Reason devalues ​​human life

Martha Nussbaum

The idea of ​​human dignity in Martha Nussbaum's political philosophy [1]

For Martha Nussbaum, philosophy and philosophizing have a clear practical relevance. Following on from Aristotle, she is concerned with the development of criteria for a good human life. In doing so, she assumes a “skills approach” that she developed together with Amartya Sen in her advisory work for UN development projects. It starts with the question of what the basic human abilities or functions consist of. Only the possibility of a minimum of the development of all these anthropological constants creates politically just conditions (political justice) and the possibility of a life in dignity, because people have a right to these development possibilities qua human being. Nussbaum postulates ten basic human functions as a necessary condition for a life that is appropriate and therefore worthy of people.

In her philosophical-historical derivation of the concept of human dignity, she starts from the Stoa and Kant, in order to then delimit her own approach with reference to Aristotle and the young Marx.

For the Greek and Roman Stoics, reason in the sense of practical reason as the ability to make moral decisions constitutes what is valuable or worthy of each individual. In the opinion of the Stoics, according to Nussbaum, it is the participation in the divine in every human being. It would not depend on social or material living conditions or gender; all people would be alike in their limitless moral worth.

Nussbaum sees this approach as continuing in Kant's modern enlightenment position, which regards humans as an end in itself due to their ability to reason, which is why respect for their dignity consists in the fact that they must never be treated as a mere means.

Nussbaum certainly recognizes that the Stoics and Kant are correct that there is ultimately an inalienable value in people regardless of all external living conditions. Nevertheless, for them the limitation of human worth to its rationality falls short.

Referring to the Aristotelian tradition and early Marx, she assumes that human abilities require a suitable material and political environment in order to thrive and exercise; in this sense, she would like the notion of human dignity to extend beyond the gift of reason to the wider ones According to Nussbaum, people have their worth and dignity in their abilities, on the basis of which they can exercise or strive for various forms of activities. But it is precisely the development of these skills into actual employment opportunities that depend on external factors.

Nussbaum differentiates here basic skills (for the untrained skills), inherent abilities (for trained skills) and combined skills (Combination of trained skills and suitable conditions in order to actually be able to exercise them).

It illustrates this using the example of not granted freedom of expression in a repressive regime: an educated person who is capable of free expression and the formation of interest groups, in the sense of a developed, inherent human ability, cannot exercise this ability due to the political circumstances. If the educational opportunities were limited, then there would be a contradiction between basic and inherent skills. For a human life in dignity, therefore, not only the prerequisites for the development of basic skills are important, but also the practice of exercising them.

Using two further examples, Nussbaum clarifies her idea that the disposition to abilities alone cannot describe human dignity, as the Stoics and Kant see it with regard to the faculty of reason. External obstacles that limit the development and practice of these skills are a blatant violation of human dignity.

In the case of unjustified deprivation of liberty, the question must be asked why it is bad for a good person, if it is believed that it does not degrade a person's worth and dignity. According to Nussbaum, this can only be explained by the fact that the unfairly imprisoned person is harmed by the fact that they cannot use their good skills. Only when we assume that the valuable skills require development and practice can we declare that unjustified deprivation of liberty is perceived as harm.

And Nussbaum goes on to ask why we consider rape to be a violation of human dignity, even though no one who is sensible regards rape as a devaluation or defilement of a woman. Rape, according to Nussbaum, injures a woman's life in its physical, psychological and emotional dimensions and affects her ability to exercise her abilities. Although this does not deprive her of her dignity, it is seriously violated because a life in dignity is hindered.

For Martha Nussbaum, a life without opportunities to develop and exercise significant human abilities, analogous to unjustified deprivation of liberty and rape, is a violation of human dignity. Thus, she includes the possibility of being able to lead a life appropriate to the basic abilities in her concept of human dignity .

Author's text from the ZPG group. The illustration is based on the following writings by Martha Nussbaum:

  • Human dignity and political claims, in: Zeitschrift für Menschenrechte, 2010 No. 1, pp. 80-97.
  • Justice or The Good Life, Frankfurt / M. 1999.


The basic skills of man (Nussbaum's list from: M.Nussbaum, Gerechtigkeit or Das gute Leben, Frankfurt / M. 1999, p. 17f.)

  1. The ability to live a full human life to the end; not to die prematurely or to die before life is so reduced that it is no longer worth living.
  2. The ability to enjoy good health; to eat adequately; have adequate accommodation; Having opportunities for sexual satisfaction; to move from one place to another.
  3. The ability to avoid unnecessary pain and have peaceful experiences.
  4. The ability to use the five senses to imagine, think and judge.
  5. The ability to have attachments to things and people outside of ourselves; to love those who love and care for us and to be saddened by their absence; Generally speaking: to love, to mourn, to feel longing and gratitude.
  6. The ability to get an idea of ​​what is good and to think critically about your own life planning.
  7. The ability to live for and in relation to others, to recognize and show solidarity with other people, to enter into various forms of family and social relationships.
  8. The ability to live in connection with animals, plants and all of nature and to treat them with care.
  9. The ability to laugh, play and enjoy recreational activities.
  10. The ability to live your own life and not someone else's.
    10 a. The ability to live your own life in your own environment and context

[1] Biographical note on Martha C. Nussbaum
Born in 1947, 1975 doctorate in classical philology at Harvard, then lecturer in philosophy and classical philology there, professor at Brown University (Rhode Island) from 1984 to 1989. From 1987 to 1993 research advisor at the World Institute for Development Economics Research in Helsinki, a UN body. There she dealt with development projects and questions relating to the measurement of living standards. She has been Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Ethics at the University of Chicago since 1994. She is regarded as the most renowned representative of a neo-Aristotelian approach in practical philosophy.

Most important works published in German:
Justice or The Good Life, Frankfurt / M. 1999.
Constructions of love, desire and care, Frankfurt / M. 2002.
Source: University of Chicago


Work assignment for text development:

  1. Assign the following headings to the sections in the text:
    • Concept of dignity in the Stoa
    • Differentiation of the term "skills"
    • Unjustified deprivation of liberty and rape as examples of violation of dignity
    • Relationship between human dignity and justice
    • Nussbaum's criticism of the concept of dignity in the Stoa
    • Nussbaum's basic idea
    • Relationship between Stoa and Kant
  2. Write an explanatory commentary for each section by paraphrasing the thought in your own words.
  3. Formulate a concise definition:
    Martha Nussbaum defines human dignity ...


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