Martha Nussbaum – The Capability Approach 06/06/16

Contemporary debates about the philosophy of social justice face challenges that are particular to our times. Martha Nussbaum developed – based on the capabilities-based development theory of Indian economist Amartya Sen – a sophisticated answer to many of these challenges, which she outlines in her book Creating Capabilities (2011). What are these contemporary challenges, and how does Nussbaum attempt to meet those challenges?

Contemporary challenges

Global justice. It is uncontroversial that resources and opportunities are unfairly distributed. Not only within countries or states, but also among states. Some states have more resources, or are better able to manage their resources, than others. What do richer states morally owe poorer states? On the one hand, the inequalities between states are arbitrary and not the result of a fair process, so fairness requires that these inequalities be compensated, particularly since these inequalities currently lead to dehumanizing conditions for many. On the other hand, really equal distribution of resources across states is as good as impossible to govern.

Imperialism. We’d like to think that the times when Western nations went around the world invading territories, claiming land and resources for themselves and imposing their laws, norms, religions, languages, culture and governance upon other peoples is long behind us. Likewise, we’d like to think that women and men enjoy equality in all spheres of life and that battles like that of the suffragettes is a thing of the past. But reality is uncomfortable in this respect. Feminists and anti-colonialists have often persuasively pointed out that even after decolonisation and the legal recognition of equality for man and women, male and Western norms are still culturally dominant, often in hidden and implicit ways. Feminist philosophers have argued that many moral and political philosophies in the history of philosophy implicitly assume male standards that don’t quite fit women’s experiences. Likewise, Western philosophies have been shown to implicitly assume a European or US American context, thereby discounting non-Western societies from the outset, but at the same time claiming universal applicability. Western philosophies thus are in danger of implicitly making imperialist claims without realizing it. In this light, postmodern concerns – like those put forward by Nietzsche – spring to mind: is it at all possible to formulate a moral or political theory that has universal application, or does such a theory always amount to imperialism, whereby the dominant group imposes its arbitrary morality on everyone? But if a theory of justice has no universal applicability, can it be said to be a theory of justice at all? After all, aren’t we all owed the same respect, in virtue of our humanity?

Justice to animals. Can justice apply to non-human animals, too? Few would argue that animals can make the same moral claims as humans, or that they should have the same rights. But equally few would claim they are not owed any moral respect at all. Presumably, truth lies somewhere in between. Animals are sentient, they can feel pain and pleasure, fear and joy. Many people would argue that animals should be protected from pointless cruelty. But which criteria apply here? A theory of justice that is not at all able to consider or apply to non-human animals is, these days, considered to have a serious handicap.

The Capability Approach

Martha Nussbaum can’t be said to lack ambition. She claims that her theory of social justice meets all three of the above challenges. She starts from the Aristotelian idea that the idea of justice ought to be based on the question: “What is each person able to do and to be?”[1] If we are to judge any society on its basic justice or decency, that’s the question we should ask, according to Nussbaum. To further break this question down, she has formulated ten capabilities, which form the basis of her account of justice. These ten capabilities are:

  1. Life.
  2. Bodily health (“including reproductive health”)
  3. Bodily integrity (including “opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction”)
  4. Senses, imagination, and thought (“being able to use the senses, to imagine, to think, and to reason”)
  5. Emotions (“being able to have attachments to things and people outside of ourselves”)
  6. Practical reason (“being able to form a conception of the good”)
  7. Affiliation (“being able to live with and toward 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 (“being able to participate effectively in political choices” and “being able to hold property and having property rights”) [2]

These ten capabilities constitute Nussbaum’s account of social justice. To understand how they work, however, a few further things must be said about these capabilities.

Firstly, these ten capabilities form the basis of justice. Justice should be understood in these terms; they are not mere symptoms of justice.

Secondly, these ten capabilities are universal. They apply to all humans and even to non-human animals, regardless of culture of context.

Thirdly, having these capabilities, does not mean that one also enacts them. This should be a matter of free choice, according to Nussbaum. She therefore distinguishes ‘functioning’ from ‘capabilities’, whereby functioning refers to doing what a capability enables one to do. For instance, I may have the capability to connect with other species – I am able to do so and no one is hindering me from doing so nor coercing me to do so – but whether I actually choose to do so is a different matter. The capability approach is therefore a distinctly liberal approach.

Fourthly, Nussbaum employs a threshold with regard to these capabilities. That means that in order for a person to live a life of dignity, and for a society to deserve the label ‘decent’ or ‘minimally just’, these ten capabilities must be enabled to a certain, minimal, degree. It is hardly intelligible that a person could exercise them to a maximum degree, since contingent circumstances necessarily limit them. Hence, justice does not require that people are unlimited in the exercise of these capabilities, but that they have them to a certain degree.

Fifthly, the ten capabilities relate to each other. If the conditions for reasonable bodily health and longevity aren’t met, for instance, we also won’t be capable of many other things. A society is therefore just only if for each citizen conditions are provided that practically enable all ten capabilities to threshold level. That also means that the lack of one capability can not be compensated with an excess in another capability. No amount of education can compensate for the lack of bodily health. All capabilities must be met to threshold level.

Does Nussbaum’s account meet the three contemporary challenges?

According to Nussbaum, societies that are unable to reach a minimum threshold level of these ten capabilities for their members ought to receive help from societies that do have the resources and institutions to provide these ten capabilities. This is, according to Nussbaum, a reasonable demand for global justice.

