragement to seize what they can. And when Christina Hoff Sommers attacks feminists who distinguish between what women seem to want and what they really want, the impeccable John Stuart Mill is brought on to suggest that it is a crucial distinction -- not only in the case of women's wishes -- and that helping people to know what they really want is not achieved by giving them the vote alone. Education and an egalitarian workplace are also crucial ingredients.
Recently, some of the weirdest events in American legal and political life have been those that centered on the legal treatment of homosexuality. The Supreme Court's judgment in Bowers v. Hardwick, upholding a Georgia statute criminalizing oral sex on the strength of what long-dead English judges once said about anal sex, was perhaps the oddest. But the attempt by the citizens of the state of Colorado to remove the political rights of homosexuals was a close runner-up: Amendment 2 made it an article of the state constitution that no jurisdiction could allow plaintiffs to claim that they had been discriminated against because of sexual orientation. Nussbaum got involved in the ensuing fracas by a strange route. Once Amendment 2 had been suspended as prima facie unconstitutional, the state had to show that something other than mere bigotry had animated it, or, to put it more politely, that a compelling interest not grounded in a particular religious perspective had animated it. Enter Plato. If the state could show that non-Judeo-Christian Greek philosophers had also thought homosexuality a threat to society, it might be just about possible to show that a rational person could support Amendment 2.
Nussbaum was not content with waiting for the Supreme Court to throw out
Amendment 2, which it duly did. She set out to show that Plato was in fact
friendly to same-sex relationships that displayed the qualities that any
affectionate relationship should display -- that each party treated the other as
an equal and that physical intimacy was a means to spiritual intimacy. For the
slightly skeptical bystander, this may be a shade more high-minded than the case
merits. Allowing a moral philosopher to judge the spiritual depth of our sexual
desires might be a wonderful way of reducing overpopulation; whether it's the
best way to inspire common sense in the Colorado citizenry is another matter.
Alan Ryan is the author of ''John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism.''
Book Review Essay
Sex and Social Justice
New York: Oxford
University Press (1999)
by Kay Mathiesen
Sex and Social
Justice is a book of essays by
Martha Nussbaum, the renowned classicist and philosopher. Nussbaum is well known
for her discussions of the place of homosexuality in Ancient Greece. She
famously testified about the views of the Ancient Greeks on homosexuality before
the Supreme Court when it was deliberating on whether to strike down a Colorado
law, which forbids cities to pass ordinances granting civil rights to gays. She
has more recently turned her attention to feminist theory and the status of
women in the politics of international development. Sex and Social Justice is a
compilation of her work on these issues. While it is simple to list the diverse
topics that Nussbaum deals with in these essays, it is more difficult to pin
down her sweeping intellectual treatment of the issues. Nussbaum is an unusually
good writer for a serious academic. Her approach combines biography, literary
analysis, classical scholarship, philosophical analysis, interviews, and
statistics. Nussbaum's philosophical and literary sensibilities and her
attention to the concrete details of people's lives inform and enliven her
discussion of feminism, human rights, and sexual orientation.
The overarching theme of the book is Nussbaum's defense of a feminism that "is internationalist, humanist, liberal, concerned with the social shaping of preference and desire, and, finally, concerned with sympathetic understanding" (pg. 6). Nussbaum gives a compelling defense of liberalism as a human, rather than merely Western, value. She argues that all persons have a dignity that deserves respect. This dignity is expressed in the idea of equal worth, which in turn is connected to the idea of liberty: "to respect the equal worth of persons is...to promote their ability to fashion a life in accordance with their own view of what is deepest and most important" (pg. 5). Throughout the book Nussbaum tries to reconcile two seemingly opposed positions--social constructivism and liberalism. The social constructivist holds that cultures shape the values, beliefs, desires, emotions, etc., of individuals in a variety of ways. Thus, we must be suspicious of claims that certain beliefs, desires, or ways of life are "natural." The liberal holds that, "Human beings have a dignity that deserves respect from laws and social institutions" (pg. 5). Thus, there are certain human rights that every culture should respect and cultures may be legitimately criticized if and when they fail to do so. The apparent contradiction between these two views is that if there is no "natural" feature of human beings which can be separated from the socially constructed features, then how can we determine what "human" rights are and what respecting them requires?
The book is divided into two sections: "Justice" and "Sex." The first section on justice concerns issues of equality, liberty, and social and economic justice for women and gays. The first four chapters discuss the application of the concepts of equality and liberty to non-Western cultures. It may be easiest to summarize Nussbaum's position on this topic by looking closer at her treatment of a particularly controversial issue in international feminism. In "Judging other Cultures: The Case of Genital Mutilation," Nussbaum discusses female genital mutilation (FGM). She tells the story of Fauziya Kassindja, who applied for political asylum in the United States in order to escape enforced genital mutilation in her home country of Togo (pg. 118). Nussbaum then asks whether we (Westerners) ought to try to stop this practice. She considers a number of arguments that Westerners ought not to criticize the traditional practices of other cultures. Nussbaum argues that claims that we ought not to criticize other cultures are based on a monolithic notion of "culture" that fails to recognize the multiple and contentious nature of all cultures. She points out, for instance, that there is significant resistance to FGM even within those cultures that have traditionally practiced it. Furthermore, the inviolable "culture" which we are supposed to avoid criticizing is often merely a codification of male interests, solemnly intoned in a masculine voice. Nussbaum also responds to the arguments of philosopher Yael Tamir who has claimed that objections to FGM are based on a Western over-emphasis on sexuality and sexual pleasure. Nussbaum replies that in objecting to FGM, she is not imposing any particular conception of the proper place of sexuality in the lives of women. Rather, she is merely arguing that women in all cultures should be able to freely express their conception of the proper place of sexuality through freely chosen behavior (instead of having their bodies changed so as to force cultural conformity).
The second section of the book, "Sex," primarily concerns the place of sexuality, desire, and emotion human life. Essays in this section range from a discussion of the sexual objectification, to homosexuality in Ancient Greece, to the possibility of really knowing another person. A number of the essays discuss the role of emotions and desires in our lives--issues not typically dealt with by mainstream Anglo-American philosophy. The tenth chapter, in particular, contains a subtle discussion of the ways that emotion and desire are socially constructed. While the fact that we have sexual desire is something natural, Nussbaum argues, the form that this desire takes is shaped by the meanings that our culture attaches to these desires and emotions. Chapters twelve through fourteen build on the foundation of this chapter, discussing what we can learn about the malleability of sexual desire from a contemplation of Ancient Greek attitudes toward homosexuality. The fact that others have had radically different attitudes toward sexual acts between persons of the same gender should make us doubt the naturalness of our attitudes toward these acts.
While Nussbaum is a skillful philosopher and writer, it is not clear, however, that she has been able to reconcile successfully social constructivism and liberalism. In particular, there is a tension between Nussbaum's concern with the social shaping of preference and desire and her liberalism. This tension shows itself in her discussion of the social construction of sexuality and her arguments for liberal, internationalist feminism. She is surely right that our notions of homosexuality are socially constructed--in Ancient Greece there was no particular shame attached to sex acts between men. It is not clear, however, how Nussbaum can use this as evidence that prohibitions against homosexuality are wrong. If such prohibitions are part of our culture's construction of homosexuality, then what makes the Greek construction superior to our own? A liberal, humanist political agenda must rely on some view of human nature that can place a limit on which social constructions are just or correct. For instance, a culture that constructs "womanhood" as an inferior position is producing an unjust construction according to the liberal conception of humans as inherently equal. Thus, there must be an argument that the liberal conception of human nature is the correct one, and that traditional religious conceptions of human nature (and their view of what is "natural" and moral with regard to sex and women's roles), are incorrect. Nussbaum tries to solve this problem by appealing to some non-socially-constructed important human capacities that all have and all deserve a chance to develop.
Nussbaum argues that, "We can hardly be charged with imposing a foreign set of values upon individuals or groups if what we are doing is providing support for basic capacities and opportunities that are involved in the selection of any flourishing life and then leaving people to choose for themselves how they will pursue flourishing" (pg. 9). This does not answer the question, however, of how one is to determine whether a person has been educated to exercise her capacities for flourishing or has simply changed capacities. The critic of Nussbaum's approach will argue that her reforms will not produce persons with greater ability to exercise their natural capacities, but merely persons with capacities more in line with Western conceptions of the self. It is not clear how Nussbaum can defend her position from this criticism, except by giving arguments grounded in a particular view of human nature and based on the claim that liberalism best respects these fundamental features of human nature. Thus, any such argument will have to posit the superiority of the liberal conception of human nature over others. While this may be the correct (and only) way to go, many will have serious objections to it and Nussbaum appears to think (I believe wrongly) that by emphasizing free choice she can avoid these objections.
I have only touched a few of the topics that Nussbaum discusses in this rich and multifaceted volume. She also discusses the nature of prostitution, the value of mercy and forgiveness, the accomplishments of American feminism, etc. In addition, she engages with the arguments of Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon, and Christina Hoff Summers (to name just a few). Unfortunately, the origin of the chapters as separate essays, while providing an interesting range of topics, produces a book with numerous repetitions, which interfere with the enjoyment of Nussbaum's excellent prose style. Rather than building on what has gone before, each article re-establishes the basic points that underpin Nussbaum's perspective. By the third or fourth time one has read the same quote from John Stuart Mill or the same description of Ancient Athenian sexual practices one gets a bit impatient. This is more than simply off-putting to the reader; it signals that the book's breadth is not balanced by the depth that one would expect in a book of over four hundred pages. Taken singly, however, the articles are always enjoyable to read and provide a cogently argued defense of Nussbaum's liberal, internationalist feminism.
In conclusion, whether or not one agrees with her, Nussbaum presents a compelling argument for a liberal humanist approach to feminist ethics and politics. Her writing is grounded in a scholarly appreciation for the history of ethical and political theory and the writings of contemporary feminists. Her work enlivened by direct experience with the lives of women and gays, in addition to her classical scholarship and love of literature. An encounter with Nussbaum's thought in any these essays will enrich and deepen one's understanding of the importance of desire and choice in human life.
Radcliffe Quarterly - Fall 1999
Martha Nussbaum BI '81
Sex and Social Justice
Oxford University Press / 476 pages
Is there a moral difference between a prostitute who takes money for sex and a philosophy professor who takes money for the "intimate" activity of "thinking and writing about what she thinks"? Do ancient Greek texts on sexuality have relevance to contemporary debate about the legal and political situation of gays and lesbians? Is the fight against female genital mutilation a form of cultural imperialism, or is it justified by the fact that the women affected have had little voice in the development of the culture that gave rise to the practice? In Sex and Social Justice, Martha Nussbaum painstakingly and persuasively addresses these and a series of similarly provocative and important questions.
Although the fifteen essays in this collection cover a diverse array of topics, they are knitted together by their expression of a "distinctive conception of feminism." This conception has five basic features: internationalism, humanism, liberalism, concern with the social shaping of preference and desire, and concern with sympathetic understanding. As Nussbaum points out, some of these principles "are widely thought to be at odds with others," but she successfully demonstrates how they can be combined to form a coherent and deeply humane whole.
Throughout her book, Nussbaum projects calm reasonableness, frankly acknowledging the weaknesses in her positions and her critics' strengths, but nevertheless creating the impression that she is imparting basic truths that the reader knew all along but just never articulated to herself. This authorial voice does not lull the reader or detract from the power of Nussbaum's analysis, however. Indeed, even while covering what seems to be familiar ground, Nussbaum frequently opens up unexpected vistas: For instance, she convincingly uses ancient Greek thought on sex to "force us to confront the fact that much that we take to be necessary and natural in our own practice is actually local and nonuniversal; this, in turn, forces us to ask whether we have good reasons for what we legislate and judge."
Some of the essays, including the one on the "relevance of ancient Greek norms to modern sexual controversies," contain patches of dense analysis that may be slow going for the general reader. But Nussbaum's interdisciplinary approach, which effectively weaves together philosophy, economics, literature, law, and anthropology, for the most part keeps her pieces varied and engaging.
Although her essays unblinkingly confront the realities of sexual inequality and its resulting injustice and suffering, Nussbaum also has a message of hope. In "The Window," a close reading of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Nussbaum explores how, "[e]ven in societies that nourish problematic roles for men and women, real men and women can also find spaces in which to subvert these conventions, resourcefully creating possibilities of love and joy." Sex and Social Justice makes a powerful case for Nussbaum's brand of liberal feminism as the best means available for enlarging these spaces and expanding these possibilities.
