Beyond Capabilities: A Discussion of Mutual Flourishing

Storfa, Maria Christina (2016). 'Beyond Capabilities: A Discussion of Mutual Flourishing' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

Martha Nussbaum’s and Amartya Sen’s grounding works on the capabilities approach are the most compelling frameworks for addressing contemporary issues of social justice. Nussbaum, in particular, tries to offer a comprehensive theoretical model that identifies basic political principles of social justice. I wish to draw our attention to two features of her model.
            First, for Nussbaum social justice primarily means providing individuals with central opportunities and freedoms – or simply, capabilities – but not to “[make] them function in a certain way” (Nussbaum, 2011, p. 25). These central capabilities when combined with proper material and social circumstances represent, according to Nussbaum, a basic threshold of opportunities that allows people to pursue a “minimally flourishing” life (Nussbaum, 2011, p. 33). In promoting opportunity above all else, she seeks to leave room for liberalism’s core tenants, namely the exercise of human freedom and personal autonomy.
            Second, Nussbaum thinks that states are primarily responsible for fostering individual capabilities. She acknowledges that richer nations, as well as international corporations and agencies, have a responsibility toward poor nations that cannot meet a dignified standard of living. Yet this position seems to offer little more than charity as the paradigm of justice and the means through which the needs of the global poor are to be met. One consequence of endorsing this paradigm is that we are in danger of taking for granted that the needs of the global poor will not be met. As such, we risk further estranging the poor from their dignity and the realization of their rights and entitlements.
            I suggest that by considering not only capabilities but what lies beyond them – namely, the realization of capabilities or actual human ‘flourishing’ – we can also begin to formulate an alternative to justice as charity. By examining the way in which an individual’s flourishing ultimately depends on the flourishing of others, I will take the view that the opposition between charity and self-interest implicit in this paradigm is an untenable one.
             In presenting this view, I depart from Nussbaum as to whether an emphasis on flourishing constrains the individual’s determination of the good. Indeed for Nussbaum, to lead a flourishing life involves meeting a threshold at which a “person’s capability becomes […] truly human, worthy of a human being” (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 73). And since the freedom to pursue one’s idea of the good is none other than the ability to plan one’s life, Nussbaum argues, the capabilities of practical reason and affiliation must play an architectonic role in the pursuit of a dignified life. These two capabilities are thus of particular importance for the individual’s determination of the good and give meaning to the actions of a “free being who shapes his or her own life” (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 82).
            While Nussbaum is unwilling to specify anything further about the content of human flourishing, I aver that even the flourishing of practical reason and affiliation must involve the recognition that an individual’s flourishing is inseparable from that of others. That is, the content of flourishing is always relational in its structure, and always a mutual accomplishment between us. This may lead us to formulate an important and timely corrective to dominant paradigms surrounding global justice based on the unsound dichotomy between self-interest and charity.
Key Words: Global Justice, Charity, (Mutual) Flourishing;
Works Cited:
Nussbaum, M. C. (2000). Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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