Although Nussbaum claims that her approach has universal applicability, she is sensitive to the dangers of imperialism. However, she has thought of this too. The capabilities are sufficiently generic, according to Nussbaum, to allow for significant differences in cultural interpretation. How or to which extent we choose to play, make decisions about our bodies or relate to the other species can be informed in various ways by our religion, culture, upbringing, ethical views, tastes or environment.

Finally, the ten capabilities can be employed to evaluate not only the level of justice towards humans, but also non-human animal species. Perhaps even robots!



Thanks for reading my introduction, but who can really explain it better than Martha Nussbaum herself? I really recommend watching this lecture. It is very clear and detailed and really brings home why Nussbaum thinks all of this is very, very important.


[1]    Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities; The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univerity Press, 2011) p. 18

[2]    Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities, 2011 and Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006)


Hannah Arendt – The Banality of Evil 22/02/2026

Few topics are as delightful to discuss over a cuppa on your ordinary Monday evening as evil. Pure, horrible, terrifying evil. Can’t wait.

Here’s a thought to ruin your night’s sleep: did you think that for evil to be done, you need an extraordinary kind of person, or extraordinary circumstances? A really wicked kind of person, who takes delight in cruelty? Or if not a cruel person, then at least extreme circumstances that force one to choose between two evils? Not so, says Hannah Arendt. She contends that evil is very banal. If you don’t pay attention, if you don’t think or resist, if you just do your job, if you just do what is expected of you, you might be doing horrible evil right now. Evil is not some extraordinary thing, Arendt argues, evil is “terrifyingly normal”.

Arendt attended the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. She was a journalist at the time. Eichmann was a Nazi who designed the time tables for the logistic operation to and from concentration and extermination camps. He was very good at this job, and thanks to his effort, the killing of millions of Jews happened efficiently. Eichmann, thus, made a major contribution to one of the greatest evils of the 20th century.

But in court, his defenses were all cliches: he was just doing his job, he was just obeying orders, he was just doing what was expected of him, he was just trying to do his job well. And it’s true: Eichmann never saw any prisoners, he just shifted some papers on his desk and made some phone calls to ensure the trains were all running on time. It’s not that he didn’t know that these trains were full of Jews and that they were going to their final destination, but he never thought about it very deeply. He never paused to think whether something horrible might be going on, and whether he might be bearing some responsibility for these atrocities.

Arendt was puzzled by Eichmann. She had read Immanuel Kant, who explained evil in terms of weak or corrupted will: humans have a propensity to subordinate moral law to self-interest, and that’s when evil is done. But Arendt was not satisfied by this explanation. It explained neither the horror nor the scale of such evils as the Holocaust. And it failed to explain Eichmann’s evil in particular. Eichmann was just an ordinary man, not a monster. His motives were commonplace. He had no deep or wicked desire to exterminate a group of people, he just wanted to do his job well.

Thus, Arendt concludes, Eichmann was just an ordinary man, doing evil. Evil is as banal as Eichmann’s motives. Yet, she doesn’t let him off the hook, because it is his thoughtlessness that makes him culpable, according to Arendt. He should have paused to think about what was going on, what he was doing, and what his role and responsibility was.

The banality of evil is disturbing. If ordinary people can so easily be lead to do evil, then who guarantees us that you and I aren’t a cog in some evil machine right now? This disturbing thought is illustrated quite starkly by experiments like the Milgram experiment, in which 26 out of 40 subjects were willing to administer a fatal electric shock to an innocent individual simply because an authority told them to.

Elisabeth, Princess of Bohemia and Descartes on Mind/Body Dualism – 15/02/2016

Once upon a time, Rene Descartes sat down in his armchair by the fire, closed his eyes and began to discard every belief he had that he could doubt, hoping to retain only those beliefs that could not be doubted – and that he could therefore hold with certainty.

Since we can easily doubt the senses – it is possible that we are just brains in vats, without a body, being manipulated by an evil demon – Descartes had to discard everything he had ever learned by experience. But if our senses give us only illusions, what can we know at all? Descartes concluded that the only thing we cannot doubt is our own existence. Because if we are indeed manipulated and deceived, then there must be someone that is deceived; there must exist a thinking subject. Hence, Descartes concluded: cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am.

Since it is possible to doubt the existence of the world, but not the existence of the thinking subject, Descartes concluded that thinking must be the essence of the mind: the mind is a thinking substance.

Initially, Descartes arrived at his mind/body dualism via a fallacy. Because he couldn’t doubt the existence of the mind as a thinking substance, but he could doubt the existence of the body (or any material thing), these things must be distinct, he thought. But he realised that this doesn’t follow. Just because he has knowledge of the mind, but not of the body, doesn’t mean they are distinct. Therefore, Descartes offered another argument: since the essence of material substances is that they are extended, and extended things cannot think, the mind must be unextended, and therefore immaterial. The body is extended, therefore material, therefore the body must be distinct from the mind. Voila: not only mind/body dualism, but also substance dualism (the view that there are two kinds of substances: material and immaterial).

But one woman wasn’t buying any of this. Descartes corresponded with Elisabeth, Princess of Bohemia, over an extended period of time. Elisabeth was well-read in philosophy, and not easily swayed by Descartes. In one of her letters, she asked an important question: how is it possible that the mind interacts with the body (and also vice versa: that the body interacts with the mind), if they are distinct substances?

Descartes admits that his answer to this question is not satisfactory, and his followers have struggled with it ever since. The aim of this lesson is to appreciate the nature and force of this interaction problem, as it is a problem one has to face if one, for instance, wants to accept an idea of a free will, or an idea of an immortal soul.