-- Elaine Goldenberg '93 is an attorney at Ropes & Gray, in Boston.
Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, by Martha C. Nussbaum.
Martha Nussbaum's Women and Human Development provides an eloquent, thorough and impressive statement of her capabilities ethic of human development. It gives a deeper, more measured, integrated and practical statement than in her widely read and controversial earlier papers (notably Nussbaum, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1995a, 1995b).
The considerable gap between those earlier pieces and the new book may be partly understood by different speeds of publication. The pieces which appeared in 1988-95 come from Nussbaum's thinking of the mid 1980s to early 1990s; for example the 1995 volume Women, Culture and Development derived from a 1991 conference. In contrast Women and Human Development was completed in 1999, based on the 1998 Seeley Lectures at the University of Cambridge, and reflects major and relatively recent new exposure and thinking:
Nussbaum's increasing absorption in the hard practical reasoning of law - seen in her move from a department of classics to the University of Chicago's law school;
her adoption of a Rawlsian political liberalism which provides space for various comprehensive ethics rather than tries to enforce any one; and
perhaps most important, intense research visits to India in March 1997 and December 1998. (In contrast, her other 1999 book, Sex and Social Justice, a set of papers written between 1990 and 1997, predates her main Indian research visits and is not discussed here.)
The price of this speed is that the book is sometimes overlong and rambling (notably in Ch.3), occasionally unreliable on detail, and not always connected to major relevant literature (e.g. the work led by Hans Küng on global ethics). Yet overall it is well structured and very readable, with some of the immediacy and sharpness of a good lecture series. The implicit primary audience of this augmented version of the Cambridge lectures is North American, as seen in the lengthy discussions of US law cases and the style of its periodic advice to Western feminists.
In 1996 I wrote the following in the conclusion to an assessment of the capability/capabilities ethics of respectively Sen and Nussbaum:
"Nussbaum and Sen have commendably promoted an important debate and research programme. The volumes Women, Culture and Development and The Quality of Life represent significant progress in the areas [of deciding what we should mean by improvement in the life of a person or of a group, and how far are answers to such questions culturally relative] .... But to function as a broader development ethic, persuading wider ranges of people, and dealing with wider sets of issues and aspects of life, we may need an enriched CA [capabilities approach], or something beyond, that can combine insights from other positions, including communitarianism, with the CA strengths.
Nussbaum's neo-Aristotelian elaboration of a capabilities ethic has attractions here [compared to Sen's thinner, more Kantian approach]. It gives a rich picture of what is a full human life, and talks in terms of real people, real life, not thin abstractions. She writes extensively to reject a dichotomy between emotions and reason. At the same time, she mounts an effective attack on communitarian ethics, the claims that there are no valid ways to judge life in Rome other than by the prevailing norms of 'the' Romans ('when in Rome listen to the Emperor'). She does not fall into seeing the expansion of capabilities as valuable regardless of the value of the functionings they are used for; revises her proposed lists of ethically required capabilities and functionings; and is eloquent on the priority to 'internal criticism' in bringing change. Inevitably, her work started with intense interaction with those she was familiar with. The danger remains that a 'top-table', still too disciplinary, and emphatically Aristotelian style might bring not just substantive intellectual shortcomings, but antagonize others and thus short-circuit the debate it sought to advance. Assessment is underway; the jury is still out, and clearly divided. The motto remains: WIDER." (Gasper, 1997: 299-300)
In Women and Human Development (WHD), Nussbaum has taken up those sorts of challenge, as voiced by various authors. She now:
Effectively incorporates insights from communitarianism while avoiding relativism; and demonstrates in detail what she had previously asserted in principle, the scope for cultural variation in operationalizing central capabilities and in life beyond them.
Thus makes clear her support for a 'political' rather than 'comprehensive' liberalism; and for an 'overlapping consensus' model (as earlier argued by many basic needs theorists, see e.g. Gasper, 1996). Nussbaum now focuses more on specifying criteria of 'a decent social minimum' (p.75), not a comprehensive list of proposed requirements for human flourishing.
Now proceeds more in the spirit of her 1987 paper with Amartya Sen on 'internal criticism', for example in her Ch.3 on religion; rather than relying so heavily on an externally specified neo-Aristotelian vision of 'the good life for man'. The range of intellectual sources and resources within a culture provide bases for it to learn and evolve, including in response to influences from outside, without 'parachuting in' packages of ideas that may be short on local resonance, relevance or acceptability. Nussbaum's earlier pieces on capabilities analysis were inspired (in both senses) by passion but also occasionally distorted by it (as when sniping at some with whom she had differed), departing from the spirit of internal criticism. Küng's global ethics project offers a good model of how to build from within as well as without.
Makes clearer why she gives central roles and universal priority to exercise of the capabilities for affiliation and practical reason (e.g. p.82).
Responds at length, and with sympathy, to the criticism that spiritual and religious aspirations were slighted in her account of central capabilities (see e.g. Alkire & Black 1997); while defending principled limits to the 'free' exercise of religion - it is not to be free of reason, consistency and.... humanity.
Going further than her earlier work's excitement at finding Sen's welfare economics compatible with certain ancient Greek ideas, Nussbaum has come to fuller grips with varied modern realities of livelihoods and law, in addition to cases from classical Greek, Hellenistic, Roman and modern European literature. Her research trips to India influence WHD strongly. She disciplines her ideas by contemporary cases and the situations of ordinary people, not only 'top-table' seminar exchanges.
Nussbaum has thus become more multi-disciplinary, deeply influenced by law and politics besides philosophy and literature; and less overtly, emphatically and exclusively Aristotelian (see also Nussbaum, 2000). She thoughtfully treats the practical choices, including issues of balancing, feasibility and timing, faced by judges and (other) policy-makers. The influence of law is perhaps also seen in the book's systematic, orderly presentation; e.g. of her principle of moral constraint on the boundaries to acceptable cultural variation. (There is careful reference too to utilitarian welfare economics in Ch.2; however it may underestimate the plurality of strands within neoclassical welfare economics.)
The rhetorical strategy is now stronger. Nussbaum seeks agreements on conclusions even where there is disagreement on premises and routes; for example while preferring capabilities theory to informed desire theory she goes to lengths in Ch. 2 to show how closely they can and should converge on implications.
In sum, this new version of CA has indeed become wider, and deeper. It provides advances in each of the aspects of persuasion: logos (reasoning), pathos (the felt experience it draws on and the feelings it evokes), and ethos (including the mood of confidence the author establishes with the audience). It is a major contribution. At the same time it leaves many issues unsettled and requiring further work.
While Nussbaum has added substantial, modern, non-European cases and coverage, the cases in total remain relatively few and in the style of literary cameos, indeed sometimes taken from literature (notably a story from Rabindranath Tagore, p.161 ff.).
She makes intensive and good use of the cases of two modern India women - Vasanti in Ahmedabad, and Jayamma in Trivandrum. These cases open the book (pp.15-24) and are regularly referred back to (e.g. pp.106, 260, 266-7, 296-7). Yet they may be rather thin in both number (two) and depth (perhaps from single meetings, reliant on interpreters), for Nussbaum's ambitious purposes.
From pp. 24 to 161 we then find no new rich cases, which impairs readability as well as persuasive power; though there follow three valuable legal cases from India in Ch.3, as well as extensive reference to American legal cases.
Her two field visits to India were evidently intense but relatively brief; and the second occurred just weeks before finalization of the Preface. At the age of fifty she experienced 'days that were different from any days I had ever spent' (p.ix); but does not pause to reflect on the possible impact of months, or years, of exposure
Overall some concerns remain over Nussbaum's methodology. She promises a later much fuller book, but appears to have fuller philosophical coverage in mind, not a fuller experiential base or collaboration with a Southern author. We can take this gap as space for further work by others, including both social scientists and philosophers, especially through cross-disciplinary and multi-national collaborations.
Nussbaum sometimes ventures emphatic views on various Indian matters where she probably should not have. For example, she treats Gandhianism as the antithesis of the Western, although its founder spent twenty-five formative years in Britain and South Africa to return to India as a dedicated revolutionary (p.67); and overgeneralizes from marriage practices of some castes to Kerala as a whole (p.229). She also seems to excuse the inexcusable in India: 'the nation is in no position to enforce either these laws [mandating compulsory education] or laws against child labour at this time' (p.231), a statement that lacks credibility given what has been achieved in Sri Lanka and Kerala. As in the past though, the occasional lapses into over-assertion or more (as in overkill of an unpublished 1981 pamphlet by Veena Das) occur in the cause of defending people's right and ability to form, have, and use opinions. They remain a pity; a lesson from the Shah Bano case which Nussbaum valuably discusses is that tactics matter, besides good intentions.
In the Shah Bano case, the Chief Justice of the Indian Supreme Court, a Hindu, awarded maintenance to an elderly Muslim woman who had been summarily divorced by her husband following Muslim personal law, after 44 years of marriage. The judge made numerous comments on the deficiencies of Muslim practices and the requirements of Muslim scriptures if properly interpreted. He fell into the tactical trap of seeking publicly to interpret others' religion for them. The Muslim backlash against his ruling and Rajiv Gandhi's search for votes led to civil legal buttressing of the regressive Muslim personal law.
Nussbaum notes that trap and seeks to avoid it, indeed she takes a political tactical line for not supporting the Shah Bano verdict. She may instead fall into the trap of ghettoization, in her conclusion that withdrawal of state recognition from the dominant but questionable interpretation of Muslim family law would under present circumstances be 'difficult to dissociate [from]... a relegation of Muslim citizens to second-class status' (p.178); and likewise in her claim that 'given the history of Muslims in India, it seems apparent that any abolition of the system of Islamic law would be a grave threat to religious liberty and a statement that Muslims would not be fully equal as citizens' (p.211).
In fact, half the Muslim citizens already have a real second-class status, given by this very law; and the proposal is not to abolish Islamic personal law, but simply to give persons the right to opt out into civil law, a right that shoud apply to all citizens. To prevent that right is the real threat to religious liberty, and transfers all religious liberty for Muslims to the mullahs, who determine the meaning and evolution of their religious tenets. The present situation—an indefensible law, politically protected for electoral reasons—seems more likely to contribute to a feeling by others that Muslims are second-rate citizens. Unfortunately, defensive conservatism and external denigration become mutually reinforcing.
Nussbaum argues her position at length, but may be overemphatic in a political judgement about a country she knows relatively little, and too brief in laying out the structure, method and options in the debate. One respects, however, her style of 'internal criticism' here, making close reference to debates within India and the concepts and judgements they presume, and her belief that traditions are more than a set of petrified practices and instead contain sub-traditions of reflection and the potential to evolve. Elsewhere in the book she is admirable in letting us see options and what is at stake.
This note has introduced Women and Human Development as a rewarding and systematic treatment of some central issues in development ethics and of a series of enlightening cases. I will not attempt to assess it in detail as an exercise in theory building, centred on the identification of a largely consensual or persuasive list of universal priority core (opportunity) capabilities. That is taken up in other reviews in this set. Nussbaum is also explicit that this expanded set of lectures does not represent her full philosophical defence. She does however already give an impressive refutation of pure proceduralism (the idea that principles of justice can be established without any substantive ideas about the nature of the agents whom these principles are meant to concern). I will note only a few issues that the fuller statement will need to address.
It could be wise to refine the theory further by more 'fuzzy' specification: some 'central' capabilities are more central than others; the list can have no sharp ending point; some of the proposed capabilities may be better seen as important criteria than as absolute requirements (Crocker, 1995; Gasper, 1997). Nussbaum takes initial steps in this direction.
Indeed the whole list might be presented more emphatically as an illustration of a methodology which offers a framework for dialogical investigation (Alkire & Black, 1997; Alkire, 2001). Otherwise it arouses fears in some people of a preemptive bid to capture the ear of metropolitan power-holders.
More attention to the possibilities for buttressing and practical specification through building common ground with the international human rights tradition and the global ethics movement of Küng and others should help, including in conveying how a fuzzy theory can at the same time guide choices, structure ongoing areas of debate, and respect and face differences. This may also offer more practical ways forward than expectations regarding convergence on a consensus core set of capabilities (e.g. p.205). Pp. 153-155 seem rather optimistic about the impacts of oppression on preferences and acceptance (e.g. 'regimes that fail to deliver health, or basic security, or liberty are unstable' - p.155); will everyone want what Nussbaum expects?
