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Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities: A Response to Antony, Arneson, Charlesworth,

and Mulgan
Author(s): Martha C. Nussbaum
Source: Ethics, Vol. 111, No. 1 (Oct., 2000), pp. 102-140
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Aristotle, Politics, and Human
Capabilities: A Response to Antony,
Arneson, Charlesworth, and Mulgan

Martha C. Nussbaum

It will be seen how in place of the wealth and poverty of political econ-
omy come the rich human being and rich human need. The rich human
being is simultaneously the human being in need of a totality of hu-
man life-activities-the person in whom his own realization exists as
an inner necessity, as need. (MARX, Economic and Philosophical Manu-
scripts of 1844)
The articles in this symposium raise more significant philosophical ques-
tions than I can answer to anyone's satisfaction here. They also make me
realize how old I am: for they address many chronological strata of my
thinking, frequently without acknowledging that my thinking has under-
gone numerous shifts between 1980 (the date of publication of the ar-
ticle "Shame, Separateness, and Political Unity," the first text discussed)
and the present.' Some of these shifts are announced as such by me: for
example, I have drawn attention to my endorsement, beginning in 1994,
of a Rawlsian type of political liberalism, which significantly alters my
understanding of the political role of the capabilities list and of the re-
lationship between politics and metaphysics.2 Other shifts are conscious,
but not announced with any fanfare: for example, the increasing em-
phasis on the notion of a threshold level of each of the central capabili-
ties and the increasing specificity of the capabilities list itself. Still other
changes in my position have become evident to me through reflecting
on these articles.
In general, my strategy has been to publish versions of my capabili-

1. Martha C. Nussbaum, "Shame, Separateness, and Political Unity: Aristotle's Criti-

cism of Plato," in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. A. Rorty (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1980), pp. 395-436. Actually, the article was written in 1978.
2. This shift was first made explicit in Martha C. Nussbauim, "The Good as Discipline,
the Good as Freedom," in Ethics of Consumption: The Good Life, Justice, and Global Stewardship,
ed. David Crocker and Toby Linden (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), pp. 312-
411, a paper I first publicly read in 1994. SeeJohn Rawls, Political Liberalism (hereafter PL),
expanded paper ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

Ethics 111 (October 2000): 102-140

( 2000 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0014-1704/2001/11101-0006

Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 103

ties view as records of work in progress, in order to elicit what I have very
often received, criticism that would help me make the view better. Only
in Women and Human Development (WHD), published in the spring of
2000, have I made any attempt to synthesize the approach and provide
an overview of it, together with at least some discussion of its philosophi-
cal justification.3 And even that overview is far from complete. It will
need to be supplemented by years of further work, culminating, I hope,
in a much fuller and more complete presentation of the view. Thus I feel
that I am at something of a disadvantage when people take the earlier
articles for a product that is both static and coherent over time, since I
feel that most of what I wrote before has been definitively superseded by
the new work. Nor do I see any reference to the growing influence of
both Rawls and Kant on my thought, or to the fact that my interest in
Aristotle has been for some time in part an interest in the young Marx's
own reading of Aristotle. In this reply, I shall focus on what I think now,
although at times I may have to try to give an account of why I thought
something else at an earlier time.


Why do I begin my work in political philosophy from the text of Aristotle,
rather than simply stating what I think? Both Richard Mulgan and Louise
Antony raise this question, in different ways. One part of the answer is
biographical: I entered philosophy through Classics, and I learned phi-
losophy largely through grappling with the texts of Plato and Aristotle-
not such a bad way to learn, I still believe.
Apart from that history, however, I think that we have strong reasons
to approach difficult contemporary issues by engaging in an ongoing
conversation with important texts in the history of philosophy. First of
all, the texts are complex, subtle, and deep, whereas much of what is
written in any given generation of philosophy is superficial and too
simple. So they nourish and stimulate our thought, until we ourselves
become somewhat more subtle and complex. Second, they present a
wide range of distinctive positions: so if we study the major alternatives
presented in the tradition, we are likely to be confronted, if not with all
the serious possibilities for the solution of our problems, at least with
a wide range of helpful ones. Third, they force our thinking out of its
contemporary complacencies, whatever they are, forcing us to approach
problems from a different, unfamiliar angle. Every philosophical cul-
ture has its unexamined presuppositions, its cherished categories, its
fads. Good study of history makes us call these into question, again mak-
ing us at least a little better as thinkers in the process.4
3. Martha C. Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach
(hereafter, WJD) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
4. I am grateftil to recent conversations with Allen Wood, which have helped shape
these formulations.
104 Ethics October2000

Notice that in order to play the role I have envisaged, the study of
history has to be active and independent, rather than subservient. That
is, we only get the best out of the texts we read if we are really trying hard
ourselves to solve the problems they pose, rather than blindly submitting
to the authority of the text. I don't believe that any distinguished philoso-
pher can be well understood if read as an authority: for philosophers are
in the business of producing arguments, and the only way for us to un-
derstand an argument is to engage with it and actively test it. But this
means that we need to preserve a space between ourselves and the text,
even while we hold open the possibility that the text will lead us to see
the world in an entirely new way. This is a very delicate balancing act, and
it would be no surprise if one didn't always get it right. It helps, of course,
if one studies a plurality of texts, because then the tendency to submit to
one of them will be diminished, and one will be forced to think things
through from an independent perspective.5
On the other hand, it would be no good to pull in a little nugget
of insight from one place, another nugget from another. If the study of
history is really going to illuminate the world in a new way, it has to
be done systematically, trying seriously to reconstruct the position as a
whole and make the best sense one can of it.6 One thing more also seems
required: a decent knowledge of history. If the aim is to appropriate
some element in the thought of Aristotle for contemporary thought, it
helps a lot to know to what extent his thought is shaped by a specific
political and historical context. Only then can we sensibly ask how far his
answers are detachable from the context that gave them birth.
Many different philosophers in the history of philosophy have used
Aristotle as a conversation partner. This is no surprise, since he is among
the greatest of thinkers, and his thought has unsurpassed complexity,
subtlety, and rigor. To confine myself only to the past 150 years, and to
his ideas about human capability and functioning, Aristotle has been
a central inspiration for rationalist-universalist liberal Catholic thought
in the Social-Democratic tradition (Jacques Maritain), for rationalist-
universalist conservative Catholic thought in the "new-natural-law" tra-
dition (John Finnis, Germain Grisez, and Robert George), for historicist-
communitarian Catholic thought that denies the availability of universal

5. These ideas were all developed by the Stoics in many helpful ways. On the inde-
pendence and activity of the student, see the texts and discussion in Martha C. Nussbaum,
The Therapy of Desire (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), chap. 9, and Cildti-
vatingHumanity: A ClassicalDefense of Reform in LiberalEducation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1997), chaps. 1-2.
6. This has been John Rawls's method in teaching the history of philosophy: see
A. Reath, C. Korsgaard, and B. Herman, eds., Reclaiming the History of Ethics: Essays forJohn
Rawvis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), and my review article, Martha C.
Nussbaum, "Conversing with the Tradition: John Rawls and the Histoiy of Ethics," Ethics
109 (1999): 424-30.
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 105
rational principles (Alasdair MacIntyre), for humanist-universalist Marx-
ist thought (the young Marx and humanist Marxists, such as Mihailo Mar-
covic), and for British liberal-perfectionist Social-Democratic thought
(T. H. Green and Ernest Barker).7 Aristotle's political ideas have thus
influenced practical politics through a plurality of distinct and some-
times antithetical routes-some of which remain to be traced.8 All these
borrowers from Aristotle have subtly different interpretations of and also
different quarrels with Aristotle. So the views that result differ from one
another in obvious ways. Although I had not read these authors (except
for Barker's classical scholarship) when I wrote "Aristotelian Social De-
mocracy" (ASD), my own views are closely related to those of Green and
Barker in that we all stress the importance of criticizing Aristotle in the
name of liberal ideas of liberty.9 I depart from those perfectionist writ-
ers by my stress on respect for pluralism, as I shall describe further in
Section IV. My current political-liberal views lie closest to those of Mari-
tain, who was both one of the most distinguished international human-
rights thinkers after the war and, also, or so I would argue, the first polit-
ical liberal, in that he introduced into neo-Aristotelianism the idea of an
overlapping consensus among believers in different comprehensive con-
ceptions of human life.'0
What all these neo-Aristotelians have in common, despite their large
differences, is a dislike for the ideas that wealth (of a person, or of a
nation) is an end in itself, and that the accumulation of as much wealth
as possible is an appropriate end for politics to pursue. (We find one
version of these ideas in development economics, where until recently it
was standardly assumed that gross national product [GNP] per capita is

7. In 2002, I shall deliver the Hourani Lectures at SUNYBuffalo on the topic, "Varie-
ties of Neo-Aristotelian Thought."
8. For example, in a graduate course I taught on this topic in 1998, I learned from a
visitingJapanese graduate student that the Japanese Social Democratic partywas ultimately
Aristotelian in inspiration, in that its founder studied at Oxford with Ernest Barker and was
strongly influenced by the ideas of both Green and Barker about human functioning and
its social prerequisites. I would suppose that the role of Aristotelian ideas of capability in
the left-wing politics of India, in Amartya Sen's youth, had a mixed origin: both in English
thought and in humanist-Marxist thought. This lineage needs to be documented further.
9. Martha C. Nussbaum, "Aristotelian Social Democracy" (hereafter ASD) in Liberal-
ism and the Good,ed. R. B. Douglass, G. Mara, and H. Richardson (New York:Routledge,
1990), pp. 203-53.
10. Of course "overlapping consensus" is Rawls'sterm, not Maritain's;he describes
the fact, without using the term. See Jacques Maritain, The Rightsof Man and Natural Law
(New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943), and Man and the State (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1951), esp. the section on pp. 76-80, entitled "Men Mutually Opposed in
Their Theoretical Conceptions Can Come to a Merely Practical Agreement Regarding a
List of Human Rights." Maritain argues that his conception, though supported in his own
mind by metaphysical Catholic ideas of the soul, does not require that metaphysical support
and could be endorsed by anyone, theist or atheist, who is prepared to give a certain non-
negotiable place to the idea of human dignity.
106 Ethics October2000
a reliable index of a nation's quality of life.) All these thinkers find in
Aristotle the idea that the proper goal of politics is to support a rich
"plurality of human life-activities," to use the Marxian phrase, and that
these activities are distinct from one another and each valuable in its own
right. Wealth is a means to human activity, and human activity should
never be assessed simply by looking at its tendency to produce wealth.
To this basic agreement we can add another, equally basic: neo-
Aristotelians hold the separateness of persons to be a basic fact for nor-
mative political thought. Each person should be treated as an end, and
none as a mere means to the ends of others. Thus they reject the idea
that the goal of politics lies in some glorious total or average; they in-
sist on asking how each and every person is doing, and, with Aristotle,
they deny that a society can be flourishing as a whole when some mem-
bers are doing extremely badly. In that way, they all oppose not only the
pursuit of wealth as ultimate end, but also aggregative forms of Utili-
Because they thus hold that human dignity is an end in itself and
not simply a means to other ends, this neo-Aristotelian tradition draws
near to Kant, and I have argued in WID that Marx's reading of Aristotle
was in many ways shaped by the Kantian idea of humanity as an end. So
it would be no surprise if there were to be a close relationship between
such neo-Aristotelianisms and the Kantian thought of John Rawls, who
begins from the intuitive idea that every person has an "inviolability
founded upon justice." This relationship will be at its closest when the
neo-Aristotelian is also a liberal, as in the case of Green, Barker, Maritain,
and myself. And it has seemed to me, as it seemed to all four of these
thinkers, that Aristotle provides a good starting point for thought in an
era dominated by the pursuit of wealth-especially when that regret-
table human tendency has been given sanctity by dominant theories of
the time. Thus Maritain announces from the start his fundamental op-
position to forms of capitalism that make the pursuit of wealth an end
in itself, and to the related everyday idea, which he finds ubiquitously
in America, that human activity is simply a means to economic growth.
Green and Barker were of course inspired to go back to the Greeks by
the ascendancy of both philosophical Utilitarianism and far cruder ways
of thinking about accumulation in their own philosophical and political
context; Green, especially, writes about this opposition with urgency and
All of the liberal neo-Aristotelians-and, indeed, the antiliberal
group as well-agree further in stressing the central importance of prac-
tical reason and sociability, as architectonic functionings that both orga-
nize and suffuse all of the others, making their pursuit fully human.
I myself was motivated to discuss the relevance of Aristotle to public
debates when I saw that the community of international development
policy making was dominated-not even by the subtle ideas of Utili-
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 107

