August 8, 2005

Aristotle and Human Rights

In her article, "Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings", Martha Nussbaum attempts to list a series of basic human capabilities that are necessary for a truly human life. By ennumerating these capabilities, she is trying to show that human rights can be considered in light of what makes us truly human. In doing so, she is attempting a neo-Aristotelian justification for human rights, a project that I applaud and of which I consider myself a strong supporter. However, there are some bizarre oversights in her list that I believe are a result of an unsuccessful attempt to merge Aristotelian ethics with Rawlsian liberalism.

1) A Right to Sex? One of the bizarre inclusions of Nussbaum's article is the right to satisfy sexual desire. This is included among rights such as those for food, shelter, mobility and interaction with nature. This has several repercussions. First of all, she is claiming that people who are not sexually active are not living good lives. This is not so much bizarre as empirically false. Second, by putting "opportunities for sexual satisfaction" among basic rights such as food and interaction with nature, governments would need to provide sex to citizens who cannot attain it themselves, perhaps through state-sponsored prostitution. Of course, she does not suggest this, but it is necessitated by her claim that such opportunities are a basic human right. Third, she believes that "choice in matters of reproduction", by which I assume she means abortion and contraception, is required for this right. This in no way follows. A right to do something does not mean a right to do something without consequences. This is equivalent to arguing that the right to food entails the right to liposuction, since the right to food entails the right to eat as much chocolate cake as I like without consequences.

2) Where is parenthood? In a list of human capabilities that include everything from interaction with nature to laughter, leaving off the human capability to create and nurture other human lives is striking. The fact that human beings can create other human beings through an act of love, and that half of us can provide shelter and food for them inside their own bodies and then feed them from their own bodies is a fairly remarkable capacity. Moreover, parents feed, clothe, shelter and educate young people who are entirely dependant on them. Family only gets mentioned as a near afterthought in her discussion of "associations", associations that only garner rights of speech and association. My guess is that the asymmetrical male and female capacities with respect to reproduction did not fit Nussbaum's thesis that males and females have all the same capacities and this caused her to leave it off the list. However, in a list intended to provide an exhaustive set of important human capacities and therefore rights, to leave off parenthood is indefensible.

3) Capacity vs. Activity. If I can describe Nussbaum's overall project, it is to reconcile Aristotelian ethics with political liberalism (I believe she sees Aristotle as an alternative to liberalism, but her usual argument is that she addresses liberal concerns better than liberals do). Aristotle makes a distinction between a capacity and an activity. For example, it is one thing to be able to run and another to actually run. Happiness is not virtue, but virtuous activity. All of Nussbaum's examples are not of goods that are goods merely because they are capacities; they are good because they are activities. It is not merely good to be able to eat; it is good to eat. Aristotle envisions a state that rewards good activities in order to encourage them. Nussbaum, however, only envisions a state that enables good capacities and then leaves people free to decide how to use them. In her defence, this freedom is intended as an exercise of practical reason or phronesis, but it ignores Aristotle's claim that phronesis requires the co-existence of moral virtues that are developed through habits shaped by rewards and punishments. Ultimately, a state that schizophrenically holds certain things to be good and then does nothing to encourage them would be untenable.

4) Where is theoria? Nussbaum's account of the good life excludes any heroic virtue. However, this excludes any genuine transformative effects of philosophy or religion. This appears to be what happens when Aristotle's account of happiness bumps up against democracy; it becomes a few natural goods plus the ability to do what we want. This is most striking in her discussion of phronesis. The only intellectual virtue that Nussbaum recognises is practical reason. However, Aristotle devoted about half of books VI and X of the Nicomachean Ethics to theoria, usually translated "contemplation". Aristotle recognised that we do not just wish to know so that we can make practical decisions, but that we wish to know for its own sake, and that knowledge of the world, of philosophy and of God is the highest fulfillment of our reason. Our other goods are subordinate to this and, while we should fulfill all our human capacities, this is the highest capacity. Nussbaum has a very deflated definition of human happiness, as it applies only to what Aristotle called the moral virtues or aretai ethicai. Any transformed or contemplative life, on her account, would be unhappy, including John Paul II, because he didn't have sex or Saint Francis, because he didn't own any property.

I certainly consider myself a supporter of Nussbaum's attempt to ground human rights in an Aristotelian theory of human goods. However, her attempts to merge Aristotle with Rawlsian liberal democracy just aren't working.

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