Martha Nussbaum, Essentialism, and Human Sexuality

By Ball, Carlos A. | Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Martha Nussbaum, Essentialism, and Human Sexuality


Ball, Carlos A., Columbia Journal of Gender and Law


It is an honor to participate in this program recognizing the work of Professor Martha Nussbaum. A few years ago, after being fortunate enough to have been awarded tenure, the university library at the institution where I worked at the time asked me to choose a book I valued for an exhibit of books chosen by recently tenured professors. I chose Nussbaum's Women and Human Development, a book that has had a deep intellectual influence on me. (1) One of the chapters in that book is titled "In Defense of Universal Values," a topic that is relevant to this Article.

Critiques of essentialism are a common theme in the writings of many contemporary academics. Indeed, queer theorists, critical race theorists, post-structuralists, post-colonialists, and many feminists consistently take issue with the notion that there are attributes or traits that are intrinsically constitutive of categories such as men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, disabled and non-disabled, and so on. (2) The emphases and nuances of the anti-essentialist critiques differ depending on membership in particular academic camps and disciplines. However, the critiques uniformly reject moral, philosophical, and political understandings that are explicitly or implicitly grounded in the notion that identities--and for some critics, even the very idea of a "human being"--are static and fixed, that is, immune or separate from forces of social construction. Anti-essentialist critiques hold instead that much (or all) of what constitutes us as individuals is socially constructed and therefore fluid and contestable.

From an anti-essentialist perspective, Martha Nussbaum's liberal humanism is intrinsically suspect. Nussbaum, after all, grounds her moral and political philosophy in a particular understanding of what it means to be human, one that is driven by certain capabilities that she argues are necessary to lead a fully human life. Although Nussbaum does not usually refer to herself as an essentialist (3)--few do, since the term is largely used only in a pejorative sense--her capabilities approach to justice is explicitly universalist; (4) it is grounded in commonalities and found across time and place, allowing us to recognize each other as human. (5)

It is important to note that Nussbaum's universalism is of a very different order than that usually associated with liberal political theory because it refuses to locate the source of human dignity, which serves as the foundation of her moral and political philosophy, solely in man's capacity to reason. Instead, Nussbaum contends that the capability to affiliate with others also plays an architectonic role in our lives because we exercise most of our important capabilities with and through others. As she explains, "[t]o plan for one's own life without being able to do so in complex forms of discourse, concern, and reciprocity with other human beings is ... to behave in an incompletely human way." (6)

In addition, Nussbaum's conception of what it means to be human is decidedly non-metaphysical. It is derived not from philosophical principles gleaned through the application of abstract reasoning, but from the interpretation of human practices and experiences, including the stories we tell each other about our lives and aspirations. It is also not dependent on "facts of human nature," whether physiological or psychological, that are separate from our ethical evaluations of what is necessary to lead a full human life. For Nussbaum, in other words, the value of central human capabilities is determined through ethical interpretations and evaluations of human experiences, rather than through the discovery of so-called natural principles or facts that are independent of those evaluations. (7) There was a time early on in Nussbaum's elaboration of the capabilities approach when she criticized John Rawls for deploying an unduly restrictive understanding of the good in determining what is necessary to promote human flourishing. …

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