Fuller discussion is called for of why the intrinsically central capabilities and the instrumentally central capabilities are held to neatly coincide (p.74).
Finally, the theory needs further refinement to handle a series of hard cases beyond its core focus of the adult citizen: the seriously disabled or 'differently abled' for whom some capabilities are out of reach; hermits—people who seek no societal affiliation, no human betterment, only an affiliation to some notion of the divine—and religious celibates, who reject that 'it is always rational to want [all the specified core human capabilities, p.78ff.] whatever else one wants' (p.88); and, as Waerness stresses, the majority of humankind who are children or infirm.
Women and Human Development seems to me a significant contribution in consolidating and communicating an enriched and usable human development ethic. It remains however very much a work in progress, requiring connection to wider streams.
Alkire, S., forthcoming. Valuing Freedoms. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.
Alkire, S., & Black, R., 1997. A Practical Reasoning Theory of Development Ethics: Furthering the Capabilities Approach, J. of International Development, 9(2), 263-279.
Crocker, D., 1995. Functioning and Capability. In Nussbaum & Glover (eds.).
Gasper, D., 1996. Needs and Basic Needs - a clarification of foundational concepts for development ethics and policy. Pp.71-101 in Questioning Development, ed. G. Köhler et al., Marburg: Metropolis. (And Working Paper 210, ISS, The Hague.)
-----, 1997: Sen's Capability Approach and Nussbaum's Capabilities Ethic. J. of International Development, 9(2), 281-302.
Küng, H., 1997. A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics. London: SCM Press.
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Martha Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, and author of "Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education".
In your book "Cultivating Humanity”, you write and I quote from you here, "The world around us is inescapably international. Issues from business to agriculture, from human rights to the relief of famine call our imaginations to venture beyond narrow group loyalties and to consider the reality of distant lives”. So what kinds of imagination are necessary for thinking in an informed way about the reality of distant lives?
First of all we have to be much better informed than we currently are about the rest of the world. I'm thinking particularly of my own country now, but we're a very ignorant country in America, we don't get a whole lot of news about the rest of the world and people don't read it when it is there, and so first of all we just have to know a lot more about the history and cultures of other countries in the world where our firms are doing business, where our own consumer choices effect peoples’ lives and where issues like ecology and global agricultural development are increasingly bringing us together.
One way this became real to me was that I went to work with a United Nations group that was working on problems of women in developing countries, and I was working with people from South Asia, from Africa, from Latin America, and I realised all of a sudden that my own education had not acquainted me at all with the fundamentals of the basic, the world religions and cultures that I was dealing with. I knew nothing about Hinduism, nothing about Islam, nothing about Buddhism, nothing about the history of Africa or of India, so in short I was just very ill equipped to play the role that I was playing. But all the people I was working with knew a lot about America and its history and traditions. So I think even just to show respect for people, we ought to be curious about their lives.
So what are the sort of things that should shape these imaginations if you like, and how might they be cultivated?
Well I think they're really two separate areas – one is just learning a lot about history and culture, we have to have courses in world history, not just in the history of western cultures or our own culture. And those courses have to ask how the cultures of the west have influenced, have colonised, have exploited the cultures of the east. But we also want to know something about what those cultures have achieved in their own right. We also have to have courses on comparative religion and learn something about the major world religions.
But then there's something else that's really rather different, that is just cultivating the ability to imagine what it might be like to be in the shoes of someone who's different from yourself, whether different in ethnic background, in class, in sex, in sexuality – all these differences, even the ones that are right around us where we live we have to be able to investigate them through the imagination, and for that I think you don't always need to consider the distant. Any good course in the arts will cultivate that ability to imagine, to step into somebody else's shoes with sympathy and emotion. So I would give the arts and the literary humanities a very large part in the cultivation of global citizenship.
And I think that right now we're in an era where we are like it or not global citizens. But most of us play that role very obtusely, we think of the connections we have with the rest of the world as a way of making profit, a way of promoting our own country's economic growth, and so without even being aware of it, we ride roughshod over the real lives of people who are far away or sometimes people who are very near to us in our own country. So I think it's not enough to learn some facts about other places because of course even to make money off of people you have to learn these facts, but we have to also promote a more humane and understanding relation to them, and that means learning to think ethically and it also means learning to imagine.
So is just about anyone capable of developing this kind of internationalised and sympathetic consciousness do you think?
I think that every human being is capable of that and I think that often small children are much better at it than adults are. Small children don't recognise racial difference as a barrier to the understanding of a person, and they don't even have a conception that they're from this country and not from that and therefore they shouldn't relate to somebody who's from a distant country. So in a way we all have to become more like children, curious about everything, willing to imagine anything, and not standing on the high horse of our own local pride and our own local identity in a way that separates us from other people.
So I think a lot of this is about recovering abilities that we're had and that we never developed and maybe almost lost. We have to develop the ability to imagine and the ability to think logically, to criticise what we find, to think what arguments are good arguments, and then of course we have to learn a lot of facts, so in that way we have to go well beyond children. But I don't think there's anyone who's not capable of that, and of course that's what we rely on when we defend democracy as a form of government. We rely on the idea that every citizen can become a good citizen. So I'm really saying that these abilities are essential parts of a new kind of citizenship, of global citizenship for the new millennium, and I do think that anyone can develop them.
And by the way I think sometimes the people who are the worst are the people who are extremely sophisticated in some discipline. When I've worked with professional economists for example I find that they're much more resistant to the kind of imagining, the kind of humanistic thinking that I have in mind than people who've had very little education. I've worked with rural women in India who are totally illiterate and boy do they have wonderful imaginations. They can imagine and ask me about my life and I can talk to them about their lives, it's a much better conversation than I've had with many highly educated people.
I wonder if in particular you can suggest what sort of academic programs, you know curricula, reading, research that's necessary for this process to take place if you like?
In my book I wrote primarily about college and university education, but I want to emphasise that I wrote about that because it's what I know best. But I think this process has to begin very, very early when parents and children are telling stories together. You know preferably in the family already and in early primary education you're going to get a lot of story telling about the myths and legends of other countries, and you're going to start learning to think critically about your own culture. You're going to start cultivating the ability to ask why do I believe what I believe? Is it on the basis of good reasons, what do I really think fairness is? Because I think young children have a very developed sense of fairness.
And then as time goes on all this gets more sophisticated and by the time we're in High School I think we should be having courses in world history, courses in human rights and ethical thinking, and then for the people who go on to college and university, what I argued in the book is that there are three areas of curriculum that we need to develop. First of all I would like to see all students getting some rudiments of ethical reasoning – that is learning to think critically about their habits and their traditions and to ask really what is fairness? Are these arguments that I see in this political speech or in this newspaper editorial, are they good arguments or not? And just to have the experience of that give and take of argument debate with other students in the classroom about things like is the death penalty good or bad. I talk about a student who had never really thought critically about the death penalty and then he found that in this ethics course he was assigned to produce arguments against the death penalty, and he had never had the conception that you can argue for a position that you don't yourself hold. And it was really a revelation to him, it made him a completely different kind of citizen because all of a sudden he had to represent the other side, and he told me that that gave him a very different feeling about what it is to have a political argument with someone. It gave him the feeling that there are arguments on both sides and maybe they have some common ground. And he was curious about what the common ground might be.
Instead of viewing argument as I think so many American kids do as just a way of making boasts and assertions, it's a bad habit they get into from listening to too much talk radio I think. Talk radio in America is pretty low level on political issues. So anyway the first part is that kind of critical, ethical reasoning part. The second part is the part where we learn just as much as we can about other cultures. Now what I think is that all students should get some rudiments of world history and basic knowledge of the major world religions, but then they should have to inquire in depth into one unfamiliar culture, so that they learn how to do that. What it really is to think about a culture very different from your own. And of course that might not be the culture that will most influence their lives later on, but they'll still know what their ignorant of and they'll know how to go about getting the knowledge they need.
And then I also recommend that this shouldn't just happen with non-western cultures, it should also happen with minorities within their own culture. I think all students should have knowledge of racial differences in the history of their own culture, and whatever other minority problems are most vivid in that culture. They should know something about the history and achievements of women in their culture and elsewhere, and they should understand something about the variety and diversity of human sexuality, because I think that a lot of prejudice about sexual orientation grows from a lack of historical knowledge of the many different ways that reasonable people have organised things in that domain. So that's the knowledge part so to speak.
And then the third part is the imagination part, the part where we try to encourage people to step into the shoes of other people in courses on literature, music and the arts. And I think it's sensible to connect that with the knowledge part. That is you can have a wonderful imagination reading books about people like yourself and you could be unable to transfer that to a group that you're afraid of or a group that you look down on. So I think we want the courses in the arts to focus on groups and people that our students have a particular difficulty coming to understand. I talk a lot about teaching novels relating to race in my own university which is right on the dividing line between a prosperous university neighbourhood and a very poor black neighbourhood. And I talk about how you couldn't walk into the neighbourhood a hundred yards from your classroom and ask people how they're doing. The walls of suspicion and resentment are too high. So we sit there and we read this novel of Richard Wright, 'Native Son” and we talk about racial barriers, and in a way we can make more progress than we would if we just simply walked next door and said oh by the way tell me about your lives? So the imagination is an essential part anyway of surmounting racial barriers and I think it's very important to read novels dealing with race and with cultural difference and with sex difference.
So do you think our major western liberal education systems, and especially universities of course, are appropriately geared to cultivate these imaginations?
I think that one good feature of the American tradition is that we're always had the thought that however specialised our university education is it shouldn't be only specialised education, that there's part of education that is general that's a preparation for citizenship and life. So our students typically spend two of the four years doing these general courses, and then two further years doing their major subject. So I think that structure is a good starting point. It's much harder in European countries that have never had that structure where you enter to read just one subject, and I've gone over to the Netherlands for example to talk about this because they're recognising that an increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-racial society that they are, they would like to teach people more about the different groups in their society but they have no place in the curriculum to fit it in because there is no such thing as a general shared curriculum that's regarded as a preparation for citizenship.
So other countries are wrestling with this. Scotland does have one year of general education, and so in short I think wherever you have a structure that has general as well as specialised education it's much easier to make these changes. And yet even in countries where you have that I think there is always a pressure to produce students who can get jobs, to produce students who have technical training. So in America right now we're fighting hard to defend the general education part of the university education, and especially the humanities part of that, the part that deals with literature and philosophy and the arts against the incursions of a much more pre-professional and technical education.
And so in my book I focused on a school, a university that deals with business education and I pointed out that this particularly wise business college, it was called Bentleigh College in Massachusetts, they had seen that to even get good people for business in the 21st century you've got to require humanities courses, you've got to require them to do philosophy and literature and these other things, because otherwise they're going to be very obtuse global citizens when they go into some multinational corporation and find themselves in another part of the world. So I think we have to keep hammering home that point, otherwise we're going find that increasingly the education takes the direction of maximising profits for business and we won't have this rich humanistic education that we have had in the past.
If the good structure is in place as you say how can the roles of universities be enhanced in this process? I mean what other ways might they be changed?
Well I think of course each university has to think about what its own students are, what their background is, what it's own particular mission is, and well in America we have such a tremendous diversity of universities that I just say any single proposal is bound to be bad. You have to really think about how should my students learn ethical reasoning, and you know often I think it's through required courses in philosophy but not always. And again, how can my university best promote knowledge of other parts of the world? Well now I think some universities are fortunate enough to have access to funding where they can make it possible for students to travel and take a year abroad, and that's a tremendous enrichment of the part, the learning facts part of this education.
So you have to figure out what the resources and opportunities are. What is your faculty like? What do they know? And I think it's good for there to be a lot of diversity in the way that institutions go at this, but I do think that some common features we should have, that is courses that are genuinely focused on the concept of global citizenship. What I think is a mistake is to think that you can solve this problem easily by just saying oh well, all students must take one course no matter what about a foreign culture. A lot of universities are doing that because it is a way of solving this problem without spending a whole lot of money but it's shortsighted. I think you really do have to get faculty together to construct a course, you have to bring people together from many different departments, and preferably you have to pay them to develop a new course.
I describe one course that I saw at a Womens College in Pomona California called Scripts College, which was about the ideas of the western enlightenment and attacks on them by formerly colonised people, by feminists and so on. So they studied the enlightenment and its ideas of human rights first historically, from the perspective of the people who created those ideas, but then again from non-western perspectives and critical perspectives. So this was a course that brought in a lot of factual information along the way, but it had a purpose, it had a theme and so students were arguing about something and the faculty was focused and they were learning from each other in the different disciplines. So I think it's this kind of course that we want to develop more and more, something that's synthetic, that has a purpose, that has some kind of unity, and it creates on campus a rich community of debate about the issues that are going to be fundamental to our students as they go out.