tarian philosophy, but by the crude and cheapened form those ideas
have taken in modern development economics. Economists are good at
many things, but arguing for a particular conception of the ultimate
ends of human social life does not seem to me to be among them. And
yet they put forward ideas on this issue all the time, particularly in inter-
national development, and these ideas are enormously influential.
So Mulgan mistakes the context of my thought. It is true that the
Greeks are sometimes fought over in American debates about education,
and it is true that I have written on this topic. But Aristotle plays almost
no role in what I write on education, and this is for two reasons: Aristotle
has little of interest to say about education in surviving texts, and my
Straussian opponents are not very interested in Aristotle anyway." He is
not easy grist for an esotericist's mill. So I focused on Plato in countering
claims made by Straussians about his text; in developing the positive side
of my own thinking, I focused on the Stoics, who seem to me the greatest
ancient Western thinkers about education.
Whatever my quarrels with Allan Bloom and the other Straussians,
those writers have relatively little influence on global politics. The nor-
mative thought that inheres in the practice of development economics
has a huge and decisive influence. I wrote "Aristotelian Social Democ-
racy" sitting in a United Nations institute for development economics
that happened to be located in Finland.'2 After eight summers of work
at that institute, I came to believe that Finland is as close to being a just
society as any we know. Traditional conceptions and practices of social
democracy in that nation were in many respects in tune with the concep-
tion of human functioning that I had been working out, against leading
models of development economics, with inspiration from Aristotle. (To
take just one example, Finnish sociologist Erik Allardt's important book
Having, Loving, Being, as its title indicates, defends against economic
ideas of human development the idea that the quality of life in a nation
should be assessed by focusing on a rich plurality of human function-
ings.) 13 This independent convergence called for investigation; my arti-
cle was the record of that investigation. Thus the article Mulgan analyzes
contains a substantial section describing Scandinavian (especially Finn-

11. In my review of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (Martha C. Nuss-
baum, "Undemocratic Vistas," New YorkReview of Books, November 5, 1987), I make passing
reference to his gross misreadings of the central ideas of Aristotle's Poetics, as evidence of
his defective scholarship. In my Cultivating Humanity, Aristotle figures primarily as a distin-
guished thinker who believed that cross-cultural study was an important part of good politi-
cal theorizing.
12. For discussion of this institute and its work, see Martha C. Nussbaum, "Public
Philosophy and International Feminism," Ethics 108 (1998): 762-96.
13. Erik Allardt, Att ha, alska, att vara: Om valfard i Norden (Having, loving, being: On
welfare in the Nordic countries) (Borgholm: Argos, 1975). For a short account of Allardt's
position, see his "Having, Loving, Being," in The Quality of Life, ed. Martha C. Nussbaum
and Amartya Sen (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), pp. 88-94.
108 Ethics October2000
ish and Swedish) ideas about the measurement of social welfare, which I
compare to my own neo-Aristotelian conception.


My aim in ASD was to describe a form of contemporary social democracy
based on ideas of human capability and functioning, to show that this
idea has roots in Aristotle, and to suggest that reflection on Aristotle's
arguments helps us understand some reasons we might have for endors-
ing this view. I portrayed the view as an attractive alternative to resource-
based forms of liberalism, with their thin account of the good, and also
to communitarianism, with its fully determinate account of the good
(ASD, p. 238).

A. Aristotle and Modern Liberalism

We need to depart from Aristotle in some significant respects in order to
create a view we can endorse, especially if we are building a conception of
social democracy that is genuinely liberal, as I argued we should. On most
of the points stressed by Mulgan, I signalled my disagreement with Aris-
totle. From the very beginning of my work on his political thought, I have
stressed the stupidity and unacceptability of his arguments on slaves and
women, which I consider, however, not to be lodged at the heart of his
conception. In my 1988 article, "Nature, Function, and Capability"
(NFC), I stressed the need to work politically with an assumption that all
children of two human parents are capable of the major functions of hu-
man life, unless and until prolonged experience with an individual indi-
cates to us that a different type of functioning is what is appropriate for
that individual, as in the case of a very severely mentally handicapped
child, who will need special education and may or may not become ca-
pable of political functioning.'4 The institution of slavery, of course, I re-
jected at the outset. In NFC, I stressed thatAristotle's ideas about the need
for leisure led to unacceptable consequences and needed to be altered
(on which more below) . And in ASD itself I insisted (as did Green and Bar-
ker) that Aristotle's unacceptable lack of a conception of political liberty
calls for major departures: "In this area," I said, "the Aristotelian must de-
part from Aristotle" (ASD, p. 239). I remarked that on this pointAthenian
traditions of free speech might prove some help in crafting that depar-
ture, since some Athenian norms required "the protection, around each
citizen, of a sphere of privacy and non-interference" (ASD, p. 239). Thus
the passage cited by Mulgan to illustrate my erroneous interpreting of Ar-
istotle is actually a passage about Periclean Athens that is brought in pre-
cisely to help us see how to depart from Aristotle.
I did, however, mention that in some respects Aristotle is not as illib-

14. Martha C. Nussbaum, "Nature, Function, and Capability" (hereafter NFC), Ox-
ford Studies in Ancient PAilosophy, supply. vol. 1 (1988), pp. 145-84.
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 109
eral as he has been credited with being. I noted that he has no prescrip-
tions regarding the religious identity of the ideal city-something that
already, in the fourth century, would be a notable omission, given that
cities contained not only a conflicting plurality of Olympian deities, but
also a host of foreign cults. The effect of the omission would appear
to be to leave this matter unregulated-a great departure from Plato's
Republic, where all speech about the gods is carefully regulated (ASD,
pp. 235-36). I also noted that in some respects the liberal conception of
freedom as noninterference can be effectively challenged by the Aristo-
telian, arguing that certain types of apparent interference with liberty (as
in land reform and other types of economic redistribution) may actually
be required in order to render citizens fully capable of choice (ASD,
p. 240). In THD I develop this idea much further, arguing that in the
absence of economic redistribution the various liberties of choice are
only words on paper. In this way, at least some policies that might seem
illiberal in Aristotle are not really illiberal, if we have a sufficiently rich
and material conception of liberty. On the whole, however, I stressed the
need to revise Aristotelian ideas in the direction of liberalism.

B. Democracy and Social Democracy

Mulgan argues that I call Aristotle a social democrat, whereas in reality
he was deeply hostile to democracy and was a partisan of a mixed regime.
His argument contains a twofold equivocation. First of all, the remarks
he brings in to illustrate Aristotle's hostility to democracy are Aristotle's
remarks about demokratia, which is introduced by definition as a degen-
erate regime. My remarks, of course, focused on Aristotle's conception
of politeia, which, though it departs from Athenian democracy in many
respects, is still closer to democracy than to any other ancient form, in
that it involves an idea of "free and equal citizens" "ruling and being
ruled by turns." 15 It is certainly neither oligarchy nor monarchy. Nor do
I conceal the fact that Aristotle's own conception of politeia involves the
rejection of some key features of Athenian democracy; this is stressed in
my discussion of privacy and noninterference, and of the roles of the
craftsmen, sailors, and farmers.

15. See ASD, p. 233, for references and discussion of that idea: "They are not free if
they are treated despotically by a ruler and have no share at all in rule. Nor are they treated
as equals if they are relegated to subordinate functionings while some king lords it over
them. This does not mean that there is no room in government for expertise; nor does it
mean that citizens can never delegate functions of some sorts to experts. It does mean that
citizens should be judged by citizenjuries selected in some representative way;and it means
that some sort of democratic legislative body, either direct or representative, should make
the major decisions concerning the conception." Aristotle defines citizenship as "the au-
thorization (exousia) to share in judicial and deliberative functioning" (Politics1275bl8-
20, and see 1274al5 ff., where Aristotle praises Solon for giving the people the power of
electing their magistrates and calling them to account-a power without which, he says,
they would be living the life of slaves).
110 Ethics October2000
The second equivocation concerns modern forms of democracy.
Mulgan says that Aristotle does not support "democracy," as if modern
democracy were the same thing Aristotle attacks. But of course modern
democracies are very different both from the degenerate regime Aris-
totle attacks theoretically and from the historical Athenian democracy
to which he is in some respects opposed. All modern democracies are
mixed regimes. All of them, though they permit all citizens to participate
in political planning as voters and jurors, assign offices by a different
principle: not by lot, as at Athens, but by some kind of judgment about
merit and service to the community.16 This is exactly as Mulgan's Aris-
totle would urge. All modern democracies, again, mediate popular pas-
sions by deliberative and representative institutions, as Mulgan's Aristotle
would urge. All have a large place for expertise-as in the role of the
judiciary, which I have discussed in various analyses of Aristotelian ratio-
nality. Again, this agrees with Aristotle and departs from Athens, where
there was no career judiciary, all jurors were selected by lot, and there
were not even any rules of relevance for testimony, resulting in a perni-
cious role for slander and scandal in the courtroom process. All modern
democracies, finally, place considerable emphasis on civic education and
the production of civic virtue, one of Mulgan's central points. To quote
from a recent, and quite typical, account of the American Founding:
The founders were extremely fearful of popular passions and prej-
udices, and they did not want government to translate popular de-
sires directly into law. They sought to create institutions that would
"filter" those desires so as to ensure policies that would promote
the public good. At the same time, the founders placed a high pre-
mium on the idea of "civic virtue," which required participants in
politics to act as citizens dedicated to something other than their
self-interest, narrowly conceived.... From these points it should be
clear that the Constitution was not rooted in the assumption that
direct democracy was the ideal, to be replaced by republican insti-
tutions only because direct democracy was not practical.17

