How do they see you?

Elizabeth Spelman

  • Sex and Social Justice by Martha Nussbaum
    Oxford, 476 pp, £25.00, July 1999, ISBN 0 19 511032 3
  • Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach by Martha Nussbaum
    Cambridge, 312 pp, £17.95, May 2000, ISBN 0 521 66086 6

On the occasion of a meeting of the American Philosophical Association some years ago, hotel housekeepers were overheard commenting that in comparison with other conventioneers, philosophers ‘don’t screw very much, but they sure do drink a lot’. What the real if apocryphally reported housekeepers may not have noted – obliged as they were to be constantly cleaning up after those chaste philosophical revellers – is that philosophers do talk about sex. True, until fairly recently, ‘professional philosophers’ (themselves a recent invention) couldn’t imagine that sex might be a topic they could wrap their professional tongues around. But this has given way to a recognition – albeit in some quarters still grudging – that since philosophy might have something to do with human life, and human life something to do with sex, maybe it’s okay for philosophers to talk philosophically about sex, where ‘sex’ includes but is not limited to what philosophers might or might not engage in between bouts of boozing at conventions.

So what do philosophers talk about when they talk about sex? Well, as Martha Nussbaum’s two recent books illustrate, more than enough issues to keep social theorists, ethicists, legal scholars and hoteliers in business for a long time: topics that arise in connection with the regulation of sexual activity (e.g. gay and lesbian rights), the containment of sexual freedom and pleasure (e.g. female genital mutilation), the employment of one’s sexual skills for profit (e.g. prostitution), the use of others simply as a means to one’s sexual pleasure (e.g. objectification). Nussbaum published a variety of articles on such matters during the 1990s, and has now revised and compiled them in Sex and Social Justice.

Perhaps it’s worth saying up front that prurient readers won’t be disappointed: in a chapter on lesbian and gay rights we learn that the US Army’s byzantine and hysterical policy on homosexuality permits retention only of ‘nonhomosexual soldiers who, because of extenuating circumstances, engaged in, attempted to engage in, or solicited a homosexual act’. The Army probably would not discharge the soldier, otherwise somehow certifiably heterosexual, who testified: ‘Well, I like a good blow job, and the women downtown don’t know how to suck dick worth a damn. But this man happens to suck mine better than anyone I have ever found in the world’ (Watkins v. US Army and related testimony). In one of the book’s most engaging and original chapters, Nussbaum argues that certain forms of objectification of other people’s bodies might enhance sexual encounters without degrading or demeaning any partner to them. Quotations from Lawrence, Joyce, the pseudonymous Laurence St Clair, Alan Hollinghurst and others, and Nussbaum’s extended commentary on them, provide ample opportunity (not taken advantage of) to have index entries for ‘cocks, soaping of in showers’, ‘erection, elephantine’, ‘genital organs, the calling by proper names of’, ‘fantasy, masturbatory’ – vivid expressions in the service of a philosophical inquiry about when we are and when we are not objectifying other people.

The intended audience for Sex and Social Justice appears to be not so much a philosophical community needing to be convinced that sex and sexuality admit to or invite philosophical examination, as a feminist community (philosophical and otherwise) reluctant to press its own views about sex and sexuality further than its own local borders. Nussbaum is concerned that feminists who have at long last come to be taken at least somewhat seriously at home now worry about exporting their views abroad. Feminists who have felt fully justified in criticising their own cultures in general and their own professions in particular for massive ignorance of, discrimination against, or violence towards women, have come to worry about their own ignorance of, insensitivity to, and imperialistic tendencies towards women elsewhere. If we don’t like it when men tell us who we are and how we are to live, what business have we telling other women who they are and how they are to live?

