By Martha Nussbaum, on the best ways to help with poverty:
Most nations, operating domestically, have understood that respect for people requires a richer and more complicated account of national priorities than that provided by GDP alone. On the whole, they have offered a more adequate account in their constitutions and other founding documents. But the theories that dominate policy-making in the new global order have yet to attain the respectful complexity embodied in good constitutions; and these theories, defective as they are, have enormous power. Unfortunately, they greatly influence not just international bodies but also the domestic priorities of nations—and many nations today are pursuing economic growth in ways that shortchange other commitments they have made to their people. The use of incomplete theories is only part of the story behind this narrowness of focus, but it is a part that can be and is being resourcefully addressed.
A new theoretical paradigm known as the Capabilities Approach is evolving. Unlike the dominant approaches, it begins with a commitment to the equal dignity of all people, whatever their class, religion, caste, race or gender, and it is committed to the attainment, for all, of lives that are worthy of that equal dignity. Both a comparative account of the quality of life and a theory of basic social justice, it remedies the major deficiencies of the dominant approaches. It is sensitive to distribution, focusing particularly on the struggles of traditionally excluded or marginalized groups. It is sensitive to the complexity and the qualitative diversity of the goals that people pursue. Rather than trying to squeeze all these diverse goals into a single box, it carefully examines the relationships among them, thinking about how they support and complement one another. It also takes into account that people may need different quantities of resources if they are to come up to the same level of ability to choose and act, particularly if they begin from different social positions.
For all these reasons, the Capabilities Approach is attracting attention, all over the world, as an alternative to dominant approaches in development economics and public policy. It is also attracting attention as an approach to basic social justice, within and between nations—in some ways agreeing with other philosophical theories of social justice, in some ways departing from them—for example, by giving greater support to the struggles of people with disabilities than a social contract model seems to permit.
Our world needs more critical thinking and more respectful argument. The distressingly common practice of arguing by sound bite urgently needs to be replaced by a mode of public discourse that is more respectful of our equal human dignity. The Capabilities Approach is offered as a contribution to national and international debate, not as a dogma that must be swallowed whole. It is laid out to be pondered, digested, compared with other approaches—and then, if it stands the test of argument, to be adopted and put into practice.