So I would say whatever the university is, what they should do is bring faculty together, pay them to spend their summer developing curriculum, and then see what they come up with, but try to make it something that combines a number of different elements but that has a thematic focus that isn't just a kind of chance collection of some stray facts about the rest of the world that we think people might have.
Is there a danger that in cultivating humane and internationalised imaginations a good western liberal education system such as you're advocating there, could be out of step with other competing educational belief traditions? For example fundamentalist Islamic or Hindu or Confucian traditions which may advocate less humane values which could be highly sexist for example, possible hostile even to some of the core values within the what we would say the western liberal tradition?
One of the things that I would like students to learn is that any contrast that pits the humanistic west against the sexist patriarchal Hindus and Muslims is excessively simple and actually quite wrong. First of all the whole idea that there's such a thing as non-western cultures, now I know you didn't say that, but a lot of people use that term, that of course is a western construct. I don't think anyone I work with in India would describe their culture as a non-western culture, no, it's Indian culture, and then there's Chinese cultures quite different, it's as different from Indian culture as European cultures are different from Indian culture.
So you know each culture is its own thing, and in each there's tremendous diversity - within Christianity and Judaism as we all know there are patriarchal positions and then there are positions that are egalitarian about women's role, and again there are positions that are very critical of differences of sexual orientation and then there are positions that are liberal on that. So we know the tremendous diversity of Christian and Jewish cultures because we all live among them, and then we somehow construct a Hindu or Muslim other that has none of this self-critical capacity and none of this diversity, well of course the whole founding of the Indian nation was the result of such diversity. I mean how does it happen that the abolition of caste is actually in the Indian constitution, well it's partly because there were people who were critical of the whole Hindu tradition, but it's also largely because there was already within that tradition a critical strand represented by Gandhi who was of course one of the most deeply religious of leaders, and he said Hinduism is a search for truth by non violent means and that was its essence, and all these other things like caste and so on were peripheral and were actually perversions of the essence of Hinduism. So within Hinduism there's tremendous diversity about both caste and sex.
In Islam too there's a tremendous diversity, there's Islamic feminists and then there are people who believe women should have a very unequal role. So I think one of the things I like my students to learn is that there is all this diversity and that we should understand that any complex culture is critical and self-critical and contains the plurality of voices. So then what do we say when the more conservative, let's put it that way among those voices say well, but in talking about womens’ equality and their basic human rights you're imposing a western value.
So that way we first of all we don't segment things by west and non-west and we prepare ourselves to find an awful lot of common ground with many parts of cultures that are distant from us, and then I think we can say even to the minority within those traditions who wish sex inequality to remain, we can say look here, in any modern pluralistic society you have to live with other people. Now we can of course point to the fact that the Indian constitution has adopted a fundamental right of sex equality, something I should add that the United States has been unable to do, so India's well ahead on that score. And people who don't like that well then they have considerable leeway in their own families to design things as they will, but they are part of a pluralistic society in which people have decided that a basic value of equality should be put into the constitution. So you better learn how to live with that.
And I think in general what we can say to people is that in this day and age you can't conduct your lives without being aware of and respectful of the lives that other people lead. Every country in the modern world is pluralistic so we'd better find a core of political values by which we can live together. Now I think that any reasonable such core is going to include a fundamental right of sex equality, but let's at least have an argument about that, let's see what other proposals come forward. So my students would be prepared to meet that kind of charge with a lot of historical knowledge, knowledge of diversity within each tradition, and a capacity for curiosity and serious argument.
Is there a danger do you think that the kind of internationalised liberal consciousness that you're advocated, is there a danger of it being rejected by anti-liberal traditions on the grounds that it's yet another form of imperialism or western colonialism?
I think the danger is very great if we in the west bring to the rest of the world the narrowest and most ugly if I want to put it that way, I think of our values, that is the materialism, the aggressiveness, the desire to maximise profit. And I think right now that's what we're doing, that's what we bring to the rest of the world when our corporations go over there, because these corporations basically operate in the rest of the world so as to maximise profit, and they don't say well let's see how I could protect the lives of children here, let's see how I can help to increase literacy in this country where I'm doing business, let's see how I can help to advance ecology. No, they typically try to find the cheapest labour they can and they try to adopt the lowest pollution standards that they can get away with in that country. There are exceptions to this and the United Nations Development Program now singles out corporations that willingly adopt better labour standards and better ecology standards than they're required to do by the law of the developing countries in which they operate.
But we'd better see that if our corporations and the International Monetary Fund and other agencies are going to export only western aggressiveness and materialism then of course it would rightly be rejected as non-humane and as at odds with the deeper strata of all the major cultures of the world. So I think what we need to be able to say is look, that's not all that we're about, we actually have a view about justice, about redistribution and about all human beings should develop their capacities. And you know here are views that we hold that actually seem quite similar to views that you're fighting for on the ground.
And so when I go to womens groups in India I find that the values of let's say the modern human rights movement or modern movements for protecting peoples’ opportunities and capabilities are pretty closely in tune with things that poor illiterate women are striving for – more control over their lives, more access to property rights, more access to credit, more access to education and the cultivation of their faculties, and just the ability to be respected as a human being whose worth is equal to that of others. So I think on that kind of meeting between so to speak east and west, you find great common ground. So I think we don't encounter the charge you mentioned so much if we export what's richest and most humane in our traditions, but only if we export the impoverished version that we're now exporting.
So is there a common ground that contemporary western liberalism shares with other great world civilisations? For example on issues that you're canvassed already – issues like human rights, female equality and so on – and if so, how may we discover this common ground?
It's often said that the idea of human rights is a western idea and that the east doesn't have such ideas. Well first of all of course this whole polarising of west and east as I said that's too simple, but often the people who say this are people in whose interest it is to brand the ideas of human rights as external, as foreign, so you hear someone like Lee Kuan Yew, the autocratic leader of Singapore saying oh well, non-western cultures don't value political liberty. Well it's very much in his interests to brand that idea as a foreign idea. If you really go into it seriously I think you find that of course no culture until very recently had exactly all the ingredients of the modern notion of human rights, but all cultures had many ingredients of it. In India for example you find an idea that we ought to respect religious difference and we ought not to infringe on peoples’ liberty of expression in their own particular religion. And we find that idea as early as the third century BC – way, way before the west had any such idea. Emperor Ashoka who converted from Hinduism to Buddhism put up all these edicts saying that we must treat with respect people whose religion is different from our own. Ashoka also said that he wanted to support the way of life of every citizen, both rich and poor providing places for rest along the highways, and trees from which they might get shade and food. So he had at least rudimentary ideas of civic welfare and how each citizen had a right to some minimal concern and respect at the hands of the state.
So in every culture there are ideas that we can draw on when we try to find common ground, and as to the equal worth of women well of course no culture until extremely recently has publicly endorsed that, and still many cultures in the west too, including my own refuse to put that into their constitution.
But on the other hand you find many precedents for it, and you can go quite far back in many religions and cultures and find examples of womens’ initiative and womens’ claim to equality and you can find some cases where that's taken very, very seriously. So I think we have to mine the tradition for the common ground that we can find, but we also have to remember that this is now, not then. We don't think that we ourselves have got to have the same values as the warriors of Homer's Iliad, and so why should we think that people in other countries are bound to have only the ideas that their culture had millennia ago. We think that it's fine for us to innovate and borrow and change and take good ideas where we find them, but somehow when let's say people in China say well now we value democracy and they're willing to die for it which is something that not very many Americans have been asked to do recently, we don't somehow think it's theirs. Well I would say, you know if somebody takes it and they stand for it, and especially if they're willing to risk their lives for it, boy is it theirs, and we should never say it's foreign because they made it theirs. So that's the other way that we can find common ground.
So even within contemporary western education systems there are critics of the values you've spoken about - there are critics of feminist and gay studies, critics of religious studies and secular societies, critics of ethnic studies and multicultural societies, and while these in part reflect sexist sectarian and even racist prejudices, they also rest on a view that we need more practical or vocational curricula. That is they may be the kinds of curricula you've defended in cultivating humanity are luxuries that only nostalgics would now defend. What we need some may argue are more programs in information technology and marketing and business, in technical skills etc. How would you answer that criticism?
Well really there are two different types of opponents you've identified, and I think they are quite importantly distinct. The conservative theorists who think well we should study the great ideas of the tradition and not these modern critical ideas of feminism and gay studies – they do agree with me in this that the humanities provide a central part of any good citizens education. So on certain issues like on whether we should have required courses in philosophy, in literature and the arts, I'm entirely in agreement with such conservative thinkers as William Bennett and Alan Bloom, I think we would all defend the tremendous importance of those courses as a preparation for citizenship and life. We just disagree about what their content should be.
But of course there's another group of people who just think this is all frills and we should really focus on what's useful, and I think what happens is that by the time the conservative critics get through bashing the new way the humanities are being done, what the general public thinks is oh, this is a real mess, why should we get enmeshed in this very messy controversy about what the humanities should be like, let's just junk the humanities and go over to technical and pre-vocational education.
So there is a connection between the conservative attack on feminism and gay studies and so on, and a turn to more technical education, but I think it's that connection that people get tired of the fight and they think oh well, it's uncontroversial, the computer science is useful, so let's have that and let's appropriate money for that because we know that if we introduce into the state legislature a bill that includes feminism and gay studies we'll have no end of a dog fight on our hands. Well I think what we should say to those people is look, it is worth keeping with the humanities because you can't have good citizenship without it and look what happens when people go into business or into anything that's international which is I mean more or less every way of life that our students are going to go into now is in some way international, and they don't know how to think about people in other countries. Bad citizenship is the result. You're either a good citizen or you're a bad citizen, you can't be a non-citizen in this global world because everyone is involved like it or not.
So all our students are involved in this global world, therefore they all ought to learn to be good rather than bad citizens of that world, and I think we can argue that the best businessmen already know that and they say that. If you ask any CEO of a major international corporation what kind of workers do they want, they don't really want workers who are just trained in the narrow technicalities of their business, they want people who can think for themselves, who are imaginative, who can form a good human relationship with people who are different from themselves, and they will say all this. So increasingly I'm trying to bring in businessmen to our campus and to get them to say these things publicly so that people will really understand that even promoting good business dealings requires a lot more than learning the narrow technical stuff.
Is a globalising world cultivating an undermining of humanity? And if so, how?
I think it needn't be, that is a world that's globalising is a world where there's so many new opportunities for rich human connections. If you think about the international womens movement, well it used to be that women were very isolated, each in their own region, each in their own social class and region. But now with email you can be in touch with women all over the world and you can share experiences and ideas and it's led to some wonderful effort such as women who were in the informal sector of the economy, which means hawkers and vendors, craft labourers, agricultural labourers, all these people that are not protected by labour unions – they're organising now internationally to get basic protections for their rights. Now that could never have happened without globalisation, without the new communications possibilities that that opens up.
But of course it also opens up some bad possibilities for exploitation and abuse and for a very crude and superficial kind of relationship among human beings. I mean you can use email and the internet for anything, it's morally neutral and so I think even more important than the globalising of business is in itself against morally neutral – multinational corporations can use their power for great good, they can work for education and health care and higher ecological standards in the countries where they work, and they can help those countries move along and develop their resources. But of course they can also just be out for number one and for maximising profits, and if that happens then the effect of globalisation will be extremely pernicious.
So I think the likelihood that it will be pernicious is great because corporations are in the habit of maximising profit and not thinking about human beings, so there's all the more need to work through the educational system to get people to understand what's at stake, and understand the very fact that human beings are at stake here. So yeah, I think we need to work as fast as we can and as hard as we can if globalisation is not to have an impoverishing effect.
Well finally then as a leading international scholar are you optimistic or pessimistic about cultivating humanity?
Well I'm an optimist by temperament, and I believe that you have to proceed along certain hopeful assumptions if you are going to sustain your concern and your work, and so I adopt some assumptions that certain kinds of progress are possible and that does sustain me, whether the evidence supports those assumptions or not. But I also think that if you work on women you can't help but be hopeful because there's been such tremendous shifting in attitudes about women and their role. I mean of course there's tremendous problems still, but in this century the changes in the lives of women that we've seen all round the world have been tremendous and they're still going on.
