A Summary (of the first portion) of “Frontiers of Justice” by M. Nussbaum

     Martha Nussbaum sets out in “Frontiers of Justice” to challenge the Social Contract tradition, the current paradigm in political philosophy insofar as it relates to theories of justice, by defending her own approach which she refers to as the “capabilities approach.” She begins by describing the historical development of the Social Contract tradition, focusing on certain writings of philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, and most recently, John Rawls.

After briefly describing how the Social Contract tradition has come to exist in its contemporary form following the influences of John Rawls, Nussbaum levels some very strong criticisms against this philosophical tradition. In particular Nussbaum focuses on how proponents of the Social Contract tradition have (not) responded to the needs and interests of disabled individuals, the global community/nationality, and non-human species.

     Nussbaum’s criticisms of the Social Contract tradition emphasize three key points. Her first point is that Contractarian theories of justice confuse those individuals who generate the principles of justice within a particular society with those whom are most effected by those principles of justice. She observes that time and time again, the Contractarian (such as Hobbes or Rawls) is more likely to add principles of justice concerning the disabled once the initial principles have been set – as an afterthought rather than a primary concern. As a result of this conflation, disabled individuals in these hypothetical societies do not receive the same equality of rights or equality of opportunity that “normal” citizens do.

Next, Nussbaum criticizes the Contractarian’s conception of personhood, noting that definitions of personhood that revolve around the use, or functioning, of a particular ability (whether rational or physical or otherwise) inherently excludes most, if not all, of those who are relevantly disabled. For example, a conception of personhood such as Kant’s which emphasizes the capacity for self-awareness and critical thinking through consciousness cannot be utilized to the required degree by those individuals who have Down’s Syndrome or birth defects resulting from the mother’s alcohol or drug consumption during pregnancy. Therefore, these individuals are inappropriately discriminated against and discounted when it comes to the most basic issues of social justice because they do not reach the necessary threshold to qualify as a human being.

Finally, Nussbaum asserts that the initial conditions setup by proponents of the Social Contract are misguided. Rather than emphasizing/demanding that the individuals generating the principles of justice for a particular society focus solely on mutual advantage, she states that there are other ways to conceptualize a social contract which promotes inclusion rather than mutual advantage. This conceptualization would, alternatively, be based on the universal dignity of every human being as a starting assumption. Nussbaum argues that there are strong reasons to exclude egoistic motivations such as mutual advantage when accepting the social contract because to do otherwise violates the universal dignity inherent to all human beings.

     Yet Nussbaum does not wish to entirely deconstruct or do away with the Social Contract tradition. Several times she acknowledges its utility in areas of issues related to social justice and its continued relevance. However, she does think that key structures of the tradition must be modified or discarded. In its place, Nussbaum promotes the “capabilities approach” which states that “the best approach to this idea of a basic social minimum 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 life that is worthy of the dignity of the human being. I identify a list of central human capabilities, arguing that all of them are implicit in the idea of a life worthy of human dignity” (70).

In doing so, Nussbaum explains the ways in which the capabilities approach is superior to the Social Contract tradition. First, the Capabilities Approach assumes an Aristotelian/Marxist/Kantian composite view of human nature. Drawing from the Aristotelian/Marxist view, human beings are inherently social and political beings who seek and find fulfillment in relationship to others. Contra the Kantian’s rationalist conception of personhood, though, Nussbaum denies that theories of justice must involve equality in physical or mental ability. Instead, human beings seek justice and have an interest in it because of their very nature, which is communal. Yet, in agreement with the Kantian conception of personhood, each individual is an end, not a means to an end. As a result, the Capabilities Approach for more inclusive principles of social justice than does the Social Contract tradition.

Second, the Capabilities Approach does not require that the parties of the Social Contract be “free, equal, and independent.” Instead, she points out that such a view ignores crucial changes that human beings undergo throughout their life cycle. No child is born “free, equal, and independent” nor does he/she reach this stage, if at all, until much later in life. In addition, after a certain age, these abilities are diminished by the process and effects of aging. The elderly are less free and less independent, yet we do not, usually, associate this with a reduction in their social and legal status of equality. And these changes do not even begin to cover the cases of individuals with disabilities. As a result, the Capabilities Approach’s exclusion of that tripartite condition (“free, equal, and independent”) for justice is discarded entirely.

Third, the capabilities approach upholds the view that justice is such an important political and social good that it is to be sought even if there is not a mutual advantage to be had for all involved. Justice is not a means to an end, it is an end in and of itself. By focusing on the universality of the desire for justice, the capabilities approach is more inclusive since it does not incorporate a limiting condition such as mutual advantage into the generation of political principles. This emphasis on inclusion is something that seems to be missing from the Social Contract tradition.

Finally, the Capabilities Approach inserts at least partial moral content at the point of the initial contract rather than trying to make up for it by adding it later. In this regard, the capabilities approach inherently has moral content that seeks to protect and empower citizens, reducing the possibility of generating injustice in society.


Works Referenced

“The Disability Rights Movement: A Brief History.” Disability: The Social, Political, and Ethical Debate. Eds. Robert M. Baird, Stuart E. Rosenbaum, and S. Kay Toombs. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2009. 

Longmore, Paul K. “The Second Phase: From Disability Rights to Disability Culture.” Disability: The Social, Political, and Ethical Debate. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2009. 

Nussbaum, Martha. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Harvard University Press, 2006.

Puar, Jasbir K. “The Cost of Getting Better: Ability and Debility.” The Disability Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2013. 

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