Martha Nussbaum Criticism - Essay

Jasper Griffin (review date 4 July 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Griffin, Jasper. “Mastering the Irrational.” Times Literary Supplement (4 July 1986): 730.

[In the following review, Griffin asserts that The Fragility of Goodness is an important, ambitious book that is both formidably intelligent and persuasively emotional.]

The subject of this long and closely written book [The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy] (small type and large pages—561 of them) is an ambitious one: an investigation of the role played by luck in the area of human excellence and the activities associated with it. That means the whole nexus of questions about the role in moral thinking and in the...

(The entire section is 1784 words.)

Bernard Knox (review date 4 December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Knox, Bernard. “The Theater of Ethics.” New York Review of Books (4 December 1986): 51-6.

[In the following review, Knox asserts that Nussbaum's The Fragility of Goodness is unique in that it includes expert analysis of both philosophical and tragic literary texts. Knox observes that the book is intellectually demanding as well as richly rewarding.]

“There is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” says Plato's Socrates, as, in Book X of the Republic, he reconfirms his decision to banish Homer and the tragic poets from his ideal city. And indeed it is true that long before Plato such philosophers as Xenophanes and Heraclitus had...

(The entire section is 7646 words.)

Bernard Knox (review date 25 November 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Knox, Bernard. “The Heart Has Its Reasons.” Washington Post Book World (25 November 1990): 1, 10.

[In the following review, Knox asserts that the essays in Love's Knowledge are persuasive, lucidly written, and accessible to a general readership.]

What is one to make of a book called Love's Knowledge that offers detailed critical analyses of Platonic and Aristotelian ethical theory, critical discussions of Henry James's Golden Bowl, Ambassadors and Princess Casamàssima as well as of Beckett, Dickens and Proust, and also calls in to support its argument such texts as Homer's Odyssey and Sophocles's “Women of Trachis,”...

(The entire section is 1061 words.)

Gordon D. Marino (review date 7 December 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Marino, Gordon D. Review of Love's Knowledge, by Martha Nussbaum. America (7 December 1991): 442-43.

[In the following review of Love's Knowledge, Marino observes that Nussbaum presents a strong case for expanding the concept of moral philosophy to include literature.]

In her earlier work, The Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum gracefully established the futility of reading Plato and Aristotle in isolation from Greek tragedy. In Love's Knowledge, Nussbaum continues her reflections on the relationship between philosophy and literature. For those concerned with the rank order of disciplines, Nussbaum, professor of philosophy and...

(The entire section is 735 words.)

Mary Sirridge (review date winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sirridge, Mary. Review of Love's Knowledge, by Martha Nussbaum. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 50, no. 1 (winter 1992): 61-5.

[In the following review, Sirridge asserts that Love's Knowledge lacks a clear central focus, and that Nussbaum's arguments are not persuasive because they are not based on sound philosophical foundations.]

Love's Knowledge is a collection of essays, many of which have been published previously. These essays have a common rationale, however, and represent collectively an effort to develop and conduct ethical investigations in the way in which Nussbaum thinks ethics should proceed: by bringing philosophical...

(The entire section is 3229 words.)

Donald G. Marshall (review date spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Marshall, Donald G. Review of Love's Knowledge, by Martha Nussbaum. Comparative Literature 46, no. 2 (spring 1994): 195-97.

[In the following review of Love's Knowledge, Marshall questions the theoretical and philosophical foundations of Nussbaum's arguments.]

Moral philosophy has flourished in recent years, and Martha Nussbaum has been one of its most vivid practitioners. Like several other philosophers, she argues [in Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature] that the attentive reading of literary works, specifically novels, is an indispensable aid for moral reflection. Ways of thinking and writing that developed in the...

(The entire section is 1239 words.)

Ronald L. Hall (essay date September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hall, Ronald L. “Transcending the Human: A Kierkegaardian Reading of Martha Nussbaum.” International Philosophical Quarterly 34, no. 3 (September 1994): 361-73.

[In the following essay, Hall discusses Kierkegaardian dialectics in relation to the philosophical ideas put forth by Nussbaum. Hall focuses particularly on Nussbaum's essay “Transcending Humanity” and Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.]


In this essay, I propose to show that and how Kierkegaardian dialectics can be put to hermeneutical good work. My immediate purpose is to show this in relation to the thought of a contemporary American philosopher, Martha...

(The entire section is 7664 words.)

Robert P. George (essay date winter 1995-96)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: George, Robert P. “‘Shameless Acts’ Revisited: Some Questions for Martha Nussbaum.” Academic Questions 9, no. 1 (winter 1995-96): 24-42.

[In the following essay, George puts forth a critique of Nussbaum's expert testimony in a court case, Evans v. Romer, concerning the rights of homosexuals.]

Author's Note: This article is dedicated to the late Barry Gross, whose devotion to the ideal of scholarly integrity was exemplary, and who insisted that the matters discussed in this article not be passed over in silence.

In Evans v. Romer, the Colorado Amendment 2 Case,1 so called, Martha Nussbaum, then...

(The entire section is 9985 words.)

Jack Abecassis (essay date September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Abecassis, Jack. “The Fragility of Philosophy: Passions, Ancient and Modern.” MLN 110, no. 4 (September 1995): 918-42.

[In the following essay, Abecassis compares Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire with Le Philosophe et les Passions by Michel Meyer, contending each examines the concept of passion in moral philosophy. Abecassis observes that Nussbaum's is a polemical book full of brilliant and insightful analysis.]

Les hommes sont si nécessairement fous, que ce serait être fou, par un autre tour de folie, de n'être pas fou.