So I guess I think that working in this neck of the woods as I do gives me more reasons for hope than I might otherwise have, and I think we still can see just very rapidly how much progress can be made by just a little investment in womens literacy, in womens education of all kinds, in womens political participation so that in one state in India that I study, Kerala in south India, although literacy rates were pretty low about 50 years ago, right now 99 per cent of both women and men in adolescence can read, and that's a tremendous result. So that just shows you that where good public planning is in place and people really address themselves to a problem, tremendous progress can take place.
IS RELIGION GOOD NEWS OR BAD NEWS FOR WOMEN?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM'S CREATIVE SOLUTION TO CONFLICTING RIGHTS
Rosalind I. J. Hackett
Martha C. Nussbaum. WOMEN AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT: THE CAPABILITIES
APPROACH. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 312 pp, index.
Martha Nussbaum's recent book, Women and Human Development, represents an ambitious project, which is rightly generating keen interest and discussion. As the title suggests the book is about one of the author's principal concerns the needs and interests of women, notably in the developing world. It is an exercise in how to translate abstract philosophical theory into practical, life-transforming policy applications. Furthermore, it is a statement of her own, more gendered, version of the human capabilities approach, as compared to that of its primary articulator, Amartya Sen. It is also a more contextual approach to the realization of human capabilities than that of John Rawls.
This book occasioned all sorts of imaginings as I read it. I imagined the philosopher being excited by this thought-provoking application of time-honored concepts of justice and equality, the anthropologist being challenged by the appeal to universal values, the development economist being pushed to factor in women's life experiences and hence a much broader approach to human functioning, and the human rights theorist assessing the possibilities of "capabilities" over and against, or, in conjunction with, the concept of "rights." I pictured too the Western feminist reconsidering her parochialism and her priorities, and the Indian social activist being heartened, nay even empowered, by a more multilateral and multidimensional perspective on the everyday problems and inequalities that women face in the world's largest democracy.
As an anthropologically oriented scholar of religion I was particularly intrigued by Martha Nussbaum's efforts to embed universal notions of justice in the concrete lives of poor women. For those, myself included, who are interested in how legal strategies may redress the inequalities in the lives of so many women, this book has much to offer. One learns in the course of the book of the profound way that the author's Indian experience, both ethnographically and phenomenologically, has influenced her thinking. As an Africanist, I could not help but make comparisons and imagine how similar or different her book would have looked had she gone to Africa instead, or, better still, as well.
While there are many aspects of this book that I would have liked to engage, I am going to limit myself to the areas of religion and human rights more specifically the tensions between religious and cultural self-determination and gender inequality. This is no small part of this influential book since Martha Nussbaum sees her work as both complementing and challenging human rights norms and mechanisms. Religion is one of the two topics chosen by the author (the other being the family) to receive detailed treatment. As she herself justifies this choice: "I argue that any good approach to this problem [i.e. conflicts between religion and sex equality] must balance recognition of religion's importance in the human search for meaning (including women's search) against a critical scrutiny of religion when it threatens valuable areas of human functioning" (p. 9). Nussbaum begins her discussion of religion by highlighting the fundamental dilemma of the liberal state i.e. the support of religious liberty may entail the denial of other liberties and forms of self-definition by religious groups themselves. As she rightly indicates, the abridgement of certain liberties by religious traditions has more serious consequences in those states where religions and legal systems are intertwined. In this very long and complex chapter (pp. 167-240), she is primarily concerned with conflicts between claims of religious free exercise and women's claims to other important rights. As elsewhere in the book, she takes her examples from India and the United States.
Martha Nussbaum is not shy in chiding secular humanist feminists for being too dismissive of religion. Incidentally, this echoes her recent indictment of Susan Okin's Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?(1) and Okin's Western secularist dismissal of religion. (2) Nussbaum criticizes Western feminists for not recognizing religion's mobilizing properties and not respecting the religious commitments of many women the world over. She finds further problems with the predilections of traditionalist feminists for cultural relativism. These are familiar political and pragmatic critiques. Nussbaum's criticism becomes more interesting and cogent when she turns to three "deeper level" arguments relating to her wider concept of human capabilities. First, she identifies religious capabilities (liberty of religious belief, membership, and activity) as being central human capabilities in that religion is frequently instrumental in pursuing general capability goals, most notably the search for ultimate meaning. Religion is also bound up with other human capabilities such as artistic, ethical, and intellectual expression, and commonly viewed as a locus of moral education and cultural continuity. In addition to these considerations of "intrinsic value," Nussbaum suggests that respect for persons, i.e. that they be allowed to define the ultimate meaning of life in their own way (providing that it does not harm others), should be integral to the type of political liberalism that she espouses. Third, she berates those, both secular humanists and traditionalist feminists, who treat religious traditions as essentially patriarchal, authoritarian, and regressive. While not denying that religions can limit the rights of women, she lists several salient examples of contesting voices and dynamic heterogeneity in these traditions.
The author then shifts gear to consider some further guiding principles. The first is the "principle of each person as end." She insists that, like all the central capabilities she has adumbrated earlier in her book, religious capabilities are tied to individuals in the first instance, and not to groups. She recognizes, as do the basic international human rights instruments, that religion is often practiced in community. Her way of dealing with this thorny area of group rights is to say that "an organic good for the group is unacceptable if it does not do good for the members taken one by one" (p. 188). To clarify her position she emphasizes that she is not saying that all religious functioning to be acceptable has to be individualistic, nor that people may not search for the good by subordinating themselves to authority or hierarchy. Realizing that this may not persuade all her readers Nussbaum launches into the principle of moral constraint. She is here speaking of the moral role of religions. She then qualifies this slightly by distinguishing between the "major" religious tradition that embodies some notion of justice and the "cult or so-called religion that diverges too far from the shared moral understanding that is embodied in the core of the political conception" and therefore "does not deserve the honorific name of religion" (p. 190). This is where it starts to get tricky. Here is where she seems more bothered by the non-recognition of comprehensive ethical or political views as religion under U.S. law rather than by the fate of non- traditional minority religions (whereas she will later claim that the latter are her primary concern). Incidentally her reference to "satanist cults and other related groups" (p. 190) as being refused religious status is somewhat problematic and vague since most of the time these groups have no clear identity or existence. One which does, but which would dissociate itself from the popular, pejorative label, is the Church of Satan which, moreover, has denominational recognition in the U.S..
The principle of moral constraint may work reasonably well in ascertaining that a religion does not deserve state deference when its practices are harmful, but Nussbaum realizes that political liberalism (which she subscribes to over a more comprehensive liberalism) does not take a stand on matters internal to the religion itself. So she introduces a social version of this principle which allows one to ask whether an element of a religion which appears cruel and unjust is really central to that religion and whether is it really religious (and not political, economic, or cultural, etc.). She effectively draws inspiration in this regard from the Emperor Ashoka and President Lincoln who both said that we must be skeptical of religious acts that are unjust. She also cites Hindu and Muslim debates about women's issues in India, such as pertaining to sati , child marriage, seclusion, and polygamy where reformers questioned their non-necessity for moral conduct.
Then Nussbaum turns to honing her approach even further. This last part of the chapter is not for the fainthearted as the author works her way through U.S. and Indian law pertaining to free exercise, non-establishment, and equality. She is essentially exploring whether religion deserves special protection (as it did in the United States Religious Freedom Act of 1993 [RFRA] but which was later declared unconstitutional in 1997). She sees the twin-pronged approach of U.S. constitutional law as providing the necessary balance religion is given special deference under free exercise claims but is somewhat more curtailed than nonreligion with respect to establishment issues. However she admits that in practice it is problematic to try and treat religious and nonreligious conceptions equally since the latter do not lend themselves as do religious systems to having claims by individuals assessed about how a given law may offend against his or her worldview. Inspired by RFRA's goal to protect minority religions, she comes down on the side of giving religion a larger measure of deference (3). She feels that disadvantages that might be incurred by the nonreligious can be partially remedied by adopting strong protections for expressive speech and practice. She does add that this is contextual since in Scandinavian states the established Lutheran churches may in fact be more effective in protecting religious pluralism than a secular regime. She proposes that the type of limited plural establishment in India may be more suitable all round, especially for the Muslim community.
Importantly, Nussbaum contends that the protection of general capabilities (e.g. equal property rights, mobility, compulsory education) does not generally involve an unacceptable level of damage to a religious way of life. In other words compelling state interest does not generally impose a substantial burden on religion, especially if it is grounded in the notion of central capabilities which she suggests legally resemble fundamental constitutional or international human rights. She also attributes this lack of conflict to the "dynamic character of religious traditions, which have a way of evolving to meet the challenges of new situations" (p. 212). She does admit that her approach does require more balancing and judgment than a Rawlsian approach.(4)
In the final section of the chapter on religion Nussbaum explores the applicability of her approach to her Indian cases. I shall not attempt to evaluate her work in this regard, given the limits of my knowledge of the Indian context. However, I still want to highlight her key observations with regard to her general arguments and concerns. She notes that India's brand of secularism is extremely generous to the various religious traditions as compared to how they would be treated in North American or European democracies. However, the bewildering variety of codes entails practical difficulties, with individuals being unable to change from one system to another even though there are clear inequalities between the religions in their approach to basic human capabilities. So this creates what the author calls a "huge free exercise dilemma" (p. 216). In this plural, decentralized system it is particularly difficult, she observes, to achieve capability equality for women as widespread legal reform is a virtual impossibility and internal changes in specific traditions may be perceived as unfair, notably in the current climate of Hindu-Muslim mistrust. She ends up by suggesting that the more productive approach for today's India may be to maintain the separate codes but try to solve the problems of lack of parity and free exercise "through a vigilant set of legislative and judicial constraints" (p. 217).
Nussbaum rightly states that one valuable strategy for solving the problems discussed above is through the promotion of "more public dialogue over norms of sex equality within the religious codes" (p. 217). Interestingly, she avers that this might be most usefully done by looking at the international human rights documents that India has ratified and also inviting religious legal systems to come up with their own plans for reform and conformity with the Indian Constitution, and with international treaty norms. The importance of this type of internal dialogue has been long been emphasized by international human rights scholar and advocate, Abdullahi An-Na'im (An-Na'im 1992). Nussbaum raises the key question of who should take the initiative in promoting this dialogue the current national government is excluded because of its religious bias, and likewise the Supreme Court given the controversy of the Shah Bano case. She suggests instead the role that could be played by NGO's, women's groups, and political parties interested in pluralism. Surely she could have mentioned the potential of the mass media here. With the expansion of the informational and communications media both globally and locally there is growing attention being paid to the ways in which they may shape political and cultural attitudes of tolerance/intolerance. (5)
To summarize thus far: Martha Nussbaum's approach supports laws of general applicability against religious practices. Most areas of traditional women's inequality under personal laws involve central capabilities. However, there are certain religious practices which the government does not have a compelling interest to reform. Her proviso is that individuals should have the freedom to change their religion. Hence, sex-segregated norms of dress and decoration, as well as places of worship would be protected. In this regard, she states, the French government would be required to permit Muslim girls to wear scarves in school (what would she make, though, of the current controversy at American University in Cairo where the university authorities have banned a student from wearing the full black veil or niqab for educational and security reasons which even the Egyptian government will not do?). In endorsing the U.S. government's decision to withdraw Bon Jones University's tax-exempt status because of its racial discrimination, she rightly highlights the failure of the government to take the same action on sex inequality. She cites the example of Notre Dame University, whose president is required to be a priest, ergo male, but which has not lost its tax exemption. Polygamy is an especially challenging practice which has been closely connected with a history of sex discrimination, and variable in its centrality. The author revealingly claims that: "There is nothing in polygamy in the abstract that is oppressive to women, especially if the practice is available to both sexes" (p. 229) (and we all know that there are few places in the world where that sort of equality is enjoyed). Religious education is another sensitive area as numerous conflicts have arisen between parents' interest in religious schooling for their children and the state's interest in its future citizens.
Nussbaum ends her complex chapter on religion by asking: what gets lost by employing her principle of moral constraint? She considers that there is "considerable latitude for the preservation of tradition in cases that do not involve grave harms to others" (p. 235) but recognizes that "there are some valuable ways of life that will become difficult to sustain in a climate of choice" (ibid.). She admits of the "potential for tragedy" (p. 238) in her capability-based approach to religious freedom but also expresses hope in how resourceful religious men and women can be in adapting to changing realities. She does not hide the difficulty of courts, politicians, and academics being in a position to assess claims and influence reform yet also respect traditions. Yet this very concern should serve to mobilize greater dialogue on these issues at local, national, and international levels.
