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Review of Political Economy, Volume 15, Number 3, July, 2003

Tragedy and Human Capabilities: a response to Vivian Walsh
MARTHA NUSSBAUM

Vivian Walsh’s ‘Sen after Putnam’ is a tour de force, covering a wide spectrum of issues with both authority and deep moral commitment. Both because I find Walsh’s previous work a continual stimulus and a beacon of encouragement in the relatively desolate intellectual landscape of economics, and because the present paper is so impressive, I find it very difficult to know how to reply. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that I am not an economist, and much of the more technical discussion in the paper is beyond my competence. What I think I might do, then, to carry the conversation forward is to comment briefly on four issues touched on in Walsh’s paper, concerning which I’ve been doing some recent thinking and writing: (1) truth and objectivity, (2) the nature of tragic choices, (3) disability and (4) freedom. On all four of these issues my own present ideas differ to some extent from those of Sen, so it seems important to introduce these differences. (1) Truth and Objectivity. As Walsh correctly states, Sen and I turned to Aristotle for the idea that in both ethics and science we have available a notion of truth and objectivity that is robust, and yet at the same time ‘internal’, from the perspective of standing human interests and capacities. We were alert to the similarity between our Aristotelian idea and Putnam’s ideas, and it was in part for that reason that we were so eager to get Putnam involved in our work at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, where he produced two splendid papers that developed these ideas further with specific application to development economics (Putnam, 1993, 1995). Meanwhile, however, my own thinking moved on, under the influence of John Rawls’s Political Liberalism (Rawls, 1996) and the work of my colleague Charles Larmore (1996). I have come to believe that it is very important to distinguish between the ethical sphere and the political sphere. In any modern society, there exists a plurality of competing value conceptions, both religious and secular. Many of these are reasonable, and we cannot expect the disagreements between them to be resolved any time soon. Because these conceptions frequently lie at the heart of people’s sense of self and of the meaning of life, respect for persons dictates respect for these comprehensive conceptions of value. What this means for political life is that, even if we are convinced that we have very good arguments for our own ideas in ethics and religion, we should not build the core political institutions of our nation around them, in a way that disfavors adherents of other religions and conceptions. Instead, we should view
ISSN 0953-8259 print/ISSN 1465-3982 online/03/030413-06  2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/0953825032000086603

2003a). 2001). Instead. Both because the list is finite and because it is a list of capabilities. First. not actual functions. let us hope. conceived as capabilities. I argue that Sen’s current tendency to speak of freedom as an all-purpose good seems increasingly to put him in the camp of ‘comprehensive liberalism’ of the sort espoused by John Stuart Mill and Joseph Raz. I have explored and defended the Rawlsian idea of a thin ‘political objectivity’. which can be attached to many different comprehensive conceptions of value. and even. people of more relativist inclinations. Adherents of traditional conceptions of value (such as the American Amish) and members of authority-based religion (such as Roman Catholics) cannot accept that proposition. that politics may still claim a certain sort of objectivity for its basic principles. although I continue to agree with Putnam about ethical objectivity. we can achieve consensus only if we are also parsimonious about our epistemological claims. Nussbaum the political core of a society as a ‘partial moral conception’ (to use Rawls’s term). one should seek a thinner ‘political objectivity’ that can be acceptable to Putnamites. I now feel that it is inappropriate to build that conception of ethical objectivity into the foundations of a political conception. Rawls spends a good deal of time demonstrating. Larmore. What they can accept. is the idea that certain freedoms. There are two implications that are significant for Walsh’s article.414 M. (In my article I use the example of Stanley Fish. For the political liberal. Since each religion and each ethical conception contains an epistemology of value. concerning itself with some matters (basic justice) and not others (the ultimate destiny of the soul). But overlapping consensus will be possible only if the political conception is not only partial. it is disrespectful to say that freedom is a generally good thing.) The second noteworthy consequence of accepting Rawls’s (and Larmore’s) idea is that one has strong reason not to base public policy on the idea of freedom of choice as a general all-purpose human good. In another recent article describing my current differences with Sen (Nussbaum. a Roman Catholic citizen can support the free exercise of . we must carefully articulate the political conception in terms of a thin epistemology of value that can be shared by people who differ about contentious epistemological matters. but also thin. and concerning which they can ultimately achieve what Rawls calls an ‘overlapping consensus’. but not the same sort that many people would want to claim for their comprehensive ethical or religious doctrines. I believe. even though she thinks it immoral to vote. I think convincingly. are and should be basic to a just political order. In addition. Thus. and myself. describing its implications for my own articulation of the capabilities approach. In a recent article (Nussbaum. abstaining from using metaphysical conceptions (such as that of the immortal soul) that divide people along lines of their more comprehensive conceptions. adherents of the idea of self-evident eternal truth. they will feel that the conception is one that respects them. An Amish citizen can support the right to vote for all citizens. rather than in the camp of political liberals such as Rawls. states that declare that their political conception is based on the idea of self-evident truth are showing disrespect for citizens whose religious or ethical idea denies that there are such truths.

