Martha Nussbaum Transcript: Capabilities Approach and The Role of Public Services

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Professor Martha Nussbaum: Capabilities Approach and The Role of Public Services


This is a transcript taken from the Youtube presentation ‘Professor Martha Nussbaum: Capabilities Approach and The Role of Public Services. It’s specific focus is the relationship between Rabindranath Tagore’s work and the Human Capabilities approach developed by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen.


Professor Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago is one of the world´s leading thinkers on multiculturalism, humanities and human development. She is widely recognized for her work on the capability approach, a theory on good life focusing on what individuals are actually able to be and do which has been highly influential amongst others in development policy.


Nussbaum (2000) frames basic principles for good life in terms of 10 capabilities, i.e. real opportunities. She claims that a political order can only be considered as being decent if this order secures at least a threshold level of these 10 capabilities to all citizens.


The ten capabilities are:

1. Life

2. Bodily Health

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


1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.


2. Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health;83 to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.


3. Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; having one’s bodily boundaries treated as sovereign, i.e. being able to be secure against assault, including sexual assault, child sexual abuse, and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.


4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason – and to do these things in a ‘‘truly human’’ way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training.


Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing self-expressive works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to search for the ultimate meaning of life in one’s own way. Being able to have pleasurable experiences, and to avoid non-necessary pain.


5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by overwhelming fear and anxiety, or by traumatic events of abuse or neglect. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)


6. Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience.)


7. Affiliation. A. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for that situation; to have the capability for both justice and friendship. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)


B. Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails, at a minimum, protections against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, caste, ethnicity, or national origin.84 In work, being able to work as a human being, exer- cising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.


8. Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.


9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.


10. Control over One’s Environment.

  • A. Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of
    political participation, protections of free speech and association.
  • B. Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), not just formally but in terms of real opportunity; and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure.


Nussbaum M. C. (2000). Women and human development : the capabilities approach. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved September 28 2022 from Page 78


Professor Nussbaum´s adaptation on the capability approach forms the basis for City of Helsinki´s work with young people. Helsinki publishes annually a report on young people´s capabilities, which leads to priorisation on young people´s services. Helsinki´s Director of Youth Affairs Tommi Laitio interviews Professor Nussbaum on the role of public services in fostering decent life and on the role of arts and culture.


The event is hosted by the Helsinki Youth Department in collaboration with the University of Helsinki and ArtsEqual research project (University of the Arts Helsinki). The audience is encouraged to participate in the discussion. The event is held in English but questions and comments can be raised in Finnish. The event can be followed live online and can be watched afterwards by going to the website of the ArtsEqual project (


The below transcript is made from 33 min 7 secs to 39 min 49 secs.


Interviewer: There’s been some critical voices saying that the capabilities approach or the other list is a Western concept of good life; how do you answer that crisis ?


Martha Nussbaum: Well you know I mean of course it’s just factually false. It was made up by an Indian, namely Amartya Sen, and in our association we have people from 80 countries and the intellectual leaders have also come from many, many countries and we deliberately have the meeting in different countries.


The chief economist of the World Bank right now Kaushik Basu, is a Capability economist who’s Indian; again a lot of South Asians, just because that discourse was especially well developed in Bangladesh in India and Pakistan. Mahbub ul Haq who created the Human Development List was a Pakistani economist so you know, that just happens to be a particularly large home for that and I think there’s a very clear reason for that…


…because in the Bengali Enlightenment Rabindranath Tagore was a leading theorist who already had these concepts well developed – I think much more than any Western philosopher – but so it’s factually false; but it’s also important to us to constantly seek out new inputs from other places and this is why last year we had our meeting in the US; that’s the first time in ages we’ve done that because it’s very difficult for people from other countries to get visas to come so it’s not a good place to have a meeting but anyway this year it’s in Japan, next year its in South Africa we’ve had meetings, two meetings, in Latin America; we’ve had meetings in India – yeah so we move around and we really, really try not to stick to Europe and North America.


The other thing is that I know that criticism I think is not correct, even about human rights – and you hear it much more often with the Human Rights approach – Amartya has written very well about how the idea of Human Rights has its roots in Indian traditions and Chinese traditions and so on, but the idea of capabilities is even more obviously not tainted in that way because it’s just this human idea – ‘What am I able to do in what country ?’; may I ask, does somebody not ask that question ?


…and it’s a question you know I go around and I talk to women in development projects; women who haven’t learned to read and write; they couldn’t be influenced by any particular kind of philosophy, but of course they want to know what they could do and what good activists typically urge them to do is – I mean this is pre-theoretical – entirely because these activists themselves are not trained in philosophy; they ask them to draw a map of the power structure of their village and showing where what they can do, and what they can’t do and that’s just a very natural human question.


Interviewer: Do I sense that you’re slightly frustrated by this crazy


Martha Nussbaum: No, I mean, I don’t think it’s a very helpful criticism. I mean the further thing to say is that if something originates in one place that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t borrow it and adapt it to their own cultural context. Obviously a lot of our ideas are Indian and Rabindranath Tagore was a particularly large source of inspiration in fact for the Handbook on Capabilities I’m writing about; and you know, insofar as Aristotle comes into it, Aristotle is mediated by the humanists Marxists and by Tagore and lots of other people in different countries but why not borrow something if you think that it’s good ?


…and I certainly do that all the time so I don’t really, no. I think no one really believes that it’s right for people to use only those ideas that their local culture already has, even to the extent that they would try to say that. Of course most cultures have a lot more ideas than you would recognize, if you only read the dominant male writings of those traditions because women’s voices have not been recorded, poor people’s voices have not been recorded; and so before they could even phrase their objection they would have to try to hear all the voices and then they would get a tumultuous debate; they would not just get a single view that looks very different from the Western view


Interviewer: This kind of the standard or the dominant well kind of approaches to well-being and they dominate our politics in most countries put a lot of emphasis on let’s say health services and social services you’ve talked a lot about the arts and the importance of the Arts how do you how do you think that the the arts create capabilities ?


Martha Nussbaum: Well I think any political culture needs human beings to care about it if it’s ever going to come into being, and once it comes into being, if it’s ever going to remain stable over time; I think you can’t even say that this is a good political conception without showing that it has ingredients in it that make it possible for it to sustain itself over time – and so this is really what my book ‘Political Emotions’ is about, that all decent societies need to attend to the emotions. Now it’s obvious in a context of coming into being – let’s say Gandhi’s Freedom Movement – that the arts play a huge role. I mean Gandhi knew you didn’t just give people little sermons but you engaged with them in singing, dance was not his particular thing, but he did turn to Tagore for the songs that the people in his movement use.


Tagore believed that dance was the great source of empowerment for women because until they could move their bodies freely they wouldn’t be able to be free citizens and so he wrote very well about that. In fact Amartya Sen’s mother was one of his leading dancers and she wrote a whole book about that which is only available in India, so I try to quote large chunks of it in the things that I write.


Yes, so the arts in many ways; now there are lots of different arts that play a role and obviously music is great because everyone can join in near and far and it’s possible to go outside the local culture and everyone is singing the same song. Visual art obviously has spatial limitations but I talk a lot in the book about how cities in particular can use powerful examples of public sculpture and public art or festivals that bring people together and use the arts in order to sort of affirm the values of the political culture.