THE PUSHPIN PUNDIT
Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice: Redemption Through Utilitarianism Still Possible
(revised November 26, 2006)
The biggest problem with Martha Nussbaum’s “capabilities” approach is that Nussbaum gives absolute priority to improvements below capability thresholds. As Peter Singer puts it, Nussbaum’s theory “appears to require that if a society has only one member below the minimum entitlement level, it should spend all its resources on bringing that member above the entitlement level before it spends anything at all on raising the welfare level of anyone else, no matter how big a difference the resources could make to everyone else in society. That, surely, is an absurdity.” Singer, "Response to Martha Nussbaum" (2002).
In Frontiers of Justice, Nussbaum does not fully confront this implausible aspect of her theory; she does not fully confront the problem that her theory could require massive welfare losses by people above capability thresholds in order to secure a tiny improvement by a person below a capability threshold. But fortunately for Nussbaum, she can avoid such implausible results – as long as she adopts a utilitarian policy on tradeoffs below the thresholds. For in the current social situation, it is not necessary to sacrifice an enormous amount of above-threshold welfare in order to make tiny below-threshold improvements. There are always some people below capability thresholds who can be helped in a welfare-efficient manner. This is true even within wealthy societies, and it is especially true if we apply the capabilities approach internationally (which Nussbaum quite properly advocates).
Nussbaum’s theory would be irredeemable if she gave absolute priority to those farthest below capability thresholds. Her theory would then become a variant of welfare egalitarianism, with all the implausibility of that egalitarian approach (see Chapter 5 of my book Distributive Justice and Disability: Utilitarianism against Egalitarianism). But Nussbaum does not assign absolute priority to those farthest below capability thresholds; she does not specify how she would make tradeoffs below the thresholds. While this is a gap in her theory, it is also a door to redemption through utilitarianism.
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