Capabilities and open lifespan: martha nussbaum’s problematic first capability concerning the end of a human life of normal length

Csordas, Attila (2019). 'Capabilities and open lifespan: Martha Nussbaum’s problematic first capability concerning the end of a human life of normal length' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


Martha Nussbaum’s first capability starts with the following phrase intended to capture the most fundamental capability of human life: ‘Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length’.

Despite its top position on the list, this capability appears to be under analysed in the literature.

In the current study we are trying to partly fill in the gap critically and also extend the approach with another angle of looking at human lifespan.

First, we ask whether ‘being alive’ or ‘being alive at particular length’ can be considered a capability or a functioning. We conclude that while ‘being alive’ is a functioning of the ‘doing’ kind, ‘being alive at a particular length’ is a concrete capability.

Second, we are trying to analyse the term ‘the end of a human life of normal length’ by offering three interpretations of ‘normal’: average, typical and acceptable.

‘Normal’ as ‘average’ gives the most prevalent version of life expectancy where it is defined statistically as the mean number of years remaining for an individual at a given age. But using the mathematical concept of ‘mean’ the ‘end of a human life of normal length’ will not be reachable for at least 50% of the people and so this capability cannot serve as a minimal threshold to be reached.

‘Normal’ as ‘typical’ gives us an alternative statistical concept the ‘modal age of death’. This concept is focusing on the typical, most common age where most deaths occur. But this is an even worse candidate then for a minimal threshold as ‘average’ as it includes much less than 50% of the people for whom age of death can be considered typical.

Normal as ‘minimally acceptable’ or ‘ok acceptable’ leads us to individual, subjective evaluation of ‘acceptable’. However it seem unlikely that people then will stop at a minimal acceptable threshold aimed to be provided by this list, within this approach.

We ran into a problem finding a satisfying, workable interpretation for ‘normal’ in the phrase ‘the end of a human life of normal length’.

Third, we note that while Nussbaum leaves the implementation, specification details of the listed capabilities to particular nation states representing particular traditions/histories individual human lifespan is something that seems to outrank the scope of these particular traditions/histories as it is actually enables those traditions/histories in the first place, in the simplest biological sense.

Nussbaum’s use of ‘particular traditions/histories’ seems to be focusing on humanities and seems to exclude natural sciences and technology in general. But human healthspan and lifespan are genuinely dependent on biomedical science and technology and have been proven to be malleable by these activities.

Interpreting ‘normal’ as ‘acceptable’ above, the space opened up for a maximum longevity interpretation where people aim for as much healthspan extension as possible to stretch human longevity to its limits. But this can only be achieved with the help of further development of advanced biomedical technology.

To capture the possible upper limit of maximum longevity we introduce the concept of Open Lifespan, which is open-ended, indefinitely long healthy lifespan. Open Lifespan is achieved via hypothetical Open Healthspan Technologies and for individuals it provides continuous interventions to counteract the biological aging process, while maintaining a fixed, small but nonzero mortality rate due to external causes of death.

With this thought scenario and possible world in mind we note that capabilities are inherently modal concepts and the first capability can be re-interpreted as maximum, reachable longevity without compromising the minimal threshold concept maintained for the rest of the capabilities on the list. So with the problematic first part of the first capability being resolved, the whole approach can be strengthened by this solution.

We conclude by evoking the top ethical principle of life’s default possibility, or to use Nagel’s phrasing: ‘It is good simply to be alive.’ This principle can provide ethical foundation behind humankind’s constantly resurfacing wish to live as long healthily as possible. This has nothing to do with immortality but everything to do with the creative uncertainty people live their lives and look forward to their future. If the Capabilities Approach is trying to provide a full-blown account of human capabilities, it should make an effort to incorporate our fundamental motivation to be alive and continue to do so.

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