Issue dated October 5, 2001

What Makes Martha Nussbaum Run?

Her new book, like her career, mixes passion and intellect


Removed upon request from THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION. 16.07.2003










Prof. Martha Nussbaum



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Feeling our way to democracy
Reviewed by Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, November 11, 2001

Upheavals of Thought

The Intelligence of Emotions

By Martha C. Nussbaum

CAMBRIDGE; 752 PAGES; $39.95


Martha Nussbaum does not mean by her subtitle "The Intelligence of Emotions" what Daniel Goleman meant by title of his 1998 best-seller, "Emotional Intelligence." Nor is "Upheavals of Thought" likely to become a best-seller.

Nussbaum may have to content herself with having produced a philosophical milestone. Few books of our time make one feel so privileged to enter into them.

Goleman, trained as a psychologist, considered emotional awareness as an enhancement to social skills, especially in work settings. Nussbaum, a philosopher who teaches ethics at the University of Chicago, asks what emotions are, how they originate and what concept of emotion might dovetail with the values of a just, pluralist democracy. To what extent should emotions -- and which emotions -- inform our thinking about politics?

"In thinking about material need, political structure, the choice of a system of punishments," Nussbaum writes, ". . . we should ask what capacities of the personality different institutions support, and to what extent this gives us reason to choose one set over another."

Her lengthy discussion of compassion makes a crushing case against the conservatism that regards compassion as politically irrelevant or an insult to the supposedly sovereign agency and responsibility of the individual.

In Nussbaum's view, our emotions are not mere inner forces that buffet us about, constantly threatening to unseat reason. They are themselves modes of responsive intelligence that express our conscious and unconscious judgments of what we value and what we believe will promote the flourishing of our lives.

All the evaluative judgments implicit in emotions, she is careful to say, connect to specific historical, social and individual life circumstances.

Nussbaum's "cognitive" concept of emotion, she acknowledges, owes much to the ancient Stoics. But to them the fallibility and inconstancy of emotions proved the ethical need simply to rid oneself of them to the extent possible.

Nussbaum reminds us that all cognition is fallible, knowing that if she can account properly for the unreliability of emotions, find a conceptual and a human logic in their workings, then she can rehabilitate them as useful guides to thinking about life and the world. She accomplishes this task with astonishing thoroughness and persuasive power.

No one will call "Upheavals of Thought" an easy book, but Nussbaum's prose style puts no obstacles in the reader's way. The book's difficulties belong to the subject itself.

We find it hard to contemplate emotions, even to acknowledge them, Nussbaum argues, because they reconnect us with our earliest childhood experiences of shame, rage and disgust at discovering our own neediness and dependence. But denial of the emotions in ourselves and others amounts to denial of our humanity, which may have dark, even deadly consequences.

The denial of emotion can form unrealistic ideals of self-sufficiency that puts one out of touch with the interdependence on which all life in society depends.

"Mature interdependence requires acknowledging the imperfection of the human body," Nussbaum writes, "and its needs for material goods; it also involves renouncing the wish of envy to monopolize the sources of good. We might then suggest that mature dependence entails the determination to pursue the fulfillment of material needs for all citizens, granting that all have rights not only to liberty but also to basic welfare. . . . Thus a norm of psychological maturity also suggests a norm for public life . . . or, to put it differently, to support for a group of basic human capabilities."

Nussbaum's causal account of emotions is psychoanalytic, but not Freudian. She draws primarily on the work of D.W. Winnicott.

"The emotions of later life make their first appearances in infancy," Nussbaum writes, "as cognitive relations to objects important for one's well- being, and . . . this history informs the later experiences of emotion in various specific ways."

Their roots in infancy also explain why emotions, "though in their origin and in many ongoing functions [are] adaptively rational, may frequently also be irrational in the sense that they fail to match their present objects, as they project the images of the past upon them."

Reflections on specific accounts of emotion, including a long report of her own grief at her mother's death, lead Nussbaum to conclude that emotions "have a narrative structure. The understanding of any single emotion is incomplete until its narrative history is grasped and studied for the light it sheds on present response."

She finds in the arts of classical music and the realist novel -- if James Joyce's "Ulysses" can be called that -- illuminating case studies of emotional analysis.

Nussbaum's later chapters, which interpret Proust, Mahler, Whitman, Joyce and others, expand on the point made in her "Poetic Justice" (1996), that education in the arts trains the imagination for compassion.

"The humanities and the arts are increasingly being sidelined in education at all levels," she complains in "Upheavals." We should "insist that they do make a vital and irreplaceable contribution to citizenship, without which we will very likely have an obtuse and emotionally dead citizenry, prey to the aggressive wishes that so often accompany an inner world dead to the images of others. Cutting the arts is a recipe for the production of pathological narcissism."

Nussbaum's skill in argument would be hollow did her book not shine with the sympathetic imagination and intellectual poise -- in short, the wisdom -- that her theory associates with emotional maturity. And wisdom is what we miss in books about the many fascinating discoveries of recent brain research and its bearing on cognitive theory.

A generation may pass before anyone gives an account of thinking about emotion and its human stakes as deep as "Upheavals of Thought."

E-mail Kenneth Baker at kennethbaker@sfchronicle.com


Q & A
Martha Nussbaum
Call for compassion in vengeful times

Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Staff Writer

 Sunday, November 11, 2001

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum taught ethics and classics at Harvard and Brown universities before being offered her current triple appointment in law, divinity and philosophy at the University of Chicago.

A liberal activist as well as an academic, Nussbaum, who is 52, has published books and essays on topics such as education, justice, patriotism and women's health. In the late 1980s, she worked with Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen to rehumanize the terms by which relief agencies reckon progress in the developing world.

Her "capabilities approach" to legal and institutional change views such things as play, practical reason, freedom of affiliation and bodily integrity as rights that true social progress must guarantee.

Her new book, "Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions" (Cambridge; 752 pages; $39.95) argues that emotions are modes of understanding essential to ethical judgment and what she calls "full political rationality."

She spoke with The Chronicle during her recent visit to Berkeley.

Q: Have the events of recent weeks -- terrorism and the war of reprisal -- changed your sense of your duties as a public intellectual?

A: No, but they have certainly brought me to attention. I do have things to say about patriotism and the need to think of ourselves as part of a larger human community. The one good thing that could come out of all this is that we learn a lot more about how people live in Asia, and about Islam. I myself didn't think much about the world beyond Europe and the United States until I went to the U.N. as a consultant in 1985. It completely changed my life.

Q: Even under what we used to take for normal circumstances, your "capabilities approach" to social issues must have been called utopian. Is that more true now than before?

A: I think it's not utopian. When Amartya Sen came on the scene, most agencies measured development only on an economic basis. The capabilities approach identifies other areas equally worthy of attention. It gives very concrete directions for political practice.

The U.N. issues annual Human Development Reports. India has one for every state, and they're using the capabilities approach. Take Kerala in India. If you look just at economic growth, its progress is very poor. But there's 99 percent literacy. The sex ratio of women to men is similar to Europe's, so we know women's health is doing well. Sen has compared Kerala with Harlem and finds Kerala doing better.

Q: We've heard a lot of talk about widely shared emotions since Sept. 11. Does your theory of emotion account for collective experience?

A: Philosophers' theories of emotion haven't paid much attention to childhood because most of them have been men. But if you're going to make sense of emotion, you have to bring in the past and show how it can shadow the present. You need to look at the individual family and the social framework. When families bring up children, they instill social norms. The emotional vocabulary people use comes from the society at large and its traditions.

I think there's always a resistance to mourning on the part of Americans. There's the initial feeling that we can't be that vulnerable, and after that the shock at how vulnerable we are. Whereas in some societies this entails resignation, Americans are always trying to see how they can take charge of the situation. The downside of that is the impulse to seek revenge.

Q: How does your theory of emotion account for the power of a charismatic figure such as Hitler?

A: I've read a lot of the literature on Hitler. Everyone wants to find a single cause when there were a lot of them. With the Germans' tremendous sense of vulnerability in the wake of World War I, you found these officers who would allow no weakness or softness, nothing "female." Put that together with tremendous peer pressure. Men in the German police battalions who felt pity were ashamed of themselves. [Theodor] Adorno was right as well that there was a particular kind of authoritarian family structure present.

All these things played their part, but if the intellectuals had been stronger, if there'd been a deeper public culture, Hitler might not have come to power. John Rawls once said that he wrote "Political Liberalism" after reading about Weimar and how its intellectuals had failed to take a strong enough critical stance.

Q: You describe your response to your mother's death in explaining your theory of emotion, but were there also philosophical encounters that spurred you to write "Upheavals of Thought"?

A: I was thinking about it very early. My senior English paper at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr was on learning from suffering in the novels of Dostoevsky and in Oscar Wilde's "De Profundis." My family life was very unhappy at that time, and I was trying to think about how you get through such a thing.

But the one who made me think it permissible to do such a book was Bernard Williams -- his papers on morality and the emotions. He first gave me a sense of the largeness of the profession. Richard Wollheim was another important example.

Q: Do you see a relationship between philosophical capacity and emotional maturity?

A: There are lots of things in philosophy you can do without much emotional sophistication. But I think it's a hindrance in Kant's work, for example, that he doesn't have much emotional understanding.

Most of the great writers on ethics had more of an emotional life. The one I'd like to have met is John Stuart Mill. His theories about emotion are not worth much, but he did understand people. I think Hume, too, had a complex human understanding. In the ancient world quite a few of them did: Plato, Aristotle. Someone like Seneca couldn't have survived at Nero's court without it.

Q: Does the term "compassion fatigue" have any meaning to you?

A: It's because of that problem that I put such emphasis on institutional structures. It's hopeless to depend on individuals alone to make improvements in the world. You still hear the idea that economic benefits will trickle down if you simply mind growth, but that just isn't true. We need to educate people to be compassionate because only then will they make good institutions.

Q: Does the nature of institutions -- the way their structures favor certain temperaments -- make it unlikely that people in power will respond to your arguments?

A: I know academic institutions best, and I've been seeing a range of different kinds of people coming into top positions. When I was at Harvard, there was not a woman, nor even a Jew, in any dean's position. Our management team at University of Chicago is a long stretch from the old days. Our president is a musicologist. Our provost is a free speech lawyer who's a very fine and complicated person. I'm very pleased by changes I've seen.

Q: You don't refer to introspection as such in the book. What value does it have in emotional self-knowledge?

A: It's not sufficient by itself. I don't even think it should have a privileged place in that you'll always have big blind spots. Self-knowledge always requires conversation. You can't see in the book how much I learned from my partner Cass Sunstein's readings of my chapters, but I think it's generally true in life that to be seen by others is a very important part of knowing oneself.

E-mail Kenneth Baker at kenneth baker@sfchronicle.com.


November 21, 1999


 Who Needs Philosophy?

Like a latter-day John Dewey, Martha Nussbaum is determined to pump some nuts-and-bolts liberalism into the discipline of deep thoughts. The mandarins had better step out of her way. By ROBERT S. BOYNTON

Back when she was the star of her high-school drama club, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum wasn't interested in playing Emily in "Our Town." Her favorite role was Robespierre -- in a five-act, French-language production she wrote herself. Decades later, she still speaks fondly of the meandering walks she would take around the affluent Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Mawr, dreaming of the sacrifices the Frenchman made to advance his ideals. "I was fascinated by his dilemma of wanting liberty for everyone, but having to figure out what to do with individuals who won't go along with your plan," she recalled recently. "I still think about it all the time." Nussbaum also remembered the fun she had playing Joan of Arc, entranced as she was by the question of "how far to sacrifice friendship and personal loyalty to an abstract cause." Although Nussbaum eventually traded the stage for the academy, she still takes these early inspirations to heart. Synthesizing the passion of the revolutionary with the zeal of the self-sacrificing saint, she has become, at 52, the most prominent female philosopher in America.

In addition to producing a steady stream of books and articles from her perches at Harvard, Brown and now at the University of Chicago, she has cultivated a distinctive, even glamorous, public presence. Nussbaum has discussed Greek tragedy with Bill Moyers on PBS, presented Plato on the Discovery Channel and been photographed by Annie Leibovitz for her new book, "Women." More important, as a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, Nussbaum's essays have become required reading for those with a taste for intellectual combat. Prized for her writing's acerbic bite, she first attracted notice in 1987 with a devastating attack on Allan Bloom's conservative diatribe "The Closing of the American Mind." Writing in The New York Review of Books, she denounced his proposal that universities dedicate themselves solely to educating the elite and savaged what she saw as Bloom's distorted reading of Greek philosophy. "How good a philosopher, then, is Allan Bloom?" she concluded. "We are given no reason to think him one at all."