I now want to consider Nussbaum's treatment of human rights. The interconnections between her capabilities approach as opposed to a more rights-based strategy for dealing with the inequalities of women need more discussion and critique than I can attempt here. At very least, however, I would like to summarize her responses to this question when it came up at the Women Waging Peace Conference, held at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in October 2000, in conjunction with her comparison of capabilities and human rights in the book (pp. 96-101). She sees rights as protection from something, whereas the capabilities approach is about how "to secure a right to someone" (p. 98). So she wants to think about rights as "combined capabilities, " and as "capacities to function" (ibid.), and wants to ask understandably, given her feminist leanings--what measures are in place to ensure a particular right in practice and not just on paper? She does complicate the issue, however, by saying that some rights, such as religious freedom, could be seen more as "basic capabilities" which people are due by virtue of being human.
In Nussbaum's opinion, the capabilities approach demonstrates more clearly the interdependencies between rights rather than the more conventional human rights emphasis on political freedoms. She believes also that the capabilities approach captures more deeply the material conditions required to ensure human dignity, and with a way of ensuring equality at many levels. She argues that the capabilities approach is more international (despite the dominance of rights language in the international development world) and more grounded than the rights approach--which is associated with demonstrably Western human values. She helpfully qualifies this by saying that the notion of rights which indeed coalesced in the European Enlightenment also grew out of ideas of justice in the older traditions of China and India. She also affirms that the idea of human rights is inherently ambiguous and that the account of central capabilities is more able to take "clear positions on these disputed issues, while stating clearly what the motivating concerns are and what the goal is" (p. 97). Nussbaum also suggests that the capabilities approach opens up a wider range of problems (and solutions) yet one of the ongoing criticisms of the rights movement is precisely its pluralization of rights. (6)
There is no doubt that the attention to economic, social, and cultural rights in balance with traditional political rights and liberties--afforded by Nussbaum's approach will indeed by welcomed by many in the human rights movement. Yet I cannot help remembering the forceful intervention at the above-mentioned conference from an Indian woman participant. She said that she found Martha Nussbaum's capabilities approach to be relevant and promising for situations of peacetime but when there was war or conflict she would want to resort to human rights. Nussbaum agreed that we still need rights language for the rhetorical sense of urgency and "moral resonance" it may provide, i.e. "these are fundamental rights" rather than "here's a list of things that people ought to be able to do and to be" (p. 100)(7). She also feels that rights language has value because it gives additional emphasis to people's choice and autonomy an aspect which she has been at pains to underscore throughout her work. It also "preserves a sense of the terrain of agreement" while deliberations about the claims of utility, resources, and capabilities are still being worked out.
There is an ever-growing critical mass of people interested in the relationship between religion and human rights. I cannot imagine that such scholars and activists will not be engaged and enriched by this book, notably its gendered dimension. I do wonder, however, how its message will get translated and transmitted to those who most need it. Martha Nussbaum herself is a most passionate and cogent advocate but I worry about those who will find her "balancing approach" too heady and complex. This was indeed what one of the Burundian women delegates (an experienced journalist) communicated to me at the "Women Waging Peace" conference mentioned above. Nussbaum's use of U.S. legal precedents and political liberalism is creative but again I wonder how her resorting to the U.S. rather than the U.N. in this regard may be mis-perceived by more radical feminists. Similarly, the centrality of her metaphysically neutral political liberalism may indeed ensure cross-cultural appeal for some, while alienating others who require questions of human dignity and the quality of life to be predicated on religious ideas.
The book is rich in stories of Indian women, yet the work itself is a fascinating narrative of a Western philosopher converting to a more international, feminist, and grounded social philosophy. I was struck by the image of "interweaving" used by another reviewer of this book (Uma Narayan on Amazon.com). Martha Nussbaum has indeed woven together many important strands of thought and action for our consideration. But the real questions are whether the women in question find Nussbaum's creation wearable and whether policy makers will market and mass-produce the proto-typical garment she has so carefully and skillfully woven together? Such acceptance would go far toward defeminizing poverty and revamping a number of disciplines. As I said at the outset, this is a very ambitious project. For my part, I will never look on philosophy in the same way again, and eagerly await my own induction into the challenges of the Indian context.
An-Na'im, Abdullahi A, ed. 1992. Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives . Philadelphia:University of Pennsylvania Press.
An-Na'im, Abdullahi A. 1994. State Responsibility Under International Human Rights Law to Change Religious and Customary Law. In Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives , edited by R. J. Cook. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, chap. 7.
Kennedy, Duncan. 1997. A Critique of Adjudication (fin de siecle) . Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press.
Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. 1999. Exporting Religion. Commonweal, 10-11.
(1) Eds. J. Cohen, M. Howard, and M. Nussbaum (Princeton University Press, 1999).
(2) See also her "Religion and Women's Human Rights," in Religion and Contemporary Liberalism , ed. Paul Weithman (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 93-137, and a revised version in her Sex and Social Justice (New York; Oxford University Press, 1999).
(3) Cf. (Sullivan 1999), who is critical of making religious freedom a special case.
(4) See (An-Na'im 1994) for a legal perspective on the conflict between women's rights and religious freedom.
(5) See, for example, Jamie Frederic Metzl, "Rwandan Genocide and the International Lawof Radio Jamming." American Journal of International Law , 91,4 (October 1997): 628-651; Anne Husarska, "`Conscience Trigger': the Press and Human Rights." In Realizing Human Rights: From Inspiration to Impact eds. Samantha Power and Graham Allison (New York: St.Martin's Press, 2000), 337-352; Rosalind I. J. Hackett, "Managing or Manipulating Religious Conflict in the Nigerian Media." In: Studies in Media, Religion and Culture , Jolyon Mitchell and Sophia Marriage, eds. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, forthcoming).
(6) Cf. (Kennedy 1997), chapters 12, 13.
(7) For a fuller statement of this, see her "Capabilities and Human Rights," Fordham Law Review 66 (November 1997): 273-300.
WOMEN AND CULTURAL UNIVERSALS
We shall only solve our problems if we see them as human problems arising out of a special situation; and we shall not solve them if we see them as African problems, generated by our being somehow unlike others.
--Kwame Anthony Appiah,
Africa in the Philosophy of Cultures
Being a woman is not yet a way of being a human being.
I. A Matter of Survival
"I may die, but still I cannot go out. If there's something in the house, we eat. Otherwise, we go to sleep." So Metha Bai, a young widow in Rajasthan, India, with two young children, described her plight as a member of a caste whose women are traditionally prohibited from working outside the home--even when, as here, survival itself is at issue. If she stays at home, she and her children may shortly die. If she attempts to go out, her in-laws will beat her and abuse her children. For now, Metha Bai's father travels from 100 miles away to plow her small plot of land. But he is aging, and Metha Bai fears that she and her children will shortly die with him.
In this case, as in many others throughout the world, cultural traditions pose obstacles to women's health and flourishing. Depressingly, many traditions portray women as less important than men, less deserving of basic life support or of fundamental rights that are strongly correlated with quality of life, such as the right to work and the right to political participation. Sometimes, as in the case of Metha Bai, the women themselves resist these traditions. Sometimes, on the other hand, the traditions have become so deeply internalized that they seem to record what is "right" and "natural," and women themselves endorse their own second-class status.
Such cases are hardly confined to non-Western or developing countries. As recently as 1873, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law that forbade women to practice law in the state of Illinois, on the grounds that "[t]he constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood." And in 1993, a woman who was threatened and grossly harassed by her male coworkers, after becoming the first woman to work in the heavy metal shop in the General Motors plant in Indiana, was described by a federal district judge as having provoked the men's conduct by her "unladylike" behavior--behavior that consisted in using a four-letter word a few times in a five-year period. Clearly our own society still appeals to tradition in its own way to justify women's unequal treatment.
What should people concerned with justice say about this? And should they say anything at all? On the one hand, it seems impossible to deny that traditions, both Western and non-Western, perpetrate injustice against women in many fundamental ways, touching on some of the most central elements of a human being's quality of life--health, education, political liberty and participation, employment, self-respect, and life itself. On the other hand, hasty judgments that a tradition in some distant part of the world is morally retrograde are familiar legacies of colonialism and imperialism and are correctly regarded with suspicion by sensitive thinkers in the contemporary world. To say that a practice endorsed by tradition is bad is to risk erring by imposing one's own way on others, who surely have their own ideas of what is right and good. To say that a practice is all right whenever local tradition endorses it as right and good is to risk erring by withholding critical judgment where real evil and oppression are surely present. To avoid the whole issue because the matter of proper judgment is so fiendishly difficult is tempting but perhaps the worst option of all. It suggests the sort of moral collapse depicted by Dante when he describes the crowd of souls who mill around in the vestibule of hell, dragging their banner now one way, now another, never willing to set it down and take a definite stand on any moral or political question. Such people, he implies, are the most despicable of all. They cannot even get into hell because they have not been willing to stand for anything in life, one way or another. To express the spirit of this chapter very succinctly, it is better to risk being consigned by critics to the "hell" reserved for alleged Westernizers and imperialists--however unjustified such criticism would in fact be--than to stand around in the vestibule waiting for a time when everyone will like what we are going to say. And what we are going to say is: that there are universal obligations to protect human functioning and its dignity, and that the dignity of women is equal to that of men. If that involves assault on many local traditions, both Western and non-Western, so much the better, because any tradition that denies these things is unjust. Or, as a young Bangladeshi wife said when local religious leaders threatened to break the legs of women who went to the literacy classes conducted by a local NGO (nongovernmental organization), "We do not listen to the mullahs any more. They did not give us even a quarter kilo of rice."
The situation of women in the contemporary world calls urgently for moral standtaking. Women, a majority of the world's population, receive only a small proportion of its opportunities and benefits. According to the Human Development Report, in no country in the world is women's quality of life equal to that of men, according to a complex measure that includes life expectancy, educational attainment, and GDP (gross domestic product) per capita. Some countries have much larger gender disparities than others. (Among prosperous industrial countries, for example, Spain and Japan perform relatively poorly in this area; Sweden, Denmark, and New Zealand perform relatively well.) If we now examine the Gender Empowerment Measure, which uses variables chosen explicitly to measure the relative empowerment of men and women in political and economic activity, we find even more striking signs of gender disparity. Once again, the Scandinavian nations do well; Japan and Spain do relatively poorly.
If we turn our attention to the developing countries we find uneven achievements but, in the aggregate, a distressing situation. On average, employment participation rates of women are only 50% those of men (in South Asia 29%; in the Arab states only 16%). Even when women are employed, their situation is undercut by pervasive wage discrimination and by long hours of unpaid household labor. (If women's unpaid housework were counted as productive output in national income accounts, global output would increase by 20-30%.) Outside the home, women are generally employed in a restricted range of jobs offering low pay and low respect. The percentage of earned income that goes to women is rarely higher than 35%. In many nations it is far lower: in Iran, 16%; Belize, 17%; Algeria, 16%; Iraq, 17%; Pakistan, 19%. (China at 38% is higher than Japan at 3 %; highest in the world are Sweden at 45%, Denmark at 42%, and the extremely impoverished Rwanda at 41%, Burundi at 42%, and Mozambique at 42%.) The situation of women in the workplace is frequently undermined by sex discrimination and sexual harassment.
Women are much less likely than men to be literate. In South Asia, female literacy rates average around 50% those of males. In some countries the rate is still lower: in Nepal, 35%; Sierra Leone, 37%; Sudan, 27%; Afghanistan, 32%. Two-thirds of the world's illiterate people are women. In higher education, women lag even further behind men in both developing and industrial nations.
Although some countries allowed women the vote early in this century, some still have not done so. And there are many informal obstacles to women's effective participation in political life. Almost everywhere, they are underrepresented in government: In 1980, they made up only around 10% of the world's parliamentary representatives and less than 4% of its cabinet officials.
