Discussion on Nussbaum

  1. Using Nussbaum’s view, how do you think using the ten central capabilities to help solve poverty?
  • In our discussion, we find that using the capabilities we could essentially send poverty children to gain education, education provides rational thinking which is key to fulfill the other capabilities
  • With education, they will gain free thinking (depending on the type of education gained) this allow them to work towards control over the mental and political environment which creates poverty in the first place
  • Practical reasoning help set goals within the poverty affected people and these goals help reach their capabilities in life
  • It is key to educate the people of poverty, providing them with rations and monetary items only relieve their short-term pains, educating them to think practically, freely help them help themselves. There is a saying in “if you give someone a fish they will starve the next day, teach them how to fish and they can fish for themselves” this is extremely powerful tool to help solve poverty issues around the world instead of eliminating the short-term problem by donating money

discussion summary on Nussbaum

Question 1: How does Nussbaum argue the advantages of capabilities approach(CA) compared to utilitarianism:

In Nussbaum’s opinion, utilitarianism has three main problems. The first problem of utilitarianism is that this theory tends to think of the social total and neglect the silence of the boundaries between individual lives. Instead, CA considers the same rights for each human being, which is more equal and fair.  The second problem of utilitarianism is that this theory deny the existence of irreducibly plural goods and tries to measures everything by a single metric.Instead, CA thinks e quality of life seems to consist of a plurality of distinct features, which cannot be reduce to a single factor.  The third problem of utilitarianism is the the satisfactions are not reliable indicators for the quality of life because of “adaptive preferences”.

Therefore, utilitarianism fails to reflect the quality of life.

Question 2: What is the relationship between CA and equality in Nussbaum’s idea?

Some people think that the CA is equal to a theory of equality because CA pay much attention to the same rights between human beings. However, Nussbaum thinks holding the equality of capabilities as a goal for CA is inappropriate. CA helps to compare lives and nations within a relevant space and informs us of what kind of equalities are important, but CA cannot tell us if a equal distribution should be valued.

Discussion Summary on Singer

  1. What are your thoughts on the second premise in Singer’s argument? If you could alter the premise so that it is more feasible how would you do so?
  • The second premise of Singer’s argument by principle, in particular the stronger version is quite controversial. It states that if it is within our ability to stop something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it. In practice, Singer says we ought to give until we reach the level of marginal utility, the level which by giving more, a person would cause such much suffering to themselves or their dependents as the person would relieve thought their aid.
  • From our discussion, our group thought that the “essence” of Singer’s proposition is right, we have an obligation to help those in need if we have the means to do so. However the action Singer’s conclusion requires is really difficult to accomplish. Humans are engineered to be inherently selfish and it would be impossible to ask people to give to the point of marginal utility. We considered the idea of giving and helping others to the point of where we are only able to maintain Nussbaum’s ten central capabilities. But even so, we agreed that it would be difficult to persuade privileged people to give up their “excess” wealth and resources. 

2. Do Singer’s analogies work?

  • In Singer’s argument by analogy, Singer uses various situations to demonstrate that since it is morally wrong to so something in scenario A and scenario A and B are morally relevant, it is morally wrong to do that “same thing” in scenario B. In the child drowning in shallow pond analogy, since it would be morally wrong to not save the drowning child, it is also morally wrong not to donate money to an overseas aid organization if we have the means to. The point Singer is trying to illustrate is that distance or proximity is not a moral determinant and is therefore irrelevant in influencing our decision. We have just as much moral obligation to save the drowning child as to donate the money to save a poor child.
  • Our group thought that in reality distance does in fact play a role in moral decisions. If you see a child drown in a shallow pond, you are involved in the situation personally and you are in a situation where you can save a life. Whereas when you donate to an aid organization, you don’t witness the impact of your actions and there is a different level of personal obligation. In addition, both of these situations seem to advice us that the morally right thing to do is to contribute a temporary and surface solution without addressing the root problem. This connects to Kant’s view where if the intentions of our actions were morally good, the action would be morally right, regardless of the consequences. But how do we ensure that the money we donate actually helps those in need and that it isn’t squandered on flawed aid schemes or pocketed by corrupt individuals? If the money doesn’t actually help improve the lives of those in need, wouldn’t that be the same as not donating any money? 