That is democracy, as we know it in the United States, Europe, India,

and (or so I believe) Mulgan's nation, Australia.18 Thus to say that Aris-

16. In Athens, only the office of general was filled by a merit-based selection.
17. Cass R. Sunstein, Republic.Com (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, in
press). Sunstein is describing not only his own conclusions but also those of Gordon Wood,
in TheRadicalismof theAmericanRevolution(New York:Random House, 1992).
18. Indeed, the emphasis on civic virtue is particularly strong in the Nordic social
democracies that were my focal point. It is used, e.g., to justify their stringent controls on
immigration, a feature that I find morally problematic. When I was last in Norway, they
were about to pass a law declaring private schooling illegal on grounds of civic virtue, want-
ing to transmit to all citizens a homogeneous conception of the values underlying the
welfarist-egalitarianstate. I do not support this idea; but Aristotle probably would, mutatis
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 111
totle is in some ways like modern forms of democracy is to say that he is
in some ways like that.
"Social democracy" comes in, of course, in the ways in which Aris-
totle insists on comprehensive material support for life-activities. Pace
Mulgan, Aristotle is no complacent backer of wealthy propertied classes.
In a passage to which Mulgan himself draws attention, he argues that
the state should directly subsidize the participation of even the poorest
citizens in necessary civic functions. And in material discussed by me in
ASD, he mandates large-scale land reform: indeed, for him, the really
tough question is whether there is to be any private property at all. Half
the property is held in common, and the rest is common in use, in the
sense that a needy citizen is entitled to take produce from a richer per-
son's land.
Aristotle is vividly aware that in existing states the rich and the poor
are engaged in a constant struggle. His analysis of this conflict led the
great historian G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, who died this year, and whose
memory I pause to honor, to call Aristotle the originator of the modern
concept of class struggle. De Ste. Croix also demonstrated the extent of
Aristotle's influence on Marx's development of that idea. 19Aristotle's at-
tacks on the idea that wealth should be the aim either of an individual
life or the life of a polity are too well known for me to dwell on them
here (see Politics 1.8 and VIIi). They are the source of the long neo-
Aristotelian tradition I have described. And, in evidence produced by
Mulgan himself, Aristotle rejects the almost universal tendency in his
time to assign offices on the basis of wealth, or property, or honor,
preferring the claims of virtue and service. He disapproves even more
strongly of assigning citizenship itself in accordance with wealth or birth,
as is done at Sparta.
Does Aristotle adopt an inclusive account of citizenship only for
reasons of ensuring stability? Some of his arguments, certainly, have sta-
bility in view. But I have argued that Aristotle's whole conception of the
job of political arrangement is one that focuses on providing the neces-
sary conditions of the good human life to "anyone whatsoever" (Politics
1324a23-5); I explored all the interpretations of "anyone whatsoever"
that seemed plausible, rejecting those that seemed incompatible with the
text. I concluded that it must mean "anyone who has (as women and
natural slaves do not) the basic capacities to perform the judicial and
legislative functions associated with citizenship." I granted that this con-
ception is one that Aristotle does not consistently endorse-indeed, one
of the purposes of my 1988 article (NFC) was to stress these inconsisten-
cies. But it is one major thread in his conception, and it is the one that
governs not only crucial elements in his account of the ideal city but

19. G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient GreekWorld (London: Duck-
worth, 1981).
112 Ethics October2000
also his criticisms of his predecessors in Politics, book II. His criticisms of
Plato, especially, insist that one cannot provide eudaimo-nia to a city as a
whole without providing it to each and every one of its members (Politics
1261bl6-27, 1261al7ff.); but the goal of making the city eudaimo-nis ab-
solutely fundamental, and it is certainly not pursued for the sake of sta-
bility only. Until Mulgan advances arguments against me on these points,
which are the core of my argument, I conclude that it stands.

C. Leisure and Education

Mulgan correctly emphasizes that Aristotle excludes from citizenship
people who don't have enough leisure to get the education he thinks
citizenship requires. And of course that looks like a major difference be-
tween his conception and all other modern democratic conceptions. But
is it? The liberal tradition has had great hesitation about the universality
of the franchise on precisely these grounds. Even John Rawls insists that
the principle of one person/one vote should be applied only once a na-
tion reaches a certain level of economic development; presumably this is
because, as traditional liberal arguments observe, uneducated laboring
classes may not be able to be the informed citizens we want. In this sense,
modern liberalism has been quite skeptical about the values of the an-
cient Athenian democracy, where any farmer or sailor, illiterate or liter-
ate, could vote in the assembly and have his name in the lottery from
which all offices, excepting that of general, were chosen.
It was just this aspect of Aristotelianism that T. H. Green famously
took up, becoming one of the great public champions of compulsory
free public education for all citizens, regardless of class or wealth.20 As I
point out in my 1988 article, that is the right direction for an Aristotelian
position to go. If one rejects the idea that the correct basis for assigning
citizenship is wealth or birth, as Aristotle clearly does, and if one bases
the claim on some more nebulous human qualifications (as I think he
does, though this is not so clear), then the right solution is not to exclude
from citizenship those who cannot pay for education and the leisure it
requires. This is no more reasonable than the Spartan arrangement for
common meals, where those who cannot pay in lose their citizenship
because taking part in the common meals is regarded as a necessary con-
dition of citizenship. Aristotle clearly rejects the Spartan approach in fa-
vor of one that subsidizes the participation of poor citizens, thus giving
them what they need in order to be and remain citizens in good stand-
ing. If we reason analogously about the requirement of education, the
right solution would be, similarly, to subsidize education for all citizens,

20. I note that this same principle was defended as early as 1792 by MaryWollstone-
craft in A Vindicationof theRightsof Woman,which advocates free coeducational schools in
which all social classes would meet as equals; apparently these schools were to be compul-
sory. Her work, of course, had no public influence in her own time.
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 113
so that all get what citizenship requires. So Green was correct and Aris-
totle was incorrect. I argue that this error involves Aristotle in a fun-
damental inconsistency with his own political principles: so Green was
more Aristotelian than Aristotle.
Why did Aristotle commit this error? In a poor agrarian economy, it
is very difficult to provide compulsory education for all citizens, however
poor. In India, for example, despite the fact that compulsory primary
and secondary education is in the constitution as a fundamental right of
all citizens, only 35 percent of its women and 65 percent of its men are
literate. (And citizenship does suffer.) This sad situation has multiple
causes: corruption that leaches off the money that should have been
spent on schools, lack of public participation by those who are illiterate
(which, of course, often results directly from illiteracy, a baneful cycle),
and the inability to solve the problem of parents' economic reliance on
child labor. I am sure that in ancient Greece at least some of these prob-
lems also obtained. Child labor, for example, is evident in some of the
comedies of Aristophanes. Aristotle is, in general, not good at envisaging
profound economic transformations in society. His rejection of Platonic-
style utopian thinking often degenerates into a failure to take the bold
imaginative leaps that Plato so creatively takes.
The important thing is that Aristotle is correct: education is a fun-
damental prerequisite of republican citizenship, and education requires
quite a long period of leisure (is incompatible, for example, with exten-
sive child labor). He was wrong if he believed (as is unclear) that citizen-
ship is incompatible with holding a job in adult life, after one is edu-
cated; but modern Aristotelians should still devote thought to creating
spaces for public deliberation and adult learning, as fundamental ele-
ments of citizenship.21

D. Exclusions
Mulgan suggests that Aristotle is not at all unhappy about excluding
craftsmen and metics (resident aliens) from citizenship in the city. What
I said is that their inclusion is entailed by some of his fundamental po-
litical principles (see above), and that, furthermore, he himself was a
metic, leading, thus, a life that he calls that of "an alien without honor"
(Politics 1278a37, quoting from Homer). It is thus quite extraordinary, I
said, that in view of these strong reasons, both philosophical and experi-
ential, for discussing the matter critically, he glides so glibly over the
whole question of their exclusion, saying nothing about it. The signs of

21. Wejust don't see in the text examples of people who have an education and then
do work for a fee. So strong is the Greek suspiciousness of the life of money making that
people of good background typically would not take such salaried posts; even the work of
running estates was frequently delegated to women, on the grounds that this base type of
occupation is not suited to free men.
114 Ethics October2000

discomfort I noted were in the remark just cited, which surely does not
sound like the utterance of someone who is pleased with his own situ-
ation, and in the wistful observation (mentioned by Mulgan) that it
would be nice if all the farm labor could be done by people brought in
from outside the borders-which might at least make it look as if the
city is not excluding people to whom it has some obligation (Politics
1330a25-31). But I stressed that there is basically silence on this topic,
and a most puzzling silence at that.
I would now add that we should not ignore the fact that Aristotle
was twice forced into political exile on account of his Macedonian ori-
gins; the second time he apparently said that he was leaving to prevent
the Athenians from "sinning twice against philosophy" -comparing his
likely fate to that of Socrates. So we should not ignore the possibility that
as a metic with no civil rights, twice forced to run for his life, he might
not feel able to speak out in criticism of the situation of metics.
How deep is the exclusion of slaves and women from citizenship?
On women, Aristotle in general offers arguments so ludicrous as to be
unworthy of any serious person. He holds, for example, that women have
fewer teeth than men and that when a menstruating woman looks into a
mirror it turns the glass red. But in the context where he is talking about
their exclusion from political membership, he doesn't even say some-
thing ludicrous; he says virtually nothing. Simply, women "have the de-
liberative faculty, but it is lacking in authority" (Politics 1260al2-13). He
never tells us what he means by "lacking in authority" -over their emo-
tions? That is the most common interpretation, and probably the correct
one. But sometimes people read the text as suggesting a merely contin-
gent limitation: they don't in fact have authority. That latter position
would not justify any restriction on their role in an ideal city, of course.
One quite mysterious passage suggests such a reading, though we will
never be able to assert anything with confidence, so slight is the evi-
dence.22 One thing is certain: that having rejected Plato's demolition of
the family, and having attached considerable importance to its mainte-
nance, as a source of love and education for children, Aristotle is unable
and unwilling to envisage any transformation of that institution that
would make women equal as citizens. This is another big failure of imagi-

22. At 1259b6 ff. of Politics,Aristotle observes that in political government there is a

basic equality, but ruler and ruled are distinguished by differences of "outward forms and
speeches and honors, as is the case with the footpan of Amasis"-referring to a Herodo-
tean story in which people were led to worship a golden footpan. He then says, "The rela-
tionship between male and female is permanently of this sort"-meaning, apparently, that
there is a permanent, rather than shifting (as in political rule) difference of outward form
and speech and honor. The Amasis story strongly suggests that this difference is without
foundation in reality-although just above, in a tortuous sentence, Aristotle appeared to
endorse the proposition that males are by nature "more rulerly" than females (1259b2).
What to make of all this is anyone's guess.
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 115
nation, but we can hardly pretend that this failure is his alone. No polit-
ical thinker in the Western liberal tradition has yet solved the problem
of designing a society that would retain the intimate love characteristic
of the nuclear family while delivering women full equality as citizens and
human beings.23
Again, however-as with Green on education-Aristotle's basic
ideas have proven fruitful by those grappling seriously with the problem.
Stoic thinker Musonius Rufus, while not proposing full political equality
for women, did propose their equal education, including higher educa-
tion-using premises that are, roughly speaking, Aristotelian. Women,
he argued have basic capacities for all the virtues; those capacities can
only be developed by education. Not to develop them is a mistake. So:
let's give them an equal education.24
With slavery, I pointed out that Aristotle's justification is extremely
narrow: slavery is justified only when the individual in question is totally
unable to foresee the future and totally lacks the deliberative faculty.25
Now Aristotle clearly believed that there are a lot of able-bodied people
in barbarian countries who have those features; in that, as Mulgan says,
he was making a ridiculous claim, though one most Greeks believed.
What is rather interesting is that his claim renders unjust much of the
institution as conventionally practiced: for the enslaved populations of
other Greek cities were, according to that argument, unjustly enslaved.
And his argument has been used subsequently in a progressive way. Las
Casas famously used it to argue that the enslavement of the Native Ameri-
cans was unjust, on the grounds that they possess a culture and thus
clearly do not altogether lack the deliberative faculty. So there is com-
plexity here. And, once again, at the bottom of Aristotle's failure lies a
failure of imagination: he cannot envisage a transformation of the econ-
omy such that slave labor is not required. It took many centuries before
any thinker would be able to achieve this.
A concluding remark on Henry James: Mulgan thinks that James
shows "a general indifference to the political context which sustains
[his] society." 26 I do not believe that such a reading can survive contact
with The Princess Casamassima. In my article on that novel, as Arneson

23. For my own views of this question, see EWD, chap. 4, and also Martha C. Nuss-
baum, "The Future of Feminist Liberalism," presidential address of the Central Division of
the American Philosophical Association, forthcoming in the Proceedings and Addresses of the
American Philosophical Association.
24. See Martha C. Nussbaum, "The Incomplete Feminism of Musonius Rufus," forth-
coming in The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greeceand Rome,
ed. Martha C. Nussbaum andJuha Sihvola, under advance contract to University of Chicago
Press. I argue that Musonius does not, in fact, hold that women have ajust claim to educa-
tion; his argument is rather that it would be better for society if women had it. So his argu-
ment is not the same as the capability-based argument I endorse.
25. In Nussbaum, "Shame, Separateness, and Political Unity."
26. Richard Mulgan, "Was Aristotle an Aristotelian Democrat?" in this issue, p. 101.
116 Ethics October2000
points out, I do impute to James a concern for securing to all citizens
the intellectual and spiritual nourishment, through public education
and public provision of the arts, that would be necessary in order to bring
about a true class-leveling revolution. I contrast this liberal-perfectionist
aspiration both with traditional elitism (which holds that such advan-
tages should go only to those favored by birth or special natural en-
dowment) and also with the revolutionary ideologies depicted in the
novel, which are indifferent to the nourishment of the spirit, and are
perfectly willing to let the arts get wiped out in the name of class leveling.
I still believe what I wrote. The James whose gravestone reads "Henry
James, Citizen of Two Countries, Interpreter of His Generation on Both
Sides of the Sea" was not indifferent to social context. And though
Arneson seems to me correct in his suggestion that at times James in-
clines toward the narrower perfectionism of a Rashdall, in The Princess
he seems more on the track of Green, though with a richer interest in
beauty and art.