Pascal, Pensées, B 414


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Maureen McLane (review date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McLane, Maureen. Review of Poetic Justice, by Martha Nussbaum. Chicago Review 42, no. 2 (spring 1996): 95-100.

[In the following review of Poetic Justice, McLane expresses admiration for Nussbaum's ideas, but points out various shortcomings in the author's arguments.]

The University of Chicago is perhaps better known as the home of Milton Friedman, patron saint and theorist of Reagan's revolution, than the habitus of Martha Nussbaum, philosopher and recently-appointed Professor of Law, Literature and Ethics at the Law and Divinity Schools of the University of Chicago. If we are lucky this reputation will change. Nussbaum's Poetic...

(The entire section is 2457 words.)

John Plotz (review date fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Plotz, John. “A Sympathetic Social Science.” Novel 30, no. 1 (fall 1996): 132-34.

[In the following review, Plotz asserts that Poetic Justice is persuasive and tremendously thought-provoking. Plotz, however, points out various flaws in Nussbaum's arguments, and contends that she fails to adequately develop the implications of her central ideas.]

Charles Dickens begins Bleak House with a lament that establishes the central importance of sympathy to the nineteenth-century novel: “nobody knew about Miss Flite, because nobody cared.” When he goes on to recount Miss Flite's fate—and Jo's death, and all the rest—in sometimes...

(The entire section is 1486 words.)

Daniel McInerny (essay date March 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McInerny, Daniel. “‘Divinity Must Live within Herself’: Nussbaum and Aquinas on Transcending the Human.” International Philosophical Quarterly 37, no. 1 (March 1997): 65-82.

[In the following essay, McInerny examines Nussbaum's thinking on transcendence and “virtue-ethics,” as expressed in her essay “Transcending Humanity.”]

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within...

(The entire section is 10469 words.)

Finbarr McCarthy (review date winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McCarthy, Finbarr. Review of Poetic Justice, by Martha Nussbaum. College Literature 25, no. 1 (winter 1998): 290-96.

[In the following review of Poetic Justice, McCarthy evaluates Nussbaum's arguments regarding the role of compassion in legal decisions made by judges.]

To learn how to regard others as fully human, to identify sympathetically with others the better to promote a vision of social justice as complex and democratic, legal thinkers, particularly judges, must, argues Martha Nussbaum in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, immerse themselves in literature. Particularly by reading such realist novels as Hard...

(The entire section is 3725 words.)

Dennis O'Brien (review date 10 April 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Brien, Dennis. “Socrates Didn't Have Tenure.” Commonweal 125, no. 7 (10 April 1998): 26-7.

[In the following review of Cultivating Humanity, O'Brien discusses the philosophy of Socrates in relation to Nussbaum's arguments about education.]

[In Cultivating Humanity] Martha Nussbaum, one of our most distinguished philosophers and classical scholars, has fashioned a “report card” on contemporary liberal education: not failure, certainly not a “gentleman's” C (politically incorrect), perhaps not A+, but very much alive and lively in an astonishing array of academic settings. Her reassurance about the vitality of liberal arts is...

(The entire section is 977 words.)

Henry S. Richardson (essay date October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Richardson, Henry S. “Nussbaum: Love and Respect.” Metaphilosophy 29, no. 4 (October 1998): 254-62.

[In the following essay, Richardson discusses the tension between concepts of love and respect in Nussbaum's theories of institutional justice.]

Immanuel Kant insisted that we must not regard human beings as subject only to the laws of empirical nature. Nonetheless, he admired the precise symmetries of Newton's celestial mechanics. In the striking passage in his Doctrine of Virtue which sets my theme, he applies a Newtonian analogy to relations among persons:

According to the principle of mutual love...

(The entire section is 3786 words.)

Bryan Appleyard (review date 9 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Appleyard, Bryan. “Well, Hello Dolly—and Goodbye.” New Statesman (9 October 1998): 45-6.

[In the following review of Clones and Clones, a collection of essays edited by Nussbaum and Cass R. Sunstein, Appleyard concludes that the book as a whole is not convincing.]

This book [Clones and Clones] contains a great comic sentence. It is at the start of Richard Dawkins' essay, “What's Wrong with Cloning?” Here it is (the punchline is the parenthesis): “Science and logic cannot tell us what is right and what is wrong (Dawkins, 1998).” So there you have it: the great crisis of the Enlightenment, the shocking thought that an “ought”...

(The entire section is 1083 words.)

George Scialabba (review date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Scialabba, George. “Pollyanna and Cassandra.” Dissent (fall 1998): 128-31.

[In the following review, Scialabba discusses two books on the dwindling status of classical Greek in higher education: Cultivating Humanity by Nussbaum, and Who Killed Homer?, by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath. Scialabba comments that Nussbaum's assertions about education are merely bland, over-generalized, platitudinous restatements of widely accepted values.]

In “Literature and Science” (1883), a lecture delivered in America during the high noon of the Victorian culture wars, Matthew Arnold defended the study of Greek against utilitarian educational reformers...

(The entire section is 2349 words.)

Thomas Nagel (review date 8 March 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nagel, Thomas. “Equality's Pleasures.” New Republic 220, no. 10 (8 March 1999): 33-6.

[In the following review of Sex and Social Justice, Nagel evaluates Nussbaum's arguments concerning feminism and sexual equality.]

Any society concerned with fairness must try to decide what general structures or modes of treatment, applied to persons who differ greatly one from another, will qualify morally as a form of equal treatment, or at least as not egregiously unequal treatment. In some cases, such as the vote, identical treatment will do. In other cases, such as taxation or maternity leave, it clearly will not. Sex is one of the most important dimensions in...

(The entire section is 3174 words.)

