Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In short, Martha Nussbaum's Capabilities Approach

Martha Nussbaum tries to provide a cross-cultural underpinning for any program of human development and public policy. She assembles a list of human capabilities, the potential of basic assets and tools that can be found in any human being. The aim is to facilitate the development of third world societies, and particularly of women in these societies, toward a minimum verge of enlightened awareness by invoking and cultivating these capabilities. Nussbaum discards as ineffectual the generalizations of utilitarianism, where economic development is judged by cultural relativism or aggregated conceptions of the good. Instead, she proposes a resilient set of interconnected human capabilities, which can provide individuals with opportunities to function and make autonomous choices.

Nussbaum contends that constitutional guarantees can establish a sphere for choice well “beyond the whim of majoritarian politics”. If states wish to bring poor third world women up to the same level of capability to function, it is mandatory that social inequalities and lop-sided power relations which victims they are, be counter pointed by a redistribution of resources. It is vitally important to invest money in an environment that encourages children to develop and test their capabilities, if they are to become mature useful adults who can make measured well thought out choices.

Dignity and Choice

The two operative words that keep recurring in Nussbaum’s capabilities approach are dignity and choice. I would like to consider these two terms a bit further.

In a group of people, dignity is that sense of worth, which is freely given to the individual by his or her fellow members of the group. He/she is entitled to it by virtue of being a person, a repository of human traits, capabilities and values. Dignity is an entitlement. It emanates from one human being to the next as light emanates among spaces, unconstrained and natural. Dignity has a divine quality to it. Choice, on the other hand, is a cerebral activity, self-contained within the individual. To make the right choices, we should have an informed awareness of who we are, where we are, where we want to go, why, and how. In other words, we must be able to assess correctly what possibilities there are for us. The range of our choices defines the depth and sophistication of our liberty, the choices we end up making define our quality as human beings.

The pivot of Nussbaum’s capability approach is choice. She charts a corridor along which poor, abused, undernourished, exploited women can walk, in their own cultural landscape, to a level where they can make appropriate choices about their person and their future. The very cerebrality and simplicity of the choice capability is what makes it of this life and of this world, and therefore achievable.

The universal declaration of human rights is an elaborate, overwrought enunciation of the notion of dignity among human beings. When all is said and done, it simply restates obvious utopian visions of the many shades of human dignity. To carry the light image further afield, Human dignity is liquid and shimmering, seen and felt, but ungraspable. The praiseworthy redactors of the Universal Approach looked up to the divine for definition and inspiration. Nussbaum, an advocate of practical wisdom, employs her compassion and refined sensibilities in directing a critical look upon the very structures that are already in place, using them to bring up the horizon into a reachable distance.


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