Martha Nussbaum and Her Ten Basic Capabilities

Martha Nussbaum's theoretical proposal is revolutionary. Her idea of the responsibility of the State to the citizens is one of the simplest ideas, but also one of the most advanced of our time.
Martha Nussbaum and Her Ten Basic Capabilities
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 01 January, 2023

Martha Nussbaum is a philosopher who graduated from Harvard University. She follows the Aristotelian tradition and believes that political theory should be oriented toward what’s most important for people: living well. From this point of view, policies and institutions are only successful when they guarantee good living conditions for citizens.

Based on the above, Martha Nussbaum produced a list of the ten basic or central human capabilities or functions. These are ten attributes that, in her opinion, are essential for ensuring our well-being.

Based on these basic capacities, Nussbaum also proposes the existence of ten principles that should form the pillars of global order. Unlike other political theorists, she links the exercise of power to the individual as well as ethics. Let’s see what this interesting thinker has to say.

I believe that the most important ingredient for the health of democracy is the education of citizenship, an education with a strong humanistic content. We have to be able to instill in young people the critical thinking of Socrates, and teach them how to articulate a rational discourse, how to debate and defend their ideas.”

-Martha Nussbaum-

Basic capabilities, according to Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum thinks that development and progress shouldn’t be measured based on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or similar indicators. In fact, for her, the fundamental indicator is the existence or non-existence of a possibility: that of people having the opportunity to have a valuable existence.

In turn, this possibility is based on the basic capacities that, according to Martha Nussbaum, foster the central components of well-being. Or rather, the necessary conditions to access the enjoyment of existence. Such capabilities are as follows:

  • Life. Being able to live a satisfying life into old age.
  • Bodily health. Having good health and access to medical help when needed.
  • Bodily Integrity. Being able to go where we want to go.
  • Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use all of our senses. Being free to imagine, think, and reason.
  • Emotion. Being able to feel attached to others, to love and suffer the absence of loved ones. Also to feel gratitude, longing, and compassion.
  • Practical Reason. Being able to reflect critically about good and evil, and to live with our own consciences.
  • Affiliation. Being able to form a community with others, have social ties, have respect and compassion for others, and not discriminate.
  • Other Species. Being able to live in harmony with the rest of nature.
  • Play. Being able to laugh, play, and enjoy recreational activities.
  • Control Over One’s Environment. Being able to exercise control over our own lives, participating in politics, working, and owning property.

The ten principles

The ten basic capabilities raised by Martha Nussbaum give rise to ten principles that should materialize in government works and govern international relations. The principles are as follows:

  • Each country is responsible for developing the capabilities of its citizens.
  • Capacity building must be carried out in a peaceful manner.
  • Prosperous nations have an obligation to help poorer ones.
  • Multinational corporations must promote core capabilities in all countries where they operate.
  • The global economic order must be fair to the poorest countries.
  • A minimal and decentralized but strong global public sphere must be developed.
  • Institutions must focus on the most vulnerable in each nation and region.
  • All countries must emphasize the care of children, the elderly, and the sick.
  • The family must be protected. However, if it’s negligent it ceases to be a private issue.
  • Institutions and individuals must support education as a key to the empowerment of the most vulnerable.

Emotions in Martha Nussbaum’s theory

Emotions occupy an extremely important place in Martha Nussbaum’s theory. The most important of these, in her opinion, is compassion. Indeed, she considers it to be essential for ethical action.

In order for compassion to materialize, three basic requirements must be met:

  • The judgment of magnitude. It means believing that the suffering of the other is a relevant reality.
  • The trial of unworthiness. No person deserves to suffer.
  • The eudaimonistic trial. Another person’s hardship affects our own flourishing.

According to Martha Nussbaum, compassion must be promoted and nurtured in order for it to become a social value. Likewise, reciprocity and individuality must be encouraged. Reciprocity leads to the pursuit of mutual good. Individuality involves the establishment of limits that allow for preserving individual differences. Her theory, without a doubt, is extremely interesting.

Cover image taken from Fronteiras do Pensamento
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  • Jiménez, A., Triana, M., & Washburn, J. (2002). Compasión y salud. Isegoría, (27), 211-223.
  • Nussbaum, M. C. (2010). Sin fines de lucro. Por qué la democracia necesita de las humanidades. Katz editores.

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