Veit Bader (essay date June 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bader, Veit. “For Love of Country.” Political Theory 27, no. 3 (June 1999): 379-97.

[In the following essay, Bader compares For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, by Nussbaum, with For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism, by Maurizio Viroli.]

Nationalism and patriotism seem to gain momentum in our times of globalization and decreasing importance of the (nation-)state. Likewise, multiculturalism is becoming predominant while real differences of ethnic cultures are decreasing globally as well as inside traditionally multiethnic states such as the United States. Among the growing stream of publications...

(The entire section is 8219 words.)

Gardner Fair (review date summer 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fair, Gardner. Review of Sex and Social Justice, by Martha Nussbaum. Social Theory and Practice 25, no. 2 (summer 1999): 344-52.

[In the following review of Sex and Social Justice, Fair asserts that, while Nussbaum carefully balances different sides of the questions she addresses, she fails to reconcile her abstract theories with historically specific realities.]

In recent years, at least two distinct tendencies within contemporary Western feminist debates have emerged. The first involves the internationalization of feminist theory and politics, and the second involves a critique of “victimization.” Both of these tendencies have influenced the...

(The entire section is 3461 words.)

Miranda Fricker (review date August 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fricker, Miranda. Review of Sex and Social Justice, by Martha Nussbaum. Journal of Philosophy 97, no. 8 (August 2000): 471-75.

[In the following review, Fricker offers praise for Sex and Social Justice, calling it an impressive, wonderfully diverse, and enormously rewarding collection of essays.]

The final essay in this impressive volume Sex and Social Justice, Martha Nussbaum is a discussion of the quotidian yet complex interpretive enterprise of understanding other people. It presents, in domestic microcosm, many of the themes treated at a more general level in the preceding essays. The focus is on the couple at the center of Virginia...

(The entire section is 1747 words.)

Hilary Charlesworth (essay date October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Charlesworth, Hilary. “Martha Nussbaum's Feminist Internationalism.” Ethics 111, no. 1 (October 2000): 64-78.

[In the following essay, Charlesworth examines two major challenges facing feminist internationalism: state hostility to feminist internationalism and differences among women within the global community. Charlesworth evaluates the extent to which Nussbaum's “capabilities” approach to feminist internationalism adequately addresses these issues.]

The term ‘feminist internationalism’ generally means the elaboration of transnational principles and standards to advance the position of women. The move to define international benchmarks to improve women's globally disadvantaged situation has a long history. For example, international women's groups were established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to deal with issues such as equal access to education and training and women's suffrage.1 Women's groups lobbied the League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation to develop standards and practices relating to matters such as the nationality of married women, trafficking in women and girls, women's suffrage, and the working conditions of women.2 Since the founding of the United Nations in 1945, the international arena has become increasingly attractive for women's groups, which have worked to persuade states to adopt treaties and resolutions dealing with many aspects of women's lives. The most significant of these international standards is the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Feminist internationalism has encountered considerable controversy and resistance from various quarters. A major source of antipathy is from states (whether “liberal” or “religious”) which regard recourse to international standards with respect to women as illegitimate because they may challenge national culture, traditions, policies, and laws. A different form of resistance to feminist internationalism comes from some feminist activists and scholars who regard it as dependent on essentialist accounts of women, obliterating differences of race, class, wealth, sexuality, and so on.

Prompted by her work as a research adviser at the United Nations University's World Institute for Development Economics Research, beginning in 1986, Martha Nussbaum has developed a theory of human capabilities to inform feminist internationalism. From evidence of the second-class status of women across the developing and developed country divide and their consistently lower quality of life when measured by access to health, education, political liberty and participation, employment, self-respect, and life itself, Nussbaum argues [in Sex and Social Justice] that “the situation of women in the contemporary world calls urgently for moral standtaking.”3 Nussbaum considers utilitarianism to be an unsatisfactory basis for such moral standtaking because it is unable to adequately account for the pressures of tradition in the measurement of individual preferences or desires.4 Rawlsian liberalism is also deficient as a basis for determining justice in this context, according to Nussbaum, because of its focus on the distribution of resources such as wealth and its failure to pay attention to the links between having particular resources and the capacity to function as a human being.5

Nussbaum's response to the injustice of women's position is a version of the “capabilities” approach to the measurement of the quality of life and the development of public policy. This approach has been cultivated in development economics by Amartya Sen and has guided the United Nations Development Programme's annual Human Development Reports in the 1990s. The capabilities approach concentrates on the actual functioning of individuals and groups in areas deemed central to the quality of life. It is less interested than utilitarianism in the stated preferences of people, because it regards such preferences as affected by traditions of oppression; and it is less concerned than liberalism with the distribution of resources, because it regards resources as of value only insofar as they contribute to human functioning.6

Nussbaum's capabilities approach to feminist internationalism then focuses on women's abilities to do and be certain things deemed valuable.7 The approach is concerned with capability to function, rather than functioning itself, because it emphasizes the role of practical reason and choice in exploiting the capability.8 The central human capacities identified by Nussbaum (which are all inter related) are longevity and bodily integrity (clauses 1-3), emotional, affective, social, and mental development (clauses 4, 5, 7, and 9), the ability to engage in practical reason and to form a conception of the good (clause 6), the ability to live with concern for animals and the natural world (clause 8), and control over one's political and material environment (clause 10). The list of central human capabilities has evolved considerably since Nussbaum first began writing about them.9 The idea is that a person who lacks any of the capabilities cannot be said to have a good human life. Thus development and preservation of the capabilities must be the central goal of all public policy making. In the context of the inequalities women experience across the world, the capacities become claims that can be made by women, which generate concomitant political duties.10

I want to consider two different types of challenges to feminist internationalism in the context of international law and to examine how far Nussbaum's capabilities approach can respond to these issues. The first category of challenge arises from the antipathy of particular states to claims of women's equality. The second group is the product of differences among women and the significance that feminists attach to these differences.


