Nussbaum’s approach to the family

Fascioli, Ana (2018). 'Nussbaum’s approach to the family' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


This paper addresses an analysis of Martha Nussbaum’s approach to the family, particularly, its role and value for a just society. It is broadly recognized within the Capability Approach that Nussbaum´s work (1997, 1999, 2000, 2007, 2011) gives the family more attention than Sen´s. Some scholars have shown it, while criticizing the individualistic version of the approach and the lack of evaluation of social structures (Nelson 2004, Deneulin 2008), or even pointing out that the family has a passive role in Nussbaum´s idea of public policy (Correa & Comim 2016). Following her approach, relevant work is being made on the role of family in the flourishing of its member´s capabilities. We can find relevant contributions not only about the impact of structural features such as income or integration, but also about how parental styles and emotional environment influence children’s early development (Correa & Comim 2016), how parents´ functionings and capabilities impact children´s flourishing (Hartas 2007, Addabo & Di Tomasso 2011), the understanding of family unity as a collective capability (Hall 2016) or the work-family balance and capabilities (Hobson & Fahlen 2009).

However, the political-philosophical implications of Nussbaum´s account of the family have been neglected. The roots or connection between her position and the broader discussion on family within liberal egalitarianism has not been deeply developed by scholars within the approach. Her reflection takes place in a broader debate on the challenges family raises for liberal egalitarianism. She addresses the problematic distinction between private and public sphere, make a statement about the appropriate relationship with the State and society, and give orientations for family policy. She appropriates that broader political-philosophical analysis from and for the Capability Approach (1997, 1999, 2000, 2007, 2011a, 2011b) trying to solve how family can deal with liberty and equality in a democratic society. In this sense, this paper offers a reconstruction of Nussbaum’s approach to the family in a liberal society, through her critique of Rawls’ vision (Rawls 1971, 2000, 2001, 2003) and her links with Susan Okin’s liberal feminism (Okin 1989, 1991, 1997). 

From there, while acknowledging Nussbaum´s contribution, I also suggest that more weight can be added to the presence of family within the Capability Approach. Political philosophy is increasingly attending the family environment and the challenging problems that arise from a liberal egalitarian perspective (Honneth 2007, Archard 2010, Brighouse & Swift 2014). Among others, there are important normative debates on the definition of family (Young 1997, Archard 2010), on its justification as social institution (Muñoz-Dardé 1999, Honneth 2007; Brighouse & Swift 2014), and on the appropriate conception of parenthood (Austin 2007). Considering these works, I try to show that the Capability Approach has at least three challenges to address, particularly in the ethics of parent-child relationships. I suggest it has to clarify its position in relationship to a) a normative definition of the family, taking into account that Nussbaum´s notion of family as a “net of care and love” (2000) is too vague; b) how can we ultimately justify family as social institution, why is it valuable or why should children be raised by families rather than good public institutions, and c) what it means to be a “good enough” parent in the context of the approach. 

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