Gutwald, Rebecca Sarah (2017). 'Resilience, social justice and democracies – a capabilities perspective' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


“Resilience” has become a buzzword in many contexts. The 2014 human development report considers it a central concept in human development and “discusses the ways in which resilience to a broad group of evolving risks could be strengthened” (HDR 2014). Promoting the resilience of people, communities and people can help people dealing with uncertain futures and the vulnerabilities resulting from events like war, natural disasters or political disruptions.

Very often resilience and vulnerability are discussed in the social and ecological sciences –as processes of adaptation to disruptions or coping after disaster strikes. Only few works engage with the evaluation of resilience from the perspective of social justice (e.g. the works of Jean-Luc Dubois et. al., 2010, 2013 and Andrew Crabtree). Still, it is not fully clear what normative role resilience plays in a theory of social justice. If being resilient just means being able to cope with threats or being strong and stable, countries like North Korea or dictators that live a long life like Stalin should be characterised as very resilient – but not in good way. Hence, the question still stands why the concept of resilience should be incorporated in a theory of social justice and how “resilience thinking” (as it has been called in ecological and sustainability research) would change it. What is more, many social justice theories characterise democracy as the ideal form of government. However, democracies may often be viewed as less resilient, since they are fragile and slow to deal with certain threats (like spying or cyber war from more authoritarian countries) in many respects, precisely because the procedures of people’s participation are complex and time-consuming.

The goal of my paper is to examine the idea of resilience in political philosophy and theory. I shall point out that resilience as such is not necessarily good, but that it can be useful as an element of social justice theory if it is suitably qualified. To do so, I will use the perspective of social justice as it is characterised in Nussbaum’s capabilities approach. I claim that Nussbaum’s account of central human capabilities helps identifying a sustainable form of resilience for individual people. Key to this idea is how Nussbaum criticizes the problem of structural inequalities. This paves a way to formulate a notion of what I shall call structural resilience. However, it must be noted that Nussbaum’s current approach does not fully cover the topic of social and structural resilience. Building on the work of political philosopher Iris Young and social philosopher Annette Baier I point out how we could interpret the capabilities approach to incorporate a more structural and social dimension. In summary, my paper will argue that the paradigm of social justice theories should be changed by resilience thinking that is suitably informed by the capabilities approach.


My presentation proceeds along three lines:

  1. In the first, conceptual part of my paper, I examine the concept of resilience and how one should define it in the context of social justice. I shall point out that resilience is a fundamentally normative concept, if used in individual and societal context. If we use resilience in this normative way, it will lead us, so I claim, to readjusting some well-established paradigms of political philosophy such as a focus on institutions and ideal forms of justice.
  2. In the second part I shall argue why Nussbaum’s capabilities approach is useful in identifying a sustainable form of individual resilience by giving us a basis to identify structural inequalities that pose a threat to human well-being. The central human capabilities that Nussbaum characterises in her list, are a good starting point in characterising protective factors that help individuals in becoming more resilient to inequalities.
  3. In the final and third part I will point out that Nussbaum’s capabilities are often interpreted as too individualistic. Thus, the burden of being resilient would be laid mainly on the individual. However, resilience, if it is part of social justice, should also have a strong social dimension. Using the work of Iris Young and Annette Baier as inspiration, I interpret Nussbaum’s approach in a more structural and collective way. I believe that this social dimension is already established in Nussbaum’s idea of combined capabilities, and just needs to be worked out a little more. Thus, I conclude, we can combine resilience thinking in a constructive way with the capability approach to ultimately tackle issues of inequality and uncertainty in modern societies.



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