The traditional understanding of international law is that it is universally applicable and binds all states, whatever their specific national circumstances. There have been a range of challenges to this account of international law: for example, developing nations have argued at various times that particular norms of international environmental law, trade law, and human rights law were Western constructs whose effect was to impose unfair restraints on governmental action. Despite these challenges, certain norms of international law have been widely accepted as fundamental to the international community and global in their application. These include the norm of nondiscrimination on the basis of race, the prohibition on slavery, and the prohibition on torture. These laws are regularly flouted in practice, but no state or international institution would now question their legal nature and significance.

Although it has an apparently similar legal pedigree to the prohibition of racial discrimination, expressed in treaty provisions, the norm of nondiscrimination on the basis of sex has in practice a much reduced status in international law. When international law and lawyers address the issues of women's global inequality, they are prepared to accept arguments and positions that would not be tolerated in other areas. Claims of culture and religion readily trump women's rights. One example of this is the position taken by the international community with respect to reservations to the United Nations' Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979 (the Women's Convention), the most detailed international expression of the principle of sex equality. Although the convention is widely ratified (with 162 states parties in January 2000), it is subject to an extraordinary number of formal reservations made by states when ratifying the treaty. The legal effect of a reservation is to modify a state's obligation to implement the treaty. Many of the reservations are in the name of preserving a state's religious or cultural traditions.11 Typical of these reservations is that of Egypt. With respect to article 16 of the Women's Convention, which requires that states observe equality between men and women in all matters concerning marriage and family relations, Egypt's reservation states that this matter must be subject to Islamic Shari'a law.

Some states have made even more sweeping reservations. For example, the Maldives' reservation commits it to comply with the convention's provisions “except those which the Government may consider contradictory to the principles of the Islamic Shari'a upon which the laws and the traditions of the Maldives is founded.” Moreover, the reservation goes on to say, “the Republic of Maldives does not see itself bound by any provisions of the Convention which obliges it to change its Constitutions and laws in any manner.” While there is little question that this type of reservation is technically invalid at international law because it undermines the object and purpose of the treaty,12 there are no satisfactory mechanisms in international law to challenge reservations adequately. A number of states have objected to the reservations, but the objections have been rejected by the Islamic states as a form of religious intolerance, and there the matter rests.13 Thus Islamic states are still considered parties to the Women's Convention although they have rejected the equality provisions that are at its heart. Israel, India, and the United Kingdom also have entered reservations making the laws of religious communities immune to the convention's guarantee of sex equality. Other states, such as Australia, have not formally made reservations precluding the application of the principle of sex equality to religious communities, but they have exempted religions from the principle in legislation designed to implement the Women's Convention.14 The pattern of reservations to and implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of 1965 (CERD) provides a striking contrast. Although similar numbers of states have accepted both the Women's Convention and CERD, few reservations have been made to the substance of the obligation of nondiscrimination on the basis of race.

How can feminist internationalism effectively challenge the power of claims of culture and religion in international law? One method is to analyze the political uses of claims of culture. In other words, we need to ask whose culture is being invoked, what the status of the interpreter is, in whose name the argument is advanced, and who the primary beneficiaries of the invocation of culture are.15 In the case of Islamic states, for example, “culture” is regularly used as an interchangeable rationale with “the rule of law,” “public order and morality,” and “state policy” to suppress any activism by women.16 An example of this was the reported statement by the governor of Kandahar, a province of Afghanistan, rejecting attempts by the Grameen bank of Bangladesh to lend money to rural women to start their own businesses. He was quoted as saying that “the motive of the bank was to lead Moslems away from Islam and to promote shamelessness among women.”17

The capabilities approach elaborated by Martha Nussbaum offers a detailed method to challenge invocations of culture in international law to justify the denial of women's equality. Although Nussbaum does not address the relationship of the central human fundamental capabilities to the existing body of international human rights law, many of the capabilities she identifies have a counterpart in the rights recognized in international law. For example the capability of “being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length” (clause 1) is closely linked to the right to life set out in article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Some of Nussbaum's capabilities extend and develop existing human rights guarantees. Thus the capability of senses, imagination, and thought (clause 4) appears to build on the right to education recognized in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the right to freedoms of expression and religious exercise contained in the ICCPR but also covers abilities that have no international legal protection such as that to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid nonbeneficial pain. Other of the capabilities are not articulated in the human rights treaties, such as the ability to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature (clause 8). Nussbaum's list of capabilities, then, is a more detailed, and modern, prescription than offered by international human rights treaties.

The current system of monitoring a state's performance of its human rights obligations under United Nations treaties is primarily through periodic reporting by states to expert committees. The treaty-monitoring committees review the reports and question the representatives of states about problems they identify. The final step in this monitoring process is the adoption of a formal statement of conclusions by the relevant committee, which is forwarded to the United Nations General Assembly. The rationale for the reporting system is both to encourage states to scrutinize critically national practices in the preparation of reports (perhaps leading to reform) and to expose (and perhaps eradicate) human rights violations through international monitoring.18 These aims have not been met in practice. The reporting process has been criticized for its weakness, allowing states to paper over bad human rights records with references to fine legislative guarantees.19 The “constructive dialogue” engaged in between committees and state representatives is often a dialogue of the deaf, with states either ignoring evidence of inadequate protection of human rights or sloughing it off with bland reassurances. Most of the states' reports present the existence of legal protection, constitutional or otherwise, as proof of implementation of the international standards. The significance of the capabilities approach is that it moves the focus of rights protection from the provision of legal guarantees, which may be of limited utility, to the way that national legal and policy systems actually ensure the quality of life of individuals and groups—in Nussbaum's words, “What are the people of the group or country in question actually able to do and to be?”20 While the various human rights treaty-monitoring committees vary in their practices and efficacy, the idea of central human capabilities could be readily absorbed into their work.

