The Least among Us


Frontiers of Justice

Disability, Nationality, Species Membership

Martha C. Nussbaum

Harvard University Press, $35, 464 pp.
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The task of the public intellectual is to ensure that important areas of common life (public policy, cultural activities, moral understandings, and so on) live up to the standards thoughtful reflection reveals. The United States has not proved the most fertile ground for this sort of person, but now and then contenders arise, and Martha Nussbaum is surely one of the more formidable candidates of our time, discharging the responsibilities of that role with a dizzying industriousness. She has testified in a high-profile Colorado court case involving homosexual rights, articulated an ideal of liberal education intended to guide our colleges, and worked with a range of organizations addressing the condition of women around the world, all the while maintaining her own furious pace of scholarly production. In Frontiers of Justice she brings her considerable talents and energy to a set of questions which, she persuasively argues, public discourse and philosophical reflection have too long ignored: namely, what are our obligations to the disabled in our midst, the poor around the globe, and nonhuman animals everywhere?

Since this question raises issues of justice and collective action, one might think the tradition of modern political philosophy well positioned to answer it. A main objective of Nussbaum’s book, though, is to indicate how ill-suited that tradition is to address these topics. To see why, some quick history: modern political thought (roughly from Hobbes on) can be seen as a response to the realization that a cohesive political and moral community can no longer be secured by appeal to religious authority (or metaphysical moral claims generally). The response was ingenious: instead of seeing moral rules as handed down by some outside source, we can instead view them as the result of an agreement among human beings who exist in conditions of broad equality, who can benefit from living in community with one another under mutually acceptable terms, and who are rational enough to recognize this fact and conform to the agreed-upon principles. This solution constitutes the core of the social-contract tradition. To get a sense of its great influence, consider the roster of philosophers who fall firmly within it: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and John Rawls.

If we return to the question about the disabled, the foreign poor, and animals, Nussbaum argues, we quickly see that the needs of such beings must fall outside the contract approach. The seriously disabled often lack the rationality to understand or agree to the terms of cooperation, for example, and cooperation with them may well not benefit the fully functioning. The poor around the world are not situated equally with respect to the rich, and interactions with them may similarly not be to the latter’s advantage. And the idea of contracting with animals stretches credulity. Though some have tried to modify the contract model so it can better address these lacunae, Nussbaum argues forcefully that such tinkering won’t work. To drop the central assumptions of that approach (mutual advantage, rationality, equality, etc.) is in effect to depart from the contract model.

As an alternative to such “agreement-based” models, Nussbaum advocates an “outcome oriented” approach that begins by identifying a moral goal no reasonable person could reject, namely, that individuals and institutions should function to protect and advance lives of dignity. Nussbaum explains the idea of dignity be referring to her well-known “capabilities approach” (pioneered by Amartya Sen, long a professor of philosophy at Harvard), which stresses that persons who lack the ability to do certain valuable things (for example, control their environment, enjoy bodily integrity, engage in relations of affection and intimacy, think reflectively in the way education allows) are to that extent lacking powers appropriate to the dignity of a human life. With respect to the poor around the globe this approach generates strong duties of robust aid. Regarding the disabled, Nussbaum points out that many such persons, even those who can’t achieve the goods that a fully functioning person does, can still exercise many of the capabilities appropriate to a dignified human life and are similarly owed duties of justice. The third and most controversial step of her argument extends this approach to animals, arguing that they too possess distinct capabilities that also give rise to distinct duties of justice.

On the first two cases Nussbaum is surely right. But when she turns to the subject of animals, there occur some moments that strike me as downright kooky-her suggestions that justice may require providing an elderly dog with a wheelchair, for example, or that a tiger’s conception of the good may be unreasonable insofar as it aims at the death of a gazelle. Faced with such comments, one can’t but think that Nussbaum’s argument has gone off the rails somewhere. Even more worrisome, I fear that her radical position on animals may lead some readers to reject her otherwise powerful arguments for greater attention to the disabled and the poor around the world.

Part of the problem may be that Nussbaum’s approach to animals depends, as she readily admits, on a sense of wonder at the complex forms of life around us and a belief that animals both have a good and are, prima facie, entitled to pursue it. In thus appealing to what she hopes are widely shared intuitions, Nussbaum adopts a strategy widespread in contemporary moral theory-one that works by identifying the moral principles that underlie moral judgments we already confidently make and extending those principles to cases we’re unsure of.

This approach, given most influential expression in the work of Rawls, has never been without critics. Some object that it just gives up the idea of moral argument, others that it mainly validates dominant views and eliminates the possibility of genuine critique. A third criticism (to which readers of this magazine may be especially sympathetic) charges that without appeal to some standard of morality beyond ourselves, we have no grounds for claiming that our intuitions can yield genuine moral knowledge: what distinguishes, one might ask, correct moral intuitions from incorrect ones? Conformity with God’s will at least suggests a criterion we can understand (though one not without its own challenges). Invoking our own moral judgments to establish moral authority, by comparison, has seemed to many a strategy that can end only in some version of relativism or nihilism.

Defenders of Nussbaum’s approach can offer various replies to these objections: they may insist that grounding morality in the divine guarantees ongoing moral disagreement, for example, or they may object to the general idea that moral knowledge involves correspondence between an internal belief and some external fact. Still, setting aside such large disputes, I think there’s no denying the method Nussbaum adopts is most likely to lead to agreement on moral principles when the central intuitions are sufficiently widely shared. In the case of animals, such consensus appears more a hoped-for goal than an existing fact.

But if I’m unpersuaded that our attitudes toward animals require the extreme revisions Nussbaum calls for, her central point seems to me both decisive and deeply important. We should reject the idea that justice can be fully captured by considering the agreements that would be reached by self-sustaining, fully functioning, and broadly equal rational agents keen to advance their own good. Philosophers have never been very comfortable with the fact that they have needy and clamorous bodies, or that human beings enter the world as helpless children and often leave it the same way. Yet ignoring the conditions that bookend our lives, or the related problems of dependency, need, and care, will not make them go away. It will only ensure that our dealings with them lack whatever moral clarity thoughtful reflection might provide. I suspect we’ve got a long way to go before things become tolerably clear here, but there’s no denying that this book provides a significant push in that direction.

Published in the 2006-05-19 issue: 
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David McCabe teaches philosophy at Colgate University.

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