Earlier this year, Nussbaum took aim at Judith Butler, the radical feminist philosopher who has attained cultlike status (through dense monographs like "Gender Trouble") for arguing, among other things, that society is built on artificial gender norms that can best be undermined with "subversive" symbolic behavior, like cross-dressing. Appearing in The New Republic, Nussbaum's 8,600-word essay, "The Professor of Parody," castigated Butler for proffering a "self-involved" feminism that encouraged women to disengage from real-world problems -- like inferior wages or sexual harassment -- and retreat to abstract theory. "For Butler," she wrote, "the act of subversion is so riveting, so sexy, that it is a bad dream to think that the world will actually get better." By abdicating the fight against injustice in favor of "hip defeatism," Butler, Nussbaum concluded darkly, "collaborates with evil."

The review received a visceral response within the academy and beyond. Butler's defenders branded it an ad feminam attack on an innovative thinker whose reputation was surpassing Nussbaum's own. "It was a crassly opportunistic act," said Joan Scott, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Others welcomed Nussbaum's blow against the hermetic politics of postmodernism. "The piece was a skillful and long-overdue shredding," said Katha Pollitt, the feminist writer.

Although it would be hard to find two more ideologically dissimilar thinkers than Bloom and Butler, according to Nussbaum's withering judgment they were guilty of a common crime: both were mandarin philosophers who refused to use their theories to help wage the battle for freedom, justice and equality. While Bloom was at least openly skeptical about philosophy's connection to democracy (he disparaged those who dared to seek practical advice from his beloved Greek texts), Butler drew Nussbaum's ire because she claimed to be using philosophy to address political issues even as she manipulated poststructuralist theory to sidestep them. "I thought of the Butler and Bloom reviews as acts of public service," she said. "But a lot of my impatience with their work grew out of my repudiation of my own aristocratic upbringing. I don't like anything that sets itself up as an in-group or an elite, whether it is the Bloomsbury group or Derrida."

The debate over whether philosophy should play a mandarin or public role has been a contentious one throughout American intellectual history. In the hands of thinkers like Sidney Hook and John Dewey, philosophy turned its attention "from the problems of philosophers toward the problems of men," as Dewey wrote in "Reconstruction in Philosophy" (1920). After the Second World War, the mainstream of American philosophy became reclusively "analytic," orienting itself around the study of logic, mathematics and the philosophy of science, while maintaining only a tenuous connection to the world at large. With John Rawls's "A Theory of Justice" (1971), academic philosophy initiated a wary rapprochement with its more socially engaged past, using the analytic idiom to address age-old questions of justice. Nussbaum's work has played an important part in this revival, as she has extended Rawls's liberal insights to examine questions of gender, race and international development. She insists that philosophy be rigorous and, above all, useful. Whereas Ludwig Wittgenstein once compared philosophers to garbage men sweeping the mind clean of wrongheaded concepts, Nussbaum believes they should be "lawyers for humanity" -- a phrase she borrows from Seneca, her favorite Stoic thinker. Part wonk, part sage, Nussbaum is determined to make philosophy relevant to the modern world.

Given her rhetorical ferocity, I was surprised to find that Nussbaum was so soft-spoken when we met in her airy apartment in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. Dressed simply in a white T-shirt and black spandex leggings, she was tall and striking, with a square jaw and wavy, shoulder-length blond hair. Although she casually curled up on her living-room sofa, once we begin to talk it became apparent that there was little soft about her. She answered every question exhaustively, with a steely precision that let you practically see the footnotes hovering in the air. Her hair was still damp from a grueling Sunday routine: a 12-mile run along Lake Michigan followed by weight-lifting, intended as preparation for a fall marathon. (Because she "detests earphones," she later told me, she runs to a mental soundtrack: fully memorized extracts from "The Marriage of Figaro.")

Nussbaum taught at Harvard and Brown for 20 years before coming to the University of Chicago in 1995, where she has appointments in the law and divinity schools, as well as in the departments of philosophy, classics and Southern Asian studies. Her multiple affiliations attest to a breadth of intellectual interest that is rare in a world of academic specialists. While most scholars spend entire careers studying a particular era or thinker, Nussbaum -- in books like "The Fragility of Goodness," "For Love of Country" and this year's "Sex and Social Justice" -- moves easily from Aristotle to international development, from Dickens to contemporary feminism.

When I asked why she reacted so strongly to Butler's work, she furrowed her brow, looked down and spoke with the hushed, somber tone one might employ in addressing a grave threat to national security. "Butler is like the Pied Piper leading all the children away!" she told me. "If all these wonderful people drop out of politics, then there are that many fewer people left to fight against evil ."

Such unabashed moralism is rarely heard from philosophers these days. "Martha is unashamedly interested in goodness, which she writes about with such shocking earnestness," explained her friend Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic. "For her, philosophy is nothing less than an intellectual tool for the improvement of mankind."

But Nussbaum's high-stakes rhetoric can irritate her peers. "It's zany," said the literary critic Stanley Fish of Nussbaum's desire to make philosophy helpful. "In the end, all philosophy equips you to do is more philosophy -- it doesn't make you better at any other area of public life." The philosopher Richard Rorty was also dubious about her "impatient and dismissive" attacks on fellow thinkers. "Her tone sometimes suggests that to differ from her is to imperil the social bond," he said. Others attributed the hostility toward Nussbaum to jealousy. "There are a lot of shriveled souls in the academic world," said G.W. Bowersock, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study, "and they feel intimidated by Martha because she is able to do so much so well."

With Nussbaum's concern for philosophy's nuts-and-bolts utility, it is not surprising that her strongest connection at Chicago is to the university's law school -- a contentious institution that has produced some of the most brilliant legal theorists and judges in the country. At Chicago, theory is never far from practice. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia taught here; Federal Judge Richard Posner (with whom Nussbaum taught a course on the French philosopher Michel Foucault) founded the influential "law and economics" movement here. Another prominent presence is the legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon, who drafted some of the nation's strongest antipornography laws.

Nussbaum believes that one of the most effective ways she can change public life is through her teaching at the law school. "Many of my students will go off to be clerks and eventually judges and even legislators," she said. "Right now I have three colleagues who are federal judges -- and when I sit down and talk with them, I hope I can change their views on some things, too."

Nussbaum's work as a "lawyer for humanity" comes primarily out of the liberal political tradition, one that extends from John Stuart Mill to John Rawls. This tradition emphasizes the equal worth of individuals and the inviolable freedom to choose your path in life -- regardless of gender, class, sexual orientation, race or nationality. While this perspective may seem common-sensical to outsiders, the insistence with which she applies her "universal" philosophy rubs against an academic establishment wary of making cross-cultural judgments.

In 1986 Nussbaum was invited by the economist Amartya Sen (the 1998 Nobel laureate with whom she was then romantically involved) to work with the United Nations World Institute for Development Economics Research. Their aim was to find alternatives to the dominant theories of international development: one, the economist's view that a country's G.N.P. is the only reliable measure of social, economic and political progress; two, the relativist position that Westerners must refrain from judging foreign cultures.

To counter such positions, Nussbaum and Sen promoted the "capabilities approach" to development, enumerating a universal set of values -- the right to life, bodily health and integrity; the right to participate in political affairs; the right to hold property -- that could be used to judge the quality of life in any society. Unlike G.N.P. per capita's focus on opulence, wrote Nussbaum in "Sex and Social Justice," the capabilities approach "asks about the distribution of resources and opportunities. . . . It strongly invites a scrutiny of cultural tradition as one of the primary sources of such unequal abilities." For example, a wealthy Indian woman might have less "capability" than a poor Swedish woman -- because of the sexist society she lives in.

As part of her research, Nussbaum made frequent trips to India to study the problems of poor women there. She advised programs aimed at increasing female literacy in India and the prosecution of domestic violence there. Nussbaum has little patience with those who accuse her of foisting "foreign" values on other cultures. "It is better to risk being consigned by critics to the 'hell' reserved for alleged Westernizers and imperialists," she wrote in "Sex and Social Justice," "than to stand around in the vestibule waiting for a time when everyone will like what we are going to say."

Nussbaum's rights-based universalism also undergirded her arguments for equality for homosexuals. In 1993, she was asked to be a prosecution witness in Romer v. Evans; the case challenged a Colorado amendment that sought to overturn local laws protecting homosexuals from discrimination. In testifying, she discovered that the career of the politically engaged philosopher can be fraught with peril. Having never set foot inside a courtroom, the "lawyer for humanity" was unprepared for how little a hostile cross-examination resembled the free-ranging inquiry of the seminar. On the stand, Nussbaum cited classical texts to argue that there were no ancient precedents for denying homosexuals equality. "Plato's dialogues contain several extremely moving celebrations of male-male love," she explained, "and judge this form of love to be, on the whole, superior to male-female love because of its potential for spirituality and friendship." Her testimony was attacked by several conservative scholars who accused her of warping Plato's words. Nussbaum and her critics traded angry accusations of libel and perjury -- revolving around the interpretation of one notoriously difficult Platonic dialogue -- before the law was finally ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. When I asked whether she thinks her scholarly reputation was tarnished by all the mudslinging, Nussbaum handed me the 136-page law-review article she published on the case. It bristled with dozens of pink Post-its. "If you read this you will see that my arguments were all good and quite correct," she said curtly.

Nussbaum's "aristocratic" lineage derives from her mother's family, which traces its roots back to the Mayflower. Her father, George Craven, was a conservative Southerner who became a prosperous lawyer in the trusts and estates division of a large Philadelphia firm. Young Martha rebelled from the start. Much to her father's chagrin, she became involved in civil rights activism then swirling around Bryn Mawr. One day, she invited a black girl over to play. "Don't you ever bring a black person into our home again!" he scolded her.

Martha Craven fell in love with the theater while at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, where she wrote her French pageant. She attended Wellesley for two years before growing frustrated with college and joining a Michigan theater company that performed Greek tragedies. She acted in Aristophanes' "The Birds" and in the "Oresteia," which starred Bert Lahr and Ruby Dee. After a stint at the New York University drama school, Martha realized she preferred studying plays to performing them and switched to the classics department, where she earned her B.A.

Martha's Protestant father was horrified by her decision at N.Y.U. to marry a Jew named Alan Nussbaum, a linguist she met in a class on Greek prose composition. But she was an eager convert. "I had an intense desire to join the underdogs and to fight for justice in solidarity with them," she has written. For Nussbaum, Judaism offered a sense of community lacking in her own upbringing. "I read Martin Buber and understood that virtually every relationship I had observed at Bryn Mawr had been an I-It relationship, involving no genuine acknowledgment of humanity," she wrote. Her marriage to Alan Nussbaum ended in 1987.

Although Nussbaum thrived as a classics graduate student at Harvard, she felt embattled. When she became the first woman ever elected to the prestigious Society of Fellows (which guarantees a student three years of financing), the question of what to call her arose. "Someone suggested that since the masculine for 'fellow' was ' hetairos ,' I should be called a ' hetaira ,' which I knew full well did not mean 'fellowess,' but was in fact Greek for 'prostitute,"' she says. "I didn't like Harvard. I disapproved of the classicists. They were anti-Semites, racists and sexists and had a real thuggishness about them." The birth of her daughter, Rachel, only made Nussbaum more determined to prove her mettle in a male bastion. A photo of her in the maternity ward shows her proudly holding a copy of Aristotle's "Politics."

In the late 60's, the study of classical literature was largely a philological pursuit, and since Nussbaum was growing more interested in the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, she started to take classes in Harvard's philosophy department. Aside from being predominantly Jewish, the department was also more open to interdisciplinary inquiry. She wrote her classics dissertation on a treatise by Aristotle, but she also began writing articles on Henry James and Proust that drew on the full range of her literary and philosophical interests.

Unfortunately, the very intellectual breadth that became Nussbaum's signature caused problems for her professionally. Although Harvard had originally appointed her jointly to teach classics and philosophy in 1975, Nussbaum was denied tenure by the classics department in 1982. The experience devastated her; she even considered bringing a sexual discrimination suit. Instead, she moved to Brown University, where she taught until she came to Chicago four years ago.

On my last day in Chicago, I sat in on a class Nussbaum was teaching on John Rawls and political liberalism in one of the law school's horseshoe-shaped seminar rooms. The day's discussion examined the status of the family in liberal political philosophy. "What would it be like for the principles of justice to apply within the family?" she asked. She and her students engaged in a lively debate about the tension between the family and the state: Is the family a voluntary private association or should it be regulated by government? Should a child be able to choose his own education or religion?

In 65 brisk minutes, Nussbaum interrogated the usefulness of the idea of "family" in contemporary America -- probing with the intensity of a legislator. "Perhaps we should drop the label of family altogether," she proposed, "and instead ask about the various goals and capabilities that people have in these kinds of associations." Would employing a looser notion of family change the state's stand on issues such as gay adoption or immigration? "What are the practical implications of my approach? I really want to know!" Her voice rose, as some in the class chuckled at her earnestness.