For example, economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the right to food and shelter, have often been regarded as particularly difficult to protect because they require positive action rather than restraints on government action (the traditional account of the protection of civil and political rights). In periodic reports under the ICESCR, states tend simply to list laws and practices touching on these rights as proof of their protection. Australia's 1998 report under ICESCR is a paradigm of this approach.21 Viewed from the perspective of human capabilities, the lengthy Australian report provides no information at all. It does not address how any of the relevant capabilities identified by Nussbaum are fulfilled—what people within Australia are actually able to do and to be. How many people are adequately nourished? How many have adequate shelter?

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors the ICESCR, has been in fact the most exigent of all the human rights treaty bodies. It has developed the idea of “minimum core entitlements” under the ICESCR in these terms: “A State party in which any significant number of individuals is deprived of essential foodstuffs, of essential primary health care, of basic shelter and housing, or of the most basic forms of education is, prima facie, failing to discharge its obligations under the Covenant.”22 While this notion has some affinity with the capabilities approach, the latter is considerably broader. The term ‘minimum core entitlements’ suggests mere survival, a “bare humanness.”23 Nussbaum's account of central human capabilities is, by contrast, built on a commitment to full human functioning and flourishing. The capabilities approach would therefore extend the boundaries of current understandings of economic, social, and cultural rights.

In the specific context of women's rights, the capabilities approach could similarly broaden and make more concrete the obligations contained in the Women's Convention. States' reports under the Convention typically set out nondiscrimination provisions in constitutions and legislation with little or no assessment of their impact in practice. If the question asked by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is to what extent are women in a particular society capable of performing the central human functions identified by Nussbaum, the investigation must shift from formal guarantees to structural barriers to equality. Thus economic data indicating that, in all societies, women live in greater poverty than men will be of greater significance in measuring implementation of the Women's Convention than legal commitments to equality.24 The capabilities approach would require the treaty bodies to seek and consider broader forms of evidence and to devise empirical strategies to define and measure rights.25

The capabilities approach could also inform the assessment of reservations to the Women's Convention made in the name of culture and religion. If the effect of reservations is to reduce women's opportunities to live a fully human life, for example, by preventing effective participation in political choices governing one's life (clause 10), the reservation cannot be considered compatible with the treaty obligations. Nussbaum's insistence that “a woman's affiliation with a certain group or culture should not be taken as normative for her unless, on due consideration, with all the capabilities at her disposal, she makes that norm her own” offers a method to counter resort to claims of culture to trump women's rights in international law.26 It is not clear, however, what type of evidence would be necessary to establish that a woman has not made a particular communal norm “her own.” Does it require active rejection and protest, or is Nussbaum proposing an assumption that any practice that does not treat women in the same way as men could not be taken as normative for women without proof of active embrace of the practice?

The United Nations treaty-monitoring committees all use “general comments” or “general recommendations” to elaborate their jurisprudence on particular rights as a guide to states, and these comments are regularly reviewed and updated. These statements could provide a vehicle for introducing the notion of capabilities and analyzing their relationship with the open-textured treaty statements of rights. In the case of the capabilities proposed by Nussbaum that have no direct treaty counterpart, such as that to have the opportunity for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction (clause 3), the capabilities approach would provoke more controversy. The idea that women have these capabilities has been strongly resisted, for example, by a coalition of Islamic and Catholic states at the 1995 Beijing conference.

The capabilities approach also has significance outside the context of treaty obligations. It offers a method to consider all cases where women's rights are trumped by claims of culture and tradition. For example, in a 1999 decision of the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, Venia Magaya v. Nakayi Shonhiwa Magayavenia, Shona traditional customs were relied on to prevent a woman from inheriting her father's estate.27 The Zimbabwe Constitution prohibits discrimination, although not specifically discrimination based on sex. It also excludes African customary law from the nondiscrimination principle. The court resisted arguments to interpret the constitution in the light of international law on the basis that “allowing female children to inherit in a broadly patrilineal society … would disrupt the African customary laws of that society.” It also stated “there is a need to advance gender equality in all spheres of society … [but] great care must be taken when African customary law is under consideration … The application of customary law is in a way voluntary. It could therefore be argued that there should be no or little interference with a person's choice.” Nussbaum's account of the capabilities approach offers a response to these arguments. A woman must be shown to have accepted the norms of a particular culture through the exercise of practical reason, with all the central human capabilities available to her, before those norms can be held to bind her. The Zimbabwe case however also highlights the problematic notion of choice in Nussbaum's theory. Can a woman authentically choose to accept discriminatory practices that reduce her human capabilities? Nussbaum's version of feminist internationalism is built on the significance of choice in liberal philosophy, and yet there is the implication that the choice of inequality would be irrational in some way.28


A second type of challenge facing feminist internationalism in international law arises from the differences in the position of women worldwide. Can we use the term ‘women’ as a global category when women's positions and interests vary so widely? Factors such as class, race, wealth, sexuality, nationality, social and economic position, and physical and mental disabilities affect women's lives in important ways and may be more significant than sex in determining a particular woman's quality of life. In an international context, feminists have dealt with the issue of differences among women by focusing on problems women appear to face whatever their situation.29 In practice, women from very different backgrounds have worked successfully together at an international level to raise awareness of oppressive and discriminatory practices. For example, the four United Nations conferences on women (Mexico [1975], Copenhagen [1980], Nairobi [1985], and Beijing [1995]), and particularly their respective associated nongovernment forums, indicate that women are able to use international arenas to negotiate a great range of differences to support both common projects and common concerns of particular groups. The campaign for recognition of violence against women, prevalent in all countries and cultures, as a violation of women's human rights has been particularly effective as a unifying force in international feminism.

