Paternalism within the capability approach I: paternalism and respect for diversity

Gutwald, Rebecca Sarah (2016). 'Paternalism within the capability approach I: paternalism and respect for diversity' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

In her influential book “Women and Human Development” (2000) Martha Nussbaum describes that charge of paternalism which critics often bring forward against the capability approach. She pointedly states: “The suspicion uneasily grows that the theorist is imposing something on people who surely have their own ideas of what is right and proper.” (Nussbaum (2000), p. 35) Very often, however, advocates of the capability approach dismiss the charge of paternalism quickly by pointing out that the capability approach aims to promote capabilities instead of functionings. It therefore protects and promotes freedom of choice even in situations when people are unable to decide freely for themselves. For instance, if people are severely adapted to oppressive social structures such as many women in developing countries, we may use soft, liberal paternalistic means to ‘free them’.
At the same time, the capability approach fundamentally rests on the idea that social diversity and individual differences should be respected. Amartya Sen emphasises that capabilities should be selected and interpreted via democratic procedure (Sen 2009). Nussbaum also claims that capabilities may be interpreted quite differently depending on the culture of the individuals participating (2000, 2005). Here, we find a tension between different normative commitments of the capability approach. Like many universalist normative approaches, the capability approach is caught in a theoretical tension between universal ethical claims about human well-being and about respecting cultural diversity. Very often development ethicists are accused of presuming that white European culture has this universal validity, thereby marginalising other voices. In practice, certain measures to deploy the capability approach could be ineffective, because the differences between groups are not recognized. Often, white, male, well-educated experts design the interpretation of capabilities as well as policies to promote them. Is this the kind of expertise we want in a universal application of the capability approach? But if we don’t, how far does participation and recognition go? How can the capability approach avoid a collapsing into relativism or particularism? Therefore the issue of paternalism within cross-cultural context is a vital one that should be explored more deeply in discussing the capability approach.
Nussbaum M.C. (2000) Women and Human Development, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Nussbaum M.C. (2005) Frontiers of Justice, Belknap Harvard
Sen A. (2009) The Idea of Justice, Harvard: Harvard University Press

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