Sex and social justice: Women and cultural universals

Carey Atkinson

French intellectual Michel Foucault introduced Power/Knowledge discourse, in which power and knowledge are seen as inextricably related entities. Knowledge is always an exercise of power, and power is always a function of knowledge. It is upon this framework that lies Martha Nussbaum’s conceptualisation of the origins of human rights, and upon this injustice which she builds a theoretical framework of human development. Martha C. Nussbaum is a highly educated and distinguished professor at the University of Chicago and a philosopher. She has chaired several United Nations committees, including the Committee on the Status of women.

In her chapter “Women and Cultural Universals” Nussbaum is clear and consistent in insisting that women deserve the same freedoms as men, and presents the capabilities approach as the best framework to meet this goal. Nussbaum explains how cultural traditions are obstacles to women’s health and thriving. Women are seen as intrinsically less deserving of fundamental life supports, and although some women resist, some women have internalised the idea of being “less than”.

“To express the spirit of this chapter very succinctly, it is better to risk being confined to the ‘hell’ reserved for alleged Westernizers and imperialists – however unjustified such criticism would be – than to stand around in the vestibule waiting for a time when everyone will like what we are going to say. And what we are going to say is: that there are universal obligations to protect human functioning and its dignity, and that the dignity of women is equal to that of men.” (p30).

Nussbaum makes sure to emphasise that this is not a phenomena confined to non-western countries: for example, the United States still have laws that are detrimental to women’s thriving, such as rapists having parental rights in several states. According to the Human Development Report, there is no country in the WORLD where women’s quality of life is equal to that of men. In general, there is a 50% less employment rate, and female workers are disadvantaged by unpaid work, unsafe working conditions, and sexual harassment or discrimination. Employment outside of the home and political voice have a direct relationship with health and nutrition. Also, custom and political arrangement decree who gets to eat and who gets to see the doctor. Women’s conditions such as these result in a higher mortality rate.

Caring for children is just one example of the unpaid work women do

Nussbaum outlines several approaches to family and economics, like Gary Becker’s maximisation of utility and John Rawl’s liberalism. After exploring the shortcomings of these approaches, Nussbaum puts forward the human capabilities approach. At its core, the capabilities approach examines what the people of the group/country are actually able to do / be. This allows for equitable distribution of resources and opportunities. This approach considers people as individuals, not as parts of a unit, as well as how “organic” units like family create unequal capabilities.

Capabilities: People’s real freedoms and opportunities to achieve functionings. (Ex having access to safe employment, nutrition, and healthcare)

Functionings: ‘Beings and Doings’ that a person can undertake. (Ex being in good health)

Cooperative conflicts: The interests of members of a cooperative (ie family) split apart. Some members do well, but at the expense of the interests of others.

Nussbaum suggests that the primary goal of politics should be to guarantee capability, not to measure function. She says that resources have no value within themselves, only in their role in promoting human function. This allows for the scrutiny of tradition which denies capability to women, and inquire about the varying needs of individuals (for example: a woman requires access to menstrual health products and specialised care, ie the capability, to achieve the function of good health).

Now – what functions are worth the most care and effort? Establishing a list of central capabilities could be considered a universalist approach. Anti-universalists are committed to the good of men and women everywhere, but falter in considering places like India to be a single culture. Not only are there countless ‘cultures’ all over the world, but the question remains: are the women of countries part of this ‘culture’, even if the culture allows them no choice or freedom? Can they choose which traditions to align with? Nussbaum argues that real culture contains plurality and adaptability. Although a universalist approach does have flaws, it is necessary to choose a path and develop it as well as possible. She outlines a list of ‘central capabilities’; Functions without which a life cannot be regarded as “fully human”:

  • Life

  • Bodily health

  • Bodily integrity

  • Sense, imagination, thought

  • Emotions

  • Practical reason

  • Affiliation(care of)

  • Other species

  • Play

  • Control over environment (political and material)

The list of central human functioning focuses on human continuity and inclusions, and is meant to have cross-cultural applicability. It is built on an overlapping consensus of functions that are necessary in order to have a good life. Its goal is not survival – its goal is unviolated dignity, and the ability for citizens to judge for themselves what is important and choose the “good life”.

#techwomenafrica convention, connecting women to a common goal

Traditional, preference (to males)- based approaches are likely to be subversive to the lives of women. As Nussbaum states, women should have a comparable degree of freedom to plan and execute her life. A woman’s affiliation with a group/culture should not be taken as normative for her. Returning to the power/knowledge discourse, those in power (men) deny women humanness: this creates a knowledge that women are “less than” and rationalise their treatment. There exist contingencies of where one is born, and there is a denial of support for central functions of women because they are women. Nussbaum finishes her chapter with a powerful idea: the unequal failure of women is a problem of justice.

Reflection: How does Nussbaum’s capabilities approach fit into human rights discourse?

I find it difficult to criticise Nussbaum’s work. She is clear, concise, and backs up her arguments with not only evidence from other scholars and statistics, but with hands-on research that she has conducted. Nussbaum’s chapter fits perfectly into human rights discourse, and her participation on United Nations councils suggests she is familiar with this, yet she does not mention human rights in her article. The capabilities approach is a human development framework, but it differs from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a couple of ways, which expose the UDHR’s failings. Firstly, the UDHR measures in function, not opportunity. It is a code, not a guiding list; for example, article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The UDHR presents end functions that leave no room for cultural pluralism. Nussbaum uses the capabilities approach to develop a guide for how states can achieve end functions. Secondly, the capabilities approach does not consider mere survival its goal: its goal in human thriving and the “good life”. Nussbaum says that all humans, including women, have the right to choose their own happiness. This is quite different than prior human rights conceptualisations, which circle on basic survival and do not go further than abstract “freedom of thought”. Nussbaum suggests that humans should not only be able to think these thoughts, but to act upon them in creating their “good life”. Nussbaum’s development of the capabilities approach fits into human rights discourse, challenging fundamental notions of male preference and furthering human rights past survival and into the achievement of flourishing peoples.


1: The capabilities approach implies that capabilities are not just “a means to an end”. What is the importance of capability as a political goal instead of function?

2: Should a woman automatically be affiliated with the culture that she is born into? Why or why not?

3: Nussbaum acknowledges that the capabilities approach is a universalist approach that could be considered by some as Western or imperialist. Does the list of central capabilities leave enough room for cultural difference and pluralist interpretation? Are there any specific capabilities which do or do not?

4: Thinking back to the articles of the UDHR, are there any capabilities that are not included on the list of central capabilities that should be? 

5: Nussbaum explain that the central list of capabilities is a list of goals, and that it serves as a guide for politics to place as many people as possible into a state of capability to function. What would need to change in your community / city / country for the central capabilities to be achieved?

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