The tactic of identifying and addressing common global issues for women is, however, complex and sometimes hazardous. For example, there are disagreements about whether specific practices constitute violence against women, and there are deep divisions over the appropriate methods to deal with a problem. The debate over the appropriate feminist responses to female genital mutilation illustrates this. No other issue has attracted such controversy and passion. Some international lawyers have argued that female genital mutilation is morally comparable to cosmetic surgery undertaken by women in the developed world, and they have replaced the pejorative terminology ‘mutilation’ with ‘surgery’.30 Others have rejected such parallels and argued for international legal prohibition.

More generally, the search for “universal” women's predicaments can obscure differences among women and homogenize women's experiences. Feminists from the developing world often charge Western feminists with being overly concerned with the acquisition of civil and political rights while ignoring the significance of economic and social rights, such as the right to food and to housing, or collective rights such as the right to self-determination and development. Emphasis on universal issues can also sideline the situation of women who suffer from multiple forms of discrimination, for example, because of their race, class, age, and sexual orientation. Certainly, the international legal system has been slow to accommodate ideas of diversity of women. The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 paid some attention to the intersection of a variety of obstacles to women's empowerment, for example, race, age, language, ethnicity, culture, religion, disability, indigeneity, family, and socioeconomic status, or status as refugees or displaced persons or as victims of environmental damage, disease, or violence, although it ultimately failed to acknowledge sexual orientation as an aspect of women's identity.31 But, apart from this listing, no further attention was given to diversity between women in the official Beijing documents. In any event, the acknowledgment of some forms of women's diversity was undermined by the limited vision of women's roles in the Beijing Platform for Action. Debate in Beijing about what might constitute “balanced and nonstereotyped” images of women resulted in a paragraph referring to women's experiences as including “balancing work and family responsibilities, as mothers, as professionals, as managers, as entrepreneurs.”32 In other words, the traditional role of mother remains crucial for women, and all that is added is the need to participate in the free market economy.33

How does Nussbaum's capabilities approach respond to the question of differences among women and the charge that the international human rights system cannot deliver a contextualized form of justice for women everywhere? Nussbaum has usefully drawn attention to the dangers of confusing differences among women with the way that women are treated in particular societies. For example, she has observed that, in the name of antiessentialism, some scholars, otherwise committed to the advancement of women, have espoused reactionary, oppressive, and sexist positions.34 The capabilities approach with its regularly revised list of central human capabilities also responds to the often-voiced criticism of the international human rights system by feminists from the developing world that it gives priority to civil and political rights. It transcends the traditional division of civil and political rights on the one hand and economic and social rights on the other. Nussbaum's list of central human functional capabilities includes a range of civil and political rights (freedom of expression [clause 4], liberty of conscience [clause 6], as well as rights to health, food, and shelter [clause 3]). At the same time, the silences of some versions of the list may be taken to reflect a limited notion of differences among women: for example, nondiscrimination on the basis of race, sex, and sexual orientation is considered central but non-discrimination on the basis of disability is not.35

A related concern for feminist internationalism in the context of international law is the issue of how far it needs to rely on the language of universalism. Claims based on universal values increasingly generate tensions and objections in international law-making forums because the vocabulary of universalism is associated with Western traditions. The development of international law relied on European ideals as universals and these standards were imposed by colonialism and conequest.36 The term ‘universal’ thus carries with it considerable baggage in international law: it implies a worldview of the economically dominant and does not give emphasis to the significance of interpretation (or ‘phronesis’, in Aristotle's terms) in the local application of international legal norms. There have been long-standing, and rather sterile, debates between international lawyers about whether legal principles are based on relative or universal values. The extremes of both positions do not, however, acknowledge the complex interdependence of the local and the universal in international law.

Nussbaum firmly links the ideas of universalism and feminist internationalism, but is this critical to her project? She is clearly using the notion of universality in a broader way than most international lawyers because of the emphasis she places on the revisability of her list of central human capabilities. A more useful guide for feminist internationalism than the language of universals may be the idea of commitments developed through dialogue. One such technique is that of “world traveling,” which depends upon what Maria Lugones has called a “loving perception” of other women.37 This involves three steps in a multicultural conversation: first, the need to be explicit about our own historical and cultural context; second, an attempt to understand how other women might see us; and third, a recognition of the complexities of the contexts of other women, in other words, to try to see them through their own eyes.38 A similar method is that of “rooting” and “shifting” described by some European feminists. Each woman remains “rooted” in her own history and identity while “shifting” to understand the roots of other women in the dialogue. This process of what has been termed “transversalism” has two conditions: it should not mean losing one's own roots and values nor should it homogenize “other” women.39 Transversalism differs from universalism by allowing multiple points of departure rather than assuming that there is a universal bedrock of values in all societies.

