Martha Nussbaum on the Capabilities Approach

One prominent idea of rights, common in the US political and legal tradition, understands rights to be barriers against interfering state action: if the state just keeps its hands off, rights are taken to have been secured.  The Capabilities Approach, by contrast, insists that all entitlements involve an affirmative task for government: it must actively support people’s capabilities, not just fail to set up obstacles.  In the absence of action, rights are mere words on paper.  Vasanti was not beaten by the government of Gujarat; she was beaten by her husband.  But a government that does not make and then actively enforce laws against domestic violence, or give women the education and skills they need to get a living wage if they leave an abusive marriage, is accountable for the indignity such a woman endures.  Fundamental rights are only words unless and until they are made real by government action.  The very idea of “negative liberty”, often heard in this connection, is an incoherent idea: all liberties are positive, meaning liberties to do or to be something; and all require the inhibition of interference by others.”

~ Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, p. 65

(Many thanks to Luis Villa for his LibrePlanet talk, which convinced me to read this book, and to Sumana Harihareswara for convincing me to read Luis’ talk!)