Better Worlds: On Human Potentials, Capabilities and Rights

On Human Potentials, Capabilities and Rights


“What is each person able to do and to be?” (Nussbaum, 2011: p18).

A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What one can be, one must be.  Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970)

This is the original Maslow listing. But of course it has transformed since it was developed the 1960’s.

A person has to be what a person has to be.

Drawing from a long line of Aristotelian reasoning which argues for the realization of ‘natural ends’, human beings can be identified as having distinctive, unique potentials or capabilities for life that are shaped and facilitated by the social; we may even call these their human rights. Such capabilities may vary a little from culture to culture; they are not fixed but complex and grow and change with lives. But they do hint strongly at lives that can be enabled to flourish and other lives that may be damaged or even wasted. For each individual human, we start with the unlived life and start  to see how it is our social relations that help shape and enable us to flourish, or not.

 What might these human capabilities, potentials, rights be?  There have been many attempts to create long lists of these potentials. The humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow probably provided the most succinct listing, placed our needs on a hierarchy: of physiological needs, of security needs, of social needs, of esteem needs, and ultimately of actualizing needs: “ Self-actualizing people have a deep feeling of identification, sympathy, and affection for human beings in general. They feel kinship and connection, as if all people were members of a single family”. Others have produced lists of multiple needs: Christian Smith’s What is a Person? suggests some 30 capacities. But perhaps the most valuable – even if ever changing, rather long and still incomplete- listing is that by the feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum, and so I reproduce it here. Human capabilities entail:

1.Life.  Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living

2.Bodily Health.  Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; being adequately nourished; being able to have adequate shelter

3.Bodily Integrity.  Being able to move freely from place to place; having one’s bodily boundaries treated as sovereign i.e..being able to be secure against assault, including sexual assault, marital rape, and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.

4.Senses, imagination, and thought.  Being able to use the senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason – and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training; being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing expressive works and events of one’s own choice (religious, literary, musical etc.); being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech and freedom of religious exercise; being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-necessary  pain.

5.Emotions.  Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves; being able to love those who love and care for us; being able to grieve at their absence; in general being able to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger; not having one’s emotional development blighted by overwhelming fear or anxiety, or by traumatic events of abuse or neglect..  (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.

6.Practical reason.  Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life.  (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience.)

7.Affiliation.  (a) Being able to live for and in relation to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; being able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for the situation; having the  capability for both justice and friendship.  (Protecting this capability means, once again, protecting institutions that constitute such forms of affiliation, and also protecting institutions that constitute such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedoms of  assembly and political speech.)  (b)  Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.  (This entails provisions of nondiscrimination.on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, caste, ethnicity, or national origin)

8.Other species.  Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature

9.Play.  Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.

10.Control over one’s environment.  (a) Political: being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the rights of political participation, free speech, and freedom of association (b) Material: being able to hold property (both land and movable goods); having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.

(sources: From Sex and Social Justice. 1999: 41-2; Women and Human Development ,2000. p78-80.1.  Creating Capabilities, 2011: Ch 2)

 Of course the list in inadequate but it is a good start for thinking. The challenge for the humanist sociologist is to inspect each of these capabilities and then to empirically investigate those social conditions that enable lives to develop and flourish in these areas. Closely linked is also the task of to analyzing the ways in which each of these human potentials also suggest a range of human rights that need respecting.

This is the key introductory text to the theory and critique of capabilities.

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