The value of the idea of world traveling in the context of international law is its emphasis on the multiplicity of women's stories and the range of their cultural, national, religious, economic, and social concerns and interests. Analysis of this discipline means confronting the inevitable tension between general theories and local experience, being receptive to a diversity of voices and perspectives. In other words, world travelers must use different modes of transport according to the terrain. As Elizabeth Grosz has observed, “feminists are not faced with pure and impure options. All options are in their various ways bound by the constraints of patriarchal power. The crucial political question is which commitments remain, in spite of their patriarchal alignments, of use to feminists in their political struggles? What kind of feminist strategy do they make possible or hinder?”40

Chandra Mohanty has proposed the idea of an “imagined community” (borrowed from Benedict Anderson) that has implications for feminist analysis of international law.41 Mohanty has developed the notion in the context of problems of writing about Third World feminisms in a general but worthwhile way, but it can be usefully extended to all women in an international context. The epithet “imagined” is used in contrast to existing boundaries—of nation, color, sexuality, and so on—to indicate the potential for collaborative endeavour across them; the term ‘community’ refers to the possibility of a “horizontal comradeship” across existing hierarchies. An “imagined community” of feminist interests does not imply a single set of feminist concerns but, rather, a strategic, political alliance.

In the context of international law, then, I think that feminists need to attend to the complex structures of domination that affect women differently rather than invoke a single, universal notion of oppression. Donna Haraway has wryly observed the difficulty of this task: “It has seemed very rare for feminist theory to hold race, sex/gender and class analytically together—all the best intentions, hues of authors, and remarks in prefaces notwithstanding.”42

Despite her attachment to the vocabulary of universality, Nussbaum's capabilities approach is a concrete version of “world traveling”—an internationally applicable baseline to measure women's progress toward equality, which is derived from considerable consultation with women in many different situations. Nussbaum has spoken of her search for a “subtle balance between perception of the particular and recognition of the common.”43 The term ‘feminism’ has little meaning if it does not extend beyond purely local concerns, but the use of feminist theories on a global level requires attention to the way that these theories can privilege some women's experiences over others.

Do the “central human functional capabilities” identified by Nussbaum meet this standard? As I have noted above, they transcend the standard Western obsession with civil and political liberties at the expense of economic and social equity. The vocabulary of the list, however, may indicate that greater weight is accorded to civil and political rights. For example, the language of “guarantees of freedoms” is used only with respect to freedom of expression and freedom of religious exercise (clause 4), and the term ‘right’ is used only with respect to political participation, protection of free speech and association (clause 10), and not in other contexts. Freedoms of speech and association are described as “fundamental.” The status of group rights is also not clear in the capabilities approach, which appears interested primarily in the lives of individuals. For example, how can the claims of groups of indigenous peoples to self-determination be understood?44 Another human rights concern prompted by Nussbaum's list of capabilities is that it appears applicable only to citizens of a country.45 This leaves open the question, of increasing significance all around the world, of the rights of noncitizens to the conditions of a reasonable life.

A crucial issue for the capabilities approach is how conflicts between different central capabilities will be resolved. For example, freedom of religious exercise will regularly clash with the norm of nondiscrimination on the basis of sex and sexuality. At the international political and legal level such conflicts are almost invariably resolved in favor of religious freedom. Nussbaum takes a different tack, arguing that religious laws cannot be allowed to trump the “basic human rights of citizens,” which include nondiscrimination on the basis of sex.46 She implies a hierarchy in the central capabilities, with nondiscrimination taking precedence over all others, although her parallel insistence on the fundamental nature of freedom of speech and association to human functioning generates a tension at the top of the hierarchy.

From the perspective of international law, some of the capabilities identified by Nussbaum are described in language whose force has been whittled away. For example, the capability of affiliation includes the ability “to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others” (clause 7). Nussbaum observes that this capability requires guarantees of nondiscrimination. However, the interpretation of the norm of nondiscrimination in international law indicates that in practice this is a weak conceptual tool to counter systemic, large-scale oppression.47 By contrast, notions of equality of outcome, which allow for positive measures to benefit marginalized groups, may be of greater value for women. More generally, the rights of political participation, free speech, and freedom of association (clause 10), referred to in Nussbaum's list, have been interpreted in narrow ways in the international human rights system and would need considerable development to have transformative outcomes.


The international legal system has not responded adequately to the global situation of women. It has acknowledged inequality only in very limited contexts and in any event has allowed states to justify their treatment of women on the basis of tradition and culture. Nussbaum's version of feminist internationalism with its statement of commitments to particular central human capabilities offers a focus for activism and development of the law. It allows us to understand the barriers to women's equality as not simply the product of inadequate resources but as the product of curtailment of women's capabilities imposed by tradition and culture. On a broader level, Nussbaum's approach encourages a shift in direction in international law by placing human needs rather than state priorities at its center. In my view, feminist internationalism requires us to rethink the accepted dichotomy between national sovereignty and international concern. We need to investigate the way that the structure of the state and its sovereignty are gendered and the barriers they create for real justice for women.


  1. Deborah Stienstra, Women's Movements and International Organisations (London: Macmillan, 1994), pp. 48-51.

  2. Ibid., pp. 65-75; Carol Lubin and Anne Winslow, Social Justice for Women: The International Labor Organization and Women (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990), pp. 21-30.

  3. Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 31.

  4. Ibid., p. 33.

  5. Ibid., p. 34.

  6. Ibid.

  7. A recent statement of this approach is in ibid., pp. 39-42. References to clauses are to the list at pp. 41-42.

  8. Ibid., pp. 42-44.

  9. Nussbaum has emphasized the dynamic nature of the list. See her “Capabilities and Human Rights,” Fordham Law Review 66 (1997): 273-300 For example, earlier versions included more specific attention to standard of living, measured by income relative to the poverty level.

  10. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, p. 43.

  11. For a discussion of the issue of reservations in the context of the Women's Convention, see R. Cook, “Reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,” Virginia Journal of International Law 30 (1990): 643-716, pp. 673-78.

  12. United Nations, Conference on the Law of Treaties, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969, 1155 UNTS, U.N. Document A/Conf. 39/27, p. 331, arts. 19-21.