Sitting in her book-strewn office after class, I asked Nussbaum whether she didn't sometimes take philosophy too seriously. Weren't there cases in which theory didn't have to benefit humanity in any concrete way? For me, much of the joy of studying philosophy often derived precisely from the escape it offered from the world. Didn't this more purely aesthetic conception of philosophy's vocation deserve equal time?

Nussbaum would have none of it. "For any view you put forward," she said, "the next question simply has to be, 'What would the world be like if this idea were actually taken up?"' Arrogantly or not, her scholarly objective is not to impress her peers or win tenure -- but to influence future generations, "laying a foundation" for a more just world. "It's what happens in the long haul that really matters," Nussbaum said. "You just never know where or how your ideals will be realized."

Robert S. Boynton writes for The New Yorker and Lingua Franca.


From LRB Vol 22, No 22 | cover date 16 November 2000


How do they see you?

Elizabeth Spelman

Sex and Social Justice by Martha Nussbaum.
Oxford, 476 pp., £25, 1 July 1999, 0 19 511032 3

Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach by Martha Nussbaum.
Cambridge, 312 pp., £17.95, 25 May, 0 521 66086 6

On the occasion of a meeting of the American Philosophical Association some years ago, hotel housekeepers were overheard commenting that in comparison with other conventioneers, philosophers 'don't screw very much, but they sure do drink a lot'. What the real if apocryphally reported housekeepers may not have noted - obliged as they were to be constantly cleaning up after those chaste philosophical revellers - is that philosophers do talk about sex. True, until fairly recently, 'professional philosophers' (themselves a recent invention) couldn't imagine that sex might be a topic they could wrap their professional tongues around. But this has given way to a recognition - albeit in some quarters still grudging - that since philosophy might have something to do with human life, and human life something to do with sex, maybe it's okay for philosophers to talk philosophically about sex, where 'sex' includes but is not limited to what philosophers might or might not engage in between bouts of boozing at conventions.

So what do philosophers talk about when they talk about sex? Well, as Martha Nussbaum's two recent books illustrate, more than enough issues to keep social theorists, ethicists, legal scholars and hoteliers in business for a long time: topics that arise in connection with the regulation of sexual activity (e.g. gay and lesbian rights), the containment of sexual freedom and pleasure (e.g. female genital mutilation), the employment of one's sexual skills for profit (e.g. prostitution), the use of others simply as a means to one's sexual pleasure (e.g. objectification). Nussbaum published a variety of articles on such matters during the 1990s, and has now revised and compiled them in Sex and Social Justice.

Perhaps it's worth saying up front that prurient readers won't be disappointed: in a chapter on lesbian and gay rights we learn that the US Army's byzantine and hysterical policy on homosexuality permits retention only of 'nonhomosexual soldiers who, because of extenuating circumstances, engaged in, attempted to engage in, or solicited a homosexual act'. The Army probably would not discharge the soldier, otherwise somehow certifiably heterosexual, who testified: 'Well, I like a good blow job, and the women downtown don't know how to suck dick worth a damn. But this man happens to suck mine better than anyone I have ever found in the world' (Watkins v. US Army and related testimony). In one of the book's most engaging and original chapters, Nussbaum argues that certain forms of objectification of other people's bodies might enhance sexual encounters without degrading or demeaning any partner to them. Quotations from Lawrence, Joyce, the pseudonymous Laurence St Clair, Alan Hollinghurst and others, and Nussbaum's extended commentary on them, provide ample opportunity (not taken advantage of) to have index entries for 'cocks, soaping of in showers', 'erection, elephantine', 'genital organs, the calling by proper names of', 'fantasy, masturbatory' - vivid expressions in the service of a philosophical inquiry about when we are and when we are not objectifying other people.

The intended audience for Sex and Social Justice appears to be not so much a philosophical community needing to be convinced that sex and sexuality admit to or invite philosophical examination, as a feminist community (philosophical and otherwise) reluctant to press its own views about sex and sexuality further than its own local borders. Nussbaum is concerned that feminists who have at long last come to be taken at least somewhat seriously at home now worry about exporting their views abroad. Feminists who have felt fully justified in criticising their own cultures in general and their own professions in particular for massive ignorance of, discrimination against, or violence towards women, have come to worry about their own ignorance of, insensitivity to, and imperialistic tendencies towards women elsewhere. If we don't like it when men tell us who we are and how we are to live, what business have we telling other women who they are and how they are to live?

Nussbaum is in effect saying to such feminists that the self-silencing brought on by their relativistic worries is no more justified than the silence imposed on feminist voices by societal misogyny or pig-headed colleagues. Having found our voices, we should not muffle or mute them in the name of an ill-conceived, guilt-ridden form of relativism. What we need is a robust universalism, a carefully thought out, contextually sensitive set of norms against which all women's lives, or all people's lives, can be measured. We should not be worried about exporting such norms to other cultures (where they may already be recognised), nor about employing them within our own: the theoretically well-armed feminist has every reason and every right, perhaps even an obligation, to question not only practices abroad, such as genital mutilation and religious laws permitting marital rape, but also certain habits at home, 'emotions and desires that are inauthentic in the sense of being inimical to self-development, self-expression and rational autonomy'. There is nothing sacrosanct about any culture or religion's rituals. Cultures are neither monolithic, unchanging, nor without internal critique and resistance; relativists tend to ignore such complexity, and fail to note how the blanket injunction to respect other cultures is not only itself a universal command, but requires a finessing of the fact that respecting other cultures is not necessarily something those other cultures themselves are wont to do. Nor is there anything holy, or immune from criticism, about individuals' pleasures and preferences, given the well-known conditions of deformation and distortion under which they can develop. We should not underestimate the power of rationality, especially in league against the power, in high places, of irrationality. Nor should we assume that reason necessarily is at odds with emotion. Finally, we should not undervalue the worth of the individual, whose dignity and well-being trump the devices and desires of any group of which she might be a part.

The ringing defences of universalism, liberalism and human rights in the early chapters of Sex and Social Justice are expanded and revised in Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Having insisted in the earlier work that 'feminism should become less insular and more international, more attentive to the urgent problems of unequal hunger, unequal healthcare, and lack of political equality that are the daily lot of women in many parts of the world,' and now in Women and Human Development urging feminist philosophers to join feminist economists and activists in believing it 'right that problems of poor working women in both developing and developed nations should increasingly hold the centre of the scene, and that problems peculiar to middle-class women should give way to these', Nussbaum hopes to show how the combination of gender inequality and poverty makes particularly clear the need for attention to what she calls the 'central human capabilities'.

This student of Aristotle and of Marx, and sometime collaborator with Amartya Sen, insists that a truly human life is characterised at the very minimum by the possibility of functioning in certain ways. We can judge whether this bare minimum is met by asking not about how satisfied people are with their lives, nor even about the resources they have at hand, but about what they 'actually are able to do and to be'. There are ten such capabilities (suggesting a parallel set of Ten Commandments to honour them), and they include not only 'being able to have good health, including reproductive health' but also 'being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one's life', and 'being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers'. Since one of the foremost goals of the 'capabilities approach' is to maximise individual choice, the point is not to force people to function in certain ways, but to hold polities accountable for providing 'conditions that permit' individuals 'to follow their own lights free from tyrannies imposed by politics and tradition'. The idea is not that no one should choose to fast but that no one should have to starve. Some women may prefer a life of 'female modesty, deference, obedience and self-sacrifice', but political and economic opportunities ought to be such that women have options other than serving and obeying others.

Individuals should not be denied choice by the cultures, religions or families of which they are members, though these institutions might well provide the conditions under which individuals can flourish; indeed, 'women who have dignity and self-respect can help to fashion types of community that are no less loving, and often quite a lot more loving, than those they have known before.' But no institution, however customary, is sacred, and it is the responsibility of governments to protect individuals from any community that prohibits them from developing and exercising the basic human capabilities.

Women in much of the world lose out by being women. Their human powers of choice and sociability are frequently thwarted by societies in which they must live as the adjuncts and servants of the ends of others, and in which their sociability is deformed by fear and hierarchy. But they are bearers of human capabilities, basic powers of choice that make a moral claim for opportunities to be realised and to flourish. Women's unequal failure to attain a higher level of capability, at which the choice of central human functions is really open to them, is therefore a problem of justice.

The norms of justice for which these capabilities provide a template are universal standards by which all nations' provisions for their citizens are to be measured. Realisable in multiple ways, they are meant not to impose sameness but to guarantee conditions under which the free development of individuals, and thus of the inevitable differences among them and among the religions, cultures and nations of which they are a part, can blossom and be protected.

Sex and Social Justice and Women and Human Development constitute Martha Nussbaum's most explicitly feminist work to date, a feminism which she describes in the introduction to Sex and Social Justice as 'internationalist, humanist, liberal, concerned with the social shaping of preference and desire, and concerned with sympathetic understanding'. As in the case of any heavyweight contender, the direction of her blows is shaped in large part by her chosen sparring partners: Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Marx, John Rawls, Amartya Sen, Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Susan Moller Okin. Though some of the nudging she gives feminists - typically referred to in Sex and Social Justice as 'them' but in the more recent Women and Human Development as 'my fellow feminists' - is healthy, her presentation of feminism is surprisingly monolithic, given her insistence elsewhere on the importance of recognising the variety of thought and strands of resistance within any culture, religion, intellectual tradition or political movement. Her claim that feminists, including feminist philosophers, should move beyond a focus on 'problems peculiar to middle-class women' would have more credibility if her own canon were broader than MacKinnon, Dworkin and Okin, whom she implicitly treats as constituting US feminism.

The feminist bread basket offers much more sustenance than Nussbaum gives it credit for. For example, Angela Davis's work on African American women during slavery and the post-Reconstruction period is hardly esoterica, is decidedly not about middle-class women, and in fact nicely illustrates many of the points about the elements of a 'truly human life' that Nussbaum hopes the capabilities approach can capture. Nussbaum is surely right in urging feminists not to toss out the language of universal rights (though for a variety of reasons she in the end prefers the language of capabilities). But for someone who is now a professor of law and has in recent years focused on legal matters (much of her discussion of gay and lesbian rights in Sex and Social Justice is about legal attempts to regulate sexual activity, and her analysis of women in India in Women and Human Development includes extensive commentary on the relation between religious and secular law), it seems strange that she does not mention and deploy the 'critique of the critique of rights' - deconstruct rights as much as you want, but don't deny them to those in the US and around the world who might be on the brink of enjoying their fruits for the first time - powerfully put forward by what have come to be called 'critical race legal theorists'. One particularly prominent feminist legal scholar among them is Patricia Williams (see for example The Alchemy of Race and Rights, 1991). It just isn't fair to ignore relevant literature and then be cross about its absence and present oneself as filling in the gap. Nussbaum's sense of what constitutes feminism itself suffers in fact from the provincialism and blanched monolithicity she rightly warns us against.

Philosophically ambitious, politically daring and morally insistent, Women and Human Development hopes to shake the complacent reader into realising just how dire the conditions are under which so many women around the world try to live, work and love. Acknowledging the moral and political delicacy of her project, Nussbaum raises the possibility that 'all this philosophising' might be 'simply one more exercise in colonial or class domination'. She's eager to prevent 'the sort of self-deceptive rationalising that frequently makes us collaborators with injustice'. The project poses epistemological problems as well: in the final chapter of Sex and Social Justice, in which Nussbaum uses To the Lighthouse to discuss the possibility of our knowledge of other minds, she admires Woolf's implicit lessons about the great difficulty of understanding others, not only because of our inevitable idiosyncrasies, but also because of gender differences - and thus also, one would assume, cultural differences.

But though Nussbaum has gone some way, explicitly and implicitly, towards identifying the limitations and dangers endemic to her project, her conception of their source is perhaps too narrow to capture some of the most insidious of them. Her account of the capabilities approach is interwoven with detailed descriptions of the lives of Indian women, and she is at pains to emphasise that her work grows out of, and has been revised in the light of, conversations with them in a variety of settings. She wants to be able to show how a feminism that is unapologetically universal is not at odds with the 'sympathetic understanding' of women in their particularity. But sympathetic understanding has a notoriously slimy underbelly: it typically reflects a difference in the conditions of the sympathiser and the one in need of sympathy, the knower and the one whose situation calls for understanding. (Even if I know from experience what it's like for one's mother to die, the sympathy I have for my friend on the occasion of her mother's death is about her loss, not mine, her unfortunate condition, not mine.)

