03/02/2010 17:14

Nussbaum's Capabilities, Jaggar's Critique, What's Next?

Chad Kleist
Marquette University

Nussbaum's Capabilities, Jaggar's Critique, What's Next?

There have been two philosophical approaches to addressing cross-cultural moral disagreement and conflict. The dominant approach aims to develop a theory that is in some sense both ‘thick’ (i.e., it has a robust conception of the good embedded within a particular context, and respects local traditions) and ‘thin’ (i.e., it embraces a set of universal norms). These universalists include human rights theorists, Onora O’Neill’s Kantian constructivism, Seyla Benhabib’s discourse ethics and Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach. They tend to be associated with constructing ‘thin’ theories of morality. The other approach, most notably advocated by Michael Walzer, is communitarianism. The debate between these two approaches to global ethics has reached an impasse. Nussbaum believes her capabilities theory resolves this impasse and offers a viable approach to global ethics that provides a universal measure of human flourishing while also respecting religious and cultural differences.

Sen, an economic theorist, undertook the project of capabilities by trying to identify a space in which we can make quality of life judgments cross-culturally. Nussbaum embraces Sen’s capabilities approach, and aims to provide a philosophical justification for it. She argues that it should be based on an intuition of truly human functioning. The capabilities are designed to answer the question, “what are human beings in a particular context able to do or be?” Nussbaum provides two justifications for the capabilities approach. First, an intuitionist justification seeks coherence between diverse intuitions, rather than matching them against an independent standard of morality. Second, Nussbaum offers a proceduralist (i.e., a form of discourse ethics) method of justifying the capabilities. Here, we consult other people’s worldviews, and in turn challenge our own.

Nussbaum's commitment to intuitionism and placing a limited role on proceduralism have been criticized, most notably by Alison Jaggar. Jaggar points out that a good method of moral reasoning entails critical feedback and then re-evaluating the theory in light of that feedback. While Nussbaum believes her theory is open to revision, the method of reasoning she primarily relies on to defend the capabilities—the substantive good approach—offers no real mechanisms for inviting and taking seriously genuinely critical feedback. Jaggar argues that a proceduralist approach is more trustworthy than the substantive good approach in part because it is a method of reasoning that invites and requires taking seriously competing and critical views.

I argue there are three criteria of adequacy Nussbaum claims to be concerned with (i.e., the theorist must be cognizant of power differences, a moral theory should be genuinely revisable and it should encourage self-criticism), but Jaggar's critique has shown that despite these claims, Nussbaum fails to do so. I suggest that the best way to solve the problem of being covertly authoritarian is by embracing discourse ethics as a method to justify the capabilities.

Jaggar and Young and are committed to the goals of discourse ethics given by Habermas and Benhabib. The former call our attention to power dynamics, and this will help address issues of dialogue inclusion, in addition to, avoiding colonialism and sexism. They assume, as Benhabib does, that people are situated within a social, political and economic situation, and that the situation often places people in relations of substantive inequality. However, what distinguishes Jaggar and Young is their direct awareness of various forms of communication and power dynamics that shapes real world discourse. By calling our attention to these, they are not abandoning discourse ethics, but rather altering it in such a way that addresses the reality of globalization. Finally, I show the implications of using discourse ethics as a viable method for the capabilities by drawing a connection between discourse ethics and an advancement and realization of the capabilities.

I believe discourse ethics y closed community in order to challenge the status quon this section, qua method has two advantages. First, it allows the capabilities to best meet Jaggar's criteria of adequacy. By adopting a more nuanced version of discourse ethics that directly addresses power dynamics, we are able to avoid criticisms of being authoritarian and, perhaps, neo-colonialist. Second, discourse empowers women. As Brooke Ackerly has demonstrated, via the Self-Employed Women's Association, many women become empowered through gaining self-knowledge by engaging others in their closed community. Thus, discourse ethics as a method best advances the capabilities in a way that Nussbaum would like.