As Metha Bai's story indicates, employment outside the home has a close relationship to health and nutrition. So too, frequently, does political voice. And if we now turn to the very basic issue of health and survival, we find compelling evidence of discrimination against females in many nations of the world. It appears that when equal nutrition and health care are present women live, on average, slightly longer than men--even allowing for a modest level of maternal mortality. Thus, in Europe the female/male ratio in 1986 was 105/100, in North America 104.7/100. But it may be objected that for several reasons it is inappropriate to compare these developed countries with countries in the developing world. Let us, therefore, with Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, take as our baseline the ratio in sub-Saharan Africa, where there is great poverty but little evidence of gender discrimination in basic nutrition and health. The female/ male ration in 1986 was 102.2/100. If we examine the sex ratio in various other countries and ask the question, "How many more women than are now in country C would be there if its sex ratio were the same as that of sub-Saharan Africa?," we get a number that Sen has graphically called the number of "missing women." The number of missing women in Southeast Asia is 2.4 million; in Latin America, 4.4; in North Africa, 2.4; in Iran, 1.4; in China, 44.0; in Bangladesh, 3.7; in India, 36.7; in Pakistan, 5.2; in West Asia, 4.3. If we now consider the ratio of the number of missing women to the number of actual women in a country, we get, for Pakistan, 12.9%; for India, 9.5%; for Bangladesh, 8.7%; for China, 8.6%; for Iran, 8.5%; for West Asia, 7.8%; for North Africa, 3.9%; for Latin America, 2.2%; for Southeast Asia, 1.2%. In India, not only is the mortality differential especially sharp among children (girls dying in far greater numbers than boys), the higher mortality rate of women compared to men applies to all age groups until the late thirties.
Poverty alone does not cause women to die in greater numbers than men. This is abundantly clear from comparative regional studies in India, where some of the poorest regions, for example, Kerala, have the most equal sex ratios, and some far richer regions perform very poorly. When there is scarcity, custom and political arrangement frequently decree who gets to eat the little there is and who gets taken to the doctor. And custom and political arrangement are always crucial in deciding who gets to perform wage labor outside the home, an important determinant of general status in the family and the community. As Sen has argued, a woman's perceived contribution to the well-being of the family unit is often determined by her ability to work outside, and this determines, in turn, her bargaining position within the family unit. Custom and politics decree who gets access to the education that would open job opportunities and make political rights meaningful. Custom and politics decree who can go where in what clothing in what company. Custom and politics decree who gets to make what sorts of protests against ill treatment both inside and outside the family and whose voice of protest is likely to be heard.
Customs and political arrangements, in short, are important causes of women's misery and death. It seems incumbent on people interested in justice, and aware of the information about women's status that studies such as the Human Development Reports present, to ask about the relationship between culture and justice and between both of these and legal-political arrangements. It then seems incumbent on them to try to work out an account of the critical assessment of traditions and political arrangements that is neither do-gooder colonialism or an uncritical validation of the status quo.
One might suppose that any approach to the question of quality of life assessment in development economics would offer an account of the relationship between tradition and women's equality that would help us answer these questions. But in fact such an account is sorely lacking in the major theoretical approaches that, until recently, dominated the development scene. (Here I do not even include what has been the most common practical approach, which has been simply to ask about GNP (gross national product) per capita. This crude approach does not even look at the distribution of wealth and income; far less does it ask about other constituents of life quality, for example, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, health, and the presence or absence of political liberties, that are not always well correlated with GNP per capita. The failure to ask these questions is a particularly grave problem when it is women's quality of life we want to consider. For women have especially often been unable to enjoy or control the fruits of a nation's general prosperity.)
The leading economic approach to the family is the model proposed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker. Becker assumes that the family's goal is the maximization of utility, construed as the satisfaction of preference or desire, and that the head of the household is a beneficent altruist who will adequately take thought for the interests of all family members. In real life, however, the economy of the family is characterized by pervasive "cooperative conflicts," that is, situations in which the interests of members of a cooperative body split apart, and some individuals fare well at the expense of others. Becker deserves great credit for putting these issues on the agenda of the profession in the first place. But his picture of male motivation does not fit the evidence, and in a way substantial enough to affect the model's predictive value--especially if one looks not only at women's stated satisfactions and preferences, which may be deformed by intimidation, lack of information, and habit, but at their actual functioning. Furthermore, the model prevents those who use it from even getting the information about individual family members on which a more adequate account might be based.
Suppose we were to retain a utilitarian approach and yet to look at the satisfactions of all family members--assuming, as is standardly done in economics, that preferences and tastes are exogenous and independent of laws, traditions, and institutions rather than endogenously shaped by them. Such an approach--frequently used by governments polling citizens about well-being--has the advantage of assessing all individuals one by one. But the evidence of preference endogeneity is great, and especially great when we are dealing with people whose status has been persistently defined as second class in laws and institutions of various sorts. There are many reasons to think that women's perception even of their health status is shaped by traditional views, such as the view that female life is worth less than male life, that women are weaker than men, that women do not have equal rights, and so forth. In general, people frequently adjust their expectations to the low level of well-being they think they can actually attain. This approach, then, cannot offer a useful account of the role of tradition in well-being, because it is bound by its very commitments to an uncritical validation of the status quo.
More promising than either Becker's model or the standard utilitarian approach is one suggested by John Rawls's liberalism, with its account of the just distribution of a small list of basic goods and resources. This approach does enable us to criticize persistent inequalities, and it strongly criticizes the view that preferences are simply given rather than shaped by society's basic structure. But in one way the Rawlsian approach stops short. Rawls's list of "primary goods," although it includes some capacity-like items, such as liberty and opportunity, also includes thing-like items, particularly income and wealth, and it measures who is least well off simply in terms of the amount of these thing-like resources an individual can command. But people have varying needs for resources: a pregnant woman, for example, needs more calories than a nonpregnant woman, a child more protein than an adult. They also have different abilities to convert resources into functioning. A person in a wheelchair will need more resources to become mobile than a person with unimpaired limbs; a woman in a society that has defined employment outside the home as off limits to women needs more resources to become a productive worker than one who does not face such struggles. In short, the Rawlsian approach does not probe deeply enough to show us how resources do or do not go to work in making people able to function. Again, at least some of our questions about the relationship between tradition and quality of life cannot be productively addressed.
Workers on such issues have therefore increasingly converged on an approach that is now widely known as "the capabilities approach." This approach to quality-of-life measurement and the goals of public policy holds that we should focus on the question: What are the people of the group or country in question actually able to do and to be? Unlike a focus on opulence (say, GNP per capita), this approach asks about the distribution of resources and opportunities. In principle, it asks how each and every individual is doing with respect to all the functions deemed important. Unlike Becker's approach, the capability approach considers people one by one, not as parts of an organic unit; it is very interested in seeing how a supposed organic unit such as the family has constructed unequal capabilities for various types of functioning. Unlike a standard utilitarian approach, the capability approach maintains that preferences are not always reliable indicators of life quality, as they may be deformed in various ways by oppression and deprivation. Unlike the type of liberal approach that focuses only on the distribution of resources, the capability approach maintains that resources have no value in themselves, apart from their role in promoting human functioning. It therefore directs the planner to inquire into the varying needs individuals have for resources and their varying abilities to convert resources into functioning. In this way, it strongly invites a scrutiny of tradition as one of the primary sources of such unequal abilities.
But the capabilities approach raises the question of cultural universalism, or, as it is often pejoratively called, "essentialism." Once we begin asking how people are actually functioning, we cannot avoid focusing on some components of lives and not others, some abilities to act and not others, seeing some capabilities and functions as more central, more at the core of human life, than others. We cannot avoid having an account, even if a partial and highly general account, of what functions of the human being are most worth the care and attention of public planning the world over. Such an account is bound to be controversial.
II. Anti-Universalist Conversations
The primary opponents of such an account of capability and functioning will be "antiessentialists" of various types, thinkers who urge us to begin not with sameness but with difference--both between women and men and across groups of women--and to seek norms defined relatively to a local context and locally held beliefs. This opposition takes many forms, and I shall be responding to several distinct objections. But I can begin to motivate the enterprise by telling several true stories of conversations that have taken place at the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER), in which the anti-universalist position seemed to have alarming implications for women's lives.
At a conference on "Value and Technology," an American economist who has long been a leftwing critic of neoclassical economics delivers a paper urging the preservation of traditional ways of life in a rural area of Orissa, India, now under threat of contamination from Western development projects. As evidence of the excellence of this rural way of life, he points to the fact that whereas we Westerners experience a sharp split between the values that prevail in the workplace and the values that prevail in the home, here, by contrast, exists what the economist calls "the embedded way of life," the same values obtaining in both places. His example: Just as in the home a menstruating woman is thought to pollute the kitchen and therefore may not enter it, so too in the workplace a menstruating woman is taken to pollute the loom and may not enter the room where looms are kept. Some feminists object that this example is repellant rather than admirable; for surely such practices both degrade the women in question and inhibit their freedom. The first economist's collaborator, an elegant French anthropologist (who would, I suspect, object violently to a purity check at the seminar room door), replies: Don't we realize that there is, in these matters, no privileged place to stand? This, after all, has been shown by both Derrida and Foucault. Doesn't he know that he is neglecting the otherness of Indian ideas by bringing his Western essentialist values into the picture?
The same French anthropologist now delivers her paper. She expresses regret that the introduction of smallpox vaccination to India by the British eradicated the cult of Sittala Devi, the goddess to whom one used to pray to avert smallpox. Here, she says, is another example of Western neglect of difference. Someone (it might have been me) objects that it is surely better to be healthy rather than ill, to live rather than to die. The answer comes back; Western essentialist medicine conceives of things in terms of binary oppositions: life is opposed to death, health to disease. But if we cast away this binary way of thinking, we will begin to comprehend the otherness of Indian traditions.
At this point Eric Hobsbawm, who has been listening to the proceedings in increasingly uneasy silence, rises to deliver a blistering indictment of the traditionalism and relativism that prevail in this group. He lists historical examples of ways in which appeals to tradition have been politically engineered to support oppression and violence. His final example is that of National Socialism in Germany. In the confusion that ensues, most of the relativist social scientists--above all those from far away, who do not know who Hobsbawm is--demand that Hobsbawm be asked to leave the room. The radical American economist, disconcerted by this apparent tension between his relativism and his affiliation with the left, convinces them, with difficulty, to let Hobsbawm remain.
We shift now to another conference two years later, a philosophical conference on the quality of life. Members of the quality-of-life project are speaking of choice as a basic good, and of the importance of expanding women's sphere of choices. We are challenged by the radical economist of my first story, who insists that contemporary anthropology has shown that non-Western people are not especially attached to freedom of choice. His example: A book on Japan has shown that Japanese males, when they get home from work, do not wish to choose what to eat for dinner, what to wear, and so on. They wish all these choices to be taken out of their hands by their wives. A heated exchange follows about what this example really shows. I leave it to your imaginations to reconstruct it. In the end, the confidence of the radical economist is unshaken: We are victims of bad universalist thinking, who fail to respect "difference."
The phenomenon is an odd one. For we see here highly intelligent people, people deeply committed to the good of women and men in developing countries, people who think of themselves as progressive and feminist and antiracist, people who correctly argue that the concept of development is an evaluative concept requiring normative argument--effectively eschewing normative argument and taking up positions that converge, as Hobsbawm correctly saw, with the positions of reaction, oppression, and sexism. Under the banner of their fashionable opposition to universalism march ancient religious taboos, the luxury of the pampered husband, educational deprivation, unequal health care, and premature death.
Nor do these anti-universalists appear to have a very sophisticated conception of their own core notions, such as "culture," "custom," and "tradition." It verges on the absurd to treat India as a single culture, and a single visit to a single Orissan village as sufficient to reveal its traditions. India, like all extant societies, is a complex mixture of elements: Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, Christian, Jewish, atheist; urban, suburban, rural; rich, poor, and middle class; high caste, low caste, and aspiring middle caste; female and male; rationalist and mystical. It is renowned for mystical religion but also for achievements in mathematics and for the invention of chess. It contains intense, often violent sectarianism, but it also contains Rabindranath Tagore's cosmopolitan humanism and Mahatma Gandhi's reinterpretation of Hinduism as a religion of universal nonviolence. Its traditions contain views of female whorishness and childishness that derive from the Laws of Manu; but it also contains the sexual agency of Draupadi in the Mahabharata, who solved the problem of choice among Pandava husbands by taking all five, and the enlightened sensualism and female agency of the Kama Sutra, a sacred text that foreign readers wrongly interpret as pornographic. It contains women like Metha Bai, who are confined to the home; it also contains women like Amita Sen (mother of Amartya Sen), who fifty years ago was among the first middle-class Bengali women to dance in public, in Rabindranath Tagore's musical extravaganzas in Santiniketan. It contains artists who disdain the foreign, preferring, with the Marglins, the "embedded" way of life, and it also contains Satyajit Ray, that great Bengali artist and lover of local traditions, who could also write, "I never ceased to regret that while I had stood in the scorching summer sun in the wilds of Santiniketan sketching simul and palash in full bloom, Citizen Kane had come and gone, playing for just three days in the newest and biggest cinema in Calcutta."