This difference in the relative if temporary fortunes of the profferer and recipient of sympathy is magnified, and the odour from the underbelly made proportionally stronger, when the sympathiser is the US scholar and the object of her (and our) sympathy the distant, propertyless, abused women for whom she speaks, even when she knows them and tries to ensure that they not be seen simply as nameless victims. The relatively thick descriptions of the women who serve as the case studies in India end up leaving them marked, moving slowly under the weight of cultural traditions, religious rituals, gender inequality and poverty, whereas the scholar, as observer, reporter and theorist, is merely thinly there, present only in a capacity in which culture, religion, gender, economic status and other markers appear to be irrelevant or in any event not powerful enough to give her shape. (Nussbaum's tendency to sprinkle both these books with carefully chosen snippets about her own life - about her Episcopalian upbringing, for example, and her conversion to Judaism, coy speculation about whether resting her head on her lover's stomach might be a form of objectification - provides not an exception to but an illustration of the difference I have in mind.)

Of course, such authorial transparency is in a sense precisely what she hopes to achieve, since the book is not about her but about the women in India - real, multidimensional human beings - and the ways in which their lives urgently require appropriate moral, political and legal responses. Nussbaum certainly does not present herself as wishing for or being able to operate as a facet-free prism through which her subjects come to life. But her near weightlessness in the book seems so natural that it may be tempting to think that somehow she has managed to decontextualise herself.

It is thus worth emphasising that the very thinness of her authorial presence represents not the absence of markers but an achievement made possible by the way in which her own cultural resources are working for and through her. The preparation for and production of her book are embedded in the practices of her culture and her profession, their rituals of recognition and reward, their mechanisms for having one's views published and distributed. In such a context - a trough from which I and the LRB are also feeding, and a context to which there are obvious close parallels in India - it is not considered inappropriate for people to wish to be recognised for their work and for their publishers to wish to make a little money. But this means that the very instruments Nussbaum so apparently naturally employs to bring the impoverished women of the world to our attention bring her dangerously close to objectifying them, a possibility we are alerted to by her own rousing analysis of objectification in Sex and Social Justice.

By Nussbaum's lights, a particularly grotesque form of objectification is the behaviour of Adam and Maggie in The Golden Bowl, who treat their respective spouses as 'antique furniture', 'denying them human status and asserting their right to the permanent use of those splendidly elegant bodies'. The disappearing act required by the authorial conventions of scholarship, creating a stark contrast between the palpability of the women featured in the book and the wispiness of the author, underscores the fact that the scholar is in a position to pin down her subjects in ways they cannot possibly pin her down. The scholar has so many more resources at her command than her subjects that she can talk about them, and be heard, in ways that they cannot talk about her and be heard. Nussbaum's publishers understand this all too well, ready to wring every last penny from the paratext by splashing the dust-jackets of these books with photographs of an impoverished woman (SSJ) and child (WHD): picture-perfect poor people, à la Benetton, whose photographs were taken in 1953 and are 'used by permission of' - you guessed it - a visiting photographer and the archive housing his work.

There is no doubt about the sincerity of Nussbaum's passion, and much to admire about the care with which she has made the case for the capabilities approach in the face of inevitable questions about its moral foundations and political feasibility. But the ethical and political dilemmas posed by our relation to the relatively silenced and impoverished others about and on behalf of whom we speak are not exhausted by coming down on one side or other of the universalism/relativism debates or by making sure that our theories are informed by detailed portraits of those whose lives these theories are meant to improve. Maria Lugones has argued that 'travelling' to the world of others should include finding out how they see you, what they see in and around you. Translating this into Nussbaum's language, it would seem that you have not responded to the capabilities of others if you ignore or exclude consideration of how they see you. Philosophers at conventions may not be interested in what hotel housekeepers have to say about them (and should not go around importuning workers to provide such commentary), but housekeepers may at least sometimes pause to think about and remark on what they see in the midst of all that carousing, cajoling and conceptualising. Imagine, then, that at such a convention there is a high-powered session devoted to the presentation and discussion of a splendid, passionate and painstakingly worked out theory about the effects of gender inequality and economic status on the condition of women in the service industry. Hotel housekeepers might well have been interviewed in connection with such a theory (indeed, in Boston, the source of that remark about the drinking and mating habits of philosophers, a hotel chain tried to force housekeepers - all of them women - to clean bathrooms on their knees, on the grounds that when they work standing up they don't do a good enough job). The theorists may have taken great care to emphasise the extent of the women's agency despite the hardships they are forced to endure. But will we, at such a session or outside it, learn about what the women being studied think about all this - not simply what they think about the theories in which they figure (they, and Nussbaum's subjects, may well agree with them), but what they think about the theorists, their struggles, their hopes, their disciplinary tics? Will there be room for something like the verbal snapshot provided by the hotel maids' assessment of the predilections and preoccupations of philosophers - an image of the theorists which is not under their control, which locates their theorising (and their behaviour in the venues in which it takes place) in the context of cultural and professional practices regulating what they can and cannot say or do? Are the theorists prepared to be thickly perceived, moving with and against the insistent rhythms of their own local customs and rules? Are they ready to be ripened into objects of their subjects' sympathetic understanding?

 Elizabeth Spelman teaches at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her books include Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought and Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering.



Vol I, issue 1


Women and work—the capabilities approach

Martha Nussbaum                          

I found myself beautiful as a free human mind

Mrinal, in Rabindranath Tagore’s
Letter from a Wife

It is obvious that the human eye gratifies itself in a way different from the crude, non-human eye; the human ear different from the crude ear, etc...The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract being as food; it could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

Two women trying to flourish

Ahmedabad in Gujarat is the textile-mill city where Mahatma Gandhi organised labour in accordance with his principles of non-violent resistance. Tourists visit it for its textile museum and its Gandhi ashram. But today it attracts attention, too, as the home of another resistance movement: the Self-Employed Women’s Association, with more than 50,000 members, which for over twenty years has been helping female workers to improve their living conditions through credit, education, and a labour union. On one side of the polluted river that bisects the city is the shabby old building where SEWA was first established, now used as offices for staff. On the other side are the education offices and the SEWA bank, newly housed in a marble office building. All the customers and all the employees of this bank are women.

Vasanti sits on the floor in the meeting room of the old office building, where SEWA members meet to consult with staff. A tiny dark woman in her early thirties, she wears an attractive electric blue sari, and her long hair is wound neatly into a bun on the top of her head. Soft and round, she seems more comfortable sitting than walking. Her teeth are uneven and discoloured, but otherwise she looks in reasonable health. My colleague Martha Chen tells me later she is a Rajput, that is, of good caste; I still have never figured out how one would know that. She has come with her older (and lower-caste) friend Kokila, maker of clay pots and a janitor at the local conference hall, a tall fiery community organiser who helps the police identify cases of domestic violence. Vasanti speaks quietly, looking down often as she speaks, but there is animation in her eyes.

Vasanti’s husband, she tells us, was a gambler and an alcoholic. He used the household money to get drunk, and when he ran out of that money he got a vasectomy in order to take the cash incentive payment offered by government. So Vasanti has no children to help her. Eventually, as her husband became more abusive, she could live with him no longer and returned to her own family. Her father, who used to make Singer sewing machine parts, has died, but her brothers run an auto parts business in what used to be his shop. Using a machine that used to be her father’s, and living in the shop itself, she earned a small income making eyeholes for the hooks on sari tops. Her brothers got her a lawyer to take her husband to court for maintenance — quite an unusual step in her economic class — but the case has dragged on for years with no conclusion in sight. Meanwhile, her brothers also gave her a loan to get the machine that rolls the edges of the sari; but she didn’t like being dependent on them, since they are married and have children, and may not want to support her much longer. With the help of SEWA, therefore, she got a bank loan of her own to pay back the brothers, and by now she has paid back almost all of the SEWA loan. Usually, she says, women lack unity, and rich women take advantage of poor women. In SEWA, by contrast, she has found a sense of community. She clearly finds pleasure in the company of Kokila, a woman of very different social class and temperament.

By now, Vasanti is animated; she is looking us straight in the eye, and her voice is strong and clear. Women in India have a lot of pain, she says. And I, I have had quite a lot of sorrow in my life. But from the pain, our strength is born. Now that we are doing better ourselves, we want to do some good for other women, to feel that we are good human beings.

Jayamma stands outside her hut in the wilting heat of a late March day in Trivandrum, Kerala.1 The first thing you notice about her is the straightness of her back, and the muscular strength of her movements. Her teeth are falling out, her eyesight seems clouded, and her hair is thin — but she could be a captain of the regiment, ordering her troops into battle. It doesn’t surprise me that her history speaks of fierce quarrels with her children and her neighbours. Her jaw juts out as she chews tobacco. An Ezhava — a lower but not ‘scheduled’ caste — Jayamma loses out two ways, lacking good social standing but ineligible for the affirmative action programmes established by government for the lowest castes. She still lives in a squatterer’s colony on some government land on the outskirts of Trivandrum.

For approximately 45 years, until her recent retirement, Jayamma went every day to the brick kiln and spent eight hours a day carrying bricks on her head, 500 to 700 bricks per day. (She never earned more than five rupees a day, and employment depends upon weather.) Jayamma balanced a plank on her head, stacked 20 bricks at a time on the plank, and then walked rapidly, balancing the bricks by the strength of her neck, to the kiln, where she then had to unload the bricks without twisting her neck, handing them two by two to the man who loads the kiln. Men in the brick industry typically do this sort of heavy labour for a while, and then graduate to the skilled (but less arduous) tasks of brick moulding and kiln loading, which they can continue into middle and advanced ages. Those jobs pay up to twice as much, though they are less dangerous and lighter. Women are never considered for these promotions and are never permitted to learn the skills involved. Like most small businesses in India, the brick kiln is defined as a cottage industry and thus its workers are not protected by any union. All workers are badly paid, but women suffer special disabilities. Jayamma felt she had a bad deal, but she didn’t see any way of changing it.

Thus in her middle sixties, unable to perform the physically taxing job of brick carrying, Jayamma has no employment to fall back on. She refuses to become a domestic servant, because in her community such work is considered shameful and degrading. Jayamma adds a political explanation: "As a servant, your alliance is with a class that is your enemy." A widow, she is unable to collect her pension from the government: the village office told her that she was ineligible because she has able-bodied sons, although in fact her sons live at a distance and refuse to support her. Despite all these reversals (and others), Jayamma is tough, defiant, and healthy. She doesn’t seem interested in talking, but she shows her visitors around, and makes sure that we are offered lime juice and water.

Jayamma and Vasanti have been raised in a nation in which women are formally the equals of men, with equal political rights and nominally equal social and employment opportunities. (Discrimination on the basis of sex is outlawed by the Indian Constitution itself.) Both, however, have suffered from deprivations that do arise from sex: problems of discrimination in education and employment, problems of male non-support — indolence in the case of Jayamma, domestic abuse and alcoholism in the case of Vasanti. The problems they face are particular to the social situation of women in particular caste and regional circumstances in India. One can’t understand Jayamma’s choices and constraints without understanding, at many different levels of specificity and generality, how she is socially placed: what it means to be an Ezhava rather than a Pulaya, what it means that she lives in Kerala rather than some other state, what it means that she is in the city rather than a rural area. One can’t understand Vasanti without understanding the double bind of being both upper caste — with lots of rules limiting what it’s proper to do — and very poor, with few opportunities to do nice proper things that bring in a living. One also can’t understand her story without knowing about family planning programmes in Gujarat, the progress of the SEWA movement, the background Gandhian tradition of self-sufficiency on which the Gujarati women’s movement draws. No doubt all this particularity shapes the inner life of each, in ways that it’s hard for an outsider to begin to understand.

On the other hand, their problems are not altogether and unrecognisably different from problems of many women (and many poor people generally) in many parts of the world. In the intense desire of both women for independence and economic self-sufficiency, the desire of both to have some money and property in their own name — these are efforts common to women in many parts of the world. The body that labours is in a sense the same body all over the world, and its needs for food and nutrition and health care are the same — so it’s not too surprising that the female manual labourer in Trivandrum is in some ways comparable to a female manual laborer in Beijing or even Chicago, that she doesn’t seem to have an utterly alien consciousness or an identity unrecognisably strange, strange though the circumstances are in which her consciousness takes root. Similarly the body that gets beaten is in a sense the same all over the world, concrete though the circumstances of domestic violence are in each society. Even what is most apparently strange in the circumstances of each woman is also, at another level, not so unfamiliar. We find it pretty odd that the brick kiln makes women do all the heavy jobs and then pays them less — but many forms of sex discrimination in employment exhibit similar forms of irrationality. Again, the fact that a woman as strong and resourceful as Vasanti doesn’t want to go to school seems odd — but of course it isn’t so surprising, given that she doesn’t see any signs of a better way of life that she could get by becoming educated. How to think well about what is similar and what different in these lives — that is the task that any normative theory of social justice in today’s interlocking world must undertake.

