Martha Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach; or, Literature is a Humanism

Inspired by Maya’s post about Amartya Sen, I’d like to share a bit about Martha Nussbaum, a professor here at the UChicago Law School, and the “capabilities approach” to development which she has written extensively on and promoted alongside Sen. Specifically, I’d like to discuss her book Creating Capabilities, a foundational text on the capabilities approach and a persuasive argument for the refocusing of development (which is by definition a major aspect of transnational relations) on the scale of individual human lives, rather than quantifying progress based on financial markers.

Instead of focusing on economic measures of growth, the capabilities approach (also known as the “human development” approach) measures a nation’s progress on individual access to “substantial freedoms,” that is, the totality of opportunity for choice and action that an individual has within their context-specific political, social, and economic situation Nussbaum stresses the basic importance of freedom in education, ownership, and affiliation, which she regards as the three “fertile” capabilities from which others are able to spring (Nussbaum 98-100). The approach, as Maya stated in her previous post, is rooted heavily in philosophy, the associations of which Nussbaum explicates thoroughly in Creating Capabilities. In this book, Nussbaum reframes development metrics under the question, “What are people actually able to do and to be? What real opportunities are available to them?” (Nussbaum, x). She goes on to explain that this totality of opportunities is measured by markers such as bodily health and life expectancy, but is also represented in one’s ability to engage in independent practical reason – ability to imagine, think, “have attachments to things and people,” “engage in various forms of social interaction,” and, perhaps most summarily, ability to “form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life” (Nussbaum, 33-4). It argues that development efforts should thus directly address this level of existence rather than focusing on increasing GDP, as “This crude measure gave high marks to countries that contained alarming inequalities, countries in which a large proportion of people were not enjoying the fruits of a nation’s overall economic improvement” (Nussbaum, ix).

This reframing of development metrics to focus on human capacity rather than economic growth views poverty as capability-deprivation rather than purely income-deprivation. That is, lack of financial capital translates into a loss of capabilities that would allow for personal growth, and this capability loss directly impacts human experience (both individual and collective), which, if stifled, precludes sustainable advancement in any other sphere.

I read Creating Capabilities this past summer, while working for an NGO in northwestern India, and have found myself thinking of the text again at multiple points throughout this course. The approach is foundationally linked with philosophy, self-determination, individual consciousness and reasoning – in contrast with World Bank statistics (though it takes data from these, surely), the capabilities approach provides a more humanistic basis upon which to pose questions about development, and thus, transnational movement and communication.

Advocates of the capabilities approach point to the holistic nature of such a method, as quantitative measures such as per capita GDP cannot capture the complex shape and texture of “human life and human striving,” although in the end, human lives are what matter (Nussbaum, x). To me, using literature as a lens through which to examine the process of transnationalism in all its diverse incarnations (one factor of which the reality of uneven global development) is a vital component of studying the shape and texture of individual human lives.

Although the literary texts we’ve read in class aren’t making policy suggestions (at least, not overtly), they each bring a distinct voice to the table addressing individual experiences of globalization that can serve as a basis for analyzing future goals and projects. Literature is a humanism that makes tangible the abstract statistics of mortality, literacy, immigration, emigration, and hunger through which we order the world. Through the movements and experiences of the characters we read, we gain a cross-section of what it means to be human and exist in an increasingly connected sphere.

Literature, therefore, is a manifestation of the kernels of possibility that exist within Nussbaum’s fertile capabilities – with the freedom to learn, command agency, and seek connections to further individual growth, we are able to explore the meaning of “human striving,” and from this, draw conclusions about the greater world.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

– Isabella Mckinley-Corbo

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