I have argued that a concept of the human being can help us to make
progress on the difficult enterprise of finding a foundation for political
theory. Antony gives us an eloquent and philosophically rich account of
how such concepts can assist, as well as impede, feminist inquiry. She
contends, however, that my approach here is flawed, sliding inconsis-
tently between an "external" and an "internal" account of the human
being-although, as I read her article, she ultimately holds that both the
"external" and the "internal" can help us to make progress on the prob-
lem, if distinguished from one another and combined in the right way.
To begin responding to Antony, I need to describe, briefly, my general
approach to justification in political philosophy.27
In WHD, I adopt, for purposes of political justification, the proce-
dure described and defended by John Rawls, when he describes argu-
ment proceeding toward reflective equilibrium. We lay out the argu-
ments for a given theoretical position, holding it up against the "fixed
points" in our moral intuitions; we see how those intuitions both test and
are tested by the conceptions we examine.28 For example, among the

27. I advanced this view as one about justification in ethics in my introduction to

Martha C. Nussbaum, Love' Knozvledge (New York:Oxford University Press, 1990).
28. See John Rawls, A TheoryofJustice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
1971), pp. 20-22, 46-53; PL, pp. 28, 45, 381, n. 16. In Martha C. Nussbaum, "Rawlsand
Feminism," forthcoming in ThzeCambridgeCompanionto Razvis,ed. S. Freeman (New York:
Cambridge University Press), I discuss Rawls'srestrictions on the roles emotion might play
in this justificatory process, and I suggest that we should admit emotions (and the judg-
ments they contain) to the same extent and in the same way that we admit beliefs: we will
leave aside those that are especially likely to be biased or unreliable, but we will not leave
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 117
provisionally fixed points might be the judgment that rape and domestic
violence are damaging to human dignity. We look to see how the various
conceptions we examine respond to that intuition. We may prefer the
capabilities view to the utilitarian view, for example, when we notice that
satisfactions are malleable and people can learn to acquiesce in an un-
dignified situation. At other times, our concrete judgments may give way
when we discover that the conception we favor on other grounds calls
them into question. For example, if we had tended to think private prop-
erty not very important for political justice, thinking about the role of
personal property in the capabilities approach and about the way that
approach connects property to other areas of human choice and liberty
might make us reevaluate that initial judgment.29 We hope, over time, to
achieve consistency and fit in our judgments taken as a whole, modifying
particular judgments when this seems required by a theoretical concep-
tion that seems in other respects powerful, but modifying or rejecting
the theoretical conception when that has failed to fit the most secure of
our moral intuitions. We follow this procedure in many ways, but, with
Rawls, I imagine that we are following it in a specifically political domain,
seeking a conception by which people of differing comprehensive views
can agree to live together in a political community. This entails that we
take into account not only our own judgments and the theoretical con-
ceptions but also the judgments of our fellow citizens.30 In the first chap-
ter of WID, I understand myself to be carrying out a first step in the
process of reaching toward such a reflective equilibrium. Before that
process would be complete (if it ever would be), we would also have to
lay out other competing conceptions, compare them in detail with this
one, and see on what grounds ours emerged as more choiceworthy.
(Chapter 2 of WID begins that part of the task, by comparing the capa-
bilities view in some detail to various forms of subjective welfarism that
might be used as the basis for fundamental political principles.)
Things are actually somewhat more complicated, for in WID, chap-
ter 2, considering the claims of theories based on the idea of satisfying
desire or preference, I, on balance, reject those theories in favor of a
theory of the sort I defend, one based on a substantive (albeit partial)
conception of the good. But I say that, nonetheless, it is quite important
to political justification that there should be a good measure of con-
vergence between a substantive-good approach and an intelligently de-

them out as a class. I suggest that, whatever Rawls says, his actual procedure in conversing
with the reader does at times rely on strong emotions, such as indignation and (appropri-
ate) fear.
29. I discuss this example in Nussbaum, "Public Philosophy and International
30. See Rawls, PL, 384 n. 16: "This equilibrium is fully intersubjective: that is, each
citizen has taken into account the reasoning and arguments of every other citizen."
118 Ethics October2000

signed informed-desire approach, where the latter has been designed by

building in certain substantive ethical norms (such as absence of hierar-
chy, freedom from intimidation) into the procedure used to winnow or
scrutinize desire. The reasons I give for according desire an ancillary role
in political justification have to do both with political stability and with
respect for persons.
Thus, as can be seen, the entirety of my method is both "internal"
in the thin sense recognized by Antony, taking its start from human be-
liefs and practices, and also "internal" in the stronger sense, making
evaluative and, indeed, ethical judgments absolutely central to the holis-
tic task. Although it is obvious that (for me, as for Rawls) knowledge of
general scientific and historical facts, which is "internal" only in the thin
sense, enters the picture as a source of constraints on what politics may
sensibly aim at, the "provisional fixed points" in our judgments are all
evaluative, indeed ethical, and the theories we test against them are eval-
uative, indeed ethical, also. Thus I never claim to be deriving ethical con-
clusions from nonethical premises. Indeed, it was Bernard Williams's ap-
parent hope that we might be able to do some such thing that I called
into question in "Aristotle on Human Nature,"31 arguing that it was
from the realm of ethical value alone that we would be able to get judg-
ments that were really pertinent to settling troublesome evaluative dis-
putes.32 And it was my controversial contention that Aristotle already saw
this point: he was not doing what many, including Williams and MacIn-
tyre, have thought him to be doing-that is, deriving ethical norms from
metaphysical biology-but rather deriving ethical norms from some
more basic and more generally shared ethical judgments. If he had been
doing the other thing, I argued, we would be right to reject his concep-
tion, as Williams did; but what he is really doing, deriving ethical value
from ethical value, makes sense and should hold our interest.
I believe that I have been absolutely consistent in this contention
throughout my writing on the topic. The passage that Antony introduces
as evidence that I waver between a more evaluative sense of "internal"
and a less evaluative sense actually does not show wavering, if one exam-

31. Martha C. Nussbaum, "Aristotle on Human Nature and the Foundations of

Ethics" (hereafter HN), in World, Mind, and Ethics: Essays on the Philosophy of Bernard Wil-
liams, ed.J. E.J. Altham and Ross Harrison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995),
pp. 86-131.
32. Nothing I say here should be taken to suggest that I endorse any simple or con-
ventional form of the fact-value distinction. I believe that the assumption that there is some
such single and simple distinction has done serious philosophical damage, although there
are several distinctions that one might usefully make in a variety of areas that sometimes
get made using the language of "fact" and "value." My argument in HN is actually couched
in terms of the distinction between the ethical realm and other realms, whether of value or
"fact." I am not sure whether Antony and I have a difference on the larger question of the
fact-value distinction, and I therefore refrain from commenting on this matter further.
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 119
ines the passage in its original context. The argument of "Human Func-
tioning and SocialJustice" (HF) is directed at "anti-essentialists" of vari-
ous types.33 Some believe that the demise of metaphysical realism (if,
indeed, demise it is) entails the demise of all forms of essentialism. My
first dialectical move against this opponent was to point out the very ob-
vious fact that this alleged demise entails no such thing, for it's obvious
that we can recognize all kinds of essentialist judgments as internal to
the human point of view. Now of course at this point, as Antony rightly
observes, the door is wide open. Not only evaluative judgments butjudg-
ments of many other types are on the table, as examples of the "inter-
nal." But of course that is only my first move, a dialectical tactic to con-
vince a dogged opponent of essentialism that she might want to listen to
what I am going to say. Once I get to developing my own position in the
later sections of that article, I make it very clear, there as in other articles,
that the fundamental judgments in question are evaluative and that the
concept of the human being is in that sense a thoroughly evaluative con-
cept. This could not be clearer, for the article ends with a discussion of
how emotions of compassion and concern use a concept of the human
being and cannot get off the ground without one. But of course it has
been my contention in every word I have written about the emotions that
the judgments, at their heart, are fundamentally and indissolubly eval-
uative and, indeed, are part of ethics in its broad sense of a search for
the good life; here, they involve the idea of a significant damage to a
being like oneself. So all I was doing at the initial stage was introducing
a genus of judgments-those that are "internal" in the weak sense-of
which my own preferred evaluative ethical judgments are one important
Thus my use of an idea of the human being always was, as I insisted,
closer to the Rawlsian idea of a concept of the person than to what Rawls
identifies as the Aristotelian reliance on a concept of human nature.34
My contention was that any concept of the human being (or person) that
is useful in settling ethical questions must be evaluative and, in the broad
sense, ethical: for among the many things we do and are, it will have to
single out some as particularly central, as so important that without those
we don't think that a human life exists any longer. I pointed out that it
was in this (evaluative) way that we actually proceed when we make tough
judgments about whether this senile-demented individual is really a hu-
man life any longer: we just have to ask ourselves: How important are
the capacities for reasoning and sociability? And I argued that there is a
rather broad consensus that they are very, very important: without those,
whatever sort of life it is, it is not a human life.