Sex and social justice

Human beings have a dignity that deserves respect from laws and social institutions. This idea has many origins in many traditions; by now it is at the core of modern democratic thought and practice all over the world. The idea of human dignity is usually taken to involve an idea of equal worth: rich and poor, rural and urban, female and male, all are equally deserving of respect, just by virtue of being human, and this respect should not be abridged on account of a characteristic that is distributed by the whims of fortune. Often, too, this idea of equal worth is connected to ideas of freedom and opportunity: to respect the equal worth of persons is, among other things, to promote their ability to fashion a life in accordance with their own view of what is deepest and most important.

But human dignity is frequently violated on grounds of sex. Like Vasanti and Jayamma, many women all over the world find themselves treated unequally with respect to employment, bodily safety and integrity, basic nutrition and health care, education, and political voice. In many cases these hardships are caused by their being women, and in many cases laws and institutions construct or perpetuate these inequalities. All over the world, women are resisting inequality and claiming the right to be treated with respect.

But how should we think about this struggle? What account shall we use of the goals to be sought and the evils to be avoided? We cannot avoid using some normative framework that crosses cultural boundaries, when we think of concepts such as women’s ‘quality of life’, their ‘living standard’, their ‘development’ and their ‘basic entitlements’. All of these are normative concepts, and require us to defend a particular normative position if we would use them in any fruitful way. In default of an alternative, development economics will supply some less than perfect accounts of norms and goals, such as increased GNP per capita, or preference satisfaction. (These approaches are criticised below.) In this article I shall first address the worries that arise when we attempt to use any cross-cultural framework in talking about improvements in women’s lives. Next I shall criticise dominant economic approaches. Finally I shall defend the ‘capabilities approach’, an approach to the priorities of development that focuses not on preference-satisfaction but on what people are actually able to do and to be. I shall argue that this approach is the most fruitful for such purposes, showing that it has good answers to the problems that plagued the other approaches.

The need for cross-cultural objectives

Before we can advance further defending a particular account of the objectives of development, we must face a challenge that has recently arisen, both in feminist circles and in discussions of international development policy. The question that must be confronted is whether we should be looking for a set of cross-cultural objectives in the first place, where women’s opportunities are concerned. Obviously enough, women are already doing that, in many areas, labour among them. Women in the informal sector, for example, are increasingly organising on an international level to set goals and priorities.2 But this process is controversial, both intellectually and politically. Where do these normative categories come from, it will be asked? And how can they be justified as appropriate ones for cultures that have traditionally used different normative categories? Now of course no critical social theory confines itself to the categories of each culture’s daily life. If it did, it probably could not perform its special task as theory, which involves the systematisation and critical scrutiny of intuitions that in daily life are often unexamined. Theory gives people a set of terms with which to criticise abuses that otherwise might lurk nameless in the background. Terms such as ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘hostile work environment’ give us some obvious examples of this point.

First, one hears what I shall call the argument from culture. Traditional cultures, the argument goes, contain their own norms of what women’s lives should be: frequently norms of female modesty, deference, obedience and self-sacrifice. Feminists should not assume without argument that those are bad norms, incapable of constructing good and flourishing lives for women. By contrast, the norms proposed by feminists seem to this opponent suspiciously ‘Western’, because they involve an emphasis on choice and opportunity.

My full answer to this argument will emerge from the proposal I shall make, which certainly does not preclude any woman’s choice to lead a traditional life, so long as she does so with certain economic and political opportunities firmly in place. But we should begin by emphasising that the notion of tradition used in the argument is far too simple. Cultures are scenes of debate and contestation. They contain dominant voices, and they also contain the voices of women, which have not always been heard. It would be implausible to suggest that the many groups working to improve the employment conditions of women in the informal sector, for example, are brainwashing women into striving for economic opportunities: clearly, they provide means to ends women already want, and a context of female solidarity within which to pursue those ends. Where such groups do alter existing preferences, they typically do so by giving women a richer sense of both their possibilities and their equal worth, in a way that contributes to the women’s self-realisation (as Tagore’s heroine vividly states). Indeed, what may possibly be ‘Western’ is the arrogant supposition that choice and economic agency are solely Western values!

In short, because cultures are scenes of debate, appealing to culture give us questions rather than answers. It certainly doesn’t show that cross-cultural norms are a bad answer to those questions.

Let us now consider the argument that I shall call the argument from the good of diversity. This argument reminds us that our world is rich in part because we don’t all agree on a single set of practices and norms. We think the world’s different languages have worth and beauty, and that it’s a bad thing, diminishing the expressive resources of human life generally, if any language should cease to exist. So too, cultural norms have their own distinctive beauty; the world risks becoming impoverished as it becomes more homogeneous.

Here we should distinguish two claims the objector might be making. She might be claiming that diversity is good as such; or she might simply be saying that there are problems with the values of economic efficiency and consumerism that are increasingly dominating our interlocking world. This second claim, of course, doesn’t yet say anything against cross-cultural norms, it just suggests that their content should be critical of some dominant economic norms. So the real challenge to our enterprise lies in the first claim. To meet it we must ask how far cultural diversity really is like linguistic diversity. The trouble with the analogy is that languages don’t harm people, and cultural practices frequently do. We could think that threatened languages such as Cornish and Breton should be preserved, without thinking the same about Vasanti’s husband’s highly traditional practice of domestic violence: it is not worth preserving simply because it is there and very old. In the end, then, the objection doesn’t undermine the search for cross-cultural norms, it requires it: for what it invites us to ask is, whether the cultural values in question are among the ones worth preserving, and this entails at least a very general cross-cultural framework of assessment, one that will tell us when we are better off letting a practice die out.

Finally, we have the argument from paternalism. This argument says that when we use a set of cross-cultural norms as benchmarks for the world’s varied societies, we show too little respect for people’s freedom as agents (and, in a related way, their role as democratic citizens). People are the best judges of what is good for them, and if we say that their own choices are not good for them we treat them like children. This is an important point, and one that any viable cross-cultural proposal should bear firmly in mind. But it hardly seems incompatible with the endorsement of cross-cultural norms. Indeed, it appears to endorse explicitly at least some cross-cultural norms, such as the political liberties and other opportunities for choice. Thinking about paternalism gives us a strong reason to respect the variety of ways citizens actually choose to lead their lives in a pluralistic society, and therefore to seek a set of cross-cultural norms that protect freedom and choice of the most significant sorts. But this means that we will naturally value religious toleration, associative freedom, and the other major liberties. These liberties are themselves cross-cultural norms, and they are not compatible with views that many real people and societies hold.

We can make a further claim: many existing value systems are themselves highly paternalistic, particularly toward women. They treat them as unequal under the law, as lacking full civil capacity, as not having the property rights, associative liberties, and employment rights of males. If we encounter a system like this, it is in one sense paternalistic to say, sorry, that is unacceptable under the universal norms of equality and liberty that we would like to defend. In that way, any bill of rights is ‘paternalistic’ vis-a-vis families, or groups, or practices, or even pieces of legislation, that treat people with insufficient or unequal respect. The Indian Constitution, for example, is in that sense paternalistic when it tells people that it is from now on illegal to use caste or sex as grounds of discrimination. But that is hardly a good argument against fundamental constitutional rights or, more generally, against opposing the attempts of some people to tyrannise over others. We dislike paternalism because there is something else that we like, namely liberty of choice in fundamental matters. It is fully consistent to reject some forms of paternalism while supporting those that underwrite these basic values.

Nor does the protection of choice require only a formal defence of basic liberties. The various liberties of choice have material preconditions, in whose absence there is merely a simulacrum of choice. Many women who have in a sense the ‘choice’ to go to school simply cannot do so: the economic circumstances of their lives makes this impossible. Women who ‘can’ have economic independence, in the sense that no law prevents them, may be prevented simply by lacking assets, or access to credit. In short, liberty is not just a matter of having rights on paper, it requires being in a material position to exercise those rights. And this requires resources. The state that is going to guarantee people rights effectively is going to have to recognise norms beyond the small menu of basic rights: it will have to take a stand about the redistribution of wealth and income, about employment, land rights, health, education. If we think that these norms are important cross-culturally, we will need to take an international position on pushing toward these goals. That requires yet more universalism and in a sense paternalism; but we could hardly say that the many women who live in abusive or repressive marriages and have no assets and no opportunity to seek employment outside the home, are especially free to do as they wish.

The argument from paternalism indicates, then, that we should prefer a cross-cultural normative account that focuses on empowerment and opportunity, leaving people plenty of space to determine their course in life once those opportunities are secured to them. It does not give us any good reason to reject the whole idea of cross-cultural norms, and some strong reasons why we should seek such norms, including in our account not only the basic liberties, but also forms of economic empowerment that are crucial in making the liberties truly available to people. And the argument suggests one thing more: that the account we search for should seek empowerment and opportunity for each and every person, respecting each as an end, rather than simply as the agent or supporter of ends of others. Women are too often treated as members of an organic unit such as the family or the community is supposed to be, and their interests subordinated to the larger goals of that unit, which means, typically, those of its male members. However, the impressive economic growth of a region means nothing to women whose husbands deprived them of control over household income. We need to consider not just the aggregate, whether in a region or in a family; we need to consider the distribution of resources and opportunities to each person, thinking of each as worthy of regard in her own right.

The defects of traditional economic approaches

Another way of seeing why cross-cultural norms are badly needed in the international policy arena is to consider what the alternative has typically been. The most prevalent approach to measuring quality of life in a nation used to be simply to ask about GNP per capita. This approach tries to weasel out of making any cross-cultural claims about what has value — although, notice, it does assume the universal value of opulence. What it omits, however, is much more significant. We are not even told about the distribution of wealth and income, and countries with similar aggregate figures can exhibit great distributional variations. Circus girl Sissy Jupe, in Dickens’s Hard Times, already saw the problem with this absence of normative concern for distribution: she says that the economic approach doesn’t tell her "who has got the money and whether any of it is mine." So too with women around the world: the fact that one nation or region is in general more prosperous than another is only a part of the story: it doesn’t tell us what government has done for women in various social classes, or how they are doing. To know that, we’d need to look at their lives; but then we need to specify, beyond distribution of wealth and income itself, what parts of lives we ought to look at — such as life expectancy, infant mortality, educational opportunities, health care, employment opportunities, land rights, political liberties. Seeing what is absent from the GNP account nudges us sharply in the direction of mapping out these and other basic goods in a universal way, so that we can use the list of basic goods to compare quality of life across societies.

A further problem with all resource-based approaches, even those that are sensitive to distribution, is that individuals vary in their ability to convert resources into functionings. Some of these differences are straightforwardly physical. Nutritional needs vary with age, occupation, and sex. A pregnant or lactating woman needs more nutrients than a non-pregnant woman. A child needs more protein than an adult. A person whose limbs work well needs few resources to be mobile, whereas a person with paralysed limbs needs many more resources to achieve the same level of mobility. Many such variations can escape our notice if we live in a prosperous nation that can afford to bring all individuals to a high level of physical attainment; in the developing world we must be highly alert to these variations in need. Again, some of the pertinent variations are social, connected with traditional hierarchies. If we wish to bring all citizens of a nation to the same level of educational attainment, we will need to devote more resources to those who encounter obstacles from traditional hierarchy or prejudice: thus women’s literacy will prove more expensive than men’s literacy in many parts of the world. If we operate only with an index of resources, we will frequently reinforce inequalities that are highly relevant to well-being.

If we turn from resource-based approaches to preference-based approaches, we encounter another set of difficulties.3 Preferences are not exogenous, given independently of economic and social conditions. They are at least in part constructed by those conditions. Women often have no preference for economic independence before they learn about avenues through which women like them might pursue this goal; nor do they think of themselves as citizens with rights that were being ignored, before they learn of their rights and are encouraged to believe in their equal worth. All of these ideas, and the preferences based on them, frequently take shape for women in programmes of education sponsored by women’s organisations of various types. Men’s preferences, too, are socially shaped and often misshaped. Men frequently have a strong preference that their wives should do all the child care and all the housework — often in addition to working an eight-hour day. Such preferences, too, are not fixed in the nature of things: they are constructed by social traditions of privilege and subordination. Thus a preference-based approach typically will reinforce inequalities: especially those inequalities that are entrenched enough to have crept into people’s very desires.

The capabilities approach

A reasonable answer to all these concerns — capable of giving good guidance to government establishing basic constitutional principles and to international agencies assessing the quality of life — is given by a version of the capabilities approach — an approach to quality of life assessment pioneered within economics by Amartya Sen4, and by now highly influential through the Human Development Reports of the UNDP.5 My own version of this approach is in several ways different from Sen’s; I shall simply lay out my view as I would currently defend it.

