“Analysis of Nussbaum’s List of “Central Human Functional Capabilities” as they relate to Dehumanization and Feminist Theory”

Martha C. Nussbaum, wrote an essay titled, “Women and Cultural Universals,” which was presented in Chapter 22 of the text book “Feminist Theory: A Philosophical Anthology,” by Ann E. Cudd and Robin O. Andreasen.   Nussbaum in her essay presented a list to describe “The Capabilities Approach,” or the “Central Human Functional Capabilities,” which had to do with a measurement of quality of life and became relevant to goals in public policy. “The Capabilities” are listed as follows: 1) Life, 2) Bodily health and integrity, 3) Bodily integrity, 4) Senses, imagination and thought, 5) Emotions, 6) Practical reason, 7) Affiliation, 8) Other species, 9) Play, 10) Control over one’s environment. “In this essay, I will argue that, though Nussbaum defends the Capabilities Approach well, there are additional arguments she could have made (which this essay will provide) that will highlight areas for which “The Capabilities Approach” does not cover.”

Nussbaum illustrated two examples early in her essay of Becker and the other of Rawls. Becker in regards to “The Capabilities Approach,” she described as interested in satisfaction of preference or desire, altruistic heads of families and the maximization of utility and family interests. Rawls, on the other hand views of capacity has to do with liberty and opportunity, income, wealth and resources.

These two examples of Becker and Rawls illustrate that capabilities can be defined in vastly different terms and Nussbaum’s “Capabilities Approach” list may be basic and necessary, but not sweeping.

Nussbaum wrote briefly about the “To do” and the “To be,” which relates to things like work, or career, or labor or also to esteem, existentialism, and education. The “To do” and “To Be” were not extensively supported in “The Capabilities Approach” which appears to address more basic needs and rights driven however offers some protectionary measures. Labor and “division along gender lines” is discussed in Nussbaum’s essay and labor perhaps represents a sad indicator or disassociation between merit and work.

According to Nussbaum’s research, a life that does not possess, “The Central Human Functional Capabilities,” will not be a “good” human life. A life that does not possess the central themes illustrated for capacity or steps outside this range of capacity, may be dehumanized. All women may not possess, the “Central Human Functional Capacities” which would indicate that some women may be experiencing dehumanization and be regarded as oppressed. Here is an area where one can begin to draw lines between oppressed and not oppressed, those within these margins and those clearly outside. It appears that Nussbaum built “The Capabilities Approach” list to draw margins for oppression and humanization.

Establishment of judicial rights may need to integrate ideas from a basic list such as Nussbaum’s list of “Capabilities” in order to protect women and virtually everyone. Nussbaum argues that “The Capabilities Approach,” should be a goal of public policy.

Basic capacity becomes a necessity, when “incorrect emotion” is evident, as was exemplified by American slavery. When one group may assert itself, against another group and plan for oppressed conditions, it may then become imperative in regards to these base conditions to invest in a “Capabilities Approach” Research.

People require a basic design to meet humanistic standards. When pieces of this basic design are absent we move outside the boundaries of humanization or become, dehumanized. “The Capabilities Approach” necessity becomes accelerated in the presence of for example: slavery, misogyny or tyrannical force- when some or all of capabilities tenants are missing.

One approach is to box up the “Capabilities Approach as “public policy” and “humanization” and apply it against another box that is “dehumanization,” to decipher whether this “Capabilities Approach” outlined by Nussbaum is comprehensive, somewhat effective, effective or not effective. One approach will be to juxtapose the below list of common examples of dehumanization from literature that serves as subsequent dehumanization in education, that becomes how people think and exist.

The following list deals with specific common use terms and lexicon that writers and even feminists utilize that may effectively write dehumanization into history.

A reference commonly used in feminist literature is “Third World” including by Alison M. Jaggar in her essay “Saving Amina”: Global Justice for Women and Intercultural Dialogue.”

In Jaggar’s essay: “The image of Amina Lawal that flashed around the world in 2004 shows a beautiful African woman…..portrayed in bare feet as illiterate, she epitomizes the image of the oppressed “Third World woman” described by Mohanty.” In a second example where Jaggar employed the term “Third World,” “…to avoid forthright condemnation of injustice to women in developing or “Third World,” countries. It becomes in the first quote a description associated to an African woman that is derogatory (illiteracy and poverty) and in the second quote, “Third World,” is further associated to developing countries. Jaggar employed the term “Third World,” casually and often in her essay which would indicate the designation to a lower status of a specific group. Jaggar’s essay illustrated a position of rampant and overt racism, however buried in jargon. The example of “Third World,” was used to illustrate dehumanization in literature and for a future task to measure it against Nussbaum’s “Capabilities Approach,” to see if in fact, it is effective to eradicate conditions, even those in literature which represent dehumanization. If this, “The Capabilities Approach” were applied to public policy would it be adequate?

Clearly, it would not. It would serve a human to be only an existing human and protect a spectrum of this human’s issues, however “The Capabilities Approach” does not in fact eliminate dehumanization.