Nussbaum is in effect saying to such feminists that the self-silencing brought on by their relativistic worries is no more justified than the silence imposed on feminist voices by societal misogyny or pig-headed colleagues. Having found our voices, we should not muffle or mute them in the name of an ill-conceived, guilt-ridden form of relativism. What we need is a robust universalism, a carefully thought out, contextually sensitive set of norms against which all women’s lives, or all people’s lives, can be measured. We should not be worried about exporting such norms to other cultures (where they may already be recognised), nor about employing them within our own: the theoretically well-armed feminist has every reason and every right, perhaps even an obligation, to question not only practices abroad, such as genital mutilation and religious laws permitting marital rape, but also certain habits at home, ‘emotions and desires that are inauthentic in the sense of being inimical to self-development, self-expression and rational autonomy’. There is nothing sacrosanct about any culture or religion’s rituals. Cultures are neither monolithic, unchanging, nor without internal critique and resistance; relativists tend to ignore such complexity, and fail to note how the blanket injunction to respect other cultures is not only itself a universal command, but requires a finessing of the fact that respecting other cultures is not necessarily something those other cultures themselves are wont to do. Nor is there anything holy, or immune from criticism, about individuals’ pleasures and preferences, given the well-known conditions of deformation and distortion under which they can develop. We should not underestimate the power of rationality, especially in league against the power, in high places, of irrationality. Nor should we assume that reason necessarily is at odds with emotion. Finally, we should not undervalue the worth of the individual, whose dignity and well-being trump the devices and desires of any group of which she might be a part.

The ringing defences of universalism, liberalism and human rights in the early chapters of Sex and Social Justice are expanded and revised in Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Having insisted in the earlier work that ‘feminism should become less insular and more international, more attentive to the urgent problems of unequal hunger, unequal healthcare, and lack of political equality that are the daily lot of women in many parts of the world,’ and now in Women and Human Development urging feminist philosophers to join feminist economists and activists in believing it ‘right that problems of poor working women in both developing and developed nations should increasingly hold the centre of the scene, and that problems peculiar to middle-class women should give way to these’, Nussbaum hopes to show how the combination of gender inequality and poverty makes particularly clear the need for attention to what she calls the ‘central human capabilities’.

This student of Aristotle and of Marx, and sometime collaborator with Amartya Sen, insists that a truly human life is characterised at the very minimum by the possibility of functioning in certain ways. We can judge whether this bare minimum is met by asking not about how satisfied people are with their lives, nor even about the resources they have at hand, but about what they ‘actually are able to do and to be’. There are ten such capabilities (suggesting a parallel set of Ten Commandments to honour them), and they include not only ‘being able to have good health, including reproductive health’ but also ‘being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life’, and ‘being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers’. Since one of the foremost goals of the ‘capabilities approach’ is to maximise individual choice, the point is not to force people to function in certain ways, but to hold polities accountable for providing ‘conditions that permit’ individuals ‘to follow their own lights free from tyrannies imposed by politics and tradition’. The idea is not that no one should choose to fast but that no one should have to starve. Some women may prefer a life of ‘female modesty, deference, obedience and self-sacrifice’, but political and economic opportunities ought to be such that women have options other than serving and obeying others.

Individuals should not be denied choice by the cultures, religions or families of which they are members, though these institutions might well provide the conditions under which individuals can flourish; indeed, ‘women who have dignity and self-respect can help to fashion types of community that are no less loving, and often quite a lot more loving, than those they have known before.’ But no institution, however customary, is sacred, and it is the responsibility of governments to protect individuals from any community that prohibits them from developing and exercising the basic human capabilities.

Women in much of the world lose out by being women. Their human powers of choice and sociability are frequently thwarted by societies in which they must live as the adjuncts and servants of the ends of others, and in which their sociability is deformed by fear and hierarchy. But they are bearers of human capabilities, basic powers of choice that make a moral claim for opportunities to be realised and to flourish. Women’s unequal failure to attain a higher level of capability, at which the choice of central human functions is really open to them, is therefore a problem of justice.

The norms of justice for which these capabilities provide a template are universal standards by which all nations’ provisions for their citizens are to be measured. Realisable in multiple ways, they are meant not to impose sameness but to guarantee conditions under which the free development of individuals, and thus of the inevitable differences among them and among the religions, cultures and nations of which they are a part, can blossom and be protected.

Sex and Social Justice and Women and Human Development constitute Martha Nussbaum’s most explicitly feminist work to date, a feminism which she describes in the introduction to Sex and Social Justice as ‘internationalist, humanist, liberal, concerned with the social shaping of preference and desire, and concerned with sympathetic understanding’. As in the case of any heavyweight contender, the direction of her blows is shaped in large part by her chosen sparring partners: Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Marx, John Rawls, Amartya Sen, Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Susan Moller Okin. Though some of the nudging she gives feminists – typically referred to in Sex and Social Justice as ‘them’ but in the more recent Women and Human Development as ‘my fellow feminists’ – is healthy, her presentation of feminism is surprisingly monolithic, given her insistence elsewhere on the importance of recognising the variety of thought and strands of resistance within any culture, religion, intellectual tradition or political movement. Her claim that feminists, including feminist philosophers, should move beyond a focus on ‘problems peculiar to middle-class women’ would have more credibility if her own canon were broader than MacKinnon, Dworkin and Okin, whom she implicitly treats as constituting US feminism.