33. Martha C. Nussbaum, "Human Functioning and SocialJustice: In Defense of Ar-

istotelian Essentialism" (hereafter HF),Political Theory 20 (1992): 202-46.
34. See Nussbaum, HN, n. 17 and p. 109 with n. 37.
120 Ethics October2000

Antony contends that if the concept of human being is "internal"

in that sense, strongly evaluative, it will do no work in ethical and politi-
cal judgment. Now in one sense I agree with her: the entire point of my
critique of Williams was to say that no concept we find here could pos-
sibly do the sort of work Williams (and David Wiggins, whom I also dis-
cuss) seems to want, namely, the work of settling troublesome ethical
disputes without having to engage in difficult ethical judgment. Wiggins
imagines that a "substance-concept" can somehow keep us from making
decisions that are violative of human dignity, and I suggest that this hope
is a chimera. If we want to protect human dignity, we had better do it
with ethical arguments proceeding from ethical premises.
Nonetheless, I do hold out some hope that a much more modest
and realistic goal can be achieved by appeal to the concept of the human
being: namely, that of setting forth a very basic level of ethical judgment
about ourselves that is likely to lie deeper and to command a broader
consensus than do many of the troublesome questions we are actually
discussing. In other words, to put matters in Rawlsian language, we are
trying to get clear about some of the "provisional fixed points" in our
judgments, before testing the theories we examine against them. "Pro-
visional fixed points" may, of course, be both highly specific and highly
general. For Rawls, they include the specific idea that slavery is wrong,
and they also include (or so I read him) the highly general idea that
every person has an inviolability founded upon justice, which, of course,
both supports and is supported by the judgment about slavery. (All these,
of course, are ethical judgments.) My own concept of the human being
plays this sort of role, at a very general level: we want to find some at least
provisionally nonnegotiable points in our judgments, so that we can see
how various theories treat them. I suggest that we find such provisional
fixed points in the idea that both practical reason and sociability are ex-
tremely important aspects of an existence that is truly human, permeat-
ing and organizing its many functions.
I make it very clear that this starting point doesn't perform the task
Williams had in mind:

Such a logos may seem too elusive, too open-ended, to serve as a

foundation-if what one wants from a foundation is a once-for-
all hard-edged solution to matters that actual human communities
find perplexing. The Aristotelians claim, however, that no other
sort of foundation is truly deep or truly pertinent.... It is only if it
remains rooted in the human and the ethical that our search can
be ... about what is deepest and most essential about human living.
(HF, p. 124)

Nonetheless, I argue that some real work is done-for by directing

our attention explicitly to something that (so I argue) we all actually find
very important, we notice to what extent actual ethical or political theo-
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 121
ries protect that element, and how well. I suggest that we actually have
a deep and broad consensus on the concept of the person as Aristotle
articulates it. If we describe that conception explicitly, we will be forced
to notice that some political theories do not give salience to what we
actually think salient. In that way, we perform part of the task of work-
ing toward a political reflective equilibrium: we notice a tension between
a theory that may look attractive and our own deeply held convictions
("provisional fixed points").
I compared my own procedure to one used by Rawls when he ar-
gues against Utilitarianism. Rawls believes that both Utilitarians and non-
Utilitarians believe that the separateness of persons is an extremely sa-
lient fact for normative purposes. (We might understand in this way the
Utilitarian's insistence that each person shall count for one and none as
more than one: each person counts, no matter what her class or status.)
And yet the normative theory of Utilitarianism, however attractive in
some respects, at times seems committed to neglecting that salience, and
even to treating all persons as parts of a single social super-person; thus
some people's exceeding satisfaction can cancel out another person's ex-
ceeding misery. Rawls argues that the Utilitarian will experience a ten-
sion here, and it is his hope that at this point the Utilitarian will decide
to investigate the Rawlsian conception further, to see whether it can offer
political principles that are more attuned to her own deepest convictions.
In that way, the argument does real work-although it does this
work only if the person really does share the concept of the person that
Rawls puts forward. (That is why Rawls calls his procedure Socratic: it
works with each interlocutor, as a sorting-out of each person's ethical
beliefs.) 35 So too with my argument: it is only if the person really does
think practical reason and sociability extremely central elements of hu-
man life that the argument will do work against political conceptions
that wrongly slight or demote them (such as the forms of capitalism criti-
cized by Marx). On the other hand, it is my contention that most of us
actually do agree with Marx's Aristotle about these core elements of our
humanity and their salience; so pointing out how other conceptions
slight or demote them does real work.
I think that when Antony says that no work can be done by this sort
of argument, she is imagining an ethical situation that is too many steps
down the road, so to speak. She is imagining an interlocutor who knows
what all her convictions are and who has already decided how to adjudi-
cate tensions among them. For such a person, she is right: there's no
news here. But surely none of us is in this position, not even philoso-

35. For both the Rawls of PL and me, additional constraints enter the picture in the
political realm: we both hold that a certain type of consensus plays an important role in
justifying political principles. On the Socratic elenchus and what it can accomplish philo-
sophically, see my review article on Gregory Vlastos's Socratic Studies, Journal of Philosolhy 94
(1997): 27-45.
122 Ethics October2000
phers. For we only know our convictions sufficiently when we have stud-
ied both them and the major normative political theories, asking what
we really want to stand for. This is a task that probably can't be completed
in a lifetime. Surely most of the audience for Aristotle's arguments, and
our own, is much more likely to be in the position of Socrates' interlocu-
tors, who have never even begun to search into themselves. (Consider my
example, in HN [pp. 98-102] of Protarchus in Plato's Philebus, who an-
nounces his adherence to the trendy theory that pleasure is the good-
until Socrates points out to him all that this thesis omits, much of which
Protarchus values.) So our arguments, while Socratic in their nature and
limited by the limitations of that type of argumentation, can still do work
of real political significance.
In HN, I made one further point. This was that, in certain specific
argumentative contexts, we may point out that our interlocutor's very
behavior shows that she grants the centrality of the element on whose
centrality we are insisting. There would thus be a pragmatic self-
contradiction were she to reply by denying its importance. Thus, it would
be self-contradictory to engage in philosophical argument about the
ends of human life and then deny that reason and argument have any
importance. It would be similarly peculiar to attend the dramatic festivals
of Athens looking for illumination about matters of human significance
and then to deny that community with others has any importance at all.
I find these patterns of argument interesting, and I think that they can
sometimes do real work in convincing a certain type of opponent, but I
do not rely on them.
Where, then, does biology come in? In two places. In the normative
concept of the person itself, I insist strongly on valuing the whole of our
animality and not just our rationality, and on holding the two together:
our dignity and rationality just are those of a certain sort of animal. I
believe that in some respects Kantian starting points distort this point
and give us, in the process, a distorted view of our ethical relation to the
other animals.36 Second, a necessary and sufficient condition of being
the object of normative ethical concern, in a politics based on the capa-
bilities approach, is that one have some innate equipment that makes it
possible for one to attain the capabilities that figure on my list, given
sufficient attention, material support, and care. (A point of terminology
obscured in Antony's usage: I call that equipment the basic capabilities;
the achieved capabilities that it is the business of politics to produce are
called the central capabilities, and they are also described as combined ca-
pabilities, since they combine, in most cases, internal training with exter-
nal material and institutional supporting conditions.) For a basic capa-
bility to become a basis for moral concern, of course, it has to be a basis
for one of the ones we have already evaluated in our normative concep-

36. See Nussbaum, "The Future of Feminist Liberalism."

Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 123

tion and put on the list of the ones we like: thus many of the actual pow-
ers of human beings do not give rise to the concern that they be fostered
in this way. But if the mature version is one of the capabilities we have
evaluated as normatively central, then there is something terrible about
the equipment's being there undeveloped. This gives us a sense of waste
and tragedy. If a turtle were given a life that did not develop powers of
practical reason and sociability, we would have no sense of waste and
tragedy; when Marx's worker is forced to live a life that reduces his senses
to a less than fully human level of functioning, this does give rise to grief
and anger. Thus the basic capabilities, those we pick out as correspond-
ing to the central ones, already give rise to moral concern. As I have
mentioned, I believe that the potential for error in assessing whether
people have the necessary basis for a central capability is so great that
we should proceed as if everyone has the necessary basis for all the ma-
jor ones.
This helps me answer Antony's point about men and women, as in
fact I do in my article "Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings"
(HC)Q. If we have determined that the central capabilities are of great
importance in any human life, then the very fact that a woman has the
basic capabilities corresponding to these gives rise to a claim that those
basic powers be developed. I pointed out that Stoic philosopher Musonius
Rufus develops an Aristotelian idea in just this way when he argues for
women's equal education-showing his male interlocutor that he has
tacitly granted that women have the basic equipment necessary for de-
veloping these major human powers. Suppose, now (I argue), someone
says, well, actually, we have two lists of the central capabilities, one for
women and one for men. They have similar basic powers, but what is of
normative centrality differs for the two. Here I examine Rousseau's ver-
sion of that idea, arguing that, in Rousseau's own terms, it is a tragic
failure. Emile cannot be a complete human being without Sophie's sym-
pathy and imagination, and Sophie cannot be a complete person with-
out Emile's self-governance and rational capacity. I argue that Rousseau's
own tragic denouement to their story, in his unpublished conclusion,
shows that he saw this difficulty clearly.
We may add to this point another, connected with the idea of dignity
and nonhumiliation: for, in WHD, I argue that it is always humiliating to
be restricted from certain functionings on the basis of a morally irrele-
vant characteristic. On the other hand, if women fully in possession of
the capabilities on the list want to choose a traditional gender-divided
mode of life, I believe that any good political liberalism should create
spaces for them to do so. This is why fully one-half of VWD is devoted to

37. Martha C. Nussbaum, "Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings" (hereafter

HC), in Women, Culture, and Development, ed., Martha C. Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), pp. 61-104.
124 Ethics October2000
tensions between sex equality and values connected with religion and
One more point to Antony: my central capabilities are not virtues.
In "Non-Relative Virtues" (NRV), I use Aristotle's theory of the virtues
to illustrate a way in which a cross-cultural debate about matters of cen-
tral importance might be organized, despite cultural difference.38 But it
would be misleading to think that I see my own theory as a theory of good
human functioning closely analogous to a theory of moral virtue. Such a
reading would ignore the fact that, in my view, the appropriate political
goal is not functioning, but simply capability. And it would ignore the
fact that, since 1994 at any rate, I hold a form of political liberalism that
makes it inappropriate for any particular comprehensive conception of
ethical value to be endorsed by politics. Aristotle sees the production of
virtuous functioning as among the legitimate ends of politics; I do not.


The aim of the capabilities approach in its current form is to provide the
philosophical underpinning for an account of basic constitutional prin-
ciples that should be respected and implemented by the governments of
all nations, as a bare minimum of what respect for human dignity re-
quires.39 I argue that the best approach to this idea of a basic social mini-
mum is provided by an approach that focuses on human capabilities, that
is, what people are actually able to do and to be-in a way informed by
an intuitive idea of a life that is worthy of the dignity of the human being.
I identify a list of central human capabilities, setting them in the context of
a type of political liberalism that makes them specifically political goals and
presents them in a manner free of any specific metaphysical grounding.
In this way, I argue, the capabilities can be the object of an overlapping
consensus among people who otherwise have very different comprehen-
sive conceptions of the good. And I argue that the capabilities in ques-
tion should be pursued for each and every person, treating each as an
end and none as mere tools of the ends of others: thus I adopt a principle
of each person's capability, based on a principle of each person as end. Women
have all too often been treated as the supporters of the ends of others
rather than as ends in their own right; thus this principle has particular
critical force with regard to women's lives. Finally, my approach uses the
idea of a threshold level of each capability, beneath which it is held that truly
human functioning is not available to citizens; the social goal should be
understood in terms of getting citizens above this capability threshold.