Another example of commonplace dehumanization is with the terminology of “Western” and “non-Western.” The first example is a quote from Jaggar’s essay in regards to an assertion she makes about “non-Western” cultures:

Jaggar claims that “Nussbaum and Okin both identify them-selves as liberal feminists, but both follow the radical feminists in staunchly opposing what they see as the oppression of women in non-Western cultures.”

In the above example, Jaggar expressed that she felt women in non-Western cultures are “oppressed.”

In another quote in Jaggar’s essay she wrote, “Western is influenced by Marxist critique of idealogy.”

In a third quote by Jaggar:

“What Narayan calls the colonialists stance presents Western cultures as dynamic, progressive and egalitarian, while portraying non-Western cultures as backward, barbaric and patriarchal.”

Three quotes by Jaggar:

“Treating discrimination and violence against women as intrinsic parts of non-Western cultures.”

“Western powers were engaged in slavery and colonization, or they had resisted granting political and civil rights even to large numbers of Western subjects including women.”

“Second the turning to poor women in poor countries, it’s hard to deny that Western powers are disproportionately responsible for designing, imposing and enforcing a global economic order that continues to widen the staggering gap between rich and poor countries.”

What becomes evident from the weaving of all these quotes is there is a specific group associated to slavery on Earth (Western). The specific group lives somewhere and had specific economic ideas they imposed on several cultures they will describe as “non-Western.”

“Third World”, “Western and non-Western” and even the term “privileged”- are associated to racist ideas which is documented by their presence in most, if not all cases. Other terminology common in literature that may inspire scrutiny are terms like “left” and “class” and even Marxist Theory which deals largely with ideas about class.

Examples of terminology and theory used in literature are cited to ascertain if what we have as real and tangible dehumanization can be eradicated by “The Capabilities Approach.” Does “The Capabilities Approach” suggest “incapability” was commonplace or does “The Capability Approach” indirectly suggest slavery? Capability means also incapability as an option or history. When I measure real and tangible examples of dehumanization next to Nussbaum’s model for Capability it seems as though Nussbaum is giving, some rights to a slave, not concretely protecting someone from dehumanization. It is as if, it was an afterthought, humanization of the human.

The list of Capabilities may have “beauty” and be similar to a “Bill of Rights,” or a “Constitution” or a “Theory for Divine Order of Being.” Regardless if Nussbaum is previously associated to slavery or embedded in the solution, “The Capabilities Approach” list begins a dialog around rights.

How does “The Capabilities Approach” measure up to “Discrimination” which Iris Marion Young, in her essay “Five Faces of Oppression,” said had to do “with exclusion of an individual from a position or activity.” “The Capabilities Approach” does not seem to protect against discrimination at all.

Young makes it clear in her essay that enjoyment of oppression may have to do with the maintenance of a ruling class.

The following are three quotes from Iris Marion Young in her essay, “Five Faces of Oppression,” that illustrate Young’s ideas about servitude:

1) According to Young, “In its derivation “menial” means the labor of servants.”

2) Wherever there is racism including in the US today, there is the assumption, more of less enforced, that members of the oppressed racial groups ought to be servants of those, or some of those, in the privileged group.”

3) “In the US today much service labor has gone public: Anybody can have servants if they go to a good hotel, a good restaurant, or hire a cleaning service.”

Young may have arcane ideas about service by people which may be included in her essay to maintain a feeling of superiority? The Feminist Movement may have been deeply tied to people who were utilizing superiority ideas and directed women’s issues towards hierarchy and equality instead of legitimate alleviation and solution. “The Capabilities Approach” in the face of subordination or servitude is also ineffective.


If one were to gravitate away from hierarchy driven initiatives and place the onus elsewhere and look to accurately reverse dehumanization, what would be the necessary measures be that would need to be implemented?

“The Capabilities Approach” does not impact dehumanizing language or lexicons, or discrimination or servitude, which in their totality represent prominent issues for dehumanization. “The Capabilities Approach” seems to teeter on that first rung and identify life and basic human needs, if not the most basic humanity.

“The Capabilities Approach” would be useful, for those just exiting slavery, who may not really clearly comprehend humanity. However, the range of modern problems with which people are faced requires dynamic solutions and reversals. “The Capabilities Approach” does have value and I do not know if it excluded ideas from Becker and Rawls and if so why? Nussbaum highlighted ideas about capacity, labor and gender lines but also excluded these from “The Capabilities Approach.” Nussbaum’s “Capabilities Approach” does serve as a basis from which public policy could be derived, however there are additional arguments she could have made that would highlight areas for which “The Capabilities Approach” does not cover.


Cudd, Ann E. & Andreasen, Robin O., Feminist Theory:  A Philosophical Anthology, Blackwell Publishing, 2005

Eastern Michigan University, Philosophy Dept., Feminist Theory with Professor Peter Higgins, Spring term 2015

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.