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Martha Nussbaum (1947-)[1] is an American philosopher and the current Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago.[2] She teaches Political Philosophy in the University of Chicago with particular interest in ancient philosophy, laws and ethics. Nussbaum is the author or editor of a number of books, including The Fragility of Goodness (1986), Sex and Social Justice (1998), The Sleep of Reason (2002), Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (2004) and Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (2006). Being a follower of Aristotle, Nussbaum was also affected by John Rawls, Amartya Sen, feminism and social democracy. In her article “Aristotelian Social Democracy”[3], Nussbaum tries to outline the basis of her social democratic values by taking help from Aristotle’s classical writings. In this assignment, I am going to try to analyze Nussbaum’s views which take their roots from Aristotelian “good human functioning” conception.

martha nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum

In “Aristotelian Social Democracy”, Martha Nussbaum first uses Aristotle’s statement claiming that good human functioning and good governing are interdependent. According to Nussbaum, the main aim of Aristotle is to “make available to each and every citizen the material, institutional, and educational circumstances in which good human functioning may be chosen; to move each and every one of them across a threshold of capability into circumstances in which they may choose to live and function well” (Nussbaum, 1990: 203). In her view, Aristotle’s ideas can be considered as the basis of social democratic thought which breaks liberalism in certain points. Nussbaum takes two important quotations from Aristotle.[4] She claims that unlike thin liberal theories which are based on metaphysical grounds, Aristotelian social democracy has an ethical-political account and a more solid approach to good human functioning. At this point, Nussbaum makes two important statements which relate her analysis of Aristotle to liberalism; first of all, she claims that political liberalism is conceived as an American invention and based on American context and secondly, liberal theories take nation-states as basic units and do not dare to have universalistic claims (Nussbaum, 1990: 207). She asserts that in the era of globalization and increasing interaction among diverse societies, there is much chance for universalistic consequences, solutions to cope with international problems like famine, water and air problems. In Nussbaum’s idea, Aristotle believes that the politics cannot be understood completely without a “full theory of human good and what is to function properly” (Nussbaum, 1990: 208). Aristotle wrote; “It is evident that the best politeia is that arrangement according to which anyone whatsoever might do best and live a flourishing life”. Aristotle’s good human functioning theory is based on the idea that people should have enough material and natural circumstances to function, live well and have a flourishing life. This requires a proper definition of the good life for people and this is the point where Aristotle differs from liberal thinkers.

According to Nussbaum, Aristotelian conception of political arrangement is both “broad and deep” (Nussbaum, 1990: 209). For Nussbaum, it is broad because it concerns with the proper functioning of all citizens not of elites and it is deep because it does not only deal with material “good”, but rather with all things that constitute the good human life. At this point, Nussbaum criticizes Rawls and the liberal tradition. She thinks that liberal theories focus on a specific form of human good which is to arrange socioeconomic inequalities in the advantage of the least advantaged groups and to create a free environment. Aristotle does not ignore the importance of opulence and he accepts that richness and economic development is very important for good human functioning. A contemporary example of this tradition is to measure the GDP, GNP rates of countries (Nussbaum, 1990: 209). Although the first component of his theory is economic development, unlike the modernization theory for instance, Aristotle does not stop here. For Aristotle, the economic development is not an end, but rather just a mean. Another important dimension of Aristotelian social democracy according to Nussbaum is the distribution of wealth. Socialist theories claim that common ownership and equality in distribution are necessary for a well-ordered, good society whereas liberals think that this should be left to the market balances (invisible hand). Rawls’ second principle for instance aims to improve the condition of the worst off by tolerating inequalities only in the advantage of the most disadvantaged groups. However, Rawls’ theory is based on specific concepts like taxation, wealth and income. Moreover, Rawls constructs his theory from a rational choice perspective by creating a Kantian hypothetical situation. However, Aristotelian theory does not possess a precondition and prejudice and it draws a larger picture which tries to discover the way of good human life. “The basic intuitive idea used by Aristotelian conception to argue against this is the idea that wealth, income and possessions simply are not good in themselves” says Nussbaum in her piece (Nussbaum, 1990: 210). Aristotle rejects preconditions and thinks that we do not have right to assume in advance that there are specific conditions for a good human life. According to Nussbaum, this is caused by the “heretical and deeply peculiar thought, to those brought up in liberal capitalism” (Nussbaum, 1990: 211). Aristotle does not like excessive or limited choices and prefers intermediary solutions. So, eating too much or to eat less are harmful whereas to eat in accordance with the need and capacity is adorable.

Martha Nussbaum thinks that liberalism deals with creating equal competing conditions for “normally cooperating members of society”. However, in many cases many groups, actors may not be in the position of normally cooperating members of society because of previous inequalities or mental, moral deficiencies. Moreover, “People who have lived in severe deprivation frequently do not feel desire for a different way, or dissatisfaction with their way. Human beings adapt to what they have.” (Nussbaum, 1990: 213). Here, Nussbaum uses Karl Marx’s arguments from the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844”. Like Marx argued, the liberal capitalist economy leads to the dehumanization of workers since they are alienated from their own labor, their work as well as their human identity and humane life. As far as Nussbaum is concerned, although liberals claim that in a liberal capitalist economy people would be free to make rational choices, their position may not allow them to make right decisions and to demand something to improve their conditions with the aim of pursuing a good human life. Aristotle is aware of this and that is why Aristotle aims to promote “truly human functioning, in every sphere” (Nussbaum, 1990: 214). Thus, government should be responsible of preparing people necessary grounds to raise themselves in order to be able to make good decisions that would bring good functioning. Martha Nussbaum gives the example of Bangladeshi women to show how liberalism fails in improving the conditions of disadvantaged groups. Nussbaum claims that Aristotelian social democracy, with its insistence of removing all impediments that stand between people and fully human functioning, is the only way that could solve inequalities. So, now we need an outline sketch of the good life in order to draw the limits of good human functioning. Here, liberals blame Aristotle for creating a singular conception of good which harms plurality and forms this theory on metaphysical conceptions. However, Nussbaum thinks that there is still a way to defend Aristotle by basing his perspective on very basic human needs. So, by using countless stories that we tell ourselves about the basic structure of good life, we can prepare a list from an Aristotelian perspective. Nussbaum adds that “like most Aristotelian lists, our working list is meant not as systematic philosophical theory, but as a summary of what we think so far, and as an intuitive approximation, whose intent is not to legislate, but to direct attention to certain areas of special importance” (Nussbaum, 1990: 219).