38. Martha C. Nussbaum, "Non-relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach" (here-

after NRV), Midwest Studies in Phiilosoplhy13 (1988): 32-53; and, in an expanded version
(same name), in Nussbaum and Sen, eds., The Quality of Life, pp. 242- 69.
39. I speak only of my own approach; in WHD, I summarize the differences between
my version of the capabilities approach and Sen's.
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 125
The capabilities approach has another related, and weaker, use. It
specifies a space within which comparisons of life quality (how well people
are doing) are most revealingly made among nations. Used in this way, it
is a rival to other standard measures, such as GNP per capita and utility.
This role for the conception is significant, since we are not likely to make
progress toward a good conception of the social minimum if we do not
first get the space of comparison right. And we may use the approach in
this weaker way, to compare one nation with another, even when we are
unwilling to go further and use the approach as the philosophical basis
for fundamental constitutional principles establishing a social minimum
or threshhold. On the other hand, the comparative use of capabilities is
ultimately of not much use without a determinate normative conception
that will tell us what to make of what we find in our comparative study.
Most conceptions of quality-of-life measurement in development eco-
nomics are implicitly harnessed to a normative theory of the proper so-
cial goal (wealth maximization, utility maximization, etc.), and this one
is explicitly so harnessed. The primary task of my argument will be to
move beyond the merely comparative use of capabilities to the construc-
tion of a normative political proposal that is a partial theory of justice.
The capabilities approach is fully universal: the capabilities in ques-
tion are important for each and every citizen, in each and every nation,
and each is to be treated as an end. Women in developing nations are
important to the project in two ways: as people who suffer pervasively
from acute capability failure and, also, as people whose situation pro-
vides an interesting test of this and other approaches, showing us the
problems they solve or fail to solve. Defects in standard GNP- and utility-
based approaches can be well understood by keeping the problems of
such women in view; but of course women's problems are urgent in their
own right, and it may be hoped that a focus on them will help compen-
sate for earlier neglect of sex equality in development economics and in
the international human rights movement.

A. Satisficing and the Threshold

Arneson calls my view a satisficing view. This would be a good name if I
really held what he asserts, namely, that once citizens are over the thresh-
old, "inequalities among persons above this level are a 'don't care' from
the standpoint of justice." 40 I don't believe I ever said this; in VVD I
explicitly deny that I believe this claim:
A list of the central capabilities is not a complete theory of justice.
Such a list gives us the basis for determining a decent social mini-
mum in a variety of areas. I argue that the structure of social and
political institutions should be chosen, at least in part, with a view
to promoting at least a threshold level of these human capabilities.

40. Richard Arneson, "Perfectionism and Politics," in this issue, p. 55.

126 Ethics October2000
But the provision of a threshold level of capability, exigent though
that goal is, may not suffice for justice, as I shall elaborate further
below, discussing the relationship between the social minimum and
our interest in equality. The determination of such further require-
ments ofjustice awaits a further inquiry. (p. 75)
In discussing equality later (VHD, p. 86), I argue that systematic
discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and so forth is already a form of
capability failure in the area of dignity and nonhumiliation, even when
people are above the threshold in other respects. But apart from that
concern, I simply do not yet say what should be done when citizens are
above the threshold. Many different distributive principles should be en-
tertained at this point. That is why I view the enterprise as so far very
Arneson quite rightly asks how we set the threshold in a nonarbi-
trary way. In VHD, I suggest that this is best done by the internal pro-
cesses of each liberal democracy, as it interprets its own constitution. His-
tory shows that this is not only possible but is also quite a reasonable way
to balance concerns for history and culture against the demands of a
universal norm. Our own free speech principle has been interpreted and
reinterpreted since it was first embodied in the Constitution. When Eu-
gene Debs went to jail for advocating resistance to military service during
World War I, dissident political speech during wartime was explicitly held
to be unprotected; only University of Chicago professor Ernst Freund
(a German Jew and probably the firstJewish law professor in the United
States) wrote that it was protected by the First Amendment.4' Now such
speech is considered paradigmatic of what the First Amendment pro-
tects. Here I am inclined to say that our understanding of a central value
has deepened; in other cases, we might say that it has simply shifted.
Similar points obtain across cultures. Germany currently bans anti-
Semitic speech and literature; our free principle has been interpreted to
protect such speech. Both of these interpretations seem reasonable in
the light of each nation's history and special problems. It will always be
difficult to say what is a legitimate local interpretation of a capability and
what is not; that is why it is a good idea for this specifying to take place in
connection with a cross-cultural dialogue and attention to international
human rights documents, as Hilary Charlesworth helpfully suggests. But
the history of constitutional interpretation in many nations shows, I sug-
gest, that the incremental specification of a threshold level of a capability
is possible and gives real political guidance.
When we set the threshold level of a capability, we must attend to
current possibilities: but not too much. Thus, it would be pretty unrea-
sonable for India to constitutionalize a fundamental right to a college
education, given that right now only 35 percent of its women and 65 per-

41. In ThzeNew Republic, then a left-wing magazine.

Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 127
cent of its men are even literate. On the other hand, it is not unreason-
able for India to do what it has done, extending a basic constitutional
right of primary and secondary education to all children, even though at
the present time this goal is very distant, as least in some regions. Lev-
els should be set high enough to goad people to take intelligent action,
but they should not be set so high as to bring the whole document into
In setting the threshold, attention must also be given to potential
clashes between one capability and another, a topic of concern to both
Arneson and Charlesworth.42 But again: we must not pay too much atten-
tion to such potential clashes. Consider religion and education. If we
interpreted the right to free exercise of one's religion to entail permit-
ting parents to withdraw their children entirely from all schooling, that
would give rise to many conflicts between that central capability and oth-
ers on our list. Wisely, the U.S. Supreme Court has not so defined that
right. It has held that free exercise entails the right of Amish parents to
withdraw their children from the last two years of required public edu-
cation. We may dispute the case, but we can see that it is in the ballpark
of the reasonable, not creating quite so many terrible conflicts with other
items on the list.43 Suppose, however, we went to the opposite extreme,
deciding to specify the threshold levels so low as to minimize conflict.
Thus, India might say that there is no right to education, given that the
life and health of parents, as things currently are, makes them depen-
dent on the labor of their children. This would be accepting current
reality for the way things must be. We can see that they need not be this
way, for some states-notably Kerala-have achieved a near-universal
level of literacy while not killing off the parents. So in this case a fairly
high threshold seems better than one set low because of fear of conflict.
In general, my approach to the clash between one capability and
another is to say that any situation in which we must push some citizens
below the threshold on even one of the capabilities is a tragic situation.
We are asking them to forgo something to which they have an entitle-
ment based upon justice. Even if the reason we do this is to get them
above the threshold on another capability, what we are doing is morally
unacceptable. By seeing the situation in this way, as a tragic clash of right
with right, we prepare ourselves to design a better future, one in which
such clashes will not occur. Hegel thought that the moral importance of
tragedy lay in the impetus it provides for creative thinking about a syn-

42. The whole issue of clashes between capabilities is dealt with at length in Martha C.
Nussbaum, "The Costs of Tragedy: Some Moral Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis,"Journalof
Legal Studies29, pt. 2 (June 2000): 1005-36.
43. Richard Arneson has disputed this case in an excellent article coauthored with
Ian Shapiro, "Democratic Autonomy and Religious Freedom: A Critique of Wisconsinv.
Yoder,"in Democracy's Place, ed. Ian Shapiro (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996),
pp. 137-74.
128 Ethics October2000
thesis that would resolve the contradiction. I believe that he is correct. If
we notice that right now in India families must choose between adequate
nutrition and the education of their children, we should not ask merely,
"What should they choose?" We should say, first, that this is a tragic
choice in which, whatever families do, they are forgoing something to
which they have an entitlement based upon justice. So we had better
get to work and design a future in which such conflicts do not confront

B. Functioning and Capability

Arneson's perfectionist position defends functioning as the appropriate
political goal, at least in some instances. He is dissatisfied with my own
insistence that we are entitled only to promote capabilities. I am sure that
if my theory were a perfectionist theory, of any type whatsoever, I would
feel the force of these arguments more strongly; but I actually think that
Arneson is wrong to think that my theory is in any interesting sense per-
fectionist. It uses a theory of the good that is a little more ample than
Rawls's list of the primary goods, and it couches that list in terms of
capability, whereas Rawls's own list contains both thing-like items and
capability-like items. But these are differences within political liberalism,
and political liberalism of the sort both Rawls and I endorse is opposed
to any view that advocates a comprehensive theory of the human good
as giving a set of appropriate goals for politics. Individuals have and pur-
sue many different reasonable comprehensive conceptions of what has
value. Respect for persons therefore entails that we respect those reasons
and create, and protect, spaces within which those different conceptions
will be chosen. So the capabilities are now envisaged as a core that we
promote for political purposes, knowing that citizens will attach them in
many different ways to their comprehensive conceptions. Such a view is
perfectionist only in the sense in which Rawls always maintained that
there was an element of perfectionism in his own theory; namely, that
not all satisfactions count for political purposes, and central importance
is attached to choice.
I am inclined to think that the various forms of perfectionism-in-
cluding Aristotle's own version, including Arneson's, and including com-
prehensive perfectionist liberalisms focused on an ideal of autonomy,
such as Mill's-are among the reasonable comprehensive conceptions of
value citizens may hold. Thus we ought to support, for political purposes,
capabilities that make it possible for them to pursue their conceptions.
We will therefore have reason to support the arts for political purposes
not only because, as I have repeatedly argued, the arts play a major role
in the formation of intelligent citizenship, but also because they are ma-

44. See on this Nussbaum, "The Costs of Tragedy."

Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 129
jor ingredients of many people's comprehensive conceptions.45 But no-
tice that the second reason leads to a much narrower type of support
than the first. With art as with religion, we will want the state to protect
the freedoms of persons to engage in those functionings, and this may
mean some concessions at the margin, when (as with the Amish and pub-
lic schools) the state feels that a valuable option is at risk of going un-
der. But subsidies that support some people's ideas of art against other
people's will be problematic on my view, as perhaps Arneson thinks they
should not be. I think we can justify a limited amount of state support
for classical music and ballet, for example, on the grounds that it is a part
of a set of arts that contribute to citizenship; and perhaps, also because
it is a valued ingredient of many life-plans that might otherwise go under.
But, like Rawls, I am nervous about this idea, lest it become elitist; so I'd
prefer public support for the arts to be as nondiscriminatory as possible.
Indeed, one problem I have with all the perfectionisms Arneson
discusses is that I really do not understand very well the language of
"higher" and "lower" functionings that the perfectionist tradition glibly
endorses. I understand the idea that certain types of scientific ability are
worthy of public support because society needs them; but that they are
"higher" and more intrinsically valuable than the activity of a farmer, or
a mother, or a sweeper of the streets, smacks to me of casteism and elit-
ism, and I don't buy it. I think that there is a way of doing all these func-
tions that includes the capabilities for sociability and practical reason
(capabilities concerning which I am in a sense perfectionist, holding that
without them only a subhuman type of functioning is available). We are
often misled by the current structure of society's rewards and privileges
into seeing skill and humanity in occupations that get high salaries or
much honor and into devaluing those that don't. So we should be on our
guard, I think, against all sorts of false incentives to devalue citizens on
grounds of their employment, or their chosen form of life. We can make
such rankings a part of our comprehensive ethical conception if we want
to. But let us not build any of this into the political conception of the
person or the political account of citizenship.
This leads us directly to one of the points where Arneson raises the
most troubling challenges to my view: the distinction between capability
and functioning. I believe that Arneson is correct: some of the reasons
we might give for preferring capability to functioning as goal are not very
good reasons. Respect for choice is the best such reason. I would under-
stand this idea in a subtly different way from Arneson: not in terms of a
comprehensive liberal ideal of autonomy, but in terms of an idea of re-
spect for the diversity of persons and their comprehensive conceptions.