Discussion Summary on Nussbaum


Explain who Nussbaum is and her core beliefs

  • Philosopher who believe in the “Capabilities Approach”
  • She believes in the idea that all individuals should focus on creating the world a better place from within themselves out
  • Criticisms of her beliefs, stem from the fact that she is against distribution and globalization, and that her theories are counter productive due to their selfish nature

Question 1

  • Based on Nussbaum, how do you think you should live your life? Keep in mind the Ten Central Capabilities and the Capability Approach.

Group response and analysis:

Nussbaum’s theories have good insight and focus on how individuals can flourish and live well with human dignity. It is often asked what people are actually able to do and be, and Nussbaum offers an answer to that question. She proposes that all humans in order to be fully successful and happy, they must be able to perform their capabilities in a solid functioning environment that allows them to practice their skills to the best of their ability. The capability approach is defined by its choice of focus upon the moral significance of an individual’s capability of achieving lives they have reason to value. Based on this premise if an individual can reach their highest potential of value, then they therefore are at the peak of their moral significance.

Question 2

  • Upon analysis on Nussbaum’s work, would you suggest, in compliance with critics, that her view on morality and ethics are substantive and self centred?

Group Response and Analysis:

Majority said yes – She is focussing too much on an individuals success – her ten central capabilities are very vague and offer only individualistic successes. Her ideas are difficult to generalize as they show little to no regard for other people. Does her advocation for individualism, hurt or help the chances of having the best world? How can people truly be their best without having interpersonal relationships and basing everything off of a narcissistic and egotistical origin? As you can see, her ideas raise many questions and are too open to discourse. Nussbaum’s definition of a human, is an individual as a being or as a doing. This adds to her selfish perspective on ethics, as you can see that she only ever speaks about the person outwards. In a flipped world, if there was only one human ever in existence then it would be okay to base her idea’s off his success, but it is ignorant to ignore interpersonal relationships as invaluable. With her beliefs it is also safe to propose that her universalist ethics have a limit, as it rarely focusses on the outside but on the inside of a person.


Discussion Summary for March 16, 2018

Q1. Referring to Singer’s analogy of a drowning child from “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, is it realistic to think we can literally save a life so easily? Maybe the child is an orphan, and saving them would mean we need to help them find a home/support afterwards, or maybe we have a child of our own that cant be left unattended while we wade. How would the analogy work then?

I asked this question in attempt dissect the effectiveness of Singer’s argument.When Singer lays it out, it seems to obvious, “Yes of course! We’d save the child!”, but in reality, there are so many factors and consequences that colour our choices. I was not trying to make the argument that we shouldn’t save the drowning child, but instead, I wanted my group to consider instances in which the analogy would not be as effective as Singer puts it.

My group took this deeper than I thought they would! Beginning with the point, “what do we do with the child after we save them?”, the discussion actually veered towards why foreign aid is not the answer to everything. A thought-provoking point was brought up, as we discussed the implications of simply donating money. If we did that with everyone, we make the assumption that people are able to support themselves later… regardless of how much (or little) we’ve done. If we leave the child by the bank, then they need to figure out how to survive on their own. But assuming everyone is immediately willing to save the child, knowing they will become your responsibility, that is quite monumental. I can’t imagine an unanimous agreement with Singer if the argument was framed that way.
We also discussed donating in terms of helping the homeless. It was easily agreed upon that donating money directly is not the best idea, because we don’t know where the money goes, even if it may help. My group agreed that giving food, or other items, is better than cash.
In retrospect, I know remember Singer also mentioned donating other things is equally acceptable. But because he emphasized money specifically so much, it slipped my mind.

Q2. Is Nussbaum or Singer’s argument more convincing? Why? (There were some of follow-up questions that I thought of on the spot as well. I forgot to write them all down, but I will mention one in the summary below.)

Because I found Singer’s argument, on the surface level, to be easily digested and understood, I wanted to know if others felt this way. Based on what we discussed in class as well, Singer has a very solid argument (with exceptions to certain analogies), and I was wondering if my group felt the same! In regards to Nussbaum, as we didn’t discuss her as much in class, I wanted to know whether my group thought her reasoning was sound or not.

