Martha Nussbaum Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Women's Rights, Religious Freedom, and Liberal Education: Conversation with Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics, University of Chicago; September 14, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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The Rights and Capabilities of Women

Let me show this book. It's one of the many that you've written, but we will be talking about it, and you just touched on it, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. It's a good focal point as our discussion proceeds. This book drew you in, in a way -- metaphorically, I guess I could say it drew you away from the library because you had to go into the field and encounter the lives of women as you went to India on several trips, and traveled there and lived there, and so on. Talk a little about that. One of the points that you're making is the experience of women's rights. Being denied [certain] rights, as you experienced in graduate school, was a very different [problem] when you come to a developing place like India.

I saw already at the Institute that I was very ignorant, that my education had been very bad because it was only a Western education. I started trying to learn about conditions in other countries, and I went to India. When I was going to write this book I thought, well, I don't want to pull in one example from China and one example from Iran, and so on; I want to get to know one country pretty well, because only when you understand these issues that people are fighting for in their historical and regional context can you say anything reasonable. I already loved India and I've been more and more drawn into India all the time. So, I said to an activist friend of mine who works in India, "Please help me learn. Just set me up with an itinerary where I can go around and meet with women's groups all over the country and see what women are fighting for."

What I found was that of course the issues are continuous with issues that feminists talk about in the U.S. -- sexual harassment, domestic violence, adequate rape laws, these are big issues -- but there are also quite other issues that we don't think so much about because maybe we take them for granted, like girls being able to go to school, girls being able not to be married at age six, girls being able to have access to employment opportunities, being able to have equal property rights. These things are very connected with the others, because in fact, one main way that women can stand up to their husbands against domestic violence is by having a job so that the husband knows that she can exit if she wants to, she can take that money out of the household, and also by having land. If she has land, then he knows she can go, and then, "I'm losing."

So, to think about the interconnections of all those issues was very, very important because you can't even have an adequate proposal in one of these areas unless you see the whole layout and how the problems mesh together.

Also, [it's important] to see a different political culture, because a lot of Americans think, "Oh, thriving Western democracies," but actually, to me, India is a much more thriving democracy because there's a great deal more voter turnout. The rural poor are very invested in politics. Gandhi set up rural village councils that bring people into the political process even if they can't read and write. They get very involved in shaping the nation and often decide the results of elections. So, I like the Indian democracy, I like people's passion for justice. When I would go to the poorest places, women were not just moaning and groaning, they were making plans, they were excited about what they were doing, and they would often sing songs and use the arts to dramatize their optimism.

How did this experience lead to a formulation of your thinking? You emphasize capability.

Yes. Let me tell you what that idea means. It's something that Sen had been working on already before and I developed in a more philosophical way. When the international agencies looked at countries in the old days, they used to ask just one question. That is, how's the economy doing, how much growth is there? They would measure that by looking at the gross national product per capita. Well, you can see that if you're really trying to find out how people are doing and what their quality of life is, that's very crude, because it doesn't even look at distribution. It would typically give very high marks to nations like South Africa under apartheid that had huge inequalities.

It also doesn't identify and separate the different aspects of the human life -- health, education, bodily integrity. All these things are separate, and you might have a nation, for example the United States, that does pretty well on some of these indicators but does very badly on domestic violence. So, you want to look at each one of these separately.

The idea of capabilities is that you ask the question: What are people actually able to do and to be? What I've done that Sen doesn't do is I specify ten central things that I think are central indicators that any decent society would make quite pivotal and would guarantee to all citizens up to an adequate threshold level. I look at: life, health, bodily integrity; development of senses, imagination, and thought through education; practical reason; affiliation; access to recreation and play, because I think that's too little talked about, but women who have to do all the housework and have an outside job too, one of the things they often lack is recreation. I talk about control over material and social environment and also about access to a good relationship with nature and the environment. So, those are the ones that I focus on, and then emotional health is the last one that I've added because again, even women who seem to be doing well and have enough money are often living with a lot of fear and a lot of anger that's perhaps produced by the inequalities and pressures upon them. So, that too seems to me to be an important indicator.

You have to find some way of measuring these, and that's a challenge for the partnership between philosophers and economists, but that it puts the question in the right place. It really is looking at the thing you need to look at.

The Human Development Reports of the United Nations Development Program have been measuring quality of life in countries by looking at capabilities since 1990, and it's made a difference to the way politicians do things. They care now much more about education and healthcare because they see that they're separate from economic growth. Just raising economic indicators does not deliver a more adequate level of healthcare and education. So, it's an approach that's having real practical impact. The intellectual work has to keep being developed further and keep being pushed further.

Now we have an international association called the Human Development and Capability Association that has 700 members from about 40 countries, and to me it's thrilling to see young people come in and contest my formulations, mix it up, have a good argument, and then also think about ways to translate this into actual policy. So, it's a movement now.

Was this experience unusual in the context of your other work in the sense that you're going out into the field and doing empirical research about the ideas that you're developing? Was this a unique experience in that sense, or do you do it more often than not in your other works?

Any real empirical research requires partnership with people who know how to do that. What I did, when I went out into the field, was educate myself to raise the right questions. But if I really wanted to know what correlations are there between, let's say, land rights and domestic violence, I'll ask somebody who does empirical research. I've made a network of partners and I can consult them, and that's one of the things our association is about, too. But that's something I do also when I write about the emotions. I'm very interested in what experimental psychology tells us about emotions, I'm very interested in what biology tells us. What I contribute is something different. In both cases what I'm mainly contributing is a kind of thinking through, laying out systematically, offering the justifications, and so on; but no good unless you have adequate contact with the empirical stuff.

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