What, then, is "the culture" of a woman like Metha Bai? Is it bound to be that determined by the most prevalent customs in Rajasthan, the region of her marital home? Or, might she be permitted to consider with what traditions or groups she wishes to align herself, perhaps forming a community of solidarity with other widows and women, in pursuit of a better quality of life? What is "the culture" of Chinese working women who have recently been victims of the government's "women go home" policy, which appeals to Confucian traditions about woman's "nature"? Must it be the one advocated by Confucius, or may they be permitted to form new alliances--with one another, and with other defenders of women's human rights? What is "the culture" of General Motors employee Mary Carr? Must it be the one that says women should be demure and polite, even in the face of gross insults, and that an "unladylike" woman deserves the harassment she gets? Or might she be allowed to consider what norms are appropriate to the situation of a woman working in a heavy metal shop, and to act accordingly? Real cultures contain plurality and conflict, tradition, and subversion. They borrow good things from wherever they find them, none too worried about purity. We would never tolerate a claim that women in our own society must embrace traditions that arose thousands of years ago--indeed, we are proud that we have no such traditions. Isn't it condescending, then, to treat Indian and Chinese women as bound by the past in ways that we are not?
Indeed, as Hobsbawm suggested, the vision of "culture" propounded by the Marglins, by stressing uniformity and homogeneity, may lie closer to artificial constructions by reactionary political forces than to any organic historical entity. Even to the extent to which it is historical, one might ask, exactly how does that contribute to make it worth preserving? Cultures are not museum pieces, to be preserved intact at all costs. There would appear, indeed, to be something condescending in preserving for contemplation a way of life that causes real pain to real people.
Let me now, nonetheless, describe the most cogent objections that might be raised by a relativist against a normative universalist project.
III. The Attack on Universalism
Many attacks on universalism suppose that any universalist project must rely on truths eternally fixed in the nature of things, outside human action and human history. Because some people believe in such truths and some do not, the objector holds that a normative view so grounded is bound to be biased in favor of some religious/metaphysical conceptions and against others.
But universalism does not require such metaphysical support. For universal ideas of the human do arise within history and from human experience, and they can ground themselves in experience. Indeed, those who take all human norms to be the result of human interpretation can hardly deny that universal conceptions of the human are prominent and pervasive among such interpretations, hardly to be relegated to the dustbin of metaphysical history along with recondite theoretical entities such as phlogiston. As Aristotle so simply puts it, "One may observe in one's travels to distant countries the feelings of recognition and affiliation that link every human being to every other human being." Kwame Anthony Appiah makes the same point, telling the story of his bicultural childhood. A child who visits one set of grandparents in Ghana and another in rural England, who has a Lebanese uncle and who later, as an adult, has nieces and nephews from more than seven different nations, finds, he argues, not unbridgeable alien "otherness," but a great deal of human commonality, and comes to see the world as a "network of points of affinity." But such a metaphysically agnostic, experiential and historical universalism is still vulnerable to some, if not all, of the objections standardly brought against universalism.
Neglect of Historical and Cultural Differences
The opponent charges that any attempt to pick out some elements of human life as more fundamental than others, even without appeal to a transhistorical reality, is bound to be insufficiently respectful of actual historical and cultural differences. People, it is claimed, understand human life and humanness in widely different ways, and any attempt to produce a list of the most fundamental properties and functions of human beings is bound to enshrine certain understandings of the human and to demote others. Usually, the objector continues, this takes the form of enshrining the understanding of a dominant group at the expense of minority understandings. This type of objection, frequently made by feminists, can claim support from many historical examples in which the human has indeed been defined by focusing on actual characteristics of males.
It is far from clear what this objection shows. In particular it is far from clear that it supports the idea that we ought to base our ethical norms, instead, on the current preferences and the self-conceptions of people who are living what the objector herself claims to be lives of deprivation and oppression. But it does show at least that the project of choosing one picture of the human over another is fraught with difficulty, political as well as philosophical.
Neglect of Autonomy
A different objection is presented by liberal opponents of universalism. The objection is that by determining in advance what elements of human life have most importance, the universalist project fails to respect the right of people to choose a plan of life according to their own lights, determining what is central and what is not. This way of proceeding is "imperialistic." Such evaluative choices must be left to each citizen. For this reason, politics must refuse itself a determinate theory of the human being and the human good.
If we operate with a determinate conception of the human being that is meant to have some normative moral and political force, we must also, in applying it, ask which beings we take to fall under the concept. And here the objector notes that, all too easily--even if the conception itself is equitably and comprehensively designed--the powerless can be excluded. Aristotle himself, it is pointed out, held that women and slaves were not full-fledged human beings, and because his politics were based on his view of human functioning, the failure of these beings (in his view) to exhibit the desired mode of functioning contributed to their political exclusion and oppression.
It is, once again, hard to know what this objection is supposed to show. In particular, it is hard to know how, if at all, it is supposed to show that we would be better off without such determinate universal concepts. For it could be plausibly argued that it would have been even easier to exclude women and slaves on a whim if one did not have such a concept to combat. On the other hand, it does show that we need to think not only about getting the concept right but also about getting the right beings admitted under the concept.
Each of these objections has some merit. Many universal conceptions of the human being have been insular in an arrogant way and neglectful of differences among cultures and ways of life. Some have been neglectful of choice and autonomy. And many have been prejudicially applied. But none of this shows that all such conceptions must fail in one or more of these ways. At this point, however, we need to examine a real proposal, both to display its merits and to argue that it can in fact answer these charges.
The TLS n.º 5366 February 3, 2006
Out of contract
Martha C. Nussbaum
FRONTIERS OF JUSTICE
Disability, nationality, species membership
487 pp. Harvard University Press. £ 21.95 (US $35)
0 674 01917 2
Martha C. Nussbaum’s impressive new book Frontiers of Justice can be easily summarised as Rawls meets Aristotle. Nussbaum’s critical focus is provided by be social-contract tradition - a group of theories that regard moral and political obligations as deriving from a hypothetical contract drawn up between consenting individuals -and. in particular, the development of this tradition associated with John Rawls. Nussbaum identifies several problems for Rawls’s form of contractarianism, and argues that meeting these problems requires supplementation of a purely social-contract approach with principles that are essentially Aristotelian.
Nussbaum argues that three features of contractarianism are especially problematic, since they are essential to all of its various forms. First, the purpose of the social contract is mutual advantage: the only reason anyone has for agreeing to the contract is that their own interests are thereby promoted. Second, the contractors must, therefore, be free, equal and independent individuals: radical disparities in power between contractors would undermine the purpose of the contract. Third, the framers of the contract are identical with the recipients of the contract. Those who make the contract are the same people as those for whom the contract is made.
Thus understood, Nussbaum argues, contractarianism fails to accommodate the claims of three important categories of individual. That is: humans with various types of physical or mental disability; humans living in disadvantaged nations; and non-human animals. Underlying all three cases is the idea that because of the disparity in power between “us” and “them” the cantractarian approach will be unable to accommodate the claims to justice that these individuals possess. Contracting with such individuals is unlikely to promote one’s interests.
Nor are such individuals typically free, equal or independent. And since such individuals are often unable to be framers of a contract, they therefore cannot be among those for whom the contract is framed. In short, standard social-contract theory puts such individuals outside the sphere of justice. And Nussbaum regards this as a serious problem.
Her solution consists in what she calls the “capabilities” approach, developed in her earlier work Women and Human Development (2000), and also, independently, and in a somewhat different form, by the economist Amartya Sen. In Nussbaum’s hands, the capabilities approach consists in a set of neo-Aristotelian principles concerning what is essential for human flourishing, and, by analogical extension, the flourishing of animals of different kinds, all of which are implicit in the idea of human (and, with suitable modification, animal) dignity. These capabilities include life (being able to live a life of normal length); bodily health; bodily integrity (being able to move freely from place to place, to be secure against violent assault); sense, imagination and thought; emotions (being able to have attachments to things and people); practical reason (being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection concerning how to achieve this); affiliation (being able to live with and towards others and having the social bases of self-respect); species awareness (being able to live with concern for other animals); play; control over one’s environment (being able to participate in political choices, being able to hold property rights), and so on.
The list is intended by Nussbaum to be open-ended, and subject to revision. But the idea underlying it is that “we can argue, by imagining a life without the capability in question, that such a life is not a life worthy of human dignity”. The idea and procedure are fundamentally Aristotelian - identify what is distinctive about human beings, then argue that this is essential to their flourishing or, as Nussbaum puts it, to their dignity.
The same type of procedure is, in a later chapter, applied to animals, ‘with a somewhat modified list of capabilities. One concern with Nussbaum’s position is whether it is sufficiently motivated. In particular, she does not properly pursue the possibility of a form of contractarianism purged of its offending elements. There are, in fact, two quite different ways of understanding the role of that contract. Nussbaum’s focus is primarily on what we might call prudential contractarianism a form of contractarianism largely constituted by the offending elements she identifies: mutual advantage, free, equal and independent contractors. and the identity of the contract’s framers and recipients. All three ideas are, indeed, a familiar part of the standard contract apparatus. However, pace Nussbaum, it is not clear that all versions of contractarianism must involve these claims.
Evan within contractarianism, there is another way of understanding the role of the contract. Here, its purpose is not to constitute the idea of justice, but rather to reflect certain pre-contractual intuitions about the sort of thing justice must be. There is no requirement that the contractors must be free, equal and independent individuals. And there is no reason that the framers of the contract be identical with its recipients. We might call this categorical contractarianism.
In Rawls’s work — and it is to Nussbaum’s credit that she identifies this - we find an unstable, perhaps even untenable, combination of both forms. Naked self-interest is moderated by what Rawls calls a veil of ignorance: roughly, while knowing general facts about the world, the contractors are postulated to know no specific facts about themselves or their values. This device is introduced precisely to safeguard certain pre-contractual moral values, especially Kantian notions of equality and the inviolability of the person. However, the idea that the purpose of the contract is mutual advantage and the consequent claim that the contractual situation must involve only free, equal and independent individuals is maintained.
It is possible, though, to strip away the prudential elements at Rawls’s account. Consider an unfamiliar - metempsychotic — version of the contractual situation. You are “between” bodies. You are not allowed to choose which body you will inhabit. So, you might turn not to be a normally functioning human, or a disabled human of soma form. You may be a citizen of a rich, powerful nation, or from a disparately poor one. You may turn out not to be a human at all. What you can choose, in this original position, is how the world is to be: morally, politically, legally.
In this situation, the purpose of your choice is still to secure the best deal for yourself. But, coupled with your situation of profound ignorance, securing the best deal for yourself amounts to securing the best deal for everyone. In this, the metempsychotic version parallels Rawls’s account of the contractual situation. However, there is no requirement that the contractors all be free, equal and independent, for the simple reason that this version of the contractual situation does not require others contractors at all. Similarly, there is no requirement that the framers of the contract be identical with the recipients of the contract. One can rationally choose in this version of the original position, to make provisions for a future life in which one is not the sort of individual capable of framing a contract.
Whether or not we want to regard this as a form of contractarianism is a large stipulative matter. But it is, I think, what Rawls’s view would look like when purged of prudential elements. Moreover, this is a view that could incorporate Nussbaum’s list of capabilities, not in the form of intuitions concerning the necessary bases of dignity, but as empirical claims about what humans and other animals do in fact prefer. That is, these claims would be among the general facts that one is permitted to know from behind the veil of ignorance. These worries pertain to whether Martha Nussbaum’s position is sufficiently motivated, or weather it provides a genuine alternative to more sophisticated forms of contractarianism. However, they should not be seen as in any way detracting from her achievement. Well-argued and beautifully written, Frontiers of Justice is an important, provocative and thoroughly admirable book, and will be essential reading for anyone interested in the concepts of justice and moral entitlement.
Dædalus Winter 2003
Martha C. Nussbaum
Compassion & terror
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Tragedy and Justice
Bernard Williams remembered
Martha C. Nussbaum
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Body of the Nation
Why women were mutilated in Gujarat
Martha C. Nussbaum
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by MARTHA NUSSBAUM from the
July 31, 2006 issue
by MARTHA NUSSBAUM
from the July 31, 2006 issue
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Thursday, June 22nd, 2006
A review by Martha C. Nussbaum
Read this article here