Capability Without Dignity? – Contemporary Political Theory – article

Capability Without Dignity?

Joseph J. Fischel, Claire McKinney | Contemporary Political Theory


Dignity may just be the most promiscuous normative abstraction. This article, informed by dignity’s historical variability, political theoretic multipurpose, and conflicting jurisprudence, focuses on a particular but influential invocation of the term: dignity as the normative ground for the ‘capabilities approach’ (CA) model of social justice. We ask whether or not the CA, in particular the influential version propounded by philosopher Martha Nussbaum, requires dignity as its foundational premise, and whether or not dignity may be more costly than beneficial for the CA’s vision of a minimally just society. The first section of this article rehearses the warrants of and criticisms against the dignity-basis of Nussbaum’s CA. We canvass the relatively sparse scholarship on dignity within the CA to situate our contribution. The next two sections are case studies, demonstrating dignity’s shortcomings for assessing and regulating sex and abortion, respectively. The fourth section rebuts two possible objections to our criticisms of dignity. The fifth and final section gestures toward another normative abstraction, ‘minimum conditions of individuation’, less polysemic than dignity, which might alternatively ground the CA.


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