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

  • Author / Creator
    Johnson, Christopher Morgan
  • 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.

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    Doctor of Philosophy
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    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.