The central question asked by the capabilities approach is not, ‘How satisfied is this woman?’ or even ‘How much in the way of resources is she able to command?’ It is, instead, ‘What is she actually able to do and to be?’ Taking a stand for political purposes on a working list of functions that would appear to be of central importance in human life, users of this approach ask, Is the person capable of this, or not? They ask not only about the person’s satisfaction with what she does, but about what she does, and what she is in a position to do (what her opportunities and liberties are). They ask not just about the resources that are present, but about how those do or do not go to work, enabling the woman to function.

The intuitive idea behind the approach is twofold: first, that there are certain functions that are particularly central in human life, in the sense that their presence or absence is typically understood to be a mark of the presence or absence of human life. Second, and this is what Marx found in Aristotle, that there is something that it is to do these functions in a truly human way, not a merely animal way. We judge, frequently enough, that a life has been so impoverished that it is not worthy of the dignity of the human being, that it is a life in which one goes on living, but more or less like an animal, not being able to develop and exercise one’s human powers. In Marx’s example, a starving person can’t use food in a fully human way — by which I think he means a way infused by practical reasoning and sociability. He or she just grabs at the food in order to survive, and the many social and rational ingredients of human feeding can’t make their appearance. Similarly, the senses of a human being can operate at a merely animal level — if they are not cultivated by appropriate education, by leisure for play and self-expression, by valuable associations with others; and we should add to the list some items that Marx probably would not endorse, such as expressive and associational liberty, and the freedom of worship. The core idea seems to be that of the human being as a dignified free being who shapes his or her own life, rather than being passively shaped or pushed around by the world in the manner of a flock or herd animal.

At one extreme, we may judge that the absence of capability for a central function is so acute that the person isn’t really a human being at all, or any longer — as in the case of certain very severe forms of mental disability, or senile dementia. But I am less interested in that boundary (important though it is for medical ethics) than in a higher one, the level at which a person’s capability is ‘truly human’, that is, worthy of a human being. The idea thus contains a notion of human worth or dignity.

Notice that the approach makes each person a bearer of value, and an end. Marx, like his bourgeois forebears, holds that it is profoundly wrong to subordinate the ends of some individuals to those of others. That is at the core of what exploitation is, to treat a person as a mere object for the use of others. What this approach is after is a society in which individuals are treated as each worthy of regard, and in which each has been put in a position to live really humanly.

It is possible to produce an account of these necessary elements of truly human functioning that commands a broad cross-cultural consensus, a list that can be endorsed for political purposes by people who otherwise have very different views of what a complete good life for a human being would be. The list is supposed to provide a focus for quality of life assessment and for political planning, and it aims to select capabilities that are of central importance, whatever else the person pursues. They therefore have a special claim to be supported for political purposes in a pluralistic society.6

The list represents the result of years of cross-cultural discussion,7 and comparisons between earlier and later versions will show that the input of other voices has shaped its content in many ways. It remains open-ended and humble; it can always be contested and remade. Nor does it deny that the items on the list are to some extent differently constructed by different societies. Indeed part of the idea of the list is that its members can be more concretely specified in accordance with local beliefs and circumstances. Here is the current version:

Central Human Functional Capabilities

1. Life Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.

2. Bodily Health Being able to have good health, including reproductive health;8 to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.

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

4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason — and to do these things in a ‘truly human’ way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. 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 non-necessary pain.

5. Emotions Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)

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

7. Affiliation (a) Being able to live with and toward others, to recognise and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for that situation; to have the capability for both justice and friendship. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)

(b) Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails protections against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, caste, ethnicity or national origin.

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 right of political participation, protections of free speech and 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; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.

The list is, emphatically, a list of separate components. We cannot satisfy the need for one of them by giving people a larger amount of another one. All are of central importance and all are distinct in quality. The irreducible plurality of the list limits the trade-offs that it will be reasonable to make, and thus limits the applicability of quantitative cost-benefit analysis. At the same time, the items on the list are related to one another in many complex ways. One of the most effective ways of promoting women’s control over their environment, and their effective right of political participation, is to promote women’s literacy. Women who can seek employment outside the home have more resources in protecting their bodily integrity from assaults within it. Such facts give us still more reason not to promote one capability at the expense of the others.

Among the capabilities, two, practical reason and affiliation, stand out as of special importance, since they both organise and suffuse all the others, making their pursuit truly human. To use one’s senses in a way not infused by the characteristically human use of thought and planning is to use them in an incompletely human manner. Tagore’s heroine describes herself as "a free human mind" — and this idea of herself infuses all her other functions. At the same time, to reason for oneself without at all considering the circumstances and needs of others is, again, to behave in an incompletely human way.


The basic intuition from which the capability approach begins, in the political arena, is that human abilities exert a moral claim that they should be developed. Human beings are creatures such that, provided with the right educational and material support, they can become fully capable of these human functions. That is, they are creatures with certain lower-level capabilities (which I call "basic capabilities"9) to perform the functions in question. When these capabilities are deprived of the nourishment that would transform them into the high-level capabilities that figure on my list, they are fruitless, cut off, in some way but a shadow of themselves. If a turtle were given a life that afforded a merely animal level of functioning, we would have no indignation, no sense of waste and tragedy. When a human being is given a life that blights powers of human action and expression, that does give us a sense of waste and tragedy — the tragedy expressed, for example, in Tagore’s heroine’s statement to her husband, when she says, "I am not one to die easily." In her view, a life without dignity and choice, a life in which she can be no more than an appendage, was a type of death of her humanity.

We begin, then, with a sense of the worth and dignity of basic human powers, thinking of them as claims to a chance for functioning, claims that give rise to correlated social and political duties. And in fact there are three different types of capabilities that play a role in the analysis. First, there are basic capabilities: the innate equipment of individuals that is the necessary basis for developing the more advanced capability, and a ground of moral concern. Second, there are internal capabilities: that is, states of the person herself that are, so far as the person herself is concerned, sufficient conditions for the exercise of the requisite functions. A woman who has not suffered genital mutilation has the internal capability for sexual pleasure; most adult human beings everywhere have the internal capability for religious freedom and the freedom of speech. Finally, there are combined capabilities, which may be defined as internal capabilities combined with suitable external conditions for the exercise of the function. A woman who is not mutilated but who has been widowed as a child and is forbidden to make another marriage has the internal but not the combined capability for sexual expression (and, in most such cases, for employment, and political participation).10 Citizens of repressive non-democratic regimes have the internal but not the combined capability to exercise thought and speech in accordance with their conscience. The list, then, is a list of combined capabilities. To realise one of the items on the list entails not only promoting appropriate development of people’s internal powers, but also preparing the environment so that it is favourable for the exercise of practical reason and the other major functions.

Functioning and capability

We have considered both functioning and capability. How are they related? Getting clear about this is crucial in defining the relation of the ‘capabilities approach’ to our concerns about paternalism and pluralism. For if we were to take functioning itself as the goal of public policy, a liberal pluralist would rightly judge that we were precluding many choices that citizens may make in accordance with their own conceptions of the good. A deeply religious person may prefer not to be well-nourished, but to engage in strenuous fasting. Whether for religious or for other reasons, a person may prefer a celibate life to one containing sexual expression. A person may prefer to work with an intense dedication that precludes recreation and play. Am I declaring, by my very use of the list, that these are not fully human or flourishing lives? And am I instructing government to nudge or push people into functioning of the requisite sort, no matter what they prefer?

It is important that the answer to this question is no. Capability, not functioning, is the appropriate political goal. This is so because of the very great importance the approach attaches to practical reason, as a good that both suffuses all the other functions, making them fully human, and also figures, itself, as a central function on the list. The person with plenty of food may always choose to fast, but there is a great difference between fasting and starving, and it is this difference that we wish to capture. Again, the person who has normal opportunities for sexual satisfaction can always choose a life of celibacy, and the approach says nothing against this. What it does speak against (for example) is the practice of female genital mutilation, which deprives individuals of the opportunity to choose sexual functioning (and indeed, the opportunity to choose celibacy as well).11 A person who has opportunities for play can always choose a workaholic life; again, there is a great difference between that chosen life and a life constrained by insufficient maximum-hour protections and/or the ‘double day’ that makes women unable to play in many parts of the world. The approach does not rest content with internal capabilities, indifferent to the struggles of individuals who try to exercise these in a hostile environment. In that sense, it is highly attentive to the goal of functioning, and instructs governments to keep it always in view. On the other hand, it does not push people into functioning: once the stage is fully set, the choice is theirs.

Capabilities and human rights

Earlier versions of the list appeared to diverge from approaches common in the human rights movement by not giving as large a place to the traditional political rights and liberties — although the need to incorporate them was stressed from the start. This version of the list corrects that defect of emphasis. The political liberties have a central importance in making well-being human. A society that aims at well-being while overriding these has delivered to its members an incompletely human level of satisfaction. As Amartya Sen has recently written, "Political rights are important not only for the fulfillment of needs, they are crucial also for the formulation of needs. And this idea relates, in the end, to the respect that we owe each other as fellow human beings."12 There are many reasons to think that political liberties have an instrumental role in preventing material disaster (in particular famine13), and in promoting economic well-being. But their role is not merely instrumental: they are valuable in their own right.

Thus capabilities have a very close relationship to human rights, as understood in contemporary international discussions. In effect they cover the terrain covered by both the so-called ‘first-generation rights’ (political and civil liberties) and the so-called ‘second-generation rights’ (economic and social rights). And they play a similar role, providing the philosophical underpinning for basic constitutional principles. Because the language of rights is well-established, the defender of capabilities needs to show what is added by this new language.14

The idea of human rights is by no means a crystal clear idea. Rights have been understood in many different ways, and difficult theoretical questions are frequently obscured by the use of rights language, which can give the illusion of agreement where there is deep philosophical disagreement. People differ about what the basis of a rights claim is: rationality, sentience and mere life have all had their defenders. They differ, too, about whether rights are prepolitical or artifacts of laws and institutions. (Kant held the latter view, although the dominant human rights tradition has held the former.) They differ about whether rights belong only to individual persons, or also to groups. They differ about whether rights are to be regarded as side-constraints on goal-promoting action, or rather as one part of the social goal that is being promoted. They differ, again, about the relationship between rights and duties: if A has a right to S, then does this mean that there is always someone who has a duty to provide S, and how shall we decide who that someone is? They differ, finally, about what rights are to be understood as rights to. Are human rights primarily rights to be treated in certain ways? Rights to a certain level of achieved well-being? Rights to resources with which one may pursue one’s life plan? Rights to certain opportunities and capacities with which one may make choices about one’s life plan?

The account of central capabilities has the advantage, it seems to me, of taking clear positions on these disputed issues, while stating clearly what the motivating concerns are and what the goal is. Bernard Williams put this point eloquently, commenting on Sen’s 1987 Tanner Lectures:

I am not very happy myself with taking rights as the starting point. The notion of a basic human right seems to me obscure enough, and I would rather come at it from the perspective of basic human capabilities. I would prefer capabilities to do the work, and if we are going to have a language or rhetoric of rights, to have it delivered from them, rather than the other way round.15

As Williams says, however, the relationship between the two concepts needs further scrutiny, given the dominance of rights language in the international development world.

In some areas, the best way of thinking about what rights are is to see them as combined capabilities. The right to political participation, the right to religious free exercise, the right of free speech — these and others are all best thought of as capacities to function. In other words, to secure a right to a citizen in these areas is to put them in a position of combined capability to function in that area. (Of course there is another sense of ‘right’ that is more like my "basic capabilities": people have a right to religious freedom just in virtue of being human, even if the state they live in has not guaranteed them this freedom.) By defining rights in terms of combined capabilities, we make it clear that a people in country C don’t really have the right to political participation just because this language exists on paper: they really have this right only if there are effective measures to make people truly capable of political exercise. Women in many nations have a nominal right of political participation without having this right in the sense of capability: for example, they may be threatened with violence should they leave the home. In short, thinking in terms of capability gives us a benchmark as we think about what it is really to secure a right to someone.

There is another set of rights, largely those in the area of property and economic advantage, which seem analytically different in their relationship to capabilities. Take, for example, the right to shelter and housing. These are rights that can be analysed in a number of distinct ways: in terms of resources, or utility (satisfaction), or capabilities. (Once again, we must distinguish between the claim that ‘A has a right to shelter’ — which frequently refers to A’s moral claim in virtue of being human, with what I call basic capabilities) — from the statement that ‘Country C gives its citizens the right to shelter.’ It is the second sentence whose analysis I am discussing here.) Here again, however, it seems valuable to understand these rights in terms of capabilities. If we think of the right to shelter as a right to a certain amount of resources, then we get into the very problem I discussed earlier: giving resources to people does not always bring differently situated people up to the same level of capability to function. The utility-based analysis also encounters a problem: traditionally deprived people may be satisfied with a very low living standard, believing that this is all they have any hope of getting. A capabilities analysis, by contrast, looks at how people are actually enabled to live. Analysing economic and material rights in terms of capabilities thus enables us to set forth clearly a rationale we have for spending unequal amounts of money on the disadvantaged, or creating special programmes to assist their transition to full capability.

