Nussbaum: A Utilitarian Critique
Mark S. Stein
affiliation not provided to SSRN
June 1, 2009
Boston College Law Review, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 489-531, 2009
In this essay, I offer a utilitarian perspective on Martha Nussbaum’s theory of justice. Nussbaum believes that society should guarantee to every individual a threshold level of central human capabilities. Nussbaum’s approach has considerable appeal. However, it is implausible and unappealing when it diverges greatly from utilitarianism. Nussbaum’s theory requires that enormous sums be devoted to people who receive very little benefit from efforts to raise them toward a capability threshold. Moreover, Nussbaum refuses to take a principled position on how conflicts among below-threshold interests should be resolved, even when one alternative would produce enormously more good than another alternative. Nussbaum mitigates these problems through an implicit incorporation of utilitarianism to address conflicts among below-threshold interests, but this partial adoption of utilitarianism cannot completely cure her theory. In addition to critiquing Nussbaum’s theory, I respond to some of Nussbaum’s criticisms of utilitarianism. I reject Nussbaum’s claim that utilitarianism is wrong to give weight to adaptive preferences. I also demonstrate that Nussbaum misstates the relationship between her theory and the doctrine of incommensurability: features of her theory that she attributes to a denial of commensurability actually reflect a commitment to commensurability across the capability threshold.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 44
Keywords: distributive justice, utilitarianism, egalitarianism, Martha NussbaumAccepted Paper Series
Date posted: June 2, 2009
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