Philosophical Books 48 (4):376-81 (2007)
Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, by Martha Nussbaum, Harvard University Press, 2006. How should we measure human development? The most popular method used to be to focus on wealth and income, as when international development agencies rank countries according to their per capita gross domestic product. Critics, however, have long noted shortcomings with this approach. Consider for example a wealthy person in a wheelchair: her problem is not a financial one, but a lack of access to public spaces. Even if she were to hire porters to carry her in and out of stores and libraries, that would not really address her situation. There is a basic sense of dignity and self-respect that comes with being able to move around on one’s own. Even for a disabled millionaire, that will only be possible when public buildings are wheelchair accessible. To fully grasp what the handicapped need, we have to look beyond purely economic measures of well-being, and take into account the actual capabilities people can exercise in their daily lives. The example of the well-off person in a wheelchair illustrates what Martha Nussbaum calls the capabilities approach to human development. It was first pioneered in economics by Amartya Sen (who came up with the wheelchair example), and Nussbaum has for years been associated with a more philosophical variation, which uses the idea of capabilities to outline basic political principles. In Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership Nussbaum takes this project even further, and applies the capabilities approach to issues of justice involving not only the disabled and the global poor, but animals as well.Yet for a philosophy called the capabilities approach, it is surprising how little theoretical work capabilities do in Nussbaum’s overall account.
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