The language of capabilities has one further advantage over the language of rights: it is not strongly linked to one particular cultural and historical tradition, as the language of rights is believed to be. This belief is not very accurate: although the term ‘rights’ is associated with the European Enlightenment, its component ideas have deep roots in many traditions.16 Where India is concerned, for example, even apart from the recent validation of rights language in Indian legal and constitutional traditions, the salient component ideas have deep roots in far earlier areas of Indian thought — in ideas of religious toleration developed since the edicts of Ashoka in the third century BC, in the thought about Hindu/Muslim relations in the Moghul Empire, and, of course, in many progressive and humanist thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who certainly cannot be described as simply Westernisers, with no respect for their own traditions.17 Tagore portrays the conception of freedom used by the young wife in his story as having Moghul origins, in the quest of Meerabai for joyful self-expression. The idea of herself as "a free human mind" is represented as one that she derives, not from any external infusion, but from a combination of experience and history.

So ‘rights’ are not exclusively western, in the sense that matters most; they can be endorsed from a variety of perspectives. Nonetheless, the language of capabilities enables us to bypass this troublesome debate. When we speak simply of what people are actually able to do and to be, we do not even give the appearance of privileging a Western idea. Ideas of activity and ability are everywhere, and there is no culture in which people do not ask themselves what they are able to do, what opportunities they have for functioning.

If we have the language of capabilities, do we also need the language of rights? The language of rights still plays, I believe, four important roles in public discourse, despite its unsatisfactory features. First, when used in the first way, as in the sentence "A has a right to have the basic political liberties secured to her by her government", it reminds us that people have justified and urgent claims to certain types of urgent treatment, no matter what the world around them has done about that. I have suggested that this role of rights language lies very close to what I have called "basic capabilities," in the sense that the justification for saying that people have such natural rights usually proceeds by pointing to some capability-like feature of persons (rationality, language) that they actually have on at least a rudimentary level. And I actually think that without such a justification the appeal to rights is quite mysterious. On the other hand, there is no doubt that one might recognise the basic capabilities of people and yet still deny that this entails that they have rights in the sense of justified claims to certain types of treatment. We know that this inference has not been made through a great deal of the world’s history. So appealing to rights communicates more than does the bare appeal to basic capabilities, without any further ethical argument of the sort I have supplied. Rights language indicates that we do have such an argument and that we draw strong normative conclusions from the fact of the basic capabilities.

Second, even at the second level, when we are talking about rights guaranteed by the state, the language of rights places great emphasis on the importance and the basic role of these spheres of ability. To say, "Here’s a list of things that people ought to be able to do and to be" has only a vague normative resonance. To say, "Here is a list of fundamental rights," is more rhetorically direct. It tells people right away that we are dealing with an especially urgent set of functions, backed up by a sense of the justified claim that all humans have to such things, in virtue of being human.

Third, rights language has value because of the emphasis it places on people’s choice and autonomy. The language of capabilities, as I have said, was designed to leave room for choice, and to communicate the idea that there is a big difference between pushing people into functioning in ways you consider valuable and leaving the choice up to them. But there are approaches using an Aristotelian language of functioning and capability that do not emphasise liberty in the way that my approach does: Marxist Aristotelianism and some forms of Catholic Thomist Aristotelianism are illiberal in this sense. If we have the language of rights in play as well, I think it helps us to lay extra emphasis on the important fact that the appropriate political goal is the ability of people to choose to function in certain ways, not simply their actual functionings.

Finally, in the areas where we disagree about the proper analysis of rights talk — where the claims of utility, resources, and capabilities are still being worked out — the language of rights preserves a sense of the terrain of agreement, while we continue to deliberate about the proper type of analysis at the more specific level.

Capabilities as goals for women’s development

Legitimate concerns for diversity, pluralism and personal freedom are not incompatible with the recognition of cross-cultural norms, and indeed that cross-cultural norms are actually required if we are to protect diversity, pluralism and freedom, treating each human being as an agent and an end. The best way to hold all these concerns together is to formulate the norms as a set of capabilities for fully human functioning, emphasising the fact that capabilities protect, and do not close off, spheres of human freedom.

Used to evaluate the lives of women who are struggling for equality in many different countries, developing and developed, the capabilities framework does not, I believe, look like an alien importation: it squares pretty well with demands women are already making in many global and national political contexts. It might therefore seem superfluous to put these items on a list: why not just let women decide what they will demand in each case? To answer that question, we should point out that the international development debate is already using a normative language. Where the capabilities approach has not caught on — as it has in the Human Development Reports of the UNDP — a much less adequate theoretical language still prevails, whether it is the language of preference-satisfaction or the language of economic growth. We need the capabilities approach as a humanly rich alternative to these inadequate theories of human development..

Let us now return to Vasanti and Jayamma, assessing their stories against the background of the capabilities list. The script of Vasanti’s life has been largely written by men on whom she has been dependent: her father, her husband, the brothers who helped her out when her marriage collapsed. This dependency put her at risk with respect to life and health, denied her the education that would have developed her powers of thought, and prevented her from thinking of herself as a person who has a plan of life to shape and choices to make. In the marriage itself she fared worst of all, losing her bodily integrity to domestic violence, her emotional equanimity to fear, and being cut off from meaningful forms of affiliation, familial, friendly, and civic. For these reasons, she did not really have the conception of herself as a free and dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. We should note that mundane matters of property, employment and credit play a large role here: the fact that she held no property in her own name, no literacy and no employment-related skills, and no access to a loan except from male relatives, all this cemented her dependent status and kept her in an abusive relationship far longer than she would otherwise have chosen. We see here how closely all the capabilities are linked to one another, how the absence of one, bad in itself, also erodes others. Vasanti also had some good luck: she had no abusive in-laws to put up with, and she had brothers who were more than usually solicitous of her well-being. Thus she could and did leave the marriage without turning to any physically dangerous or ‘degrading’ occupation. But this good luck created new forms of dependency; Vasanti thus remained highly vulnerable, and lacking in confidence.

The SEWA loan changed this picture. Vasanti now had not only an income, but also independent control over her livelihood. Even when she still owed a lot of money, it was better to owe it to SEWA than to her brothers: being part of a mutually supportive community of women was crucially different, in respect of both practical reason and affiliation, from being a poor relation being given a handout. Her sense of her dignity increased as she paid off the loan and began saving. By the time I saw her, she had achieved considerable self-confidence and sense of worth; and her affiliations with other women, in both groups and personal friendships, were a new source of both pleasure and pride to her. Her participation in political life had also gone way up, as she joined in Kokila’s project to prod the police to investigate more cases of domestic violence. Interestingly, she now felt that she had the capacity to be a good person by giving to others, something that the narrow focus on survival had not permitted her to do.

Reflecting on her situation, we notice how little the public sector did for her, and how lucky she was that one of the best women’s NGOs in the world was right in her backyard. Government failed to ensure her an education; it failed to prosecute her husband for abuse, or to offer her shelter from that abuse, it failed to secure her equal property rights in her own family; it failed to offer her access to credit. Indeed, the only strong role government played in Vasanti’s life was negative, the cash payment for her husband’s vasectomy, which made her vulnerable position still more so.

Jayamma’s situation provides an interesting contrast. On the one hand, she had a much worse start in life than Vasanti, and has done worse throughout her life on some of the measures of capability. She has had to worry constantly about hunger, and she has at times suffered from malnutrition; she has engaged in extremely dangerous and taxing physical labour. She has had no supportive male relatives, and, though she has had children as Vasanti has not, they have been more of a liability than an asset. She has no savings, and has never had a loan; her property rights to the land on which she squats are unclearly established. She has suffered from discrimination in employment, with no chance of rectification. And she has had to do what countless women in developing countries routinely do, but Vasanti did not, that is to shoulder all the burden of running a household with children, while working a full day at a demanding job.

On the other hand, Jayamma has in some ways done better than Vasanti. Her health has been good, no doubt on account of her impressive physical strength and fitness, and she has never suffered physical abuse from her husband, who seems to have been a lot weaker than she was. She doesn’t seem to be intimidated by anyone, and she has a consciousness of political issues that Vasanti developed only recently. Unlike Vasanti, she has never been encouraged to be submissive, and she certainly isn’t; through the years she has fought effectively to keep her family together and to improve its standing.

Government has done much more for Jayamma than for Vasanti. The squatters on government land now have been given property rights in the land, although they will need to go to court to establish their claim clearly. Services provided by government are invaluable aids in Jayamma’s taxing day. Water now comes into the squat itself, and a government programme built her an indoor toilet. Government medical services are nearby, good, and available free of charge. Even though Jayamma did not take advantage of educational opportunities for her own children, her grandchildren have profited from government’s aggressiveness against traditions of non-education. Government certainly failed to eradicate sex discrimination in her place of employment. But in many respects the government of Kerala can be given good marks for promoting human capabilities.

The capabilities framework squares pretty well with the things these women are already thinking about, or start thinking about at some time in their lives. Insofar as it entails criticism of traditional culture, these women are already full of criticism; indeed, any framework that didn’t suggest criticism wouldn’t be adequate to capture what they want and aim for. In particular, the ideas of practical reason, control over environment, and non-humiliation seem especially salient in their thought, alongside more obvious considerations of nutrition, health, and freedom from violence. Even where the list doesn’t exactly echo their thoughts — as, for example, in the value it ascribes to education — it still seems to capture well, for normative political purposes, aspects of life that stand between these women and the general goals of independence, dignity, and mastery for which they are both intensely striving.

Women all over the world have lacked support for central human functions, and that lack of support is to some extent caused by their being women. But women, unlike rocks and trees, have the potential to become capable of these human functions, given sufficient nutrition, education and other support. That is why their unequal failure in capability is a problem of justice. It is up to all human beings to solve this problem. I claim that a cross-cultural conception of human capabilities gives us good guidance as we pursue this difficult task

Martha Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics at the University.




Ausgabe vom 15.3.2002


Aristoteles in Amerika

UNTER dem Eindruck der Ereignisse vom 11. September plädiert die Chikagoer Philosophin Martha Nussbaum dafür, die nationale Selbstwahrnehmung neu zu reflektieren und mehr Mitgefühl zu entwickeln: mit den Angehörigen der Feuerwehrleute, mit dem Taxifahrer, der ein Sikh ist, ebenso wie mit all jenen, die in fernen Ländern unter den Kriegsfolgen leiden. Eine Erziehung zum Mitgefühl aber basiert darauf, Wissen über andere Länder und Kulturen so zu vermitteln, dass diese auch emotional zur Kenntnis genommen werden können. Es ist einer der ersten Texte, der sich differenziert mit den notwendigen Konsequenzen aus den Anschlägen beschäftigt.

* Lehrt Philosophie an der University of Law School. Wichtige Veröffentlichungen: Gerechtigkeit oder das gute Leben, Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch (1999).

Nach dem 11. September hatten wir alle heftige Gefühle - Furcht, Wut, Trauer, Erstaunen. Und diese Gefühle galten unserem Land. Unsere Medien präsentieren die Katastrophe als eine Tragödie, die unserer Nation widerfahren ist, und dass wir es so sehen, ist wohl ganz natürlich. Das Gleiche gilt für den Krieg. Man nennt ihn "Amerikas neuen Krieg", und im Zentrum aller Medienberichte steht die Frage, was die Ereignisse für uns und unser Land bedeuten. Wir halten sie für wichtig, weil sie uns betreffen. Weil es nicht einfach um das Leben von Menschen geht, sondern um das Leben von Amerikanern. Allerdings hat die Krise unseren Wahrnehmungshorizont in einer Hinsicht auch erweitert. Wir merken, dass wir Sympathie für Menschen empfinden, die uns vorher nie in den Sinn gekommen waren: für die New Yorker Feuerwehrleute, für den schwulen Rugbyspieler, der mit anderen Passagieren das vierte Flugzeug von seinem Ziel abgebracht hat; für Familien unterschiedlichster nationaler und ethnischer Herkunft, die ihre Angehörigen verloren haben. Zuweilen sehen wir unsere Nachbarn arabischer Abstammung mit neuer Aufmerksamkeit oder wir empfinden Mitgefühl für einen Taxifahrer, der Sikh ist und uns von Kunden erzählt, die ihm sagen, er solle gefälligst in "sein Land" zurückgehen. Wo er doch als politischer Flüchtling in die USA gekommen ist, um der Verfolgung im Punjab zu entgehen. Manchmal überwindet unser Mitgefühl sogar die größte aller Mauern - die nationalen Grenzen. So hat der 11. September etwas bewirkt, was viele Feministen vorher erfolglos zu bewirken versucht hatten: Viele Menschen in den USA entwickelten Sympathie für die Frauen und Mädchen in Afghanistan.

