Justice actually: priorities for equitable human development

Drydyk, Jay (2019). 'Justice actually: priorities for equitable human development' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


Theories of justice ought to provide guidance to justice-seeking people, movements, and institutions. Because they are meant to have wide application, theories of justice are abstract, and so there are inevitably gaps between their prescriptions and the political and policy choices that confront us on the ground. Moreover, there is a guidance gap between, on the one hand, policy targets such as the SDGs and, on the other hand,more abstract norms of justice, whether they be ‘transcendental’ (ideals of a fully just world) or ‘comparative’ (the direction of change towards greater justice).

Theories of justice have generally not provided middle-range norms by which we can evaluate policy targets: are they the right targets, are they too low, should more be expected if we are seeking greater justice both today and tomorrow? One exception is the sufficiency norm proposed by Martha Nussbaum: that everyone should have capability levels adequate for a life of equal human dignity. Yet these levels remain unspecified, and questions remain about the priorities between (i) maximizing the number of people who have enough; (ii) addressing racial and gender oppression of people above this level (iii) assisting the very worst off; (iv) raising everyone’s levels to a social optimum; and (v) setting limits to excessive income or wealth.

Jay Drydyk opens this panel by outlining the normative guidance gap that is left by the thinking of Sen and Nussbaum. Sen’s comparative approach to justice uses the capability space to identify the direction of greater justice. The capability space has also been used to identify and understand high-priority concerns such as poverty, human security, and efficiency.. Yet these have not been formed into a coherent set of priorities. Nussbaum’s call for raising everyone to capability levels adequate for human dignity makes sufficiency a priority; yet it remains unclear how this priority coheres with others, such as gender justice, whether and how priority should be given to the very worst off, or what upper limits are set by social or global justice. In response, Drydyk outlines a capability approach to setting such priorities.

Ingrid Robeyns proceeds to address several thresholds that are salient in the actual distributive structure of any society. The lowest level is set by secure functionings common and elemental to human well-being. Beyond this level, for entry into human flourishing (which is multiply realizable), we need a different base threshold, set by basic capabilities. A just distributive structure follows three rules. (I) Distribution of resources must support and not jeopardize both secure functionings and basic capabilities. (II) There is a limit to holdings of resources, at the upper end. (III) In expanding capabilities and resources beyond the low thresholds of secure functionings and basic capabilities, both efficiency and equality of opportunity must prevail.

Christine Koggel focuses on priorities for gender justice in particular. She points to awareness within development institutions that efforts to achieve greater gender justice have reached a barrier or sticking point. These efforts, supported by the capability approach, have promoted gender justice by expanding women’s opportunities to work outside the home, own property, run small businesses, receive cash transfers, and so on. Yet these strategies have done little to change gender norms that continue to have women do the heavy burden of unpaid work, including child care. Given recognition in the SDGs as well as global and national policies for achieving gender justice, it is now a priority, Koggel argues, to address these gender norms. In particular, she explores the role of education as one potential avenue of change.

scroll to top