Quality of Life

Book cover
Creating Capabilitiesby By Martha NussbaumHarvard Univ. Press. 256p $22.95

When societal progress is viewed primarily in terms of the overall increase in economic wealth, the human need for membership and meaningful participation soon loses salience in public policy debates and, ultimately, is relegated to the realm of preference. The vehemence of the recent protests against union-busting legislation in Wisconsin was surprising, partly because many of us had assumed that strong unions had long ago been sacrificed to the gods of free market liberalism. Determining whether a society is truly flourishing, however, requires an assessment of a broad range of measures of human flourishing, including meaningful opportunities to engage in various forms of social interaction. Economic indicators alone tell only part of the story.

In Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, Martha Nussbaum sets out to provide general readers with a comprehensive account of the increasingly influential “capabilities approach” to political and economic development, which seeks to consider the development of societies in terms that reflect a comprehensive account of human experience. Although the model is most often considered in the context of development in poorer nations, all nations confront issues that raise important questions about what it means to provide the highest possible quality of life for all members of the community.


Students of Catholic social teaching will find the capabilities approach very familiar in a number of ways. Nussbaum sees capabilities as a means for theorizing about basic social justice. The capabilities approach views each human person as an end and not only asks about overall well-being in a general sense, but also considers what opportunities are available to each person.

What then are the capabilities of which Nussbaum speaks? There are a number of views on what the list should include. Amartya Sen, the economist and Nobel laureate who along with Nussbaum has played a major role in the intellectual framing of the approach, does not believe that developing a list of capabilities is particularly important, and he has focused instead on a comparative use of capabilities. Nussbaum, however, commits to 10 specific capabilities as a basis for identifying fundamental political entitlements. They are: life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; and control over one’s environment.

By specifying which capabilities are most important, Nussbaum seeks to give content to the ideas of human dignity and equality within a broader commitment to political liberalism. She is therefore particularly concerned with individual rights and choice in the conceptions of human dignity taken by the capability approach, but it is not an individualism without limits. By presenting a list of core capabilities, Nussbaum offers a helpful point of engagement for those who seek to bring Catholic social teaching into conversations about justice in settings defined by political liberalism and religious pluralism. Her willingness to commit to core capabilities helps make terms like “human dignity,” “social justice” and “equality” more intelligible in public discourse.

Because it is based on the idea that all people have capabilities by virtue of their humanity, the capabilities approach is closely allied with the movement for international human rights. It makes explicit the notion that any rights or entitlements that arise from the approach must be linked to corresponding duties, but it also demands that governments play an active role in supporting peoples’ entitlements. Nussbaum is explicit in rejecting an understanding of rights as purely barriers against the interference of the state, a direct challenge to the extraordinary currency this view has gained in the United States. She argues that rights mean little if the state cannot be called upon to support and enforce them.

Civil and political rights have economic and social preconditions that will often require the affirmative action of the state to empower people who have long been marginalized, or to create a level playing field between institutions that control huge amounts of capital and the workers they employ. All of these ideas have been sounded in Catholic social teaching for over a century, but as current events make plain, many Americans reject them as “socialist.”

Nussbaum offers the capabilities approach not as dogma but as something to be considered, discussed and improved upon in an effort to allow the dignity of human beings to become a central part of how we think about development in a complex, global economy. It is an important corrective in a world where the quality of peoples’ lives has been reduced almost completely to a concern for how much money they have, and for which commitments to social solidarity are expendable when it comes time to balance the books.

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