Economics and Philosophy

Symposium on Amartya Sen's philosophy: 5 Adaptive preferences and women's options

Martha C. Nussbaum a1
a1 University of Chicago Law School


Any defense of universal norms involves drawing distinctions among the many things people actually desire. If it is to have any content at all, it will say that some objects of desire are more central than others for political purposes, more indispensable to a human being's quality of life. Any wise such approach will go even further, holding that some existing preferences are actually bad bases for social policy. The list of Central Human Capabilities that forms the core of my political project contains many functions that many people over the ages have preferred not to grant to women, either not at all, or not on a basis of equality. To insist on their centrality is thus to go against preferences that have considerable depth and breadth in traditions of male power. Moreover, the list contains many items that women over the ages have not wanted for themselves, and some that even today many women do not pursue – so in putting the list at the center of a normative political project aimed at providing the philosophical underpinning for basic political principles, we are going against not just other people's preferences about women, but, more controversially, against many preferences (or so it seems) of women about themselves and their lives. To some extent, my approach, like Sen's, avoids these problems of paternalism by insisting that the political goal is capability, not actual functioning, and by dwelling on the central importance of choice as a good. But the notion of choice and practical reason used in the list is a normative notion, emphasizing the critical activity of reason in a way that does not reflect the actual use of reason in many lives.