1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Ageing, Development and Social Protection

Case Study by Martha Nussbaum

  • Project from: 2001 to 2003



This paper is a conceptual and theoretical essay that criticizes dominant models of society as a social contract and recommends a new theoretical perspective based on the idea of fostering human capabilities. It is argued that only this perspective can adequately deal with issues of social justice raised by the need to provide care for the elderly, the lifelong disabled, and others in a state of extreme and asymmetrical dependency.

I. An Acute Problem of Justice

This section of the paper summarizes some empirical facts about the ways in which societies do and do not provide care for the elderly, the disabled, and other dependents, in order to show the acute problem of social justice societies face in this area. The problem has two faces. The disabled and dependent must receive the care that they need, care that fosters their health, both physical and mental, and their ability to have meaningful social interactions and to participate in society. This care must be supplied in a way that fosters self-respect. At the same time, the givers of care must be protected from exploitation. At present, in all nations of the world, women do a vast majority of caregiving work, receiving either no pay or inadequate pay. Often this work is not even recognized as work. The need to provide care hinders women in many areas of their lives.

II. The Social Contract Perspective

Western philosophy's dominant approach to formulating an account of basic social justice has been to imagine society's institutions as resulting from a "social contract", in which parties come together to achieve the benefits of cooperation. Typically the parties are imagined as roughly equal in ability, and the partnership is imagined as one that is profitable to them all: by cooperating they each get more than they could get by not cooperating. This very structure itself requires a situation of rough parity among the parties, for the arrangement will only prove profitable to all if no one is so placed as to dominate the others, as Hume and Rawls point out. For this reason, theorists in the social contract tradition omit situations of asymmetrical or lifelong dependency from their accounts of how society's basic institutions are designed. I examine the problems this creates for John Rawls's account of justice, and the challenge posed to that theory by Eva Kittay. I argue that the difficulties are deep and cannot be remedied by a mere modification of the contractarian perspective.

III. Beyond the Social Contract

In order to move beyond the social contract tradition, we need to make three modifications in the dominant tradition. We need, first, a richer account of the "primary goods" a just society distributes, one that includes the need for care in times of acute dependency. We need, second, to conceive of the social goal not in terms of resources simply, but in terms of fostering a wide range of human capabilities. I argue that the perspective supplied by the capabilities approach is superior to those supplied by the more traditional focus on resources and on utility. Finally, we need a new conception of the person for purposes of institutional design, one that does not sharply split off human dignity from human need and animality. I develop such an account, and show how it gives us further reasons to prefer the capabilities approach. I then argue that this new conception of the person requires us to reject the contractarian perspective more radically than Kittay believes necessary.

I then show how the new approach would do a superior job of conceptualizing claims of justice that arise in connection with the care of children, elderly people, and the disabled - and how it would enable us to develop accounts of justice that show respect for the disabled as equal citizens, rather than either neglecting them or treating them as large social costs to be borne.