given that the alternative involved the death of his daughter and of all his troops. If a state understands protection of the free exercise of religion as among its most important political principles. (2) Tragic Conflicts. to slaughter his daughter was probably the best thing available to him. ‘Why did people have to face this. which must be distinguished if we are to make progress on the most tragic choices that people repeatedly face in life. One question is: what is the best thing I can do now. and frequently one can arrive at an answer. but it is also that they fail to distinguish two quite fundamentally distinct questions. that one can say a little more here about how the idea of tragic choice helps us to criticize some dominant ways of thinking. I am very grateful for his use of my work in developing his powerful ideas. where stupidity. economists usually ask . the answer to the second (the ‘tragic question’) is ‘no. in public policy as influenced by economics. When I speak of my list of the ten central capabilities. and thus fail to grapple with the fact of tragic dilemmas. and one strengthens dispositions of character that disincline one to such heinous ethical choices. As he indicates. at least. even though she thinks that she herself is in no way morally free to choose a different religion. and what can institutional and political change do to make sure that they don’t face this again?’ Sometimes a tragic choice is caused by brute necessity. As Hegel pointed out. whatever one chooses. But there are other ways. and malice are amply to be found. I apply this idea to thinking about public planning and the capabilities list. there is human value in seeing a tragedy for what it is. all things considered? As Walsh says. For Agamemnon.Tragedy and Human Capabilities 415 religion. which go a long way toward removing the conflict. Hegel correctly noted that the tragic conflict between reasons of religion and reasons of state comes about only because religion and the state have been defined in a particular way. of the tragic conflicts in this area will not arise. but more often the causes lie squarely on the human side. But neither could assent to the proposition that lives based upon freedom or autonomy are better than lives not so based. But there is something more. Seeing that the situation is not free from wrongdoing. then many. But now there is a second question on the table: are any of the alternatives available in this situation free from serious ethical wrongdoing? Frequently. obtuseness. What Walsh says about tragic choices is eloquent and deep. Concerning the Antigone. and I have no quarrel with it: indeed. however. I think. I have argued that what is wrong with common cost-benefit models of public choice is not only (Walsh’s point) that they assume the availability of a complete ordering. one reinforces one’s determination to avoid such situations in future.’ What do we get out of asking the tragic question? Isn’t it just an invitation to moan and groan needlessly? With Walsh. one can pose this question to oneself even in the most tragic of circumstances. In a recent volume devoted to critical examination of the idea of cost-benefit analysis (Nussbaum 2000b). seeing that a choice is tragic also prompts the question. I think not. and this is the point that I wish to add to Walsh’s account. even when some answer can be found to the first question (what I call ‘the obvious question’).

