Note: This is the fifth in a series of posts, the whole of which is an article by Martha Nussbaum. The article, entitled "Women’s Bodies: Violence, Security, Capabilities," appeared in the Journal of Human Development (Vol. 6, No. 2, July 2005). Comments are encouraged on parts or on the whole.
Refining the capabilities approach
Conceptually, then, the capabilities approach is well placed to diagnose, analyze, and address the problems of violence against women. That is of course no accident, since in both Sen’s formulation and in my own the approach was developed with women’s capabilities prominently in view and with women’s equality a central goal. Now, however, I would like to argue that there are some further philosophical developments and refinements that the approach requires if it is to address these issues in a perspicuous and helpful way. I see three such developments.
The first of these is already under way in both Sen’s work and my own, but it needs emphasis, and it no doubt will need further argument as time goes on. This is that the approach needs to come up with good responses to cultural relativism and traditionalism, which are currently used to resist women’s demand for an end to violence against them, especially violence within the family. Yasmin Erturk writes that “the greatest challenge to women’s rights comes from the doctrine of cultural relativism” (2003). Radhika Coomaraswamy, similarly, writes that the forms of violence that are linked to “notions of culture” are “tenacious and extremely difficult to eradicate” (2002). And she links to this observation the persuasive claim that “many of the cultural practices that are violent toward women are rooted in the control of female sexuality and the emotional lives of women. In some societies, women’s emotional and sexual expressions are seen as grave threats to the social fabric and a challenge to the social order… It is only when women’s sexual autonomy is accepted and respected that many of the cultural practices that are violent toward women will be eradicated” (Coomaraswamy, 2002). For some years Sen and I have been arguing against cultural relativism and in favor of the view that capabilities have intrinsic importance (Nussbaum and Sen, 1993; Nussbaum and Glover, 1995; Sen, 1995). Nonetheless, we must continue to make such arguments and to search for the best ones.
What are the strongest such arguments? First, we should begin by criticizing the relativist notion of cultures as homogeneous monoliths, with a single set of norms. Cultures are scenes of debate and contestation. All contain a plurality of voices, and in all the voices of the powerful are most easily heard. Thus the appeal to culture, if it does not seek out the voices of those who are powerless, or afraid to speak, is just an appeal to existing power — and why should that have moral authority? If the appeal to culture does recognize plurality and contestation, then it gives us no answers, only questions (Nussbaum, 2000, ch. 1).
Second, we should go on to scrutinize the relativist’s argument. What is it? It must be either a descriptive or a normative thesis. If it is a descriptive thesis — that people do make moral decisions in accordance with local tradition — it is descriptively false. People fight tradition all the time, and women especially often. In any case, to the extent that people do defer to culture, this gives us no reason to criticize those who do not defer. Suppose, however, that the relativist’s claim is a normative thesis: people ought to make decisions in accordance with local traditions. Besides being incoherent in the way I have mentioned (since culture is plural and a scene of struggle), this normative claim simply prompts the question ‘Why?’ Why should women defer? No good reason has been given.
Suppose the relativist now says that we should defer to local traditions out of respect for difference and plurality. First, respect and relativism are very different, because real respect for difference requires unwavering and non-relativistic protection for the freedoms of speech, association, and conscience, and the material factors that undergird these. These norms are not validated by lots of the world’s traditions, so relativism does not entail them (Nussbaum, 2003b). Second, not all differences are worth preserving. We might judge that respect for difference requires the preservation of languages, or crafts — but domestic violence? Differences that inflict pain and harm should be eradicated (Nussbaum, 2000, ch. 1).
Now to my second large philosophical issue: I believe that the rejection of relativism, on which Sen and I agree, is naturally linked to an issue on which he and I have differed; that is, the importance of endorsing unequivocally a definite list of capabilities as goals for international society (Nussbaum, 2003b). Like the international human rights movement, I am very definite about content, suggesting that a particular list of capabilities ought to be used to define a minimum level of social justice, and ought to
be recognized and given something like constitutional protection in all nations. As I say, this is exactly the procedure of the international human rights movement, which wants to establish an agreed list of rights and then get them incorporated into domestic law through treaty ratification or the idea of customary international law. Now of course some human rights instruments, or my capabilities list, might be wrong in detail, and that is why I have continually insisted that the list is a proposal for further debate and argument, not a confident assertion. But it is quite another thing to say that one should not endorse any definite content and should leave it up to democratic debate in each nation to settle content. In the sense of implementation and concrete specification, of course, I do so: no nation is going to be invaded because its law of rape gives women inadequate protection against spousal violence (Nussbaum, 2003b). (Although I note that if we look at the number of women killed because they are women, we should really be thinking of the international definition of genocide, and wondering why the international community never thinks of systematic killings of females as genocide in these terms.) Sen’s opposition to the cultural defense of practices harmful to women seems to me to be in
considerable tension with his all-purpose endorsement of capability as freedom (Sen, 1999), his unwillingness to say that some freedoms are good and some bad, some important and some trivial.
When we think about violence against women, we see that democratic deliberation has done a bad job so far with this problem. To the extent that there is progress, it is because of the ceaseless harping of the international women’s movement— in official documents, in statements, in the work of the Special Rapporteur, and so on — defending a very definite set of rights for women. I view my work on the capabilities list as allied to their efforts, and I am puzzled about why definiteness about content in the international arena should be thought to be a pernicious inhibition of democratic deliberation, rather than a radical challenge to the world’s democracies to do their job better. Surely a vague appeal to freedom does no work in this area. For if women are to be secure from violence, many
cherished freedoms will have to be abridged, and we will have to be prepared to say of the freedom to have non-consensual intercourse with one’s wife, the freedom to harass women in the workplace, those are not the good freedoms, those are not the ones that enter into the basic set of entitlements in a just society. And if we want to defend coercive laws against sexual harassment, marital rape, and so on, we will have to say, on the other side: the freedoms we are protecting here are fundamental. They are entitlements of all citizens based on justice, and women so far do not have them.
The third and final point I would make about future development of the capabilities approach is that the approach must become less nationcentered than it has been up until now in most versions, and cultivate a rich account of the international public sphere and of what richer nations owe to poorer nations (Nussbaum, 2005). The international public sphere is a crucial part of solving these problems, and women’s security issues clearly require cooperative international action. They also require economic redistribution, since, as I am about to argue, one of the best ways of working against violence is through forms of economic empowerment, which, in turn, require a robust economy. In general, promoting the central capabilities for all world citizens requires cooperative international thought and considerable redistribution. What is true in general is true in particular for women, whose access to employment is often inhibited by systemic problems in a nation, as well as by more easily remediable bad practices. (Women in Kerala get educated — but then, they often cannot find jobs, and many of them end up as sex workers in Delhi.)