Human Capabilities and Human Authorities: A Comment on Martha Nussbaum’s Women and Human Development

St. Thomas Law Review, Vol. 15, pp. 757-790, 2003

Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 11-56

35 Pages Posted: 28 May 2011

See all articles by Robin L. West

Robin L. West

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: May 20, 2011


What does it mean to be truly human? And, relatedly, what does it mean to be treated as truly human, and with dignity, by the state, or community, of which one is a part? To be fully human, Martha Nussbaum has argued for the better part of two decades, and argues in greater detail in “Women and Human Development”, is not only to be rational, and not only to be happy, but also to be capable – capable, for example, of loving others, of thinking rationally about one's own life, of engaging in dignified labor, of interacting with the natural and political environment, of participating in a society’s cultural life. A truly human life is defined by, or perhaps constituted by, these capabilities; to lack anyone of them is in some way to lack a fundamental pillar of one’s humanity. Therefore, she continues, a citizen in a constitutional government is treated as fully human by the state when that person’s fundamental capabilities – the capabilities which define her humanity – are, at least minimally, protected, promoted or nurtured by the state’s governing authorities. Constitutional governments, then, whatever else they do, must protect, promote, or create whatever conditions are necessary for citizens to possess these fundamental capabilities . . . I will highlight and then amplify what I think is missing or underplayed in Nussbaum’s treatment of capabilities and women, and that is the role that authority plays – and the role it should and should not play – in guiding states toward a recognition of their obligation to nurture, promote, or protect women’s – and men’s and children’s – human capabilities.

Keywords: Book Review, Martha Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, Human Capabilities, Constitution, Role of Authority, Constitutional Law

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

West, Robin L., Human Capabilities and Human Authorities: A Comment on Martha Nussbaum’s Women and Human Development (May 20, 2011). St. Thomas Law Review, Vol. 15, pp. 757-790, 2003; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 11-56. Available at SSRN:

Robin L. West (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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