45. See Martha C. Nussbaum, PoeticJustice (Boston: Beacon, 1996), and Cultivating
130 Ethics October2000
Obviously it is difficult to know how to balance such respect with the
respect for choice itself as a basic capability, for some comprehensive
conceptions do not highly value choice. That is another reason for my
decision to devote half of WID to problems connected with family and
It seems to me that respect for persons as equal citizens demands
providing all with all the capabilities, even though we know ahead of time
that some will not be used. Thus, even if we know that the Old Order
Amish will refuse to participate in politics, we should make sure that they
have the same opportunities and capabilities to do so that all other citi-
zens have, even if, as is the case, this means spending money. To behave
otherwise would be to treat them as second-class citizens. Even if we know
that a certain group of people will not use much nutrition and will in
some ways deliberately damage their health-for example, because their
conception says that thinness is a major ingredient of beauty-we would
be treating them with disrespect if we, on that account, withheld from
them the conditions of adequate nutrition and health care.
Arneson is right that some of my examples are hard to assess be-
cause "it is very hard to see how a society, particularly by coarse-grained
measures such as law and social policy, could do anything to promote
functioning beyond providing capability." 46 But that is certainly not true
of all such examples. Many countries make voting compulsory; I would
oppose this, though I do think that all subtle obstacles to voting must be
identified and removed. Often looking at who actually votes and who
does not helps us to identify such subtle obstacles. Again, many countries
require some type of religious functioning of citizens, for example by
making public state functions religious in nature; again, I oppose this.
Of course I support mandatory functioning for children; that may
be the only way to develop an adult capability. Even where adults are
concerned, we may feel that some of the capabilities are so crucial to the
development or maintenance of all the others that we are sometimes
justified in promoting functioning rather than simply capability, within
limits set by an appropriate concern for liberty.47 Thus most modern
states treat health and safety as things not to be left entirely to people's
choices: regulations of food, medicine, and the environment remove
some unhealthy choices from the menu. Such regulations are justified
because of the difficulty of making informed choices in these areas
and because of the burden of inquiry such choices would impose on citi-
zens. In other cases, for example smoking, while outright prohibitions
are justified only to the extent that nonconsenting third parties are af-
fected, it is not unreasonable for the state to promote awareness of the
danger to health in smoking and to campaign rhetorically against it. In

46. See Arneson, p. 62.

47. See EWD,pp. 91-95 for a longer discussion of this question.
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 131
other areas of risk-prevention, such as helmet and seatbelt laws, I think
that citizens can reasonably differ, although I would be inclined to
think that the best justification for these forms of paternalism lies in the
cost that injuries incurred by the risk-takers impose on society through
the health care system. In still other areas of risk, for example boxing
and mountain climbing, we do not make the activity itself illegal, al-
though in various ways we regulate it.
As this discussion of risky behavior indicates, we should be especially
concerned with choices citizens may make to surrender permanently the
necessary condition of a function. Thus suicide prevention programs,
though not the criminalization of suicide, seem acceptable. This ques-
tion arises with particular force in the area of reproduction. Men and
women in developing countries are often led into sterilization by public
incentives, and they often make the choice heedlessly; this is not accept-
able, and it seems likely that mandatory waiting periods prior to steriliza-
tion would be wise. Many more such cases are discussed in VWUD.
Dignity is another area that is hard to ponder. While I believe that
we should not close off voluntary choices citizens may make to choose
relationships involving humiliation in their personal lives, it seems cru-
cial for government to select policies that actually treat people with dig-
nity and actually express respect for them, rather than policies (whatever
those would be) that would extend to them merely the option to be
treated with dignity. Suppose, for example, citizens could purchase dig-
nified treatment at a low cost, but could also refuse to pay, and conse-
quently be publicly humiliated. This would surely be an unacceptable
public policy. We are also justified in requiring certain policies that mani-
fest actual functioning that shows concern for others (e.g., paying one's
taxes and obeying the criminal law).
What about practical reason and sociability, the two architectonic
functions? It seems reasonable here to say that it is the actual function,
not simply the capability, that makes a life fully human. I can understand
well why a comprehensive perfectionist doctrine, such as that of the
young Marx, might say this. And yet, for political purposes, once again, I
would judge otherwise. We want to make sure that all citizens have the
ability to make their own plans of life and to use their own reason in
making choices (and similarly with sociability). But to impose political
disabilities on someone because they defer to astrologers, or a new age
guru, or some more traditional source of authority in making important
decisions seems to me quite inappropriate, and it is significant that mod-
ern democracies do not seriously entertain such ideas, even though at
one time making fortune-telling and astrology illegal was taken very se-
riously as a part of public policy.
In the public realm itself, while we do extend to citizens certain civic
options that involve a rather drastic surrender of the power of choos-
ing a plan of life for oneself (e.g., military service), we reasonably seek
132 Ethics October2000
to expand the amount of practical reasoning even such options con-
tain (e.g., by introducing ethics courses in the military academies). Else-
where, outside the sphere of specifically political functions, it is reason-
able enough to seek through public policy to enhance the amount of
actual control and choice that is available to people in the various occu-
pations they may perform-as a way of expanding capability, not man-
dating actual functioning of a specific type. There is no shortage of op-
portunities for mindlessness in any society.
Thus my position on capability and functioning is subtle, and I do
not altogether disagree with Arneson about the importance of function-
ing in certain cases. I admire his discussion of perfectionism, and I have
much to learn from it as I work further on my approach.

C. Globalizing the Capabilities Approach

Charlesworth makes a number of attractive suggestions for the globaliza-
tion of the capabilities approach, with many of which I am in sympathy.
She is very persuasive when she responds to challenges to feminist inter-
nationalism that invoke culture and religion. As she points out, we need
to ask "whose culture is being invoked, what the status of the interpreter
is, in whose name the argument is advanced, and who the primary bene-
ficiaries of the invocation of culture are." 48 In chapter 1 of VWUD,I argue
that legitimate concerns for diversity and pluralism are met by the capa-
bilities approach, which at the same time gives us the resources to criti-
cize unjust cultural practices.
In general, I believe that our legitimate respect for pluralism in
comprehensive conceptions of the good should make us build this re-
spect into the approach in five ways: (1) We specify the list at a rather
high level of generality, leaving a lot of room for nations to specify the
items in accordance with their history and their current problems (see
section LV.Aabove). (2) We make capability and not functioning the ap-
propriate political goal. (3) We put the various liberties, and choice it-
self, in a place of prominence on the list. (4) We interpret the whole list
as a list of capabilities to be promoted for political purposes, a core that
can be the object of an overlapping consensus of many distinct concep-
tions, not as a fully comprehensive conception of the good. (5) On the
whole, we leave implementation to the internal political processes of
each republican state. Thus we are advising, not requiring.
Thus, in globalizing the capabilities approach, we must be especially
careful to beware of benevolent colonizing.49 Kant's warnings against

48. Hilary Charlesworth, "Martha Nussbaum's Feminist Internationalism," in this

issue, p. 68.
49. I have discussed the issue of globalizing the approach in my Castle Lectures deliv-
ered at Yale University in February 2000, and forthcoming, eventually, from Yale University
Press under the title The Cosmopolitan Tradition; here I allude to arguments I develop in the
third lecture on Kant, and the fourth lecture on contemporary issues.
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 133
such well-intentioned impositions of one's own conception of the good
seem applicable, as well, to the well-intentioned imposition of what we
think right and just: there is a grave danger that any such procedure will
treat the people of the nation in question with insufficient respect. In
general, then, I would support persuasive means, above all, as nations try
to convince one another to work toward the goals on the capabilities list.
The international women's movement is very active on this front. For
example, women in the "informal-sector" economy, that is, agricultural
laborers, hawkers and vendors, and craft laborers, are now organizing
transnationally to ask for an improvement in their living conditions. We
can all support these efforts in a variety of ways. Nongovernmental orga-
nizations that promote women's education and empowerment get most
of their funds from both governments and private citizens abroad; we
can all do more to support such efforts. Then, too, given the huge power
of multinational corporations in the developing world, it seems im-
perative that they use their wealth and power to underwrite capability-
promoting efforts that have broad support, for example (focusing on
India) by supporting public efforts to promote female education and to
contain pollution.
But of course there are cases in which the protection of the human
entitlements of individuals will call for interventions into national sover-
eignty. Military intervention to stop genocide, ethnic violence, rapes of
women, and other crimes against humanity seems not only permissible
but in many cases required, as does intervention to save lives in an area
hit by famine or natural disaster, when local institutions prove unable to
handle the problem. Perpetrators of crimes against humanity should be
accountable before a world court. In other cases, economic sanctions
may be appropriate responses to domestic rights violations, as in the case
of South African apartheid. And yet, once again, there is a limit beyond
which we should not go in compromising sovereignty. In many instances,
we are justified in using persuasion only. In all these cases, the goal
should always be the restoration of just and entitlement-protective do-
mestic institutions in each nation.
Let me give just one recent example to illustrate the delicate bal-
ance between sovereignty and international pressure that I have in mind.
Women in India have long complained that they have no protection
from sexual harassment in the workplace. In 1987, a group of activists
from Rajasthan, after much harassment of activists in the field, filed a
petition with the Supreme Court of India-as any group or individual is
entitled to do-asking that the Court address the fact that there are no
laws addressing sexual harassment, despite the fact that India has rati-
fied the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
against Women (CEDAW), which requires signatories to come up with
laws and policies in this area. The Court said, Quite right. India did sign
CEDAW, and the Constitution requires us to abide by treaties we have
134 Ethics October2000
signed. So henceforth any state actor who does not come up with policies
protecting women from sexual harassment, following the CEDAW guide-
lines, is in contempt of court.50 As for private actors, we instruct the leg-
islature to devise suitable legislation.
We see here, I believe, an excellent paradigm for combining multi-
national pressure with genuine national sovereignty. The multinational
document did a lot of work: it was the origin of the pressure on the In-
dian government to pursue change in this area. On the other hand, the
domestic democratic institutions of the nation are ultimately the agents
of change. This is as it should be, if change is to be genuine and stable,
not simply the temporary imposition of a multinational feminist ortho-
doxy. I believe that here I am somewhat more Kantian than Charles-
worth, but she is much more deeply immersed in the practicalities of
these issues than am I. I have learned a great deal from her article, and I
look forward to a dialogue with her as I try to refine my thoughts about
these difficult issues.

