Vulnerability and Flourishing—Martha Nussbaum

26.10.2017 |

Episode #7 of the course Women in philosophy by Will Buckingham


One of the most significant contemporary women philosophers is Martha Nussbaum, whose wide-ranging philosophy covers topics as diverse as social justice, genetics, sex, Greek thought, and the importance of liberal education. Nussbaum is also very active in public debate and policy and regularly writes for the popular press. Because of the breadth of her work, she is a very difficult philosopher to summarize. But perhaps one good starting point is to say that what unites all of Nussbaum’s work is a deep concern with the relationship between philosophy and the practical business of human life, whether this is one’s personal life or the question of how we organize ourselves as a society.


Vulnerability and Flourishing

Two of Nussbaum’s central concerns are that of flourishing and that of vulnerability. The idea of flourishing has a long history, coming from Aristotle (where it is called eudaimonia). A life of eudaimonia is a life in which one fulfils one’s potential as a human being. The idea of vulnerability is born out of the insight that human beings are soft, capable of being wounded. Nussbaum says we are more “plant-like” than “jewel-like.” The plant metaphor suggests how vulnerability and flourishing may be connected: It is precisely because a plant is soft, living tissue that it can flourish. Jewels don’t flourish; they just sit there.


Rethinking Society

Recognizing this fundamental vulnerability has profound implications. In her book, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, Nussbaum calls for “a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable, and who discard the grandiose demands for omnipotence and completeness that have been at the heart of so much human misery.” This may all sound a little soft-focus. But Nussbaum is a remarkably rigorous philosopher. If vulnerability is a basic human fact, this means that any social institutions that do not take this vulnerability into account need to be systematically rethought. What would law look like if we took this seriously? What about education?


Capabilities Approach

Along with economist Amartya Sen, Nussbaum has also developed what is known as the “capabilities approach” to human and social development. For Nussbaum and Sen, any idea of development—whether at the level of individual lives or at the level of societies—that is concerned with economic measures alone is going to be inadequate. The “capabilities” could perhaps be seen as the freedoms we can have to flourish in particular ways.

According to Nussbaum, the core capabilities are these: life; bodily health and bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; the freedom to affiliate with others; the ability to live in relation to other non-human beings (animals, plants, the environment); play; and control over one’s own environment.

For Nussbaum, any political or social system that cares about human flourishing should attend to all of these core capabilities. A society committed to flourishing would, in some ways, look very different from our present-day society. Nussbaum has argued for reform in education and in law and a serious rethinking of how we make both moral and legal judgments. In particular, she argues against legal decision-making based upon moral disgust, arguing that this disgust is inherently irrational and has been used throughout history as a pretext for persecution of minority groups.

Tomorrow, we are moving on to a philosopher who has actively engaged in public debate with Nussbaum: Judith Butler.


Further learning

Nussbaum’s essay, “Beyond Anger” on Aeon Magazine

“The Philosopher of Feelings” by Rachel Aviv—a good profile of Nussbaum in The New Yorker


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