  13. States that have objected to the reservations include Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Portugal, and Sweden. On the objections as a form of religious intolerance, see Ann Elizabeth Mayer, “Cultural Particularism as a Bar to Women's Rights: Reflections on the Middle East Experience,” in Women's Rights, Human Rights, ed. Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 176-88, p. 178.

  14. Commonwealth of Australia, Sex Discrimination Act, 1984, sec. 37.

  15. Arati Rao, “The Politics of Gender and Culture in International Human Rights Discourse,” in Peters and Wolper, eds., pp. 167-75, p. 174.

  16. Mayer, p. 182.

  17. The Bulletin (Sydney) (September 23, 1997).

  18. Anne Bayefsky, “Making the Human Rights Treaty Bodies Work,” in Human Rights: An Agenda for the Next Century, ed. Louis Henkin and John Lawrence Hargrove (Washington, D.C.: American Society of International Law, 1994), pp. 229-95, p. 232.

  19. Ibid., p. 231.

  20. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, p. 34.

  21. See.

  22. United Nations, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, The Nature of States Parties Obligations, General Comment no. 3, 1990, E/C.12/1990/8.

  23. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, p. 40.

  24. For economic data on women's poverty as compared with men, see Clair Apodaca, “Measuring Women's Economic and Social Rights Achievement,” Human Rights Quarterly 20 (1998): 139-72, pp. 154-56.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, p. 46.

  27. Venia Magaya v. Nakayi Shonhiwa Magayavenia, Civil Appeal No. 635/92, Harare, February 16, 1999.

  28. Anne Phillips, “Feminism and Liberalism Revisited: Has Martha Nussbaum Got It Right?” (paper presented at the Workshop on Feminist and Social Political Theory, Australian National University, Canberra, March 28, 2000).

  29. For example, Dorothy Thomas and R. Levi, “Common Abuses against Women,” in Women and International Human Rights Law, ed. Kelly Askin and Dorean Koenig (New York: Transnational, 1999), pp. 139-76, p. 139.

  30. For example, Isabelle Gunning, “Arrogant Perception, World-Travelling and Multicultural Feminism: The Case of Female Genital Surgeries,” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 23 (1991-92): 189-248.

  31. Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing Platform for Action (New York: United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, 1995), par. 46.

  32. Ibid., par. 245 (b).

  33. Dianne Otto, “Holding up Half the Sky, but for Whose Benefit? A Critical Analysis of the Fourth World Conference on Women,” Australian Feminist Law Journal 6 (1996): 7-28, p. 27.

  34. Martha Nussbaum, “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism,” Political Theory 20 (1992): 202-46, p. 212.

  35. The version of the list used by M. Nussbaum in a lecture at the Australian National University, Canberra, June 15, 1999.

  36. Antony Anghie, “Universality and the Concept of Governance in International Law,” in Legitimate Governance in Africa, ed. E. K. Quashigah and O. C. Okafor (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 1999), pp. 21-40, pp. 31-33.

  37. Maria Lugones, “Playfulness, ‘World-Travelling,’ and Loving Perception,” Hypatia 2 (1987): 3-19, p. 18.

  38. Gunning, p. 191.

  39. See, generally, Hilary Charlesworth and Christine Chinkin, The Boundaries of International Law (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 51-52.

  40. Elizabeth Grosz, “A Note on Essentialism and Difference,” in Feminist Knowledge: Critique and Construct, ed. Sneja Gunew (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 332-44, pp. 342-43.

  41. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991); Chandra Mohanty, “Cartographies of Struggle,” in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Chandra Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 1-47, p. 4.

  42. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 129.

  43. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, p. 380, n. 42.

  44. Ibid., p. 42.

  45. Ibid., p. 43.

  46. Ibid., p. 103.

  47. Charlesworth and Chinkin, pp. 214-16.

Iris Marion Young (review date July 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Young, Iris Marion. Review of Sex and Social Justice, by Martha Nussbaum. Ethics 111, no. 4 (July 2001): 819-23.

[In the following review, Young calls Nussbaum's Sex and Social Justice a significant achievement that addresses pressing contemporary and moral problems.]

This collection of fifteen essays [Sex and Social Justice], all previously published in some form, ranges over issues of contemporary politics, policy, and law concerning gender and sexuality, as well as reflects on themes of knowledge and emotion in ancient and modern philosophy and literature. Certain of the essays recalled for me the pleasure and admiration I felt for...

(The entire section is 2249 words.)

Anne Norton (review date October 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Norton, Anne. “Review Essay on Euben, Okin, and Nussbaum.” Political Theory 29, no. 5 (October 2001): 736-49.

[In the following review, Norton discusses Nussbaum's Sex and Social Justice in comparison to The Enemy in the Mirror, by Roxanne Euben, and Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, by Susan Okin. Norton criticizes both Nussbaum and Okin for failing to account for the works of post-colonial feminist scholars in formulating their arguments.]

The Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism [by Roxanne Euben] is a book written with learning, brilliance, and judgment. We are fortunate to have...

(The entire section is 6484 words.)

Monique Deveaux (essay date July 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Deveaux, Monique. “Political Morality and Culture: What Difference Do Differences Make?” Social Theory and Practice 28, no. 3 (July 2002): 503-18.

[In the following essay, Deveaux discusses Nussbaum's Women and Human Development in comparison to Multicultural Jurisdictions by Ayelet Shachar, contending that each addresses questions regarding the significance of cultural pluralism to concepts of social justice.]


Can a conception of political morality—specifically, a conception of justice—be said to be valid across cultures? Few contemporary philosophers explicitly claim that their account of political...

(The entire section is 6882 words.)