Martha Nussbaum
on Capabilities and Human Rights

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last (minor) revision: April 29, 2008.

For more on The Capability Approach
see the web site of The Human Development and Capability Association.


   1. Introduction
   2. The Basic Idea of Human Beings
   3. The Role of Capabilities
   4. Capabilities Classified by Types of Activity They Enable
   5. Basic, Internal, and Combined Capabilities
   6. Rights and Capabilities
   7. Nussbaum and Rawls
   8. More Reading

The main source for this webpage is: Martha C. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (Oxford University Press, 1999); abbreviated as SSJ.

The use of underscore for emphasis is mine, unless otherwise explicitly noted.--JG


Martha Nussbaum says that the guiding thought behind her approach is "one that lies at the heart of [John] Rawls' project...the idea of the citizen as a free and dignified human being." (SSJ 46) (For a summary of John Rawls' later philosophy, which has significantly influenced Nussbaum, see Rawls' Mature Theory of Social Justice.)

John Rawls' political conception of justice involves a commitment by citizens to recognize each other as free and equal persons within the framework of a social order conceived on the model of nation-states. Nussbaum's approach is internationalist (SSJ 40). (As such it appears to start from a somewhat stronger assumption that might strike Rawls as metaphysical rather than political. Nussbaum's view of the person is somewhat more fully elaborated than Rawls, but no more than Rawls does it try to restrict conceptions of the good to one, and it generally accepts Rawls' view on the importance of distinguishing the principles of justice to be enforced by justifiable law and the diversity of comprehensive doctrines operating within the principled framework.)

The Basic Idea about Human Beings

Martha Nussbaum affirms a "liberal" view that is compatible with the feminist affirmation of the value of women as persons. "At the heart of this tradition [of liberal political thought] is a twofold intuition about human beings: namely, that all, just by being human, are of equal dignity and worth, no matter where they are situated in society, and that the primary source of this worth is a power of moral choice within them, a power that consists in the ability to plan a life in accordance with one's own evaluation of ends." (SSJ,57) To these two ideas is linked one more, that "the moral equality of persons gives them a fair claim to certain types of treatment at the hands of society and politics. . . . [T]his treatment must do two . . . things [:] respect and promote the liberty of choice, and ...respect and promote the equal worth of persons as choosers."(SSJ 57)

Nussbaum's view holds that "the core of rational and moral personhood is something all human beings share, shaped though it may be in different ways by their differing social circumstances. And it does give this core a special salience in political thought, defining the public realm in terms of it, purposefully refusing the same salience ... to gender and rank and class and religion." (70) Her approach to women's issues is "part of a systematic and justifiable program that addresses hierarchy across the board in the name of human dignity." (71)

Her view is that political theory should be based on "the conception of human beings as essentially rational agents." The key type of reason to be emphasized is practical (i.e., moral and political) reason. (SSJ 71)

The Role of Capabilities (=Substantial Freedoms)

At the heart of Nussbaum's liberal theory of justice and human rights is (her version of) Amartya Sen's concept of substantial freedoms or capabilities. Sen developed this notion as a way of addressing questions of justice and human development. (For more on Sen's ideas see The Ethics of Substantial Freedom.) Before we can talk intelligently about just distributions, we have to decide on a dimension whose relative value is important. If, for example, equal distribution is just, we have to know equal distribution of what? In relation to human development, specifically, poverty, the question is to know precisely what we should be striving to increase.

"Workers on such issues have . . . converged on [what is] now widely known as the capabilities approach. This approach holds that we should focus on . . . What are the people of the group or country in question actually able to do and be?" (SSJ 34) Importantly, "the capability approach considers people one by one." (For instance, it does not lump individuals into families and ignore the relations and unequal distributions of power within families.)

Preference utilitarianism is an influential approach among planners today. This approach says that social planners should aim to maximize the satisfaction of preferences that individuals have before social policies are applied to them (as if preferences are not affected by social arrangements). The capability approach rejects the preference standard as a proposed standard of what is socially valuable. Nussbaum points out that preferences may be distorted (A slave or an abused woman may eventually become convinced that a moderately comfortable enslavement or oppression is the best she can do and not "prefer" greater freedom.)

Nor does the capability approach concern itself with the distribution of resources alone, because resources have no value in themselves disconnected from their promotion of human functioning, i.e., what humans actually do and are. The capability approach asks social planners to inquire into the needs individuals have for resources and their diverse abilities to convert resources into functioning. (SSJ 34)

Capabilities Classified by Types of Activity They Enable

A necessary component of Nussbaum's capability approach is the list of the aspects of life to which capabilities relate. She asks an Aristotelian question, "What activities characteristically performed by human beings are so central that they seem definitive of the a life that is truly human?" Two more precise questions are then formulated, (1) "Which changes or transitions are compatible with the continued existence of a being as a member of the human kind and which are not?" (39) and (2) "What kinds of activity must be there if we are going to acknowledge that a given life is human?"