If we see a case that looks really tragic. social resources. can achieve basic literacy for all children without permitting anyone to starve. 2003 at Clare Hall. (3) Disability. Sen’s famous example of a person in a wheelchair. however. shows that understanding primary goods simply as commodities will not give us the intellectual equipment to address some of the most persistent obstacles between people and flourishing lives. with the aim of putting in place (constitutionally) a core group of basic entitlements. In my Tanner Lectures 2002–2003 (2002 in Canberra Australia. between starvation for themselves and non-education for their children. elevators on buses. and then really securing them to all people. tragically. The fact that many poor parents today must choose. As Walsh notes. all will be well. To that point of Sen’s I would add that she needs resources of a different sort: special. This means that every one of them is central and non-negotiable up to some suitable threshold level (which. But Sen simply extracted the list of primary goods from Rawls’s overall theory. he strongly suggests that if we simply replace primary goods with capabilities. introduced by way of criticism of the Rawlsian account of primary goods. such as the Indian state of Kerala. the answer is greed and stupidity. The fact that women used to have to choose. we should view the presence of tragedy as an invitation to constructive political thinking. usually expensive. The fact that this record has not been imitated in other Indian states results from corruption and stupidity. It is unacceptable for the state to protect one constitutional entitlement by cutting back on another: thus we do not accept major restrictions on the freedom of speech in order to promote other basic capabilities. In short. Again. will be specified over time by judicial and legislative action). and this debate ought to take cognizance of the presence of other capabilities that are pertinent. tragically. Debates about hate speech will legitimately debate where the threshold of each of these capabilities rightly falls. the right to enjoy self-respect. The person in a wheelchair needs more resources to be fully mobile than a person whose limbs work well. If we think of basic entitlements as capabilities. I argue that the idea of the social contract as a bargain for mutual advantage among rough equals must itself be criticized if we are to have an adequate way of including disabled persons . and did not ask about the rest of the structure. the fair claims of people with disabilities were at the heart of the capabilities approach from the very beginning. I think that all this is fine so far as it goes. More money won’t do it. think of these ten as the material for basic constitutional entitlements. But the aim must be to have a consistent set that can be guaranteed to all citizens over time. typically. we must ask. between family and career resulted not from nature but from the absence of male good will and of intelligent planning from both the state and private employers. ‘What can we do about this? What has made this case so tragic?’ Often. Nussbaum me. The primary object of my current work is to show that all is not well: the idea of the social contract itself needs to be called into question. with considerable eloquence. what are the trade-offs and orderings? What I want to say is. Cambridge).416 M. reflects the absence of intelligent state planning: since we know that even a very poor state. say. such as wheelchair ramps. etc. we see what is required to treat the two citizens truly equally.

social justice for women requires a lot of limitation of traditionally valued male freedoms: the freedom to harass women in the workplace. etc. Social justice for the poor requires limiting many freedoms. is detailed and cannot be summarized here (but see Nussbaum. . I believe that Sen’s failure to get definite about content is a big mistake. the freedom to have intercourse with one’s wife whether she consents or not. and undermine it. if under-theorized. (I make a similar argument for the issue of transnational justice between nations who are not rough equals. the freedom of industry to pollute the environment. these are neither central nor terrible. one will likely choose policies that are very different from the ones that Walsh and I would favor. we need a list. (Of other freedoms. I argue (Nussbaum. One’s view of content may be in error. and for the case of justice between humans and non-human animals. even many that are traditionally valued: the freedom of big business to make large campaign contributions. in a way that other things are not. (4) Freedom.) The argument for this negative conclusion. So I am happy to see Walsh value and highlight what I take to be a central. We need to be able to say: the freedom of speech is basic. and of the sort that a nation could enact as part of its constitutional conception. Only in this way will the idea of capabilities offer good guidance to law and public policy. 2003b). or as much of it as they can get away with. Walsh makes an interesting move: he attributes to Sen a distinction between ‘basic commodities’ and ‘gross luxuries’. 2003a) that this move is a bad mistake. those freedoms are not good. as I have said. justice. For if one thinks that the goal of the state should be to promote freedom across the board. But one must begin somewhere. feature of the early Sen. but they don’t do a lot of harm either. thus. and of capabilities as all instances of this general good of freedom. 2000c. no matter which freedoms and no matter for whom. But there is a countervailing tendency. And of course at many points throughout his writings Sen does give us a very strong sense of what he does and does not consider basic. They do not and should not enjoy constitutional protection. and in favor of a development of the capabilities approach. taking Sen in the direction of ‘neoliberal’ thinkers and away from his own earlier emphasis on certain ‘basic’ goods.) But to make this utterly sensible and necessary reply. Not only do they not lie at the core of our constitutional conception. for example. In short. it is good to be humble about any suggestion one makes. increasingly in evidence in his recent work: this is. of the sort I’ve been working out. the freedom of motorcyclists to drive around without helmets. In his interpretation of Sen. we need to rank freedoms and pick some as central. the freedom of the rich to keep ‘their’ wealth. I just want to alert readers to this further departure from Sen’s thinking about capabilities. I believe that Walsh agrees with this proposal. and I welcome his eloquent defense of the idea that some things really are basic for human flourishing. but the freedom to pollute is not basic. we might say. Similarly.Tragedy and Human Capabilities 417 adequately in the political conception. What is at stake here? Quite simply. to speak of freedom as a general all-purpose human good. they are actually inimical to that conception. What I think we should say is.

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