Plans and capabilities

Over the past few weeks I have been reading Martha Nussbaum. I have researched before on dispositions, including personal character traits, and also on health and well-being so it was perhaps inevitable that I would arrive at Nussbaum. Her capabilities approach to human development is where these topics intersect. I’m early into my reading but liking what I see. When appraising quality of life we should consider not wealth but, rather, flourishing, which she outlines is a matter of increasing our capabilities. I flourish when I am capable of reasoning, forming attachments with others, playing, living a healthy life, and so on.

I have found Nussbaum inspiring for several reasons. For one thing, it gives a very positive conception of human freedom. We are not free simply when restraints are removed but when we have possibilities opened up to us through the acquisition of new capabilities. Someone who can swim is more free, in that respect, than someone who cannot; and someone capable of imagination has more possibilities open to them than someone whose thought is closed.

Nussbaum has inspired me in a more personal way, too. I am now redacted-years old and for a while have been planning how many (four) and which books I want to write before I retire. I was jaded and preparing for decline. Nussbaum’s capabilities approach has persuaded me that I should not succumb to those feelings. And then I saw her publication list. Into her 70s, Nussbaum is still publishing books at a rate of one a year. She remains a model of flourishing: living proof of the virtues of her philosophy.

An academic friend recently told me they were convinced my best work was still ahead of me. That’s the sort of friend I like. Whether I deserve such kindness remains to be seen but, between that encouragement and Nussbaum’s example, I feel ready to raise my ambitions higher than they have been for some time. Life could end at any point and we might leave some projects incomplete. But activity and capability are things we should nurture and maintain for as long as we possibly can, not just in ourselves but in others too.

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