D. Controversyin International Feminism

Charlesworth raises a difficult question when she asks how the capabili-
ties approach responds to differences among women, and to the charge
that the international human rights approach is too acontextual. I have
already begun to respond to this worry in my observations about plural-
ism above: I positively urge that the conception be applied locally, in
accordance with local circumstances and at least some local traditions.
We can also see that when we focus on capability rather than functioning
as the appropriate political goal, we include women who may have many
different comprehensive conceptions of what the complete good life for
a human being would be. But we may now make some more concrete
observations about how this approach can help us to resolve one particu-
larly divisive dispute in the international community of women: what I
shall call the "sexuality-vs.-employment" debate. This is just one debate
that can be illuminated by thinking about capabilities, but it shows how
I would approach others. (As is usual in VVHD, I shall use examples from
India, but the debate is more general.)
The debate, which sometimes becomes heated, involves a difference
between two groups of feminists about the basic goals of feminism. For
one group, let's call it group S, the essence of feminism is a critique of
sexual domination, and the essence of change is changing socially con-

50. Vishakav. State of Rajasthan (1997) 6 S.C.C. 241; see, further, Martha C. Nuss-
baum, "The Modesty of Mrs. Bajaj:India's Problematic Route to Sexual Harassment Law,"
forthcoming in a volume on sexual harassment, ed. Reva Siegel and Catharine MacKinnon
(New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press). (The "problematic route" in question is not
the route taken by Vishaka,which I endorse, but a route more recently taken through the
criminal law's prohibition on conduct "outraging the modesty of a woman.")
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 135
structed gender roles. For the other group, let's call it group T, the es-
sence of feminism is a critique of women's economic dependency, and the
most desirable change is to give women more economic options. Mem-
bers of S are likely to focus on domestic violence, sexual abuse of all sorts,
sexual harassment, and prostitution as the major ills, and they are likely to
criticize a project as insufficiently feminist if its focus is purely economic
and doesn't involve a major component of consciousness-raising. For ex-
ample, the directors of the Mahila Samakhya Project told me that their
proposals had been criticized by other feminists as lacking a feminist
content, on the grounds that the focus of the program is on empower-
ment through economic options. Members of T, by contrast, are likely to
judge that it is counterproductive to talk about domestic violence and
sex roles on coming into a village, and far more productive to talk about
credit, land rights, and employment. They are likely to criticize members
of S for making feminism look threatening and for saying things that
have little resonance in the minds of rural women.
Up to a point, one might think that there is just a strategic issue
here: one group thinks that the economic approach is less threatening
and therefore more effective, while the other group thinks that not to
confront basic issues of gender hierarchy head on is ultimately counter-
productive. The two groups may not even disagree all the time about
strategy: members of S might agree that it is strategically wise to open up
a dialogue by focusing on nonthreatening economic issues, even while
they hold that the real source of women's inequality lies elsewhere and
must ultimately be addressed.
But in fact the split lies deep: the two groups have different intu-
itions about the root cause of women's subordination. Members of S
think that subordination is all about wanting a submissive sexual outlet,
and that the economic aspects of subordination are posterior.5' Mem-
bers of T think that women's subordination is all about men wanting to
control income and property and to have willing domestic servants-to
them, the sexual aspects of women's subordination are posterior.
There are some genuine differences between the two groups. For
example, all members of group S would consider lesbianism an ap-
propriate choice for women wishing to resist domination in a male-
dominated sexual world, while many members of T are religious or con-
servative women who believe lesbianism to be immoral, although they
are committed to campaigning for women's economic self-sufficiency.
(Thus leaders of some organizations aimed at economic empowerment
have conservative attitudes about sexual orientation.) More conservative

51. Members of S frequently invoke the writings of Catharine MacKinnon, although

it seems to me that MacKinnon does not endorse any such view about there being a single
basic cause for women's subordination.
136 Ethics October2000
members of T also shrink from saying that there is anything wrong with
male sexuality as it is, and they prefer to avoid talking about sexuality as
such. Probably these are the deepest sources of the intense animosity
that exists between the two groups in India-in a nation that is still
among the most repressive in the world toward homosexual people of
both sexes, where some of the feminist members of S are lesbian and
have been badly treated as persons by members of T. (A leader of the
Mahila Samakhya Project in Andhra Pradesh, an intense and fiery femi-
nist who routinely put her bodily safety on the line to struggle against
corrupt local officials to keep the women's program going, asked me
why "sexual perversion" had become so common in the United States-
evincing an attitude not uncommon among feminists of the T variety.)
The issue of homosexuality cannot easily be isolated from larger is-
sues about the root cause of women's subordination. Feminists of the S
variety believe that binary gender divisions and "compulsory heterosexu-
ality" lie at the root of women's economic oppression and that any ap-
proach that doesn't stick up for lesbian choices is, therefore, ultimately
self-subverting. They would say that the homophobia of India is not just
accidentally related to its patriarchal treatment of women: the fear that
women can be sexually self-sufficient, and not available as sexual outlets
for men, is what inspires homophobia, so homophobia is patriarchy's
reaction to a deep threat. Some feminists of the T variety vigorously deny
this, holding that the issue of women's equality within the heterosexual
family is utterly unrelated to the morality of homosexual conduct: one
may be intensely homophobic and yet be vigorously feminist.
It seems reasonable to think that on the issue of causality the S femi-
nists are correct: there is a long tradition in India (as in most of the
world) of regarding women as men's sexual property, and the fear that
this system would be upset is very likely to lie at the root of many people's
fear and hatred of lesbianism. It may well be that in the long run the
treatment of women as property cannot be combatted without combat-
ting the system of heterosexuality that has defined women as sexual
property. If even such a morally reflective and exemplary person as
Gandhi regarded his wife as there, sexually, for his use, and not as a
sexual agent in her own right, we should conclude that these attitudes
are enormously deep, and it is easy to see how any lesbian choice threat-
ens them. So it would seem that the T feminists are refusing to discuss
an issue that may ultimately be absolutely central in understanding wom-
en's inequality.
Fortunately, the dispute that began in December 1998 in India over
the screening of the Deepa Mehta film "Fire," which deals with a les-
bian relationship between two women who have both been oppressed in
traditional marriages, has helped to open up this whole issue. Reacting
strongly against the attempts of Hindu fundamentalist thugs to close the
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 137
film down, artists, academics, and feminists of all types got involved in
demonstrating for the free speech rights of the filmmaker. Although dif-
ferences still exist within these groups-some insisting that lesbianism is
a traditional feature of Hindu culture, some preferring to focus on the
film's feminist aspect, it can no longer be denied that there is a strong
link between women's subordination in traditional sexual relationships
and their interest in a same-sex relationship. The public attention of
feminists of all sorts has been newly focused on the discrimination suf-
fered by lesbians in all strata of India's society. Open conversation about
the topic seems to promise a closing of the gap between the two groups
of feminists.
Nonetheless, in many respects the entire dispute seems peculiar.
Why should we have to say that there is just one thing that the subordi-
nation of women is about? Clearly, it has aspects that are sexual and as-
pects that are economic. Both of these are socially shaped, and each re-
inforces the other. Men have seen women as their sexual property, and
they have also seen them as their economic servants. In some cases, the
sexual relation of dominance is the primary relation; in others, it is prob-
ably the economic relationship that is the more prominent source of
male interest and control. (Some of these husbands have other sexual
outlets and are thus relatively indifferent to the wife's sexual function.)
In short, both types of hierarchy are fundamental, and neither can or
should be avoided. Understanding either one, indeed, would appear to
require understanding the other. T feminists certainly should not refuse
to rethink habitual distinctions of gender and sexual roles; but S femi-
nists should not deny that economic issues sometimes have their own
momentum and may offer independent explanations for some aspects
of women's inequality.
As we think this way, the capabilities approach helps us to make
sense of what we find. We begin with the idea that both employment-
related capabilities and sex-related capabilities (such as bodily integrity,
emotional health, and the capacity for sexual expression) are funda-
mental human capabilities that should not be abridged. Thinking about
women's position vis-a-vis these capabilities then helps us to think about
the many ways in which the two complement one another. Women who
wish to avoid sexual brutality or exploitation in marriage, and to pursue
sexual autonomy, can do so far more easily if they are in a strong bargain-
ing position in the family; and access to employment, credit, and land
rights are important sources of strength for their bargaining position.
At the same time, the perception that women are whorish and childish,
so pervasive in Indian traditions at least since the Laws of Manu, does
undercut women's search for employment and weakens their bargain-
ing position in the workplace. So attempts to alter those perceptions of
female sexuality are important accompaniments to women's search for
138 Ethics October2000
economic equality. The approach tells us that neither capability should
be subordinated to the other, and that public action on both fronts is a
legitimate way of promoting both sexual and economic freedom.
Concerning practical strategies, T feminists have strong points to
make, which S feminists can readily accept. It is certainly less threaten-
ing to enter a village saying that you are going to promote better services
and extend new opportunities for credit and employment than to say, "I
have come to change your sex roles." (Does anyone really say things like
this?) In order to avoid backlash against feminist programs, it may be
good to focus on economic issues, leaving it to women themselves to
draw their own conclusions about sexual life in their own way in due
course. On the other hand, that doesn't mean being altogether silent
about gender roles, particularly where domestic violence is concerned.
Frequently women who are otherwise quite ambivalent about employ-
ment outside the home will find it attractive if they come to think that it
improves their bargaining position against domestic violence: so these
links should be discussed, in order to present a more adequate picture
of women's options. Domestic violence is one of the first issues women
typically wish to discuss. When the women in the Mahila Samakya pro-
gram in Andhra Pradesh (all illiterate) made drawings of their problems,
wife-beating and child sexual abuse were both absolutely central. So it
would seem that even in strategic terms this question should not be mar-
ginalized, even early on, although its links with economic issues should
also be pointed out.
In short, the capabilities are an interlocking set; they support one
another, and an impediment to one impedes the other. The capabilities
approach helps us far more here than more schematic approaches in
terms of "human rights": it directs us to examine certain specific as-
pects of women's material, mental, and emotional lives, and to figure
out their complex interrelationships. It is opposed to any kind of reduc-
tionism, to any claim that some one thing is "the thing" for feminism. It
sees a plurality of distinct goals, none of which should be subordinated
to others. And yet it achieves structure and unity by bringing the diverse
goals together in their complex conceptual and causal relations with
one another. In that way, I believe that it makes decisive progress in
such debates, where, often enough, a false simplification is the mother
of hostility.
It is for this same reason that I would hold that the capabilities ap-
proach, rather than being a top-down approach, alien to the concerns
of women who are struggling to survive, is actually a good ally of such
women, as they struggle to express themselves in ways that do not always
find a comfortable home in the abstract discourse of development eco-
nomics, with its frequent subordination of a plurality of human concerns
to both opulence and utility. The approach is intended as, and, I believe,
Nussbaum Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities 139
is, the systematization and theorization of thoughts that women are pur-
suing all over the world, when they ask how their lives might be im-
proved, and what governments should be doing about that.
Toward the conclusion of a visit to a rural village participating in the
Mahila Samukhya women's program in Andhra Pradesh, in an extremely
poor region, the group of women began to sing for me songs they had
learned in the women's collective. One, my interpreter explained, was an
old women's song that expressed the idea that a woman's life was a life of
sorrow. It used to begin: "Woman, why are you crying?" and then the
woman would reply, listing all the bad things in her life. The women of
the collective, however, had rewritten the song. Now it goes: "Women,
why are you crying? Your tears should become your thoughts." And then
the woman tells all her plans for improvement in her life.
Here is how the annual report of the collective records the women's

We want to plant fruit trees in front of our houses.

We want to start an herbal medicine shop.
We will build our house ourselves.
We want to cultivate banjar lands.
We want to register our Sangham.52
We want to travel. We want to see our office in Hyderabad.
We want our school to run better.
Our sangham should become big. We want more women to
join us.
We want to hold meetings at the Mandal [i.e., regional] level.
Our children need a better life than us. They should learn new

Next to this list of plans is a drawing of a child in wedding dress, under a

canopy-with a large red X drawn across it. The accompanying story:
"Twelve year old Swarupa of Potulbogada village joined the hostel after
attending the summer camp. During the vacation her parents tried to
get her married. She sought the help of the sangham and together they
managed to convince the parents to allow her to pursue her studies." 54
The capabilities approach is the systematization and theorization of
just such thoughts and plans. It is plural because what women strive for
contains a plurality of irreducibly distinct components. It is focused on
capability or empowerment, even as the women's own thinking is focused
on creating opportunities and choices, rather than on imposing on any
individual a required mode of functioning. To the thinking that is al-
ready there, it adds a set of arguments linking the capabilities list explic-

52. A sanghlamis a women's collective.

53. See Annual ReportMahila Samakhlya(Andrea Pradesh, 1997).
54. Ibid.
140 Ethics October2000
itly to underlying ideas of human dignity that help us test candidates for
inclusion; it adds a framing political approach showing how these ideas
of capability and functioning will deal with legitimate concerns about
diversity and pluralism; and it adds arguments linking capabilities to spe-
cific political principles that can be embodied in constitutional guaran-
tees. Finally, it adds arguments showing very clearly the incompatibility
of this approach with other prevalent alternatives. In that way, it seems
to me, the approach can fairly claim to make a distinctive contribution
to the practical pursuit of gender justice.