The feminist bread basket offers much more sustenance than Nussbaum gives it credit for. For example, Angela Davis’s work on African American women during slavery and the post-Reconstruction period is hardly esoterica, is decidedly not about middle-class women, and in fact nicely illustrates many of the points about the elements of a ‘truly human life’ that Nussbaum hopes the capabilities approach can capture. Nussbaum is surely right in urging feminists not to toss out the language of universal rights (though for a variety of reasons she in the end prefers the language of capabilities). But for someone who is now a professor of law and has in recent years focused on legal matters (much of her discussion of gay and lesbian rights in Sex and Social Justice is about legal attempts to regulate sexual activity, and her analysis of women in India in Women and Human Development includes extensive commentary on the relation between religious and secular law), it seems strange that she does not mention and deploy the ‘critique of the critique of rights’ – deconstruct rights as much as you want, but don’t deny them to those in the US and around the world who might be on the brink of enjoying their fruits for the first time – powerfully put forward by what have come to be called ‘critical race legal theorists’. One particularly prominent feminist legal scholar among them is Patricia Williams (see for example The Alchemy of Race and Rights, 1991). It just isn’t fair to ignore relevant literature and then be cross about its absence and present oneself as filling in the gap. Nussbaum’s sense of what constitutes feminism itself suffers in fact from the provincialism and blanched monolithicity she rightly warns us against.

Philosophically ambitious, politically daring and morally insistent, Women and Human Development hopes to shake the complacent reader into realising just how dire the conditions are under which so many women around the world try to live, work and love. Acknowledging the moral and political delicacy of her project, Nussbaum raises the possibility that ‘all this philosophising’ might be ‘simply one more exercise in colonial or class domination’. She’s eager to prevent ‘the sort of self-deceptive rationalising that frequently makes us collaborators with injustice’. The project poses epistemological problems as well: in the final chapter of Sex and Social Justice, in which Nussbaum uses To the Lighthouse to discuss the possibility of our knowledge of other minds, she admires Woolf’s implicit lessons about the great difficulty of understanding others, not only because of our inevitable idiosyncrasies, but also because of gender differences – and thus also, one would assume, cultural differences.

But though Nussbaum has gone some way, explicitly and implicitly, towards identifying the limitations and dangers endemic to her project, her conception of their source is perhaps too narrow to capture some of the most insidious of them. Her account of the capabilities approach is interwoven with detailed descriptions of the lives of Indian women, and she is at pains to emphasise that her work grows out of, and has been revised in the light of, conversations with them in a variety of settings. She wants to be able to show how a feminism that is unapologetically universal is not at odds with the ‘sympathetic understanding’ of women in their particularity. But sympathetic understanding has a notoriously slimy underbelly: it typically reflects a difference in the conditions of the sympathiser and the one in need of sympathy, the knower and the one whose situation calls for understanding. (Even if I know from experience what it’s like for one’s mother to die, the sympathy I have for my friend on the occasion of her mother’s death is about her loss, not mine, her unfortunate condition, not mine.)

This difference in the relative if temporary fortunes of the profferer and recipient of sympathy is magnified, and the odour from the underbelly made proportionally stronger, when the sympathiser is the US scholar and the object of her (and our) sympathy the distant, propertyless, abused women for whom she speaks, even when she knows them and tries to ensure that they not be seen simply as nameless victims. The relatively thick descriptions of the women who serve as the case studies in India end up leaving them marked, moving slowly under the weight of cultural traditions, religious rituals, gender inequality and poverty, whereas the scholar, as observer, reporter and theorist, is merely thinly there, present only in a capacity in which culture, religion, gender, economic status and other markers appear to be irrelevant or in any event not powerful enough to give her shape. (Nussbaum’s tendency to sprinkle both these books with carefully chosen snippets about her own life – about her Episcopalian upbringing, for example, and her conversion to Judaism, coy speculation about whether resting her head on her lover’s stomach might be a form of objectification – provides not an exception to but an illustration of the difference I have in mind.)

