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Political Liberal or Comprehensive Capabilities? A Critique of Nussbaum's Capabilities Approach Open Access


Other title
Political Liberalism
Martha Nussbaum
Capabilities Approach
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Johnson, Christopher Morgan
Supervisor and department
Nye, Howard (Philosophy)
Welchman, Jennifer (Philosophy)
Examining committee member and department
Carmichael, Don (Political Science)
Hurka, Thomas (Philosophy)
Schmitter, Amy (Philosophy)
Department of Philosophy

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
This project examines the capabilities approach as developed by Martha Nussbaum. Its question is whether Nussbaum’s theory is best conceived as a version of political liberalism as she contends, or rather as a form of comprehensive liberalism that is culturally sensitive and pragmatically restrained. Nussbaum’s capabilities approach is a partial theory of justice that holds that citizens’ equality should be measured in terms of capabilities, or opportunity-freedoms to be and to do. Its proposal is that citizens are equal in terms of their dignity, and that the dignity of each citizen is secured by ensuring they have the basic capabilities that make for a dignified life. In response to concerns that any such list of capabilities is paternalistic, Nussbaum argues that her list of basic capabilities is free of metaphysical grounding and conceived for political purposes only. It is thus her contention that her capabilities can be the subject of an overlapping consensus by reasonable people, and that her political conception abides by the basic principle of political liberal legitimacy that citizens should be able to endorse the principles that govern them. Given Nussbaum’s notion of reasonableness, however, there are reasons to object that her political conception is unjustifiably coercive on political liberal standards. Her responses to these criticisms – that they can be accommodated by means of her distinction between capabilities and functionings, and that support for her capabilities can be found in critics’ standing beliefs and values – are shown to be unsatisfactory. These failures entail that Nussbaum is unable to defend her capabilities approach as a version of political liberalism. Given Nussbaum’s reformist agenda, however, and her need to secure capabilities as the condition of a dignified life, I argue she should defend her theory as a form of comprehensive liberalism that is culturally sensitive and pragmatically restrained. On comprehensive liberal standards of respect and legitimacy, Nussbaum’s political conception would not be justified by anticipated endorsement of her capabilities, but by the value of the capabilities themselves and because moral principle requires it.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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