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Defending Justice

Vidhu Varma

By Martha C. Nussbaum
Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2007, pp. 487, Rs. 695.00


Almost four decades ago John Rawls presented liberal egalitarianism as a philosophical justification for liberal democratic states. The theoretical premises underlying a general conception of justice consisted of the distribution of all social primary goods - liberty and opportunity, income and wealth and the bases of self respect - equally unless an unequal distribution of any of these are to the advantage of the least favoured (Rawls 1971). With these premises Rawls revived a version of social contract theory that not only proposed that an underlying moral consensus is possible in plural liberal societies but that agreement on political principles shaping justice are more important than those over religious beliefs and moral ideals.   Since then liberal theories of justice have been a prominent theme in political philosophy, lesser though in politics, and Martha Nussbaum’s book could be viewed as covering much familiar ground. Yet she contributes a number of key concepts including ‘care’ among others, while arguing for an alternative theory of liberal justice, the capabilities approach.   Nussbaum’s earlier writings on Quality of life (1993), Sex and Justice (1999) and Women and Human Development (2000) are greatly admired all over the world. Her work has a mixed intellectual inheritance – drawing from Aristotle, Marx, Kant and non-foundational theories of justice – and the result is very exciting; a liberal feminist position which is inflected by an awareness that great asymmetries of power, capacity and moral rationality can create an uneven pitch for the exercise of individual freedoms.   In this book which is a collection of ideas, lectures and papers presented over a period of ten years she breaks new ground going beyond the concerns of her earlier writings. Yet John Rawls’ ‘Theory of Justice’ (1971) is in the background throughout as the natural starting point for any critique and reconstruction of contemporary liberalism. Like Rawls, Nussbaum believes that liberal states must face the demand of pluralism and accommodate the multiple interpretations of the goods that thrive in liberal societies. Unlike Rawls however she rejects social contract tradition as providing adequate solutions to three pressing problems for contemporary theories of justice: impairment and disability, nationality and species membership.   Nussbaum begins by claiming that despite major contributions made by the social contract tradition, they omit from the bargaining situation women, children and elderly people who are viewed as non-productive. The core moral idea in the tradition is that of mutual advantage and reciprocity among people who need ...

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