Someone brought up that even though Singer’s argument was really good, they were more swayed by Nussbaum because it seemed more like an overall call to action. This was interesting because I thought Singer’s articles were very pointed calls for action. However, the group member flushed out her idea more, stating that Nussbaum’s ideas relate more to the economy and structural issues, which made it more real for her. Overall, we agreed Nussbaum’s views were on a “macro” societal scale, whereas Singer’s were more of the “micro” individual scale.
To explain this a bit more, Nussbaum’s approach focused a lot on what a society should look like in order to have a good quality of life. There is not a lot an individual can do to change systematic issues, for example, a community where only boys can learn to read and write. This takes an united group to implement catalyze change on a large scale. This is what was meant by “macro”. On the other hand, Singer’s approach urges each of us to personally donate something we can afford to. Singer does not really talk about what the government should do, except something along the lines of “government campaigning is good too” in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”. (I wanted to talk about this, but we ran out of time.) Singer’s urging is much more personal, and does not have a clear end goal in mind, aside from the eradication of poverty, or whenever everybody is equal in wealth and services.

I later asked, “Do you think Nussbaum and Singer’s ideas are exact opposites? Or could they complement each other?”
The answer was an unsure yes. But because Singer approaches the situation from a bottom -up personal scale, and Nussbaum comes from a top-down societal approach, we thought there was probably a way for everyone to contribute, in order to create a society where people are capable to do certain things.

March 16th Discussion of Singer& Nussbaum

Question 1: How valid is Singer’s metaphor of the drowning child and an observers obligation to aid it?

Singer argues that if we have the capacity to save a life, whether in front of us or not, we should do so. Ignoring our capacity to save a life without sacrificing anything of morally significance is a premise most people will not have any qualms agreeing to. I find there to be 2 falsities in this analogy.  It seems to me that Singer proposes monetary donations as the primary method of carrying out his philosophy.

When reading singer, I tend to picture foreign aid being the result of such donations. To continue with the metaphor of a drowning child, are we really pulling them out of the water, or simply throwing them food? Can problems of national starvation really be solved with donations? In our discussion group, we discussed the fact that simply donating money isn’t addressing the root problem of most conflicts, rather its a deferral of obligation to someone else. We also recognized that some conflicts do require sacrifices of moral significance to be solved. Much of the modern day peacekeeping undertaken today occurs in war zones, where people must risk their lives to make progress. We all agreed that Singer doesn’t really present arguments for any situation that does require substantial sacrifices of moral significance. If we were to add a shark into the pool with the drowning child, and argue that by going in, we might not be entirely saving the child, how would singers philosophy deal with this problem?

Question 2:In the situation of conflicting claims to rights, how do we determine who gets what?

We also had time to talk about Nussbaum’s theory of Capabilities. I very much like her philosophy that everyone should at least have the choice of action, but it seems there’s a high risk of bias. I proposed the example of gun control in the United States. If one individual claims a right to carry arms for their own safety, and another claims they should be illegal for the sake of their own safety, whom should we support?

Our discussion group again agreed (we were a small group) that it was a difficult case to make, and easier to look at under Canada’s framework. Only a select few people carry weapons in Canada, and there is general consensus that everyone is better off because of it. We did not come up with an answer for solving conflicting capabilities. If the question is applied to somewhere more dangerous than the US, for example regions of East Africa, the case for protecting oneself with weapons becomes even stronger. Though we all agreed that our society functions perfectly without guns for protection, we live in a very safe and stable society and our bias is clear. This is just one example of conflicting interests. The closest we could get was to look at the hypothetical disagreement under the guise of Utilitarianism, where all parties would feel safer/happier with 0 guns… unfortunately we all know the world isn’t that straightforward!

Singer, Nussbaum, trolley problem

Please post questions and comments, as comments below, about Singer, Nussbaum, and the trolley problem. Please post other questions and comments elsewhere (see the dropdown menu under “Q&A,” above.

Note that you don’t have to be logged in, and if you log out first you can use a fake name to post your comments if you wish, so no one reading the comment can tell it’s you. But, if you want to use this for points towards your discussion mark, you need to tell Christina what your fake name is!

To be notified by email when someone replies, be sure to use an email address you check when posting your comment (email address will not be shown publicly), and check the box to subscribe to comments on the post.