Of course, such authorial transparency is in a sense precisely what she hopes to achieve, since the book is not about her but about the women in India – real, multidimensional human beings – and the ways in which their lives urgently require appropriate moral, political and legal responses. Nussbaum certainly does not present herself as wishing for or being able to operate as a facet-free prism through which her subjects come to life. But her near weightlessness in the book seems so natural that it may be tempting to think that somehow she has managed to decontextualise herself.

It is thus worth emphasising that the very thinness of her authorial presence represents not the absence of markers but an achievement made possible by the way in which her own cultural resources are working for and through her. The preparation for and production of her book are embedded in the practices of her culture and her profession, their rituals of recognition and reward, their mechanisms for having one’s views published and distributed. In such a context – a trough from which I and the LRB are also feeding, and a context to which there are obvious close parallels in India – it is not considered inappropriate for people to wish to be recognised for their work and for their publishers to wish to make a little money. But this means that the very instruments Nussbaum so apparently naturally employs to bring the impoverished women of the world to our attention bring her dangerously close to objectifying them, a possibility we are alerted to by her own rousing analysis of objectification in Sex and Social Justice.

By Nussbaum’s lights, a particularly grotesque form of objectification is the behaviour of Adam and Maggie in The Golden Bowl, who treat their respective spouses as ‘antique furniture’, ‘denying them human status and asserting their right to the permanent use of those splendidly elegant bodies’. The disappearing act required by the authorial conventions of scholarship, creating a stark contrast between the palpability of the women featured in the book and the wispiness of the author, underscores the fact that the scholar is in a position to pin down her subjects in ways they cannot possibly pin her down. The scholar has so many more resources at her command than her subjects that she can talk about them, and be heard, in ways that they cannot talk about her and be heard. Nussbaum’s publishers understand this all too well, ready to wring every last penny from the paratext by splashing the dust-jackets of these books with photographs of an impoverished woman (SSJ) and child (WHD): picture-perfect poor people, à la Benetton, whose photographs were taken in 1953 and are ‘used by permission of’ – you guessed it – a visiting photographer and the archive housing his work.

There is no doubt about the sincerity of Nussbaum’s passion, and much to admire about the care with which she has made the case for the capabilities approach in the face of inevitable questions about its moral foundations and political feasibility. But the ethical and political dilemmas posed by our relation to the relatively silenced and impoverished others about and on behalf of whom we speak are not exhausted by coming down on one side or other of the universalism/relativism debates or by making sure that our theories are informed by detailed portraits of those whose lives these theories are meant to improve. Maria Lugones has argued that ‘travelling’ to the world of others should include finding out how they see you, what they see in and around you. Translating this into Nussbaum’s language, it would seem that you have not responded to the capabilities of others if you ignore or exclude consideration of how they see you. Philosophers at conventions may not be interested in what hotel housekeepers have to say about them (and should not go around importuning workers to provide such commentary), but housekeepers may at least sometimes pause to think about and remark on what they see in the midst of all that carousing, cajoling and conceptualising. Imagine, then, that at such a convention there is a high-powered session devoted to the presentation and discussion of a splendid, passionate and painstakingly worked out theory about the effects of gender inequality and economic status on the condition of women in the service industry. Hotel housekeepers might well have been interviewed in connection with such a theory (indeed, in Boston, the source of that remark about the drinking and mating habits of philosophers, a hotel chain tried to force housekeepers – all of them women – to clean bathrooms on their knees, on the grounds that when they work standing up they don’t do a good enough job). The theorists may have taken great care to emphasise the extent of the women’s agency despite the hardships they are forced to endure. But will we, at such a session or outside it, learn about what the women being studied think about all this – not simply what they think about the theories in which they figure (they, and Nussbaum’s subjects, may well agree with them), but what they think about the theorists, their struggles, their hopes, their disciplinary tics? Will there be room for something like the verbal snapshot provided by the hotel maids’ assessment of the predilections and preoccupations of philosophers – an image of the theorists which is not under their control, which locates their theorising (and their behaviour in the venues in which it takes place) in the context of cultural and professional practices regulating what they can and cannot say or do? Are the theorists prepared to be thickly perceived, moving with and against the insistent rhythms of their own local customs and rules? Are they ready to be ripened into objects of their subjects’ sympathetic understanding?