Jun 13

Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership

Posted by Soliloquy in Advocates | Kindle

Theories of social justice are necessarily abstract, reaching beyond the particular and the immediate to the general and the timeless. Yet such theories, addressing the world and its problems, must respond to the real and changing dilemmas of the day. A brilliant work of practical philosophy, Frontiers of Justice is dedicated to this proposition. Taking up three urgent problems of social justice neglected by current theories and thus harder to tackle in practical … More >>

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Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership

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  • Martha Nussbaum is a promoter of the capabilities approach, a school of thought that seeks to delineate the conditions for a just and decent world based on what people are actually able to be and to do (their “capabilities”) in order to lead a life worthy of human dignity. Amartya Sen has pioneered this approach in the realm of economics where he has proposed to analyze development as consisting of freedom as much as of material progress. Nussbaum’s approach differs from Sen in subtle ways: she is more interested in philosophical debates than economic reasoning, and (whereas Sen remains in the vague as to what constitutes basic human functionnings) she provides a list of ten capabilities that must be fulfilled beyond a certain threshold in a fully just society.

    Nussbaum applies this approach to three unsolved problems of social justice: how to treat people with physical and mental impairments so that they can live up to their human potential; how to extend justice to all world citizen regardless of the place they live in; and what are the issues of justice involved in our treatment of nonhuman animals. In doing so, she engages in a detailed discussion of the social contract theory proposed by John Rawls which, all its merits notwithstanding, cannot provide a satisfying answer to these three pressing social problems.

    Take people with disabilities. Social contract theorists imagine the contracting agents who design the basic structure of society as “free, equal and independent,” and usually conceive the social contract as providing mutual advantages to its members. But how to include people who may have a limited ability to take part in the deliberations establishing the contract, or whose special needs often contradict the assumption that social justice should provide all members of society with roughly equal endowments? Nussbaum shows that a conception of the person more akin to Aristotle than to Kant helps frame the idea of a life in accordance with human dignity, while countries like Sweden or Germany show examples of practical arrangements that allow people with disabilities to participate actively in all the major spheres of life.

    The contract model also typically constructs a single society, which is imagined as self-sufficient and not interdependent with any other society. In a second step, these societies establish relations to regulate their dealings with one another based on a set of core principles embodied in international law. This model leaves many issues unanswered, such as the unequal distribution of wealth and power across countries and the universal validity of human right principles. Based on Grotius and the natural law tradition, Nussbaum develops a theory of transnational justice that includes respect for human rights and the need for economic redistribution.

    Likewise, moral philosophers typically hold either that we have no direct moral duties to animals or that, if we do, they are duties of charity and compassion rather than justice. But nonhuman animals are also capable of a dignified existence, and our theories of justice should recognize that right. Nussbaum mentions a court ruling in India that goes into this direction; she could also have referred to the European Union, which has enshrined the protection of farm animals’ welfare in its constitutional treaties.

  • There is substance to Nussbaum’s account here — the most interesting material is a consideration of how intuitive ethical duties towards the disabled, and towards members of other countries and species, conflict with a Rawlsian contractualism. Her notion of capability duties/outcomes, while nothing particularly innovative to my eye, is interesting, and the failures of contractualism are examined fairly and in detail.

    The main problem with the book is that it is very diluted (it is also repetitious — actually the stapling together of separate essays, and if I had had to read how GDP per capita does not take into account internal inequality one more time I would have gone mad.) A book of equivalent perceptivity could be a hundred pages or less.

    The remainder of the book is taken up by Nussbaum’s rather long winded examinations of different ways to be nice (indeed, very very nice) to other people and to animals (to give a sense, there is more than one paragraph devoted to whether we should put gazelles into protective custody to save them from lions.)

    Quite a bit of the material — especially the animal material, but also the nationality material — is both philosophically uninteresting (the conceptual point has been made, and there is no more refined analysis presented) and practically naieve or vague (for example, if Nussbaum is aware of the ongoing debates in the NGO world over the nature of foreign aid, it doesn’t show here.)

    Worth a read in many ways, but also in many ways an indulgent performance.

  • Martha Nussbaum has delivered another thought-provoking book, this time applying her “capabilities” approach to questions on disability, national identity, and obligations to non-humans. As always, her writing is clear and forceful, and her insights are provocative, if not always completely convincing. As a follow-up to her earlier works, this book is likely to become a key resource for discussions of philosophical ethics, human rights, and the continued effort to interpret and modify the work of John Rawls.

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