EMINENT: US philosopher, Prof Martha Nussbaum. Picture: Maryna van Wyk
Maryna van Wyk
All over the world people are struggling for a life that is fully human, a life worthy of human dignity. But countries and states are often focused on economic growth alone, leaving their people striving for meaningful lives.
Prof Martha Nussbaum, a world renowned philosopher from the US, says research has shown that economic growth does not automatically improve people’s health, education, opportunities for political participation or opportunities for women to protect themselves from rape and domestic violence.
She was speaking at the University of the Free State over the weekend at the “International conference on breaking cycles of the past in societies affected by historical trauma”.
Nussbaum said a study in India found dramatic evidence that overall, economic growth did not translate into achievements in health care and education.
“States which have aggressively pursued policies of foreign investment had high growth without good achievements in these areas. A state whose economy has not grown well, in part on account of high labour costs that have driven the labour market to other states, nonetheless had such impressive achievements in health and education that it turned out to be the gold star of the development literature,” she said.
There was a need for policies that were truly pertinent to promote human capabilities and not to simply raise the total or average GDP, she said.
“These should be opportunities that people have when policy choices put them in a position to function effectively in a wide range that is fundamental to a fully human life.” Nussbaum said the GDP approach neglected distribution: all satisfactions are simply funnelled together so that the exceeding satisfaction of a lot of rich and middle class people can justify misery at the bottom. The poor, in effect, were used as means to the happiness of the rich.
“It neglects the diverse elements of a human life,” she said.
As a supporter of the capabilities approach, Nussbaum said it began with a conception of the dignity of the human being and of a life that was worthy of that dignity.
“With this basic idea as a starting point I then attempt to justify a list of capabilities such as rights and entitlement as central requirements of a life with dignity. A society that neglects one of these has fallen short of social justice,” she stated.
“The basic intuition from which my version of the capability approach in the political arena begins is that human abilities exert a moral claim that they should be developed.
“Human beings are creatures such that, provided with the right educational and material support, they can become fully capable of these human functions.”
She concluded that nations must help one another in fighting the good fight by financial aid.
“I believe the richer nations of the world owe a lot to the poorer nations in connection with economic and educational development.
“Another aid in this struggle is good intellectual work.
“People matter and ideas matter only because people matter. But ideas do matter for people, and we all need to put our heads together across the boundaries of discipline and geography that divide us if the world’s pressing problems of exclusion and inequality are to be solved.”
Nussbaum received an honorary doctorate from the UFS during its summer graduation on Thursday last week.