Response to Martha Nussbaum: Female Human Beings

Response to Martha Nussbaum’s: Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings

In this article, Nussbaum lays out her capabilities approach very similarly to the way she does in her book Women and Human Development. Nussbaum starts her argument from the stance that in order to fight for women’s rights, we should start with what should start from “a conception of the human being and human functioning”. (62) Nussbaum thinks that if we start by composing a conception of what is needed for a human being we can more accurately demand what is needed for women like Chen describes in her account.
Nussbaum claims there her approach is “universalistic” and “essentialist” (63). This goes back to her idea of a conception of the human being. The question is, what makes us so similar, not what do we not have in common. Nussbaum begins this exercise by relating the same stories she told in her article on Aristotelian ethics. They are taken from a series of conferences where she encountered what she terms “extremely intelligent people” making, what essentially are, crazy statements. The first story involves a man who praises non-western communities that maintain the same values in the home and in the workplace. His example? Purity checks for women. A menstruating woman is not allowed in the kitchen, and is not allowed in the workplace. The argument is that we should praise this universalism of values in society, and we cannot judge those values because they have value in and of themselves for the otherness. The second story that Nussbaum relates is of a French anthropologist who is upset that smallpox has been eradicated in India because the god that was supposed to protect against smallpox, Sittala Devi, is not eradicated and no longer needed. This, the anthropologist is distressing because we have lost an important part of Indian culture. Of course, Nussbaum inquires, “It is surely better to be healthy rather than ill”. The third story is supposed to be an example that freedom of choice is not a universal capability, which both Sen and Nussbaum would maintain. Instead, it is argued, by the same woman who was distressed over the eradication of smallpox, that in Japan men do not put much merit in freedom of choice. The proof? When the men come home they do not want to choose what is for dinner, or what to iron for the next day, they choose to have their wives do it. Nussbaum is using these examples to illustrate the harm that relativist thinking can cause to the campaign towards the full development of women.
Nussbaum argues for her universalistic way of thinking in several ways, but does so first by arguing that a universalistic perspective does not, in anyway, rely on a “metaphysical realism” or “the view that there is some determinate way the world is, apart from interpretive working of the cognitive faculties of living beings.” Nussbaum argues that this idea is not in fact a part of some huge metaphysical concept, but it is very similar to the way we view our everyday lives. Her is example is stars, they are what they are whether we realize it or not. The rest of this article is a part of her article that I don’t really understand, from page 67-70, and I think that it is due to all the terminology that she uses. So this is a part of the article that I will need to discuss with you.
In the next section, Nussbaum points out the many different arguments against universalism. The first is that it neglects historical and cultural differences. This argument is worried that if we come up with fundamental properties of human beings, one concept of human functioning might overshadow another concept from a different culture. There is also the worry that a dominant group could overshadow a minority like male vs. female. Nussbaum’s argument against this argument is that a list of human functioning is trying to get at what we all have in common, not our differences. As human beings there are things that we all need, and perhaps then that list could have things added, but defiantly not taken away from the base. Nussbaum wants to say that these things are “especially deep” and “continuous” (74)
The second complaint against universalism is the claim that it neglects autonomy. This argument is that if one determines what is most important to human functioning ahead of time, it limits that person ability to choose what their plan in life. Nussbaum’s argument against this is that a person is in now way required to take advantage of the provision of capabilities that they should have, but they should have to option to enjoy them and have them and be able to flourish by their availability.
The third is what Nussbaum calls the “Prejudicial Application”. This argument is centered around what can be called a human being and worries that the weak may be excluded – just as women and slaves were excluded from Aristotle’s reasoning on the subject. To this Nussbaum basically replies that any living creature with the capacity to reason and love, these normal human capabilities, is a human. The only people she excludes are those in a vegetative state or those who are so mentally inept that they cannot recognize loved ones or do not respond to others. Nussbaum does not mean to imply that they should not be given adequate care, but she does not believe that offering these types of people all the capabilities will do them any good because they cannot take advantage of them. All people should be given access to capabilities at birth until it is shown that they are unable to either take advantage of them or have no interest in doing so.
Here is the part that Nussbaum lists out the things that she believes that all human beings share and which provide benefits for all human beings. These include: mortality, a body, the need of food and water, the need for shelter, sexual desire, mobility, capacity for pleasure and pain, cognitive capability, infant development, practical reason, affiliation with other human beings, relatedness to other species and Nature, the need for humor and play, and separateness. All of these, argues Nussbaum, are required for full human functioning and if any one were missing, then we would say that that person is fully a human.
Next, Nussbaum goes about the task of determining what she calls “thresholds” for human functioning. For Nussbaum there are two such thresholds. The first threshold is meeting a human status. Below this line, we would argue that that person isn’t even human due to their lack of human-like functioning. The second, and more important threshold is the line above which we would say a person has a good life. This is the threshold that public policy should be concerned with, as Nussbaum does not want “only the bare minimum”. Nussbaum does admit that flourishing above the first threshold and reaching the second threshold has as much to do with the individual’s initiative as it does with access to capabilities.

For Nussbaum’s next move, she adds what she calls the “second level of the conception of the human being”, and it is here that she lays out in more detail what she thinks are the important capabilities. The first is the ability to live a life or normal length and not to endure premature death. The second is, to live in good health, meaning adequate nutrition, adequate shelter, sexual satisfaction, choice in reproduction and having mobility.
The third is being able to avoid pan and to have pleasurable experiences. The fourth is, the ability to use our senses, including imagining, thinking, and reasoning. These abilities should be further cultivated through education in literature, mathematics and science. The fifth is, the ability to have attachments to things and persons, the ability to love and care, to grieve and experience longing. The sixth is, the ability to form a conception of the good and to engage in reflection of one’s own life. The seventh is, the ability to interact and experience emotions for and from others. The eighth is, the ability to live with animals, plants and the world of nature. Ninth is, the ability to laugh and play. Tenth, the ability to live one’s own life and make choices regarding that life.
Nussbaum makes it very clear that each and ever one of these capabilities are necessary for human functioning. She is also very clear that an abundance of one does not overshadow the neglect of another. Nussbaum wants this list to bring all people up to a particular threshold, first, and then want to deal with inequalities that may still persist. These inequalities would most likely be disparities in the quality of capabilities in race or gender.

Published in: on September 27, 2006 at 2:52 pm  Comments (1)  

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