According to Nussbaum, there are 4 basic conditions for this kind of a list. The first condition is the need for food and drink, hunger and thirst. Different cultures do not allow human beings to live without eating or drinking and this need is common to all people which should be guaranteed by the social state. Secondly, the need for shelter should be satisfied. Because of the fragility of human body, humans need to have houses, shelters to live. Thirdly, humans have sexual desires as human beings to pursue a good human life. Fourthly, human beings need to have mobility and move their bodies in order to have a good life both physically and psychologically. In addition to these basic needs, we have many important orientations that shape our lives. Practical reason is one of the most important of these orientations. Practical reason refers to human beings’ ability to plan and manage their own lives. In addition to practical reasoning, humans have affiliation with other human beings which direct people to cooperate and have a life based on solidarity. Relatedness to other species and to nature is another orientation of human beings, which is about to discover the rules of nature and try to live in a peacefully coexistence form. Humor and play and separateness are also included into the list of human orientations (Nussbaum, 1990: 219-222). Nussbaum proves that social democratic principles of Scandinavian countries are very much consistent with Aristotle’s list of basic human needs and orientations. According to Nussbaum, the realization of a social state based on these principles can be realized especially with the help of two orientations of human beings: practical reason and affiliation[5]. In fact, John Rawls, different from other liberals, by stating his two basic principles, tries to bring an ethical dimension to good human life, but his theory is still insufficient compared to Aristotelian social democracy.

The Aristotelian politics is about to make sure that no citizens would be lacking in sustenance. Nussbaum mentions that Aristotelian welfare program aims at producing two types of capabilities: external and internal. Internal capabilities are about “the conditions of the person (of body, mind, character) that make that person in a state of readiness to choose the various valued functions” whereas external capabilities are “internal capabilities plus the external material and social conditions that make available to all individual the option of that valued function” (Nussbaum, 1990: 228). By substantiating it, Nussbaum claims that a good human function can be provided by comprehensive health care, healthy air and water, arrangements for the security of life and property, protection of autonomous choices of citizens with respect to crucial aspects of their medical treatment (Nussbaum, 1990: 229). Nussbaum also tries to answer liberals’ criticism and questions towards Aristotelian social democracy on the basis of pluralism. As I stated before, liberals generally criticize Aristotle for involving a single conception of good instead of plurality of goods. Nussbaum defends Aristotle on the grounds of two ideas: plural specification and local specification. Aristotle always admits the importance of practical reasoning and thinks that “when it is well done, with a rich sensitivity to the concrete context, to the characters of the agents and their historical and social circumstances” a different form of plurality would exist and lead to better consequences than liberal plurality (Nussbaum, 1990: 236).

One criticism to be made against Nussbaum is that although she assesses Aristotelian philosophy as broad, we know that Aristotle defends natural slavery and tries to defend this by some biological experiments. Moreover, we know that in ancient Greece there was a rigid hierarchy in society and not all people including women were qualified as citizens and had these rights. So, it could be wrong to determine Aristotelian social democracy not as elitist and broad. Although Aristotle believes in democracy and the superiority of common decision unlike Plato, there is still much to discuss for his elitism. Aristotle’s citizenship conception does not include all people and unlike what Nussbaum said, does not have a universalistic claim. Aristotle wrote this specifically to the ancient Greek polis and avoided universalistic claims. Thus, it would be wrong for me to determine Aristotelian social democracy as universal. However, I must still say that we should assess Aristotle according to the conditions of his own time period. As far as I am concerned, although Nussbaum’s efforts to make concrete Aristotelian good human functioning are successful, there is still much room for debating whether Aristotelian “good” has metaphysical elements or not. Problem with all discourses, ideologies is that during time, they form their own hierarchy, enslaving indoctrination and do not allow opposition like Michel Foucault mentioned in several texts.

Assist. Prof. Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ

[1] For details; For her books;


[3] Nussbaum, Martha. 1990. “Aristotelian Social Democracy”, in Liberalism and the Good. Douglass, R. B., and G. Mara, and H. Richardson (Eds.), New York, pp. 203-252. Available at Amazon:

[4] “The things that we use most of and most frequently where our bodies are concerned, these have the biggest impact on health. Water and air are things of that sort. So good political planning should make some decisions about these things”.

“We must speak first about the distribution of land about farming… For we do not believe that ownership should be all common by way of a use that is agreed upon in mutuality. At the same time, we believe that no citizen should be lacking in sustenance…”.

[5] “All animals nourish themselves, use their senses, move about, and so on – and of all this as beings one in number. What is distinctive, and distinctively valuable to us, about the human way of doing this is that all these functions are, first of all planned and organized by practical reason, and second, done with and to others.” (Nussbaum, 1990: 226).

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