(The latter is posed when she invites us to consider stories of anthropomorphic creatures that do not quite get classified as human.) (SSJ 40)

Her list includes the following (taken from SSJ, pages 41-42):

1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length . . . ; not dying prematurely . . .

2. Bodily health . . . Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; being adequately nourished . . . ; being able to have adequate shelter . . .

3. Bodily integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; being able to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault . . . ; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction

4. Senses, imagination, thought. Being able to use the senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason--and to do these things in . . . a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education . . . ; being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing, and producing expressive works and events of one's own choice . . . ; being able to use one's mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech and freedom of religious exercise; being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid nonbeneficial pain

5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves; being able to love those who love and care for us; being able to grieve at their absence, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger; not having one's emotional developing blighted by fear or anxiety. . . .

6. Practical reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one's own life. (This entails protection for liberty of conscience.)

7. Affiliation. Being able to live for and in relation to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; being able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for that situation; having the capability for both justice and friendship. . . . Being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.

8. Other species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.

9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.

10. Control over one's environment. (A) Political: being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one's life; having the rights of political participation, free speech and freedom of association . . . (B) Material: being able to hold property (both land and movable goods); having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others . . .

There are two important qualifications on this list: First, they are a list of separate components. They are distinct in quality and all are of central importance. Second, they are related to one another in complex ways that can only be discovered empirically. (SSJ 42) Note that in her formulation of the basic capabilities the formula "being able to" is found in almost every example.

Basic, Internal, and Combined Capabilities

Nussbaum classifies capabilities into three types (SSJ 44). Basic capabilities are the innate equipment of individuals that is the necessary basis for developing more advanced capabilities. She points out that most infants have the basic capabilities for practical reason and imagination, though without a good deal more development and education they cannot use it. Healthy children have basic capabilities in all ten of the areas in the above list.

Internal capabilities are states of persons that are . . . sufficient conditions for the exercise of the corresponding function (given suitable complement of external conditions). Internal capabilities build on pre-existing basic capabilities by processes such as exercise, education, and training. Most adults have the internal capabilities of use of speech, capabilities that would not exist without the informal education that occurs along with socialization. Many internal capabilities require a more structured educational environment.

Combined capabilities are defined as internal capabilities plus the external conditions that make the exercise of a function a live option. The aim of public policy is the promotion of combined capabilities; this requires two kinds of efforts (1) the promotion of internal capabilities (say, by education or training) and (2) the making available of the external institutional and material conditions.

Human Rights and Capabilities

We can now link the idea of capabilities with the idea of human rights. The idea of human rights may be interpreted as implying the following moral principle: the capabilities of human beings should not be permitted to fall below a certain floor, so far as nation-states and the international community are able to produce that minimum threshhold for everyone. What we are actually capable of doing is primarily a matter of combined capabilities, which depend in turn upon internal capabilities and basic capabilities, but internal capabilities and combined capabilities depend in different ways upon external conditions, and it is these that political and public action can modify or improve. (It is, alas, also true that badly chosen government action can degrade these conditions and thus degrade combined capabilities.) To the extent that "private" citizens affect the actions of their governments and public agencies, they are responsible for these units' implementation or failure to implement the conditions that promote a fair level of capabilities for everyone. In principle, human rights are everyone's business.

Nussbaum and Rawls

While capabilities are related to activities or functioning, the promotion of specific functioning cannot be the goal of public policy if it is to continue in the (liberal democratic) tradition represented by Rawls. The reason is that a constitutional democracy, a society whose basic structure is defined by Rawlsian principles (in particular, the principle of equal basic liberties), would permit activities endorsed by a variety of reasonable comprehensive doctrines. It is to be expected that those doctrines will often contradict each other apart from their common commitment to the principles of justice and the basic structure. Thus, Nussbaum like Rawls supports the freedom of religion that would permit religion A (whose adherents may even believe members of religion B are going to hell) and religion B (whose adherents may even believe members of religion A are going to hell) to coexist so long as A-religionists and B-religionists respect each other's rights of conscience.

Just as John Rawls is concerned to promote the just distribution of a qualitatively diverse set of "primary goods" among the members of a well ordered society, Nussbaum is concerned to promote a just distribution of a qualitatively diverse set of capabilities among members of every society on earth. Rawls' highly focused aim, of course, is more modest than Nussbaum's, but Nussbaum's seems to me more realistic, in that it does not assume the existence of a self-enclosed national group and allows us also to address, more vigorously and precisely than Rawls, the concerns of women and generally of individuals in societies less "developed" than those of the United States and Western Europe.

Further Reading

Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1999)
Martha C. Nussbaum, Women and Human Development (Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Martha C. Nussbaum, Beyond the Social Contract: Capabilities and Global Justice (2002?)
Martha C. Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, and Species Membership (Harvard University Press, 2006)