Allzu oft bleiben unsere Vorstellungen allerdings auf die lokale Ebene beschränkt. Je verstörter wir sind, desto größer wird diese Neigung. Überschwemmungen, Erdbeben, Wirbelstürme oder Hungersnöte haben bisher die heile Welt der Amerikaner nicht zu erschüttern vermocht oder eine vergleichbare Welle des Mitgefühls ausgelöst. Auch auf das Elend, das unschuldigen Menschen im aktuellen Krieg wiederfährt, reagieren wir nur sporadisch.

Schlimmer noch: Das Gefühl, dass einzig das "wir" zählt, droht ein imaginäres, dämonisiertes "sie" hervorzubringen. […] Die Wut auf die Terroristen ist völlig angemessen, genauso wie der Wunsch, sie vor Gericht zu stellen. Aber es besteht immer die Gefahr, dass das Denken in den Kategorien von "wir" und "sie" umschlägt in einen Wunsch nach Demütigung "des Anderen". Der Patriotismus kann leicht dazu verführen, Amerika unbedingt als großen Triumphator sehen zu wollen.

Das Gefühl des Mitleids ist wahrscheinlich Teil unseres genetischen Erbes. Doch das bedeutet nicht, dass das Mitgefühl gleich das Denken ausschaltet. Vor langer Zeit schon bemerkte Aristoteles, dass menschliches Mitgefühl in der Regel auf drei Erkenntnissen beruhe: erstens, dass einem anderen Menschen etwas wirklich Schlimmes widerfahren ist; zweitens, dass dieser nicht oder nicht vollständig für dieses schlimme Ereignis verantwortlich ist; und drittens, dass auch wir gegen derartiges Unglück nicht gefeit sind. Demnach ist Mitgefühl das psychologische Bindeglied zwischen unserem Eigeninteresse und dem realen Wohl und Wehe einer anderen Person. Mitgefühl ist folglich ein moralisch wertvolles Gefühl - wenn es richtig verstanden wird. Aber häufig gehen die Gedanken, die dieses Gefühl hervorrufen, in die Irre - und damit auch das Gefühl selbst. Dann nämlich, wenn es nicht gelingt, das Schicksal anderer Menschen über die Entfernung hinweg mit der eigenen aktuellen Situation und den eigenen Verwundbarkeiten in Beziehung zu setzen. (Rousseau etwa hat behauptet, Könige hätten kein Mitgefühl mit ihren Untertanen, da sie darauf setzten, nie als einfache Menschen den Schicksalsschlägen des Lebens unterworfen zu sein.) Manchmal kommt Mitgefühl auch deshalb nicht auf, weil wir gar nicht wahrnehmen, wie schlimm eine Situation ist - Hungersnöte etwa oder Krankheiten von Menschen, die uns fern sind.

Derartige Fehlwahrnehmungen sind wahrscheinlich bereits in der Art angelegt, wie sich Mitgefühl in unserer Kindheit und später im Erwachsenenalter herausbildet: Anfangs entwickeln wir intensive Bindungen nur an unsere engste Umgebung, und erst mit der Zeit lernen wir, Mitgefühl auch für Menschen jenseits unseres unmittelbaren Umkreises zu empfinden. Für viele US-Amerikaner endet das moralische Engagement an der Grenze des eigenen Staates.

Die meisten von uns sind mit der Überzeugung aufgewachsen, dass alle menschlichen Wesen gleichwertig seien. Das lehren jedenfalls die großen Religionen der Welt und auch die meisten weltlichen philosophischen Schulen. Aber unsere Gefühle glauben es nicht. Wir trauern um Menschen, die wir kennen, nicht aber um jene, die wir nicht kennen. Die meisten von uns haben starke Gefühle für Amerika, aber eben nicht für Indien, Russland oder Ruanda. An sich ist diese Beschränktheit unseres emotionalen Vermögens wahrscheinlich in Ordnung. Von Aristoteles stammt der folgende plausible Gedanke: Würde man die Bürger in Platons idealer Polis auffordern, sich um alle Bürger in gleicher Weise zu kümmern, dann würden sie sich tatsächlich um niemanden kümmern. Sein Argument lautete, dass Fürsorge gerade in kleinen Gruppen zu erlernen sei, weil hier die emotionalen Bindungen intensiver seien. Die Lektüre von Mark Aurel kann uns in dieser Auffassung nur bestärken. Denn aus dessen stoischem Vorhaben, seine Vorstellungswelt von ihrer intensiven erotischen Bindung an die Familie und die vertrauten Orte abzulösen, wird nach und nach ein einigermaßen schockierendes Konzept - nämlich das Verbot, sein Herz überhaupt noch der Welt zu öffnen. Mark Aurel kommt zu dem Schluss, dass es nur eine Weise gebe, sich völlig neutral zu verhalten: die nämlich, den Tod im Leben anzustreben, indem man alle Menschen nur wie eine ferne und schattenhafte "Prozession von Trugbildern" wahrnimmt. Wenn unser Zusammenleben mit anderen auch Ideale beinhalten soll - wie das Ideal der Gerechtigkeit in einer Welt der Ungerechtigkeit, das Ideal der gegenseitigen Hilfe in einer Welt, in der viele nicht haben, was sie brauchen -, dann tun wir gut daran, zumindest im Verhältnis zu unseren Familien, Nachbarn und zu unserem Land solchen Idealen entsprechend zu leben.

Doch unsere Anteilnahme sollte nicht auf das unmittelbare Lebensumfeld beschränkt bleiben. Leider neigen die Amerikaner zu solcher emotionalen Verengung. Das gilt zwar in gewisser Weise für alle Menschen, aber die Macht und die territoriale Größe der USA haben dazu geführt, dass isolationistisches Denken hier seit langem besonders stark verwurzelt ist. Als (zumindest einige) andere Länder Mittel und Wege fanden, die Juden vor dem Holocaust zu retten, verhielten sich die USA auf sträfliche Weise passiv und unbeteiligt - vor allem gemessen an ihrem Machtpotenzial. Es brauchte erst den Angriff auf Pearl Harbor, damit wir unseren Verbündeten zu Hilfe kamen. Als in Ruanda der Völkermord stattfand, hinderten uns Selbstgenügsamkeit und das Gefühl der eigenen Unverwundbarkeit daran, uns in die Lage der Menschen dort hineinzuversetzen.

Ab und zu kommt uns die löbliche Erkenntnis, dass alle Völker miteinander verbunden sind. So verstehen wir zum Beispiel, dass wir gemeinsam mit Menschen aus allen Ländern die Terroristen besiegen und vor Gericht stellen müssen. Doch dann gibt es wieder Zeiten simplifizierender Slogans ("Amerika schlägt zurück"), die den Eindruck erwecken, als müssten "wir", die Guten, einen Kreuzzeug gegen "sie", die Bösen, führen. Womit wir zum Beispiel ignorieren, dass Menschen in allen Ländern gute Gründe zur Bekämpfung des Terrorismus haben und dass es in diesem Kampf viele aktive Verbündete gibt.

Diese Vereinfachungen sind moralisch falsch, weil sie uns davon abhalten, die Auswirkung unserer Aktionen auf die unschuldige Zivilbevölkerung zur Kenntnis zu nehmen und die wichtigste aller Aufgaben zu erfüllen: die Aufgabe, humanitäre Hilfe zu leisten.

Simplifizierendes Denken ist zudem kontraproduktiv. Heute können wir - oder sollten wir zumindest - verstehen, was wir etwa in Pakistan versäumt haben: Hätten wir uns mehr Gedanken gemacht, wie man in diesem Land die Bildungseinrichtungen und die humanitäre Infrastruktur unterstützen kann (etwa durch die Finanzierung guter lokaler Nichtregierungsorganisationen), dann wären die jungen Menschen in diesem Land womöglich in einer besseren Umgebung aufgewachsen: in einem Klima der Achtung der religiösen Vielfalt, der Gleichberechtigung der Frauen und anderer Werte, die wir zu Recht hochhalten. Und sie wären nicht mangels anderer Bildungseinrichtungen auf Madrassen angewiesen. Unsere Politik in Südasien krankt seit vielen Jahren an einem enormen Defizit an Fantasie und Sympathie. Im Grunde haben wir die ganze Zeit nur in den Wertekategorien des Kalten Krieges gedacht und dabei das reale Leben der Menschen ignoriert, für die wir mit konkreten Projekten sehr viel hätten bewirken können. Ein Denken in derart primitiven Kategorien zeugt von moralischer Abstumpfung und ist in keinster Weise geeignet, das voranzubringen, was uns am Herzen liegt - in einer Welt, in der alle Menschen immer mehr voneinander abhängig sind.

Mitgefühl beginnt im lokalen Umfeld. Aber wenn wir unsere moralischen und unsere emotionalen Strukturen irgendwie stimmig machen wollen, müssen wir unsere starken Emotionen und die Fähigkeit, die Lage anderer Menschen nachzufühlen, in einer größeren Umgebung wirksam werden lassen. Wir müssen also Mittel und Wege finden, dieses Mitgefühl auf die Gesamtheit des menschlichen Lebens auszudehnen. Weil Mitgefühl auch mit Denken zu tun hat, kann es gelernt werden.

Wir stehen also vor zwei Möglichkeiten. Wir können die Katastrophe vom 11. September zum Anlass nehmen, unseren Horizont zu verkleinern, dem Rest der Welt zu misstrauen und Solidarität allein mit US-Amerikanern zu empfinden. Wir können den 11. September aber auch zum Anlass nehmen, unseren ethischen Horizont zu erweitern. Indem wir erkennen, wie verwundbar unser riesiges Land ist, können wir etwas über die Verwundbarkeit lernen, die allen Menschen gemeinsam ist. Wir können erfahren, was es für Menschen in fernen Regionen bedeutet, geliebte Angehörige durch eine Katastrophe zu verlieren, die sie nicht selbst verursacht haben - sei es durch eine Hungersnot, eine Überschwemmung oder durch "ethnische Säuberungen".

Weil Menschen den Sinn des Lebens in räumlich begrenzten Bindungen finden, sollten wir von niemandem verlangen, seinen Patriotismus aufzugeben - so wie wir von niemandem erwarten können, seine Liebe zu den Eltern oder den Kindern aufzugeben. Aber wir fordern Eltern immer auf, Kinder anderer Menschen nicht zu erniedrigen und zu bedrohen, und wir setzen uns - jedenfalls manchmal - dafür ein, Schulen zu errichten, in denen sich die Fähigkeiten aller Kinder entfalten können, in denen alle lernen, auf eigenen Beinen zu stehen und eine befriedigende Arbeit zu finden. Dasselbe sollte auch für unser Verhältnis zur Welt gelten: Auch wenn wir das eigene Land am meisten lieben, sollten wir eine Welt anstreben, in der niemand durch Hunger, Frauenfeindlichkeit oder fehlende Ausbildungschancen seiner Möglichkeiten beraubt wird - geschweige denn durch Krieg. Deshalb sollten wir uns stark machen für eine Erziehung, die unseren Kindern die Fähigkeit vermittelt, sich in die Lage anderer Menschen hineinzudenken. Unsere Kinder sollen lernen, dass diese Fähigkeit stets in die Fallstricke der Selbstbezogenheit zu geraten droht. In jüngster Zeit gibt es da Anlass zur Hoffnung, vor allem was die Unterrichtung der amerikanischen Öffentlichkeit über den Islam, die Geschichte Afghanistans und Pakistans sowie über die gesellschaftliche Lage und die Einstellungen von US-Amerikanern arabischer Abstammung betrifft. Aber diese pädagogischen Bemühungen müssen konsistent und systematisch werden, sie müssen mehr sein als eine lediglich von Angst motivierte Reaktion auf die unmittelbar bestehende Krise.

Unsere Medien und unser Erziehungswesen haben uns lange Zeit viel zu wenig Informationen über das Leben jenseits unserer Grenzen vermittelt. Damit haben sie unsere moralische Vorstellungskraft in ihrer Entwicklung behindert. Während die Lage der Frauen und der rassischen, ethnischen und sexuellen Minderheiten der USA in die Lehrpläne aufgenommen wurde, steht es um Informationen über ferne Regionen der Welt sehr viel schlechter. Das ist nicht überraschend, denn auf diesem Gebiet bedarf es erheblicher Investitionen in neue Curricula, und entsprechende Fernsehprogramme sind nur möglich, wenn man die Konkurrenz um die Einschaltquoten endlich einmal außer Acht lässt. Aber wir wissen heute zumindest, dass wir unwissend sind. Und das ist, wie schon Sokrates sagte, ein allererster Fortschritt.

aus dem Engl. von Niels Kadritzke


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